Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
TRAGEDY AT TUCKAHOE LAKE
Ronny was impressed- they were great at telling his tale. “We only save the BEST campfire story for the end,” Stan told the wide-eyed kids as he leaned in, flames reflecting off his glasses. “Are you all SURE you can handle it? It’s pretty scary.” Hannah, the head female counselor, tried not to smirk. “This one’s about a REAL ghost.”
“I thought they were ALL supposed to be ‘real ghosts,’ ” some 12-year old whined.
“Lemme tell you somethin, son. I seen ghosts,” Old Pete chimed in. He was the closest to a real cowboy you could find in Maryland- skin like a catcher’s mitt, and not one scar that didn’t come with a story. “Even I can’t barely stomach this ‘un. Happen’ on our own lodge. So listen up good- or mebbe that ghost’ll git ya.” The kid swallowed hard under Pete’s stony gaze.
Nobody crosses Old fucking Pete, Ronny thought. He was keeping his safe distance- the bushes were dark, and the children tired. Still, he had to see HIS story- it was getting better every year.
Stan glanced around before continuing, arms outstretched. “It happened RIGHT HERE, on the docks. One week in summer, not so long ago…”
Depends on your definition of “long ago,” Ronny mentally replied. He’d been waiting for his little stunt to grow into a legend… into a GHOST story… for a long, long time.
In hindsight, the Lodge at Tuckahoe Lake was always kind of a ghost story waiting to happen, especially by the time his family starting dragging Ronny and his sister here. A bunch of creaky old cabins, surrounded by acres of woods, AND a lake? Horror movies couldn’t DREAM of a better locale. And it’s not like the assholes running the joint were exactly safety-compliant. No helmets for kids on ponies. Leaky tin-bottomed fishing boats. Whole parts of the lake cordoned off, with thin yellow tape as its only real warning. And YET…
No drowned little kids. No camp counselors picked off one by one by a chainsaw-wielding psycho. No ancient Indian burial ground. No deaths at all, even, in its 47 years as a public ranch. By age 16 Ronny was almost… disappointed. The Lodge was populated by grinning idiots posing for photos as their fat asses tested the strength of sad, old horses; lobbing tennis balls back and forth to Aunt Betty in the sweltering heat; orange-tanned Jersey girls waving from those stupid docks.
No outdoorsy, yearning-for-adventure types here. Just working class wannabe cowboys who got drunk by noon, their fat subathing wives, and their little brats that ran around, ensuring ZERO quiet time for Ronny. That ‘fateful’ week when they drove up, it was early morning and ALREADY hot as fuck, which did no favors for the horse shit.
The Penderson family came every year. God only knows- this place was a nightmare. It doesn’t matter how many “diverse” activities the family that ran this place CLAIMED to offer. Everything was either detestable to Ronny- hay rides, horseback riding, swimming in a nasty pond- or otherwise not tailored for a teen boy. Ronny didn’t want to play bingo or go to the petting zoo, least of all when there’s a swarm of hyperactive kids running around who seemed to all be named Tyler or Jamie (when the FUCK did that become a girl’s name?), he bitched to himself.
Vacation was supposed to be about relaxing. Ditch school, lie back, crank the tunes and let your headphones drown out all the happy shiny people. But Ronny wasn’t old enough to drink, even if he’d WANTED to pay three bucks for a warm beer. Besides, it wouldn’t make up for the fact that he was still crammed into pathetically small “rustic” lodgings, with no A/C, and the train wreck that was the Penderson family.
“Ronald, if you’re not going to cut that long hair, at least WASH it,” his mother spat at him while unloading her suitcase. It’s Ronny, bitch. “You and Shelly have the upstairs this year, with your OWN bathroom for once, so I don’t want to hear about how you don’t have enough time to make yourself look like a NORMAL boy.”
Dad wasn’t too far behind with his annual red cooler, no doubt sloshing at least as many liquor bottles as soda pops. Poor, dimwitted, pussy-whipped Henry Penderson. Ronny almost felt sorry for him, if it wasn’t for the same constant “happy family” thing Dad put on 24/7. “And put on some REAL clothes this time, bucko.” As Ronny started up the stairs to the a lumpy cot with itchy blankets, his father added, “Friday is trivia night. NOT a dance club.”
