As she sat on the veranda of the wooden cabin, high in the mountains, Corinne sighed contentedly. It had been a glorious day, and now, even as the sun went down, casting long shadows and a golden haze across the snow covered peaks, the air was still and warm. The only sounds were the occasional twittering of birds in the Pine trees and the rustling of the undergrowth as some small animal scurried about on its’ daily business.
She lay back in her chair looking up at the pale blue sky, streaked here and there with feathery white cloud, and closed her eyes, soaking up the last rays of sunshine and enjoying the peace and solitude, so different to the noise and bustle of city life. She had arrived at the cabin very early after driving for several hours through the night, but it had been such a beautiful day, she had decided to relax on the veranda rather than go to bed to catch up on her sleep.
Her thoughts turned to Andrew, her husband of just two months. He had phoned her last night from the camp to tell her he had managed to get a 72-hour pass and they had arranged to meet at the cabin. He should arrive very soon and she was looking forward to a happy and romantic weekend.
The sun finally disappeared behind one of the peaks and suddenly there was a chill in the air. A shrill twittering and a rush of noise as a small flock of birds rose into the sky from the nearby trees made Corinne open her eyes and sit up, at once alert. She cocked her head to one side, listening, something had alarmed the birds, it could be Andrew, walking up through the trees along the narrow trail to the cabin. The rough dirt track road that climbed up into the mountain ended a mile away, so the cars had to be left in a small clearing and the rest of the journey done on foot.
Corinne’s first impulse was to run and meet him, but something held her back, she realised she was holding her breath, as the forest also seemed to be doing. There was no sound at all, the birds had gone, even the rustlings in the undergrowth had ceased, and there was an uneasy feeling in the air. Corinne shivered, and picking up her book, hurried inside the cabin, shutting out the gathering dusk and her own apprehension.
Once inside Corinne busied herself, she pulled the drapes over the windows, lit the oil lamps and set about lighting the log fire. She was glad there was a stack of logs piled in the huge niche beside the fireplace, somehow she did not fancy leaving the cabin to fetch logs from around the back. Soon the fire was spitting and crackling, sending showers of sparks up the chimney as the logs started to burn, the noise was comforting and friendly. Corinne relaxed a little and started to prepare a salad to serve with the steaks, and set the table for two, sticking a candle in an old wine bottle in the centre of the table.
She looked at the clock, it was now 7.30 and still no sign of Andrew, he should have been here by now, she wondered what could have delayed him. Lifting one of the drapes, she looked out of the window in the direction of the trail but it was now so dark she could not see anything. Reluctant to go outside again, she picked up her book and sat down in the big armchair near the fire and tried to read. She found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the book as her ears were continually straining for sounds of Andrews’ approaching footsteps, but all she could hear was the crackling of the fire.
Just as she bent forward to place another log on the fire, she heard a sound, she straightened up, listening. It must be Andrew at last, she giggled as a feeling of relief swept over her, he would think her a ninny for being so nervous over nothing at all. She ran to the door and opened it wide, stepping out onto the veranda, Andrew would appear from the edge of the forest, sweep her into his arms and there would be no reason to feel nervous or afraid anymore.
As she stared into the darkness, she became aware of the complete and total silence of the forest once more, it seemed unnatural and threatening. There were no footsteps, nothing moved at all, and yet, Corinne felt she was being watched, her throat seemed to tighten up, her hands were cold and clammy and she could not suppress the fear that was welling up within her. She backed slowly towards the door and as she reached it an ear splitting and blood curdling shriek ripped through the air. With a terrified scream Corinne turned and ran into the cabin, banging the door shut behind her and ramming home both bolts. She stood shaking uncontrollably and her blood turned to ice as yet another shriek, closer now, invaded the quiet sanctuary of the cabin. Corinne stumbled towards the armchair and sank into it, her legs had turned to jelly and her stomach churned sickeningly.
She imagined she could hear something moving outside the cabin. Fearfully her eyes flicked towards the windows, they were securely fastened she knew and she had only removed the shutters from the three in this room, all the others were still shuttered and the back door was still locked and bolted.
How long she sat there she had no idea, but eventually she managed to pull herself together, she decided to eat something, rather than wait for Andrew as she had planned. Oh God, she wished he was here now, she was so afraid of whatever it was out there, and afraid for him too, if he should walk into it . . .
Rising slowly she made her way quietly across the room to the stove, as if afraid whatever was out there might hear her movements. She cooked a piece of steak and set up a tray for herself, with salad and a large Scotch. She took it across to the fireside, the table was too close to the windows and the fire seemed to offer warmth and security.
