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! . . . By Patrick Metcalf
Chapter 5, Unlucky Penny
The police officer who answered Sarah's phone call was surprisingly dismissive, especially considering the fact that there was an active missing person’s case focusing on the same approximate area where Pete and Sarah had heard the mysterious scream. The officer said they were under-staffed, and that he would send a detective in the morning to take their statements.
"I guess we'll talk to them tomorrow," said Sarah as she hung up. "I'm exhausted."
She looked over to see if Pete was listening, but he was fast asleep on his bed, still fully dressed, and wearing his shoes. Outside she could hear a light rain beginning to fall, but she was too tired to care. Whatever was left in the boat would last until morning. They would deal with it then. Sarah turned off the light and fell into bed. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
The next morning there was a knock on the motel room door at 8 a.m. sharp.
"A witch, you say?" said the detective. "On Wellesley Island . . . " He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head slowly. He was an older gentleman, and it was obvious that Pete and Sarah looked like children to him. He smiled and offered an expression meant to convey his interest in their story. He listened patiently, and cleaned his glasses several times with a white handkerchief, as they stood in the hotel parking lot in the chilly November morning sunshine.
"We'll look into it and let you know," he said as he scribbled a few last details into a weathered, leather-jacketed notebook. When he was done, he placed the notebook on the hood of his car and stuck his hands in his pockets.
"I know the story sounds crazy," said Sarah somewhat apologetically. "But we do have evidence."
Sarah had placed the amulet, which still had some traces of blood on it, into a plastic bag. She walked over and handed it to the detective, and he held it up to the sunlight and took a closer look. Then he stuffed it into his pocket as casually as if someone had handed him a business card.
"That's going to a lab for some sort of analysis, right?" asked Sarah.
"Oh yes, sure, that's standard procedure," said the detective. Sarah looked at him doubtfully. If the detective thought she didn’t believe him, he showed no sign of it. His expression remained consistently tranquil.
"So there's someone missing on Wellesley?" Pete asked, changing the subject a bit abruptly.
"At the moment . . . yes." The detective picked up his notebook and opened it again, and paged through it. "It's not of great concern. We're confident he'll turn up."
"That's good to hear," said Sarah. The detective looked at her. He adjusted his glasses and squinted a bit, as if to make sure he was seeing her clearly. He paused as if he were about to say something, and then seemed to change his mind. He jotted down a few quick thoughts and then closed the notebook and held it tight against his jacket with one arm.
“Can you tell us who the missing person is?” asked Pete.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” said the detective. “I can assure you that all relevant parties are aware of our efforts.” He scratched his head and smiled at Pete.
"Ok . . .” said Pete, who was more than a little disappointed at being stonewalled. “Is there anything else you need from us?"
"No, I don't believe so," he said. An uncomfortable moment passed as the three of them stood looking at one another.
"Well . . . thank you," said Sarah, feeling the need to break the silence, "And please let us know what you find out,"
The detective cleared his throat and smiled. "You two stay out of trouble," he said. He nodded politely and then turned and walked away. He got in his unmarked car, and Pete and Sarah watched as he drove off.
"Well, that was odd," said Sarah.
Pete had a puzzled look on his face. "I don't think there's going to be any analysis of that amulet."
"It doesn't seem likely," said Sarah.
"What was that guy's name?" asked Pete. He was terrible with names.
"Detective Hoffman," said Sarah. "Doesn't much matter, I don't think we'll be hearing from him again."
Pete and Sarah left the parking lot and walked down to the docks. It had only rained briefly the night before, but it was enough to leave a small amount of water sloshing around in the boat and saturate the cardboard boxes. They carried the soggy boxes, hands underneath to reinforce the bottoms, from the boat back to the hotel room. They spread everything out to dry. It was quite a mess.
"I thought you said it wasn't going to rain," said Sarah. She took the wetter stuff into the bathroom, and draped various items, mostly jackets and beach towels, on the shower curtain rod and on the edge of the bath tub.
