Before our story, an old fireside tale:
In a dark, dark wood, there was a dark, dark house.
And in that dark, dark house, there was a dark, dark room.
And in that dark, dark room, there was a dark, dark cupboard.
And in that dark, dark cupboard there was a dark, dark shelf.
And on that dark, dark shelf, there was a dark, dark box.
And in that dark, dark box, there was –
Chris and I dragged the girls up to Lake Winnipesaukee over Columbus day weekend. I’d booked a quaint VRBO online but when we drove up to the small home Chris refused to step inside. He insisted it looked like a good place to get strangled. I’m telling you, he doesn’t do creepy. We didn’t stay there – of course, we paid for it, we just ghosted.
Instead we found a room at the two-hundred year old Wolfeboro Inn, which I thought was fantastic. Chris didn’t sleep. Nothing in particular happened, he just convinced himself that the place was haunted. Our second night in town we stayed at a sort of condo community right on the lake. It being October and “off season” the vacation town was quiet. That night I took a turn not sleeping. I was certain no one would hear us scream when the undead backwoodsmen broke in and dragged us down to the lake.
I know, we’re quite the adventurous travelers. Despite the accommodations kerfuffle we loved the lake and had been looking forward to visiting again next summer. We were even big talking about how great it would be to buy our own lake house.
That is, until I spoke with Jane. The week after we returned I mentioned our trip as I was restocking shelves in the food pantry. As it turned out, Jane had a whopper of a story about the lake. It was so disturbing, in fact, that there is no chance in hell I’ll ever go back there. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever step foot in New Hampshire again.
Though we’ve worked together almost every Monday at the food pantry for the past three years I haven’t spent much time with Jane outside of our volunteering. So I invited her over to the house for tea to tell me her story.
“Oh, wow,” Jane breathed as she entered my kitchen.
I’m so used to my house that I tend to forget it is a lot to take in upon first glance. Our last house was all grey. Grey walls, grey pillows, grey furniture grey blankets, grey everything. It was nice and all, but with this new home, a little yellow Cape Cod, I couldn’t bring myself to grey everything out again. And so the pendulum swung real hard in the other direction. The house is a hodge podge of color. The walls in my kitchen and dining room are covered in lime green leopard print wallpaper (there’s oversized navy blue zebra print wallpaper in the powder room) and the butcher block countertops in the kitchen don’t match, I liked both stains so I did one on the island and another on the counters. The mud room ceiling is painted a bright pink called Strawberry Shortcake. My office is lined in a colorful floral wallpaper that I’ve nicknamed, “Oh, Nana.” There is a cozy emerald green wingback chair with a matching footstool in the living room. There are pink garden stools and blue and white Oriental vases and lamps and cheetah print carpeting. Kids art and toys everywhere and so are Walter and Artie (the dogs). I admit it, it’s a lot.
In addition to the kaleidoscope that sort of smacks you over the head, the art in my dining room is, at first glance at least, unsettling. It’s a painting of a woman from the neck down in a blue and white striped 1950s house dress and sparkly high heels. Her bejeweled arm hangs at her side casually grasping an axe. The artist, Kelly Reemsten, created a whole line of paintings of women in gorgeous dresses holding different household tools or climbing step ladders, doing traditionally masculine activities as they glow with femininity. They’re really quite beautiful. This one with the axe just spoke to me.
“Too much?” I asked Jane.
“No, no,” she insisted. “Let me just get my bearings.”
I gave her the short tour of the first floor and explained the renovations we’d had done since moving in a year and a half prior.
“So that’s the Clubhouse up there?” She asked when we wandered back into the kitchen.
I nodded and filled mugs with hot water from the Poland Spring bubbler.
“Can I take a peek?”
She climbed about halfway up the ladder. “I don’t get it,” she called down to me. “How in the hell did someone get up there without you noticing?”
“Chris thinks it must have happened during that little block party, which is just about the creepiest explanation because that means we know the person who put it there.”
Jane hopped down and accepted a mug from me. “Have you set up cameras?”
I shook my head.
