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Every family has its stories, those events that have passed on into almost legend, and my extended family is no different. Some families have stories which they laugh about, which are brought up with regularity at gatherings, stories that they share with others.
Ours is not one of these stories. If it’s discussed at all, it’s spoken about in hushed tones, with sideways glances at me in particular. I never bring it up myself unless directly asked, and I’m lucky enough that I can get away with telling people that I was too young, that I don’t remember any details, that it’s just a blur in a distant memory from my youth.
But that’s a lie.
I remember almost everything. I remember every time I have to look at myself in the mirror; and the nightmares still make me sit bolt upright in bed at night, gasping for breath and terrified. The event that became family legend took place two decades ago now, when I was about eight years old. We were heading for a short family getaway to our family’s cabin. To be honest, it was more of a holiday home than a ‘cabin’, my grandparents had bought it when my father was still young and it had been in the family for years. My brother and I called it the ‘cabin by the woods’; it made it sound more exotic. My grandfather used to take my Dad and his siblings up there when they were young, hiking through the woods, fishing & swimming in the nearby lake – and my Dad & his brothers & sisters now did the same with their own families.
We started the trips when I was about six – Mum, Dad, me and my little brother Peter heading up to the cabin for the odd weekend getaway. I vaguely remember a few of those earlier trips, I recall swimming in the lake with Pete one time and both of us being scared to go too far out because that was where the lake-weed started growing and you couldn’t see the bottom.
The cabin was right on the edge of the woods, right along the boundary of the treeline; fields and farmland on one side and heavy woodland on the other. The farm next to the site was owned by the Johnson family, old friends of my grandparents. We’d always stop in and say hi to Mr & Mrs Johnson on the way up to stay, occasionally we’d have dinner there. My Dad and his siblings had played with the Johnson kids when they were younger, but their children had grown up and moved away and it was just the parents left at the time. Mr Johnson kept an eye on the cabin when our family wasn’t using it.
Dad had pulled us out of school a few days before the weekend; we packed up the car and left early on the Thursday morning. It was late summer, the leaves were just starting to change colour and the air was becoming crisp and cool in the evenings. I remember being excited for the trip, I was looking forward to adventuring in the woods and Pete wanted to go swimming. Mom had warned us that it might still be too cold to get in the lake but we insisted on packing our swimsuits anyway, just in case.
“Marty! Pete!” My Mom was calling to us to head out, but Pete and I were in the car and ready early, eager to set off. Pete had decided he was going to put on his swimming trunks underneath his pants so that he’d be ready to go at a moment’s notice once we were there. The drive was uneventful; we napped in the back of the car. I remember waking up as we pulled up the gravel driveway to the cabin. Dad must have picked up the keys from the Johnsons on the drive in while I was still asleep. We bumped our way up the long, twisting driveway that ran along the treeline. We slowed to a halt outside the cabin, Pete and I looking excitedly out of the car windows. It looked just like I remembered it, framed by big trees, with a clear area in front of it which attached to the field that bordered the woods. The Johnsons’ fenceline ran along the edge of the woods, and normally there would be stock roaming around in in the field, (They had sheep and some cattle) but today it was empty.
Pete was bouncing excitedly in his seat. “I wanna go swimming!” he yelled.
“We need to unpack the car and set everything up first, bud”, Dad replied, opening his door and getting out.
Mom got out as well and unbuckled Pete. I got out on my own and looked around. Everything was as I remembered it. Looking off to the side of the cabin, I could see the gaps in the trees where twin paths forked off, one leading into the woods and one leading the other way, down towards the lake. There was a white blaze painted on one of the trees, marking the start of the path.
“You know, I could take them,” Mom said to Dad. “We can always unpack later, we’ve got plenty of time.”
Dad opened the trunk and grabbed his and Mom’s bags out. “Ok. Let’s just quickly dump our bags inside, and we’ll get changed and go down to the lake.”
“YAAAAAY!” Pete deafened us all, and began to run around the car until Mom snagged him in a hug. Dad grinned, and hefted the bags across the covered porch to the cabin’s door. Dropping them to one side, he fumbled with his keys and opened the door, then froze in the doorway.
