“I’m standing in the back yard now.” Aaron checked the bars on his cell phone; the signal was strong. “You have to fly out here tomorrow to see it yourself, right away, or it might get snatched up by somebody else.” He looked up at the Realtor®, who was smiling, nodding, and no doubt already mentally counting her commission. “Wait a minute and I’ll text you the link for the MLS webpage for the listing. I think I can do both at the same …”
Haley interrupted from a thousand miles away. “Or, you could just push the button to Face-Time the call and walk around and show me the place.” She laughed. “It’s good practice. After all, you are the new Vice President of Midwest Sales for Dorchester Enterprises. You’re supposed to know how to convince people to buy things.”
Aaron headed toward the sliding door between the walk-out basement and the curved, patterned concrete patio before Haley even finished her sentence. He crossed the big, grassy expanse immediately behind the large house with long strides, quickly out-distancing the distracted Realtor® surreptitiously checking her emails. “Okay, but you have to hold on for a minute for me to get back out front.” He slid the door open, quickly crossed the finished basement to the stairs and bounded up two, sometimes three, at a time. Youth and a six-foot four frame made stairs a breeze. “That way you can have the whole experience from the initial curb appeal from the front yard, then the huge great room as you enter the house, with big panel windows all across the back wall overlooking the yard and the woods behind and the marsh and pond off to the north.”
“Woods?” Haley squealed. “A marsh and a pond? Do we have access to them?”
“We’d better,” Aaron replied, still traversing through the house and out the front door. “We own ‘em. At least, we will own them once the deal closes.”
“Can we afford that?” asked Haley, her voice quieter, less enthusiastic.
“I dunno,” Aaron laughed. “But the bank thinks that a Vice President of Dorchester Enterprises can afford it, especially with interest rates this low, and that’s what counts. With the company picking up moving costs and my signing bonus covering the down payment, we sneak in just below our maximum budget.” He strode out the front door and jogged across the circular drive and the landscaped front yard. “Even better, the real estate gal says that the seller is motivated and we can lead-off with a lowball offer and hang tough in the negotiations.”
“Hmmm …” Haley temporized. “If it’s so wonderful, why would the sellers bargain? Why would they even sell?”
Aaron shrugged, then ticked off possible answers in his typical problem-solver work mode. “Divorce, death in the family, new job, elderly parents need care, ditching the crass commercial materialism of suburbia to live the simple life in Bora Bora … Who cares?” He reached the end of the driveway and posed, holding the phone out at arm’s length selfie-style, as he thumbed the button to turn on the phone’s camera. “People who would sell this place at this price must be idiots.”
“Oh, my god,” squealed Haley as Aaron pirouetted to show off the house, the landscaping, and the surrounding woods. “Idiots,” she said as he walked up the drive. “Idiots,” she repeated as he entered the foyer. “Idiots,” she murmured as he panned the great room and the five-star kitchen with polished quartz countertops. “Idiots,” she chanted again and again as he showed her the master bedroom, the master bath, the office, the spare bedrooms, the three-car garage, a laundry room the size of their first apartment, the fully-finished basement with bar and media room. Finally, Aaron walked out onto the patio, then skipped up the stairs to the enormous deck overlooking the patio along the entire back of the house. He held out the phone to show off a panoramic view of the yard and the woods beyond, water glinting off the cattails edging the pond on one side. “Idiots?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “Complete effing morons. Now hang up and start working on a contract. I’ve got a plane to catch.”
“Stop,” Haley said as Aaron pressed through the woods the first evening after the closing. “There are thorns on those bushes. And ticks, maybe. Why would you want to go through there?”
Aaron replied without slowing. “We said we were going to walk all the way around the pond. Besides, we own the property. Don’t you think we should walk to all four corners of it at least once to claim our domain?”
“Yeah,” she agreed with a marked lack of enthusiasm. “But not necessarily on the first day.” He watched as she looked to either side. “Let’s go back to the house. It’s already evening and the woods are a lot darker and thicker back here than they look from the deck. Let’s check out the survey markers on Saturday, when we can see where we’re going, maybe find a deer path.”
He hesitated, standing flatfooted for a moment. As he did, he noticed his high-top sneakers soaking up water as his feet slowly sank into the soft, boggy ground. He’d come this far and already gotten his shoes muddy. He wanted to press on, but …
He looked back and Haley waved him toward her. “Besides, I’ve got other plans for our first night in our new house.”
