If the modern theories of Mr. Freud are to be given any credence, then my subconscious mind must have suppressed the horrific events of that fateful night soon afterwards as a protective measure for my psyche. For at least eight years after the event, I managed not only to avoid thinking about what had happened, but also to build my personal life, hobbies, and interests to be radically different from what they had once been.
It was only later in life that I began to relive parts of the aftermath of the catastrophe through nightmares. I would dream I was walking through blackened snow, threading my way across a field of corpses. Some other times I would dream of what became the longest day of my life as I waited for my family to come rescue me. It was nighttime again by the time my father arrived. He found me huddled together with Charles and promptly took us both back to Albany. As for the complete picture of what had happened – this I was only able to piece together later. Back then, I was too emotionally disturbed to care about it much. I was told by my mother that I was assailed by night terrors each and every night for months. I refused to go out when it was dark, and my personality changed completely: I became taciturn, withdrawn. I would barely speak and I would spend the days in my room, reading or making up for the lost hours of sleep by taking very long naps during the daytime, when I apparently felt safe enough to lie down in bed and close my eyes.
Psychotherapy as a concept did not even exist back then. My emotional healing was therefore entrusted to time and prayer. I do remember going to church much more often than usual, and having long conversations with the minister where he would wax at length about philosophical matters which my youthful mind was in no shape to comprehend. All I understood was that my best friend had been taken away from me, for I did not see Charles again for many years after my father took us home. All I felt was a constant crawling sort of dread that was with me from the moment the sun rose to the moment it set. And, as soon as darkness swept over the land, the dread became terror, cold and hot at the same time, prickling along the back of my neck and whispering that I was in terrible danger. This malaise was a constant companion to me for years. It changed me. I became much more fearful and all but lost my sense of adventure. I abandoned many of the things I had used to enjoy doing, and I destroyed the one telescope I owned despite the fact that I knew that it had cost my father a small fortune to acquire. Those were dark times indeed. Much later, my father revealed to me that he had even considered the possibility of having me committed to an asylum, but he had decided against it in hopes that I would find my way out of the tragedy by myself.
He was right, in a way. Time did pass, and eventually, one small step at a time, I began to resume a life of normalcy, far removed from what had happened. I distinctly remember that the thing that bothered me the most about the tragedy was that, for me, it had shattered my world – but for the rest of the people around me, it barely held any significance. There had been lots of talk of the freak accident immediately afterwards, of course. Journalists pestered my father for a while, desperate for any shred of fact which they could then build up into a complete narrative. Some of the more adventurous among them made the trip to the site of the Grand Hotel, or used of their contacts among the local rangers to learn more details, and it is ironically thanks to them that I was able to fully understand the extent of the tragedy so many years later.
The fact that fire had literally rained down from the heavens in the form of the bolide caught the attention of the public like nothing else. Was it a sign from God? Had Mr. Wentworth been such a corrupt and evil human being that God Himself had decided to smite him at the site of his arrogance by destroying the symbol of his triumph?
Later visitors to the site reported that the bolide must have exploded over the lake, less than a mile from the ground, judging from the way the trees all around lay flat against the ground, their trunks set on fire and immediately extinguished again by what must have been a pressurized shockwave of titanic proportions. The lakebed itself had become a shallow crater, and at the rim, where the Hall had been, there was nothing but rubble. And corpses.
The entire American side of the Wentworth family had been killed that night, along with twelve guests of various degrees of notoriety, their families, and twenty-one servants which had been catering the event. The main building of the Hotel itself, however, had been all but untouched due to its distance from the explosion. Aside from broken windows blasted apart by the shockwave, there had been no structural damage to either that edifice or the observation tower where Charles and I had been. In fact, he and I had taken refuge in the main Hotel, along with the handful of surviving servants, on the morning after the event.
A thorough criminal investigation of every detail was quickly postponed and then canceled indefinitely by the local police due to the undeniable fact that it had been a natural disaster, and the remoteness of the site. To truly catalog and investigate everything would have taken a prohibitive amount of manpower and taxpayer money, so the site was merely declared out of bounds to the general public, as it was still private property, and the flow of gruesome details which the press fed on was cut off permanently. Albany forgot about the tragedy almost as swiftly as its fervor for morbid information had spiked during the first weeks after the event.
