It was hot and still, but not silent. Up in the treetops the wind moved the branches, the rustling of the leaves like distant surf. Birds circled and called and alighted on precarious vantage points to call some more. Back up in the woods a deer took fright and bounded between the trees. A rook had dropped nest building material and it had tumbled a hundred feet, clattering against branches and tree limbs and shaking leaves all the way down.
In the woods the temperature would be almost pleasant, though as the day drew on the humidity and the bugs gave it a nasty edge. That wasn't the reason old Hank wouldn't venture into the trees, but it was what he told people. Folks around here- the ones too poor or stubborn to move away- were all like Hank, locking up tight at night and rarely being more than arms length from a shotgun. Hank had his gun across his knees now, as he waited behind the counter for any kind of custom.
Hanks' Gas, Bait 'N Supplies was hunched back in a bite taken out of the hillside by quarrymen a century and a half before. Since the trees downhill had been cleared out when the road was widened and metalled the dark rock soaked up sun for several hours every day and radiated it back for the rest. The pumps were anchored in the concrete slab laid over the gasoline store, but the rest of the forecourt was dust and gravel. The wind that rustled in the trees raised dust devils which raced each other past the pumps.
The two SUVs dispersed the devils as they swung off the road and came to a halt beside the pumps. They had probably been spotless when their journey had started, but now the gloss of the paintwork and chrome was dulled to a patina by the dust. Hank watched, not yet ready to put his gun aside, as the cars' doors opened and a gang of teenagers spilled out. Hank grimaced. Teenagers were always trouble. He put the shotgun back into the L hooks which kept it conveniently under the counter and stood with his hands in fists resting on the cracking surface.
The youths looked just like the cast of any number of television shows. Did the TV folk have a good eye for detail, Hank wondered, or were the kids just too dim to come up with there own style? He knew what he thought the answer was.
The driver of the black SUV was the jock type, broad shouldered, square jawed and vacantly attractive. It was too warm to be wearing his team jacket, but he had a jersey on. It was deep blue with white sleeves and a white stripe running down the sides. The number 8 stood out in red on the front and sleeves, a quarterback. When he turned around Hank noted the name, Haddonfield.
The front seat passenger in Haddonfield's SUV was a cheerleader, wearing a tight top and short pleated skirt which mimicked his team colours. Cliché demanded that she was his girlfriend. Waves of blonde hair framed her face, which was heart shaped and as emptily pretty as her boyfriends. She had long shapely legs and firm, or well supported, fair sized breasts. Hank shelved his disdain long enough to appreciate her attributes, then cast his gaze over the rest of the crew.
Four people got out of the rear of the black SUV. There was another girl, a brunette with her hair pulled back in a pony tail, who was shorter than the cheerleader and more conservatively dressed in jeans and T-shirt. Behind her was a tall, stringy type with messy dark blonde hair, who wore a leather jacket despite the heat. He looked around, scanning the station and taking in all the details but not revealing what he felt about them. From the other side of the vehicle another couple crept out. Dressed all in black, with what little skin showed so pale they appeared to have been bled, they blinked in the sun, uncomfortable in, perhaps even unaccustomed to, its glow.
The other SUV was a less flashy vehicle, a few years older, finished in an inoffensive shade of blue and sporting far less chrome. The driver was a shortish square boy. Not fat, just wide, and not obviously self conscious about his size given the way he moved. The front seat passenger was a skinny type with glasses and uncontrollable hair. He was staring at the small device he held with both hands- phone, game console or tiny computer, it was hard to tell at this distance. Somehow he could walk without hitting anything or tripping, despite the little box he was absorbed with.
The bell above the door danced and jangled as the jock and cheerleader entered. "Hey." the boy offered as greeting. Hank nodded in reply. "We need them filled. It's been a long drive."
"'s self service." Hank grunted. It was only self service for outsiders and anyone he was feuding with.
The jock turned to leather jacket, who was just coming through the door, "Hey, Loomis. Fill 'em up."
There was an expression on the face of the boy in the leather jacket, just for a moment, which would have made the jock flinch. Then he turned around and went out to the pumps.