He made an about-face and headed to her embrace. The exploration of the pond and marsh could wait ’til Saturday.
Haley beamed at him as he approached. She reached down and flicked open a couple of buttons from her blouse.
Sunday. The exploration could wait ’til Sunday … afternoon … the week after next.
“What the hell is that?” exclaimed Haley as she emerged through a thicket of brambles ahead of Aaron.
“What the hell is what?” Aaron replied with a bit more of an edge to his voice than he intended. Taller and broader of shoulder than Haley, his trek through the prickly death-bushes was considerably more difficult. He carefully pulled away a stringer of wild blackberries clinging to his jeans with wicked thorns, then returned his right arm up to a crooked, hard-fisted, hands-up position to protect his face as he pushed through the last clump of vegetation to catch up with Haley.
Up and to his right an enclosed wooden platform looked over the cattails of the swamp and pond. “Huh,” he said. “It looks like a tree house. The people who lived here before must have had kids.”
Haley looked over her shoulder at him, wrinkling her brow and frowning. “That’s not a tree-house.” She gestured at the two-by-four and plywood construct as she continued on. “First off, it’s not in a tree. It’s merely off the ground because it’s built on stilts. Second, it’s isolated and hard to get to. Third, no one builds a tree house without at least a window on each side.” She stepped forward gingerly, the soaked earth squishing as she moved closer to the reeds at the edge of their backyard wetlands. “There’s a horizontal opening facing the swamp, but other than that, it’s enclosed. Look,” she pointed at the far corner of the bottom of the platform. “It looks like you get in through a trap door in the bottom of the platform.”
Aaron shrugged. “Maybe the kids just wanted an enclosed treehouse and their dad made them something with a little more structural stability than a platform perched in the crook of a tree.”
Haley shook her head at him. “Sure, ’cause little kids like to crawl through brambles so they can sit in the dark and be eaten by mosquitoes.” She scrunched up her nose. “Maybe they had older kids who wanted someplace private to smoke weed. The haze might keep the bugs away.”
“Maybe,” Aaron replied. “The only way to know is to take a look inside and see if it’s got roach clips and reefer butts on the floor instead of … I dunno … Legos and action figures.” He scanned the ground nearby.
“Look, there’s a makeshift ladder laying over there on the ground, peeking out from that pile of leaves. I’ll set it up so you can take a look.”
Haley made a derisive snorting sound, not her most endearing means of communication. “I’m not sticking my head up in there. Who knows what might be in there?”
“Not the kind of place that possums or … rabid skunks … or most other critters would like,” Aaron responded. “They like underground nests.”
“Rabid skunks. I hadn’t even thought about rabid skunks. And making me think about rabid skunks is not really the best way to convince me I should be the one to look inside.”
“Well, if you’re not worried about critters, why won’t you take a look?”
“Don’t you see?” She lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper. “There could be someone living in there. You know, a vagrant or an escaped mental patient or a criminal hiding out from the cops.”
He laughed, then spoke louder than he needed to, just to goad her. “Why are you whispering? You think someone could be living in there? It’s our property, our hide-out.” He turned his head and shouted toward the enclosed platform. “Hellooooo … Any psycho serial killers in there?” Without even pausing to give time for a reply, he turned back to her. “Why would anyone live there? It’s uncomfortable, hard to get to, and isolated. If I was homeless, I’d want a place that was warm and closer to food sources … like a sheltered fire escape in an alley near some dumpsters.”
She glared at him, but said nothing.
“Better place to dump a body than to live,” he continued, scratching at a bug bite on his upper lip while he talked. “Remote. Enclosed. No need to dig a grave. Smells of the swamp would mask the odor of decomposition. If I was a psycho serial killer, I wouldn’t live there; I’d dump my victims’ bodies in there.” He looked back at the mysterious, enclosed shack, gauging its dimensions. “If you stacked the stiffs like cord wood, you could fit maybe eight or twelve …”
Haley brushed past him, ducking her lithe body into the interstices between overarching bramble stringers as she headed back toward the house, making an audible huffing sound that he somehow knew wasn’t from exertion.
He was left alone, watching her back disappear in the overgrowth of the woods. “What did I say?” he shouted, but she never even slowed.
He tried to talk to her about it when he caught up to her back at the house. She refused, other than to say “Thank you very much for making me afraid of my own back yard.” After that, Aaron decided it was better to let the matter drop. He would have never brought it up again, but then one of his college buddies posted a picture on Facebook about one of his hunting trips and he just had to show her.
