“Where do you get the meat?” Herb stopped wiping the counter and looked up to see Cassandra staring at him. “Is there a farm nearby? Or…”
“It’s not people, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
She twitched a bit, her eyebrows drawing to a furrow.
“Well, I wasn’t actually, but now I am. Why would you even suggest that?”
“It was supposed to be a joke, but I can see that it wasn’t really that funny. There is a farm about about a 45 minutes drive toward the south, away from the hills. They keep pigs for meat, goats for milking, chickens for eggs, geese for entertainment.”
“Geese for entertainment? Really?”
“Have you spent much time with geese? They’re pretty hilarious. They have a lot of personality and are fairly competent at chasing off a broad range of predators. Geese are badass.”
“I had no idea.”
“Well, no reason you should if you’re not in a position to spend much time with geese. At any rate, they help me out with enough meat to carry me through the spring and summer months, when the cafe is busiest. I have a deep freeze in the back with ample room for storing enough to make it through the season.”
“Do you see much business in the fall and winter? It seems fairly remote out here.”
“No, I’m genuinely surprised to see you kids out this way. I would have thought you’d be in school.”
“Well, it’s early in the year so there isn’t a whole lot we’re missing that can’t be caught up on well before the semester ends. We aren’t as tight as we were in high school. I’ve noticed that we spend less and less time together as our individual worlds grow larger. That’s the way of it I suppose. This trip might be our last as a group of friends.” She shivered suddenly, casting a glance out the window at the shadows gathering. Herb shared her discomfort, and sought to distract them both.
“At the rate of sounding like a cliche, what’s your major?”
“Well, I’m sort of into PolySci at the moment. Political Science. It’s all about what’s going on, but I have a minor in Home Ec so I can always fall back on that.”
“Cute. I’m old enough to recognize a line from Harold and Maude as I remember when it came out in theatres, yes I’m that old. Nice try though. I’m impressed someone of your generation knows about it.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes.
“I know you think we’re kids, but we’re not that much younger than you.”
“Cassandra, I remember all too well having the same attitude when I was your age, but there are oceans of time between us. The things I’ve experienced..I wouldn’t wish them on a single soul.”
“Is that why you’re out here, living away from the world? Trying to escape your past?”
“My past is what brought me here, but not in the way you might think.”
Herb sighed, his shoulders dropping from some invisible weight.
“Fine, come on in the kitchen while I finish up these dishes and I’ll tell you why I think you kids,” he stressed the word, causing her to smirk, “should bed down at Jeff’s place and head home in the morning.” He gathered the plates and gestured her toward the swinging doors. Cassandra grabbed her glass of water and, with one last glance out the windows, led the way.
Once he’d loaded the plates into the dishwasher and filled the sink with soapy water for the larger pots, he paused a moment, and reached up to grab a bottle of bourbon from the top shelf. He set out a glass and tilted the bottle in Cassandra’s direction. She shook her head.
“I’m fine with water, thanks.” He nodded.
“Clever girl. I don’t tell this story much, if ever. It feels like something that will go well with bourbon.” He poured a healthy couple of fingers into the glass, swirled it and took a good sip, letting the fire soothe his suddenly dry throat. Plunging his hands into the warm bubbles, he focused on scrubbing the pot while he spoke.
“My father was rich. He got that way by brokering yacht sales for pretentious assholes with more money than sense. It was only a matter of time before he got into real estate. His specialty was finding properties which had development potential, buying them for a song, and reselling them for a mint. Sometimes people found out they’d been scammed after the fact, but the contracts were signed, so there was little they could do. My brothers and I had no idea what a shyster our father was. We went to good schools, drove nice cars, were probably dickheads of the first degree, all pomp and privilege. We never considered the people who lost their homes or livelihood to the onslaught of progress. Little towns wiped out to create space for an airport or a golf course which would service vacation homes for the uber rich. Stories of farms which had been operated by the same families for generations being pressured into selling.Their future erased with one signature to make way with casinos, strip malls, various nightmares of consumer convenience. As far as I know, threats and intimidation were as far as he’d gone up to that point. With every development, he got greedier. I don’t remember how he found this place, but it was to be his biggest score yet.”
He paused, the memories pulling him out of the kitchen and back to his youth. He took another swallow of the liquor, his eyes closed against what was clearly a painful recollection. Cassandra waited, well versed in the suffering that accompanied a father’s selfishness.
“I don’t know the exact details, but the acquisition of all the land along the lake was held up by one woman who refused to sell. They already had the rest with the investors all in, and the builders on stand by. Promises had been made, but nothing would sway her, no amount of money. My dad insisted it was just a matter of time, but progress wouldn’t wait. The investors started to look elsewhere, suggesting he didn’t have what it took to follow through on his promises.”
He pulled his hands from the soapy water, rinsing the last pot and setting it on the rack above the sink to dry. Then dried his hands, refilled the glass and took a sip before settling against the stainless steel counter. Cassandra had lifted herself onto a stool near the kitchen door, enrapt in the story unfolding.
“So this woman, she lived alone up here. Her neighbours were a good drive away in town. For all intents and purposes, she kept to herself. Had a small garden and some meat birds which kept her just fine. A neat and tidy home which was set back enough in the trees to be protected in winter. She could have lived out the rest of her days content, unbothered. Except for my dad. A line was crossed.”
He lifted his eyes, and Cassandra was surprised to see them shiny with tears. She wanted to reach across the kitchen and the years, to comfort him, but hesitated to break the spell his storytelling wove about them. He wiped at his eyes and finished the drink he’d poured.
