Incident on Starvation Ridge
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. Matt spotted it first, tapping Alice’s arm and pointing at the glow flickering through the trees. She paused the truck’s jostling ascent and nodded silently, then eased the clutch back out slowly to keep the tires from slipping into the meandering fissure eroded down the center of road. The headlights swept across the squat structure as they rounded the bend, light reflecting off what fragments of glass still clung to the window frames. Black shadows from the porch rails and hanging fragment of porch roof were sent racing fast across the cabin’s blank face. There was a flutter of movement in the window and the candle went out.
Matt and Alice stared, wrapped in the thrumming cocoon of truck, its blaring cones of light now centered at the slumping gray back corner of the cabin and the old dead pine tree and roofless outhouse beyond.
“Look,” Matt twisted around and pointed into the darkness past the front of the building. “There’s a car or truck. It’s probably just bored valley teens.”
Alice craned around to see. “Oh, I think I see it. Yeah, maybe.” She returned to staring at the windows but it was far too dark to make out anything inside. “But… it seems like still, we should check it out. Make sure.”
“Make sure what? Stef isn’t partying with them?”
She shot him a glare. “Don’t be an asshole.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just her truck was found here. All of the searches started from here. If there’s one place we know she was NOT, it’s here. And if she has made her way back, whoever drove up here would bring her safely back down. Out of the goodness of their hearts or largeness of the reward.”
“Unless… they had something to do with it.”
He gave an exasperated sigh. Alice tensed. If he wanted to rehash the odds of foul play, or of someone with Stef’s knowledge of the area and backcountry skills getting lost for two weeks, that was one thing, but if he repeated the theory that she had gone off to kill herself…. Well, they were going to have a problem. Instead he finally said, “That would be an even better argument to keep driving.”
Hard to argue that one. “Let’s just get their plate number,” she said. Matt agreed that sounded sensible and Alice backed the truck and pulled in to shine the headlights at the back of an old Datsun pickup half-hidden by the shrubs beyond the dilapidated porch.
“What a relic. Crap, can you read that? Pull in closer. Shit, the plate’s really dirty, lemme just jump out and get it.” Matt stepped down and out into the bright beams, flipping open his Rite in the Rain notepad to jot down the number.
Matt’s head shot up. He looked at the cabin, frozen.
“What? What is it??” Alice hissed, irrationally afraid to yell like the occupants couldn’t already tell exactly where they were.
Matt unfroze, jogging back to the open truck door. “Did you hear that?”
The shock on his face was unnerving. “Hear what?”
“She – someone said my name!”
“Jesus! Did it sound like Stefanie?”
“I don’t know!”
Alice killed the engine, leaving the headlights on. “We have to go in there!” Matt nodded and caught the headlamp Alice tossed to him. She was pulling the elastic band of her own tight over her head by the time she rounded the back of the Forest-Service-green truck. She glanced over at the tools, gas and water jugs, and residual field supplies from past crews scattered across the bed and grabbed a long shovel handle, wincing at the grinding and clattering as she dragged it out from under metal t-posts. It wasn’t the best weapon, but the solid heft of the shovel felt good in her hands. Matt surveyed the remaining options and grabbed a 4-ft long t-post, gripping it with the metal-winged base held high. She nodded approval of the solid choice and they made their way up onto the porch.
Their headlamps shone in through the broken windows to the left of the door, spotlighting a few old wooden chairs and scattered piles of debris in an otherwise empty space. The light beams crossed and held together on a small table, where a squat candle sat among indiscernible low shapes.
Alice went to the door first. She clenched the shovel in her right hand and turned the knob easily, but there was resistance behind the door as she pushed. She heaved her shoulder into it and it slowly slid open. “Ow!” she barked reflexively at a spike of pain where her hand had slid hard against the wood.
“What?” hissed Matt just behind her.
“Nothing. Got a sliver from the door.”
Stepping inside, her first inhaled breath sent Alice’s nerves jangling even higher. The musty odor she had expected was underlain with the foul stench of decay. Her eyes shot down to whatever had blocked the door, but it looked to be just remnants of fuzzy white blanket. Matt coughed at the smell as he slipped in behind her and both headlamps swung frantically across the sparse furniture and debris as they instinctively scanned for prey and predator. Matt’s light settled on a furry lump against the left wall.
