By the time we got to Shadow Lake, my grip on Ivy’s hand had loosened. Her head bobbed with the sway of the truck as Kenny drove us up the mountain to the place we’d live until our memories of the life we knew faded like apparitions in the presence of a priest. The sound of tires gripping the road and the truck bed squeaking had stirred me from a fitful sleep, a dream where we were running through a fiery corn maze, long, leafy stalks diving towards us, orange swords we ducked and dodged.
“Are you okay back there?” Priscilla asked, her tone concerned, with a hint of pity, understandably.
I nodded and watched Ivy’s face muscles twitch. On the floor under her feet was the brown, teddy bear she named Kat.
“We’re almost there,” Kenny said, assuring us that the six-hour drive had not been in vain.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Priscilla pointed at the trees, a dense forest home to animals I didn’t want to come face to face with, at the lake, its eerie stillness.
“It’s nice,” I obliged.
The enormity of it all felt suffocating though the air was crisp. Rugged mountains loomed, snow softening sharp ridges. Faint sounds tickled our ears the way sweet berries awakened tastebuds. Kenny followed the bumpy path to a large lodge and parked the truck. He took a deep breath and then exhaled, taking off his seatbelt as he opened the door.
“What do you think?” he pointed at the wood-framed structure, its windows big, revealing.
“Aren’t we supposed to be hiding?” I asked.
“We’re safe here,” he turned to face me, his tone serious. “All of that stuff,” his hands danced in the air. “It doesn’t exist here.”
I nodded and unbuckled Ivy’s seatbelt. She stirred and leapt up, gripping the arms of her booster seat as she looked around at the unfamiliar terrain.
“We made it,” I rubbed her back. “Let’s get out and take a look around.”
Kenny and Priscilla walked ahead a bit letting their childhood memories of the place guide them along the walkway, up the stairs, and into a roomy foyer, what used to be the check-in area for hunters, I imagined. The floor was marred where there had been furniture, long scrapes and scratches, dusty wood that was once shiny.
“Wait until you see the kitchen,” Priscilla motioned for us to follow her down a long hall and through a set of double doors into an industrial-sized kitchen. “The meals we can cook in here,” she jeered.
“There’s just three of us,” I reminded, opening ovens and stove tops.
“Everything works,” Kenny nodded. “Let’s go see the rooms, shall we?”
A long banister with small chips in the wood framed a ladder-styled staircase. On either side was a row of rooms, the doors wedged shut over time, cobwebs draping the frames. The smell of aged cedar hung in the air. Musty sheets covered furniture–full-sized beds with long posts and tall headboards; long dressers with attached mirrors; small bathrooms with standalone showers; and windows overlooking the forest.
“This doesn’t give hunter vibes,” I said when Priscilla pulled the sheet off of an antique clock.
“Hunter vibes?” she laughed.
“Didn’t you and Kenny come here with your dad?” I asked. “To hunt?”
“Not exactly,” Priscilla kept laughing, ignoring Kenny’s ominous stares.
“I thought you said…” I started and Kenny took Ivy out of my arms. “This wasn’t a hunting lodge?”
“Not solely,” he explained. “Let me show you where we’ll be sleeping,” he led us to a large room the size of a small apartment that looked to have already once housed a family. A king-sized bed faced the window, a twin-sized bed lined the adjacent wall joined by an armchair, and a tarnished crib still with the bedding of the previous user had been placed in the corner. There was a bathroom with a shower and a tub, a vanity, a walk-in closet, space to play, lots of space to play, to watch, to wait.
“We won’t be needing this,” I attempted to move the crib.
“Don’t worry about that,” Kenny said. “I’ll get it later…why don’t you and Ivy get settled in, and Priscilla and I will got get the stuff.”
“Sounds good,” I said, looking forward to cleaning the place, making it ours.
Ivy jumped on the bed while Kenny and Priscilla unloaded the truck. One by one they filled the room with boxes of clothes, necessities, things that reminded us of home. I began wiping surfaces, organizing clothes in drawers, shoes in the closet.
