Cassie sighed as she closed the book and scrubbed a hand across her face. Midnight had come, and it was past time to turn in. But she had not wanted to stop reading until she finished the story. She was like that. Sometimes she would stay up until 2 am because she could not bear to sleep until she found out what happened to the protagonist. This hadn’t been one of the better stories she had read, but it had been a bestseller, so she figured she would at least finish it.
Even a not-so-good book could keep her nestled in a chair for hours on end, leaving her a bit stiff when she finally remembered to move. She stood and stretched, raising her hands high above her head, lengthening her spine, and triggering a deep yawn. The early darkness brought by winter, and her reading habit, was playing hell with her sleep schedule, and she often found herself staying up late into the night and lingering in bed long after her alarm had gone off.
She shuffled across the cabin to her small bedroom, pausing in front of the mirror. She took a few minutes to brush out her hair and weave it into a chunky braid. During the months spent at this remote outpost, her once shoulder-length brown hair had grown scraggly, giving her the look of a wild mountain woman. Cassie chuckled to herself, wondering what her fashionista sister would think about her winter look.
Her sister, and the rest of her family, could never understand Cassie’s love for the outdoors. A passion for wildlife and open spaces which had led to her becoming a Park Ranger. Cassie had complained to her colleagues when she’d been given the overwinter assignment, but in truth, she loved it. During the summer, she worked in the park’s welcome center and spent her days surrounded by day-trippers and overnight campers.
But now winter had come, the tourists had left, and she was happily secured in her cabin until at least April. Instead of hours fielding calls and dealing with entitled jerks, she spent her days checking weather gauges and recording the snow fall. The overwinter assignment called for someone who wasn’t afraid of the cold deep forest and was prepared to react the call went out for a rescue.
This assignment was perfect for an introvert like her, and she spent most of her days reading or writing. Cassie was a modern Thoreau, but her Walden Pond was a hundred-thousand-acre forest. After this winter, she was sure she’d have written a story that would make her the next great American author. Maybe when spring came, she could convince her bosses to assign her to another remote location, perhaps as a fire lookout in a tower. A place where she could plant a small garden and live somewhat off the grid.
Yawning again as she thought about her future, she twisted her hair up and slipped on her sleep cap. She changed quickly into her nightclothes and turned back the covers, pulling the blankets up over her shoulders as she snuggled down into the flannel sheets. They settled over her like a warm weight. The heavy layers added to her feelings of comfort and security, an instant weighted blanket.
Cassie listened to the sounds of the forest night as she drifted off. Lulled to sleep by the creaking of the branches. She could hear clumps of snow landing with muffled thumps, a soothing sound which she’d become accustomed to over the months of winter. Clumps of snow hit the roof one after another. Then, directly above her, there was a thud. Puzzled, she cracked open her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. That sound wasn’t snow hitting the roof. It was too heavy. And it couldn’t have been a falling branch; if a branch had broken, she would have heard the wood splintering as it gave way.
It must have been an animal then. “Ricky, go to sleep,” she huffed, thinking it was the particularly industrious raccoon who lived under the cabin; and who liked to sneak into her bird feeder when he thought she wasn’t looking.
Above her, she heard another sound, a softer sound of snow crunching down. Something was walking across the roof. She sat up and stared, her eyes following the path of the sounds. Whatever was up there was too big for a raccoon. The only animal large enough to make such heavy footsteps was a bear, but they would all be hibernating this late in winter. Cassie thought she was having a waking dream. That must be it, she reasoned, her imagination creating some excitement that her last read had lacked.
The steps reached the edge of the roof, ending towards the front of the cabin. There was silence for a few seconds. Then a loud thump came from the yard. Cassie came to the slow realization that the sounds were not part of a waking dream. Something large had indeed walked across her roof then leaped over the porch and landed in the front yard. If the sound had been real, then it had to been made by a large animal. Again, she considered that perhaps it was a bear, maybe one that had been rousted out of its cave by poachers.
Creeping out from underneath the covers, she slipped on her mukluks, shivering as the chill of the floor reached her feet. The coldness seeping up from the floor and the silence from the yard added to Cassie’s growing sense of unease. Moving into the living room she saw how the banked glowing coals casting a red hue throughout the room, giving it an unsettling appearance. She threw another log on the fire. Maybe the renewed flames and scent of smoke would scare away whatever had ventured too close to the cabin.
The fire soon filled the room with a bright and comforting glow, reminding her of the hours she’d spent basking in its warmth. Cassie smiled as the heat penetrated her cold body and stretched out on the couch. She thought perhaps she’d just spend the night out here, stoking the fire and maybe rereading that book.
Just as she had started to relax there was another sound outside, a low, guttural moan which sounded almost human. Whatever creature it was, it was still out there, and it was definitely not a bear. Cassie picked up the hunting rifle she kept for protection with shaking hands before going to the front door and flipping on the dim porch lights. Peering out into the darkness she looked around the front porch for the source of the sound.
