By Drusilla Winters


Winters


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in This Series:

 

 

 

 

LONG, COLD WINTER—CHAPTER ONE: ARRIVAL

How much longer?” Deidre asked. She stretched her arms out in front of her and then pushed against the ceiling of the Cadillac Escalade to ease her cramped muscles. She hoped the secluded getaway paradise that was their destination would prove to be worth all the discomfort.

“Not too far now,” her husband, Brian, said as he drove through the deep forest on an old two-lane road.

“Hey, it’s only been, what, seven hours?” Eddie said from the back seat. “What’s another hour or two?”

“Torture?” said Becky, who was sitting between Eddie and their friend Artie.

“Come on, Beck, this is your lucky day,” Artie said. “How often does a gal get to sit between me and Big Eddie here for seven hours straight?”

“Like I said,” Becky replied. “Torture.”

“You wound me, Becky,” Artie said.

“I’ll wound you, all right,” she shot back. “Anyone have a weapon?”

“But seriously, Brian, do you think we’re almost there?” Eddie asked. At six feet four inches and nearly two hundred and fifty pounds, he felt the effects of their cramped quarters more than anyone. Becky, his girlfriend, was the smallest of the five and probably had the least reason to complain, even though she was sandwiched between him and Artie.

“Yeah, I think we’re close now,” Brian said. “I mean, we have to be, right?”

“Who cares, let’s just enjoy the view,” Artie said.

He had a point. The winding back roads they had traveled since setting out at six o’clock that morning had provided a panorama of constantly changing and breathtakingly beautiful scenery. The forests were full of late autumn’s lush colors, and clusters of red, orange, and yellow made for a dramatic vista. Between the collage of colors, evergreens filled the hills and valleys with splashes of emerald and jade and purified the air with their clean, piney scent.

“I’m really looking forward to this weekend,” Deidre said.

“Me too,” said Becky. “It’s the first time in years we’ve all gotten together like this.”

“Too bad Cassandra couldn’t be here.”

“Tell me about it,” said Artie. “I feel like the fifth wheel. I probably should have stayed home.” He rolled down his window and lit a Marlboro.

“Of course you shouldn’t have stayed home,” Brian said. “But if you stink up my new Escalade with your foul tobacco, I might kick you out before we get there.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been smoking like a freight train lately.”

“It’s the breakup,” Becky said. “But she’ll come around. And we’re glad you’re here even if Cassandra isn’t.”

“Yeah, baby, you know we couldn’t live without you,” Eddie said as he reached over his girlfriend to rub Artie’s arm and blow him a kiss.

Artie smiled as he shook his head at Eddie. “You spent way too much time naked in the locker rooms when you played college football, my friend.”

“I only have eyes for you, Artie,” Eddie said. “I’ll make you forget all about Cassandra once we book our room.”

The group laughed, and Artie thought no more about his fifth-wheel status.

“Here we are,” Deidre said as the Escalade rounded a bend and entered a large open area. A big, blue lake was set like a sparkling gem at the base of a hill that had a large wooden structure at the top. The road curved along the lake on its way toward the hill, and the five friends silently took in the beauty of their surroundings. Deidre spotted the turnoff and warned Brian just as he was about to drive past it.

“Sorry, Eddie was turning me on,” Brian said as he wrenched the wheel and swung the truck onto a long drive leading up to the lodge. The big vehicle fishtailed before gaining purchase on the narrow drive.

“Handles like a dream,” Artie said, coughing on his cigarette.

“Hey, don’t whine, I bought this thing three days ago, just so we could all travel together.”

“Should’ve bought some driving lessons too.”      

“Good one, wise guy,” Brian replied. “Next time, you can buy one.”

“Nah, that’s okay, rich boy,” Artie said. “Keep reaching into those deep pockets of yours, and we’ll just come along for the ride.”

“Graybeard Road,” Brian said as they passed an old wooden sign tacked up against a small, moss-covered boulder. The narrow road stretched several thousand feet along the edge of an inlet of the lake and then began to ascend, circling around the hill as it climbed.

Ten minutes later, the road opened onto a wide plateau to reveal a beautiful lodge nestled in the center of a circular clearing.

