They are home.
The men stand on the bluff, careful to stay out of sight. They watch the three SUVs travel down the winding road that leads to the Hollow Campgrounds.
It has been twenty years since they last visited the Hollow. The biggest of the three men, who weights two-hundred-eighty pounds, motions for the others to follow.
He opens the rear of their step truck and shows them the tools he has purchased. There are drills, saws, icepicks, and blowtorches. Knives, hatchets, and machetes, as well.
The other two men smile, satisfied with the contents of the truck. It is early in the day. Around 11 a.m. The beginning of November and most of the trees are bare. There is a fourth man who is part of their group, but he is wild and unpredictable. If they are successful at the Hollow, they will meet up with their friend later.
The people in the SUVs have no idea what is in store for them. The men have been staying in the Hollow’s empty cabins for weeks. The youngest of the three, twenty years old, likes butchering small animals. He usually starts by cutting off the limbs.
The young man has said he wants to try killing something bigger.
He will be given the chance.
Liz Mallory couldn't deny the prickly feeling that danced on the back of her neck. She didn't like the woods, and attributed the strange feeling to her dislike of their location, but she couldn't shake it. It felt like they were being watched.
Liz was driving the second vehicle in the three car caravan, a blue Ford Excursion. Jamie, her seventeen-year-old daughter, sat in the passenger seat. They were off for a weekend camping trip with some of Liz's old college friends, who were in the vehicles in front and behind.
“You're quiet, mom,” Jamie said.
“Woods. Don't like them.”
“Afraid of a bear?”
“Rabid squirrels. They terrify me.”
“Your sense of humor terrifies me sometimes,” Jamie said.
Liz cracked a smile.
“We'll be fine. We're staying in cabins. I wonder if they'll have a fireplace?” Jamie said.
“Said online they did. They just reopened this place.”
Jamie said, “Oh yeah?”
Liz nodded, but didn't tell her daughter why the cabins had been closed for the past nineteen years. “Doing renovations.”
She was being jittery, which wasn't like her. The trip would be good for them. The divorce from Ken had been painful. She'd spent the better part of last year fighting with him and his lawyers, with Jamie caught in the middle. Her daughter had the strength of a grizzly, and had held up well through the ordeal. Even when Ken had called Liz a filthy bitch in Jamie's presence. Liz had thought Jamie was going to go for her father's throat when he'd said that. Maybe they could start putting things behind them, unwind. There was a twelve pack of Sam Adams in her cooler to help with that.
“Look's like Uncle Matt's stopping,” Jamie said.
“There's the cabins, that's why.”
They came around a bend and saw three cabins perched up on a hill. The cabins had new vinyl windows, and each had a porch out front made from knotted logs. They looked cozy to Liz, and she envisioned herself in front of a fireplace, feet up, beer in hand. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
Her friend Hannah, and Hannah's husband, Matt, were in the lead SUV. Liz had known Hannah since college. Liz's other best friend from her days at the University of Buffalo was Sonya, who was in the rear vehicle with her fiancée Kevin.
They'd planned this trip for a month, hoping to make it an annual thing.
Liz pulled to the side of the road, parked, and got out. Jamie stayed in the Expedition.
“We're here,” Hannah said. Hannah was blond and slim, and today she wore too-tight jeans and a pink sweater that looked like it'd been painted on. The tight clothes worked for her, evidenced by the number of guys that usually found Hannah distracting.
“Thank you, queen obvious,” Liz said.
“I was just telling you,” Hannah said.
Matt was already striding up the hill that led to the cabins. Liz buttoned her wool coat as the wind nipped at her.
Sonya came up beside her. Sonya, petite and dark skinned, had bundled herself in a puffy blue coat, hat and scarf. Kevin joined them. He was a big guy with a face that always reminded Liz of Droopy the Dog. Sweet guy, though.
“What's our fearless leader up to?” Sonya said.
“Probably building us a shelter and starting a fire,” Liz said.
Hannah said, “Quit mocking my man. He's a take charge guy.”
Matt appeared at the top of the hill. “C'mon up.”
The rest of the group walked up to the cabins, which were arranged around a small clearing with a fire pit in the middle. They found Matt reading a piece of paper, a quizzical look on his face.
Hannah said, “Something wrong, hon?”
“I don't think these are our cabins,” Matt said.
“Uh oh Matt, you're slipping,” Sonya said.
Matt frowned. Liz knew he wouldn't like looking foolish.
