Happy Summer Place
by Tracy Falbe
Mark felt the usual melancholy as he closed the family’s lake house for the season. The good times of summer were over for another year. The honking of migrating geese had replaced the laughing and splashing of children. The last blobs of melted marshmallows in the dirt around the firepit had been consumed by scavenging animals thrilled to score a sugar high.
He was doing the job alone this year. Amy, his wife, had needed to take their son to a robotics competition. He would be lying if he said that he wished he was there. The natural surroundings of Lake McCandliss, even in its post-season quietude, were far better than hours trapped in a gymnasium with noisy middle schoolers.
He savored these final views of the lake before he abandoned it to wintry winds that would soon howl across the ice. Only a brave handful of locals ice fished the lake. Otherwise, the vast majority of the cottages sat empty until well after the groundhogs woke up.
Mark had shut off the water supply and emptied the pipes. He had just finished splashing some antifreeze into the drains and was putting the jug in the shed. After setting it on its place on a well-organized shelf, he shut the door, looped the padlock through the hasp, and pushed it shut with a click.
With his work done, he paused to admire the lake for a final time. His cottage’s backyard sloped down to the dock. Pulling it out of the water had been a beast of a job. He looked forward to when Connor was big enough to help him with it. Maybe next season.
The gentle ripple of the water alternated between orange and silver in the setting sun. His bit of the lakeshore lined up with the island in the middle of small Lake McCandliss. The deciduous trees had dropped their leaves except for a few stubborn clusters of orange and gold. Their bare branches drew attention to the pines that obscured an old cottage behind their thick evergreen boughs.
He and his lake neighbors liked to trade stories about the island and its abandoned cottage. No one really had any solid information about the place. Baxter, the old timer who ran, or more accurately still thought that he ran, the nearby gas station/pizza and ice cream parlor/bait shop/liquor store had said that the county registry of deeds had the island under the name of a Chinese industrial magnate hiding cash in U.S. real estate. Most things Baxter said these days ended with some ominous comment regarding China.
His guess was as good as Mark’s on the subject. Mark was hardly going to dig up county records to find out who owned it. The island cottage had probably been absorbed into the estate of some distant relation to the original owner and forgotten. Mark could not imagine ignoring a lake property. He and Amy had saved for years to get their summer retreat.
But he supposed that he would not have wanted that particular island cottage. The stark neglect that it had obviously endured screamed money pit and hardly invited visions of family good times. The place received no visitors although Mark suspected that teenagers snooped out there on summer evenings to explore and scare each other.
Across the water, a vacant window on the cottage stared back at him like the dead eye of an animal killed on the road. Paint had long since peeled off the siding like the fur dropping away from desiccated skin and rotting flesh. The black pane of glass reflected nothing despite the increasingly beauteous blaze of the setting sun.
Movement caught his eye to the right, and his eyes widened with delight. A deer was swimming to the island. A fine rack of antlers that any hunter would covet tilted back over his strong back as he held his head up and swam.
People who did not know better might be surprised to think that deer swim, but they were quite able to cross small stretches of water and did so whenever they pleased.
The buck ascended the bank. He was a pleasure to behold in the prime of his life. Water streamed off his powerful body, and Mark admired him in an almost trance-like state before suddenly realizing he would love to get a picture of it.
He fumbled in his pocket for his phone and activated the camera. The procedure took him longer than normal because his fingers had grown cold. The phone’s camera made a sound mimicking its analog film ancestors. The buck pranced into the undergrowth and disappeared quick as a gambler’s paycheck.
Mark looked at the result on his camera and was quite dissatisfied. The blurred shape was discernible as a buck but hardly worthy of social media. He was not prone to participating in such time-sucking nonsense, but he felt an intense desire to share the majesty of that animal with the world.
He stared at the place where the buck had gone into the trees until he accepted that he had an urge to go after it. The light would last for maybe another 20 or 30 minutes. A little attempt at wildlife photography would give him a final small excursion into the natural world until he retreated to the city for the winter.
Mark slid his key into the padlock and opened the shed. He pulled out a kayak that he had just stowed that afternoon and was soon pushing off into the lake. Excitement replaced the usual peace of kayaking on a quiet lake. Technically, he was about to trespass, and the juvenile thrill reminded him that he had become a boring fellow, but he was not that way right now. He would get a good picture of that buck, maybe even a video. And he would have some firsthand information to share the next time talk turned to speculation about the island.
