The GPS took Cassie into a remote area between Coopersville and Anisteem. Heavily logged in the 1800s, the Civilian Conservation Corps replanted the sandy soil during the Great Depression. A thick forest of towering hardwoods, including sugar maples and oaks along with pine trees, blocked much of the sunlight, leaving an eerie dimness around her while dull gray clouds obscured the blue sky.
She slowed the car and rolled down her window. Humid air mixed with what felt like an electrical charge filled the vehicle's interior. There had to be a thunderstorm brewing.
Cassie looked at her phone’s map of the area; she was driving into the Dunes Wilderness Area on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. With the Great Lakes water level much lower than it was several thousand years ago, massive quantities of sand were exposed and with the help of lake-effect winds, were shaped into the current dunes. Isn’t this a protected area used only by hikers and campers? How could someone have a home here? The GPS must be wrong, unless the house was built before the land was protected. Nevertheless, she had no choice but to follow the GPS.
Cassie could not help but playback in her mind what the gypsy woman had said. Castle, really? So early Europeans brought their castle building skills here? It was possible, she reasoned. People have been sailing the oceans and Great Lakes for centuries. The only strange building that she had ever heard of near Anisteem, was a haunted mansion on Shadow Island.
But the one thing that the crazy lady said that spooked her the most was that the castle was built for the dead. What does that mean? Nothing, it means nothing. Just the ramblings from an elderly vendor that escaped the dementia unit.
The wind was growing stronger, causing tree boughs to bounce up and down as if possessed by a demon, reaching out to pluck up Cassie with its boney fingers and take her straight to the fires of Hell.
Cassie slammed on the brakes when a large branch suddenly broke loose from a tree and dropped onto the road, nearly striking the car’s hood. Her hands gripped the steering wheel as she sighed with relief. “That was close.” She looked at the branch. It was big but she could probably move it enough to drive around it.
The trees blocked most of the wind at ground level but not enough to stop it from blowing Cassie's hair around. She rolled up the window and reached over to the glove compartment to get a pair of old brown work gloves that she kept there.
Cassie turned off the car and got out. She shivered from the chill in the air as she walked up to the limb blocking the car's path. When she reached down and began tugging on the dead weight, she thought she saw something move in the woods. Something dark and about the size of a dog. A fox or coyote? She dropped the branch and looked around. A dense growth of trees and shrubs surrounded her. Frilly green ferns covered the forest floor to the knees. The only thing she heard was the wind roaring through the treetops.
Another grunt and Cassie had the tree limb pulled far enough off to the side for the car to pass. As she began walking back to the car, she stopped in her tracks. There were several animals—around three or four feet tall—running through the feathery ferns and hiding behind tree trunks. Cassie was terrified. Were they something more dangerous like wolves, bears, or wild dogs? Couldn't be. These specific animals stood more upright, almost hunched over, and were behaving as though they were toying with her.
But what really got her was when she heard a giggle, like that of a child. Followed by a growl, the kind from a hostile animal, meant as a warning to get the hell out of here. Cassie had no problem complying with the request. She ran to her car, slammed the door shut and locked it. When she went to turn on the car, it would not start. It was dead, not even a light would glow. She tried again with the same result.
Cassie's ring finger was burning. She pulled on the skull, but it was still stuck. Then there was a bang, and the car shook. Something had run into the side of the car. It had to be one of those animals. Then to her horror, she saw the little creatures pop their heads out from behind the tree trunks and above the ferns, like mischievous kids. But these were not children causing trouble, nor were they native animals, instead, they looked like—gargoyles. The things were dark gray, almost black, and she was sure she saw small horns on their heads. Even leathery flaps lay against their backs; was it possible they could open into wings? But what creeped her out the most were their faces—part human and part animal. She had to be hallucinating.
The car rocked again when another one of the creatures ran into it. They were taunting her, but why? Cassie tried to start the car again, but it would not come to life.
“I don't know what to do.” My cellphone, I'll call Derrick, she thought. No, I can't call Derrick. I'll call Nicole. No, I don't want her to come here and be trapped by those creatures with me. I'll call roadside assistance. Her hands trembled as she took her phone from the dash and found the number in contacts.
“Tamarack—service—how—you?” The agent's connection was going in and out.
Cassie had one bar of signal strength on her phone. “Hello, can you hear me? You were breaking up.”
The phone went silent before completely dying, just like the car. “Damn it.”
Cassie fiddled with the charging cord and pressed the power button, but there was no juice to call back road service, at least not until she could get the car started and the phone charging.
Now what? Cassie looked at the rearview mirror. It was possible someone could drive up behind her and when they did, she would flag them down.
She pushed strands of hair from her face; the car was getting stuffy and Cassie wanted to crack a window, but the car had no power. And besides, even if she could lower the glass, one of those creatures might try to get inside through the opening.
Cassie scratched the red skin around the ring that was making her finger itch while watching the critters dash around the vehicle. What are they? They could not be gargoyles, they had to be a mutated species of some local animal that had come into contact with nuclear waste or some such thing. But there were no toxic waste dumps in the area, at least as far as she knew.
Was it possible they were friendly? They don’t act friendly by the way they’re banging into the car. And they don’t look friendly, either, they look—evil. Their faces suggested that humans had interbred with some kind of hideous animal, like a deformed monkey or a dragon; absolutely terrifying. But is it at least possible they are afraid of me and will run away if I get out of the car? Lots of wild animals do that, Cassie reasoned as she watched one of them raise its head slowly up from a low-lying thorny shrub, then shake it as if saying, no I’m not scared of you. Can it read my mind or was it just a coincidence? Maybe the thing was shaking a bug off its head. It doesn’t matter because I don’t think they’re gonna shake my hand; I’m sure they would more likely rip me to shreds.
