By the time all the students had unpacked and gotten settled into their bunkhouses, it was lunchtime. The long narrow cafeteria held none of the charm of the rest of Boyer Lodge. It’s sterile off-white walls and yellowish linoleum floor brought back the smells of the nursing home his grandmother had died in when he had been twelve, causing his upper lip to curved into a grimace. For over a year, his mother had taken him and his sister to visit their grandmother every Sunday. Levitt hadn’t been able to suffocate his guilty feelings of relief at her funeral.
He had a theory that his year in the nursing home played a part in his career choice. If he ever had to spend any duration of time with an old person, it would be too soon. He had decided long ago that if he ever got old enough that he needed to reside in a nursing home, he would wander out in front of a semi as it barreled down I25—that or take a drive up to the mountain and then drive off.
Levitt knew from experience that the first meal was always the most subdued. The majority of the sixth graders had never been away from home for any extended period of time and looked around timidly as if expecting some form of evil to be inflicted upon them. By the time dinner rolled around, trepidation would have given way to giddy hyperactivity as the taste of freedom had settled in. As it was, the most that could be heard was the slight tremulous whispers over the scrapping of wooden chairs as they scooted closer to the tables.
He supposed that he intentionally blocked from memory how his stomach would ache and rebel against him for over a week after he returned home from outdoor lab. However, as the too-yellow, too-crunchy looking macaroni and cheese was placed in the center of the table in a family style serving bowl, it all came rushing back. He heard Ms. Needle groan audibly beside him and he turned and gave her a commiserating scowl.
In an attempted to block out what seemed to be a mustard flavor in the mac and cheese, Levitt forced himself to mentally go through the day’s schedule.
Now that the preliminaries were over and the students and high school leaders had all split up into their core groups, the evening and the following several days stretched out in one endless pattern. Each group spending two hours in some ‘class’ about wilderness or the environment, or planetary rotations before rotating to the next (he still hadn’t been given a sufficient answer that satisfied his pondery over how the solar system related to the rest of the outdoor lab curriculum—other than the fact that the planets were indeed out of doors).
The only real alteration in the schedule was the evening program. They were typically his favorite part of outdoor lab. In a surprising move, the district typically secured quality entertainment that was advanced enough to please both the kids and the teachers. Tonight’s guest was a storyteller who dressed up like a mountain man and told stories as if he were back at the turn of the nineteenth century, complete with firing a musket in the middle of the stage—always causing the kids and a few of the teachers to scream in surprise. Even though he knew it was coming, every year Levitt would jump in shock despite his fingers gripping firmly to the bottom of his chair. The man went by the name of Grizzly, and Levitt always suspected that he was a gay, but no matter how many times he went to the gay bear bar in Denver, he had yet to see Grizzly there. Of course, he would look quite a bit different dressed in a red flannel shirt and leather suspenders as opposed to his deer hide jumper and coonskin hat.
Luckily, it was the college interns that spent a semester at outdoor lab who taught all the lessons, the teachers only had to travel from group to group making sure the students were behaving and that the high school leaders weren’t wandering off together into the forest in an attempt to get back to nature in their own fashion. Nearly every year there was at least one new relationship formed and consummated by the end of outdoor lab, despite the teacher’s best efforts. Levitt let out a little shudder as the picture of pimple-faced Derek and two-ton Allyson caught in their tender moment in the middle of the supply closet last year rose unbidden to his mind.
True to form, the teachers had barely been able to hear each other’s complaints of the tuna casserole dinner over the roar of the students who had just returned from their day’s adventures. There had been half an hour of cabin time between dinner and Grizzly’s presentation. Levitt, his fingers already grasping the rim of the folding chair, jumped and let out a yelp that caused the students around him to turn and look at him expectantly as he felt something tap him on the shoulder. He jerked his face around to see Mrs. Needle, who flushed lightly at his reaction.
Her croaking voice attempted (and failed) at a whisper. “Ms. Whittaker has a horrible headache.”
His eyebrows rose as she stared at him expectantly. “Uhm, I’m sorry. Should she lay down or something?”
Ms. Needle shook her head, her fire-engine dyed curls bobbing around her face. “No, she doesn’t want to miss Grizzly’s stories. This is her first time up here, you know.”
Impossibly, Levitt felt his eyebrows creep further towards his hairline as he stared at her.
Nonplussed, Ms. Needle attempted a smile, her coffee stained teeth lacking the luster to achieve the desired effect. “Could you please be a dear and run up to the lodge and get her headache medicine?” Levitt opened his mouth, but she continued before he would make a noise. “It’s in a prescription bottle in her lavender bag in the bathroom.” She flashed him another smile, this one not quite reaching her eyes before turning back around without saying thank you.
He sat there, he neck crained around as he glared at Ms. Needle’s mammoth retreating backside. Without looking back to Grizzly, he let out a whimpering growl and shoved himself off his chair and headed toward the back door. Just as he turned the handle and gave a push, Grizzly’s musket fired, filling the air with a reverberating explosion. Levitt’s hand slipped off the handle and slammed into the doorjamb as he jumped in fright, his nail catching on the edge and folding backwards. His growled expletive was drowned out by the student’s continued screams as Grizzly reloaded the gun.