As the kayak ground against the shore, his excitement turned to wariness. He pulled the kayak out of the water and looked back. His cottage seemed farther away than he had expected. The shore urged him to return like a parent whose toddler has wandered into the street. When he regarded the overgrown island, its crowded trees adopted a suspicious posture. They communicated a tangible dislike for the intrusion, but Mark told himself he was just getting spooked like a kid, which was fun.
He looked around for the tracks of the deer. He had been certain that he had paddled directly to the spot where he had seen it. No tracks were evident though. He looked three times and then gave up. He did not want to waste the last of the light.
With a final look at the shore to confirm that no one was witnessing his unsanctioned island tour, he walked under the trees. He tread as quietly as he could on the pine needles and leaves, hoping to come upon the buck. The island had the shape of a small flat-topped hill. The feature was a bit strange now that he thought about it because it did not resemble any other hills in the area. It was like a random mound rising from the middle of Lake McCandliss.
Mark could not deny his curiosity about the dilapidated cottage and headed toward it. The place looked like it had been untouched for decades with weeds and trees growing around the foundation. He imagined some terrible scene inside like the bones of a family covered in mouldering old clothes. Perhaps some deranged father had wiped out his family when quality time away from the city had failed to soothe his nerves.
He shuddered at the macabre scenario. If such a thing had happened, he was certain that Old Baxter would have shared the tale unless no one had ever discovered what had happened.
He walked around back. The back porch with half rotted steps presided over a clearing. He saw some trails crisscrossing the area. The buck had probably come through here. Maybe the local deer swam out to this island regularly for a safe place to bed down for the night.
The remnants of a swing set were on his left. The seats had disintegrated long ago and left the rusted chains hanging. The thing looked like an abandoned slave auction. Mark could not imagine any good times ever occurring in this place.
A creaking sound made him whirl toward the porch. It had sounded exactly like a footstep on an old porch step, but no one was there.
He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He jumped like a rabbit and then froze. A blurry figure had darted into the gloom of dark pine boughs.
Mark swallowed because his mouth was dry. He took out his camera, but he did not think that he had seen the buck. He had thought that he had seen a person or at least a person shape.
At first he had the normal civilized dread that he was trespassing when a legitimate landowner was present. Mark did not worry so much about prosecution but rather the embarrassment of being caught. Gradually, his intuition dismissed his attempt to explain the situation rationally.
The knowledge that he was not alone assailed him with preternatural certainty. He spun and someone was standing right there.
He gasped but could not even begin to say anything. He could barely focus upon the figure of an old man. The wavering image that both demanded and deflected his attention convinced Mark that he was seeing a ghost.
He raised his camera. Despite his shaking hand, he saw the man more clearly on the screen for a moment. He was unshaven and unfriendly and then his face shifted into a toothy grimace of voracious evil. The screen went utterly black.
Mark ran until he burst onto the bank with pine needles caught in his hair. The lapping water had just pulled his kayak loose. He splashed toward it frantically and grabbed its small stern. He shoved his phone into the pocket of his flannel shirt and flopped into the kayak. Desperation more than skill prevented him from flipping the thing.
He paddled furiously and only looked back once he was dragging the kayak into his backyard. The island looked as empty as ever but it would never be empty in his mind again.
Mark shoved the kayak carelessly into the shed. He heard it bang against other things and make them fall with a clatter. He slammed the door and locked the padlock.
His lungs were still heaving as he turned the key in his truck’s ignition. The gravel spun from the tires as he accelerated out of the driveway.
Mark was a good five miles past Baxter’s store before he pulled over. He cussed a couple times as if to admonish himself for snooping around a creepy island by himself. He pulled out his phone. His shaking hand proved to him that he had just felt true terror.
He had to restart the phone. He had no pictures, not even the shabby shot of the buck that had started his daft adventure. In fact, the phone appeared to have gone through a factory reset. His contacts were gone.
When he felt steadier, he finally started driving again. The interstate greeted him with its tedious normalcy. Mark wondered how he would tell the story to Amy and Connor. Should he tell them? Did he want to spoil their sense of ease in their happy summer place? Would things ever be the same for him again? Why did he have to see a ghost when he was alone?
Maybe you had to be alone for such things to happen.
Mark began to think about the strong real estate values in the area. He could put the place up for sale and do all right. That’s how he would frame things for Amy. He didn’t feel like being teased about seeing a ghost. Mark could not imagine that he would ever have a sense of humor about what he had just experienced. With the proceeds from the sale, he could buy a nicer summer home without a view of a haunted island that had wanted to trap him.
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