“Dad?” I asked, unable to see past him into the shadowy inside
“Get your brother and get back in the car” Dad said, without looking at me.
“Right now, Marty.” Dad cut me off, using his ‘serious voice’.
“Dear…?” Mom sounded concerned as I grabbed Pete and pulled him towards the car while he protested loudly.
“Where’s the axe kept? Where did we find it last time?”
“Oh God, what’s wrong?” My Mom’s voice rose slightly, as Dad came back towards the car and hefted the tire iron out of the trunk, striding quickly back towards the open door.
“The place is all messed up. I think there might have been a break-in”
“The axe was in the laundry last time I think… Be careful…” she trailed off, sounding worried.
“I’ll be fine. Stay here.” Dad quickly kissed her on the cheek before stepping through the open door, tire iron half-raised in his right hand. Mom paced back and forth by the car, clearly concerned, and we sat in the back looking towards the cabin. We sat there for what seemed like an age, becoming more and more worried as the seconds went on.
“What’s happening, Marty? Is Dad OK?”
I tried to reassure Pete. “Everything’s fine. Dad’s tough, there’s nothing that he can’t deal with.”
I remember Dad once telling me that I had an over-active imagination, and this was one of those situations where it was free to run wild. Even as I spoke, I found myself imagining all of the horrific things that surely lurked inside the cabin just waiting for Dad to stumble upon them, and I could feel my fear levels rising. In my mind I saw dark shapes moving about in the gloom, silently stalking my father – and how they would come for us once they’d gotten him. I looked back towards the cabin, and suddenly the curtains in the front window were flung open, Dad looking out the window. We saw him walk around to the door and come back outside holding an axe, which he propped up against the front of the cabin.
“Looks like everything’s fine, guys; you can come out of the car now.” He went and talked to Mom. “How about you take the kids down to the lake while I get everything straightened up?” He explained to Mom that the place was a bit messed up, but not too badly. A fallen branch had smashed in a window at the back of the place, and he thought that a raccoon or something had gotten in and turned over some things while hunting for food. He’d found the axe in the laundry, where it was meant to be. Dad thought that it must have happened in the last day or so, after Mr Johnson had come to turn the power & water on. The scary things I’d imagined quickly receded in my thoughts, but I remember still feeling vaguely uneasy. Pete was still excited to go swimming, so Mom got our swimming stuff and the three of us headed down to the lake while Dad went back inside.
“We’ll be about a half-hour, dear!” Mom shouted to Dad as we headed around the cabin and down towards the woodland path that would take us to the lake.
Swimming was fun; I remember splashing around in the water with Pete while the sun shone brightly down on us. We were lucky that it wasn’t starting to get really cold yet, since we were just getting into the start of autumn. Mom read her book on the shore while Pete and I swam around in the shallows, once again avoiding the lake-weed. Eventually Mom called us back in and we got dried off and headed back up the track to the cabin. Dad had cleaned the place up, and nailed an old board over the broken window at the back. He told us to grab our bags and go set up in our bedroom.
We grabbed our gear and ran through the lounge area down the hall to the bedroom. Pete immediately claimed the top bunk, struggled up the ladder, decided it was too high and that he’d fall out in the night, and then claimed the bottom bunk. We unpacked our sleeping bags and then ran back down the hallway into the lounge. Mom and Dad had finished unpacking the rest of the car, they’d stowed the food in the kitchen and Dad was setting up the portable grill out on the porch.
“Can we go exploring!?” I asked excitedly. I liked the woods; I remembered playing games in them last time with Pete, pretending we were mighty heroes defending a fortress from an invading barbarian horde. There was a spot I had in mind where the narrow, winding path opened up, leading into an area where the trees widened out and there was space to run around and play. I recalled a bank on one side of the clearing, which we’d climbed to make our ‘fortress’.