"Not gonna lie," said Pete. “I’m no meteorologist.” He grinned sheepishly. He turned on the ceiling fan and shrugged his shoulders. It didn’t seem like circulating the damp air would accomplish much.
"Ughhh . . .” said Sarah. She placed her hands on either side of the sink and stared into the mirror for a moment, and then down at the drain.
"What's up?" asked Pete.
"If it rained here, then it rained there." It took a few seconds, but the thought finally registered with Pete.
"The blood washed away," he said. “And the camp fire.”
"And the charcoal symbol on the rock. And any footprints," Sarah added. "Without that amulet and the blood on it, there is no evidence."
"I guess not," said Pete.
"And the detective doesn't even think the missing person is a big deal?" asked Sarah. "How is that possible?"
"Looks like this investigation may go nowhere, Sis," said Pete. He felt bad saying so, recognizing the courage it took for Sarah to take and keep that amulet. "But there's still a chance they'll dig into it. We'll just have to wait and see."
"I'm not holding my breath," said Sarah. "Let's go get your car keys."
An hour later, Pete and Sarah were back on Wellesley Island, tying off the boat at the family dock. In the light of day, everything seemed to be back to normal, a pleasant contrast to the creepiness of the night before. But as Pete and Sarah ascended the path to the cottage, they could see that something wasn't quite right. The front door was both ajar and crooked, and there were scuff marks on the door and doorframe that made it clear someone had pried it open.
"Well that's not good," said Pete. "Raccoons, maybe?" Raccoons were often a problem at the cottage.
"Yes, people-sized raccoons with a crow bar," said Sarah grimly.
Pete grabbed the door by the knob and lifted it on its damaged hinges and carefully swung it open. They stepped into the kitchen and saw that everything appeared to be in its place. Pete picked up his car keys that were still in a glass bowl on the counter where he left them.
"Apparently not a car thief," said Pete, holding the keys up for Sarah to see. Then he stuffed them in his pocket.
"Let's look around and see what they took. They didn't break in for no reason," said Sarah. They searched the entire cottage, cautiously entering each room one at a time, but nothing appeared to be missing.
"The television is here, the DVD player is here, all the appliances and furniture are here . . . I don't get it," said Pete.
"We must be looking for the wrong thing," said Sarah. “They’ve left all the things that a regular criminal would take.”
"Let's go back through and look to see if anything has been moved or altered." It was only a few minutes into their second search before Pete called out from his bedroom.
"Hey Sarah, I think I found something." Sarah came in and quickly surveyed the room.
"I don't see anything," she said.
"The bed has been moved," said Pete. Sarah looked more closely, and the back corner of the bed, the one most distant from the door, was clearly further away from the wall than it should have been.
"Was there anything under there before?" asked Sarah.
"Nothing but old sneakers. I put them all in a duffle bag when we were packing up," said Pete.
"Let's move the bed," said Sarah. They each grabbed an end, and slid the single bed toward the middle of the room. What they found under the bed made Sarah gasp.
"It's the symbol!" said Pete. It appeared to be etched on the hardwood floor in charcoal from the burnt end of the stick. "It looks a lot like the one we saw drawn on the rock."
"It's exactly the same," said Sarah. "I'm sure of it." The image was still there in her mind's eye, as clear as it was when they saw it the previous night out near the Narrows. Except this version wasn't out in the forest, and illuminated by flashlights. It was here in their cottage, in the light of day.
Pete looked up at Sarah. She noticed that his face looked unusually pale. The symbol's meaning was unknown, but it was impossible to look at it and not feel its sinister intent. Pete cleared his throat. He didn’t want to say what he was thinking.
"Do you think there's one . . .” He paused, hoping she would finish the sentence. She stared at him unsure of what he was getting at. “Do you think there’s one under your bed?"
The thought of it made Sarah's heart skip a beat. She felt her throat tighten a bit.
"There's only one way to find out," said Sarah. They crossed the hallway and entered her room. Nothing appeared to be out of order. Sarah stood near the top of the bed, and Pete near the bottom. They exchanged an uneasy look.
