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It is the summer of 2010 and Carl and his new girlfriend Charlene are traveling up the Northway, just crossing the Blueline into the Adirondack Park, when an animal unknown to Charlene crossed the highway.
“Was that a mountain lion?” Her only experience with wild animals involved a cage, or the Discovery channel.
“I didn’t get a good look, but I think it was a fisher.” Carl spent his whole life in the Adirondacks. His idea of a vacation consisted of climbing one of the High Peaks, or paddling up some tributary to spend the week in seclusion, surviving on nothing but what the land could provide. “Believe it or not, it’s a member of the weasel family. That might not be the only one we see.”
The green Jeep Wrangler was packed to maximum capacity. Other than camping, Charlene had no idea what Carl had planned for the week, but then neither did Carl.
Already bored with the conversation, Charlene examines her manicured nails, Tasmanian-Devil-Made-Me-Do-It-Pink; another fine piece of art by Kim – her nail artist and confidant. What makes Kim such a great confidant is that she speaks only three phrases in English, “What color?” followed by, “You like?” finished off with, “$15 dollars.” Yet Kim seems to know when to nod, blink, pause and shake her head at all the right moments.
Could Kim understand a word of what Charlene says, she would know that Charlene was planning to break up with Carl this weekend, after only 4 weeks of adventures together. And if Charlene were even remotely hesitant in her decision, her mind had been made up when Carl arrived with a tent secured to his roof-top Thule carrier. A fact he forgot to mention when she packed for a picnic in Congress Park. “One last hurrah,” she muttered to Kim while her nails glowed under the drying lamp.
Why she didn’t end the relationship immediately in her driveway – she’ll never know. Even more baffling to her, she would muse about later, was how she managed to pack for 5 days of camping in little under 15 minutes and with only 3 pairs of shoes.
For now, her thoughts are focused on jumping out of the Jeep, now zipping ahead at 75 mph, and praying for cell service so she can call someone – anyone, to save her from this tedium.
Between the high cliffs following the winding roadways, and all those damn trees she hadn’t picked up a signal in the last hour, so the option of jumping out, was out.
The roads changed three times in the last half hour. Two lane turned into one, then tarmac turned into gravel; now the brush scraped along the side of the Jeep so much as to bend the mirrors in.
“Where in God’s name are you taking me? let me see your GPS.”
“Oh, I never use one. I like to know how to do things the old fashioned way; I only use a compass. It’s a good survival skill to know.”
The road if it could be called that ended at a river. Carl put the Jeep in park, took out the keys, and in one fluid motion, threw them into some rapids. “I’ve got another set…” he took out his compass and pointed,”forty miles that way.”
All of a sudden, Charlene was acutely aware of just how little she knew about Carl. Oh God, what was I thinking? He’s brought me up here to kill me! she panicked. But Carl was calmly unpacking the tent and camping equipment from the jeep, whistling an a-ha song as he worked.
Trying to calm her pounding heart and overactive imagination, Charlene sputtered something about needing to use the bathroom. She was almost more horrified to hear Carl chuckle, and answer, “The bushes are all around you, babe, take your pick!” Charlene’s heart sank further – she didn’t know what was worse, finding herself alone in the wilderness with a potential serial killer or having to do a tree-lean while trying not to drip on her brand-new Jimmy Choos.
Charlene was temporarily spared her dilemma by the unmistakeable sound of a second jeep winding up the road toward their campsite. She wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved that she was no longer going to be alone with her boyfriend-turned-psycho creep, or worried that the new arrival could be some additional weirdo come to hack her to pieces and likely steal her gorgeous shoes.
They had been off the Northway for more than an hour. Charlene was vaguely aware of two changes in route signs, switching from county to seasonal use highway and always headed north. On the county road they hadn’t passsed but four other vehicles, all of them headed in the opposite direction. There had been no sign of other humans, since they had turned on to the gravel Seasonal Use Only highway. This was the sort of daft stunt that had made her decide it wasn’t going to work with Carl. His “leaping empty-handed into the void” spiel had been attractive at first, but she had come to realize what it really meant was being trapped in a world created by a post pubescent seeker of some muddled concept of a higher truth. She had grown tired of his not so virtual fantaasy world and wanted out. This was her reward for not having the balls to break it off before now.
“Damn it, Carl. Why do you always have to make everything into a game?” When he continued to smile and only shake his head, she damned, “So where are the other set of keys, genius?”
