Watcher In The Woods


Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

Unspoiled peace and serenity.

That’s what the job description from the Kentucky State Park service had said. It sounded beautiful, but most lies do.

I applied for a position as a winter caretaker for Caskey Mountain State Resort Park, more out of desperation than passion. I had a decent gig as a welder for a mining implement company, but with mines snapping closed rapidly, I was one of the first laid off. Desirable work in eastern Kentucky is few and far between. You take what you can get.

Caretaker work at the state park paid well and I was a bit confused why the spot hadn’t been filled that close to shutting it down for the season. Caskey Mountain closed on the first day of November and opened on the last day of March the following year. The park superintendent hired me ten days before the shutdown and my training was rushed, to put it mildly.

The area wasn’t known for terrible winter storms that closed down the roads accessing the resort, but the distance to the closest town and remote location made the choice to shutter the resort in the coldest months their best financial option. Paying the cooks, clerks, housekeepers, and maintenance staff would cause them to operate at a loss with so many rooms left unoccupied.

Jimmy Hoppus, the head of maintenance, gave me the dime tour when I arrived. I would be given a simple two-room cabin during my five-month stay. Throughout the winter, I was to perform rotating checks on all of the cottages, lodge rooms, and maintenance buildings. Everything but my lodging had been winterized and shut down for the season. My job was to patrol for any unexpected damage or signs of trespassers.

Fallen trees and teenagers, Jimmy told me, would be my largest struggle over the winter.

Towering oaks lined the seven-mile drive from the resort to the main road. He told me to expect one or two to fall across the entrance while I was there. There was a key on my loop to the main maintenance shop where I could use a chainsaw and pickup to drag it out of the road for the opening season crew to clean up before operations resumed.

Kids from the closest town would be a concern, he had said. The locals knew the resort would be shuttered for months. Most paid it no mind, but it presented itself like a challenge to the teenagers down the mountain. The rural area was an ocean of options for high schoolers to vanish into a field to swill cheap beer from solo cups around a roaring bonfire in the spring and summer. During the winter, breaking into the empty cottages on Caskey Mountain was the next best thing.

“If you spot any kids shackin’ up in the cottages, give ‘em the boot,” Jimmy said as he handed me a laminated list of phone numbers. “If they won’t leave, call the sheriff first. He’s closer but prolly won’t send anyone up. Kind of an asshole. Call the state police next. It’ll take ‘em near an hour to get here though.”

A sheriff that would respond and a state trooper an hour away wasn’t exactly comforting, but I needed the work. I shook Jimmy’s hand and waved at him as his battered pickup truck pulled over the hill and toward the main road. My five months of solitude began and a knot balled in my stomach. The cold winter wind howled through the trees as I turned to walk back into my cabin.

* * * * *

Every morning felt like a scene from Groundhog Day. The clock radio would blast out a warbling country song and I would slink to the closet to toss on my work clothes and a thicket jacket. After a few cups of coffee and a microwavable oatmeal cup, I would head outside and slide into the white maintenance truck parked outside.

Each cottage had to be checked once a week for broken windows and then check for signs of intruders. There were twenty-one in total, so I settled on doing three a day. I’d scan the roads for fallen or sagging trees and make notes on my clipboard of where I may have to return later in the week for cleanup. Afterward, I would walk through the main lodge checking all the doors.

It left a lot of time to sit idly in my cabin. I left the television on most of the time. Thankfully the resort left the cable running through the winter. Wifi was available but spotty, provided by a cut-rate satellite service. My kindle sat beside the careworn recliner and I had carefully loaded it with what I hoped was a winter’s worth of reading.

It didn’t take long to get lonely, though. Jimmy told me I could leave for brief periods if I needed to, but it seemed like more of a pain in the ass than it was worth. The nearest town, Slate Run, was forty miles away. Factoring in the winding two-lane roads and having to watch for deer in the treeline, the trip would take me an hour or more. All of my food was provided and stored in the lodge kitchen, which hadn’t even left me with an excuse to go grocery shopping.

On day four, wrapped in my thickest clothes, I started walking the trails after work. The scenery was breathtaking. Although the trees were stripped of leaves, the acres of oak, maple, and evergreen pines were gorgeous. A waterfall fed by a large creek tumbled off a rock ledge into a flowing creek. The sun was beginning to set and I watched it dip below the distant horizon.

I did just that every day until mid-December.

My daily hike was nearly over when I heard a rifle shot followed by a gut-wrenching scream. My heart thundered as the shrill cry echoed through the mountains around me. I scanned the area around me for the source but realized it was coming from the direction of my cabin. I turned and ran down the flat trail toward the sound. Ear-piercing bleating whimpers of pain swam into my ears as I hurried forward.

When I reached the trailhead and turned toward the cabin, I could see a body on the ground near my cabin. There was an expanding pool of blood on the ground around it. My pulse hammered in my temples as my feet made hard contact with the ground. Fumbling through my pockets, I tried to find my cell phone to call for help only to realize that I had left it on my bedside table. As I neared my cabin, my view of the body had finally come into focus in the failing light of day.