“You’d better. Even if just one outside the front and back doors. You have an alarm system, right? Just call ADT and ask them to set up a couple motion triggered cameras.”
She had a point. “That’s not a bad idea. I know I should do it, but actually catching someone really freaks me out.”
“Do you think it was, like a paranormal phenomena?”
I smiled. “No. Ghosts don’t use paint and duct tape.”
“Scary,” Jane said, staring up at the space.
“Come on, let’s sit in the living room,” I suggested. “I’m dying to hear your ghost story.”
We sat in deep navy blue chairs angled to face one another. In-between which was a window overlooking our tiny back yard. I flipped the switch on my digital recorder and placed it on the green lacquer tray atop the large circular wicker table in front of us.
“Cozy room,” Jane commented.
“Thanks,”I replied. “So… what happened at the lake?”
She took a small sip of her tea and then placed the mug on the tray to cool. “You know, I’ve wanted to tell someone about this for a long time, but Paul felt it was safer to keep it a secret. But after reading your blog…” She trailed off.
“It’s crazy how many people have stories,” I offered.
“The cabin has always been there, a bad memory right in the back of my mind and when you mentioned you’d brought your family to the lake it all came back to me,” she shivered. “Listen, you can’t ever go there again, alright? To the lake, I mean. It isn’t safe.”
“What the hell happened?” I asked nervously.
“We inherited a house from my great uncle Frank. I barely knew the man. I was probably, I don’t know maybe four or five years old the last time I saw him. He had some sort of a falling out with my mother. She never told me what it was about, but they stopped speaking at some point and then he fell out of our lives. Until his lawyer called to tell me that I was the sole beneficiary of his will.
“I was only twenty-five years old. Paul and I had just gotten married and then about a month later I found out that a forgotten uncle left me a really nice little sum of money. It was like something out of a fairy tale. And then there was the house,” Jane leaned forward to retrieve her tea cup. She quietly held it in her hands for a moment before taking a small sip. “I don’t know if it is just hindsight, but I knew that house was trouble the second I found out it would be mine. The money was thrilling, of course, but the house? ‘You will take possession the property on Winnipesaukee and everything residing upon it,’ the lawyer told me as though I’d better not argue the point.
“I’d never been up to the lake. Paul had though, his family had spent a week there on summer vacation when he was ten and he remembered it fondly.
“We picked up my check and the keys to the cabin at the lawyer’s office in Boston. At the time we were living in the Back Bay, you know before it was a good idea to live in the Back Bay. You wouldn’t believe the rats,” she shivered again. “The idea of a cozy cabin on the lake was an impossible luxury. Something for real adults, not us.
“And so, we drove up north and I felt, I don’t know, I think I was overwhelmed with the possibility of it all. But Paul was so excited. He kept saying, ‘Can you believe it? Our own vacation house?’ He began to jokingly call me Buffy and refer to himself as Chaz. The ride up was beautiful, late October and perfect for leaf-peeping. The house was in a town called Wolfeboro.”
“That’s where we stayed!” I said, excitedly.
“You were at the Inn, right?”
“It’s safe enough there, I suppose with all the people around. But it chills me to think that you were there with your children,” Jane said darkly. “You didn’t go into the woods at all did you?”
Guiltily I admitted that we had taken a few steps down a trail but turned back when we realized the girls weren’t into it.
“Thank God for that. Those dark woods,” she looked down at her cup. “You know what? I actually dreamed of those woods last week, it would have been right before you were to go up to the lake. It likes to remind me that it’s there. Wouldn’t it have just loved for you to stay at that cabin,” she said more to herself than to me.
“What would have loved us to stay?” I asked, spooked.
Jane gathered herself, and ignoring my question, she continued, “It took us a few shots before we found the narrow dirt road that was a sort of driveway to the cabin and by the time we did it was dark out. The entrance was overgrown and there was no mailbox to mark the address, we only had the lawyer’s terse directions to go by.
