Penance - Chap 2
It took me some time to pull myself together. I’m not sure how long I spent pacing the house, checking and rechecking the window and walls of my fathers room. Staring into space lost in thought. By the time I was thinking clearly I saw the clock has passed 10am. I certainly had a touch of fever, 38 degrees on the thermometer I found in the bathroom. I could feel the cold sweat on my skin. The house was freezing, I realised. The generator must have died overnight.
My father was still missing. The thought cut through everything else. I had been so consumed by the events of the previous night I had lost sight of why I was really here. The plan had been to go out at first light but I had blown it.
I recall actually saying it out loud, hearing the word crisp and clear in the empty room. I didn’t have time to feel guilty, it wouldn’t help anyone. Get to work. Whatever happened the night before would have to wait. I had to get out to my fathers fishing cabin, search for him. He could be alone out there, injured and desperate. If there was no sign of him then I would get myself to the other side of the lake where there was mobile reception and call for help.
I raided my dads cupboards for decent winter clothes and a pair of boots (we weren’t too far apart in size). I also checked for and found his spare house and car keys, which I knew he always kept in his desk drawer. Then packed a bag with food and water in case I found him, assuming he would need it. After a thought I added the first aid kit where I had found the thermometer. I checked my phone but there was still no reception and the battery was getting low. I switched it off. If I wanted to charge it I would need to get back to my car and get the cable which I had stupidly left, then get the generator for the house going again. I didn’t want to waste that time. From experience I knew there was enough charge in the phone to make the calls I needed.
I was ready. I knew where the lake was and the cabin should be. On my only visit my father had walked me there to show me the site. He seemed to think I would enjoy seeing it and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him I just wanted to leave. I remembered that the walk had taken us over an hour in perfect weather to get there. So in this snow … fuck knows how long.
But I didn’t have a choice.
I don’t know how many of these decisions were good or bad. Never will, I guess. I tried my best.
At the front door I reached out for the handle and hesitated. Memories flashed of the night before. That clawing, scratching sound. The waves of heat.
I pulled it open and snow tumbled in around my feet. It had to be three feet deep in places, stretching in every direction. Every branch laden with white, a blanket over the world. Icy wind washed around me. Not ideal hiking conditions.
Still, I ploughed out into it as best I could. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk in snow that deep, but it’s a full body workout, one which years of lying on my couch eating pizza had not prepared me for. By the time I reached my fathers truck, which was barely 30 metres, I was breathing like I had run a marathon.
I told myself, as soon as the snow had melted enough I would take his truck back down to the town. It was much better than my car. The skies were clear and although still cold, the temperature was definitely rising. I might be able to try the road tonight, I thought.
So off I marched. The cold stung my eyes, burned my throat as my breathing grew more laboured. The only sounds were my own, fighting through the snow. Slipping, tripping, swearing.
Every noise I made seemed to echo between the trees, disappearing into the black and white of the forest. I saw a pair of birds fly overhead when I stopped to rest, tiny dark shapes in the clear blue. Strange, the things you notice when you are alone. The things you remember.
As I walked my mind kept rolling back to those words I had seen, or imagined I had seen on my fathers wall. Had it just been a fever induced hallucination? I had read the words in the diary first without recognising them, hadn’t I? Perhaps my subconcious had already processed them and dropped them into a waking dream. I didn’t know. In all honestly, I tried not to think about it. Because I was scared.
Hours passed. I couldn’t say for sure, but I would guess it was at least 2pm when I saw the lake. I crested a small ridge, using an old tree trunk to pull forward. And there it was.
Stress, exhaustion, anxiety. For a fraction of a second it all vanished to take in the sight. The still glass surface, framed in silent white, shimmering in the afternoon sun. Whether I agreed with my fathers moving here or not, he couldn’t have picked a more beautiful spot. I squinted in the sun, pretty sure I could make out a structure on the shore. His cabin.
I started on again.
What happened next is hard for me to tell. Like everything that occored over that weekend, every sight and sound, there are two sides to it. I just don’t know which is real. Was I imagining things? A dozen different factors fuelling delusions? Or did these things really happen?
I felt like I was being watched.
Not like a stray glance in the street. Like the feeling you have on a stage in front of an audience. Eyes, many eyes, boring into me and me alone. I froze, held my breath, watched and listened. I was already sweating from the march but now a different kind of heat was in the air. An oppressive, hazy pressure. The forest which had been so icy quiet seemed to be closing in.
I wasn’t alone.
The thought began to spiral in my mind. I had sped up, glancing all around as I fought my way towards the cabin.
Something was watching me.
Looking back, it’s like recalling a dream. No rational thought. Just sudden, overwhelming fear. Genuine, mindless panic, overruling everything else. Sounds faded away, vision blurred. There was nothing but the hammer of my heart and the need to run, to escape.
Then I fell.
I heard the crack and the shock of freezing water rushing up to engulf me, punching the air from my lungs. I had stumbled out onto the surface of the lake, and went clean through the paper thin ice.
The next minute or so isn’t clear. Panic and adrenaline cloud everything, leaving only a blurred mass of images and emotions. Spinning in the black water. Flashes of light, the sun through the ice. The weight of my clothes pulling me down. A terrible heaviness, growing and burning in my chest. Shadows on the bank, watching me. I could hear a mans voice, distant and alone, say “I didn’t want to”. How much of this was real or imagined I’ll never know. It grew harder to move.