“Mommy, it stinks in here,” Ivy complained, sliding off the bed.
“No one has lived here in a while,” I explained, the words sliding across my tongue like lies. “Let’s open the window,” she followed, patiently awaiting fresh air.
I pushed and pulled the lever, but it didn’t budge so I turned my focus to the cobwebs and the corpses of bugs and spiders.
“It’s a mess,” I said as Priscilla walked in carrying a box of Ivy’s toys.
“Look what I found,” she sang, letting the box slide to the floor in front of Ivy. “When did you get all of these toys?” she asked, rustling Ivy’s hair before heading back downstairs.
“Hey, can you tell Kenny, the window is stuck?”
“Uh…sure,” she smiled and slapped the door frame.
Ivy played with her toys on the floor, and I went inside the bathroom. I cleared the medicine cabinet of expired aspirin, bandages, and a small jar of baby teeth.
“Mommy,” Ivy screamed as she ran into the bathroom.
“What it is, sweetie?”
“There’s something under the bed,” she cried.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” I walked her back into the room. “Let me see,” I got on the floor and lifted the bedspread.
A plate of moldy food stared back at me. I gasped, glad it was just moldy food, but concerned that there was moldy food in the room, a sign we weren’t alone.
“Kenny,” I yelled, but Priscilla appeared.
“Hey,” she placed a box of photo albums and personal papers on the bed. “What’s up?”
“This was under the bed,” I pointed at the plate. “There was someone here,” I began, looking around the room.
“Lots of people were here,” Priscilla acknowledged.
“Something feels off though,” I said.
“After everything…you just need time to get adjusted,” she smiled and left.
Ivy went back to playing, the sweet sounds of her imagination calming. I pulled the bedding off what would be her bed, and in the process of examining the mattress that lay exposed, I bumped into the armchair, exposing what looked like a small cabinet built into the wall.
“What’s that, mommy?” Ivy dropped her dolls to see what I was doing.
“I’m not sure,” I said, maintaining a curious tone to mask the uncertainty building in my chest.
I cracked open the door and stared into the empty space.
“You found it,” Kenny said, setting the snack bag on the chair.
“What is it?” I asked, stepping back and forcing a smile.
“A dumbwaiter,” he laughed.
“Really,” I laughed, the tension in my jaw lifting.
“What is a dumbwaiter? Ivy asked.
Kenny explained and offered to show her how it worked.
“I’ll go downstairs and send something to you,” he said. “What should I send you?”
“Cake,” she squealed.
“I’ll see what I can find,” he tickled her and then stood to face me.
“This room needs a lot of work,” I complained, wiping the sweat beads on my forehead. “I couldn’t get the window open; there was food under the bed and who knows what else,” I pointed at the plate. “And we need to wash the bedding…”
“We will get all done. I promise,” he pulled me in for a hug. “I have an idea,” he kissed the top of my head. “Why don’t I make us some food and we can relax for a while?”
“Yes,” I agreed, letting my shoulders slump as I followed him towards the door.
“Do you want to see how the dumbwaiter works now or later?” he asked Ivy.
“Now,” she jumped up and down.
“Okay, stay here and I’ll send something,” he winked and closed the door.
Ivy stood in front of the dumb waiter, dancing, fidgeting, waiting for something to appear. I don’t know how long we stood there, maybe five minutes, maybe ten, before a sinking feeling came over me. I walked to the door, quietly, careful not to disturb Ivy’s excitement, and even before I reached for the knob, I knew it would not open.
“We’re safe. We’re safe. We’re safe. We’re safe,” I repeated in my mind, looking around the room at all the boxes, the furniture that had been used and then covered, preserved for the next set of guests who’d spend their days in the wild, their nights secluded in rooms that smelled of cedar logs. But what if now there were only nights and the protection we sought turned out to be scarier than any ghost of the past?