In the spirit of Halloween, we're pleased to announce a special event—a suitably horrific epic from Geoff Manaugh that will be running in two parts, beginning below. Tune in tomorrow for the finale. Saying more would risk spoiling things, so, enjoy, and happy All Hallow's Eve. -the ed.
At first, Peter didn’t believe what he was seeing: the lights of a boat coming toward the island. After sunset, in this weather.
He stood there at the kitchen window watching as the boat lurched in the river’s swells. Wind thudded against the walls of his cottage like a sledgehammer. Every news station in upstate New York had warned people to stay off the roads—and, of course, to stay off the river. Who on earth would come out to the island in this?
Rolling up and down in the waves, the boat fought its way behind the pines on the island’s westernmost tip. Its lights flickered briefly through the trees before the boat disappeared from view.
A few minutes later, Peter had to wonder if he had seen it at all.
He was sitting in his father’s old armchair, drinking whisky, reading a novel, when lights appeared in the woods outside. Peter was the last person on the island—most had left soon after Labor Day—and he wasn’t expecting any lights. He walked back over to the kitchen window and saw they were coming from the Ostermans’ place up the hill—which was strange, he thought, because the Ostermans hadn’t come to Summerland at all this summer. It was the first season they had missed on the island in decades. Now, in the middle of an historic storm at the tail end of October, they decided to make the trip?
Peter stared out the window, watching for movement, but heavy walls of rain and the wind-lashed woods between his cottage and the Ostermans’ made it impossible to see much of anything.
He went back to reading until a different thought occurred to him. What if it wasn’t the Ostermans? It could be someone familiar with the tourist rhythms of the river, coming out to loot the uninhabited houses, a burglary crew specifically preying on off-season islands in the Saint Lawrence. The intensity of the storm be damned, Peter realized: if anything, the weather would only give them better cover.
But why would burglars turn on the house lights?
Peter waited another few minutes, watching for signs of a disturbance, but all he could see was endless rain and the cottage around him rocking in the wind like a ship at sea. He soon finished his drink, took his novel to the bedroom, and, within a half an hour, turned out the light.
He dreamt of burglars. He woke up at the slightest sound, convinced every creak of the storm was someone walking around inside the cottage. Small branches knocked free by the wind outside pattered down the rooftop, sounding like feet. At one point, Peter was so convinced it wasn’t the Ostermans who had come out to the island, he actually got up and went back to the kitchen window.
The Ostermans’ house lights were still on, including the kitchen. If it was burglars, why leave on the lights? But, Peter thought, if it was burglars, they might come for his cottage next.
“Fuck,” he whispered.
Another failed attempt at slumber, with more flashes of panic at wind surging through the woods—or was that someone hammering?—and, the next thing Peter knew, grey anemic light was sliding in around the bedroom curtain. He had slept a total of thirty minutes.
Unshaven and dehydrated, he stumbled into the kitchen to make breakfast.
“Nice day for a walk,” a woman’s voice called out. It had an edge to it, a hostile tone that exceeded mere sarcasm. Peter looked up but saw no one. He had been watching the ground, hiking uphill over the fallen branches of trees, kicking his way through sodden piles of leaves. The rain had slowed, enough to risk venturing out on a walk, but everyone in upstate New York knew the worst was yet to come.
The woods here were not thick, but they were old. It wasn’t a forest you could get lost in; it was one that could trip you up and break your ankles. The land between his family’s cottage and the Ostermans’ had never been cleared, meaning many of these trees were older than the United States. They grew in gnarled clumps on broken knuckles of bedrock clenched like fists beneath the soil. It was something that had always unsettled him about the island, one reason he hadn’t visited in ten years. It was a landscape defined by ancient things that seemed indifferent—resistant—to the humans passing through.
On clear days, the hills would flash and glint with bits of quartz in the northern sunlight, shining along old scars carved by the Ice Age, but nearly a week of worsening rain and heavy cloud cover had given the island a dull, leaden air. It felt funereal—which was appropriate, Peter thought, knowing that his parents would never see this landscape again, that his very reason for being here so late in the season was because of their deaths. That he was stuck, alone on an island in the Saint Lawrence River, eight days after every other human had left for the season, precisely because there was so much yet to take care of. Packing, recording, attaching shutters, draining pipes.
“Wasn’t expecting anybody here,” the woman’s voice said. “Not in October.” There was a clear tone of disappointment.
At last, Peter saw her: a small figure in a dark green, hooded raincoat standing amidst the trees at the side of the Ostermans’ house. Her face was stern with worry, eyes inflamed by sleeplessness or drink, grey hair sprayed out from beneath her hood like clumps of pine needles.
With a shock, Peter realized it was Grace Osterman, the matriarch of the family and one of his mom’s oldest friends, going back to their childhood summers here on the island. Her arms were crossed. She was watching Peter approach. Her expression was not inviting.