I wish it was, Ronny mused to himself, before half-mumbling, “I can wear what I want, asshole.” His parents must have been too busy unpacking to hear, but Michelle had already picked her cot, the one closest to the bathroom- for a minimum three hours of hair-crimping a day, no doubt. She crossed her long stockinged legs and glanced at him with vacuous, sarcastic eyes. “You can NOT wear ‘what you want’ if it means dressing like Kurt Cobain after three days of heroin withdrawal. We’re going to LUNCH soon, ya know.” Oh, he’d almost forgot- there was no backing out of the three requisite family meals, no matter how mystery-meats-in-a-greasy-bun SHITTY they were.
In hindsight, Ronny should have just made a run for it that week. He didn’t have a license, or even a car, but fuck it. He should have swiped Mom’s keys, kicked up gravel back to the Interstate, and never looked back. He didn’t belong in that manure-smelling, basket-weaving shithole of a ranch, and he should’ve known better than to stay there one more minute.
The Lodge at Tuckahoe Lake was made for jolly, vacationing families, bocce-playing grandpas and sand shoveling tykes. It was made for happy people. And if there’s one thing Ronny hated most, it was happy people.
So pacified by creature comforts; so fucking FASCINATED by their own nostalgia that they’d become oblivious. Lulled into a false sense of smores-roasting, Yahtzee-playing SECURITY. Grown blind to the dark reality of the outside world. No, the age of innocence at Tuckahoe Lake was at its end.
This place didn’t just NEED a ghost story; it was well overdue for one. What would scare these idiots of our their precious comfort zones? It’d better strike fear into the hearts of every would-be camper for years. But that’s why Ronny had come prepared. VERY prepared.
“Families have always loved coming to Tuckahoe Lake,” smiled Hannah, taking over where Stan had left off. “When the Warring family opened this place, ALL the way back in 1947-“ She wisely gave a pause to let the younger kids take in the sense of old-timey awe. Whoop-dee-fucking-do, Ronny thought, shaking his head. “-well, even in 1947, people came from all over. The Lodge was a quiet place, and Tuckahoe Lake was more beautiful than any other ranch in the state.”
Debatable, he added to himself. But Hannah needed to really grab her listeners, so she said, “It was such an innocent place back then. Perfect for families. But that was BEFORE.”
“Before what?” a young girl chirped.
“Before… the INCIDENT.” Stan had taken back the mantle of storyteller, and now he had them hook, line and sinker. “They say it was just a matter of time before some creeper made his way to Tuckahoe Lake. Before he slipped in unnoticed.” The children shuffled close and watched him intently. “They say no one ever suspects the quiet ones. But it’s the INVISIBLE ones you really have to watch out for…”
By the time a lunch of questionable deli meats was over, Ronny had formulated his plan. It wasn’t hard- half the idea was already there, and the other half came easily, if you’d seen all the slasher films HE had. If anything, he was doing the Lodge a favor- it would certainly upgrade its coolness factor, not to mention all those basket cases that love to shell out cash for a “haunted cabin” stay.
In hindsight, Ronny’s toolkit could have ended up doing much worse. The cheap black trench coat and baggy clothes he’d picked up at the thrift store. The grimacing mask he’d made slip proof, should somebody decide to rip it off. The wide, gleaming butcher’s knife he had so deftly slipped into the lining of his suitcase.
They might have just as easily been used to butcher the especially nasty school bullies, or even to silence his sister’s incessant whining, those tools. But they were stashed by the docks by noon, past the neon barrier, where Ronny knew they’d be safe. No, the ones to terrorize were his fellow campers, Ronny had decided, sitting on his cabin’s deck with a flannel shirt and a Marlboro Red. He would be just another hapless victim of a crazed slasher- in fact, the most important victim of all.