“We’re hee-yer,” Artie said, drawing out the second word in his best “Poltergeist girl” voice.

Deidre felt a brief shiver and squinted at the lodge as Brian pulled into a parking space. “This place kind of looks familiar,” she said.

“Well, duh, you had a big brochure with a picture on the front,” Artie said before hopping out of the Escalade and lighting another cigarette. As the other four exited, Artie walked past the right side of the lodge to a short wooden walkway that looked out over the bluff. Through the trees, he could see slivers of silver reflected from the lake’s surface. He took in the beauty of the scene while he finished his cigarette, then he dropped the butt on the cold ground and crushed it with a boot. When he turned to rejoin his friends, he nearly knocked over a raggedy old man who seemed to have materialized out of thin air. Artie jumped like a scared cat and was glad he hadn’t been closer to the bluff.

“No littering, young man,” the old gentleman barked. He was stick thin and had long, scraggly gray hair and gray stubble on his chin. He wore cut-off blue jeans and sneakers and a long-sleeved blue work shirt with a clean rectangle where a name tag used to be. Artie thought the man was kidding until he noticed that he was carrying a black trash bag and a broomstick with a sharp spike on the end for picking up trash. The spike could do serious damage if the old coot decided to play litter vigilante.

“I apologize, sir,” Artie said, trying to sound sincere. As he bent down to retrieve the butt, the man suddenly speared it, barely missing Artie’s fingers. Artie glared at him, but the old man tilted his head back and roared with laughter.

The other four showed up and told Artie it was time to check in. As the five friends walked toward the front entrance, the old groundskeeper called out in a loud voice, “It’s gonna be a long, cold winter.” He giggled to himself and then began to hum as he walked about spearing gum wrappers, candy wrappers, and other bits of litter.

“That was strange,” Deidre whispered as they approached the entrance.   

“What?” Brian asked. “His attitude or his outfit?”

“It’s freezing out here, and he’s wearing shorts. Is he nuts?”

“He’s probably some inbred local yokel who has a fetish about trash,” Artie said.

“I heard that,” the old man bellowed from behind them.

“Nothing wrong with his hearing,” Brian whispered.

The group walked up the steps to the lodge and through the front door. They entered a large room, crowded with people, that had a huge hearth at the far end. Sofas and armchairs were arranged in a rough semicircle in front of the hearth, which had a crackling fire going. A stuffed bear and several moose heads were mounted on one wall, and a large portrait hung directly above the fireplace. The painting depicted a blond-haired man with menacing blue eyes and a scar down the side of his face. Deidre stared at it as if she recognized the man.

“That there’s my great-great-great-grandfather,” a voice from behind them said.

Deidre turned to face a stout, gray-haired woman who looked to be about fifty. “Yep, that there’s the man who built this here place,” the woman continued. “They broke ground up here in 1882, and it’s been in the family ever since.”

The woman was dressed in a smart gray skirt suit and wore a tag that identified her as the manager. But for her substandard English and long, unkempt gray hair, she looked like a member of the professional or managerial class.

“I’m assuming that two of you are the Hills, the family who won the retreat for six?” the woman asked.

“Yes, we’re the Hills,” Deidre said. She glanced at the other people in the room and wondered if they were guests. Their attire and grooming, which could only be described as scruffy, made her think they might be locals taking advantage of the roaring fire to shake the cold from their bones.

“Pleased to have ya,” the manager said. “Come on over to the desk and I’ll get y’all settled in. Ya just done missed lunch, and dinner ain’t for another five hours, but there’s plenty to do. Fishin’, hikin’, and whatnot. Most people like to explore the forest and take nature walks.”

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I can’t seem to get a cell signal,” Artie said, holding his cell phone. He wanted to call Cassandra to let her know they'd arrived safely.

“And you won’t have any, either,” the manager replied. “That’s why we call this place a getaway. Folks come here to get away from fancy things like the Internet and textin’. Gives you a chance to get back to the basics.”

“No problem, I’ll just use the phone in my room,” Artie said.

“Not today, ya won’t. A big tree fell on our line just this mornin’. They’ll be out to fix it on Monday.”

Artie rolled his eyes.