“Sure,” Dad smiled. “But,” and he was using his serious voice again, “I want you to look after your brother. Don’t let him out of your sight. Don’t be away too long, stay on the path, and don’t go any deeper than that clearing we went to last time.”
“Don’t worry Dad!” I yelled, grabbing Pete and running off together while Dad was still talking.
We sprinted towards the path that would take us into the woods, and were suddenly plunged into darkness when we hit the treeline. I realised that we’d been standing out in the bright sun and it was just taking our eyes a second to adjust. Pete stooped to pick up a hefty stick.
“This is my sword!” he yelled. To be honest, it was much more of a mace than a sword, the ‘pointy’ end was a bit bigger than the end he was holding, and quite knobbly. He had to hold it with both hands to easily control it.
“Nice.” I grinned. “I’ll find one of my own.”
We headed down the path together, going deeper into the woods. The path snaked around between trees, over rises and down through small gullies, and the occasional tree had a white blaze painted on it as a path marker. It was cool, with the bright sun being blocked above by the tree canopy. A few minutes later, the path opened up and we stepped into the clearing. The tree canopy still blocked out most of the sky, but was thin enough so that the clearing was fairly well-lit.
We ran around and played for a while, taking turns to guard and assault the ‘fortress’ and then both guarding it while we repelled the invading forces. After a while we were breathing heavily from all the running around, and we sat down for a break.
“Where does that path go?” Pete was looking around, pointing towards the far side of the clearing.
I looked in the direction he was pointing, and spotted a tree with another white blaze painted on it on the far side of the clearing. The path was hard to spot next to the tree, it seemed to be quite overgrown and the tree that was marked was gnarled and twisted, with only a few leaves still attached. It was covered in moss or lichen, which made the blaze a lot harder to see than normal.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Let’s find out!” I stood, picking up my ‘sword’ stick, and Pete picked his up too.
“Didn’t Dad say not to go any further?” Pete sounded worried that we’d get in trouble.
“Come on, we’ll be fine…” I was using my ‘big brother’ powers of persuasion, knowing that Pete would cave in and come with me if I headed that way. I was soon proven right, as we headed towards the path together.
We were less than a minute past the gnarled marker tree when a sense of unease settled in. The woods felt different, there was less light and the trees were closer together – they seemed to be fighting each other, clawing their way up towards the light. I no longer felt the confidence that I had before, and I gripped my stick a little tighter, taking some comfort from its weight.
“Marty, did you hear that?” Pete asked, clutching at my arm.
“I… I don’t know. Like, something moving around? Something big, I think…” He trailed of as we slowed our pace to a near-crawl, and I listened hard. I hadn’t heard anything, but at that moment I realized I couldn’t hear much of anything at all. The woods were normally full of sounds, the rustling of wind through the trees, birdsong and the like; but it seemed eerily quiet all of a sudden. We heard the snap of a twig behind us and froze in place; the hair on the back of my neck prickling and standing on end.
Pete slowly turned his head to look at me, and I slowly turned to look at him. His eyes were wide and I could see he was breathing fast, and I realised that my own heart rate had risen as well. The woods seemed even darker than they had been moments ago, the shadows deepening and pressing in almost menacingly. We turned fully around at the same time; and were confronted suddenly by a tall figure looming over us.
“BLARGHBLARGHBLARGH!!!” It was Dad. We both screamed as Dad yelled and waved his arms in the air, and then he started to laugh at us.
“Heh heh heh, you should have seen the looks on your faces! He chuckled to himself.
“Daaaaaaaaad!” we exclaimed, breathing hard in fright.
“I thought I told you not to go any further than the clearing?” He didn’t sound too impressed. “Come on, your mother’s got lunch ready. Let’s not tell her how far into the woods we’ve come, OK?”
Pete and I nodded our agreement, and we followed Dad as he turned to head back down the path. As we walked back towards the clearing, I heard rustling behind us. It was like Pete had described, something big moving through the brush. Pete and Dad were laughing about Dad scaring us; I don’t think they heard anything. I kept walking, looking back over my shoulder as I went; but couldn’t see anything in the shadowy undergrowth. I quickened my pace to catch up.