“See?” he said, as he air-slid his Android tablet between Haley’s face and her gardening magazine as she sat on the couch. “Looks familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a deer blind. People build them and then, come hunting season, they sit in ’em where they can’t be seen by the deer, and keep an eye out for a buck and, then, you know, shoot it.”
“Great,” she snarled. “We’ve got a deer murdering station in our back yard. How nice to know drunken yahoos have hunted Bambi in the same yard our children will one day play in.”
He remembered a line from a television show they watched. “Nobody shoots Bambi …”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she said, fluttering her left hand dismissively as she pushed away his tablet with her right. “They shoot Bambi’s mother.”
He thumbed off the tablet. “Well, actually, they probably would prefer to shoot Bambi’s father. You know, trophy-hunting for a twelve point buck to show off.”
She got up and headed for the kitchen. “Yessirree. Guys always crave a trophy with a big rack to show off …”
Yeah. He shouldn’t have brought it up again.
Aaron decided to let the subject just lie there undisturbed like, for all he knew, the rotting corpses which could be stacked in the deer blind, moldering away. After all, he’d never looked in the shack. He’d been too busy trying to catch up with Haley the day they discovered the place, and, frankly, too creeped out to go take a look solo. He thought about trekking out there some day when she was out of the house, but never did. What if he fell or got hurt when he broke through a piece of rotting lumber and the rough edge punched a hole in his femoral artery, so he bled out within minutes? How long would it be before they found his body?
No, he couldn’t do that to Haley.
He let the subject drop, though he played with the notion of calling 1-800-Got-Junk come August, when the ground was drier, and asking them to tear down the blind and haul the lumber away before the fall hunting season. You know, as a surprise for Haley.
Unfortunately, the screams began on Midsummer’s Eve.
He woke disoriented, but on sudden, adrenaline-fueled alert. He wasn’t even sure what had woken him from his sleep; he just knew something was wrong. He turned toward the side of the bed Haley slept on and found her sitting bolt upright, her breathing rapid and shallow.
“Did you hear that?” she mouthed as she exhaled, the sound too breathy to even be called a whisper.
“Hear what?” he breathed back. “Did you hear someone in the house?” He turned away from her for a moment to grab his cell phone off the end table. “Here,” he said, pressing it into her hand. “Be ready to dial 9-1-1. I’ll go take a look and make sure all the doors are still closed and locked.”
She shook her head exaggeratedly, as if to make sure he could see, even though she was backlit by moonlight coming in the sliding door from the master bedroom balcony. “It wasn’t inside the house. There was a scream in the woods.”
“Yes,” she hissed. “A scream. A girl screamed in the woods.”
Aaron frowned. Such things didn’t really happen. Not in the suburbs. They happened in slasher flicks and rat-infested, urban alleyways, not on estate sized lots frequented by ducks, deer, and bushy-tailed squirrels. He was about to argue with her, tell her she must have had a nightmare, that it was all in her imagination, when his unspoken rationalizations were drowned out by a long, loud, high-pitched wail from the woods.
No words, just a childlike shriek that began with sudden intensity, continued for at least two terrifying seconds, then was cut-off with a strangling, chortling sound before it could fade into nothingness.
“There!” exclaimed Haley, her eyes wide, her hands trembling as she held the sheet up to her chin.
He instinctively looked at the time, as if telling the cops the exact moment of death after a hideous murder would be any help, but at the same time he was already discounting what he heard. “It’s just an animal,” he said, doing his best to sound calm and reassuring.
Haley snorted. “What kind of animal screams like a little girl?”
Aaron’s mind raced, like he was playing a baby’s pick-a-picture-and-pull-the-cord toy that generated farm animal sounds. Cows moo—not relevant. Coyotes yelp, possums hiss, feral cats howl, ducks squawk and quack. Chipmunks … what? … chip? Squirrels die mute little deaths, their cheeks too full of nuts for the winter to be able to articulate pain or their lungs too flat from passing cars for one last chatter.
“Rabbits!” he blurted out in sudden revelation.
“Rabbits don’t make any noise at all,” Haley whispered back at him.
“Not usually,” Aaron agreed, “but when they are killed, they make a noise like a screaming little girl.”
Haley scrunched up her face and squinted at him.
“Swear to God,” he said. “Saw it on the Discovery Channel. Nothing to worry about.”
“Oh,” replied Haley, “it’s so reassuring to know someone is killing rabbits in our back yard. Just out for jollies, you suppose, or is it an organized satanic ritual?”