“Hey, no worries guys,” Deidre said. “Let’s just enjoy being disconnected from society for once. Come on, let’s check in, change clothes, and explore the hillside and lake.”

The others nodded their agreement.

Half an hour after signing in, the five, dressed for exploring in the cold, met outside on the lodge’s wraparound deck.

Eddie pointed at Artie’s feet. “Cleats? Are you kidding me?”

“You wore them all the time in sports, pretty boy, so why are you riding me?”

“It just seems like overkill.”

“Cass and I used to hike all the time, and she talked me into buying these. I’m glad I did. When your sorry butt slips down the hill, I’ll be planted solid, laughing at you on your way down.”

“Hey, girls,” Brian said to Artie and Eddie. “Instead of having a lover’s spat, let’s do some hiking and see who the real outdoorsman is.”

The group set out down a narrow dirt road to the left of the lodge, which looked as if it hadn’t been used in years. The late fall scenery was glorious in the bright afternoon sunlight. Squirrels hopped from tree to tree, and leaves fluttered to the ground and crunched underfoot. Before long, the lake came into view through the tree line.

“I wonder how big the lake is,” Becky said.

“Big enough,” Brian replied. “Maybe we can borrow a couple of canoes and check it out.”

“Whoa, hold up a minute,” Becky yelled, drawing their attention away from the lake and back toward the trees.

“What is it?” Eddie asked as he joined his girlfriend.

Becky pointed toward the trees. “Look there.”

The others looked. Barely visible in the middle of an overgrown section of pine trees was a cabin made of weathered planks. It had a rusted tin roof and dirty windows, and the small front porch was little more than a ruin, with pieces of banister lying on the ground and planks missing from the floor. The front door looked solid enough, but what was left of its paint was faded and peeling.

“Cool,” Artie said. “Let’s check it out.”

“I don’t know,” said Deidre. “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

“Why not?” Becky asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe someone lives there.”

Deidre’s statement was greeted by hoots of derision.

“I love old cabins,” Becky said. “This one reminds me of the one my uncle owned. He used to take me and my brothers and sister camping with him there. I wish I would’ve brought my camera.”

“Use your cell phone,” Eddie said. “Taking pictures is about all it’s good for up here anyway.”

Becky grinned and got out her cell phone, then walked a hundred feet or so into the woods and snapped a shot of the front of the cabin.

The other four joined Becky, and Eddie and Brian circled the cabin, each going in a different direction. When they returned and gave nods of approval, Becky climbed onto the broken-down porch and peered through a window. “Let’s take a peek inside,” she said.

“I don’t know about that,” Deidre said. “I don’t have a good feeling.”

“Quit being such a wuss, Dee,” Eddie said.

“Why I let you call me Dee, I have no idea,” she said.

“Because I’m your favorite. Well, besides that lughead husband of yours.”

Becky reached for the door handle and slowly turned it. The door swung open, and she stepped inside. The other four followed.

The inside of the cabin was roomier than they had supposed. It consisted of a main living area, one bedroom, and a medium-sized closet that looked more like a shed. It had two front windows and two rear windows. As they explored, they discovered a pantry full of canned foods and other nonperishable food, blankets for the foldout couch, and pots, pans, flint, and tinder for a cast iron stove. They snooped through boxes and found a desk drawer full of old detective novels and newspaper clippings.

One clipping caught Artie’s eye. “That’s strange,” he said. “There are articles about those seven people who died last year aboard Atherton Airlines Flight 666.”

“Maybe somebody knew one of them,” Becky said.

“Maybe. But there are clippings from several papers, along with all seven obituaries.”

“Creepy,” Artie said. “I think I need a cigarette.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Deidre said. “I’m getting seriously creeped out. I feel as if someone is watching us.”

The group exited the cabin and continued down to the lake. They walked along its shoreline for nearly a mile, watching fish jump, spiders glide across the surface, and frogs plunge in as they approached. Eddie spotted a lone canoe adrift in a small cove. The group watched as it drifted past, ten feet from shore, making good progress.

“That’s odd,” Brian said. “There’s no wind.”

“Wow, a ghost canoe,” Artie said. “How cool is that?”

“Maybe we should head back to the lodge before it gets dark,” Deidre suggested.