The rest of the day was fun; we headed back to the cabin, had a late lunch, and then spent the rest of the afternoon down by the lake. Later that night Pete & I had been sent to bed, and as we lay in our sleeping bags, I heard something outside.
“Pete, can you hear that?” I asked. I got a snore in response, he was already asleep. I slid down from the top bunk and rummaged around in my backpack, grabbing my flashlight from the bottom of it. I flicked the switch and nothing happened, so I shook it around and the light flickered on, casting a weak cone of light across the room. I opened the curtains and looked out of the window.
The woods loomed out of the darkness, the beam of the torch just making across the clear area to the first trunks of the treeline. I shone the light back and forth, playing the light across the treeline, and something flashed in the darkness. It was only for a second, but in that instant there were twin red spots pointing straight at me out of the darkness, like cats-eye reflectors on the road. They would have been a couple of feet off of the ground level, and then as soon as they appeared they were gone. I heard rustling, which rapidly faded away. Whatever it was had gone, heading away from the cabin and into the woods. I turned off the flashlight; slowly closed the curtains and backed away, climbing back up onto my bunk and into my sleeping bag. I stared at the ceiling in the dark, clutching the flashlight and listening hard, trying to hear anything outside over the noise of Pete snoring softly.
“Just the raccoon, looking for more food…” I whispered to myself. It was a long time before I fell asleep.
I woke up during the night. I lay in bed, trying to decide if I could go back to sleep or if I needed to pee, and decided on the latter. I slid down out of my bunk, being careful not to wake Pete. Still slightly groggy from sleep, I stumbled down the hallway and into the bathroom, where I relieved myself. I was heading back down the hall to the bedroom, when I heard something from the lounge, further down the hall. I froze in place, listening hard. There was something in there! I crept ever so slowly down the hallway, passing the door to our bedroom, and peered through the doorway into the lounge. I relaxed when I realized what the noise must have been.
The front door was open, creaking slowly back and forth in the cool night breeze. It must have not shut it properly and it had opened in the wind. There were no lights on, but the lounge was half-illuminated by moonlight coming through the windows and through the cracked-open doorway. I stepped into the room, intent on heading to the door to shut it, and then once again froze a few steps in when I perceived I wasn’t alone.
Parts of the room were lit from outside, and this made it hard to see into the gloom of the other parts that the light didn’t hit, but there was something in one corner of the room. I couldn’t make out anything as I peered towards the shadows, but as the door creaked slightly more ajar once more in the wind, I saw the red lights staring out at me from the dark. With a thrill of horror that sent the hair on my neck standing on end, I realized that they weren’t lights at all, they were eyes! I took a step backwards, and as I did, the red-eyed creature in the shadows glared out at me. I could see a faint outline, a shape in the darkness, but nothing clear. Whatever it was, it was a lot bigger than a raccoon.
I opened my mouth to yell, but all that came out was a whimper. The breeze stopped and the door creaked once more, slowly closing this time. As the door closed, the beam of light that was coming through the gap slowly narrowed, and then disappeared as the door came to rest against the jamb, just short of clicking completely shut. As the light disappeared, the red reflection in the creature’s eyes faded from view, and I realized to my horror that I could no longer make out its shape in the darkness! I took another step backwards, and the thing growled at me from the shadows; a low, throaty rumble that filled me with dread. I heard the clack of nails or claws on the hardwood floor as it took a step towards me, and I finally found my voice, screaming at the top of my lungs as I closed my eyes and covered my head with my arms, turning away from whatever the thing was and trying to cover up, to protect myself.
As I screamed my lungs out, I heard my parents yelling in alarm from the bedroom down the hall, and scrambling sounds of them and my other relatives trying to get up quickly to come and see what was wrong. I heard the door open again in the wind, and opened my eyes to see the end of whatever the thing was disappearing outside. It was big, at least dog-sized, but apart from a split-second glimpse of dark fur or hair I couldn’t see anything that would tell me for sure what it had been. My parents burst into the room, Dad running to grab me and Mom turning on the lights. They held me close, asking what was wrong, Dad was saying something about how I must have been sleepwalking and had a nightmare. Pete came in as well, and as the family gathered in the lounge, everything seemed much less scary in the light. Maybe it had just been my imagination?