“Don’t sweat it, Char,” he said, with that wholesome, boyish grin of his that had begun to wear on her of late. “There’s a registration lean-to about three miles west along this river; that’s to the left. I got somebone I know who lives out this way to hide my other set under the lean-to floor. But that’s not all. He’ll leave us a hand-drawn map of a place in the woods.
“You are going to love it, girl. Our own cabin, with canoe included, and access to a hundred acres of private streams and ponds. The place is fully stocked. We don’t have to do a thing but let the river carry us along -except paddle a little, and one or two portages. The cabin and land belong to an old college buddy. It’s been in his family since his mother was a teenager.”
“Well…you said forty miles. What about that?”
“Just tweaking you. I can’t resist sometimes. What? Don’t give me that look. Did you seriously think I was going to make you hike forty miles? I know the best you can manage is ten a day. I’m not a sadist you know.”
They began their trek to the cabin. It seemed already too hot to consider anything more than a lounge chair by a pool. She was letting her mind wander to incredible ways to escape when her childhood dog, that she hadn’t thought of since she was 10 years old trotted up to her and licked her hand.
“Oh, no, she thought, I am now hallucinating.”
Carl heard the change in the footfalls and looked over his shoulder at her.
“Who is your friend there?”
The Boxer snorted and drooled as Carl bent down and called, “Come here Kane, come here boy.” The short legged beast hobbled over to greet an old friend.
“You know that…thing? If it chews one of my shoes…so help me I’ll kill it with my bare hands.” This was nothing like her childhood pet Monique; she didn’t slobber and never snorted.
“He’s harmless. It’s Rev. Hale’s mutt. He and his wife should be coming up the trail soon. ”
Charlene sighed, finally relieved, at least she won’t be murdered by some lunatic in front of witnesses. “Oh, I didn’t know we were camping with others. How long have you known them?”
“Oh they won’t be staying. As soon as the good Reverend’s done they’ll leave. And then we’re all alone, just you and me, sweetheart.” He grabbed her by the arm.
Char coughed, then swallowed hard “Just what do you mean by: as soon as he’s done?”
As Charlene looked up and towards Carl, half expecting to catch one of his patented snide grins, her peripheral vision caught what seemed to be a blurred silver streak disappearing into the thick foliage accompanied by the faint rustling of leaves and snapping at branches.
“What was that?” Charlene snapped out of turn.
“What was what?”
“You didn’t hear that? Off behind you… to the right…”. Charlene’s nodding gesture tried to steer Carl’s attention. “Back in those woods?”
“Char, you’re not going psycho on me are you? You are not some lunatic who’s lured me up into the mountains to kill me where no one can see, are you? Carl whined sarcastically.
At that moment the piebald boxer’s head came up and whipped around to stare, fixedly, back the way they had come. He tilted his head to the right, then dashed away back along the rocky trail, as fast as arthritic legs could manage. Carl snorted in amusement. “They must have whistled for him,” he said, as much to himself as Charlene.
“So what does that mean? We should go back and meet these friends of yours, right?”
The idea appealed to Charlene, a life-line thrown her way in the nick-of-time. She would be just as happy not to be alone with Carl until she got a look at the cabin and talked to these old friends of his. You could tell a lot about a person by their friends. Then, if she still didn’t feel right about staying alone with Carl, she would walk out with Hale and his wife. Easy-peasy. The corners of her mouth crinkled in a smile she quickly surpressed. Carl didn’t notice having walked a short distance after the dog to lean out over the river.
“I think not,” he said, dashing her hopes with one sentence. “It comes back to me that this is one of Hale’s favorite fly-fishing spots. Maggie will be setting up the camp chair to read, while he’s at it. They won’t catch up for two or three hours. Which is fine by me.” He turned and favored her with a raffish grin.
“I prefer to have you and the cabin all to myself for a bit. Gives us a chance to get to know the place and -unwind. You don’t mind a little privacy to get settled in, do you Char?”
“Well, no, but still. I think it would be nice to meet them now. I’d like to hear more about the area from people who live here.”
Carl turned around and walked back to stand in front of her. His proximity, coming at her that way without replying, sent a dull thrill up Charlene’s spine. It was a not a totally unpleasant sensation. There was an animal grace and magnetism in the way he moved and carried himself. It made her breath a little faster.
“Believe me,” he said in a husky, confidential tone, “it’s better if we don’t interrupt. They didn’t expect to meet us here. Let them have their time alone. There will be plenty of opportunity to learn all you want to know and then some. They won’t be leaving unitl tomorrow mid-morning.” He took her by the elbow, more gentle in his approach this time. “Trust me. You won’t be sorry. I promise.”