“The driveway was about half a mile long, and the woods to either side had almost completely overtaken it. I wish I could describe to you just how dark it was. Trees closed in overhead and there was no room between our tiny Volkswagon and the forest to either side, branches and brambles scraped along the car. Halfway down the road I desperately wanted to turn around but that would have been impossible. We didn’t even know if we were on the right path, we just had to keep moving forward hoping the path would end. Finally, we emerged from the woods and there was the lake, black and huge right in front of us. The day had been cloudy so there was no moonlight or stars to offer any illumination. The driveway curved and then the high beams lit on the house.”
Jane looked out the window at my little fenced in back yard and the little red house directly beyond that with it’s own little fenced in yard. She said, “It’s good to have neighbors so close. Seclusion is dangerous. The cabin was secluded. The second I saw that house, sitting alone in those awful woods, I knew. I knew in my heart that the place was bad. Paul did too, but he made a joke about Freddy Krueger and I forced a laugh and pushed aside my fear.
“There wasn’t anything particularly strange about the house. It was a small one-story cabin that faced the lake. It had been painted dark brown, which just added to the gloom, though there was a row of small rectangular windows set high up along the back wall that let a modest amount of light inside during the day.
“We got out of the car and I actually felt unsafe. I said so. It was as though we were being watched. Paul said we were city slickers and would have to get used to the quiet. He grabbed a couple things from the trunk and we approached the house. The key that the lawyer had given me didn’t work, someone had poured liquid cement in the keyhole. It didn’t matter, the door swung open with a little push.
“Inside the house,” Jane paused, considering, “it was dark. Even after turning on every lamp, the place was cold and dark. The walls were painted what must have once been a robin’s egg blue but it had dulled over time to a dingy blue grey. From what I understood, my great uncle hadn’t used the cabin very much in his final years and the lawyer had suggested we hire a cleaning service to open the house for us before we arrived. We took his advice, so the cabin was clean, though quite worn, dingy even.
“A small kitchen lined the front wall of the house, with low cabinets beneath crank windows overlooking a porch and the lake, though we didn’t see the view until morning. There was a kitchen table, a couch and some worn out chairs in that main living area. On the left side of the house were the cabin’s only other rooms, the bathroom to the back of the house and the bedroom to the front. The bedroom had those awful crank windows too. I can’t see those today without thinking of that terrible place.
“A porch extended the length of the house out front with steps leading to a sparse lawn and the narrow beach beyond. We only stepped out there for a minute that first night. Neither of us wanted to be outside for long, inside the cabin wasn’t much more welcoming but at least there was light.
“Paul went out to grab the rest of our things from the car and I stood in the doorway watching him. I swear it was as though the woods had closed in around us as we were inside the house. I never went into those woods, the whole time we were there. I had to dump some branches and debris from gardening in the woods several times, but I never went further than a few feet back, it was just too…”
“Dark?” I guessed.
Jane smiled though her eyes were worried. “This is harder to talk about than I thought it would be. I’d thought I’d pushed these memories down, but talking about the cabin is bringing it all back.
“I really wanted to love the place and I tried at first. We spent a month of weekends there, but every time we went up things got worse. That first night though, something woke me up at three o’clock in the morning. It was a noise, a soft creaking from out in the living room but I couldn’t place it. I stayed in bed, listening, too afraid to investigate. Somehow I fell asleep and in the morning, Paul was up before me and when I met him at the kitchen table he said, ‘We really shouldn’t leave these windows open at night, who knows what critters could crawl in.’
“I hadn’t opened those windows. In fact I had made darn sure they were closed tight before we went to bed. That had been the noise I’d heard, the little cranks turning as the windows opened.”
“Oh, Jane,” I breathed. “Uh uh.”
“We did everything we could to keep those windows shut. There were four of them and they opened at random. Never during the daytime, only in the middle of the night. We’d wake up to the soft creaking noise and just know.
“We tried to enjoy ourselves at the lake and we made the best of it during the daytime. We didn’t discuss how unsettling the place was at night. I think we both felt that if we acknowledged it, then it would make it real and we’d have to do something about it.