Levitt was fifty yards away from the little log auditorium when he stopped shaking his hand and being angry and realized he was in the middle of the wilderness with no one else around him. Pausing momentarily, he looked around him. The lights shown from the windows behind him, silhouettes passing in front of it as Grizzly paced back and forth. The rest of the cabins that encircled him only stood out as darker shapes against the grayness of the forest. He didn’t know what he expected to see, Grizzly’s namesake running towards him, zombies rushing from the forest, or a sasquatch swooping him over his shoulder and carrying him back to his cave to rape and have him for a snack.
Squaring his shoulders in an demonstration of bravery he didn’t feel, he focused his eyes on the Lodge in front of him, it’s outline against the starry sky transforming it from a warm log cabin to the castle in Transylvania awaiting it’s next victim to wander haplessly in.
He paused momentarily as the stars caught his attention. They were so crowded, there seemed no room left for the sky to occupy. His fear briefly shoved from his mind, thoughts of Jason rose unbidden. Thoughts of making love under the stars, the warmth of the grass under his back as Jason rose above him, sweat glistening on his forehead.
Letting out his breath in a huff, Levitt sneered as he chastised himself. Jason had never made love to him under the stairs. It was bad enough to agonize over all the things he longed to do with Jason again. He didn’t need to add things that never occurred to the list.
His frustration with himself, and the pang that always accompanied thoughts of Jason, carried him to the base of the steps that led up to the lodge before he remembered that he was afraid to be out by himself in the night. With another quick glance around him, he tore up the stone steps, two and three at a time and flung open the door of the min-castle before he stopped in the doorway, trying to catch his breath in deep irregular pants.
The room was in darkness, but Beth Boyer’s face was lit up in moonlight that cascaded through the window behind the grand piano. Levitt’s breath caught in his chest as his eyes met her green ones—momentarily making him feel that he had been caught in a childish moment of terror. It took a moment for him to realize he was merely looking at her portrait above the fireplace—that she wasn’t actually staring at him, or judging his fear for that matter. His eyes narrowed, but the face of Jack seemed to be cast in the shadow of his mother and Levitt couldn’t discern his handsome features.
Without realizing he was reaching for it, his fingers flicked on the switch and light flooded the room, giving light to Jack’s hidden countenance. Surprised at the relief that filled him, Levitt headed toward the stairs to go up to the bedrooms. All this fear was making him rethink the desire to spend a week up here without the kids.
He was halfway up the stairs before he realized he hadn’t turned on the light that would illuminate the second level. He glanced up to the railing at the top of the stairs and yelled, his voice low and guttural. Frozen in place, his skin tingling, he stared at the burly figure that seemed to be staring down at him from the other side of the railing. He couldn’t make out any features, the figure more darkness than shadows. He appeared to be wearing a wide-brimmed hat shoved over a bushy main of hair. The breadth of his shoulders and the girth of him seemed to suggest a giant of a man.
As if coming from somewhere else, Levitt heard his own voice break the silence. “Hello?” He was surprised how steady he sounded.
At the sound, the figured seemed to lean forward over the railing. Simultaneously, Levitt backed down the stairs, never taking his eyes off the man. The absence of a response scared him even more than the man’s presence. Waves of anger seemed to radiate off him in Levitt’s direction.
He felt his hand slide over the light switch as it trailed on the wall. Without a thought, he flicked it.
Instantly, the second floor was doused with light, the wooden surfaces once again warm and welcoming.
For a second, Levitt thought he must have glanced away as he turned on the light, but he hadn’t. He was sure of it.
Sure of it or not, it didn’t change the fact that the man was no longer there.
One second he had been leaning over the railing glaring at Levitt. The next, he was nowhere.
“Hello?” This time, his voice was high, and caught at the end of the question. The lights and the warmth of the house weren’t able to diminish the coldness that seemed to be seeping through his blood.
With a glance behind him and feeling like a dumb blond bimbo in a slasher flick, Levitt continued up the staircase, pausing on each step to call out once more. When he rounded the bend in the staircase, he once more peered behind him and then rushed up the remaining five steps.
Stopping on the edge of the top step, he peered both ways down the hallway that lead to each of the bedrooms. “Hello?”
Deciding he was truly being ridiculous, he took another breath to steady himself and then turned to the right and walked towards the bedroom, only pausing momentarily to step around the place were he thought he had seen the shadow man.
After glancing at the sink’s counter and then on the floor in case he was missing something, he decided he had picked the wrong bathroom. Peering cautiously back into the hallway and seeing nothing, he rushed across the hall and into the other bathroom directly opposite the first one he checked. The lavender bag sat by the sink in all its tacky glory. The prescription bottle was on top of the pile inside the bag, and Levitt stuffed it roughly into his back pocket as he turned to the doorway, again tentatively poking his head out into the hallway. “Hello? Anyone there?”
Again, no answer.
Feeling foolish, his heart pounding in his ears, Levitt rushed from the bathroom and flung himself toward the stairs—reaching out to grasp the banister to help himself make the turn. No sooner had he turned the bend in the stairs than he felt the malevolent eyes on his back. Stopping so abruptly, he almost fell, he turned back around and looked up at the spot on the banister where the man had been.
