In the Winter Woods
Isabelle Adler © 2020
All Rights Reserved
At first glance, there was nothing sinister about the lakeside village of Maplewood, Vermont.
In fact, there wasn’t much of anything in the village. I had passed the post office, the fire station, the town hall, and a big billboard announcing the construction of some sort of theme park, all situated along the half-mile stretch of Main Street before parking my car in front of the convenience store. It abutted the first gas station I’d seen in the last few hours. The faded sign at the front was fitted with twinkling lights and plastic green holly garlands that had seen better days. Despite the general shabbiness, there was something charming and distinctly Christmas-y about it, like looking at a vintage postcard.
I got out and tightened my parka around me. Snow crunched under my sneakers, which were hardly suitable for the weather. I’d forgotten just how cold the winters here in Vermont could be, and now I was paying the price for neglecting to properly equip myself for the long trip from Manhattan’s Upper West Side all the way to Lake Champlain.
Granted, it had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Not the part about leaving New York City, but coming here to Maplewood. I didn’t remember much of the town, having last been here with my family when I was thirteen or fourteen, but I doubted it’d changed much in the last twenty years.
The doorbell chimed as I entered the store. It seemed to be empty aside from a gray-haired elderly lady behind the counter, who looked up and offered me a distracted smile before turning back to a talk show on a small TV set tucked beside the register.
I blew on my hands and rubbed them together, then picked up a basket and started off down the aisle toward the refrigerators in the back. I suspected I would have to stock up on everything before going up to the cabin. It hadn’t been used for something like five years, since the last vacation my sister Jenny and her husband had taken there after being married, when the cabin still belonged to our parents. Everything still lurking in the depths of the pantry would have to be thrown out anyway.
Between grocery shopping and another full tank of gas, this retreat was turning out more expensive than I initially imagined. And it was a retreat, I told myself firmly, a writer’s retreat of one. Jenny would say I was running away from my problems, but it was the opposite, really. I’d come here to tackle them head-on.
I wanted to do battle with my lingering writer’s block somewhere where I wouldn’t have to stretch my dwindling income to cover rent for a Manhattan apartment. It’d come down to either living in the center of the known universe or, well, eating. And whoever had come up with the idea an artist had to starve to produce great art was clearly full of it.
The first thing that caught my eye was a display rack of Champ the Champlain Lake Monster merchandise. Much like the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, “Champ” was a popular piece of local folklore and somewhat of a draw for holidaymakers all around the lake. A cardboard cutout of Champ wearing a Santa hat invited the customers to peruse the display. I glanced at the selection of postcards and printed T-shirts and moved into the food isles.
I picked some sensible items—dried pasta, canned tomato sauce, eggs, bread, and some packaged vegetables. Then (because I wasn’t living in complete denial) I added instant coffee and a box of sugary donuts.
The doorbell rang again as I was contemplating adding cocoa to the selection. I glanced briefly above the shelves and saw a tall man in a dark blue uniform step inside. He wore one of those heavy-duty puffer jackets and a hat.
I hadn’t heard another car or a bike pull up, so I assumed he’d walked here. His cheeks were red, his pale skin flushed with the bracing cold of midday winter air. Maybe he was one of those people who found regular outdoor exercise invigorating. I shuddered.
The uniform clearly marked him as some sort of law enforcement officer. He was also handsome in that macho, all-American-good-looks kind of way I found inexplicably irritating. The blue eyes and chiseled jaw reminded me of the D-list actors who drifted from one episodic role in a network show to another for the length of their careers, relying on their appearance rather than talent to get them through.
The officer’s gaze swept over the store and lingered on me for a split second before he turned to greet the shopkeeper. I tuned out their chatter as I tried to figure out what else I needed for the next week or so. The cabin wasn’t that far away, but I preferred to avoid making frequent trips to the village if I could help it.
