Excerpt ©2104 Rick Marchetti
The Cabin in the Woods
It was much darker in the woods than it had been along the water, so Ray didn’t realize that the sun was setting until he broke through into a small clearing on the opposite side of the lake from where he had ventured in. Panicked, he looked at his watch and was stunned to see that it was quarter to five. With no reference in the dark and tangled forest, he had completely lost track of the time. What felt to him like an hour or two had been closer to four. The sun had been setting just after four-thirty for the past week and he was fifteen minutes past that now. There was absolutely no way he could make it back to the cabin -or even to the other side of the lake- until well after full dark. Ray ran a hand through his wild hair and looked around, completely unnerved by this unexpected development. He took out his phone, praying to find even one bar showing on the screen. Instead, he saw exactly what he feared: No Service.
The decision now was whether to go on, expecting the path to resume at some point, or go back, hoping he had carved out enough of a trail that he could follow it back around the lake. He stood there, frozen, unable to make a decision. For a few seconds, continuing on seemed like the best course of action, then it seemed like utter foolishness, nothing more than a good way to get even more lost. Going back was the only answer, then that seemed like certain suicide. He couldn’t decide. Finally, he settled on forward. If the path is there, he reasoned, I’ll be able to follow it out.
But, if you go back, you know where you’re going, the other side of his brain argued.
Forward, pick up the path again, you’re good to go.
No, you could get further away from the cabin.
There might even be a road ahead.
There might be animals, too. You didn’t see any on the way in.
Suddenly, Ray pressed his hands to the sides of his head. “STOP IT!” he shouted. Birds took wing all around him, tweeting, cawing, screeching. He was stunned by the cacophony but, even through the shock he realized he hadn’t heard anything crashing through the underbrush. He reached down to his water belt and pulled out a bottle. Empty. He reached for the next one in line. Empty. He was reluctant to check the third one, but he forced himself to do it. Empty.
“Oh my God,” Ray whispered to the gathering night.
“Hoo,” an owl hooted in response.
Ray began to walk, keeping the lake to his left. He welcomed the sight of the moon when it rose, glinting off the water’s surface. It didn’t provide much light, but some was better than none. As he made his way through the underbrush, occasionally stumbling but so far managing to avoid a fall, his mind began to drift. Against his will, he began to picture his obituary: Next to a picture of him taken for his last book jacket, it read Ray Trammel, 45, best-selling author, loving husband and father, died in the woods of northern New Hampshire because he was too frigging stupid to get back to the cabin he was losing his mind in.
Despite his current predicament, he laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it. But laughing while lost in the woods felt strange, felt wrong somehow, and he quickly stopped.
“Tell me you’re not losing it, Willy Nilly,” he said. Something struck him then and he stopped dead in his tracks. Willy Nilly? Why does that sound so familiar? he puzzled.
“Hoo,” the owl called again. As the moon continued to climb in the sky, slightly ahead of him and to his left, it offered some illumination, but not nearly enough. He was still finding it rough going because of the roots and stones, but now the ground had become boggy as well. Every so often, Ray could hear the sounds of something moving through the woods, but not so close as to scare him. Too much.
After a while, he found himself in another clearing. Overhead, what seemed like millions of stars twinkled icily. The temperature had dropped considerably and now the sweat that he had generated felt as if it was freezing on him. He began to shiver and his teeth chattered, gently at first, but then increasing in intensity. At some point, his feet had gotten wet and now they were beginning to sting from the cold. Again, he had the sensation of being watched.
Ray stood in the clearing for a while, watching the constellations cross the sky. He didn’t remember much from his college astronomy course, but he recognized both Dippers, Cassiopeia, Orion, and even The Pleiades - the seven sisters. Occasionally, a meteor streaked across the sky. As the moon climbed, however, its light overwhelmed the stars and the sky took on a washed-out, faded denim look. The woods seemed a bit brighter and Ray started picking his was along, always keeping the lake to his left.
After a little while, he happened to glance up and was shocked to realize the lake was now on his right. Somewhere along the line, he had doubled back without realizing it. Now panic gripped him and he slumped against a tree, physically and emotionally drained. He found himself wishing for a gun again, not for protection this time, but to end this nightmare. He slid slowly down the tree trunk until he was seated on the ground, barely feeling it when his shirt rode up and the rough bark dug into his back, leaving lines like those made by an overly enthusiastic lover. He sat with his eyes closed and prayed that the end would come quickly, then focused on Lauren and the boys; he wanted them to be the last thought he had. Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he was silent. He thought about all the things he had accomplished in his life, as well as all the things he had yet to do. Forty-five, which sometimes seemed so old to him, now sounded ridiculously young. Too young for the man whose grandma called him Willy Nilly.
His eyes snapped open. “Willy Nilly”, he whispered, liking the sound of it. “Willy Nilly,” he tried again. “I haven’t thought of that in years,” he said, his voice filled with wonder. Grandma Nash, his mother’s mother, had nicknamed him that because she said he was always trying to go off in five different directions at once.
“Gram?” he whispered, certain that Death was at hand.