Nothing. Just warm wood railing surrounded by amber glowing walls. No man. No shadow. Nothing. However, even as the stared at nothing, he could feel the same anger radiate towards him.
Once again covered in gooseflesh, Levitt swiveled and rushed the last few steps and threw himself into the living room, racing towards the door. Just a few feet from freedom, he skidded to a stop, the pounding in his ears reaching a level that felt close to explosion. Slowly, his eyes straining as they peered to the right, he turned his head to look at the dinning room, half illuminated by the lights in the living room, half in shadow. There had been a movement. Right by the doorway. He’d seen it. A flash of red. Like the flowing hem of a skirt as it rounded the corner just out of sight. He glanced behind him towards the stairway. Still nothing. Turning back around he took a step towards the dinning room.
His chills gave way to a rush of irritation. “This is stupid. I saw you! I know you’re there!” He sounded as if he was chastising one of his students. “Quit trying to scare me. I saw you!”
He waited, his foot partially raised, eyes narrowed as he peered into the shadowy dinning room. With a violent exhale, he took a few determined steps that brought him to the dinning room doorway. “Fine! Have it your way!” In a swift motion, he shoved his head into the room, expecting to see Ms. Larson standing in the corner of the room, in a long read dress, a sheepish grin on her face.
All that greeted him was a china cabinet flush against the wall. His eyes swept the room, only momentarily pausing on the portrait of Beth Boyer in her crimson gown as he looked back and forth. The only motion in the room was his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.
He was a few sparse feet from the entrance to the auditorium before he realized he had even moved. He glanced behind him. The yards between he and the lodge vast enough to obscure most of the path in darkness, yet not enough to hide the glow coming from the front door that was still swinging back and forth from the effort he had bestowed as he rushed from the house.
Everyone turned to stare at him as he rushed into the room, Grizzly pausing opened mouthed in mid-story.
Levitt felt his face flush hot as he met the eyes of the students and teachers as he made his way to the middle of the far wall where Ms. Needle was starring at him agog. He made a flicking motion with his wrist, and Grizzly began to speak, taking several words before he managed to get the gruff baritone to return to his voice.
Ms. Needle glared at him in distaste as he knelt beside her, extending the pill bottle. “What took you so long? And what in the world is the matter with you, you’re covered in sweat?” The corner of her mouth curved tauntingly. “Afraid of the dark, Mr. Patterson?”
Without a response, he shoved the bottle into her opened palm and crossed to the opposite wall, sinking to the floor, his legs crossed. He turned his gaze to Grizzly, certain he wouldn’t hear a word of his presentation the rest of the night. As his did, his gaze momentarily slid over Ms. Larson, who gave him a knowing nod and raised an eyebrow in his direction.
He lay in bed, his naked skin chilled against the cold sheets. He’d lain there for well over an hour, refusing to play Spoons with his fellow teachers around the dinning room table, claiming to have an upset stomach.
Their loud, raucous laughter gradually died down and the stairs creaked as they made their way up to their bedrooms.
Twenty minutes later, as he heard their muffled goodnights to each other as they finished their pre-bedtime rituals in the bathroom, Levitt once again questioned his earlier excitement over having a single room. He pondered requesting to sleep in one of the other teacher’s rooms. Maybe on a mattress by the door.
As rattled as he was, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The vision of Ms. Needle’s smug expression as he’d rushed out of the dark night was enough to make him hold his place.
Besides, he was just being stupid. He’d let the ambiance of the place get to his head. That and the stories Ms. Larson had told him earlier in the day. He had always been overly-dramatic and prone to over-reacting, and he knew it. That was what this was. It had to have been. He hadn’t seen anyone. If there was something there that wanted to harm him, he would have seen it. And, if by some ridiculous turn of events, that something was invisible, it had had him all by himself. It if was going to hurt him, it would have done so then.
Listen to him! Thinking about there actually being an It. There was nothing here. Nothing but a lot of really old ghost stories. Nothing but an old, beautiful house. Sure, one with a creepy past, but just a house, nonetheless.
He wasn’t sure when he’d fallen asleep. In fact, he hadn’t realized that he’d actually managed to fall asleep at all—at least until he sat straight up in bed, his heart once again seemingly trying to rip itself out of his chest.
He glanced around him in a panicked fashion, unsure what he was looking for. Unsure why he was even afraid.
What had woken him? A dream?
A dream. He’d had a dream. Must have.
Looking around the gloomy room, eyes attempting to take in every centimeter, he found nothing that caused him a second glance. His heart beginning to slow, he gently stretched himself back onto his mattress, shoving the pillows up around his face, covering his ears and pulling the blanket up to his chin.
After what seemed like hours of staring at the ceiling in wide-eyed terror, he felt his eyelids grow heavy and after several more struggling moments they closed, blocking out the room and whatever ridiculous demons his mind was trying to conjure.
Whether hours had passed or merely instants, Levitt felt his body stiffen and he let out a strangled scream as his eyelids flashed open to another pair of eyes drilling into him, only inches away from his face.