Despite my protests, my parents eventually decided I’d just had a nightmare, and everyone eventually went back to bed. Mom stood by my bunk and whispered soothing things to me as I dropped back into slumber. I awoke the next morning to sun streaming through the windows, immediately feeling much better in the daylight. The events of the previous night seemed far away, like they had been a dream, and I wondered if that’s all that it had been. Everyone else seemed to already be up and about; it was just me in the room. I got up and got dressed; and headed out into the lounge, where everyone was gathered having breakfast.
“Good morning honey,” my Mom called to me. “Did you sleep all right?” I replied that I was fine, and set about getting some breakfast.
The rest of the day (and the next couple of days as well) were fairly uneventful. We swam in the lake while our parents read their books, and then Dad came in to throw us around in the water. We walked through the woods several times, taking different trails. Pete & I ran around like madmen out front of the cabin, playing tag and every other game we could come up with while Mom & Dad relaxed on the front porch. The nights though… I had bad dreams, dreams about a dark shape scrabbling around outside. I’d wake up and listen hard in the gloom, trying to figure out if the noise was just the trees or something else.
Saturday came, which would be our last night at the cabin. We’d be packing up and leaving in the morning. In the afternoon, Pete & I had gone back to the clearing in the woods, playing Star Wars this time – we were taking turns using the torch as a lightsaber. We must have played for hours, as I noticed the daylight was just beginning to turn to dusk; the woods growing dimmer as the light fled. For the life of me, I’ve never been able to explain what came next. I wish that we had just walked out of those woods, back to the cabin. But we didn’t.
You see after that first night, I’d been afraid. Whatever the thing had been, it had shaken me badly; but I was one of those kids who had to know everything. And I had an idea about where I’d find out for sure – deeper into the woods, where I’d heard something that first day.
I stared across the clearing at the gnarled tree with the faded white blaze, and decided that I was going to look before Mom & Dad came for us. Pete had piped up, saying it was getting dark and we should start heading back, dinner would be ready soon. I told him my plan and he shook his head vigorously. He didn’t want to go deeper into the woods. Once again, using my big brother powers of persuasion, I convinced Pete that he’d get in trouble if he headed back alone, as our parents had told him that he had to stay with me at all times.
I turned on the torch again, Pete hefted his ‘sword’ stick and we set off together, heading past the gnarled, twisted tree that marked the path deeper into the woods. We walked in silence, carefully picking our way along the path in the dark, my crappy torch lighting the way for us. Every now and again it would flicker, so I’d give it a whack and the light would come back. I found myself wishing I’d packed spare batteries for the trip; we must have drained the power while we were playing with it. The evening was getting rapidly darker, the moon coming out and casting some dim light through the gaps in the trees.
“Marty, I don’t like this,” Pete said apprehensively after about a minute on the path less travelled.
“Neither do I, but we can’t turn back now” I replied. Looking back, I just can’t understand why it meant so much to the 8-year old me. By this point I was starting to doubt the intelligence of the plan, but I was too headstrong to admit it and turn back.
We continued along the path, my torch’s light picking out the roots and branches that we needed to avoid. I felt apprehensive, and I’m sure Pete felt the same. This part of the woods had been bad enough in the daylight for the brief period we’d spent in it, but it was a hundred times worse at dusk. I was jumping slightly at every shadow, every branch that reached out of the darkness at us. Eventually, the path turned sharply and I lit up a gap between two trees that opened up into a second clearing. We stepped into it, and I noted with some relief that there didn’t seem to be a path out the other side – I couldn’t see a white trail blaze on any of them. I breathed a sigh of relief, deciding that we’d gone far enough and we could turn back now. I started to turn, and Pete grabbed my arm.
“What?” I looked down at him. “Don’t be scared! We’re leaving now”.