Having finally concluded my shopping, I took my basket over to the counter, which was decorated with green and silver tinsel. Both the newcomer and the elderly lady fell silent at my approach.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly.
The shopkeeper put on the spectacles that hung on a dainty beaded chain around her neck and began scanning my items. She looked for all the world like a prim schoolmistress in her pale-pink sweater and upswept hairdo, her gray hair almost white against her deep brown skin. However, the look she gave me above the glasses now perched on the tip of her nose was friendly enough.
“Renting a cottage or just passing through?” she inquired.
The officer turned to examine a rack of magazines near the window, but for some reason I got the distinct impression he was listening in.
“Renting. That is, I’m staying in one of the cabins, up near the lake. It’s my family’s, actually. The Kensingtons?”
“Oh, yes!” Her face lit up. “I remember. Such a lovely family; came here nigh every year in the summertime. But not anymore.”
This wasn’t phrased as a question, precisely, but her voice rose expectantly at the last bit.
“My parents died last year.” Saying it still hurt, but I’d made my peace with it enough by now to be casual about it. “The cabin passed down to me. Well, to my sister Jenny and me, but I don’t think she has much interest in coming to Vermont anymore.” Neither did I, for that matter, but I wasn’t about to say so in front of the locals. “My name is Declan Kensington.”
The old lady raised her head, her eyes going wide behind the thin golden rims.
“The Declan Kensington? The mystery writer?”
“One and the same,” I said.
The man finally picked a newspaper and moved to stand behind me. He was definitely paying attention to our conversation, though why it would interest him, I had no notion. He didn’t seem in any hurry to leave, in any case.
“My goodness!” the shopkeeper gasped. “You know, I’ve never made the connection with the Kensington family. I’m a huge fan of your work.”
“Oh, yes, Mr Kensington, am I ever!”
I was somewhat surprised that an old-fashioned-looking small-town shopkeeper would be reading crime thrillers that featured an openly gay protagonist, but perhaps I was being unnecessarily judgmental. Times were changing, after all—at least according to my Twitter feed.
She continued, oblivious to my incredulity.
“I’m Janice. Janice Bentley. I have all your books! Well, most of them,” she added almost apologetically.
I knew what she meant, of course. Even the most die-hard fans of my Owen Graves mystery thriller series had been loudly critical of the last books I’d produced, and the rest voted with their wallets. Which was why I was here, in Maplewood, in an attempt to cut down on my living expenses by taking up in an old family cabin while I worked on my next masterpiece.
And boy, did I need a masterpiece.
“Strange timing for a lakeside weekend getaway,” the man said. We both turned to look at him, and he shrugged. “It’s freezing.”
As if the fact wasn’t self-evident.
“I’m not here on a vacation,” I said icily. “I’m here to work.”
Not that it was any of their business, of course, but it struck me that saying it out loud was a commitment of sorts, as if their expectations would somehow keep me accountable. It was a bit pathetic, really, that I had to resort to such excuses to trick myself into writing, but I had to face the truth. I was fumbling my way through the worst writing block of my career, and I had to take all the incentives I could claw out. If I didn’t force the words out somehow, and soon, I might as well throw in the towel and become a junior analyst in my mother’s (and now my sister’s) financial advisory firm, waiting for a nice zombie apocalypse to put me out of my misery.
“Your light is broken,” the man said.
He nodded toward the parking lot.
“The Honda Accord. It’s yours, right? I saw one of the taillights was busted when I walked by. You should get it fixed.”
“I’ll take care of it, officer,” I said, still reeling from the unpleasant way his words echoed my grim musings. “Unless you’d rather slap me with a fine.”
I don’t know why I was being snappish, really. The officer wasn’t being belligerent, but something in his careless standoffishness irked me. That, and I was already in a foul mood; not much was needed to set me on edge.
He didn’t exactly roll his eyes at my challenge, but I got the distinct impression he did so in his mind.