The geek with the magical tiny screen managed to walk through the doors whilst they were still open and clear them just before they closed. All without looking up. "Hey nerd-boy." the jock addressed him, "You got GPS on that thing?" The geek looked up and blinked, then stared around at the chipped and faded paint, the sun-bleached advertising for products no-one made any more and the old and unfriendly looking man behind the counter. He appeared confused, as if he had been in a shiny new, identikit coffee shop when he'd last looked and how could it have morphed into this? He nodded and tapped and swiped at the screen.
"We're looking for Warden's Lodge." the jock announced, plucking the offered smart phone from the geek's hand and laying it on the counter. "Have we missed the turning, or is it further along this road?" He pointed at the screen, which had one yellow line curling across it, with an inverted blue triangle impaling Hanks' Gas, Bait 'N Supplies and a red circle some way off the road, no doubt where Warden's Lodge was supposed to be.
Hank gave the device a mere glance. "No-one goes to the lodge." he announced.
"Well we are."
"No-one goes to the lodge. No-one with any sense, no-one who knows what's safe." Hank hammered the counter as he said this. The geek snatched his device back before it was damaged.
The jock leaned on the counter, glaring at Hank practically nose to nose. "Listen old man. My uncle has bought that lodge, and we're going up to it to tidy it up and have a party. So we'll be neighbours You don't want to get things off to a bad start do you? Where's the road up to Warden's lodge?"
"Tell your uncle he's wasted his money. The only thing he should do with the lodge is torch it and let the woods have it back."
"Jesus! What's your damage? I ought ta..."
The geek interrupted before punches, or any more insults, could be thrown, "It's okay Todd, I found a satellite view. The entrance is about a half mile up the road." He showed the jock the screen, "See?"
The jock had been enjoying the confrontation, in his own way, and was upset at having it defused. He turned to see the cheerleader looking at cheap baubles on a spinner at the end of the counter. He grabbed her hand and pulled her away. "Come on Crystal. We're out of here."
All the other teenagers had been watching this display, staring at the strange conversation from various points in the shop's short aisles. They all started drifting toward the door.
"Hey!" Hank called out, "You gotta pay before I'm letting you go anywhere."
The jock looked at Hank, then down at the shotgun now laid on the counter.
"Do you take cards?" he asked.
"No. I don't."
* * *
Todd was still fuming when they reached the gates.
They had driven on along the road for another mile, and still nearly missed the side road even with satellite guidance. There had been a break in the trees, a hole in the regular wall of conifers which ran parallel to the road, and a section of verge with less grass on it where vehicles had worn it down. They had done a sharp U-turn and bounced onto the track faster than was safe. For all their macho posturing, the SUVs weren't really made for off road driving, and Todd slid his all over the track, to accompanying screams from his passengers. Somehow he didn't hit any trees and managed to slow the vehicle to a controllable pace.
Pine cones and needles crackled under the tyres as the track headed uphill and curved right. The trees crowding in on both sides didn't allow more than a few dozen yards of visibility. Todd, getting over the fright of losing control earlier, began pushing the speed up again. "Todd." Crystal warbled, "We're going too fast, slow down. Tell him Terri."
"You're going too fast." the brunette in the back seat announced, checking her seatbelt was securely fastened, "There could be a fallen tree or anything round one of these corners and you wouldn't be able to stop in time."
"It's fine. And look, the track's straightening out."
The road had, indeed, straightened. But visibility was still hampered by a blind crest. As they reached the top of the crest they saw the gate ahead. It was tall, made from wrought iron with decorative curls abounding and spikes along the top. There were signs hung on it, shouting out messages in bright red, but they were hard to read as the SUV started shaking and swaying along the track under heavy braking.
The anti-lock braking system kept releasing the wheels before they slid. The juddering had scared Todd the previous time, but now he had a better idea of what he was doing. He managed to keep the SUV on the track and out of the decorative stone walls which rose up to meet the gate. He couldn't stop in time, though, and there was a cracking sound as plastic bumper met iron gate.