Cassie was sure the sound came from nearby, but she couldn’t see anything. There were no tracks near the steps nor any sign that something had fallen off the roof, no person laying in the snow injured from their rooftop misadventure. The scene from the window was as peaceful as ever, with the blue moonlight reflecting off the snowdrifts.
The serene view did nothing to calm her nerves as she strained to see through the rapidly fogging glass. The more obstructed her view, the more she was sure that something was out there, watching her.
Her breathing deepened as she fought the urge to panic. Cassie opened the front door and looked out into the driveway, hoping to see prints or tracks, anything which proved she wasn’t going crazy. When her vision adjusted, all she could see were spindly birch trees. Her eyes roamed over their bare forms until she settled on one tree that seemed different. As she focused on it, her heart beat faster, and her stomach climbed up into her throat. That was not a tree, there was something out there.
Pale and thin, it blended into the forest, but it swayed a bit while the trees surrounding it remained still. The creature had to be at least 10 feet tall, taller than even a grizzly on its hind legs. This was no native forest dweller that had wandered to close to the cabin.
Her mind raced, hoping that this thing was some exotic pet that had been brought into the area and escaped its owner. Cassie tried to remember the list of smuggled animals from the last park service bulletin. But all she could think about were the stories of the wendigo, a creature of Native American lore that haunted the region.
Cassie had read a half dozen books on the area’s legends when she’d been assigned to this park. The wendigo had been a lesser-known creature, but it was infinitely more terrifying than the relatively gentle sasquatch also purported to call the forest home. In the legends, the wendigo had once been a human but had morphed into a cannibalistic creature with a human’s intelligence and the ability to mimic human voices. People told stories of having been out in the woods and hearing a loved one calling them, luring them deeper into the forest. Only those who ignored the voice and turned away could recount the experience of hearing someone call out, just to then find that person safe back at their camp.
Cassie reached out with shaking hands to turn on the floodlights that surrounded the cabin. These lights were only supposed to be used during rescue operations, but Cassie didn’t care. She needed to find out if the nightmare creature was watching her from the darkness. As she reached for the switch, the thing in the woods seemed to react. It swayed a bit more and moaned again, awaiting her next move. Cassie’s hand froze as she watched it, and she sensed a warning. She knew that if she turned on the light, she would not live to see the dawn.
Cassie jerked her hand back before slamming and locking the door. Running into the bedroom, she shoved a chair against the door and pulled down the shades and curtains. Ripping the covers off the bed, Cassie settled in the corner of the room and drew the blankets up over her shoulders. From this location she could keep the window and bedroom door covered with the rifle, ready to fire at the creature whichever way it chose to enter.
There was no sound from the front door, no rattling of the doorknob or banging on the heavy wood. Instead silence again fell over the cabin, adding to Cassie’s mounting terror. In a horror film it would always go quiet, right before the monster burst into the room to kill a camper.
It was almost a relief when Cassie heard movement outside in the snow. Her relief was short lived as the creature circled the cabin several times, sometimes pausing to scratch or hit the wall of the cabin. She cowered at every sound, squeezing her eyes shut each time she heard another scrape against the glass. Tears of fear rolled down her face as she kept a white knuckled grip on the rifle, trying to feel secure under her armor of blankets.
After what felt like hours the sounds outside had stopped, and Cassie’s eyes burned as she struggled to stay awake. Exhausted she eventually succumbed and fell into a deep sleep. When Cassie woke up, she checked the clock. It read 9:47, and she could see light peeking around the edges of the curtains. Breathing a sigh of relief that she’d made it through the night she unfolded herself from under the blankets. She stumbled as her unsteady legs carried her towards the door.
She cautiously poked her head out, a little nervous that the creature might still be outside, waiting to catch her off guard. But nothing was there. No evil presence lurked at the edge of the forest. Instead, she saw a flock of birds surrounding her feeders and a peeved-looking woodpecker waiting for her to refill the suet. It was a though the horror of last night had never happened, that no dangerous predator had ventured close to her winter home.
Still, she wondered what she had heard circling the cabin last night and she looked around, hoping there were some prints in the snow that she could study. Cassie froze as she spotted a set of tracks in front of the cabin which led around to the back. The creature’s feet were gigantic, easily dwarfing a man’s size 15 shoe. But, the feet were bare, and even at a distance, she could make out the impression of a heal, the ball of the foot, and . . .
A breeze blew a chill along her spine, and with it, a feeling of terror and vulnerability, as though it was already night and the beast had returned. Hurrying back inside, she slammed and locked the door before tripping her way to the emergency radio.
Cassie didn’t care if she lost her job. She didn’t even care if they made her pay for the helicopter ride back to the park office.
There was no way she was still going to be in the cabin come dusk. She vowed to herself she would never go this deep into the forest again.