“The roads here can be dangerous in winter if you’re unfamiliar with them, especially at night,” he said with a hint of reproach. “If someone is driving behind you, you might be putting them at risk. Better be safe than sorry.”
I felt instantly bad. The man gave me no reason to be rude. And besides, my behavior smacked of the kind of privileged white-male arrogance I was doing my best to check myself on.
Clearly, I wasn’t doing a very good job.
“Sorry,” I said, hoping I sounded sincere this time. “I’ll have it fixed.”
The officer nodded and pushed a couple of dollar bills across the counter to pay for his newspaper, which turned out to be The St. Albans Messenger.
“Have a nice stay, Mr. Kensington,” he said and headed out. I saw him throw another glance at my Honda before walking off down the road, the newspaper tucked under his armpit.
“That’s Curtis Monroe, our public safety commissioner,” Janice said, dropping her voice conspiratorially, even though he couldn’t possibly hear her. “He’s a sweetheart, really.”
From our very brief acquaintance, “sweetheart” wouldn’t be the word I’d associate with Commissioner Monroe, but the last thing I wanted right now was to argue the point with Janice.
“Commissioner? So you have a large public safety department here at Maplewood?” I asked, looking longingly at the till. The light was beginning to fail ever so slightly, and I was itching to be off.
Janice laughed as if I were being purposefully funny.
“Oh, heavens, no! It’s just him and Jack Gleason, his deputy. It’s such a small, peaceful village; we hardly have any trouble going on except for the tourist season. And even then, it’s mostly folks having one too many drinks and making a ruckus. You’ll be bored with us quite soon, Mr. Kensington, I’m sure.”
“You know, maybe boredom is exactly what I need right now to focus on my work,” I told her, handing her my credit card. “It looks like the perfect place to get some peace and quiet.”
In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Dusk was beginning to settle by the time I arrived at the cabin. It looked much as it did when I was a child—a robust two-bedroom bungalow, situated about three hundred feet from the shoreline, which was almost concealed from view by the thick growth of pine, ash, and maple. A small deck with a couple of ancient Adirondack chairs faced the lake, and a narrow winding path led from it down to the water’s edge.
Everything was covered in a thin layer of fresh snow, and I would have stopped to admire the lovely picture it presented were I not cold, tired, and hungry. Commissioner Monroe was right about the taillight, but I figured it was too late in the day to go looking for a car repair shop. It wasn’t as though I was going anywhere anytime soon; I could take care of it next time I was in town.
I glimpsed another house nestled between the trees a few hundred yards away, light coming out of a tiny window. It was situated farther away from the water than mine, and the forest was thicker around it, giving it more privacy. As a disgruntled teenager forced to endure what then had felt like pointless weekends away with my family, I hadn’t paid much heed to the neighbors, and now I couldn’t recall whose cabin that was. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to brave the hardships of rough living. Besides, I had to admit I was a little relieved at not being all alone in the woods at night.
I parked my Honda at the end of the driveway and hurried to get inside with my groceries. The lock was a little clunky, but thankfully, the key fit, and I let myself in. The damp, musty smell of a house long left unoccupied wafted in my face.
I switched the lights on and was greeted by the sight of the old plaid sofa and the brown rug in front of the fireplace, which was surrounded by tall bookcases. The worn spines beckoned to me like old friends from a simpler, happier time; I remembered reading them on the deck while Dad and Jenny were fishing.
Tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away, even if there was no one here to see me cry. I had too much to do before I could let myself break down—like maybe getting the heat going. The officer hadn’t been kidding when he said it was freezing up here.
That was the trouble with rash decisions. I hadn’t let myself think about the practicalities of living in what essentially was a summer cottage and the small matter of a lack of central heating. But that was part of the reason I’d come, wasn’t it? To shake things up, get out of the rut, both personally and creatively. And if that meant chopping wood and shoveling the snow in the driveway, I was willing to give it the old college try.