“Raccoon,” said Alice, focusing light on the striped tail. Matt’s light bobbed agreement. Alice stopped herself from voicing out loud that it looked like it had been viciously torn apart. Matt already harassed her for being too squeamish for a biologist and really, such was the way of death in the natural world. But she couldn’t stop staring.
He tapped her arm and pointed his light at the dark rectangle of a doorway into the back of the cabin. As they stepped closer they passed by a scattering of fresh trash on and around the table: White Claw and Bud Light cans, a pizza box. Through the doorway their lights caught glimpses of what looked like kitchen counters, but little else. Neither one was willing to walk through.
She winced as Matt’s voice broke the silence. “Hello?!?”
There was a sound like shuffling feet, moving away from them in the next room.
“We’re not here to mess with you! We’re just looking for our friend!” Matt called. More shuffling, and the creak of a screen door opening then closing with a rattling slam. Matt broke into a run then Alice followed, racing through the gutted kitchen and throwing the wooden-framed screen door open to find themselves on wide wooden stairs descending into the tall grass behind the cabin. In the chaotic swirl of headlamp lights she caught an impression of two hunched figures as they passed the outhouse and crashed away through the dark brush edging the opening and into the forest. Another sound drifted back, over the rustling. Girls giggling wildly. A lower voice cackled then warbled up into a high whooping. It set her teeth on edge – such a disturbingly unnatural sound.
“Fucking kids!” Matt spat. “FUCK YOU!” he yelled after them. “We ought to slash their damn tires,” he spat. Alice resisted arguing that they might not deserve being stranded up here for basically just scaring them, instead just letting him vent as she lead the way back inside. It was the last place she wanted to go, but she felt it was important to make sure they hadn’t missed anything important in the rear section of the cabin. A small glimmer of hope held that perhaps Matt had heard Stefanie call his name, and she was still inside.
There was one more room off the kitchen, the skeleton of a box spring mattress attesting that this was once the bedroom. The only other objects dwelling there now were small clumps of fur and feathers and more piles of the tattered white blanket. They passed back through the front room, muttering about the kind of people who could sit around eating pizza in a filthy space that smelled like a rotten raccoon.
Alice had Matt drive the last quarter mile to the road end, so she could try to extricate the sliver now throbbing away on the outside edge of her left hand. It was large enough for this to be achievable in spite of the bouncing of the vehicle – a full half inch long needle of old grey lumber. It bled rather impressively, but she held a tissue to it with only loose pressure in hopes the bleeding would help rinse out the paint, filth, and God knows what all that was on the thing.
At a wide spot where the brush transitioned from a continuous scraping along the bottom of the truck to an impenetrable thicket, the headlights caught long ribbons of pale flagging dangled from a low Douglas-fir branch. Matt killed the engine and twisted around to dig his field vest out from the clutter behind the seat.
Looking out at the dark forest beyond the reach of the dome light, it struck Alice that she felt like crap. She was nauseous and emotionally and physically wrung out, like the stress of the past two weeks had been a wave building beneath the ocean’s surface and the cabin was the beach to trigger the tsunami. She felt like she might cry, and the lingering adrenaline from the cabin amplified her usual dread of walking through the forest at night.
Matt was already standing in the open door, putting on his vest and pulling the clip board and compact megaphone out from behind the seat. “Come on, let’s go!”
“I just wish we didn’t have to do this tonight,” she grumbled.
“It’s June 30, it has to get done,” he snapped back. Like she didn’t know that already. Now anger poured into the swirl of emotions. She threw open her door and tugged her vest out from the lunch coolers that had shifted on top of it in the cluttered space behind the seat. She muttered below her breath about pricks who would send a crew back out into the forest on foot at night right where a still-missing crew member had vanished. Screw them. Screw everything.
“All right, let’s do it,” she said as she snapped her vest up, turned on her GPS and started a track log. She patted her lower left vest pocket to feel the outline of the spare battery pack, clicked her headlamp on, and felt the pocket to verify the batteries were there again. She led the way down the trail, somehow feeling less exposed with Matt’s light behind her. It helped that it took great concentration to follow this little-used trace of a path, even with the reflectors along the way to assist. But with every step she was conscious of the growing distance to the truck’s shell of safety.