“So we set to work on the yard. It was late fall and we wanted to do as much work on the exterior of the house as we could until the cold chased us indoors. We made plans to paint and brighten up the interior that winter, but that never came to be. My first job was to dig out a garden bed beneath the front of the porch while Paul cleared leaves and debris from the small yard and beach.
“That first morning I was digging up the garden, turning the soil when I hit something with my shovel. It was a small silver box that had been taped shut with electrical tape. I called Paul over and we carried it inside to clean it off. It was really a pretty little thing with delicate carvings engraved all over. We pried it open and inside there were some random trinkets. A small geode, some white ribbon, um, what else… I think just a tiny crucifix and a bunch of old acorns.”
“Nope,” I said.
“I know. It was strange, but I didn’t automatically think there was anything spooky about the box. I assumed a child had gathered a bunch of treasures then buried and forgot about them. It never occurred to me that it might have been placed there for protection. I put everything back in the box, besides the acorns, and then arranged it on a shelf in this rather grand cupboard in the living room.”
I tsked and shook my head.
“It was a colossal mistake opening that box,” Jane admitted. “In fact, bringing that box inside the house was the worst mistake of my life, though it took time to understand what I had done.
“We were packing to leave Sunday morning after our second night in the house. I was so relieved to be getting back to the city and away from that awful place. Paul was just shutting the trunk when we heard a car slowly crunching down the driveway towards us. We looked at each other and Paul cracked, ‘Welcome Wagon?’
“It was a beat up old pickup truck, the driver was this tiny little woman, perfectly turned out in a power suit and heels. She introduced herself as Nancy Kline, a local real estate agent who represented Home Away Builders. They were interested in acquiring our property so they could build a resort community with little individual cabins and an activity center.
“I told her we hadn’t even had time to settle in but that we’d talk over the idea. She gave me her card and we chit chatted a bit. ‘Dark back here, isn’t it?’ She commented. Then she said something about how Home Away would be able to fix that by clearing out the underbrush and cutting the treeline back from the waterfront.
“Just as she said it there was this loud grumbling that came from the woods behind the house and then we heard what sounded like a big tree crack and fall to the ground. We all stood stock still, petrified. Paul said something like, ‘Maybe the trees will do the work for them,’ and we all laughed nervously.
“Nancy offered a quick goodbye then hopped back in her truck and got out of there. As we watched her go I said we ought to consider the builder’s offer. Paul brushed the comment aside, ‘Where’s your sense of adventure, Buffy?’ He asked. We drove back to Boston and I simply did not stop thinking, or dreaming about that cabin until we drove back up the following Friday. I was consumed by the place, and not in a good way.
“That trip we made sure to get up there before dark. We didn’t discuss it at the time, but we were thinking the same thing. We did not want to be outside that house, near those woods for even a second in the dark.
“When we went inside we discovered that all the windows were open.”
“No way,” I breathed.
“Yup, even the bedroom windows. We searched the house top to bottom to be sure no raccoons or anything else had gotten in and that’s when Paul first noticed the fact that we hadn’t heard any animals around at all, not even birds chirping near the house. The woods around the cabin were exceptionally quiet except, of course, for the occasional cracking branches. It was strange.
“Once we’d determined there wasn’t anything in the house we settled in, built a fire and cooked dinner. We were on our third glass of wine in front of the fireplace when we heard the scratching. Something was outside scratching along back of the house, beneath one of those high windows.
“I immediately said, ‘Don’t go out there,’ to Paul. He told me not to worry, that it was the last thing he wanted to do. We tried to guess what it was. It was far too loud and the claws sounded way too long to be a raccoon. Could it be a mountain lion? Maybe a moose’s antlers? We had no idea. Paul got up and banged on the window. The noise stopped and we were absolutely silent for a long moment, listening. Finally, Paul shrugged and said, ‘I guess that scared it away,’ and then the window above him smashed into a million pieces. I screamed and Paul sort of threw himself onto the ground to avoid being hit by the glass. As he did I saw something pass in front of that window, and it was big. Really big.