I was unable to forget, of course, and it confused me that the rest of the world appeared to be carrying on as if nothing were the matter. How could they not understand that something so terrible had happened? A very clear memory I have from that time is of me sitting at my bedroom window, looking out onto the street and watching people pass by. They would be smiling, talking, sometimes even laughing. How could they? Did they not understand? Or… Was I so insignificant that I did not matter? Dark thoughts chased themselves around in circles in my head. I could not comprehend many of the things that had occurred and I had no one to talk to – my partial hearing loss made ordinary conversation a chore, which further isolated me from others. The only other person in my immediate circle that appeared to have been shaken by it all was my father, but I barely saw him for months after he had rescued me and Charles. It was easily the busiest period of his entire career, and it is only now that I am able to see just how hard he worked out of love for the friend he had lost when Mr. Wentworth died, and how fiercely he fought to justify Mr. Wentworth’s trust in him.
The legal battle for the Wentworth fortune was vicious. Even though most members of the immediate family were dead, with the evident exception of Charles himself, relatives appeared to sprout up from the ground itself, dozens of them, both from neighboring states and from the English branch of the family, each of them with a claim to the fortune and to Charles. My father had been granted extraordinary powers in Mr. Wentworth’s will in case of a tragedy but even then it took years of litigation to fight off the greedy clawing hands of cousins and second cousins and even third cousins who wanted either the Wentworth transportation company, the fabulous Albany mansion, money, or custody of Charles as a ticket to being rich.
Charles himself expressed to me, much later, the deep thanks he felt towards my father for having fought so fiercely to ensure Charles’s independence and financial well-being. My father was able to reach a compromise with the more prominent members of the Wentworths living in England, agreeing to send Charles to a boarding school in that country under the supervision of his relatives, but at no point did they or anyone else but Charles himself hold a claim to the fortune which was his by right. Charles left for England one week after the tragedy and I did not see him again for more than eight years. I sent him letters at the beginning, but these went unanswered. He did not send me any correspondence. In a way, this might have been for the best, because we were both able to move on with our respective lives and it was only much later, when Charles returned to America, that we even dared to talk about that day amongst ourselves.
My own life was relatively uneventful for many years. As soon as I was able to push away those horrible events from my mind, I suppressed them entirely and slowly regained a measure of my old personality. I began to train as an aide to my father, who clearly thought of me as his inevitable successor in the family law firm. My true passion still lay in science, but learning the workings of law was a welcome distraction until I was old enough to decide for myself the path I wished to follow. Slowly, over the years, I became more confident and outgoing despite the awkwardness brought about by my impaired hearing. When the time came to decide where to pursue my professional studies, I announced that I would be joining the Physics department at the University of New York at Albany, which my father, although surely dismayed, nevertheless supported.
It was during August of that year, as I was about to turn twenty and move into student accommodation at the University, that the event which had scarred my childhood was tangentially brought back to the public’s general awareness by the sensational disappearance of all but one member of a group of hikers from out of state.
At the beginning, I refrained from following the story in the newspapers because I was afraid of the memories it would conjure. The disappearance had happened, according to reports, less than ten miles away from the site of the now nearly-forgotten bolide explosion. As the story gained traction, however, it became impossible to escape it, and so I began to read about it in the news.
The more I read, the more disturbed I felt. For the first time in years I felt the insidious crawling of panicky fear on the back of my neck. I became convinced that this new event was connected to the first, although there was no evidence to suggest that, and the increasing strangeness of the entire affair was not only unwelcome but also somewhat threatening – although just why, I could not have said back then. Now I know better, of course. I understand that there must have been some degree of intuition present in my subconscious mind which understood the deeper meaning behind two extremely unlikely tragedies happening in such close proximity to one another. Some primal instinct must have warned me that there was true danger about… And yet, despite these feelings, I became just another avid reader of the news as more and more hints and fragmentary pieces of evidence were discovered during the efforts to ascertain what had happened to those who had disappeared.