“Th-th-th-there’s something over there,’
He raised a shaky hand, pointing across the clearing. I looked across to where he was pointing, freezing in place when I realized he was right. There was something over there, lurking in the shadows. There was a little bit of light from the rising moon, but it wasn’t a full moon yet and the trees were a lot thicker here than in the other clearing, so it wasn’t much help. The thing growled, sending the hair on my neck standing on end. As Pete & I both took an involuntary step backwards, I managed to lift my arm to shine the torch in the direction of the growl. Red eyes reflected the light brightly back at me.
“Oh, shit…” I whispered to myself, as the full nature of my stupidity hit me. In my efforts to prove to myself that I was brave, I’d taken myself straight into harm’s way. And what was worse was that I’d taken my little brother; who I was meant to protect, along for the ride.
The thing stayed just out of the weak range of the torchlight, the dim cone of light just enough to make out it’s outline against the trees behind it as it padded back and forth, a low warning growl rumbling continuously in its throat. I could see it only a little better than I had been able to in the house, just an outline, and the red reflection of the light in its eyes. It was powerfully built through the shoulders and forelegs, a small head on a large frame that tapered down towards its back legs. Maybe it had a tail? I couldn’t tell in the dark, all I could really see was those damn eyes. It just seemed… wrong somehow, twisted like the tree that marked the entrance to the part of the woods it seemed to live in. Pete was beginning to hyperventilate and my heart was hammering at a million miles an hour, but I knew I needed to try and stay calm to try and get us out of this mess.
“Pete?” I asked, not taking my eyes off of the red eyes being reflected in front of me.
“What?” He stammered.
“We’re going to back away slowly, OK? Just stick with me, we’ll be fine. It doesn’t like the light”. I was praying that I was right; the thing seemed reluctant to come into the torchlight.
We backed slowly out of the clearing and back down the path that we’d come in on. We rounded the first corner and kept backing away, I kept the torch pointed in front of us as we slowly edged down the path, hoping that maybe the thing wouldn’t follow us. My hopes were dashed when a shape appeared, and the reflection bounced red off its eyes again. It was following us, stalking along the path after us, staying just out of the reach of my torch and making its way around the odd patch of moonlight that made it through the tree canopy above. And of course, it was at that moment that the torch started to flicker and die again.
“Shit. Shit shit shit,” I cursed, whacking the side of the torch to try and hit the light back into existence, but it continued to flicker, and then it died completely as the batteries finally gave up.
“Marty…?” Pete sounded as terrified as I felt, suddenly enveloped in the dark. I heard the thing growl again, so I flung the torch in its direction and screamed at Pete to run, as I turned to do the same.
Whatever the thing was, it was now chasing us and I could hear it gaining, getting a little closer with every step. Outstretched branches tore at our clothes, one whipping into my face and cutting my cheek. I barely felt the sting, the fear I was feeling at that moment was almost immeasurable. Pete was sprinting as fast as he could, but with my longer legs I was beginning to outstrip him.
“Come on!” I urged, reaching for and grabbing his hand to pull him alongside me. “You can do it! Just! Keep! Running!” I spat the words out between frantic breaths.
I realized that Pete was still carrying his ‘sword’ stick, and without breaking stride I stretched over and tore it from his grip, flinging it behind us as we ran. I heard a meaty thud as it landed, and then growls that sounded of pain and anger. I must have hit the thing, I just hoped that it would slow or distract it enough for us to get away.
We kept sprinting down the track in the now near-dark forest, which had been difficult enough when my torch was working. As we ran, I silently prayed that we wouldn’t snag on a branch or trip on a root, as that would surely be the end of us. I silently wished I still had my torch; it would have made our flight easier. There! I saw the twisted tree, the outline just able to be made out against the dark sky thanks to the dim moonlight. By this point we were both nearly out of our minds with fear, all that was keeping me going was the adrenaline, and I knew Pete would be much the same. We were both sobbing as we ran, taking in deep, ragged breaths as we ran.