Charlene opened her mouth to protest and closed it. What was the harm? Let him have it his way, if it made him happy. Her plan would work as well this way, without hard feelings the rest of the time, if she crossed Carl. Besides, maybe it would turn out well. Maybe she would actually have a good time. She could feel the heat coming off his body, and it triggered memories that made her hide another stillborn smile.
“All right,” she relented, ” but you better make it worth my while.”
Carl made a quick double pass over his left breast, with his right hand. “Scout’s honor,” he said, straight-faced.
“Well, Mags, people can be foolish sometimes,” Hale huffed. He was having difficulty with both the talking and the hiking—his salt and pepper hair was completely matted in the sweat of living a life with too much wine and not enough tennis.
“I just can’t see what he sees in her. They have NOTHING in common, and he won’t do anything about it besides let her drag him around to all the—”
“They have more in common than you know.” Hale had lost a bit of patience with Maggie. He always felt that, in their 52 years of attempted marital bliss, they might at least be able to talk about something besides the gossip of other people’s troubles. Especially the troubles of this couple. At 52 it’s time to start playing the full deck, he had recently taken to saying.
Hale stopped hiking to turn to her.
“He wants to… to save her.” He couldn’t find it within himself to look Maggie in the eyes.
“Well. It’s like you said earlier—she… she has enough ‘impish desires’ somersaulting in her to entertain even the Devil.”
“No,” the truth was dawning over Maggie with the same speed that food poisoning can turn a nice date into a smelly, smelly fiasco. “Hale, you couldn’t. You can’t! You haven’t performed one of those since… since…”
“Since little Simone passed—I know.” Hale paused, a thread of discontent creaked in his voice, not unlike flexed tree timber in the breeze before a thunderstorm. “I have to. Carl is convinced she is… that she is completely out of her own control. Shoes. Shoes. It’s all she ever talks about.” Another pause. “Carl is my Godson, Mags, and Lord Almighty, we will help him through this trial.”
There was a rustle from up the trail, and Maggie and Hale glanced up to see Kane trotting along towards them. Hale whistled loudly, without using his hands, and the Boxer quickened his gate and came to his master’s side.
“Good boy. Now, do you have what I’m looking for?” Hale sunk down to his haunches, his hands massaging Kane’s jowls. With a lurching gag, Kane spat a ring into the old pastor’s hands. It was beautiful—a sapphire crowned a band of silver vines twining around each other. Hale looked at his wife.
“What IS that?” There was nothing but accusation in her voice.
“This is Charlene’s engagement ring. Kane got it off of her hand. She’s so far gone, Mags, she doesn’t even remember that she’s supposed to be getting married in three weeks. She barely conscious of anything. Except shoes and her own freakish paranoia. Or so Carl says.”
“Oh… my dear Lord…” Maggie placed her hand over her heart. “Then its true? How do we save her?”
“I think you know that part. The cabin is the only place that is safe enough. The real question is who was it who did this to her, and how, Christ, how can they be stopped.” Hale heaved a great sigh and groaned as he rose to his feet. With a whistle and brisk step he, Maggie, Kane, and the forlorn ring continued up the trail.
“What to fu…” Char fell backwards after a pine bow slapped her face, hard enough to leave marks, if not pitch. She brushed the pine needles from her clothing as she got up and tried to regain her dignity.
“Well you should have been watching, instead of trying to get a signal on that damn phone. This is why I brought you up here.” Carl wanted to tell her of his concerns, but Reverend Hale advised against it until the time was right.
The view was remarkable; they were following a river that gradually moved through a series of waterfalls each more beautiful than the preceding. The waters pooled at the edge of an oak forest, though Char never noticed. She didn’t see the Eagle that soared above the towering pines, or the otter that swam by while she was looking at a small hunk of plastic: now obsolete. She didn’t miss her ring, and she definitely didn’t see that branch.
Carl believed she was suffering from Paris Hiltonitis: an affliction suffered by much of today’s youth. It’s brought on by the need to communicate with others via technology. When that stimulus is deprived, they can not function. They are totally dependent on technology. Only here in the Adirondacks could one become reborn to the wonders of nature. He loved her, and it was tearing him apart to see her locked in this virtual world, when so much of the real world was at her doorstep, and she couldn’t even see it.
With the help of Reverend Hale, he could help her, the same way they helped Simone.