Ronny took another puff and outlined it for the hundredth time. He’d like to test his night camouflage clothes out anyway, so after his parents had gone to bed, and Michelle was in one of her swiped-cocktail blackouts, everything was laid out neatly. He oh-so-softly snuck down the stairs, out the door, and back to his little grotto of stashed-away goodies. Just like Shelly had switched her juice blend for Mom’s “Tuckahoe Iced Teas,” Ronny changed from ripped jeans to navy sweatpants. He replaced his leather jacket for an oversized hooded one, just in case. (There’s no way they could afford security cameras at Tuckahoe fucking LAKE.)
He decided it was time to find out just how the ‘slasher’ stalked and chose his victims. The Lodge kept cabins in tows of twos and threes, which made things easy enough, especially as there were just two crowded chalets side-by-side for the teen counselors, one for each gender. They would be Ronny’s GOLDMINE- and he knew it. He could hit them all at once- half the boy counselors and half the girls led a ‘Late Night Hike’ every other night, including the next one. By that late hour the half of each chalet they picked would be the stronger, faster, more robust ones… leaving 4 weaklings on each side. But tonight? No, tonight, they would all be there, already sleeping by the time he left the skull-and-bones ‘death totems’ he’d bought cheap after thumbing a ride to the local “AUTHENTIC Indian crafts’ store. He quietly snuck down to the dock (Mom and Dad always liked the waterfront view) to retrieve and gently lay each of them on the placemats of his ‘chosen’- save for a couple random ones to throw them off, especially the one on his own… surely the slasher wouldn’t ‘curse himself,’ would he?
Ronny had already decided which cabin to SKIP, the one across from their own, but not because it’d look suspicious. No, Mrs. Sullivan- she talked to Ronny’s mom sometimes- was pregnant, and even HE wasn’t that much of a cold-hearted bastard. Plus, she was with some burly guy called Milo, and he’d hate to accidentally piss HIM off. On second thought, he decided to skip that entire ROW… just in case.
Being so close to the docks (as were the cabins he’d staked out) meant he would probably take about 6 or 7 minutes, running, before he bounced (keeping track with his wristwatch). He figured this would happen, and sure enough it did- by they time they flagged down help and called the police, it’d all be over (it WAS all over before anyone even dialed 911. Tuckahoe Lake would get one warning only, and have the whole day to either wise up or, well, fear the same fate that the totems implied. Ronny fancied himself pretty strong- beating the shit out of a punching bag was all the chill pill he needed, and anyway, he had some impromptu padding under the oversized disguise.
He slept in late the next morning… it took him forever to fall asleep from the excitement, the ADRENALINE RUSH of it. He figured his parents would be pretty pissed off he only JUST made it to lunch on time, but they seemed too exhausted to scold him. Maybe the totem actually scared THEM, too. His father was grim-faced and his mother spazzed-out, smiling weakly. Here were two adults who had worn the suburban masks of banality for years: Not much longer, he told them, even if it was in his own head. By this time tomorrow, this family will known what it means to REALLY live. You didn’t need to kill anybody to make your lasting mark on horror history; all he was going to do is give them a good scare.
He mentally reassured himself, tugging on his old grey band shirt and making his way to the games room at just the right time- when it would peak for all the kiddies and their parents to be hanging around there, able to give dozens of eyewitness accounts that he seemed like such a fun-loving kid… Wasn’t it just a SHAME the he wouldn’t be able to play video games for weeks?
But wouldn’t you fucking know it, some preteen dork was hogging his favorite arcade shoot-em-up. The one GOOD game in this crappy, pitifully unfurnished ‘game’ room. And the dweeb had beaten the high score. RONNY’S high score. You stupid fucking scrub. He had to truly will himself to not scream it out loud. As if on cue, an older mother stomped into the room and snapped, “James FRANCIS Geary, what do I ALWAYS tell you?!?”
The kid turned around and nervously adjusted his glasses. “Um… stranger danger?” he squeaked.
“And what about violent GAMES,” she fumed.
Little James sighed and dully recited, “Violent video games turn kids into killers.”
“That’s right,” his mother droned, taking him by the shirtsleeve until they had vanished into the night.
Too late, Ronny decided. He just made the fucking list.
“The totems? They meant DEATH,” head counselor Adrian declared, the kids (and even new counselor Nicky) all screwing their faces into varying levels of fascination and disgust. He pulled a cheap plastic knock-off out of his pocket: it wasn’t even the right totem, for fuck’s sake. He continued, “After they took away all the little warnings, the Lodge KNEW they would have to keep on patrol, every night, every PLACE.”