The food and the Scotch had a calming effect on her churning stomach, she began to feel better, she poured another Scotch and sat back in the chair trying to figure out what sort of creature could make such a noise. It was not a wolf, there were timber wolves in the forest, she had heard their mournful howls on previous visits to the cabin, but they sounded nothing like the terrible shrieks she had heard tonight. She wondered if it could be a bear or a wolverine, but did not know what range of calls either animal could make, or even if they roamed in this area. Corinne wished again that Andrew was with her, he knew the area well and would know what it was, and what, if anything, to do about it. She sat waiting for him until midnight, occasionally dozing off in the chair, until, waking feeling stiff and chilled, the fire having burned down to a few glowing embers, she made up her mind to go to bed.
Corinne woke and for a moment lay wondering where she was, her head ached and her thoughts were muddled as she struggled to shake off the fog that clouded her brain. As the fog cleared she remembered where she was and groped around for her small travel clock. She remembered that she had not removed the shutters from the bedroom windows, and after the events of last evening, she had left them as they were and set an oil lamp on the chest where she could not upset it. It had still been lit when she fell asleep but now the room was in darkness. She located the clock and pressed the dial light switch, it was still only 5.35am, not feeling inclined to rise, she turned over and tried to go back to sleep. Sleep refused to return, instead her mind went over what had happened, still trying to find an explanation.
With a sigh she got out of bed and opened the door to the living room. The room was as dark as the bedroom, carefully she made her way across to the table, feeling for the lamp and the matches, once lit, it cast grotesque shadows on the walls.. Hesitating for a moment, Corinne drew back the drapes from one of the windows, the bleak early morning light did very little to brighten the room. Looking out she could see the black outlines of the trees against the grey sky. It would be another hour or so before the sky lightened up and another two to three hours before the sun rose over the mountains.
Pulling the drapes closed again, Corinne went over to the stove and put the kettle on, and when it had boiled she made herself a strong cup of coffee, and picking up the oil lamp from the table, carried both back to the bedroom. Setting the oil lamp down on the chest beside the first one, she looked to see why it had gone out, there was still a little oil in it but the wick had burned down to far, and it would need trimming.
Corinne climbed back into bed, and as she drank her coffee, sat thinking about what she should do. Deciding to make her way back to the car, drive into the little town 10 miles away to phone the camp and find out why Andrew had not yet arrived, gave her the urge to get up, wash and dress. Reluctant to leave the cabin until all traces of night had been chased away by daylight, she cooked and ate breakfast, drank two more cups of the strong coffee, then drew back the drapes on all three windows. Letting the daylight flood in, and blowing out the lamp.
A short time later she watched the sun rise over the mountain peak to the East, the mountain seemed as though it was on fire and then the burning golden orb appeared, so bright she could not bear to look directly at it. It chased away all remaining shadows and everything looked clear, bright and normal.
Gathering up her purse, car keys and a short jacket, Corinne moved towards the door. For an instant she faltered, then telling herself not to be an idiot, she pulled back the bolts, opened the door and stepped outside onto the veranda. In spite of herself, she quickly surveyed the clearing and the surrounding trees, everything looked quite normal, nothing had changed, the birds were back again twittering and singing and little rustlings in the undergrowth gave away the position of some small creature. Breathing a sigh of relief and feeling a little foolish, Corinne raised her face to the sun, drinking in the sunshine, and set off towards the edge of the clearing where the trail began.
The forest itself was a little gloomy, but was alive with the sounds of birds, and of small animals scurrying about. Their presence gave Corinne confidence, there could not be anything menacing about now. Here and there the sunlight filtered down through the trees and where the path ran alongside a shallow stream for a short distance, the sun glinted and sparkled on the water and the wet rocks glistened.
A sudden crashing in the undergrowth stopped Corinne in her tracks, her hands flew to her mouth and she stood rooted to the spot, her heart pounding as the crashing drew nearer. The two small deer were as startled and scared, as she was when they suddenly came face to face with her in the middle of the trail. It seemed as though time stood still for a while as they stared at each other. Then, as quickly as they had come, the two young deer went bounding off into the trees again. Corinne leaned against a tree and laughed weakly, she had been so scared, and so had they, their big beautiful brown eyes full of both apprehension and curiosity. She wished she could have taken a photograph of them.
Corinne reached the car without further incident and set off for the main highway, approximately six miles away. The town was another four miles from the intersection, away from the highway, it was a small dusty place that boasted one run down motel, a liquor store, post office, general store and a gas station. Even the few straggling houses looked miserable and uninviting, having been built in a rather haphazard way, and for the most part looking run down and unkempt. Certainly not much of an ‘ad’ for anyone wanting to spend a weekend away from it all. Though it was only four miles from the highway intersection, it had died when the highway had been built. Most people preferring to travel to a larger town 40 miles further on, where there were fancy hotels and restaurants and plenty of nightlife.
Corinne went to the phone box at the gas station and as she was about to put her coin in, heard a voice at her elbow say "Yer can’t use it."
"What" – she turned, startled, to see a grimy, wrinkled old man looking her up and down.