“It was too dark to truly see it, and thank God for that. What I saw was taller than the window and the window was at least six feet off the ground. Paul insisted that it must have been a moose that had smashed the window with its antlers. But what I saw-” Jane took a breath. “It wasn’t a moose, it didn’t have antlers for one thing, it had horns. Short horns atop a sort of figure-eight shaped head. And the body – it was immense, the thing had been bending down to peer into the window,” Jane shuddered.
“Oh my God,” I breathed, wanting to move away from the window in my own living room.
“We didn’t sleep that night. I was certain that the thing would smash through the larger windows along the front of the house, especially the ones in the bedroom. That next morning, like clockwork two of the windows above the kitchen cabinets had been cranked open and that was when I made the decision to sell the place to the resort builders. I never wanted to come back there again. Paul wanted to discuss it after we’d had some sleep, but when he went out back to investigate the side of the house where we’d heard the scratching he changed his mind. The massive claw marks on the wood beneath the window convinced him. We had to get rid of the place.
“As we stared at the scratches on the wood I happened to look down at the ground, I don’t know why we hadn’t checked before, I suppose we were too freaked out by the claw marks to notice. There were prints in the dirt, but they weren’t footprints, they were hoof marks. Paul tried to convince both of us that it must have been a moose. He argued that it had simply scratched its antlers against the house and his banging on the wall startled the animal.
“The thing is, the scratches on the house? They were sort of systematic, or I suppose intentional – a pattern. And they were in threes, all hash-marked beneath that one window. Like something was marking the house – for what God only knows. I knew what I had seen move past the window that night but I was too frightened to press the point with Paul. I begged him to leave immediately. He finally agreed that we probably wouldn’t get any sleep if we stayed another night but he insisted that we board the window up before we left.
“I didn’t tell him how ridiculous I thought that was, I mean, for Christ’s sake! The windows had been opening by themselves! What was one more open window. But I knew that if I argued about it he’d just dig his heels in. I was so desperate to get out of there that I told him to go on ahead to the hardware store in town to buy plywood for the window. Meanwhile, I would stay behind to pack everything we’d brought to the house, which wasn’t much, but I had no intention of ever returning to that place.
“I will never forget watching Paul disappear down the driveway in our little car. I set to work packing our things which didn’t take me long at all. I tried to sit and read to pass the time until Paul came back but I couldn’t concentrate so I ended up pacing around the cabin, attempting to calm my nerves. That’s when I noticed the box I had uncovered in the garden, sitting there on the cupboard shelf. It sounds absurd, but I was overcome with the need to bring it back outside. It didn’t belong there.
“I grabbed that silver box and carried it out onto the front porch. I was afraid to walk out onto the yard, but something inside me knew that the thing I’d seen the night before was somehow tied to that damn box. I’d left the shovel leaning up against the house on the porch, so I grabbed it and marched down the steps to the front yard. I just started digging a hole near the area where I’d found the thing.
“I cursed my uncle for leaving me the house and I wondered, not for the first time, if perhaps he had done it as a final swipe at my mother. She had passed away several years before that, but maybe leaving me that horrible place was his final way to hurt her somehow.
“I dug down about two feet and threw the box into the hole. As I did I heard a loud crack come from the woods to my left. I turned and stared into the forest. It was really windy and it being late fall, the leaves were only about half down which made it difficult to see far past the tree line. But in all the movement a big fallen tree branch caught my attention. It was laying on the ground at an odd angle and I stared at it, trying to understand how it could be. And then something above it moved.
“It was the thing, the one I’d seen the night before. I thought that it was leaning out from behind a tree to watch me, with all the leaves and the underbrush swirling I couldn’t completely make it out at first. But then it began to stand up. What I had thought were fallen tree branches were its legs. They unfolded as it stood, it was at least twice as tall as me. Ten feet tall if anything and, though there were branches swaying in front of it’s face, I glimpsed the short horns again and saw its huge black eyes for the first time. It’s body was a mottled brown and grey. It’s thin shoulders were rounded, slumped forward and as it watched me it lifted one of its long arms to grab onto a branch at least fifteen feet off the ground.