“Oh, hi, Grace,” Peter said, trying to sound friendly. He realized that he looked no better—sleep-deprived, unshaven, his mouth still dry from too much whisky the night before. In a pointless race to make his way through his father’s whisky, he was, of course, drinking too much. “I thought I saw your boat last night. You got in late!”
“It’s Peter, right?”
“Don’t think I’ve seen you in fifteen years,” Grace said. “You stopped coming out with your parents.” She made it sound like an accusation, as if Peter had consciously rejected everyone on the island—and, in a sense, he supposed, he had.
“It’s only been ten,” Peter said, as if that would make it better, and he forced a laugh. They hadn’t seen each other in ten years, he thought, but, from her face, it looked like twenty. “You know, I’m glad it’s you,” he said, trying to lighten the tone. “I was worried last night it might be burglars.”
“Burglars?” Grace said. She looked at the swollen river. “I don’t even think burglars would come out in this.”
The comment just made Peter more curious. Why had Grace made the crossing?
She got to the question first. “Why are you out on Summerland so late?” she asked. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” he said. He tried to sound friendly, figuring Grace had simply been through a rough night, unable to sleep after a violent journey on the river. “I got… stuck, I guess, by the storm and by closing the cottage up by myself,” Peter answered. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done it. And, you know, I’ve—I’ve been going through my parents’ stuff, which is a lot harder than expected, and—”
Grace flinched and caught her breath. “Oh, Peter,” she said. “I should have said. I’m so sorry about your parents.” It was a flash of the old Grace, the kind Grace, the motherly neighbor Peter remembered from his childhood summers on the island. “They were such a dear, dear part of this island. I knew your mother for forty-five years! I was devastated by the news. We all were.”
Peter appreciated her words more than she could know, but he was terrible at responding. In fact, these conversations had grown no easier over the past few months; Peter had to console his parents’ friends at the same time that he somehow had to adequately express his own sense of mourning. It was an emotional juggling act that he did not enjoy.
“Thanks,” he muttered. He tipped his head down to avoid being pelted in the face by rain, but it looked to Grace as if he was trying to hold back his emotions.
A distant crash of thunder rolled across the landscape and Grace squinted up at the treetops. “Why don’t we get out of the weather?” she said.
She gestured to the open front porch. They stood there under the roof for a few minutes out of the rain, watching the rolling metallic swells of the Saint Lawrence River. Some of the waves were already seven or eight feet tall and the worst of the storm wasn’t due till midnight. There was not a single boat to be seen.
“I feel like I’ll be here another two weeks,” Peter said, “sorting through things. Closing up the cottage. Packing up my parents’ books and photo albums. And the storm is making everything worse. I’ve been the only person out here for eight days.”
“You think that’ll take two weeks?” Grace’s icy tone had come back and, with it, the implication that she wanted no company on the island. “Can I help with anything—pack some boxes…?”
You mean, get me off the island faster? Peter thought. They looked at each other.
“What brings you here?” he asked. “Coming out on a Sunday night, in a storm, in late October?”
Grace looked him, puzzled. “Peter,” she said quietly, “it’s Thursday.”
He froze, not only embarrassed, but worried for his state of mind. As it had done when he was a kid, Summerland’s isolation was getting to him.
“We thought it was the best place to come,” Grace finally answered, ignoring his lapse.
We. So Grace was not alone.
She seemed to assess Peter for a second, then moved to preempt his next, most obvious question. “I’m here with Caroline,” she said. “Do you remember Caroline? She was older than you.”
Caroline—my God, of course, Peter remembered Caroline. He said as much. He and Caroline had been on the island together several summers, back when he was 13, 14 years old, and she was a 16-year-old athletic knockout. She had always been the adventurous one, the outdoorsy one, jumping off high rocks into weed-filled waters or taking the Ostermans’ canoe all the way into Canadian waters near sunset, visiting uninhabited islands on her own. But Peter hadn’t thought of her in years.
“Caroline is sick,” Grace said. “We came out here to—for her to recuperate. She always liked it here.”
“Wow,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that.” It must be worse than Grace was letting on, he knew, if they came all the way here in a Nor’easter. But at least that explained it: Caroline had come here to die. Peter’s already bleak feeling about his time on the island grew darker.
“It’s not terminal,” Grace said, as if reading his mind. “It’s just—we need privacy. And time. For her to get better. Caroline really shouldn’t be around people.” The emphasis left no doubt that Peter’s presence on the island was an unpleasant surprise.
“Of course,” he said, because he got the message; he would leave them alone. “Well, vice versa,” Peter replied. “If there’s anything I can do to help… You know where to find me.”
“We do,” Grace said. To Peter, it sounded oddly like a threat.
As he turned to walk downhill, back along the forest path to his family’s cottage, now his cottage, Grace spoke up. She seemed to have changed her mind.