“Well it's this goddamned printout. This says Cabin Area C, but the cabins are marked D-1 through D-3. I think we're in the wrong area. But the campground map says this should be it.”
“I'll call the manager,” Liz said, and took a printout from her pocket that had the campground info on it.
“Now just wait,” Matt said.
“You wait. I'm freezing,” Liz said, and taking out her cell, dialed the manager's office. A gruff voice answered and said he'd be right down to help them.
Fifteen minutes later, a Ram pickup truck with the words The Hollow Campgrounds on the door pulled up. A stick-thin man of about sixty got out of the truck. He wore a flannel jacket and khakis. As he approached their group, he moved with the stiffness Liz associated with an arthritic.
He came over and said, “Who called?”
“I did,” Liz said.
“We need our cabins,” Matt said.
“Name's Lee Cordo,” the man said, and offered his hand to Liz.
She shook it. “Liz. Seems we're confused about our cabins.”
“Lemme see your printout,” Lee said, holding his hand out.
“Hope this gets straightened out,” Matt said.
Liz handed the printout to Lee, who looked it over. “They did it again, damned website. We use a third party website for our reservations. These are the D cabins, but they used to be C. You want to be in the new C area. I'll take you down there,” he said, and handed the printout back to Liz.
“Easy enough fix,” Sonya said.
Matt said, “Okay, let's go then,” and hurried towards his SUV.
“What's the matter,” Lee said, “he have a hot date?”
Hannah said, “My husband likes being in charge. We're doctors. Kind of used to it.”
“All right doc. Follow me.”
Liz got back in the Expedition to find Jamie listening to her iPod. Liz didn't know what kind of music she was listening to, but it was loud enough to be heard through the earbuds. She let it go. As a teen, Liz had listened to Def Leppard full blast in her room and remembered how annoyed she would get with being told to turn it down.
They pulled out, Lee's truck in the lead.
He led them down the road a few miles and turned down another road that sloped into the woods. Darkness seemed to close in around the Expedition, and the little bit of sun they had was blocked by clouds.
The road continued downward for several miles into an area containing three more cabins arranged around a clearing, much like the D area cabins
They pulled into the driveway that looped through the cabin area, and Liz saw the stark difference in the cabins. These cabins were built of dark wood and seemed to blend with the trees. The paint on the windows was peeling, and moss grew on the roofs. The cabins up top had seemed cozy and cheery, where these seemed forgotten.
“This is dreary,” Jamie said.
“Maybe it won't be so bad.”
They parked the vehicles, got out, and gathered around Lee near the fire pit.
“These are older, but they're serviceable. All have fireplaces and running water.”
Kevin, who had been silent until now said, “This is kind of a downgrade from the other cabins.”
“Yeah,” Matt said. “These look pretty rough.”
“You're camping,” Lee said. “You were expecting the Hyatt Regency?”
Kevin looked to Matt, whose forehead had knitted into a frown. “We want a discount. This isn't what we paid for.”
“No discounts,” Lee said.
Liz said, “Matt, these will be fine.”
Hannah was rubbing Matt's arm, telling him to let it go.
“Hell of a way to run a railroad, right Kevin?” Matt asked.
“Maybe these won't be so bad,” Kevin said. “It's just for the weekend.”
“Look,” Lee said. “I can offer you a refund if you really don't want them.”
“Nah,” Kevin said. “We drove two hours to get here and there's nowhere around to stay.”
Matt went to the nearest cabin and started looking it over, as if performing a home inspection.
Liz looked at Sonya, who rolled her eyes. “We'll take them,” Liz said.
“Good,” Lee said. “Liz, right? Can I talk to you for a second?”
He motioned for her to follow him, and she did, ending up at his truck. Lee leaned against the door and crossed his arms. “You know what happened here?”
“We don't get much call for these cabins. My maintenance people don't even like coming down here. If you want a refund, take it now. I won't offer again.”
“I said we'll take them,” Liz said.
“Just making sure. Some people are funny about stuff like that.”
“I'm not superstitious. It was almost twenty years ago.”
“Okay then.” He gave a brief nod and got in his truck.
The interior of the cabin wasn't much of an improvement. It smelled musty and damp. The floorboards creaked, and when Liz flipped the light switch, some dim yellow bulbs came on.
Liz and Jamie brought in their bags and the coolers. The cabin had a kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms.
“Any preference on the bedroom?” Liz asked.
Jamie lugged her bag into to one of the bedrooms. A moment later, Jamie said, “Gross. That’s really gross.”