“It yanked it’s arm down and ripped the branch right off the tree. I screamed and it crouched back down quickly, you know how when kids hop around with their hands between their feet like they are frogs? That’s how it sat, very still, only now instead of just watching me it was more as if it were poised, ready to launch itself out of the woods.
“I backed away and stumbled up the porch steps. As I did it leaned its long body out of the woods, I think so that it could get a better look at me,” Jane closed her eyes and said quietly, “Those tiny horns on it’s head made it look like a grey demon. I don’t remember opening the door but I found myself inside the cabin with the shovel still in my hands and then I began shaking uncontrollably. It was almost more terrifying that I didn’t have my eyes on the thing anymore. I didn’t know if it was going to come crashing through the windows or just wait outside and attack Paul when he got back. I grabbed my purse and decided that everything else we’d brought to that horrible house was replaceable. This was before I had a cell phone so all I could do was wait for Paul to return. I hid in the bathroom, it was closest to the front door and had only one small high window. It was another half an hour before I finally heard the car bumping down the driveway.
“I stood on the toilet watching out the window and I waited until the entire car was beyond the trees. Then I dashed out of the house and sprinted towards Paul. I was screaming hysterically but I didn’t even realize it. Paul jumped out of the car, terrified. I screamed at him to get back in the car and get us out of there. He tried to calm me down and that’s when I really lost my mind.”
Jane actually smiled at the memory, she shook hair from her face and said, “I think I started screaming at him ‘Now! Go now! It’s coming you asshole! It’s coming!’ That got him moving. We peeled out of there and didn’t stop driving until we made it to a rest stop halfway back to Boston.”
“What did he say?” I asked
“He was scared. He didn’t know what to do, neither of us did. Should we call the police? Animal control?”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“For a time, nothing,” Jane admitted. “Aside from drinking too much cheap wine every night and rehashing it all we didn’t do anything but try and process what had happened. Going back to the cabin was out of the question, but I began to feel responsible for the property. I felt obligated to keep people away from it.
“Whatever that thing had been, it was evil. It wasn’t any kind of animal I’ve ever heard of. I’ve had a long time to think about this and I believe it was more than just some monster. It felt primal. I’ve come to the conclusion, though it really isn’t anything more than a guess that it was some kind of an earth spirit or even an ancient god.”
“How the hell can you protect people from that?”
“I found a shaman and asked that if he couldn’t chase it from the property to at least contain it. He warned me that if the thing truly was a powerful ancient, there would be nothing he could do to restrain it. Even trying to do so might put us all at risk. Instead, he placed a boundary around the property to dissuade people from entering the area.
“Who knows how it works but he told us that if someone were to wander onto the property they would become overwhelmed with an urge to turn around and go the other direction. I hired a work crew to dig up the dirt driveway and put down topsoil in hopes that the forest would simply reclaim the path after a time. By now, I imagine you wouldn’t even know a path had ever existed there.
“Boaters can probably glimpse the cabin through the trees, but I don’t think anyone would want to dock and check it out.”
“So the cabin is just sitting there empty, in those dark woods,” I said, the image of the dark house vivid and chilling.
“Yes. Oh, and that real estate agent, the one representing the builders, she dug up our phone number and tried to make another offer for the property. I won’t say that it wasn’t tempting to just sell it and be done, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. Who knows what that thing would have done if those people went in and began digging up the property and taking down trees.
“I actually went a step further and hired a lawyer to help me track down the owners of the properties abutting my great uncle’s and over the years, Paul and I used the money I inherited to buy up acreage near the property. It drives the yuppies crazy. We get offers all the time but no one has business living there. Everyone is safer with a buffer around that property.
“The land has been put in a trust, that Paul and I control, it can never be sold and it must always remain free of development of any kind. And I mean no development, no nature trails, no fences, nothing. I hear we have a lot of enemies who blame us for halting economic development in that town and a lot of fans who consider us conservationist warriors. I don’t care what any of them think. They are safer for what we have done.”
“So you’ve never gone back?”
“Never,” Jane said resolutely. “Except in my nightmares.”