Sara frowned. Gene pointed at the screen as if that made his argument solider. Shaking her head Sara examined the image more closely.
"Okay," she said, "So some teenagers went out there to fuck with us, but they chickened out. No big deal. I'm going back to bed."
She started towards the door.
Gene said, "Why are you so determined to make this nothing?"
Exasperated, "Because it is nothing. Look they knew who we were at the diner without us saying anything, and I've been in this situation before. For whatever reason some jackass is willing to do ridiculous shit to make the local legend seem real. Now I'm back to bed."
She sighed, shuffled towards the door. Gene opened his mouth to contradict her, but didn't know what to say. The door closed cutting off any chance for further debate.
Sara climbed into bed. She closed her eyes, but sleep wouldn't come. Her blood ran too hot. This kind of thing happened too often. For all three of her books she'd hired different photographers, and each time the shutterbugs kept finding photographic proof there'd actually been ghosts, or a demon, or fuck-all. She resolved to learn how to handle a camera before her next project. That would put an end to all this bullshit. But that wasn't the only thing irritating her.
Her thoughts drifted back to her first book, an examination of the Hope family massacre. Richard Hope killed his whole family, mother, father, and three siblings, one Autumn night in 1970. Nobody knew exactly what day because Richard lived with the corpses for several weeks until a truant officer came looking for the youngest daughter. The disappearance of the truant officer brought the police to the Hope mansion where they discovered the grim spectacle: the Hope family hanging from the ceilings, strung up like macabre marionettes. Folklore held that Richard was actually possessed by a demon of some sort, a belief Sara outright doubted, and her book reflected her opinion that Richard simply suffered from some kind of mental derangement. As a child he routinely got caught torturing and killing small animals. Sara even found people who stated Richard Hope tortured them as children, cutting them and breaking their fingers for no apparent reason.
At a local bar Sara made the mistake of expressing her belief Richard was simply a serial killer, what he did to the bodies no less unusual than what killers like Ed Gein did to their victims. That night several locals dressed in cheap Halloween costumes attacked her. Claiming to be Satanists devoted to the demon controlling Richard, they beat Sara, smashed her laptop, and spray painted a pentagram on her stomach after tearing her shirt off. She managed to get a hand free then started throat punching until she broke away and ran. When she reported the incident to the police the cops rolled their eyes as if to say not this again, and immediately rounded up all five of her attackers. Proud of what they'd done they confessed to everything, one going so far as to say, "Fuck that know-it-all bitch."
Sara turned on the lamp next to her bed. She went to her suitcase. She pulled out a Glock 9mm. She loaded the pistol, put it in her backpack, and went back to bed where she soon fell asleep.
Gene yawned. Sara grabbed a thermos full of coffee. She poured him a cup.
Taking the steaming cup, "Thanks. I didn't get much sleep."
"I hope you didn't obsess over that picture too long." Sara made a few notes on her phone, keeping track of the landscape. The way the trees grew intrigued her. Sometimes branches stretched out intertwining with one another creating veritable walkways for several feet.
Gene glanced at the GPS, "Not really. I thought about what you said, and you're probably right. I mean, you are right, but I couldn't stop thinking about like, "Is somebody gonna fuck with us today?' You know what I mean?"
Nodding, "All too well, but don't worry. We asked around town about the cliffs, so people knew we were headed there. Nobody knows where we're going today, and I haven't seen any other cars the whole drive."
"Sounds good to me," Gene slowed down. He steered off the highway onto a dirt road cutting into the Maigre Woods. Branches scraped the sides of the rental car. He drove until the road ended. The two got out, checked their gear then headed off on foot.
The hike to the Dobbs cabin took about a half hour. Tall grass filled the clearing all around the cabin. The roof appeared to have collapsed several decades back. Yet, the place appeared to be untouched. Sarah expected the cabin to be covered in graffiti, windows broken, and other signs that teenagers at least frequented the area. However, it seemed no one visited the place. In a few more years the forest would grow enough to begin devouring the cabin.