"I ses you can’t use it" he repeated, "it’s out of order, you’ll have to use the post office."
"Oh, er thanks," Corinne smiled at him, only to be greeted with a snort as he turned his back on her and shambled away, spitting on the ground as he went. She stared after him, then shrugging her shoulders, crossed the street to the post office.
In the post office she was greeted by the curious stares of the postal clerk and a shabby, dull looking young woman. Corinne asked if she might use the phone.
"Over there" – the clerk pointed to an old fashioned phone fixed to the wall,.
"If it’s long distance, pay me after."
Corinne dialled the number and waited for the camp switchboard to answer, as she gave the operator the extension number, she was conscious that the clerk and the young woman had stopped their conversation to listen in. The duty N.C.O she spoke to checked the leave passes and informed her that Andrew had been held up, he had had to fill in on special duty for someone who had been taken ill, but he had already left the camp and was now on his way. Her spirits rose and she ignored the surly manner of the clerk, and his rudeness as he demanded the cost of her call. She jumped a little as he banged down her change on the counter, ignoring her outstretched hand, picking it up, she hurried outside and made her way to the general store.
After buying a few extra groceries from the store and a couple of bottles of wine from the liquor store, Corinne set off back to the cabin, she wanted to be there when Andrew arrived. As she drove back towards the intersection, she reflected on the little town she had just left, not surprising it had died, a few more years down the line it would probably be a ‘ghost town.’
As Corinne parked the car in the forest clearing below the trail, she noticed the motorcycle propped up against a tree near the beginning of the trail. Her curiosity aroused, she went over to have a look at it and saw the badge of a forest ranger attached to the front of it. She looked around and listened, but could not see or hear signs of anyone else about.
Walking along the trail she made plans for the special dinner she would cook for Andrew, the wine would have to be chilled, the small fridge, which was operated by bottled gas like the stove, was already pretty well full, but she would make space for the bottles somehow.
As she came into the clearing in front of the cabin, she saw a stranger sitting on the veranda, he was wearing the uniform of a ranger. Seeing her approach, he rose, smiling, "Good afternoon ma’am, are you Mrs Webster?"
"Yes" she replied, "is anything wrong?"
"No ma’am, at least, nothing serious, I have a message for you from Andrew."
"Is he alright."
"Yes ma’am, Andy’s ok. he had a blow out in one of his tyres and got out of control, hitting a tree." "He always did drive too fast, but he’s not hurt. The windscreen was shattered and one wing busted, he got towed into the nearest garage repair shop and as soon as they get it fixed, he will be on his way. He said to tell you not to worry if he is late."
Corinne’s heart sank, the prospect of another evening alone did not appeal to her one bit, she looked up at the ranger, he was a tall man around 45 she guessed, and had a kind, tanned and leathery face. His blue eyes twinkled down at her, "If you would rather not be alone here, you could follow me back to the station, I have to ring Andy back to let him know you got the message, he could pick you up there."
"No, I’ll be fine here" she replied hastily, not wanting to show her nervousness, but knowing it was already too late, he had sensed it straight away. Feeling annoyed with herself, she changed the subject quickly. "Do you know Andrew well?" she asked.
"Yes ma’am, since he was about 12 or 13 when his folks first bought this place, he always loved it here and he spent a lot of time at the ranger station or out in the forest with me. He was quick to learn, how to track animals and recognise various signs they leave, he would make a good ranger."
"Please, call me Corinne" she said, smiling up at him.
"Yes ma’am, I mean Corinne, my name’s Joe Ross, are you sure you don’t want to come back to the station with me, me and the rest of the crew would keep you busy, making coffee and sandwiches until Andy comes." He grinned at her, the laughter lines around his eyes and mouth creasing up. Corinne laughed, "No, thanks anyway Joe, but there is plenty for me to do here," she hesitated for a moment, then asked "Do you have any bears or wolverines around here Joe?"
Joe looked at her sharply, "No, why do you ask?"
"I just wondered, I er, I heard a horrible shriek last night and could not think what it might be." She watched his face as he frowned and rubbed his chin.
"Hmm, it could have been a large owl, there’s a few around here, and at night sounds always seem magnified, exaggerated, you know, even I get jumpy sometimes." He smiled at her, watching her face.
"Yes, I suppose so, well I will try not to let my imagination run away with me next time." She spoke lightly, trying to sound convinced.
"Well, if you’re sure you want to stay here, I’d better be getting along, he paused, then added quietly, "I’ll tell Andy to hurry along, it’s not right to leave a pretty little lady alone so long."
Corinne blushed, "Thanks for coming to see me Joe, and giving me the message, I really do appreciate it. Would you like some coffee before you go?"
"No thanks Corinne, I’d better be off, maybe I’ll call round tomorrow for the coffee. I would certainly like to see Andy again and have a good old chinwag with him."