At the first red reflector they stopped and Matt handed her the clipboard to start filling in the data sheet as he wrestled the megaphone and MP3 player. The recorded call of a spotted owl burst forth, “Hoo, hoo-hoo, hooooo!”
The abrupt noise splitting the silence sent a jolt of adrenaline coursing through Alice’s veins. But she jotted down the start time, then they held absolutely still and listened intently. Distant crickets, fainter chorus frogs from the wetland below, a wave of wind swelling through the canopy overhead and rushing on to the east. The waxing gibbous moon cast faint patterns of light and shadow through the trees but was close to setting behind the crest of Starvation Ridge to the west. Matt looked at his watch and played the call again.
As always, anticipation of hearing a spotted owl call in response faded with every minute, morphing into hope that they would at least not hear a barred owl. Those were all she had heard so far this field season. The spotted owls’ invading, more-aggressive cousin - when you heard one of those you basically cut bait. Stopped playing calls because at that point if a spotted owl called back it could get attacked. Increasingly, silence was survival for the more timid native owl. Like it hadn’t struggled hard enough to survive as its vast sea of old forest had shrunk and shrunk down to islands scattered among the dunes of chainsaw deserts.
Yeah, screw everything.
As the 10-minute mark passed, she jotted down the time and the usual ‘NR’- No Response. “Damn it’s hot,” she sighed, wiping her sleeve across her forehead and turning to start picking the way down the path to the next station.
“Hot? You’re usually the one who’s too cold. Here I was about to get my hat out.”
This elicited yet another surge of anger. Like now she was wrong in how she experienced temperature. And she realized that even though she’d pulled the sliver out, her hand was throbbing. And warm. Damn thing was being a wuss about a tiny piece of wood. She was missing her footing more and more often as well, stumbling over small branches and brush intruding on the trail. She might expect that clumsiness at the end of a long, hot field day, but not early in a level night hike.
Her light finally caught a red reflector and they repeated the drill. Alice took a swig from her water bottle and splashed a little on her sleeve to wipe across her forehead as they listened, but still felt just as hot. She recorded the end time and examined the screen of her GPS. “Camera station SR-4 is between here and the next calling station.”
“Yeah, I’ve got the gear,” Matt replied.
The camera was a basic Browning unit, positioned at chest height to angle up the trail. Matt opened the latch and read off the battery level and number of images: 144. He paused. “That’s not very many, unless– “….
It took Alice a moment to clear her creeping brain fog well enough to understand and reply, “Yeah, unless she checked it when she was here.” Matt flipped the camera off and popped out the SD card. His hands fumbled as he connected a card reader to the iPad in Alice’s hands and plugged the card in.
A black and white image of half a face filled the screen over a camera ID, date and time strip and Alice exhaled hard. “Stefanie. June 15, 10:32 pm.” It was the night she had gone missing.
“Seriously? No one thought to check the camera after she disappeared?” said Matt.
“Neither did we!” Alice snapped back. She flipped forward through the images. Stefanie stepped back, waving a hand in front of the camera. A pale figure in a shallow scene of ferns and tree branches, surrounded by black. The next sequence had her fastening her vest and fading into the darkness up the trail.
Next image: Stefanie coming back toward the camera, running. Mouth open, eyes wide, her long black hair streaming behind her.
“What the fuck?!” hissed Matt. He pointed at the time stamp. “11:16 pm. This was about 45 minutes later.” Alice continued advancing the images and Stefanie passed through in the span of only 3 frames. She had been moving fast. The blurred smudge of her face looked terrified.
Alice’s heart pounded as she advanced to the next image. Was it a bear? A cougar? It was another figure running toward the camera. It was upright like a person but oddly hunched over, with long pale hair covering its face. It was lean and sinewy.
“She… has no clothes?” whispered Matt.
“Clothes? I’m not sure it has skin,” Alice returned. “Time 11:18 pm.”