“Caroline,” she said, then hesitated. Peter looked back and saw her face shaded by the porch roof, only the dark green of her rain coat and her silver shock of her hair visible. “It’s—it’s the medication. She sleeps during the day. We’re up all night together now. She’ll be awake later. It might do her some good to see an old family friend. If you want to come back over, come by then. Come by after dark.”
Peter spent the rest of the afternoon trying to rush through the last of the packing, determined now to leave the island as soon as the storm allowed. If the weather reports were to be believed, that meant at least another two days. Two more days—two more nights—of sitting around the island suddenly felt like house arrest. Worse, somehow he felt more alone than before the Ostermans arrived. He fended off a few more calls from work, passive-aggressive efforts to get Peter back to the city. At this rate, we might have to take you off the project, his boss said, making this involuntary stay on the island seem less like a death in the family and more like career suicide.
He had to get back, Peter knew—but he also needed to leave.
An hour or two before sunset, Peter remembered his mom’s old photo albums. He had packed them just a day or two before. He opened up one of the boxes on the living room floor, and, toward the bottom, dug out the island albums, thick with photos going back nearly four decades.
He was looking for pictures of Grace and Caroline, to remind himself of what they used to look like. He remembered Caroline mostly through the haze of his adolescent libido. Standing on the rocks in her two-piece swimsuit, she had been a goddess among the islanders—or at least among the island’s younger boys.
Sure enough, he found the album. There they were, Grace and Caroline, standing next to Peter’s own mom, Danielle, the white tops of sails visible on the Saint Lawrence behind them. The Ostermans were beautiful in a Germanic way, Caroline powerfully built, self-possessed, her posture assured, Grace’s face tanned and open, as if the Osterman family didn’t have a care in the world.
He could smell the smoke before he saw it. It boiled up and out of the Ostermans’ chimney in a thick white cloud, buffeted and ripped by storm winds. It wasn’t yet sunset, but Peter had grown impatient, hoping to pop over, see Caroline, have a quick drink, and be back inside the cottage again before the storm picked up. He slipped an unopened bottle of his father’s whisky under his rain coat and headed uphill.
Grace greeted him at the door. “You’re early,” she said, eyeing Peter as if he couldn’t follow simple instructions, “but come in.” She looked up at the sky. Peter realized she wasn’t checking the weather; she was judging the daylight. “Caroline should be awake soon.”
Peter left his boots and jacket by the door, and presented her with the whisky. She had already opened some wine, she said, and, without asking, poured him a generous glass. The bottle, he noticed, was not simply open; it was nearly empty.
Although he had been inside the Ostermans’ house many times before, Peter had never seen it in this condition. Having been locked up since last season, more than a year, the house was still basically dormant. Heavy winter shutters, more like solid wood boards, were locked across most of the windows and dust covers were draped over the antiques. Still, the house never failed to impress; compared to his family’s cottage, it was a mansion, a maze of old rooms with built-in shelves, maritime décor, and wood paneling on nearly every wall.
As he stood in the kitchen, sipping his wine, he gradually noticed that there were almost no lights on beyond the kitchen, and he could hear a persistent dripping sound. It was not the rain outside, he realized. It was coming from inside the house.
“You guys have a leak?” he asked.
“We do,” Grace said, surprised he had noticed. “It knocked out most of the circuit board.” She gestured with her wine glass toward a nearly pitch-black living rooming. “Head through there—and just ignore the darkness. Half the house has no power. Sit by the fireplace.”
Peter walked forward into an unlit room, feeling ahead for furniture he might bump into.
“The silver lining of coming up in the middle of a storm,” Grace continued. She was now just a voice speaking behind him in the darkness. “Is that I caught the leak. Of course, now I have to fix it.” It was the first time all day Peter had heard her laugh.
The sound of the drip had gotten louder and he realized it was near the edge of the living room. Water dripping, dripping, dripping into a bucket.
Finally, they reached a room with electric light. “Have a seat near the fire,” Grace said. “Stay warm.”
Peter had remembered the Ostermans’ front room here affording amazing views of the river, no matter the weather, but he was dismayed to see the winter shutters had not yet been taken down. The room was boxed in with no view of the outside, and thus no natural light. The fire gave the room a radiant glow, with deep, rolling shadows. It felt like sitting inside a cave.
They sat there across from each other on antique chairs as a minor waiting game began. Who would be the first to speak?
It was Peter. He hated the tension. He took a drink of wine and said, “I’m not sure you said what happened to Caroline. It’s, like, an infection, or…?”
Grace, of course, knew she had told him nothing. She drank her wine, a generous swallow. The firelight made the lines on her face as deep as canyons.
“They aren’t exactly sure,” Grace began. “At first they thought it was a strange new strain of leishmaniasis, but it’s likely a—a blood thing. An infection of the blood.”