We burst into the clearing, and were about halfway across it when Pete fell, tripping over a branch laying on the ground. He landed heavily, and my momentum from running carried me well past where he lay. I skidded to a halt, turning to head back to get him; and as the thing bounded out from the path behind us I caught my first real glimpse of it, eyes widening in horror as it came into view. It was a twisted thing, like a huge dog or a wolf but… wrong, somehow. Its proportions were all off; forelegs were much longer and muscular than the hind. It didn’t run like a canine either, moving more like a gorilla charging on all fours, its long dark fur shaking back and forth as it lolloped forward towards my brother – long tongue spilling out from behind jagged white teeth in a snapping, slavering maw; and those horrible red eyes, glowing brightly with hunger in the dim moonlight.
Pete was struggling to get up; he saw the thing come from the path and then turned his head to look at me; pleading, petrified eyes locking with my own. I’ll never forget that glance. In that second I saw exhaustion, confusion and an all-encompassing fear, bordering on the brink of madness. But worst of all was the unbelieving, horrified betrayal that came into his eyes as I did the only thing that my terrified eight-year-old brain could think of – I turned away and fled, Pete’s screams echoing after me as I went, rising in pitch and seeming to go on forever, then cutting off suddenly.
I charged down the path, sobbing and shrieking as I fled, in disbelief at what I’d done and sure that the thing would come for me next. Suddenly, two tall figures burst out of the dark in front of me and grabbed me – I thrashed about and screamed, before realizing it was my parents! I could see Dad had the axe, they must have heard our screams. They frantically asked me where Pete was, but I was well past the point of being able to speak, and just flailed my arms back down the path, pointing desperately back the way I’d come. Dad sprinted past us, raising the axe as he went and Mom held me close before scooping me up into her arms and following him.
As Mom & I rounded the corner into the clearing, I could see my Dad kneeling in the centre of it. I’ll never forget the way that the moonlight glinted off the axe head as it lay on the ground next to him. I’ll never forget my mother’s screams as she saw what was left of her son. I’ll never forget my father crying on his knees; great, deep sobs wracking his heaving chest as he tried to shield us from seeing the worst of it. I’ll never forget seeing past my father and spotting Pete’s hand, skin stark white in the rising moonlight, but spattered with dark red gore. I think I passed out then.
From what I was able to gather later on, Dad stayed with Pete while Mom took me in the car to the Johnson house to call the police, and left me there as she returned with the State Troopers and the ambulance. I’d gone into shock by that point.
I never told my parents what really happened, that we’d gone past the first clearing and deeper into the woods. I’d spent weeks in a near-catatonic state of fear and guilt by the time I was actually able to talk about what had happened. I told them that we’d lost track of time and were about to head back to the cabin, when the thing had come from the path and gotten Pete before I could do anything. I already hated myself enough; I couldn’t have dealt with them knowing it was all my fault. I told them that I didn’t get a good look at it. My Dad had seen a dark shape looming above the fallen figure of his son, but it had turned and ran as he came at it, and he hadn’t seen more than a flash of indistinct fur and red eyes. The police decided it had been a wolf or a feral dog, but despite a search of the woods they couldn’t catch it.
We never went back to the Cabin, and neither did any of the rest of the extended family. Dad made a brief trip up at one point to clear it out, but as far as I know, it’s sitting empty right now. Our family sold the land to the Johnsons a few years later, but I heard a while back that they’d sold up and moved away to retire, so I’m not sure who owns it at this point.
Our lives went on, forever changed. None of us was ever really the same. One side-effect is that I can’t be in a dark room with a red electrical light in it, or I start having panic attacks. There’s a lot of electrical tape covering lights on my appliances. The guilt gnaws at me constantly – it was my fault entirely, even if nobody else knows. It’s been decades but I still see Pete’s face every time I look at myself, and I hear the anguished screams of my parents echo through my head when I try to sleep. And I’m terrified that someday it’ll come for me too, that I’ll be walking through my house at night and it’ll be there like I deserve it to be – that dark, twisted thing with the glowing red eyes.