The van’s radio sputtered in and out of static, “And this… Boston Class… Rock Station… with the greatest hits…”
“Damn it,” said Danny, adjusting the tuning dial while keeping one hand on the wheel.
Danny sat driving himself and five of his friends north for a weekend getaway. They all were in their last year of college and had decided upon a small autumnal excursion to New Hampshire to celebrate their friend’s birthday.
Danny looked to his co-driver, Mason, in the seat over, “What about you, birthday boy? Do you have any signal on your phone? I kinda need some navigation here.”
“Nada,” said Mason, “the mountains are messing with the signal.”
Carter chimed in from the back, “Oh, I’ve been up here loads of times! If you’re from here, like I am, you gotta go up to the White Mountains every once in a while. You’re going to take Exit 35 for Twin Mountain. You guys took the long way around, but you guys haven’t seen Franconia so I got outvoted.”
They drove along the parkway gawking at the jagged mountain ridges, streams, and lakes. The road got narrower as it snaked along notches and cliffs. The colors of the leaves were just beginning to turn to their autumn hues and the sky churned with the blues and grays of a recently passed rainstorm. Each vista was as breathtaking as the last.
“Nothing wrong with taking the scenic route,” said Sarah, clasping Carter’s hand, “wait, is that a ‘Moose Crossing’ sign? Will we get to see one?”
“I hope not,” said Carter, “those forest giants can stop a car and be perfectly fine after! You gotta keep close attention driving up here.”
“You can drive on the way back, then,” said Danny, “I’m getting tired as it is. We left Boston three hours ago and we ain’t even there yet!”
“Yeah, traffic on the interstate picks up this time of year. You should see it during peak foliage!” said Carter.
“This isn’t peak?” asked Danny and Mason at the same time.
“Hell no! Actually…”
From the back, Megan interrupted, “Um, guys, are we almost there? I really need to use the girl’s room…”
From her side, arm locked in hers, Oscar spoke up, “I thought I told you to go at the rest area!”
“And use that disgusting outhouse? No way!”
Grace, squished in the side, was unamused, “You do know we’re staying in a cabin, right? In the middle of nowhere? It ain’t exactly the Ritz. You didn’t even use the regular toilets at the rest stop before Concord!”
Megan huffed and sat silent.
Danny turned the radio dial blindly as he kept his eye on the road. Suddenly, it crackled to life amidst the ever-present static. “...enue à Radio Québec, où… une heure de smooth jazz… mais d’abord les nouvelles urgentes… a échappé à la justice! Faites attention…”
“Ah great! And the radio’s gone to French!” moaned Megan.
“Jeez, Meg, it’s almost like we’re up near Canada…” cracked Grace.
Mason rolled his eyes, chuckling.
“And before the festivities get going, I just wanted to say thank you, Danny. Your planning made this whole thing possible,” Mason said.
“It’s nothing, bro.” Danny smiled. “‘Sides, it was Carter who suggested the mountains. I don’t think any of the rest of us have ever been.”
Oscar spoke, “At least it seems the weather’s holding out.”
He was followed by a chorus of Oh, come on and You had to say it.
“What?” he asked, oblivious.
“I know you ain’t a New Englander like us,” said Mason, “but you’re just inviting some bad karma there!”
“Never tempt the weather!” scolded Carter.
“Oh, come on, now!” said Oscar indifferently, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
The group moaned and complained. Megan punched him in the shoulder.
“Don’t tempt fate, either!” said Danny, “Great, is that a storm cloud ahead?”
The van pulled off one gravel road and onto a narrower raised gravel road that meandered through dense rows of pine trees and underbrush.
“Are you sure that was the right turn? This road isn’t even paved!” Megan said, concerned.
“Positive… right Carter?” asked Mason.
“Never been up this road before. Must be…” he replied.
“Well let’s - DANNY, WATCH OUT!” Mason yelled.
Danny slammed on the brakes. Everyone in the hind seats lurched forward.
“Ah, my neck,” moaned Oscar.
“Was it a moose?” asked Sarah, looking out the window.
Danny stepped out of the car. Mason, Carter, and Grace followed.
“What happened,” asked Grace.
“The road’s out.” replied Danny.
He gestured forward. A wide section of the gravel causeway had washed out and was currently a shallow creek.
“I don’t think we can drive over that.” Danny said.
“Yeah, it’s been a wet summer and it hasn’t let up,” Carter added, “It’s more common than you think.”
“We should call the owner,” Grace said, “but I’m not getting any service out here. Are you, Mason?”
“Zilch,” he said.
“Well, we could always go back…” Grace started saying, “Find a motel...”
“Good luck finding a vacancy this time of year. Besides, you don’t want to drive here after dark.” Carter said.
“What, you scared of the dark?” Mason teased.
“What?” said Carter, “No, this ain’t Boston. There are no streetlights for miles around. Visibility is terrible at night. But I would be lying if I said it wasn't creepy.”
“You’re right,” said Danny, opening the van doors, “Come on, everyone! We’re hiking it! It should only be a couple miles at any rate.”
“But I’m not wearing shoes for a hike!” moaned Megan.
“I told you to bring some!” groaned Oscar.
“Come on, if we make a good pace, it should only be an hour.” Danny urged.
The group retrieved their things from the van, locked it, and then began the hike across the gap and up the approaching hill.