I was saved by a thought. I know it sounds ridiculous. Two words just flashed in my mind through the chaos.
Maybe it was something remembered from childhood swimming lessons. Just a piece of common sense advice I overheard. Or just luck.
I stopped fighting, stretched, let my legs sink down below me. They touched lake bed. I planted my feet and pushed up as hard as I could, smashing through the ice and gasping desperately for air. It was only 4 feet deep.
I could see the shore, less than 10 feet away. I sunk under again but I had my bearings now. I was a million miles from calm but I was back in control of myself. I pushed through the ice, half walking half swimming. In a minute I had made it.
I was alive.
I collapsed into the snow, vomiting up cold water and choking again for air. Soaked through, freezing and nearly drowned. But alive.
I scanned the lake and forest. I was alone. No figures or voices. And I could see the cabin again, just a few minutes walk. I struggled to my feet, shaking uncontrollably. I think I fell half a dozen times but I made it.
The door was lying open, leading into a single room.
He wasn’t there.
The hut was empty except for some fishing gear and couple of bottles of whisky. Seriously, dad. I stepped inside, still shaking. Something cracked under my foot and I looked down to see a piece of my fathers phone. Other parts were scattered around the floor. With a jolt I thought of my own phone. My fingers were too cold to grasp it, I remember I had to hold the device between my palms to get it out of my pocket. It was dead. The freezing water had got inside and ruined it.
I wouldn’t be calling anyone.
Now what?, I thought.
The cold was eating at me, my breathing becoming increasingly laboured. I had to try to think, to calm down. For the first time in my life, I had a very real fear of death.
You don’t realise how hostile the country can be without the comforts we are accustomed to. The basics which have been available all your life. It wouldn’t take a wolf or a bear to kill me, just getting locked outside for the night and I would probably freeze to death. So staying here wasn’t an option. I had to keep moving, keep generating body heat or I didn’t think I would survive. Standing still would be suicide. Get back to the house, I thought.
As for my father, I didn’t know what to think anymore. Why would he leave pieces of his phone like that? Where could he have gone?
I needed help. Needed to get to the town or I would end up dying here and never find my father.
I headed back.
Despite my fears, the journey back was oddly uneventful, nothing and no-one to be seen. The first ten minutes were the coldest I have ever been in my life, a bone chilling pain in every limb, skin numb or searing as if burned. Luckily, I managed to find then follow my own tracks, which made the walk both faster and easier. Muscles loosened, the pain eased. The panic which had been consuming me for the last few hours began to recede. Gigantic clouds rolled over me in the grey sky and, to my relief, a light rain began to fall. Walking became more treacherous but I knew it would help clear the snow.
It was getting dark when I made it back, the temperature falling again to near zero. There was just enough light left for me to find the generator, fill and restart it before it was pitch black again. Once I was back inside I searched every room again for any sign that my father, or anyone else for that matter, had been there while I was gone. There was nothing. I put on the heating and some food, got a hot shower and changed my clothes. Flipped the deadbolts on the doors. In the morning I would drive out of there, get help.
I was tired, just physically and mentally burnt out. My feet were killing me and I was covered in cuts and bruises which had all began to ache in unison when I sat down. The wind and rain lashed against the house, streams washing down the windows in the dark.
I picked up my fathers diary again, something to take my mind off my various pains. Maybe there was still something I could learn, I thought, some clue as to where he was. There wasn’t much else I could do.
So I read.
Just me and my tired brain, battling away at the translation, armed with only a pencil and a shit memory. An hour or so passed. Something in particular was confusing me. Unless my translations were miles off, which wasn’t unlikely to be fair, my father kept writing about a basement of some sort. Except the house didn’t have any basement I was aware of.
I ran over those words again and again, searching for any mistake I could have made.
“sous-sol” was definitely “basement”, I was certain of it.
“sons du tunnel” was “sound from the tunnel”. What tunnel? I had to be missing something.
“torches” was the same in english as in french.
“Harley a peur d’entrer” ended the page. “Harley is afraid to enter.” To enter what? And that dog wasn’t afraid of anything.
The next page was more of the same, my father detailing walking further and further distances in darkness, somewhere below ground. One sentence stood out, dad had highlighted it by running over the words time and again.
“il y a quelque chose dans le fosse”
Either I was completely missing something in the diary, or …
I stood and looked around the room, eyes scanning every inch of the floor. There was nothing, no signs of access to beneath the house. I tried the kitchen next without any luck. The same plain wooden floor everywhere.
I opened the door to the storage room and stared in. Nothing had changed in the last dozen times I had checked it since my arrival. Boxes stacked up every wall, a 4 level metal racking in the centre of the room filled with folders. I looked closer at the base of the rack.
Goddammit, I thought.
I could just make it out in the poor light from the rooms single bulb. I dragged the metal unit out of the way, spilling papers across the floor.
There it was.
A trapdoor, cut from and fitted into the floor panels.
There was a small indentation for a handle. I stared, no sound but the whispers of the storm outside. I reached down and took hold, held my breath, and opened it. The wood swung back, warm air rushed up from the shadows below.
A battered wooden ladder led down into total darkness.
“il y a quelque chose dans le fosse”
My fathers words.
“There is something in the pit.”