They all bailed out and rushed to check out the front of the vehicle. A decorative rose had punched a hole in the bumper just beside the registration and cracks spread out from it, but the grille, and the radiator behind it, were undamaged. "That's gonna come out of your allowance." Crystal told Todd. He just scowled and got back in to reverse the SUV away from the gate.
The second SUV, which had been travelling at a slower and safer speed, rolled up and its passengers got out to join the throng staring at the gate. They read the signs hanging by chains from the spikes which ran along the top of the barrier. "NO TRESPASSING!" was the most straightforward. Others read "TURN BCK NOW", "DETH AWAITS" and "DANGER!". Hanging over the chain and lock which secured the gate was a square wooden board with a symbol on it. The Goth couple stepped back in unison when they saw it.
The symbol, messily daubed onto the sign in bright red paint just like all the others, looked like an upside down, and mirrored, question mark with a bar through the upward pointing tail. "What does it mean Tiffany? Sam?" Terri asked the Goths.
"It's the symbol for Saturn. It also means Death." Tiffany replied.
"That guy last year, that fake Goth in California who killed his girlfriend, he painted this symbol all over her house in her blood." Sam added.
"It's a warning." Tiffany concluded.
"Yeah, just like the mad old bastard at the gas station. The inbreeds round here just don't like outsiders. They think they can scare us away by mentioning death and putting up a few signs. Well, my uncle owns this place now, and we're going up." Todd tugged at the sign a few times until the wire holding it to the chain gave way, then he threw it aside. He had to try four different keys before he found the right one for the padlock, and it took some persuasion to open. He threw the rusted up lock after the sign. "We'll get a new lock before we leave. This one's no good any more. Loomis, help me open this gate."
The hinges had rusted and collapsed. The two sides of the gate dragged along the ground as they were opened, accompanied by squeals of protest from the hinges. But eventually they were opened wide, and the SUVs could be driven through. Terri stepped through and swept the cones and needles from a section of the track with her foot. "Hey, this bit's been laid. It's a proper road from here on."
Most of the track up to the lodge had been tarmacked, but the surface had suffered too many winters without being tended to and it was almost as rough as the dirt pack from the road to the gate. "They'll have to get someone in to fix that," Todd grumbled, "And finish it all the way back to the road."
After a while they broke out of the tree line, and crossed a humped stone bridge over a large stream. The lodge was off to their left, across what should have been a wide expanse of lawn but had reverted to meadow. The track skirted the lawn, initially taking them away from the lodge then dog-legging back toward it.
It was a big wood framed colonial looking building, with two floors and an attic bay window jutting out of the roof space. The roof extended ahead of the front walls, supported by columns. A veranda, up a short flight of steps, ran all the way along the front with a balcony above it. The windows were shuttered and the paint faded but, for a few yards at least, the grass had been cut around the building. "It doesn't look abandoned." Terri observed.
"The previous owners had people come up and do maintenance on it once or twice a year. There was some sort of family feud kept them from selling for years, but they didn't want it to fall down whilst they waited for the fight to be settled." Todd replied. He pulled the SUV up at the far end of the verandah and they all exited the vehicle.
Todd started going through his collection of keys as they all followed him to the front door. He brandished what he thought was the correct key as he mounted the steps onto the veranda, then stopped dead. "Oh, f'fucksake."
Carved into the heavy wooden double doors was the same symbol as had been on the gate, the upside down, inverted question mark with a cross bar. The damage had been done several years before, judging by the faded coat of paint which partially obscured it. Todd tried the key. It didn't work. He tried another, and then another, before he could get the door to open. "Fucking hicks. Think they can vandalise private property and then try to scare us away to hide it. Bet they've cleared this place out." He put all his weight behind thrusting the doors open, and got a satisfying crash in return as they hit their stops. Then he strode angrily into the foyer before looking round at the elegant double staircase which ran up either side of the open space to a grand landing which ran along three sides and opened onto the balcony. He stared up and there was a chandelier above him- dusty but extravagant- and around at the numerous paintings on the walls.
"Or maybe not."