A little girl in Disney princess pajamas bit her lip and said, “But… wasn’t they scared? They could see him sometimes, right?”
Adrian widened his eyes in mock tension and nodded. “Oh, people saw lots of things that whole day, and even more at NIGHT. Before… the tragedy, of course.”
“Guys, maybe we shouldn’t,” Nicky the newbie said hesitantly.“It’s pretty creepy. Those people…”
But the children were too invested now to sugarcoat the story. “Didn’t he have big claws and sharp teeth? You know- like fangs.”
“Did NOT. It was a lady ghost,” a round-faced little girl insisted. “She could float and disappear, and GHOSTS kill people.”
Kids, Ronny thought to himself with a grin. Smarter than I thought. Too bad ghosts couldn’t scare them to death. But I probably could…
“The Warring family KNEW they had a duty to protect their ranch, and aaaallll the people staying there,” Adrian explained, derailing Ronny’s train of thought. “But they didn’t know the right place to look. If they had, they never would have let poor Bertie go investigate the docks. She’d always been a bit of a detective. But what she saw was far worse than she could have imagined…”
Bullshit, Ronny protested mentally. She wasn’t playing detective, she was going for a goddamned nighttime STROLL. This isn’t fucking ‘Murder, She Wrote.’
“You see, there was a young, quiiieeet little boy here that week, and his name was Ronald,” Hannah told them in a hushed tone, savoring every word. I HATE that name. It’s Ronny, for God’s sake, you bimbo. On the other hand, even if they were exaggerating- it only grew more and more with every telling- Ronny himself was kind of glad that he’d left such an impression on them. Hannah cleared her throat, then carried on. “But Ronald had no idea the HORRORS that he would face in the dark, dark docks that night…”
In hindsight, there WERE a bunch of fucking cowboys and rent-a-cops on high alert by sunset, and that included the Warrings. But Ronny figured, Hell, I’ll just have to be EXTRA invisible. Operation Tuckahoe Lake Slasher is still going down.
He staked out the cabin rows from behind, since the Warrings apparently hadn’t considered checking it. Ronny was probably one of the few people- save for the male counselors- that knew just the right angle to peek inside. Everybody left their windows open because of the miserable fucking heat… they just didn’t know how cheap and thin the window screens were. That was how he would get inside, once the more pussy-like kids were there alone, or at least in a small group. Tonight, in disguise, his ‘Slasher’ was going to make a few particularly freaky late-night visits.
It’s not like he was planning to KILL anyone. Just give ‘em a couple of surface slashes with his knife and then half-heartedly try to stop them (in vain, of course) from running off. In reality, he would quietly open their front and side doors beforehand, leaving them several clear escapes. The cheapass Lodge didn’t provide them with a telephone, not evey a way to PAGE them… They’d recover just fine, at least physically… well, maybe not that little shit Jimmy Geary. And the piece de resistance? That’d be Ronny himself. Once he’d ditched the Slasher persona and all of his materials, he would become the last victim- stabbed on the docks (nothing fatal, just a deep cut or two), waiting just long enough for the schizo to have ‘escaped’ before he’s screaming for help, just like the rest, and quickly discovered.
Then the Lodge at Tuckahoe Lake would finally have the ghost story it deserved. They’ll feel SORRY for me, he smilingly thought as he made one last back-window pass around the cabins. There was Nancy in Block 14, Cabin 28 as usual, already asleep. Her fellow female counselors were all half-dressed and crowding around the bathroom mirror. They’ll be my first stop tonight. God, I fucking hope they’re all saying ‘candyman’ three times into the mirror… Doubtful, but that would be hilariously ironic.
But pretty little Nancy- she didn’t follow them out to the dive bars every night with a fake ID and enough makeup to coat a house. No, she put her nose ring when they weren’t around to see it, and when her skull and crossbones tattoo was visible they called it her “freak flag”. Nancy didn’t bring half the Gap summer collection; she brought weed and ripped stockings. I’m gonna do her first, Ronny thought to himself, relishing the very idea. She’d like me WITHOUT multiple stab wounds. Maybe I’ll get lucky and end up in the same therapy group as her. But he’d have to hurry to make enough time for his ‘recreational activities.’