From Cassie’s memory of the navigation, she did not have much farther to go; a few miles, at most. If she did walk it, she would have to carry Gustave’s book, and once delivered to him she would have to walk all the way back to her car? But he has to have a car and could give her a ride back here and he should have a phone even though Nicole said it was a nonworking number. Unfortunately, it was possible he would not even be home when she got there because he had no idea she was even coming. Walking back to Coopersville was too great a distance. But as far as she could tell, it was too dangerous to leave the car, anyway.
Cassie tried the car and the cellphone again; they were still lifeless.
“The only thing I can do right now is wait for a car to come my way, I guess.” And wait she did, until she could take it no more. Mother nature was calling; she had not urinated since she left Black Water and the coffee she had earlier was not helping. Cassie looked for the creatures, she did not see them. Actually, she had not seen them in a while. Good, maybe they went away.
She opened the door an inch or so and listened. Tree boughs creaked as they rocked from the blowing wind. No grotesque heads poked up from the forest undergrowth or peaked around tree trunks. They must have had their fun and left.
“I can’t hold it any longer,” Cassie said, taking tissues from the center console. She pushed the door open a few more inches. So far it appeared safe.
Now she had to decide whether to go alongside the car so that she could get back inside fast if those things were to return, or in the woods so that when someone did stop to help they would not see a puddle of pee next to the car door.
Deciding that risking going into the woods outweighed embarrassing herself, she walked as quietly as she could behind the cover of a juniper bush. Once finding her spot she swiftly unzipped her pants, took the position, and began to pee, that is until she heard movement behind her. The stream stopped spattering on an old dry leaf so that she could hear better while she stayed squatted, not moving a muscle.
Another crack about twenty feet away made her turn her head slowly to the side, hoping she would not be noticed. There behind her was a whitetail deer. An innocent-looking coppery doe stared at her as it waved its tail, then bounded away through the dense vegetation as if something had startled it.
Cassie smiled as she turned back around and finished urinating. She was about to stand when she saw two of the creatures approach the driver’s door. They seemed to be communicating but she could not make out what they were saying, if they were saying anything. Since when can animals talk?
She should have held her urine or at least went beside the car. Now she was trapped outside her car and defenseless, not to mention, in a rather awkward position. She could feel her legs beginning to fall asleep as they lost circulation from being bent. She needed to move; she needed to stand.
Cassie could not take her eyes off the gargoyles. They had muscles like the beloved pit bull, Ham, that was once part of her family. She had no doubt these things were ferocious and violent. Their skin looked leathery; yet it seemed to be stretched over them from fingers, down the body, and then over what had to be wings, like that of a bat.
Then one of them let out a loud bird-like sound. But if the creatures were a cross between humans and bats, the sound was an echolocation bat call. This was surely the case because they both turned and looked in Cassie’s location.
Her heart pounded. Were they going to eat her? Before she could react, the creatures were rushing toward her, giving her no time to run away. She stood up and had no sooner pulled up her jeans when they both pounced on her knocking her onto her back. They smelled of putrid sweat as they easily subdued her. Cassie screamed as she struggled against their grip.
One turned her head from side to side while it sniffed her neck. Oh God, please don’t let these be vampire bats that pierce the skin with their teeth and then lap up the blood with their tongues.
“Let me go!” she yelled before making eye contact with the one inspecting the skull ring. It was human, or used to be human, she had no doubt.
With a deep scratchy voice, as if the mating between human and animal left the vocal cords damaged, it said in broken English to the other, “Stop.”
The other one raised its wet snout from Cassie’s neck. With the same creepy voice, it said, “Why? I am hungry for her blood.”
The first one raised Cassie’s hand for the other to see. “She wears the ring. That’s why.”
The other one snorted, then said, “Should we take her to him?”
“Quiet, you fool. You have said too much.”
With that, they released her and with clumsy haste, flew away.
Cassie felt the wind from their flapping wings rush over her as they flew away. What just happened? Did Jen at the coffee shop spike her drink? Was she having a psychological breakdown? This was not normal. Ever since that stupid ring got stuck on her finger, nothing has been normal. In fact, her life had fallen apart. If Gustave had not gone into the shop that day she would be engaged to Derrick and planning a wedding. Instead, she felt like she was going down a path of destruction. Destruction of her once-normal life.
She sat up and looked around. The creatures were gone. She tugged on the ring, no longer burning her finger. The only good thing about the ring was that it just saved her life, or so she thought. Once the gargoyles noticed it, they left, fortunately before sinking their teeth in her neck. And who was the him they had mentioned? With the way her luck was going it had to be a psycho killer. But wait, this is a dream, none of this is real. If that girl did put a drug into her coffee—first of all, that made no sense—but if she had, it would be wearing off soon. On the other hand, if she was suffering from a psychological event, she should check herself into the nearest mental health hospital. But if this was real—not possible—but if it was real, she would deliver the book to Gustave and then stop at a police station and report the events. But who would believe her?
Cassie stood up, zipping her pants and buckling her belt as she ran back to the safety of her car. She got inside as fast as she could and locked the doors. To her relief, the display of her phone glowed as it powered on. She pushed the ignition button and the car came to life. She wasted no time putting it in gear and driving quickly away, spinning the tires around the fallen branch and on the pavement. The books shifted on the seat, almost falling to the floor.
Cassie white-knuckled the steering wheel, hyper-focused on the road—and the roadside. She had no idea what had just happened, but she would soon be at Gustave’s and all would be well.
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