The group had consisted of seven experienced hikers, five men and two women. They had all been in their early twenties, with the leader of the group, a man named Jonathan Smith, being the oldest at twenty-three. The sole survivor was a younger man, a fellow named William Robertson, nineteen years old. They all came from Maine and had been students of medicine. According to the testimony of family members and friends, all seven people had frequently gone out hiking in the past, with Smith in particular having several mountain ascensions and successful cave exploring sorties to his name. The year before their disappearance, all seven had made a similar trip in the Appalachian Mountains with no major incidents having happened, and this was one of the factors which contributed to so much time having elapsed between the time the tragedy befell them and the beginning of earnest rescue efforts. Before leaving, they had all notified their families that they expected to be back during the last week of June, but that they could well be one or two weeks late in case they decided to continue exploring or if they discovered something particularly interesting. Therefore, fears about something having happened began only after the second week of July had come and gone. A search party was dispatched a week and a half later, and it was only in August that the first reports began to come in.
From the beginning, there was a very strong suspicion that foul play had been somehow involved, and it centered around the seemingly fortuitous survival of Robertson. Public interest was consequently high, which was both a curse and a blessing – it ensured that the investigation became a priority for the pertinent authorities in the area, but it also attracted many unscrupulous journalists who, eager for morbid details, made the entire affair a kind of serial mystery which may have fascinated most of us, but which must have been torturous for the families and friends of the people who had disappeared. I was one of those fascinated by the macabre, I am sorry to admit. After all, the more details that were discovered, the more questions there arose.
But I get ahead of myself. The full mystery of the event became apparent only after several weeks of intense reporting. At the beginning, the newspapers merely mentioned that the whereabouts of six out of the seven people were unknown despite the fact that their camp had been found relatively quickly, and in nearly perfect conditions. Of the people themselves there was no sign. Interviews with the inhabitants of the village of Tupper Lake, which had been the last stop the group had made before ceasing contact with the outside world, revealed important pieces of information which were helpful in building a picture of what had happened at the beginning. This village, bordering its namesake Lake, was small enough for most of its inhabitants to clearly remember the arrival of the group at the beginning of June. They stayed for two nights in the tents they had brought, enjoying the lake and trying their hand at fishing. The local grocer gave a detailed account to the investigators of everything he had sold the group: simple fare for their trip, rope, oil for their lamps, and soap. He recalled thinking that the seven young people got along very well, and neither he nor anyone else in town gave voice to any complaint regarding the hikers while they stayed in the vicinity.
It was at Tupper Lake that Robertson, the sole survivor, was later found, but despite the feverish zeal of the general public in trying to blame him for the tragedy, there was little evidence to suggest that he could have had anything to do with it. To begin with, he survived because of the simple fact that he injured himself while fishing. According to his own report and that of the minister’s wife, Anabelle Dover, who treated him after the accident, he was trying to reel in a particularly large catch in the lake when he lost his footing and fell into the water. He had been standing in the shallows, but his right foot was caught between two rocks and he sprained his ankle seriously enough to prevent him from accompanying his friends for the rest of the trip. There was ample evidence supporting this, and there was also the fact that Robertson himself had been the one to contact the authorities when he had waited already for weeks in the village and his friends had not returned. If he had been to blame, why would he have done this? Then there was also the fact that the last camp of the hiker group had been discovered nearly 50 miles away – a prohibitive distance for someone to cover with a sprained ankle.
Nevertheless, Robertson was taken into custody and submitted to exhaustive interrogation. He gave an accurate report of the entire trip up until the moment when he had been left behind because of his injury. He described Smith as being a capable leader, knowledgeable in wilderness survival and very resourceful. He was at a loss as to explain what could have happened – as far as Robertson knew, Smith had followed the plan to the letter, staying close to the route they had all agreed they would take during the hike. It was reported that Robertson appeared to show genuine grief after the first corpses were found, particularly when he was notified that his fiancée, another member of the group named Amanda Terrence had also perished. Some people suggested that there might have been a love triangle at play, perhaps some sort of romantic vendetta, but it was all just wild speculation. The facts remained impenetrable and confusing.