“Coyotes, probably,” he replied. “We heard the pack howling just after the ten o’clock news ended.”
“So, you’re not going to do anything. You’re just going to go back to sleep?”
“There’s nothing to do,” he complained. “If it’s coyotes, I’d rather not go crashing through brambles in the dark in order to interrupt a pack of snarling canines while they’re chowing down.”
There was a long pause before Haley said anything. Finally, “And if it isn’t?”
Aaron punched his pillow a few times and lay back down before he responded. “And, if it isn’t, then I’d rather stay behind locked doors with a cell phone in my hand, than go interrupt some psycho killer in the midst of a satanic bloodbath.” He faced away from her as he pulled the sheet up. “Sorry, hon. I signed up to protect you, not random strangers in the night. If bad things are happening, you’re better protected by me staying here and watching over you.”
Haley snorted again. “My hero …” she sneered as she lay back down.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. The next day Haley insisted he go look at the shack back by the marsh. She came along, cell phone in hand, her thumb hovering over the speed dial for 9-1-1. Aaron did his best to be joking and nonchalant about the whole business, while at the same time managing to bring a flashlight big enough he could use it as a club if there was a scuffle in the close confines of the deer blind.
He retrieved the makeshift ladder from beneath the shack—not as leaf-covered as he recalled—and leaned it upright against the northeast corner post. He climbed up the ladder in a bent-over position so that when he threw open the trap door with unnecessary force he could immediately straighten up, putting half his torso into the confines of the blind in one swift motion. He followed that theatrical move by waving the heavy flashlight to and fro to see if there was … well … half a torso or something else shocking and sinister inside.
He stepped all the way up and into the blind, checking for clues or God knows what. But there were no dead bodies, no sigils or Enochian runes, no pentagrams, roach clips, marijuana butts, empty bottles of cheap booze, matchbooks from sleazy strip clubs, or, thank God, used condoms. He looked out the horizontal opening facing toward the marsh and pond, but it didn’t seem like the overlook was focused on anything in particular; just water, reeds, mud, and rotting vegetation. It was fine for him, but seemed a bit high to be at a comfortable position for a waiting hunter of more average height. He didn’t know for sure; he didn’t sit around in sheds waiting to kill things. When he was looking down through the opening, he noticed the dirt and dust along the top edge of the two-by-four edging the bottom of the window had been disturbed recently.
Had he done that? Had he touched the bottom sill of the opening when he’d been looking around? He couldn’t remember.
Finally, he climbed back down, took the ladder and leaned it horizontally against two of the support posts, lining the third rung up dead even with the northeast post. That way, the next time he came by, he’d know for sure if it had been moved.
He sauntered back toward Haley.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just a deer blind. There’s nothing inside.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” she said, her voice calm, but insistent.
“Let me ask you this,” she said, her eyes darting around the location, rather than focusing on him. “When you’re up there and looking out, can you see anything but the pond and the marsh?”
He thought for a second. “No.”
“So why would deer hunters want to watch the pond and the marsh? Why wouldn’t they want to look over a patch of the woods … or a clearing … or a meadow? Why would deer be wading through the water and trudging through the muck and the mud of the marsh? You can see a corner of the marsh from the deck. Have you ever seen deer there?”
She answered her own question before he even had a chance. “No, you haven’t. In the yard, sure. In the woods, in the garden, on the driveway, on the damn road at dusk so you have to brake hard not to hit them. But never in the marsh. Not one single time.”
She had a point, but he didn’t want to scare her by admitting it. He scrunched up his nose for a second, gave her an exaggerated shrug, and started to walk back toward the brambles and the house as he began talking. “Maybe the marsh dries out in the fall, when hunting season starts. Maybe the deer come to the pond to drink. Maybe the doofus who build the deer blind doesn’t know jack squat more about deer hunting than we do.” He ducked as he entered the bramble bushes. “Let’s not let our imaginations get carried away. It’s just a badly constructed, badly positioned deer blind built by someone probably more interested in drinking beer with his buddies than actually living off the land.” He swore as a barbed stringer whapped him in the face. “What else could it possibly be? Just forget about it.”