Charlene glanced over her shoulder at Carl and caught him with a faraway look in his eyes. He didn’t even seem to notice that she was studying him. That was unusual for Carl, who was nothing if not ever vigilant, uncannily aware of what went on around him. He was like a wild animal in that way, always on the defense lest a predator catch him daydreaming. It was a trait that had fascinated her, when she had first picked up on it, but now it had become a focus for her misgivings about him. He was so intense. It was disquieting.
“We’re almost to the lean-to,” Carl called out, a second after she turned away. “You’re going to love the view. It never gets old.”
He was right about the view, Char thought a few minutes later, standing on the sloping sandy bank bordering on a pristine pond. The pond was perhaps half a mile across, encircled by a mixed fir and white birch forest, with a craggy peak looming on the central horizon. The brilliant sunlight danced and sparkled like a million diamonds on the surface of the pond. The lean-to was behind her. Carl was on his belly, reaching underneath at one corner.
“Got it,” he said, rolling into a sitting position, as he withdrew the arm.
Char shivered at the thought of the spiders and bugs that must be crawling around underneath the log floor, hidden away in the eternal darkness, free to do as they pleased. Suddenly, the day didn’t seem as bright, nor the vista as stunning. Something was amiss, but she couldn’t place her finger on exactly what it was that made it seem so. Carl was smiling, holding up a small ziplock bag. The key and map would be there, exactly as he had promised. So what was it that was bothering her now? Intuition was trying to tell her something, but she wasn’t sure what.
“Well, that’s good,” she said. “Can we take a little break? I have to pee, again, and I could use a snack and a drink. It is a gorgeous spot. It wouldn’t hurt to sit for a bit, would it?”
“Sure. Why not?” Carl got up and dusted himself off, then opened the bag and extracted a piece of folded paper. “Break for fifteen.” He left her to herself, sitting down on the edge of the lean-to to study the map.
Charlene got a packet of tissue paper out of her day pack and wandered off into the secondary growth of bushes that lay behind the clearing. She found a small opening between two larger plants and did her toilet. Doing up her pants, she slapped at a mosquito that had found a hole in her defenses, where she had applied repellent to her left forearm. She missed the darting insect but succeeded, instead, in catching a fingernail on a network of small brances. Where she tried to pull free, the nail snapped and tore to the quick. She gasped, and quickly stuck the finger in her mouth to stuck away the pain as best she could.
Old rabbit ears Carl heard, despite her trying not to be obvious. “Everything okay in there?” he called to her.
“Yes,” she replied, a bit cross. “I broke a nail.”
His snort of amusement was precisely what she expected. He so enjoyed his stereo-type of her being a classic materialistic valley girl, unable to cope with the smallest deviation from what she knew. She wasn’t a helpless dummy, and she didn’t appreciate his attitude towards her in that regard.
Biting off the broken, red-polished nail and spitting it out, she paused to examine her hands, paying special attention to the fingers. She had been taught to be proud of them from the time she was small. Long and agile, they were an artist’s fingers, made by God above to draw fine pictures and slide, effortlessly, across the frets of a twelve-string guitar. She was very serious about the guitar, and her singing. As much as Carl saw her as shallow and self-centered, she knew she didn’t fit the cubbey-hole he would file her in given his way. Why, she didn’t even wear rings, had never been frivolous and show-offy in that way. Even her earrings were unobtrusive and tasteful.
Carl had tried to give her a ring once, not long after they had started going together: a friendhip ring, he had called it. She had politely refused it, telling him that she didn’t like the way they rubbed against the palm of her hand. “The only ring I’ll ever wear from a man is a wedding ring,” she told him. “Or an engagement ring. But not diamonds. I like sapphire better.” Carl had been miffed.
Too bad for him. A girl had every right to say no to such advances. Boys had tried to mark her as their property with similar gifts before, and she had always been very descriminating in what she accepted and what she didn’t. You had to be careful not to give men the wrong impression. They were quick to lose their heads if they thought things were getting serious.
“Don’t be all day,” Carl prompted.
Chalene mouthed his words, silently, back at him and stuck out her tongue. “I’m coming,” she replied. “And thank you very much for the sympathy. I’m bleeding you know.” Parting the bushes, she went to join him on the front of the lean-to
Mags settled down on the cabin porch, across the pond from Carl’s lean-to. With her vintage safari glasses, she could see Carl and Charlene sitting on a boulder near the water. Carl was rigid, leaning back on his arms to watch the sun set over the water. He must know I’m watching, Mags thought. Charlene curled easily against his shoulder.
