Have a week off, they said. Take a break away from everything, they said. Spend it at this rental lodge far detached from the stresses of daily life, they said. You’ll feel refreshed, they said.
Sure! Totally! I feel completely rejuvenated being lost in the middle of nowhere.
With a heavy sigh, I squinted out through the windscreen into the darkness. My car’s headlights shone a wide beam against the trees lining the dirt roads I’d been following for hours, but revealed no clue to which was the correct route.
I slammed on the brakes as a lone rabbit shot out in front of me, which was probably highly unnecessary since I wasn’t even hitting 10 on the speed dial. I watched the rabbit freeze, blinking in the white light, before dashing back from where it had come from.
Looking beyond the bushes, I realized I'd reached another fork in the road. The forest was a labyrinth of trails barely wide enough for my car, splitting into countless different directions with absolutely no defining signs or landmarks.
I tapped the inbuilt satnav of my car, frowning as it showed me situated quite nicely in the - ah yes - the middle of nowhere.
“Goddamn Adrian,” I hissed. “This is not helping my stress levels.”
Pulling the handbrake on, I grabbed my backpack from the passenger seat beside me and dug for my phone and the printouts Adrian had given me before I’d left.
There had been a consensus at work that I needed a well-deserved break away and Adrian had been all too happy to suggest Midcreak Lodge, a cozy isolated retreat to relax and forget normal life by being surrounded by miles of forest. He hadn’t mentioned that I would be more likely spending my time being lost in the forest than unpacking my bags for the first night.
Thankfully there was a narrow strip of signal on my phone and I searched for a more detailed map of the forest.
As the webpage slowly loaded, I read over the printouts. They lavishly described a beautiful stone and timber lodge situated in the heart of Midcreak Park, with miles of forest to be a ‘buffer between you and the chaotic world of the city’. It showed photos of the lodge, the numerous rooms, the nearby flora and fauna, and of the lake a short ten minute walk away.
None of it provided a map of how to get there, other than a single line saying to take Exit 39 off the motorway and follow signs for Midcreak Park.
I’d done that, and managed to spot the tiny, rusty sign for Midcreak Lodge that had directed me onto these dirt roads.
The webpage finally loaded up, and I thumbed through the aerial and terrain views of the map. The aerial view provided me a good idea of how the top of the trees and the lake looked in daylight, but showed no hint of the roads or the lodge. The terrain view was better, with not only the slope of the ground drawn with keen precision, but also the dozen of walking trails dotted across the entire Park. Amongst the trails, larger roads had been drawn and I zoomed in, trying to find the one I’d been blindly following for the last few hours.
Finally I worked it out, but I still had no clue where the lodge was. I decided to follow the road that would take me closest to the lake, and released the car handbrake.
Half an hour later and the road I was rolling down didn’t exist on the map I’d been peering at through the gloom.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. “When I get back, Adrian...”
Before I could really plan just how harshly I’d repay my coworker, the road ahead opened up. The lodge stood dark in the centre of the clearing, the surrounding trees encircling it like tall, leaning sentries, the cover of the canopy heavy over the roof of the lodge.
I parked my car in front and turned off the engine, dragging myself out with a groan. My body ached from driving for so long and I stretched out my stiff muscles, arms held above my head.
I reached back into the car, snatching up my backpack and throwing it over one shoulder before opening up the boot to grapple with my suitcase. I trundled it up to the front door, locking the car behind me and using the torch on my phone to take the two steps up onto the small porch without stumbling.
“Second pot to the left...” I remembered from the confirmation text I’d received, looking at the plant pots lined up either side of the front door. They were empty of life, just full to the brim with soil, and heavy to lift as I balanced the second pot to the left on its rim so I could grab the key underneath.
The inside of the lodge was even darker than outside and I fumbled to find a light switch, scanning the hallway before me with my phone torch. The hallway lit up with a loud click, a stark white light that eased into a comfortable orange from the bulbs above.
