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
Chapter 4: What Pete Forgot
The relief that Pete and Sarah felt, as they sped through the Narrows and away from incomprehensible peril, lasted about fifteen seconds. It ended abruptly when the hull of the boat impacted something unseen, floating in the water, resulting in a sickening thud. Pete quickly killed the engine, and they came to a complete stop.
"What are you doing?" exclaimed Sarah.
"We hit something," said Pete. The wake from behind the boat splashed against the stern for a moment, and then it became very quiet. They both immediately felt how imposing the silence was with the hum of the outboard gone. Their voices seemed magnified and inappropriately loud, as though they were yelling at one another in a library.
"We're not sinking," said Sarah, much more quietly. She nodded toward the lights on the American mainland across the channel, and kept her injured hand wrapped in the bottom of her sweater. "Let's keep going."
"I don't want to knock the prop off," said Pete. He sounded a bit defensive as he trimmed up the motor. He put up a hand, seemingly to deflect any protest. "I don't wanna be the guy who wrecks Granddad's boat."
"You're killing me," she said.
"I'll be quick," said Pete, as he picked up the flashlight.
Sarah looked anxiously up at the top of the cliff. It was dark and silent. They had only traveled about one hundred fifty yards from where they shoved off the beach. Pete used the flashlight to search in the water around the boat. Moving about was not easy, since the boat was full of all the assorted items they were bringing home from the cottage for the winter, requiring him to step carefully around the boxes and clutter. Pete peered off the starboard side and discovered that they hit and had ridden up on a large tree branch. The Saint Lawrence River is one of the largest and deepest rivers in the world, and sometimes sweeps away whole trees. Fortunately in this instance, they had only encountered a portion of one, and not the entire thing.
"Huh," said Pete. "We're stuck in a treetop like a kite." It was the sort of thing that they would have seen easily in the daylight. Some of the smaller branches protruded above the surface, like the spindly fingers of a giant crustacean. Pete was relieved to see that there was no damage to the boat. "Shouldn't be a problem, nothing's broken."
The high granite wall loomed in the darkness above them. Sarah felt uneasy. She stood up and turned to her left, and her eye caught a flash of movement. A dark form glided smoothly through the trees and the shadows at the top of the cliff.
"Pete, there's something up there. Please hurry up!"
Pete turned off the flashlight and set it down on the console. He could see well enough in the moonlight. He picked up a paddle and started pushing at the branch.
"Is it the lady, or the dog-thing?" Pete always had a peculiar way with words. Sarah could see the form was walking upright, although she couldn't make out any details beyond that.
"Lady," said Sarah. "I think."
"Well, let's just call her what she is," said Pete. "She's obviously a witch."
"Obviously . . . " said Sarah. She was only partially listening. Her eyes were fixed on the spot at the top of the cliff where she last saw movement. Her eyes seemed to blur as she tried to focus on the disorienting tangle of trees, rocks, shadows, and patches of moonlight. The form had disappeared.
"She's gonna be mad you took the necklace," said Pete, his voice straining a bit as he tried to shove the branch away from the boat.
"Amulet," Sarah corrected. "What was I supposed to do?"
"I'm just saying . . . " The paddle almost slipped from Pete's hand, and he lost his balance for a moment and nearly fell into the water. He cursed softly under his breath. He was glad he was wearing his life vest.
Just then Sarah's eye caught the apparition again. It was much closer. Sarah could see more clearly now, and could make out the dark, flowing robe and the long black hair. There was no longer any doubt. It was definitely the witch.
"Pete, she's right above us," said Sarah, her voice conveying a growing sense of urgency. He turned and glanced up quickly, but not long enough to locate the threat. Sarah suddenly felt very vulnerable, almost trapped.
"Think she can jump that far?" asked Pete.
"Off the cliff?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah," said Pete. Sarah shook her head in dismay. She estimated the distance to be about 60 feet from the top of the cliff to the surface of the water.
"Pete, she's not a spider . . . " said Sarah, wondering why it was necessary to have to explain such things to her brother. A few seconds passed. The thought seemed ridiculous, but being powerless, and stuck beneath a threat that drew closer by the minute, was wearing on her. It certainly felt like they were bugs stuck in a web.
"She did turn into a dog . . . " said Pete, matter-of-factly.
"I don't think that's what happened," Sarah objected.
"Hard to say what she'll turn into next."
"Like a bat?" Sarah's frustration with Pete was starting to well up. She felt herself clenching her jaw.
"Exactly," said Pete.
"Vampires do that," she said. Fortunately for Pete, he could not see that Sarah was staring at him hard enough to burn a hole in his back.
"Are you sure?" He was half-kidding. Pete loved pranks, but he secretly hated scary television shows and movies. He honestly couldn't remember which monsters did what.
"Pretty sure," said Sarah, oozing sarcasm. "Pete, this is probably the dumbest conversation we've ever had."
"Do you think . . . " Sarah cut him off. The witch was getting closer, and had moved into a ravine that led down to the nearby riverbank.
"I'm pretty sure she can hear everything we are saying. I'd actually be embarrassed if I weren't so freaked out . . . " said Sarah.
"Then tell her you're sorry and give her that goofy trinket back." Pete moved to the stern and kept shoving at the branches.
"I can't do that." Sarah instinctively stuck her right hand into her pocket to make sure she still had it.