Mags could hear her husband in the cabin, splitting kindling by the woodstove. The evening was humid – but Hale’s work would require quite a blaze. Kane scratched at a bloody tick behind his ear, and Mags closed her eyes, remembering the last exorcism. “Maybe this time he won’t be such an ass,” she muttered.
Charlene drowsed on Carl’s shoulder, half watching a pair of mating dragonflies. He abruptly shifted his position and she nearly slumped into the water. Carl reached into his back pocket for the Ziploc, and removed a sheet of worn notebook paper. He crumpled the bag and threw it in the water.
“Hey! The key!” Charlene said, reaching to pick up the plastic. She flattened the bag and looked questioningly at Carl – there was no key, and the sheet of paper didn’t look like any map she’d ever seen.
Carl started reading from the scrawled handwriting:
“O, Paris Hilton-ized fiend, thou bane of nature’s being
Thou from whose immaculate pedicures Thoreau blushes
Spread and spilch with the mascara bleeding,
Tasmanian Devil Made Me Do It, the hectic Chartreuse
Pestilence-stricken, liner-penciled brow
Which furrows and futzers to its agèd grave…”
“Come on Carl,” said Charlene, “tell me you didn’t write that. Ayged? Really? I’m flattered to inspire poetry, but let’s keep it in this century.” Carl looked miffed. Nobody likes their poetry flat-out rejected, especially if it’s part of an occult ritual.
“Listen. This isn’t going to work if I can’t read the whole thing to you.” Carl glanced worriedly across the lake, which was growing soft in the late evening glow. He started in again, flinching at the first phrase:
“Like wingèd hippopotami, decked in dirty ‘fros
Each like a tawny daffodil
Their palimpestuous grazings groze…”
He looked imploringly at Charlene. It really was bad, and he couldn’t manage the thundering intonation he’d envisioned. The sound of clanking aluminum echoed across the lake, and both he and Charlene saw the ancient Grumman lumbering toward them. Kane pranced from gunwale to gunwale, nearly upsetting Hale’s tottery control of the canoe. Mags sat in the bow, holding a candle in front of her cloaked face.
“Hang on, Carl. I can deal with weak poetry, but you’re a Dungeons and Dragons player, too?” The canoe crunched into the gravel beach, and Hale stumbled out, hefting a cast-resin staff. “Dude, you’ve got to be sweltering in that robe! It’s ninety degrees out – this is the hottest summer I remember, and you’re wearing velvet? And crushed velvet, too… that mustn’t have been cheap.”
Carl wrapped his arms around his knees. He could smell the whiskey on Hale’s breath from ten feet away. Hale couldn’t say the mass unless he had a few drinks, but exorcisms required absolute sobriety. Carl ripped the notebook paper in half, then half again, scattering the tatters into the wind.
Hale kicked Kane out of the way and scribed the staff around himself like a compass point, drawing a circle in the sand. Charlene glanced at Carl, who was swaying on the boulder, reciting his faux-etry, then back to Hale, who was convincing a severely ayged body to climb up to his godson. He stepped onto the first ledge, caught his shoe (Dockers, Charlene noticed) on the pleats on his robe, and toppled backwards in a pile of whimpering upholstery.
Mags tossed back her hood, stubbed the candle in the sand, and whipped a headlamp out of her baggy sleeves. “Old man, if you dislocated you hip again, this is gonna be a long night.”
“This isn’t going to work tonight.” Carl threw his hands into the air and gave Kane a kick of his own.
With a sneeze, Kane turned back to his master who was struggling to get back to his feet.
“What to heck is all this about?” Char was ready to swim across the lake and find her own way back.
“They were going to perform an exorcism on you tonight.” Mags laughed as she helped her husband up. “Its just a little skit they do for people, who they think, pay too much attention to their phones. Kinda funny actually, but it really makes you appreciate the preciousness of the Adirondacks you’ve missed while you were looking for a signal. I only play along for fun.” She held out her hand and said, “Why don’t you let me have that and I’ll give it back to you in a few days?”
Reluctantly Char placed the phone in the hand of the only person she trusted anymore.
“Boy, that was a lot easier than what they had planned.” She slipped the device into her pocket. “I’ll talk to you more when you come out of the woods. Have fun…and look around! Now I got to go put this fool to bed. Come on Kane.” The trio headed off to the Grumman.
Charlene turned to Carl and noticed an ear to ear grin.
“OK, we go with plan B,” he said as he took out his compass.