“I genuinely don’t know where she ended up. I just know that one day she was living her life, and the next there was a lakefront resort being built on land she said she’d never sell. Once the first house was finished, we came up to visit. It was a beautiful spot, right on the lake. The flagship of his glorious legacy, my dad called it. However, the reception from the townsfolk was cool, on the verge of outright rude. Dad insisted they were just bitter they hadn’t bought into the development when the opportunity presented itself. He told us to stay close, as the surrounding woods were filled with dangerous animals. But animals keep to themselves, mind their own business as long as nobody messes with them. I think he was more concerned about what we might find if we went exploring.
When it was half built, my brothers and I brought some friends up for a last hurrah before school started. Why the hell not? The builders were on a break for the long weekend, why wouldn’t we take advantage? Turns out my dad was right about one thing. The woods did house something dangerous, something that would have probably kept to itself if no one had messed with it.”
His eyes were haunted now, the nightmare he’d been living with present in the room with them.
“One by one, my brothers and my friends were picked off, no match for the fury of someone who had been so wronged, revenge was inevitable. How fitting that it should be the children of the one who had wronged them? My father’s arrogance resulted in the obliteration of his legacy, both of blood and money. Once the story spread, all the backers pulled out. Turns out he was leveraged to the max on this deal. I have no idea what happened to him. It would serve him right if the goons he’d sent to intimidate hesitant sellers were set on him. However, I do know that losing her children sent my mother into a depressive spiral. She drove to the cliffs overlooking the ocean near our house, and believing us all dead, she flung herself in. They never found her.
I didn’t discover any of this until much later. After what I experienced up there, I was broken for a long time. Alex, who used to own this place, was the one who found me wandering not far from here. He brought me back, got me fed and bathed but I was a couple of beats away from catatonic. He never asked me what happened up there. I think he knew.
He got me working, menial tasks really, just something to tether me to reality. By the time I was enough myself to go home, I found out what had happened, and realized I was all alone. Alex told me I was welcome to stay as long as I liked. I figured at some point I’d leave, but by then the story of the cursed lake resort had taken on a life of it’s own and the curious had come to see if there was any truth to the stories of the monster in the woods. Most of the time they come and poke around a bit, but have the sense to leave before they find anything, deciding the tales are nothing more than urban legends. But sometimes they don’t and are just gone, any screams for help swallowed by the hills. Even if I thought I could go up there again, I’m not sure there would be any point. People go missing all the time without any trace or sense of closure for their families.
And then Alex died and left me the place. So I stay, because where else have I got to be? It’s quiet for the most part and now and then I get through to someone, convince them there’s nothing worth finding in those hills. Folks in town shake their heads at me, but I feel as though my only real inheritance is the guilt of knowing my father set all this in motion. It seems the least I can do, trying to warn people away, to leave whatever lives up there alone.”
Cassandra was crying now, silent tears running down her face as she considered the burden Herb had carried alone all these years.
“You must think people like Nathan and my brother are so awful, seeking out the site of where so many people have suffered.”
“It’s human nature to be curious about such tragedy. Why do you think Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet are Shakespeare’s best known plays? Oh don’t cry, Cassandra. I shouldn’t have told you all that but once I started, I couldn’t stop. It actually feels good to tell someone. I’m sorry if I shared too much.”
“No, I’m glad you told me. I’m going to make sure that Nate and Casey understand that we are not going up there, that it’s important we leave whatever or whoever is out there alone. I know that Tommy and Kirk will be on my side once I explain.”
“It really is the safest bet. There are lots of cool places to explore, this just isn’t one. I’d hate to see something happen to you.”
This shouldn’t have happened to him. Nathan lay on the bathroom floor, the tile cool and soothing against his cheek. Every time he retched from the pain, it sent another spike of agony into his gut. How was it that she’d hit so hard even when so close to death? His sight was clear enough that he could focus on ensuring there was no blood to be found on him. He could still pull this off so long as he could get them away from that meddlesome cook. He smacked his hand against the floor in frustration and pulled himself to standing.
He was so damn tired. Of being mediocre, of not being the best at anything. Tired of watching Casey, the most addlepated stoner he’d ever known, breeze through school without any effort. Of seeing Tommy fall head over heels for a series of muscle brained Kirks while ignoring good guys right in front of her. Of clever Cassie, who he was sure could see into his soul though she never looked at him with anything but kindness.
Well fuck her! Fuck all of them. The world wasn’t a safe place for kind-hearted people. The most universally known characters in history were the monsters, the ones who made cruelty their stock and trade. They stood out, were remembered, revered, whispered about in folk tales and urban legends. He knew them all, had studied and searched out as much information as he could.
The monster who lived in these woods had been active the longest. Every time they thought he was gone, some new group of idiots would find themselves in his way and be obliterated, or broken beyond repair. A while back, there was a concerted effort to roust him, to put an end to the reign of terror. It didn’t go well, to put it far too lightly, and there was a collective agreement to leave things as they were.
When he found that story, Nathan knew what he had to do. He’d offer a sacrifice, in exchange for knowledge. Getting Casey on board had been a cakewalk, he was far too interested in anything unusual to stay away. Tommy wanting to come along made sense when she invited her latest boytoy for the ride, but Cassandra was a surprise. He wasn’t even sure she was having fun. Every time their eyes met, it seemed as though she wanted to say something, but held back for some reason. No matter. Her inquisitive nature would be quashed before too much longer. He had considered trying to recruit more but thought humble beginnings would be better.
Unlike his friends, he had time. Time to establish himself as the greatest monster the world had known.
He would be the best, at being the worst.