First, there was the hikers’ camp. It had been found just a few miles along the same valley where Charles Wentworth’s property was located. There had been three tents in total and, judging from the contents within, each one had had two occupants with the third one having been shared by the two women. Nothing had been stolen, as far as the investigators could see. In fact, several relatively valuable personal effects were found in the tents, undisturbed. They included things like an ornate gold pocket watch belonging to Richard Madison, twenty years old; pearl earrings and a matching necklace belonging to Sarah Graham, twenty years old; and Smith’s own cigarette box with mother-of-pearl inlays. None of it had been taken or even ostensibly displaced. This made it difficult to attribute the tragedy to a common robbery, since it would have taken a dim criminal indeed to go to the trouble of killing six people and not taking anything with him. There was also no evidence of large animal tracks anywhere, so something like a bear could not be blamed. If it had been an animal attack of some kind, evidence of the violence would have been everywhere and this was not so. There were wolves in the area, or so some believed, but in the summertime there was plenty to eat and the local rangers very impatiently explained to journalist after journalist that wolves would not attack such a large group of humans unless starving and desperate for food. No tracks belonging to these creatures had been discovered in the vicinity either, so the wild animal attack hypothesis was quickly snuffed out. The undeniable state of matters was that, aside from the mild predation of scavengers who had quickly moved in to consume whatever food had been available over the weeks before the investigators arrived at the scene, nothing in the campsite had been damaged – with the exception of the tents themselves.
These presented the first wholly incomprehensible piece of evidence in the case, and they were the subject of much speculation. It had thankfully not rained at all from the moment of the disappearance until the camp was found, and so the contents of the tents themselves had not been damaged, but had it rained it would all have been drenched in short order, for each of the tents had been slashed open… from the inside.
Of this there could be no doubt. All three of the tents had been cut open with a sharp implement, probably a knife, and the jagged flaps presented a mystery which was very hard to make sense of. Why had the occupants done this? The only possible explanation was that they had felt compelled to escape their tents as fast as humanly possible, but if so, why had they not simply gone out the entrance? True, the tents themselves were very sturdy and, according to Robertson, Smith had insisted that they seal the entrance during the night with state-of-the-art zipper closures which would discourage animals from venturing in as they slept. Undoing the zipper was a matter of just a few seconds, however. For all six occupants of the three tents to have slashed their way out of the very place in which they had decided to spend the night implied that they had been terrified to such a degree that even at delay of a couple of seconds must have seemed unacceptable. They must have seen or known of something so dangerous that they were forced to escape in the fastest possible way.
Venomous snakes were the first suggestion from idle journalists. Perhaps, some of them posited, the group had settled down for the night, zipped up the tents – and then discovered a viper coiled among their sleeping bags. There were several problems with this hypothesis, nevertheless, such as the fact that, so far up north, snakes were not common creatures. Besides, while one snake discovered in one tent was within the realm of possibility, what were the odds of three snakes hiding in three tents at the same time? There was much debate about this. People’s imaginations ran wild, with many of them sending letters to the editors of the newspapers publishing the story and offering their own increasingly harebrained explanations for the mystery.
No explanation was satisfactory, however, and as more information was released, I grew still more puzzled by it all. The six people on the expedition had left their tents as fast as they had been able to, leaving everything behind. Everything. When it was revealed that they had also left behind their clothes, I did not know what to make of the information. Apparently, all of them had taken off their clothes and tossed them carelessly in the tents before leaving. What could have possessed rational people to do that? True, the summer nights were hot and they might have all desired to be cool by remaining in their underwear, but why had they run away into the wilderness, barefoot, not even bothering to take a shirt or a jacket or a blouse? No matter how experienced the person might be, venturing out like that in the middle of the night, when the improvised escape must have taken place, spelled out a death sentence.
It was a sentence that, it was soon confirmed, had been ruthlessly carried out.
The first two bodies were found an astonishing fifteen miles away, half-buried in a ravine that was partially swamped by an overflowing river. At first, nothing but the names of the two deceased individuals were released in an effort to show respect for what had befallen them: they had been Richard Madison and Jebediah Hurt. However, a particular journalist named Eoin Caine, who had a reputation for reveling in reporting about the morbid and the violent among the seedier literary circles in New York City, sent back copious notes which were published by the Evening Herald, a relatively unknown and sensationalist newspaper which circulated only amongst the superstitious and the poorly educated. I procured copies of it all through the extent of time in which the tragedy was covered, however, and only later did I come to learn that Caine, although unscrupulous and greedy, had been thorough in his reporting. It was through his lack of morals that I was able to build a more complete picture of the tragedy which had befallen the hikers.