"Here we go . . ." said Pete, as he grabbed a corner of the bed frame. They slid it out. Sure enough, the exact same symbol was scrawled on the floor.
"That can't be good," said Pete, running his fingers through his hair, the way he always did when he was uncomfortable.
"There's something else," said Sarah.
"What do you mean?" said Pete.
"I didn't notice it before, but there's a picture missing over there." Pete looked over to the familiar sight of the framed pictures sitting on top of Sarah's dresser. They were mismatched frames of various sizes, pictures of family members, of birthdays, holidays, and of fish caught off the dock. They were always clearly visible from the hallway when her bedroom door was open. But now there were five where there were normally six.
"The one on the right is gone," said Pete.
"Yep," said Sarah. "The one of you and I." Pete and Sarah stood there silently, looking at each other.
"Whoever was here . . ." said Pete, "knows exactly who we are."
The boat ride back to the marina at Fishers Landing was a quiet one. It was a pleasant, sunny day out on the water. They had dressed warmly and were comfortable despite the gentle but chilling breeze. They should have been enjoying the ride, but they were both deep in thought. The events of the past twenty-four hours seemed impossible. They were cruising past Thousand Islands Park, which on this day seemed both cheerful and vacant. Each of the brightly colored boat houses and Victorian-style summer homes looked happy and lonely at the same time. Sarah was contemplating that strange contradiction when Pete blurted something out.
"I am literally starving," he said. "Seriously, I'd eat out of the bait-well if there was anything in there."
"Shiner sashimi," said Sarah, smiling.
"I'm not an animal," said Pete. "I'd need a little soy sauce and wasabi."
"Of course," said Sarah. "But I think you'd be happier if we went to the diner so you could get a big plate of fries and gravy."
"YES!!!" said Pete. "Poutine!" After that Pete couldn't shut up. His stomach was clearly driving his mouth. He had a lot to say about the merits of Canadian bacon, poutine, and all-dressed chips.
The diner was just a short drive down Route 12. Pete scrolled through the song selection cards in the miniature jukebox at their table. He stopped after flipping through a few, and looked up at Sarah, who was busy studying the menu.
"Hey, Sarah," he said. "Look who got a whole page all to themselves." It was a famous group from nearby Kingston, Ontario who didn't get much airtime in the rest of the country. The unique band name had become a novelty to Pete and Sarah, which they associated completely with listening to Canadian rock stations while in the Thousand Islands. Sarah smiled. They always turned it into a word game.
"Well, it certainly will be tragic if you don't figure out what you want before the waitress gets here," she said. Pete laughed.
“I’d just order my usual,” said Pete. “Tragically chipped beef.” He raised his eyebrows, seeking approval.
“You’ve used that one before,” said Sarah. Pete shrugged, and appeared to accept her ruling.
"Hey guys, how's it going today?" It was Allison, their usual waitress. Sarah thought about how nice it was to see a friendly face after all that had happened.
"We're doing ok, I guess," said Sarah. "Our cottage got broken into."
"Wow, sorry to hear it. That sort of thing hardly ever happens," said Allison. "What did they take?"
"Well, that's the weird thing," said Pete. "Nothing really."
"I bet it was just a bunch of teenagers. Seems like they don't have enough to do around here, especially this time of year," said Allison.
"I guess," said Sarah, thinking about what they didn't say.
"In other news," said Pete, "I am hungry enough to eat an equine,"
"Then you've come to the right place!" said Allison.
"I've been talking so much about poutine since we were on the other side of the river that I am now . . . tragically hoarse." Allison looked a bit confused, and Sarah burst out laughing.
"Well played, Pete," said Sarah, tipping the brim of her imaginary hat and smiling broadly. Neither of them cared that it was a stupid game, or felt the need to explain it.
After they ate, Sarah paid for lunch. Pete was usually always broke, and had so many excuses to explain the reasons why that Sarah had long since given up on it. They went back outside to the car. Pete was reaching out to grasp the driver's side door when he spotted something on the ground.