Liz entered the room. “What?”
“On the floor,” Jamie said, pointing in the corner.
Liz saw what had disturbed Jamie: an animal, or what was left of one. The skin had been peeled away, exposing pink muscle tissue, and its eyeballs bulged, as if they'd been squeezed. Its head hung at an odd angle, indicating to Liz its neck had been broken.
“It's been skinned,” Liz said.
“Gross,” Jamie said.
Liz wondered if the poor thing had been alive when someone skinned it. Why would someone do this?
Liz noticed the animal’s intestines were uncoiled and stretched out from a wound in its belly. Liz told Jamie to wait in the kitchen and went to the Expedition, where she kept a small snow shovel for emergencies. After grabbing the shovel, she went in the bedroom, scooped up the remains, and carried it outside. She went into the woods and tossed it, glad to be rid of the stinking carcass.
Hell of a way to start a camping trip, she thought.
Back in the cabin, she found Jamie seated at the table. Liz went over, put a hand on her shoulder. The girl was trembling. “You okay?”
“That was freaky,” Jamie said.
“Probably some kids,” Liz said, realizing that sounded lame.
“Some kids are. Let's try and forget about it, start unpacking. Okay?” Liz said.
“It'll get smoother from here on in,” Liz said.
Hannah watched Matt unpack: sleeping bags, pans, pots, a tool kit and assorted camping gear. He did this in silence, operating with precision, as he did when he replaced knees or repaired slipped discs. She admired his surgical skills, but could never be a surgeon. Her practice as a pediatrician allowed her to talk to people up close, be personal. Surgeons were the auto mechanics of the medical world. Fix it, bring in the next one, fix it again.
Her stripped-bare ovaries also had something to do with it. She loved the kids that came into the office, even the ones that occasionally puked on her.
As she entered the bedroom, something crunched under her feet. Hannah looked down and saw chicken bones. There was still meat and gristle on them, and they had a greasy shine to them. That told her they'd been consumed recently.
“What's up,” Matt said from behind her.
“Chicken bones. Looks like someone ate them recently.”
“Probably a raccoon,” Matt said.
“Why would it come in the cabin? They usually live underneath places like this.”
“Whatever. Want me to clean them up?”
“No,” Hannah said. “I got it.”
Using a plastic bag to cover her hand, she picked up the bones, wrapped the bag around them, and tossed them in one of the Hefty bags they'd brought.
Half-an-hour later, they were unpacked, and Matt was sitting at the kitchen table reading a medical journal. Hannah grabbed herself a bottled iced tea from their cooler.
“Those bones still bother me,” Hannah said. “Like someone was here.”
“Animals, babe. Trust me.”
“Even if they were here, it was before we came.”
“Even if who was here?” Matt asked.
“The chicken bone eaters.”
“You mean the raccoons?” Matt said, still reading his magazine.
There would be no changing Matt's mind about it. “I'm going to text Sonya, see if she wants to take a hike.”
“Sounds good. I'll hang back. Me and Kevin can get wood together for a fire.”
“You're not coming?”
“These trails aren't much of a challenge,” Matt said. “But if you want to try them out, go ahead.”
Thinking it foolish to text someone in the next building, Hannah walked over to Sonya's cabin and knocked on the door. Kevin answered, a smile on his bulldog-like face.
“Help you ma'am?”
“You going to invite me in?”
“I suppose,” he said, and stepped aside.
Sonya was standing in the kitchen, pulling a second sweater over her first.
“Chilly?” Hannah asked.
“Freezing. That back window was left open. A penguin walked by,” Sonya said.
“Last campers must've left if open.”
Sonya said, “You'd think the staff would've noticed an open window. Don’t they do an inspection before you check out? Make sure there's no damage in the cabin.”
She didn't share her uneasiness about the chicken bones with Sonya. “I'm sure it's fine. Probably an oversight.”
“Want to take a hike while our men get the fire going? I'm thinking hot dogs over the fire for dinner.”
“Sure. Let's grab Liz, too.”
After grabbing Liz, the three women hiked up a trail that ascended behind the cabins and wound through the dense woods. Sonya had been chilly in the cabin, and even with two sweaters, gloves, and a furry hat, she still shivered. Kevin would keep her warm tonight, placing a big, hairy arm around her while they were sleeping. She'd hoped to surprise him by coming to bed with a pair of see-through bra and panties, but thought she might shiver too hard.
The three of them reached the crest of a hill and went down the other side before stopping.