"Finders-keepers 'til the end, huh Sis?" Sarah rolled her eyes. Pete couldn't help but smile a bit, even though he was frantically pushing the tree branches down and away from the boat as hard as he could with the paddle. It was starting to feel like a really long time since he turned the engine off. He was beginning to doubt whether he could free the boat, and at the same time doing his best to not seem at all worried.
Sarah turned around and realized that the boat had slowly drifted toward the shore, and then she gasped out loud. Standing on a large boulder at the water's edge, as still as a statue, was the witch. Her face was masked by the shadows.
"Pete, I'm serious. Hurry up." Sarah said softly. They were getting so near that she was afraid to move.
Just then the water-logged branch gave way, and Pete was able to push it down and away from the boat.
"Almost done," said Pete, completely unaware of the severity of their predicament. He trimmed the motor back down as the boat drifted closer.
Sarah grabbed the flashlight, turned and pointed it at the witch who remained completely silent. They were less than ten yards away, and closing steadily. It was as though the boat was being pulled toward the bank by an unseen hand. The thought of shining the light on the witch and revealing her face was terrifying, but Sarah didn't know what else to do. She fumbled with the light, and pressed on it harder and harder. Nothing happened. It was as if she had suddenly lost the strength to click it on. Sarah began to panic.
"Pete, the light won't turn on!"
"What?" said Pete, as he turned around. He had only a split second to take it all in.
"GIVE IT BACK!!!!!" The shriek cut through the quiet night air like a white-hot knife.
"Holy crap!" screamed Pete. He dropped the paddle, and it clattered loudly on the deck of the boat. Sarah flinched and fell backwards on top of some of cardboard boxes.
"I SAID GIVE IT TO ME!!!!!" They were so close that Sarah could see a glint of moonlight off the witch's fingernails as they clawed viciously at the air, and a fine mist of spit that flew out of the witch's mouth.
"GIVE IT TO ME!!!!" the witch screamed again.
In that very moment, Sarah felt like a bolt of lightning had shot down her spine. "Let's go!!!" she yelled. She grabbed the paddle off the deck and began stroking furiously over the side of the boat to gain any distance possible from the shore. Pete leapt into his seat and turned the key. The motor started immediately and Pete slammed the throttle forward. The boat leapt forward, and the force knocked Sarah backwards onto the boxes again. She just stayed there for a minute with her eyes closed, trying to catch her breath, and clasping the paddle tightly. She wished it were a protective talisman that wielded a magic that could repel evil, but it was just a wet paddle, dripping with river water. She sat up and set it aside when she realized it was soaking through the sleeves of her sweater.
Pete seemed to have abandoned any concern about wrecking the boat. It was dangerous water with many shoals, but it was territory that he knew well. He kept the throttle wide-open all the way past T.I. Park, across the channel, past the Rock Island Light House, and over to the marina at Fishers Landing. Neither of them said much. They took comfort in the whine of the outboard and the wind in their faces, not to mention the distance they were putting between themselves and the Narrows.
It was getting late as they pulled into their rented slip and tied off the boat. The marina was quiet and felt abandoned. There was a chill in the air, and both Pete and Sarah had that unsettled feeling that people carry with them after awakening from a bad dream. They grabbed what they could carry and made their way back to their motel room. They went inside, turned on all the lights, and locked the door.
"We can get the other stuff out of the boat in the morning, I don't think it will rain," said Pete authoritatively, and as though he had just checked the weather forecast.
"Hey, why don't you call home?" said Sarah. "I'm sure they are wondering if we made it back ok. And I need to clean up my hand."
"Got it," said Pete. He began to dig in his backpack for his cell phone. Sarah went into the bathroom to administer some first aid to her scratches and scrapes. When she came out of the bathroom some time later, Pete was sitting on the edge of one of the beds, staring off into the distance.
"Is everything good at home?"
"Yep," said Pete.
"What did Mom say?" asked Sarah.
"She said she's glad we're ok. And then she scolded me for being overly-dramatic and prone to exaggeration, and said that you should call her to explain what actually happened."
"That makes sense," said Sarah. She smiled a bit.
"And I realized I need my phone charger, which I left in the car."
"I can't get it," said Pete.
"Remember at the cottage when I said I forgot something?" he asked.
"Oh . . . " said Sarah as the realization hit her. "You forgot the car keys?"
"Yup." Pete looked at her blankly. She could see the exhaustion in his eyes. "We gotta take the boat and go back tomorrow."
"Ugh . . . " Sarah slumped down on a nearby chair. "Well, ok. That's no problem . . . in the daylight." She tried to sound a little bit cheerful.
"And I'm sure it's not at all likely to happen twice . . . " said Pete, "but just hypothetically speaking, if there's some sort of hideous creature behind me, say at maybe ten yards or less, next time you'll let me know, right?"
By Patrick Metcalf [All rights reserved ©2020]Chapter 1: The Scream
Chapter 2: A Brush with Evil
Chapter 3: A Narrow Escape
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..
Illustration for The Witch of Wellesley Island: Chapter 4, "What Pete Forgot" is by Marie-Anne Erki ©2020, Kingston, ON.
Chapter 1: The Scream
Chapter 2: A Brush with Evil
Chapter 3: A Narrow Escape
Posted in: STORIES+, Volume 16, Issue 3, March 2021, Essay
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