“Yeah, let’s go,” Brian said. “It’s getting close to dinner anyway.”WA

“Yeah, we don’t want to miss the manager’s special,” Artie said. “Tonight it’s possum potpie and deep-fried collard greens, with ladyfingers for dessert. Only they’re real fingers.”

“Thanks, Artie,” Becky said. “You just ruined my appetite.”

“Sorry, Beck. Um, can I have your possum?”

By the time they returned to the lodge, Becky’s appetite had also returned. The dinner buffet featured a full salad bar and plenty of home-cooked food, including meatloaf, rainbow trout, veggies of all sorts, mashed potatoes, and the sweetest rolls Becky had ever tasted. Not only was the food delicious, but the dining room was full of people and conversation as well.

“Almost feels like a family reunion in here,” Artie said. The dining room was filled with what Artie called “normals”—families with children, elderly couples enjoying each other’s company, and college students on a midwinter break from their studies. The five friends took their time in the dining room, savoring their meals and their conversation. After supper, they made their way into the main hall, settling in around the still-blazing hearth.

“Look, it’s snowing,” Deidre said, pointing out the window from the wide couch upon which she was sprawled.

“I’ll bet we can borrow some snowshoes,” Brian said. “We can have snowshoe races tomorrow.”

“Sounds like fun,” Eddie said.

“Or maybe they have cross-country skis we could use,” said Becky.

“Or snowmobiles,” said Artie.

“Or a nice indoor spa,” said Deidre, and everyone jeered.

“Who wants to play spin the bottle?” Becky asked.

“I don’t think so,” Deidre replied. “I see the way you eye my husband.”

“That’s not it,” Artie said. “Eddie put her up to it. He still thinks he has a shot with me.”

They were quiet for a while, watching the snow fall, until Brian finally broke the silence. “You know, when I won this trip, I did a background check on the history of this place.”

“So, what did you find out?” Becky asked.

Brian leaned in close to whisper. “Murders. A whole string of them back in the ’70s.”

Becky’s eyes went wide. “You mean like a serial killer?”

“No, I mean like a bear, like that stuffed one over there. Apparently, it had rabies or something, and it turned into a man killer. It sneaked into the lodge one night, and before anyone knew what was happening, it ripped apart twenty people. It ate at least two of them.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Becky whispered.

“No, it’s all true. But that’s not the worst of it. Right before the police showed up, it got its maw around a petite little thing like you. In fact, if I remember correctly, she was sitting in about the same position as you on a couch in front of the hearth. She never heard it coming when it bent over her from behind and—”

Eddie, who had sneaked behind the couch as Brian related his tale, jumped up and roared in his best bear imitation.

Becky jumped up and rolled off the couch, screaming at the top of her lungs. Eddie leaped over the couch to cover her mouth while the other three laughed out loud.

The manager showed up seconds later. She glared at them, and they stifled their laughter. She was breathing heavily while holding a stuffed badger in one hand and a hairbrush in the other. “Don’t you think it’s time to retire for the night?” she asked.

“We were just about to,” Deidre said, trying to sound apologetic.

Silently, the five friends walked past the manager to the elevator and took it to the second floor, where they said goodnight and retreated to their rooms for the night.

“What’s up with the stuffed animal?” Deidre asked Brian after they locked their door.

“I have no clue,” Brian replied. “Looks like she was brushing her beaver.”           

Deidre laughed and slapped him on the shoulder as he climbed on the bed next to her. “Only you would say something like that.”

She flipped off the light and watched snowflakes land softly on the window. Within minutes they were both asleep.

When Deidre woke, she saw her husband standing at the end of the bed, staring. “You checking me out, handsome?”

“Well, I’d usually say yes, but this time I’d be lying.” Brian had a puzzled look on his face.

“Okay, I give up. What are you staring at?”

“This bed looks like an old hospital bed from the 1800s. It’s got metal headrests and footrests. I didn’t notice it last night.”

Deidre got up and studied the bed. “Maybe coming here wasn’t such a good idea,” she said.

“I think I’m almost ready to agree. Either they pulled these out of a hundred-year-old psych ward, or they’ve created some sort of S&M sleeping quarters, and this is a swinger’s getaway in the middle of the mountains.”