Gene went to work right away. He snapped photos of the exterior from every side before aiming through the window. After that he hesitantly went inside, while Sarah took notes, jotting down her impression of the place: "an inescapable eeriness surrounds the remains of the Dobbs cabin, yet beneath it is a sense of melancholy. This might've been a picturesque spot, a place for happy memories, but the facts haunting it only offer nightmares." Inside, Gene fired off a quick series of photos, professional but rushed. He spent as little time as possible in the cabin. The place made his skin crawl, and though not really superstitious he half expected to see ghosts in the flash from his camera.
Hurrying back out he said, "I couldn't get upstairs. The steps have rotted away."
"Too bad," Sarah remarked, "Oh well. Make sure to get the shed then it's on to the next stop."
She consulted her map. She wanted to see the spot where locals found Maggie Greer and her five children. The Greers went missing in May 1960, and three years later were found frozen to death in the woods. Of all the disappearances and bizarre deaths Sarah found this one the most interesting because so few details existed. Even the report she managed to get her hands on contained little more than the location of the bodies alongside cause of death. It almost felt like local police went out of their way to leave facts out.
Trekking to the spot took twenty minutes. Sarah started to wonder if perhaps Maggie Greer took her children to the Dobbs cabin. Though if that were the case why no one found them for three years remained perplexing. Still, there was nowhere else in the woods the family could've gone. The only alternative would be that they lived in the woods like wild primitives.
"This is it," Sarah announced.
"Are you sure?" Gene glanced around. This part of the woods looked like every other.
Sarah nodded, "I recognize it from photos."
She reached into her backpack. After rummaging for a second, she pulled out a print of the scene. Holding it up she angled the black and white photo matching the landscape with the picture. The crooked birch, the boulder, the only thing missing were five frozen corpses.
While Gene went to work, Sarah walked around the area. Near the birch where Maggie was found something caught her eye. She squatted down, brushed a few leaves aside, and picked up an odd wooden doll. The crude figure resembled a person, but there were no details other than the shape. Curious, Sarah glanced around and found another then another. She soon realized that strewn everywhere were dozens and dozens of these small effigies. Some appeared to have been there for years, while some seemed to be quite new.
"Look at this," she held one up for Gene. He examined the figurine briefly.
His face screwed up in confusion, "What's that?"
Sarah shrugged, "I don't know, but they're everywhere."
Looking at the ground, "No shit," Gene immediately started taking pictures of the forest floor, making sure to capture the wooden dolls.
Collecting several of the dolls Sarah put them in her backpack. A branch snapping. Gene jumped at the sound.
"What was that?"
Sarah said, "A branch. Some animal probably..."
Another branch snapped, cutting her off. She looked around. Another branch snapped. Gene started to sweat. Another branch snapped. Several feet away Sarah saw a figure step from behind a tree. Another branch snapped. The lean figure stood completely naked covered in some kind of white paint. Gene took a photo, his uneasy mind focusing on instinct to keep calm. Another branch snapped. Another figure emerged from behind a tree. Sarah reached into her backpack and pulled out her Glock. Three more white skeletal people stepped into view. Glancing around Sarah saw several more in all directions. Branches continued snapping.
"We're surrounded," Sarah said. Before Gene could say anything she added, "Don't worry. We'll be okay."
He believed her, though he couldn't be sure if his faith was in her or the gun. Slowly, Gene put the camera away. When, not if, they needed to run he wanted to be unencumbered.
Pointing the gun in the air Sarah fired. The white figures charged forward. Sarah took aim. She didn't want to, but she still fired. The bullet hit one in the chest knocking him down. The others ran on as if nothing had happened.
Grabbing her shoulder Gene shouted, "Run."
They bolted towards the largest gap in the closing circle. Sarah did her best to keep shooting as they ran. They could hear their attackers chasing them, getting closer and closer, bone necklaces jangling.
Gene tried to jump over a fall tree. He didn't jump high enough. His shin struck trunk, and he spilled over the side landing face flat. Sarah clambered over. She went to help him up. As she reached for him a white shape flew over the tree tackling her to the ground.
Stunned, Sarah looked up into a face covered in scars, the skin shredded leaving the faintest semblance of human. The lanky frame on top of her pressed her down with one hand while it bellowed, a guttural roar of triumph entirely animal. Its free hand smashed into the side of her head plunging her into darkness.
PART 5: BLOOD AND BONE