“Leishmaniasis. A lot of soldiers get it,” Grace replied.
Peter was beginning to realize how long he had really been gone from the island, from the lives of the people who summered here. “Soldiers?” he said.
Grace looked disappointed. Peter would have known, her expression implied, if he had still been visiting with his parents all those summers, if he had stayed a part of the island community.
“Caroline joined the Red Cross straight out of college,” Grace explained. “She was always adventurous like that. I’m sure you remember. She’s been in the Middle East for nearly three years now—Turkey, Syria, even a few months in Iraq. She got it from a soldier—a guy from New Mexico, in the National Guard. He was into caving, she said. They think he picked it up in one of those caves down near the border with Texas. Some of the deepest caves on Earth. Places no one has even mapped yet. He came back from leave already infected, and was symptomatic before his plane hit the ground. It got…” Grace took another gulp of wine. “It got really bad within twenty-four hours.”
As she talked, Peter realized that the heat of the fire and the sealed windows must be limiting the oxygen in the room; that, combined with almost no sleep the night before and a goblet-size glass of red wine in his hand, made him feel as if he was dreaming.
“Caroline was working at the blood bank,” Grace continued, “in a refugee camp. And the man, he… I guess, he broke in one night, she said. He was out of his mind. They had no idea what was wrong. Caroline said it looked like he had rabies. Other soldiers tried to restrain the guy, but he managed to break into part of the blood bank and Caroline—” Grace caught her breath, the story too difficult to tell. “Caroline said that, when they finally held him down, and they got him pinned to the floor, they were just covered in… in other people’s blood. Blood was everywhere. It’s just— horrible, Peter.”
Shadows from the fire billowed around the room like a black curtain.
“He bit her,” Grace said.
“He bit her?” Peter put his wine glass down. “What do you mean?”
“They were trying to restrain him, but he sat forward, and just—he bit her—” Grace tapped near her left shoulder blade, alarmingly close to her neck. “—up here. One bite. Straight through her t-shirt. She had a fever within a few hours and…” Grace let her voice trail off, as if she couldn’t face the details.
“When was this?”
Peter was stunned. From the Middle East to Connecticut to upstate New York to Summerland Island, in only one week. The Ostermans had not wasted time; they came here in a hurry.
“Is it contagious?” he asked.
Grace seemed perturbed by his question. “Only by blood.”
Somehow, this was not reassuring.
“She’s… She’s so sensitive to sunlight now,” Grace said, “that… that, whether it’s the medication or the disease—no one knows… I mean, the man who gave it to her, he broke out of the hospital one night. He started attacking the locals. Local villagers. But they captured him before the Army could and they—the locals, they—they tied him to a post in the middle of the street. They left him there. The Army found him like that a few hours after sunrise. He had burned to death, Peter. In the sun.”
“Jesus Christ,” Peter said, and it came out much louder than he had intended.
“Caroline said they never found any gasoline or fuel. No sign that someone deliberately set the fire. It was like—Caroline said it was like the sun had killed him.”
Peter looked up again at the wooden shutters blocking the windows and realized they might have been left there deliberately.
“Now I have to worry about the same thing happening to her. I have to… How far do I have to go to protect my beautiful Caroline? And she’s not the only one, Peter. She said other volunteers were bitten, and they’re all now with their families. One of them apparently went back home to Paris to recover.”
Peter started to say something, but he wasn’t exactly sure where to begin. To be frank, he did not like where his thoughts were taking him—sleeping during the day, burning to death in the sun. A blood disease transmitted by being bitten. He took a large drink of wine and looked at the fire. For the first time, Peter realized the room had only one door and he was sitting far away from it. He was, in a very real sense, backed into a corner.
“Why…” he began, then paused. “Why wasn’t this, like, on the news? I mean, an American soldier… burned to death…”
“Caroline,” Grace said, avoiding the question. “I don’t know if it’s PTSD or what, but… she keeps waking up… And she… The things she’s seen, Peter… She screams sometimes. These… Caroline makes sounds at night, like—”
As if on cue, there was a thud. The floor of the house shook. Then another. It was not a branch hitting the roof. It was coming from inside the house.
Grace sat up straight, as if she had let herself get distracted. She put her now-empty wine glass down and pushed an imaginary hair out of her face, to compose herself. These half-hearted attempts at looking sober only revealed that she was already drunk.
Then something new appeared on the edge of Peter’s hearing. A kind of crying sound.
Grace excused herself. Peter sat there by the fire, listening to the storm, to the winds outside, secretly wishing he could tear open the wooden shutters and look outside at the river. Then he heard that voice again—that crying sound—a level below the wind, coming from a distant room in the house.
He listened closely as something like the squeak of bedsprings or perhaps medical equipment grew louder. There was something rolling, getting closer, something coming toward him down the hall.
Caroline rolled forward out of the darkness.