“I found something weird in our cabin,” Liz said.
Sonya said, “Our window was open.”
“We had a dead animal,” Liz said. “Skinned.”
“Ugh,” Hannah said. “I found chicken bones that'd been eaten. They were fresh.”
“Maybe we had some squatters. Hikers or kid screwing around,” Sonya said.
Liz wandered away from the group and said, “Look here.”
Sonya and Hannah joined her. Sonya saw burnt logs sitting in a fire pit. Her nose wrinkled in disgust as she saw something next to the campfire. A cat, its head severed from the body, its eyes removed.
Liz hunkered down and took a closer look. “These have been burned recently.”
Sonya was beginning to wonder if they shouldn't have canceled the reservations and gone elsewhere. Like the Hilton, where they had heat. And no mutilated animals.
Hannah said, “Let's call the owner.”
“Cops might be better,” Sonya said. “Maybe we should go home, eat the money on the cabins.”
“Matt won't go. Too stubborn.”
Sonya said, “Kevin will do what Matt does.”
Liz said, “Well, we could always leave them here. They could keep each other warm at night.”
“Thanks for putting that image in my head,” Sonya said.
Lee Corvo locked up the manager's office at The Hollow and climbed into his pickup truck. His wife, Maggie, was making beef stew for dinner, which was one of his favorites. An apple pie. She would never tell him she made one, but if there was beef stew for dinner, the pie always followed.
He pulled away from the office and down the road leading out of The Hollow. Switching on the radio, he found a sports station, the host discussing the NFL's latest rule change on blows to the head.
He drove ahead, almost to Route 16, which would take him home. There was a truck pulled to the side of the road, its hazard lights flashing.
A man the size of a small truck stood near the van. He waved his arms frantically, wanting Lee to stop. Looked like a workman's truck, maybe a plumber or carpenter. Lee had been helped by passing motorists before, one time running out of gas on Interstate 90 and having someone pull over and drive him to a gas station. Why not return the favor?
He pulled the truck over and got out. “Need a hand?”
The man motioned him closer but said nothing. Lee approached, the guy standing still, arms hanging at his sides.
“What's the trouble?”
The man stood silent. Lee got the feeling he might be walking into something bad. A raw jolt of adrenaline pumped through his system, and he stopped. The large man still hadn't said a word, and this worried Lee more than he could have articulated. The man hadn't threatened him in any way, but this was somehow more terrifying to Lee.
Lee backed up against his truck. The man stood still and watched him.
Something bit into his arm, a hot pain, and he turned to see another guy, this one with a face like carved granite, holding a machete. He was aware of blood leaking from his arm and drenching his shirt.
The man swung the machete again but Lee managed to get his arm up and block the blow. From there, he ran, off the road and into the woods, not knowing where he was headed. He hadn't looked at the wound, just knew it was bleeding heavily.
He heard the man grunting behind him, as if he were an animal tracking prey.
Lee stumbled through the woods, branches scratching his face. The cold air burned his lungs. He thought about not getting his beef stew and pie.
His legs began to cramp and he slowed down. Turn and fight, he thought.
Leaning on a tree for support, he turned around to see the man closing with the machete.
Before he could get his arms up to defend himself, the man swung the machete low and chopped into his leg. The pain was enormous, and he collapsed to the ground.
He looked up to see the man staring at him with eyes that were nothing more than hard slashes in his face. The man wasn't even out of breath.
Lee heard another voice in the distance say, “Keep him alive.”
Lee raised his hand, as if to ward the man off. The man swung the machete and clipped off three off Lee's fingers. Lee stared at the stumps, now jetting blood. His head swimming, darkness began creep into view, shrinking his peripheral vision. He didn’t have long to live.
The man with the machete yells for the fat man. The old man’s body is lying near a tree. He is pale. Dead from blood loss and shock.
The fat man arrives and says, “You shouldn’t have chopped off his fingers. We could’ve kept him alive.”
“He’s just a warm up. Help me drag him.”
The two men drag the old guy’s body through the woods. He reeks like shit. The man with the machete goes to the truck, cleans his weapon with a rag, and grabs some spades.
While he is getting the shovels, the fat man pulls the old guy’s pick-up truck off the road and leaves it. Then they drag the body into the woods and bury it in a shallow grave. They cover it with dirt and leaves.
The fat man is dripping with sweat and begins to stink.
“I was hoping to catch a woman on the road,” he says.
“Well we didn’t, did we?”
“We should get off the road. Get to the truck,” the fat one says.