"Hey, a lucky penny!" said Pete in an excited tone. He reached down to pick it up, and then showed it to Sarah over the roof of the car. She was waiting for him to unlock the passenger door and was somewhat annoyed.
"I'm sure it's filthy," said Sarah, who was envisioning a sticky penny positioned between a cigarette butt and some squished bubble gum on the pavement. Pete happily stuffed it into his pocket. He unlocked the doors and they got in.
"So what's next?" asked Pete.
"I was thinking I'd call the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton," said Sarah. "Perhaps we could talk to someone about those symbols. Maybe they have some sort of local significance."
"Do you think they're open this time of year?" said Pete.
"I'm not sure. Let me call and see." Sarah made the call and spoke to the curator, who just happened to be there even though the museum was closed for the season. Sarah asked a few brief questions, said thank you, and hung up.
"What did they say?" asked Pete.
"The lady said she would be happy to look at a picture of the symbol and see if it means anything to her. And she said we are welcome to drive down there and use any of their resources to try to research it. She said she would be there for a few hours and she'd help any way she can."
"Ok great," said Pete. "Let's do that."
"But, she said the person that knows the most about this sort of thing is the caretaker at Singer."
"Singer Castle?" asked Pete. "On Dark Island?"
"Yep," said Sarah. "And she said the caretaker is a bit eccentric and doesn't usually take phone calls."
"Ok," said Pete. "We'll just have to go there."
"Right," said Sarah sarcastically. "We'll just drive our boat to the castle, and go knock on the door."
"Sure. Why not?" said Pete.
"I don't think that's how it works," said Sarah.
"Ok, what's your idea?" said Pete. Sarah thought for a minute, and then scrunched up her face, which Pete knew meant she didn't have anything better to offer.
"How about we flip a coin?" said Pete reaching into his pocket for the penny he had just picked up in the parking lot.
"You just want to show off the fact that you happen to have some money today," said Sarah dryly.
"I'm rich in other ways," said Pete as he dug into his pocket for the penny. He turned and looked at Sarah, pretending to be very serious for the moment. "Heads I win, tails you lose?"
"I'm not in 3rd grade, Pete," said Sarah. "Heads, and we don't go to the castle to knock on the door like crazy people."
"And tails?" said Pete smiling.
"Tails . . ." Sarah rolled her eyes. "We do go knock on the castle door like crazy people."
"Perfect," said Pete, who was clearly enjoying the thought of it. He flipped the coin into the air, caught it in his palm, and slapped his other hand on top of it.
"You always cheat," said Sarah. "I get to call it."
"Fair enough," said Pete. She lifted his hand and looked at the penny. A few seconds passed and Sarah seemed confused.
"Call it, Sis!" said Pete. "I want to know if we're storming a castle today or not."
"This isn't a United States penny," said Sarah.
"Canadian pennies have heads and tails too," said Pete. "Call it."
"No, Pete. Seriously" said Sarah. "Look at it. Look at the date." Pete held the penny between his thumb and forefinger and looked closely.
"1865?" he said.
"Keep looking," said Sarah.
"The Confederate States of America . . . What the heck?" Pete kept staring at it. "What's this doing in upstate New York?"
“This can’t be random,” said Sarah. “Not after the day we’re having.”
“What do you think it means?” asked Pete. He was still staring at the Confederate coin with an astonished look. “Do you think this is real?” Pete majored in History in college and had an appreciation for such things. He had been keeping a coin collection since he was a kid.
"And now that I think about it," said Sarah. "I don't think I was given the correct change for lunch."
"So?" said Pete.
"The bill was $19.50. I left the tip on the table. I got back two quarters and a penny." She reached into her purse and dug out the change.
"There's no way . . ." said Pete, shaking his head.
"There you go," said Sarah holding up her penny. "1865."
By Patrick Metcalf [All rights reserved ©2020]Chapter 1: The Scream
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
Chapter 4: What Pete Forgot
Posted in: Volume 16, Issue 4, April 2021, STORIES+
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