I turned the torch off and pocketed my phone, walking down the hallway and peering through the open doors at the shadowy shapes within the rooms as I went.
Frames decorated the walls of the hallway, both ornate and cheap in design. The pictures inside them ranged from childish scrawls that seemed best suited to being stuck on a mother’s fridge to actual photos. No two were of the same people - a couple fishing, a family at a dinner table, a lone figure in the shadow of a tree. I much preferred the painting at the end of the hallway, the frame etched with golden petals, the brushstrokes of oil so perfect it almost seemed real. Whoever the artist was had captured the moment wonderfully: a deer drinking from the crystal clear surface of a lake, the sunrise glorious on the water.
I turned to the last door. I had passed the lounge, the bathroom, and the kitchen, so I assumed this was the bedroom. The overhead light flickered, barely puncturing the darkness of the room, so I reached my hand around the doorway to find a lightswitch.
I found it and a lamp from the other side of the room abruptly glowed bright. The pale yellow glow of the floor lamp revealed that this was indeed the bedroom and I approached the bed eagerly, dumping my suitcase on top of the bed and collapsing beside it. I could unpack in the morning, I was too tired to do anything else but sleep tonight.
But the chill of the forest touched my skin and I sighed, reluctantly picking myself up off the bed. I needed a shower and a warm drink to calm myself down after the stress of getting here, to really start off the ‘relaxation’ and ‘rejuvenation’ of my week away.
I dropped my suitcase onto the armchair beside the lamp, opening it up to grab my towel, pajamas, and toiletries before searching out the bathroom. It was a simple room - a toilet, an ugly pastel green sink that matched nothing else, and a slightly dirty bathtub with a cruddy showerhead. Too tired to scrub anything clean, I shrugged my clothes off and leaned over the bath to turn the tap for the shower. I waited, my hand out to test the temperature of the water which shuddered before pelting my skin like frozen bullets. After a long minute, the temperature hadn't changed and I wondered if there were a mains for the water, maybe a boiler I had to turn on. Again, too tired to bother with anything but sleep, I just stepped into the bathtub and clenched my teeth with a hiss as the cold of the water took my breath away.
“Damn,” I cursed, rapidly washing my body and almost tripping as I dove back out of the water onto the tiled floor, shutting the shower off with a harsh turn of the tap. “I’m gonna need that drink.”
I quickly dried off, pulling my oversized shirt and shorts on, and padded barefoot across the hallway to the kitchen with my hair still damp. I opened and closed cupboards, remembering that the confirmation text had clearly stated that food and drink would be already stocked in the lodge prior to my arrival. Sure enough, I found supplies that would last me much longer than a week, and I grabbed a sachet of hot chocolate along with a chipped mug.
I rinsed it in the sink, not daring to imagine how long it had been in the cupboard or how many people had used it and not cleaned it afterwards. It was only when I hit the switch for the electric kettle did I frown. Why was there electricity? I didn’t see any power lines on my way in, unless they were underground, so there must be a generator somewhere. Odd, I thought. Did the lodge owner turn on the generator ready for my arrival? If so, why not give me some damned hot water too?
Once again much too tired to think too hard about it, I poured the steaming water into the mug and stirred with a bent spoon. At least the hot chocolate smelt good.
I stepped away from the kitchen counter, standing by the large sliding door that opened out to the back of the lodge, and looked at my own reflection in the glass. It was too dark outside to even see what was out there, so I turned the light off and returned to staring out into the night.
Once my eyes had accustomed to the darkness, I could see the moon shine through a tiny gap in the thick canopy above, a steely white light that cast a silver glow on the lodge. I took a drink from my hot chocolate, ignoring the fact it burnt my tongue, and then paused. Just there, stood at the edge of the clearing, a tall figure watched me.
No, no, no. I checked that the sliding doors were locked and turned away, taking my mug into the bedroom. It was late, it was the forest, and I was tired. It was either a trick of the shadows, or the fact I was in the middle of a forest with a full range of wild animals.
“Goodnight,” I mumbled to no-one, and got into bed.