The problem was, he couldn’t do what he told Haley to do. He couldn’t forget about it. Especially when they heard the screams again … and then again. Each time the sound was the same, but different—the pitch varied as if each scream was a different voice … a different victim. He didn’t tell Haley, but he kept track of the dates and times, looking for a pattern. Always, always between two and two-thirty in the morning. Coyotes weren’t that regular in their hunting. Just enough days apart that he’d begin to relax, to think it was over, but then it would occur again. The first interval was thirteen days, which struck him as ominous, but then the next three were fifteen, fourteen, and fourteen days later, respectively, and his worry turned to confusion. Then, as he was entering the next date into his cell phone, he noticed the correlation. Each occurrence was on the date of a new moon or full moon. Suddenly the timing was beyond ominous, it was downright freakin’ scary.
He found an excuse to encourage Haley to go on an overnight trip with a girlfriend the night of the next new moon.
After she’d left, he started making preparations for the night’s activity. He was going to find out what was going on, one way or another. He Ramboed up, grabbing his club-like flashlight, some nylon rope, his wife’s birding binoculars, a rain poncho, and some road flares, along with a handful of granola bars. He dressed in heavy cargo pants with plenty of pockets, a long-sleeved pullover shirt, and a camouflaged travel vest which he usually used for stashing camera gear and snacks for hikes in the state park. He pre-set his camera for dim light conditions. He strapped on a hunting knife that had been handed down from his grandfather, pocketed a Swiss Army knife he’d gotten as a groomsmen’s gift from a college buddy, sprayed his socks with bug repellant before donning his boots, then sprayed his exposed skin and clothing with yet more of the deep woods variety.
Most importantly, he wrote a note to Haley and left it prominently displayed flat in the center of the clean, otherwise empty, polished quartz kitchen countertop:
If you see this note, it means that I am in the woods near the deer blind and that something terrible has happened. Don’t … I repeat … DON’T come looking for me. Get out of the house. Get in your car and drive away. Once you are someplace safe, call fire and rescue and send them to look for me.
I love you.
You were right. That wasn’t a rabbit and this isn’t a deer blind.
He heard the patter of scattered raindrops on the skylights. Visibility would be crap and he might as well don his poncho even before he walked out the kitchen door to the deck. That was okay. He was prepared to spend the entire night in the woods, perched in the crook of a tree, waiting to see who screamed in the middle of the marsh … and who was there to watch.
He’d been silly to think anyone would stack bodies like cord wood in the mysterious shack in the wetlands. Even if the smell went unnoticed, corpses would be sure to draw flies and other bugs, and leak fluids through the cracks in the wooden floor of the ramshackle structure. But no one knew how deep the pond was, how silted soft the mud was, how effective the snapping turtles and minnows, snakes, and other slimy critters were at disposing of flesh sunk beneath the surface, moldering in the bottom muck.
But, tonight he would watch. By morning, he would know.
A gust of wind splattered rain in Aaron’s face as he opened the door to go into the night. He pressed forward, already thinking about the best place to perch, the best position to get into and hold, unmoving, where he could see everything, but remain unseen … the best possible blind spot.
The Best Buy deliveryman scratched at his cheek. “If you don’t mind me asking, Ma’am. Why’d you get a brand new refrigerator? This one can’t be more than a few years old. Probably still on warranty.”
“It’s more energy-efficient if the freezer is at the bottom, rather than the top. Cold air sinks, you know. Besides, the house was a real steal, so we’ve got a bit leftover to fix things just the way we like ’em.”
The deliveryman slipped a belt around the old refrigerator and leaned back as he slid it out from the wall. “Motivated seller?”
“You’ve got it. Our real estate agent said the husband of the couple who lived here before just walked out on his wife one night. No note, no confrontation. Just up and left. Who does that kind of thing?” She sipped at some tea as the deliveryman slid the unit out and to the side. “Ugh. There’s always crap under the refrigerator. You’d think people would clean better.”
The deliveryman chuckled. “This is nothing. A bit of dust, a piece of paper that fell and slid underneath.” He grabbed the face-down sheet of paper on the floor and crumpled it up, then tossed it into the box of discarded packing materials for the new refrigerator. “I’ve packed out refrigerators that have lost power with food still in ’em. The meat rots, fluids leak out. Rancid, disgusting stuff.” He whisked out a hand brush and swept up the dust and crumbs on the floor. “Nosirree, nothing unpleasant about this place. No worries at all.” He sniffed the air for a moment. “Just a little stale air.”
“Oh, that’s just the marsh out back.” The woman smiled at him. “Wetlands are like that. Something’s always rotting in a swamp. But I’m a nature lover. Doesn’t bother me at all.”Recommended2 Simily SnapsPublished in