It was a deer. Blood poured from a hole in its side, collecting in a puddle around its belly. The thing’s legs kicked weakly at the gravel on the drive. Hot bursts of breath drifted into the dusk sky as it trashed with the last of its energy. A final labored grunt sounded and the deer fell still.

I kneeled beside it, looking for something I can no longer remember. Behind me, a sudden scramble in the foliage sounded, scaring me and making me run for my cabin door. Someone had been in the treeline behind me, only twenty feet back.

It didn’t occur to me until I had locked the door and drawn the shades that whoever it was had likely shot the deer that sat stiffening in the cold moonlight. Someone in the middle of the Kentucky wilderness. Someone with a gun.

* * * * *

Jimmy had been right about the sheriff. I had called him as soon as I locked the cabin door that night and reported the gunshot and dead dear. The man on the other end of the phone laughed quietly. Probably some poor hillbilly who missed hunting season in November, he assured me. I told him how they had run away without their kill and he laughed again. What man in his right mind would try to collect an illegally killed deer in the sight of a state employee, he asked.

It seemed like a fair enough point. Maybe it had been a late-season hunter or some poverty-stricken man trying to put a little food on the table. It didn’t make me feel any more relaxed, but my mind tried to rationalize the icy fear flowing through my body.

Before I could say another word to the sheriff, he had already hung up. I sat in the cabin for the remainder of the night, eyes glued to the door, clutching a pistol I’d stowed away in one of my duffel bags. Technically, it wasn’t legal to have it on state property, but I was certainly glad I decided to skirt that rule.

My afternoon hikes came to an end after that. I stuck strictly to my daily security checks and headed directly back to my cabin afterward. While I had previously cooked most of my meals in the lodge and ate in the dining room, I started bringing a few days worth of food back to my cabin and cooking it on top of the old wood-burning stove.

It was a Monday morning and my rotating checks flipped from cottages nineteen to twenty-one back to cottages one to three. Throughout the winter, the worst thing I encountered during my checks had been a broken window in cottage seventeen. A branch had blown in during a gusty night and lodged itself in the lower pain. I’d taken a piece of plywood from the maintenance shop, cut it to size, and covered the window. The maintenance crew would take care of it on arrival.

I put the maintenance truck in park in front of cottage one and started up the path. My mind wandered between thoughts of what book I would read that night and what I may cook when I noticed the mud on the wooden steps leading toward the door. My heart skipped a beat and a low ringing sounded in my ears. I might have tracked the mud on the steps, but I was usually careful to scrape them off on the welcome mat at the base if I had to go inside.

Sliding my hand into my jacket, I wrapped my fingers around the handle of my revolver. When I reached the top of my steps, I slowly turned the doorknob. My bowels turned to water as it turned completely. The latch clicked and the door pushed open an inch. I hadn’t been there in a week, but I always double-checked to make sure the doors were locked before I left.

Chills danced over my body as I pushed the door open and called out a shaking greeting. I asked if anyone was inside, but no one responded. Silence and the thick smell of decay rolled over me as I walked into the one-room cottage. The fetid smell of decay was overwhelming and I pulled a handkerchief from my back pocket and held it to my nose.

I slipped the gun from inside my jacket and leveled it unsteadily in front of me as my eyes scanned the room. It was disheveled. All of the covers from the queen-sized bed were pushed into the floor. Empty beer cans were carelessly scattered across the hardwood. Flies buzzed around a strange, greasy pile by the stove.

As I neared the unidentified pile, I pushed at it with my boot. Wet fur, matted with blood slapped disgustingly against the floor and a pile of small, blood-streaked bones scattered nearby. The pelts looked like they had come from a raccoon, shredded and maggot covered as if discarded by a wild dog. My stomach turned and I vomited near the pile of carrion.

Mopping my mouth with my jacket, I scanned the ransacked cottage again. A piece of paper sat alone on the small table near the window. I walked quickly toward it and picked it up. My breathing became labored and panicked as I read the sloppy handwriting.

Mundy – Cottij 1, 2, 3

Twosdy Cottij 4, 5, 6

Winsdy – Cottij 7, 8, 9

Thorsdy – Cottij 10, 11, 12

Fridy – Cottij 13, 14, 15

Satoordy – 16, 17, 18

Sundy – 19, 20, 21

It was my damn patrol schedule of the cottages written in a childish, misspelled scrawl. I ran from the cabin and jumped into my truck. The tires kicked up dirt and gravel as I fishtailed onto the road heading for the state police post near Slate Run.

* * * * *

A state trooper followed me back to the resort and performed a check of the cottage. One by one, we both went to all of the other buildings on the property but found no signs of an intruder. While the trooper wasn’t as dismissive as the sheriff had been, he told me there was little they could do. Break-ins there were common, especially among the teenagers in the area. He had never seen any of them leave anything as disturbing as the pile of animal parts in the past, he said, but the littered beer cans had teenage partiers written all over them.

Before he left, he told me the state patrol would do their best to send someone to the area once or twice a week to check-in. I nodded, but the sense of unease sank deeper into my bones. I made a call to the superintendent of the resort and told him I was going to stay in the cheap motel down in Slate Run for a few days, but he reminded me my contract made it clear I was to remain on the grounds. I made a brief protest, but he only responded by telling me there were plenty of people in the area that wanted a job.