In hindsight, it was kind of lame and dumb for him to stop and check in on his family first… just in case. Shelly wouldn’t come back for at least an hour; it was mostly for kids, but they were having indoor karaoke with an acoustic guitar, and even though every 14-year-old girl likes to think they sound like Jewel, Michelle though she WAS Jewel. She WAS good with kids. Whatever. One less person to contend with. There were his parents, like any other weeknight: Mom was re-reading her low-fat diet book (she wasn’t getting any thinner, just more bitchy) and Dad was wondering aloud whether or not well water could give people AIDS.
No more board game nights. No more beaning me in the head with a snowball for being a ‘spoilsport’. No, not after tonight, he told himself, making a beeline for the docks that weren’t meant to be accessed. Even better than a local legend of the ‘phantom maniac’ was the fact that now, he’d have the perfect excuse to NEVER come to this stupid ranch again- his family can’t blame him for being traumatized. As he went under the caution tape and reached his stash, he mentally rehearsed his own sad, tormented discovery. Screaming and bleeding on the dock after a violent struggle (he wasn’t above injuring himself with cuts and bruises before the ‘big stab’). Forever remembered as the poor, sad boy who was viciously cut down by the would-be killer. Hell, even if the stab killed him, he could at least haunt the SHIT out of this place, cementing the tragic story for the ages.
In hindsight, he should have tested the mask out earlier. Undressing, he caught his reflection on the water’s surface: shirtless, and wearing a mask that was more cheesy than it was scary. The eyeholes were dark mesh and cheaply misplaced- Ronny could hardly see. In hindsight, he should have ripped it off the second he heard Bertie’s slow little footsteps. And re-buttoned his pants. Apparently it WAS scary enough- at least, for an old lady with a bum ticker.
She took one look at him and started squawking like an idiot, falling onto her back- the clumsy bitch- and trying to shuffle away from him in the grass. In hindsight, he should have just scrapped the whole thing. But he’d barely had time to react, and his jeans were around his ankles, so he stumbled forward practically ON TOP OF the old windbag. In hindsight, he should have seen the wooden oar she was reaching for, but once he’d stood up, he sure felt it- smacking him upside the head so hard that he fell backwards into the lake and blacked out.
“So it was Ronald?” asked a little girl, her eyes darting around nervously. There’s that fucking name again, he told himself. They always have to humiliate me, don’t they. I think they get OFF on that shit.
“Yes,” Adrian replied. “He was the boy that died. His ghost can even be felt sometimes around this place- especially late at night.” The kids and even one of the counselors, way-too-nervous Nicole, shivered in fear.
“You can’t just creep us out like that until we know what happened!” Another obnoxious little punk. “…How did he die? WHEN?”
In hindsight, Ronny shouldn’t have relied on the old wisdom of a drowning person waving and shouting for help. If he had known real drowning victims couldn’t get their mouth above water or splash very much, he wouldn’t have been so confident that a ranch hand named T.J. would rescue him from the lake after hearing Bertie’s screeching and moaning. But while Ronny was only just regaining consciousness, old Bertie was already having a massive coronary. So T.J. ran off shouting for help, for an ambulance, and Ronny struggled to move at all.
In hindsight, heavy combat boots, jeans bunched up around the ankles, and barely-usable eye holes turned out to be a dangerous fucking combination. In hindsight, Ronny should have considered that this part of the lake was cordoned off for a good reason, namely, that it was very, very deep. Since they were all busy trying to save the senile old bitch (despite the fact that she was already TOAST), they didn’t notice any evidence of a second victim just two yards away.
In hindsight, Ronny REALLY should have learned how to swim. It would have saved him the indignation of his plight being realized too late; the humiliation of rigor mortis setting in before they even recovered his body. It would’ve given him a chance to explain that NO, he wasn’t some pervy rapist waiting in the shadows to attack an old lady. Instead, he went down in the memory books as a dumbass teenager frightening poor old women to death with his idiot prank. Instead of a helpless victim done in by a spree killer, BERTIE was the one constantly remembered and doted on.