"Please do, I’m sure Andrew would be pleased to see you again."
Joe smiled, said goodbye, and strode off towards the trail.
Once he was out of sight, Corinne carried the bag of groceries into the cabin and put them away. Then she remembered the oil lamp, she trimmed the wick, refilled it and placed it on the mantelshelf. The log pile needed replenishing so she unlocked the back door and started carrying in armfuls of logs, enough to last the night if necessary!
It was while she was carrying in the last armful that she realised the forest was silent again, she stopped on the threshold, feeling the hair on the back of her neck rise. Hurriedly she dumped the logs in the hearth, then locked and bolted both doors. Heart thumping, she went to the window and looked out, it was still early afternoon. Nothing stirred, the quietness of the forest seemed to stretch her taut nerves to breaking point.
The terrible shriek, and the scream that followed it, shattered the silence, two, three more shrieks followed, and Corinne, with her hands over her ears trying to blot out the awful sound, sank to the floor whimpering. Terror stricken, she wished she had taken Joe up on his offer, but now it was too late, he would be miles away by now and she was alone again, waiting for the creature out there to come looking for her. For now she felt certain, whatever it was out there, it was malevolent, it would come for her, it had picked her and was waiting for its’ opportunity.
In the stillness that followed the shrieks, Corinne sat in a crumpled heap and cried hysterically, fear had complete control of her, her brain would not function and the jumbled thoughts in her head chased each other round and round until she thought she would go mad.
Finally she stood up and moved, trembling, towards the window; slowly she peered around the edge of the drape, afraid of what she might see. Nothing, the forest looked no different but the quietness of it made her heart thud, thud so loudly it was deafening.
She had to get away from here, get to the car and go to the town, but she might miss Andrew and he would walk into danger. Corinne sat down at the table, trying hard to think clearly. She reached for the Scotch and drank straight from the bottle, it burned her throat, making her catch her breath and splutter. She could drive to the ranger station, tell Joe, he could phone Andrew, warn him, and she would not be alone. Suddenly she realised she didn’t even know where the ranger station was located, she laid her head on her arms and sobbed.
Several minutes passed and finally she stopped crying, trying hard to pull herself together and decide what to do. The only way down to the car was by the trail across the clearing. ‘It’ might still be there in the forest waiting for her, but she had to get out now while there was still daylight. She drank some more Scotch, hoping for some ‘Dutch’ courage and shivered as the liquid burned her empty stomach, she was beginning to feel dizzy.
Corinne made up her mind, if she stayed ‘it’ would come for her anyway, if she made a run for it, she might get to the car, her only way of escape. She put on her jacket, shoved her keys and purse into the pockets, took one last gulp of Scotch, and then, holding her breath, quietly unbolted and opened the door. Seconds later she sprinted across the clearing into the trees at the beginning of the trail, for a moment she stopped on the edge of the forest, listening for any sound, there was nothing, the creature must still be in the vicinity. Corinne started to run, fear lending speed to her feet, she knew she was making a lot of noise but she didn't’ care, all she cared about was getting to the car as quickly as possible and away from here.
Twigs snapped between her feet and branches pulled at her hair, she ignored them and ran, spurred on by her fear and the wild thumping of her own heart.
Something hit her hard in the face and she skidded on something slippery, she fell to her hands and knees gasping; her eyes were stinging and for a split second she stared at the pool of dark congealing blood beneath her, dazed and uncomprehending. A drop of blood splashed onto her outstretched hand, and as she turned her gaze upwards, it was followed by another onto her face.
The torn and mutilated body dangling from the branch of the tree was all that was left of Joe, his left arm, almost torn from its’ socket, hung down, a bloody tattered remnant. It was his uniform that Corinne registered, the face and body were unrecognisable.
A scream rose up in her throat and choked there, she stared at Joe’s body, swinging slightly from the impact of his hand on her face, dripping thick glistening drops of blood into the puddle in which she knelt. She felt the wet stickiness on her face and the nauseating smell of blood filled her nostrils. Corinne looked down, her hands were covered in blood and her clothes were soaked in it, shuddering, she stood up and staggered over to another tree, clinging to it for support; her head was reeling and she retched violently, blackness threatened to envelope her.
The snapping of a twig somewhere back along the trail brought her to her senses and galvanised her, she took off down the trail like a frightened jack rabbit, in her panic she crashed into bushes and stumbled over a fallen branch; picking herself up again she ran on blindly. Her heart felt as though it would burst, she could hear the pounding of her blood in her ears and could taste fear in her mouth.
At last she reached the clearing, her eyes widened and she cried out in despair. The car had been reduced to a mangled wreckage and Joe’s motorcycle was a twisted piece of metal lying nearby. Corinne’s mouth went dry, there was no way of escape now.
Jackie S Brooks