I resigned myself to working through my fear.

The superintendent had agreed to allow me to travel home for Christmas day and a trooper would patrol the resort while I was gone. Intrusive thoughts crept through my head throughout the visit.

Stay home. Just don’t go back. Quit. Find a new job.

I didn’t have the common sense to listen to any of them. There were no other jobs without making a move. A move would require money that I didn’t have. The job I had would give me the money to make the move.

It was a vicious and inescapable cycle.

So I went back to Caskey Mountain and resumed my duties. Cottage one had been boarded up and yellow crime scene tape fluttered in the cold January breeze as I drove by. The next few weeks, while uneventful, went by uneventfully. No more dead deer or cottages filled with carcasses. The daily grind kept me occupied and a steady diet of television and books filled my nights.

I always felt like I could hear something moving outside during the night, but I never lifted the blinds to look.

It was near the end of January and I was just finishing my daily rounds. It was later in the day than usual. The alternator on the maintenance truck had gone out and it had taken most of the morning for me to change it out. I had decided not to start my rounds until after lunch which made it nearly dark before I pulled the truck into the parking spot near my cabin.

I had just cut the ignition and started toward my cabin door when the smell of smoke filled my nose. There was nothing out of the ordinary at my cabin, so I turned to look toward the main area of the resort. Thin black plumes drifted over the trees in the distance from the direction of the maintenance building.

Checking the back of the truck, both fire extinguishers were secured in the covered toolbox. I jumped in the driver’s seat and fired up the engine as I thumped open my phone and dialed 911. The reception was spotty and while I could hear a static-tinged voice crackling in my ear, I wasn’t able to understand their words. Feeling frustrated, I hung up the phone and hoped they would dispatch a unit to the resort to check on the unanswered call.

When I arrived at the maintenance building, smoke was already pouring from the vent caps on the roof. I pulled an extinguisher from the truck and headed for the door. Fumbling through my keyring, I found the maintenance key and opened the door, and looked inside.

A stack of pallets sat smoldering in the corner of the metal building and I cautiously walked in. Pulling the pin from the tank, I aimed the nozzle and swept it from side to side. Billowing clouds of white chemicals burst onto the flames. It took a few minutes and the tank was nearly empty when the flames finally died down. My lungs ached from inhaling so much smoke and I headed back outside for some fresh air.

I leaned against the cold metal of the building and sucked in deep gaps of clean air. My pulse was still flying as my lungs pulled in deep gulps. I pulled my phone from my pocket and tried to call 911 again, but the call never went through. The reception bars on the phone were overlaid with an SOS signal to show I had no service.

For a moment, I thought I would head back to my cabin to try and call again, but I was concerned the fire could start again from some unnoticed cinder in the stack of pallets. Feeling exhausted, I tossed the empty extinguisher into the bed of the pickup and pulled the second from the toolbox before returning to the door. Most of the smoke was clearing out through the opening. As the view inside came into focus, I could see something written on the floor with white spray paint.

I see you.

It looked so damn much like the childish handwriting from the note in the cottage. I dropped the extinguisher on the frozen grass and bolted for the pickup. Slamming the door shut, I fired it up and turned pulled the truck up the drive from the maintenance shed to the main drag leading out of the park. As I got ready to turn right and head toward the state police post, I saw the flash of blue lights to my left.

Thinking a trooper had responded to the call, I turned toward the strobing blue lights. I crested the hill to see a state patrol car parked beside my cabin. The front door stood open and the interior lights flooded into the darkness outside. Relief washed over my body as I pulled the truck in by the cruiser and headed toward the door.

As I walked inside, terror flooded my body. Sitting in one of my dining table chairs was the same trooper who searched the cottage with me. His eyes were blank, locked onto something on the ceiling. Dark blood circled the floor below him, dripping from a jagged opening in his stomach. His service weapon was clutched in his right hand.

Traced in his blood on the table beside him was a final message.

Still watchin’.

* * * * *

I left Caskey Mountain that night and never went back. State police have interviewed me more than ten times over the last year, but they’ve come up with nothing. No evidence was usable evidence was ever discovered at the scene and no suspects have been named in the slaying of the trooper.

I’ve lived on the other end of the state all this time. Found a new welding job and I stick to the bigger cities. Being alone, even in my apartment, scares the hell out of me now. I sleep with a loaded gun in the bed with me when I even sleep at all. My therapist helps a little, but I still feel like someone is always watching me.

I’m sitting in an interview room at the local police station, writing all of this down while I chain-smoke cigarettes and try not to piss my pants. The state police are on their way here to interview me again. Not to discuss new evidence in the murder, but to inspect new evidence here.

When I got home from work this evening, I could smell something foul in the breezeway of my apartment. After I reached the top of the stairs, I saw a blood pile of fur surrounded by tiny white bones. There was a message on my door written in blood.

Found you.

Artwork for Watcher in the Woods.

Art by Fabio Ramacci