“So he was a… pussy?” asked a disappointed boy.
Nicole tsked tsked him and said, “Watch your language, Peyton.”
Now THAT’S a pussy name, Ronny thought sullenly. Even at 78, she was a fixture at the Lodge year round- Bertie had opened the Lodge in the first place, with her since-departed-husband. SHE was the quirky, still-active old lady everybody adored. A month after she AND Ronny were killed, they named a new baby colt “Miss Bertie” in her honor. Kids can still get ‘Bertie’s Banana Pancakes’ on Tuesdays and Saturdays. An ad-hoc memorial behind the check-in desk was plastered with photos of Bertie playfully posing with skis and a snowsuit, a young Bertie giggling in her swim dress, Bertie leaning over and patiently helping her grandkids play a game of Bingo.
These days, however, Bertie was rarely all smiles and sunshine. Ronny just wanted to haunt the Hell out of this place, and scare the occasional snot-nosed brat. Bertie wanted to RUN IT from beyond the grave; she’d become a busybody ghost that nattered incessantly about his angsty, miserable ghost day and night for the rest of eternity. She went on for WEEKS when they finally got Wi-Fi at the Lodge. Even the central air conditioning sent her on a rant. But the only one to suffer it? Ronny.
“They shouldn’t be keeping children up this late,” Bernie whispered, hovering next to him in the bushes. “When I was a girl…”
Oh God, not this again. “I don’t give a flying FUCK what you did as a girl!” he retorted. He must’ve been pretty pissed, because the campfire suddenly went out, sending the kids into a panic.
“I heard something! Like- like whispers!” cried Nicole. “I told you he was mad about the ghost story!”
Adrian gave them a reassuring glance. “It’s just a trick, right?” On cue, Stan came back from his ‘pee break’ and high-fived Adrian. “There he is- Stan the Man!” The kids all laughed and smiled with relief, and their parents soon arrived to escort them back home.
“Dude, that was amazing. How did you get the fire to go OUT like that?” Adrian asked Stan. “I thought you were just gonna rustle some bushes.”
“I DID rustle the bushes,” Stan replied with a look of confusion. “If somebody made the fire go out, it sure as Hell wasn’t me.” Nicole grimaced in fear. “Relax, Nicky. There’s no ghosts here.” He put his arm around her shoulder. Nice move there, dickface, Ronny complained. “You weren’t even BORN until after the deaths. It was 1994, Nicky!”
The cowboys, Old Pete and T.J., stood up slowly and approached the counselors. “Mighty fine story ya got there,” Pete admitted.
“Thanks for leaving out the part where he exposed himself to the poor lady,” T.J. concurred, before tipping his hat and walking off with Old Pete. Too bad they didn’t add IN the part about your real name being Terrence, the one you still used in California before moving and conveniently losing that ‘lisp.’
“Creepy little bastard,” Old Pete concurred. “Imagine, doing that to an OLD WOMAN. Sicko.”
“Oh, like you’re one to talk!” Bertie protested. “I know I’m not here to judge, but TWO COWBOYS-“
What a bitch. “You know, they screened Brokeback Mountain on the counselor’s movie night a few years back. Maybe you should see it.”
“You- you d-bag!” Bertie replied, shocked.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Just SAY it. Douchebag. DOUCHEBAG.” But she just sniffed in disgust and floated off to micro-manage ‘her’ Lodge. Ronny gave all four counselors a chill, and Nicole could’ve sworn she heard his whispers on the wind. Just like the kids who insisted an unexpected breeze swept dried leaves against their legs- they were just on edge because of the ghost story, weren’t they?
Nancy was the only one that remained here… but now she was a middle-aged chubby woman; laser-removal scar where the tattoo had been; a closed hole on her nostril. As it turned out, Mom should’ve been watching her sugar, not fat. Diabetes. Still, she was OK in the end, and Dad too, and Shelly- she even became a teacher and popped out a few kids of her own. And hey, at least he finally made an ACTUAL ghost story for the Lodge- with TWO ghosts.