It passed by in two more hopelessly – or perhaps mercifully - blurred images. Alice kept forwarding through. A deer walked through. A coyote. A pair of deer. Then half the screen was white and they couldn’t tell what they were looking at. It backed up but must have been moving fast judging from the motion blur. It looked like a person – one eye and a wide, grinning mouth visible. An empty image. Then the right half of the person on the trail, looking back at the camera, mouth open wide. But her face looked strangely featureless and mottled under long black hair, and she appeared to be naked. Or rather, tightly clothed in something like tattered white fleece. The right arm was held away from the torso and strips of the material hung from it.
“What the fuck am I even looking at?” hissed Matt.
“The hair – it looks like Stefanie, like Stefanie laughing…” said Alice.
Matt stabbed a finger at the screen. “This is 4:30 am – 5 hours later!”
This swirled in Alice’s now-pounding head. She wasn’t sure how the amount of lapsed time fit logically into a framework where her co-worker may or may not have become mysteriously enveloped in fleece before disappearing. She flipped the images forward. The figure must have doubled back on the trail, because the rest of the sequence was empty. Then an abrupt shift to color daytime mode, with a pair of deer coming toward the camera. She flipped faster. Daytime and nighttime sequences of deer, coyotes, squirrels, a raccoon. They jumped at the sudden appearance of a face, but it was Matt. From just a few minutes ago. End of images.
They looked at each other. Matt finally said, “I don’t know…. I don’t know what…” he trailed off. Alice opened her mouth but before she could respond an eruption of sound from further up the trail interrupted. It was an eerie, strangled howl.
That was it - Alice turned and ran, with Matt just behind. Hysterical fear drove her and all concentration focused down to the small cone of the visible world rushing at her. The hint of pathway in the stream of leaves, fronds, and conifer needles. There were split-seconds where there were suggestions of multiple trails, but the correct choice seemed clear each time. Their crashing feet and panting breaths sounded way too loud, but twisted animal sounds came from behind – perhaps closer behind – and caution was not an option.
Matt managed to pant, “Are you sure this is the right way? I’m not seeing reflectors!”
Shit. A flare of anger at him and herself. She hadn’t even been watching for them. Yet she felt absolutely sure. “This is right!” she shouted back. At that moment her foot caught a branch and slammed her hard to the ground.
Matt - the bastard – jumped over her and sprinted on ahead. She had a distant sense that she should be furious with him, but it was like the impact with the ground had jolted all those extraneous emotions loose, and she stumbled up and ran so fast she slipped free of them. The creature behind them might trip and tangle in the slash pile of anger, fear, loss, and confusion. She almost giggled at the thought. The giggle was a bubble in her throat where fear had been. Her pounding feet jostled her brain as it considered if this was true hysteria, but if so, it was a giddy hysteria.
The mad bobbing of Matt’s headlight flashed through the trees ahead and the motion conjured an image of an inflatable tube man dipping and snapping on a sidewalk and set a giggle flying free.
Matt yelled a wild, angry howl ahead. Alice burst out of the trees behind him, onto the road. They weren't at the truck. They were next to the cabin. “God DAMN it!!” he wailed. “Godfuckindammit!”
He turned to look at Alice and froze, suddenly dumbstruck. Alice pivoted to look behind her, but the thing in pursuit was still crashing and moaning back in the forest.
“What the hell, Alice?” His voice was high and tight. “What’s on you?”
She turned back around and pondered his terrified face for a moment, then slowly looked down at her arms. They were covered in some thick white substance, spongy like a fungus or a mold. What was the difference between a fungus and a mold anyway? She giggled. Who cares?
“No wonder I’m hot,” she said, her voice sounding pleasantly slurred and soft to her ears. “I’ve got a blanket.” She laughed and started pulling it off, and it peeled loose in satisfyingly large sheets, exposing a clean dark sheen of sinewy flesh beneath. Something pure. “Do you want a blanket, Matt?”
She looked back up at him, still frozen and staring. No, evidently he did not.
He took a couple of running steps up the road but stopped again. Three dark, hunched figures stood before him. Smacking footsteps came up behind Alice and she turned to see the pursuing creature emerge from the forest. This one had long black hair.
“Matt, come say hi to Stefanie!” Alice laughed.
Matt turned to run to the left of the cabin, toward the old truck parked there. She and the others stood a moment, a ripple of laughter swelling from one to another and back.
They would give him a head start. This was going to be fun.