The group approached the cabin exhausted.
“Oh, my feet!” moaned Megan, “Any my shoes are all scuffed up!”
“I have dibs on the shower if there is one,” shouted Grace.
“Dammit,” said Carter and Sarah simultaneously.
Despite it only being late afternoon, the sun was descending past the mountain ridge in the west, bathing the valley in an early shadow. The cabin itself sat on a small rise in the middle of a clearing with a small fire pit in front. Snuggled onto the side of the cabin was a small gasoline generator, which was not running. Off to one direction, there was a small pond and creek down the slope of the hill.
“Oh, it must be infested with mosquitoes and ticks!” whimpered Megan.
“For once, I agree with you…” Sarah grinned, digging a small green spray canister out of her bag, “...Which is why I brought bug spray.”
“My hero,” smiled Carter.
“Mine as well, I’ll need to borrow that later,” said Danny, “but did anyone bring the mosquito nets?”
Everyone exchanged silent awkward glances.
“Well, let’s hope the place has an AC unit.” he sighed.
They walked up to the cabin door and went inside. There was a small kitchen and dining area in the first room with a bathroom -more appropriately a toilet and shower room- and two bedrooms lined with bunk beds adjoining it.
“Make yourselves at home,” said Danny, leaving his backpack near the door. “I’ll go start the generator. Anyone want to try getting a fire going out front?”
“This early?” asked Grace.
“Why not?” answered Danny with a grin. “It’s a tad chilly, we could use something to warm the bones.”
“Sure, why not? I can give it a stab,” said Carter, “just give me a moment.”
Danny and Carter went outside after stowing their things in the cabin.
Danny went around the side as Carter began gathering wood. Danny saw the generator was only a small thing, rated to produce just enough volts to power the cabin’s lights and utilities he reckoned. It sat under a wooden overhang in the open air, enough to protect it from the elements but also properly situated to keep the exhaust vented outside. A mess of jerry-rigged extension cords snaked out of the contraption, up the side of the wall, and into the cabin via a window shut upon them.
“This looks safe,” remarked Danny as he found the generator’s primer button and ignition pull cord.
He read the instructions on the side. He pushed the primer button three times and attempted to pull the cord once, twice, and then three times. The generator then rattled and hummed to life.
From inside, Danny heard Mason shout, “Let there be light!” and then some half-enthusiastic cheers from the rest of the group.
Satisfied, he returned out front to check on Carter. He saw he had amassed a small bundle of firewood and out-of-date newspapers in the brick-lined fire pit and was attempting to light them with a comically small match.
“Third time’s the charm,” he said, shielding the match’s flame from the wind.
In moments, the newspaper ignited and a small fire began growing.
“That’s more like it,” said Danny, “now let's get everyone out here and get some hot dogs roasting!”
In short order, the group went outside and picked some appropriately sized sticks from the woods. They cleaned and sharpened the ends, skewering them with hot dogs, and then held them over the growing flames. The shadows over the valley deepened and the wind began shifting and rustling the trees, the sweet smell of mountain air and pine providing a pleasing contrast to the graying sky. Everyone stared at the roasting food silently except for Carter, who had a sly look in his eyes.
“You know, there’s a lot up here in the White Mountains,” he began, “from the native Abenaki to the early colonists, all sorts of things were seen to have inhabited these woods and valleys.”
“Is this your lame attempt at a ghost story, Carter?” japed Oscar.
Megan punched him in the shoulder, “Be quiet.”
“Thank you,” continued Carter, “where was I? Oh yes… ghosts, curses, tricksy creatures who live in the dark places nobody goes. From the wood devils to the pukwudgies, cursed rivers to the ghosts of homesteaders who met tragic ends, these mountains are home to many fearsome creatures of myth and legend…”
Sarah tugged Carter’s sleeve, “Babe, you’re about to drop your dog in the fire…”
“Hmm, what? Christ on a cracker!” he scooped his link away from the flame and blew on it as one end was becoming a bit too black.
The group started laughing and Carter joined in, too.
Mason grinned, “This is great! When was the last time we all did this?”
“What?” asked Grace.
They all looked in silence. Carter started eating his dog right off the skewer.
“It’s been a while,” said Danny.
Suddenly, thunder rolled in the distance and a cold wind howled. The campfire flickered wildly as some quick drops of rain began falling. The group looked at each other in sheer panic as they grabbed their food and ran indoors. Within seconds, a torrential rain doused the fire and battered the cabin.
“Wow, that was close,” said Grace.
“No kidding,” said Danny.
The pale electric light lit their faces as the sky was darkened by thunderheads.
“Wait, where are Oscar and Mason?” asked Megan.
“What?” asked Danny.
Suddenly, the power went out and the generator was silent.
And so it begins! This is the first chapter of Judey Kalchik's Birthday Mystery Challenge, a group project made by several of your favorite Vocal writers. The aim is to pass each chapter off to the next writer in a game of narrative telephone and develop the story in new ways. There shall be twists and turns abound!
The next chapter is written by Doc Sherwood:
Lastly, I would like to give a shout out to Amanda Starks, who kindly offered to co-edit this chapter.
About the Creator
I am an archaeologist and amateur story-teller. On my profile, you'll be in for fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional thriller. History, horror, whimsy, and adventure lie in wait. Feel free to comment and interact.
From New Hampshire
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme