[Editor's Note: The Witch of Wellesley Island and its Chapter 1: The Scream is longer than usual articles and once published will be placed on a page of its own: Stories/Plus. Over the winter we hope to add more material to this section including fiction, artwork and poetry.]
For me, the summer season ends too quickly each year. Just as the leaves begin changing, we pack up and winterize the cottage in Clayton, NY, pull the boat, and head south to Pennsylvania. This Thousand Islands story, however, begins on Halloween.
When I was a kid, a television commercial for a popular candy, often handed out for Trick-or-Treat, boasted that it featured two great tastes (chocolate and peanut butter) that taste great together. That's what I'm aiming for here; a somewhat scary (but fast-paced and fun) mystery set in the heart of the Thousand Islands.
And what better setting? The St. Lawrence's scenic beauty is an excellent backdrop, along with charming river towns, ancient forests, granite cliffs, castles with towers and secret passageways, ghost stories, and legends of all sorts!
However, I do have an admission to make. As I write this introduction, I'm not entirely sure where this story is going. My 9-year-old son, Lee, and I talk about it. He has contributed some pretty good ideas. During this strange COVID-19 year, I have made writing this story and enjoying Halloween a priority, as traveling along this road seems to make everything else seem a little less weird by comparison!
So please join us on this journey and together we will find out where it leads! Patrick Metcalf
The Scream, Chapter 1
Everything seemed to take a little longer that day than it should have, and before they realized it the afternoon had slipped away. The evening sky was unusually vibrant, and what began as a typical pink and orange sunset over the Canadian portion of the St. Lawrence River, had turned to blood-red and a deep, rich purple. The late October air was crisp and still, and the water lay oddly placid like a mirror beneath stained glass.
Pete and Sarah Holiday were closing up their parents’ cottage in Grandview Park for the season. There was always a twinge of sadness that accompanied this annual task which meant that another summer had come and gone. The various communities on Wellesley Island became nearly vacant during the cold months. All the closest neighbors were already gone, and their empty cottages sat unlit in the lengthening shadows. The silence was heavy and unsettling.
"Whose brilliant idea was it to close up on Halloween, anyway?” Pete asked sarcastically. They laughed.
“Are you worried about missing trick or treating?” said Sarah. “You’d probably be the only recent college grad out begging for candy tonight.”
“I was never in it for the candy.” Pete raised an eyebrow and smiled. He ignored the barb about college. She had graduated on time, and he had not. She liked to remind him of that.
“Yeah, it’s been a while since your last harebrained scheme,” Sarah said. It was more of an accusation than an observation. She narrowed her eyes and stared at him trying to foresee what unnecessarily complicated shenanigan was taking shape inside his head. They were not identical twins, but they had an uncanny ability to know what the other was thinking. It was a perpetual chess match. Their sibling rivalry was always there, just below the surface. Sarah was usually not the instigator, but she was no doormat. The temporary “prank truce” could dissipate in an instant, especially since their current circumstance was so laden with potential.
Pete smiled innocently. “It never even crossed my mind.”
“He said as he was hatching a diabolical plot…,” said Sarah dryly. “It’s a waste of your time, I don’t scare easily. I’m not a kid anymore.”
It was true, she wasn’t scared of Pete’s tricks, but she was acutely aware of the fact that they were far behind schedule. She looked out the window and was surprised by how quickly the light was fading.
“Hey, remember when we were eight years old and I convinced you that if you dressed up like a witch and the moonlight touched you after 8pm you would stay a witch?” Pete said, obviously enjoying the recollection.
“And then you turned my watch back an hour and kept me out trick or treating past eight? Yeah, that was hilarious.” Sarah gave him a disapproving look.
“In my defense, I didn’t think you’d actually cry!” said Pete.
“I was eight years old!” she said. “And you took my picture!”
“Yeah, I still have that one! The crying witch pic, that was great. But hey, in 11th grade, that thing with the fake pig’s blood, that was intense, right?”
And so the reminiscing continued as they finished up the chores. Prepping the cottage for the long, cold winter ahead was a systematized process. Pipes needed to be drained and primed with antifreeze. Rat poison and dryer sheets were placed strategically to keep the rodents at bay. And many things needed to be brought home. They both carried boxes and other items down the path to the dock, and Sarah wondered whether it would all fit into the family’s boat. She would repack it if necessary, she thought, since she was more careful and more organized than Pete.
She was trying to remember what else from the cottage needed to be brought down when a single leaf floated slowly and gracefully past her face. It was like a little orange hang-glider. Sarah’s load was precarious, and she could not turn her head to watch it drift toward the ground. She wondered if she might be able to hear the leaf touch down since everything was so quiet. She strained to listen. Just then an owl hooted loudly in the tree above, and Sarah nearly jumped out of her socks. She cursed, and then recovered nicely after almost dropping everything in her arms.
“What the heck…” she said.
“Totally not my fault,” said Pete. He laughed and took a box from her that was about to fall. She looked up into the dark branches, trying to spy out the avian culprit.
“Stupid bird,” she mumbled. “Like he needs your help.”
“WHO?” said Pete, imitating the owl.
Her responses were terse, but Sarah did actually appreciate Pete’s joking around. They were trying to keep the mood light. There was an uneasy feeling in the air, and both of them were wishing they had wrapped up sooner. Night was almost upon them, and they would have to cross the river, including the shipping channel, in the darkness. They knew the route by heart, but over the years many experienced navigators had fallen victim to the St. Lawrence’s nefarious hidden shoals. The boat had a GPS unit, but even still, making that trip at night was not without risk.
Once everything was loaded, they went back up the hill to the cottage for one last walk-through, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. They split up and took a quick look in each room, and began to turn off the lights. Sara finished first. She walked across the kitchen, and stood in the open doorway, staring down through the trees toward the water. Pete stood motionless and peered into the last bedroom.
“I feel like I’m forgetting something,” he said.
“You’d forget your head if it weren’t attached.” It came out a little more sharply than she intended. She was ready to go.
“No, I’m serious.” He was deep in thought.
“Is everything checked off the list?” Pete pulled it out of his pocket and went through each item again.
“Then we’re done,” Sarah said definitively. She walked out onto the porch.
“I guess.” Pete frowned and stuffed the list back in his pocket. “Alright,” he said trying not to sound anxious. He walked to the door. The thought of turning off the lights and being locked outside was not appealing. He hesitated.
“C’mon,” Sarah urged.
“Ok, let’s get out of here,” Pete said as he locked the door, flicked off the last two light switches, and stepped outside. He pulled the door shut. The noise seemed louder and more unpleasant than it should have.
“The official end of summer,” Pete said, and smiled weakly.
It was growing darker by the minute. Without the porch light, the path to the dock was dim and choked with shadows. The walk under the immense, silent trees was a bit unnerving, like trying to sneak past sleeping giants. It felt like there should have been some sort of normal outdoor noises… crickets, the sound of a distant boat motor, that inconsiderate owl again… but there was nothing except the sound of their own footsteps. Pete and Sarah found themselves trying to be as quiet as possible, and hushed their voices even though there was no need.
In the gathering darkness, they untied the boat and pushed off from the dock. The river seemed unnaturally calm, numb almost, and unaffected by wind or current. The ride would be chilly. Jackets would be necessary, and of course life preservers. They spoke in whispers until Pete put the key in the ignition and started the motor. Sarah pulled up the bumpers. The sound of the trusty outboard immediately helped to quell the tension. It felt good to be underway, and the red and green glow from the boat’s navigation lights seemed at least a little bit cheerful.
Their destination was the marina at Fisher’s Landing on the American side of the river, where their boat was to be winterized and stored until the spring. They rounded the point and passed Lee’s Island and headed south. Eel Bay stretched out before them, flat and ominous. The last traces of the dying sun, shimmering and sanguine and reflecting on a surface as flat as glass, faded completely. The night became a mass of impenetrable inky blackness, since there was no moon or stars for light or navigation. The experience was somewhat disorienting. They were half way across the bay when Pete brought them to a complete stop.
“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.
“I saw a light,” he said.
“There shouldn’t be anything there. That’s the ridge beside the Narrows up ahead. Or, I’m confused about which way we are going.”
“Ok, so look at the GPS,” said Sarah.
“Yeah, thanks Captain Obvious… I am.” Pete was starting to get irritated. He was trying to be careful and didn’t appreciate his sister’s tone.
“Geez… sorry.” Sarah smiled in the darkness remembering how they used to fight and argue as kids.
This whole situation was ridiculous. The glow from the GPS screen on Pete’s concerned face struck her as somewhat funny. She pictured them telling the story of this trip to everyone at Thanksgiving, and she knew that Pete would be sure to embellish all the details to make it as dramatic as possible. It would surely become an epic tale, with Pete casting himself as the dauntless hero. He never had enough restraint to keep his stories believable.
“Hey, did you hear that?” he said.
“Hear what?” All Sarah could hear was the quiet purr of the four-stroke outboard idling softly. She assumed he meant that something didn’t sound right with the motor, a mechanical problem of some sort. The thought crossed her mind that they might end up bobbing around out there in the dark in a disabled boat. There was never a good time for boat problems, but Devil’s Night just after sunset seemed less than ideal. She remembered that they had cell phones and felt better. It would be an annoyance, not a crisis. They could call for a tow boat.
“I thought I heard a scream,” Pete said.
“Seriously, Pete. This is not the time for this.”
“Just listen.” He cut the idling motor, and they were enveloped in complete silence. A few seconds ticked past.
“This is…” she began and then stopped short. She heard it too. It was faint, but it was definitely a scream. “Is that someone in trouble or someone having too much fun?”
“Look over there, just to the left of Mosquito Island,” Pete said. Visible through the darkness was a very faint glow of firelight on the top of the peninsula behind the small island.
“Probably some high school kids partying around a camp fire or something,” Sarah said.
“It’s kind of dry out for a fire,” said Pete. “Not too smart.”
“There’s nothing up there. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“T.I. Park is nearby,” said Pete. In its heyday, Thousand Islands Park had had several major fires. Pete thought of the pictures he had seen of the Columbian Hotel engulfed in flames as it was burning to the ground, in the summer of 1911.
“It’s at least a mile and the fire would have to cross South Bay. Seriously, quit inventing problems. We need to get going and get across the channel.”
Sarah thought about the deep and broad expanse of the river that they still needed to traverse. She envisioned a gigantic cargo ship, eight stories tall and a quarter mile long, in the channel between them and the marina. A ship that size would never see their tiny boat in the dark, and certainly couldn’t stop should they be unfortunate enough to be adrift in its path. The thought of it made her uneasy.
“Fine,” said Pete.
Just then they heard another scream. Pete cursed under his breath. “We need to get closer.”
“Pull over toward Mosquito and stop the boat and we’ll try to see what’s going on,” said Sarah. Pete started the boat, and he drove swiftly over to the spot Sarah suggested. He stopped and cut the motor again. They listened intently for several minutes. It was completely quiet and still.
“Nothing,” said Pete.
“Alright, we should go. It’s impossible to say what that was.” Sarah was growing impatient. They should have been in Fisher’s Landing by now, she thought. She pictured them having dinner and a beer at Foxy’s, and laughing and telling old stories about misadventures on the river. Instead, they were in the middle of this current misadventure that was getting less funny all the time.
“Hey, look up there,” said Pete. Through the trees on the top of the hill they again saw a faint flicker of what appeared to be a camp fire.
“If you’re that worried about it, call 911 and tell the police,” said Sarah.
“And tell them what? That we saw a camp fire, and heard someone yell? They’re not going to come all the way out here to check that out.”
Pete was a bit of a bleeding heart. Sarah knew, no matter how remote the possibility, the thought of someone out there in distress was more than Pete could bear. She remembered as a kid, when he found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest, how he would rescue it and feed it by hand until it was old enough to fly. Even so, her intuition told her that there was something dangerous before them.
“I think we should leave,” she said.
“It’s probably nothing, but I have to go see. I’ll be quick, I promise.” Sarah sighed. She knew Pete couldn’t be dissuaded.
“I may regret saying this, but I’m hoping we’ve already seen the weirdest part of this night.” She wasn’t normally superstitious, but it was Halloween, so she knocked on the gunwale of the boat.
“Ummm… that’s fiberglass,” said Pete.
“Close enough.” Sarah smiled and realized that she was actually happy to be there with her brother on this strange adventure. Somehow, Pete always managed to coax her onto the road less taken, whatever the circumstance. She was the focused and rational one, and he was prone to bite off more than he could chew. He was good at that. She took a deep breath and resolved to do her best to keep him out of trouble. They shared the same birthday, but she was the big sister.
Just then, the clouds started to part to the east. They both stood up and watched as an enormous full moon emerged low on the horizon. It was as orange as a pumpkin.
“Right on cue. More weirdness,” said Sarah shaking her head. “What’s next?’’
"That’s the perfect backdrop,” said Pete.
“For a horror movie, maybe…”
Pete turned and walked to the back of the boat. He rooted around and found an essential item necessary to sweep the cobwebs off the boat when it sat idle for a while. He proudly handed her a broom, and she could see him grinning in the moonlight. “Go ahead,” he told her. “Take it for a spin and I’ll get your picture.”
By Patrick Metcalf [All rights reserved ©2020]
Patrick Metcalf began vacationing in the Thousand Islands, more than 20 years ago, when his grandmother and her two sisters rented three houses for a week, each summer in Fine View on Wellesley Island, and invited their families from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. Patrick spends as much time as he can each summer, on the River, near Clayton, NY. He began writing to entertain his son Lee, who is now nine years old. Patrick resides in Shippensburg, PA, holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration, and is a Marine Corps veteran. See all of Patrick Metcalf's TI Life works here..
Chapter 2, "A Brush with Evil" of the book The Witch of Wellesley Island, will be published in December 2020.