Leaving the lights on, I brought the rest of my things from the car before it became truly dark outside. I’d left most of my stuff in storage and brought only what would fit into a large duffel bag. Looking at it now, I probably hadn’t packed nearly enough for a prolonged stay, but I didn’t need that many changes of clothes while being here on my own.
Coming up the driveway, I’d spotted a tarp-covered firewood rack right next to the cellar door, on the south wall. I flipped on the light on the deck for some illumination and slipped outside to get some kindling for the fireplace.
My breath came out in white puffs as I pulled out the bits of wood, struggling to balance them in my arms. To distract myself from the cold creeping beneath the layers of my clothing, I turned my thoughts to my next project. If I was here to restart my career, I might as well jump right at it.
My dashing detective, Owen Graves, was losing steam. My agent had been increasingly blunt about it, and even if she hadn’t been, my recent royalty statements painted a rather unequivocal picture. Maybe there was some way I could inject new life into the series. Send Owen on a mad adventure abroad to partake in a political plot of global proportions, James Bond-style? Break his heart and have him find a new romance while exposing a government cover-up?
All the concepts seemed equally far-fetched. And, to be honest, I was getting tired of Owen and his increasingly implausible escapades. Some kind of change was in order, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what it should be.
A twig snapped some distance behind me, pulling me out of my musings. I wheeled round, nearly dropping the kindling I was holding.
My only answer was an owl hooting somewhere to the north. Darkness had settled, and deep shadows gathered between the tree trunks. It would be all too easy to imagine some sinister presence lurking out there, watching me with unconcealed malice.
A cold shiver ran down my spine. I was never the easily spooked sort, but the setup reminded me of every horror flick I’ve ever watched. I gathered all the wood I could get my arms around and hurried inside. After piling all the pieces in a niche next to the fireplace, I took another peek outside before locking the door, but everything was quiet.
This was ridiculous. I was letting my nerves get the better of me for no reason. What I really needed was a distraction.
It took me some time to get the fire going, but eventually it was crackling behind the cast-iron vertical grate, and pleasant warmth was spreading through the living room. Having stocked the little fridge in the kitchen (which was thankfully in working order), I settled down in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee and my laptop.
The silence was by no means complete, with the sounds of the burning wood and the gentle lapping of the waves filtering in, but after half an hour or so of staring at a blank screen, I found it oppressive. Perhaps I was simply tired after a long drive and needed a couple of minutes to decompress before diving into work.
I retrieved a book from one of the shelves, sat back down on the sofa, and pulled a knitted throw over my legs. I didn’t know what made me choose a collection of poems by Robert Frost; I’d never been a great lover of poetry. But something in his words resonated with me tonight, and I turned the yellowed pages with a sense of a mellow sort of melancholy until I drifted into sleep.
I don’t know what woke me, but I came to with a jolt that sent the book tumbling from my hands. Diffused morning sunlight streamed in from the windows, and for a minute, I watched the dust specks dancing in the air. I was used to waking up to the sounds of a busy city, and now the quiet threw me off.
I groaned as I sat up on the sofa and stretched my neck. The fire had died out during the night, and the room was once again cold and damp as a tomb.
“Coffee,” I muttered and dragged myself to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
After brushing my teeth and fueling up with two cups of coffee, I felt marginally better. It was promising to be a beautiful day, crisp but bright, and I decided to take a walk around the cabin, maybe go down to the water’s edge to get a better view of the beautiful lake. Yesterday, it had been too dark to survey the surroundings, though it seemed the driveway was in dire need of clearing if I wanted to park any closer to the entrance.
There should be a shovel in the shed. I put on my coat and threw open the front door, fully intending to start the day by busily procrastinating, but as soon as I stepped out onto the porch, all thoughts of work of any kind evaporated.
I stared at the piece of paper pinned to the door, my heart thumping wildly. Large letters, cut out of some printed text, were glued sloppily and unevenly to it, but the message they spelled was clear.
Get out or die.