I hesitate to speak of the awful details… but I must. The bodies of Madison and Hurt had been found in a partial state of decomposition, as was to be expected, but what had not been expected at all was the evidence at the scene and the injuries and marks on the corpses themselves, all of which indicated without a doubt that the two men had fought each other to the death. Their bodies were completely naked and lacerated everywhere by the thorns at the bottom of a ravine. They appeared to have tumbled into it after already having been fighting for some time, judging by the broken knuckles on the right hands of them both. Madison’s jaw had been fractured in two places and Hurt had lost two of his front teeth. Madison’s hand, clutched tight in rigor mortis, still held a disturbingly large tuft of Hurt’s own hair, which Madison must have ripped out with incomprehensible violence. Hurt, on his part, had also evidently inflicted his own share of damage on his opponent. Two of Madison’s ribs were broken, and around his neck there were the unmistakable signs of a stranglehold, which might very well have been the cause of death. Hurt’s death had been likely brought on by a collapsed windpipe, which had been crushed by a savage kick or some other devastating blunt impact. Madison’s arms had been gouged in two separate places by bite marks as of a ravenous beast, but Caine, in his reporting, made it very clear that the investigators knew without a doubt that the bites had been inflicted by Hurt. That was not all. For inside of Madison’s clenched jaw, something had been found… Something which explained the fact that Hurt’s left hand was missing its index finger.
The horrifying violence of the discovery was almost too fantastic to believe. These were medical students; kind, well-liked members of their communities. Most people elected to decry Caine’s reporting as mere inventions and vagaries of a pathetic self-proclaimed journalist who wanted some notoriety at any cost… And yet, much later, Charles and I went to the village by the lake and interviewed the investigators who had discovered the bodies. They confirmed everything that Caine had reported.
What had happened? What could have transformed two fine young men into murderous animals? Why had they killed each other in such a brutal fashion? Why had they traveled so far to begin with and how had they managed it at all, naked and barefoot as they had been? Why?
There were, of course, no answers. And when the next three bodies were found, even more questions came to the fore.
The next people to be positively identified were the two women, Amanda and Sarah, as well as a man named Giovanni Russo. Only Smith, the expedition leader, was nowhere to be found… For the time being. But as Caine reported on the conditions in which these three corpses had been discovered, even the gruesome and horrifying details regarding Hurt and Madison appeared mundane by comparison.
These corpses were found much closer to the campsite, but they had been… buried. It was only after the second round of searching that the sheriff himself stumbled upon a mound of earth, disguised in the undergrowth of a particularly dense part of the forest – a mound which turned out to be a mass grave. Inside it, according to the reports, a gruesome sight awaited. All three bodies bore signs of injuries sustained before death. Russo had cracked ribs and both legs had been broken somehow. One of the female corpses, although it was never revealed which one, was missing its eyes. The skin on all three of the bodies had been lacerated everywhere, and their feet showed clear signs of having been used to walk, barefoot, through punishing terrain which had rendered them little more than bloody masses which must have caused unbearable pain.
Nevertheless, the most horrible thing about the discovery was their hands. According to Caine, who claimed to have seen the corpses himself, the fingers on all three bodies had sustained terrible damage. It was as if they had used their bare hands to dig their own grave and nobody could offer an explanation as to why. The marks all around the pit were clear enough, however. These young people had either been compelled or driven by madness to dig the very hole in which they would be buried, an act of such cruelty if indeed it had been forced upon them that I shuddered to even imagine what they must have gone through. Several of them had lost their fingernails but appeared to have kept on digging nevertheless. The pit had been carved out in a frenzy, that much was clear, and once the terrible task had been accomplished, all three of them had been killed, dumped into the grave, and buried.
Only Smith could have done this, and before the discovery that proved without a doubt that Smith had also perished, he became the locus of rage, indignation, and horror about the entire affair. His family suffered threats by family members of the other victims, but there were people, myself included, that wondered whether he really was the culprit. After all, how could he have managed to coerce three people into digging their own grave? And how had he killed them? For, despite their numerous wounds, investigators found no evident cause of death on any of the three bodies. Asphyxiation was quickly ruled out, as was blunt trauma, strangulation, or blood loss. The corpses had been found carefully laid out next to one another, hands crossed over their chests… but no one could fathom how they had been killed in the first place. It was yet another puzzle which, compounded with the disturbing manner of the death of the other two members of the group, offered no rational solution.
For the better part of a week, before Caine published his most popular article yet, blaming Smith was the only way to even partially understand the situation. And yet, horribly, six days after the discovery of the mass grave, a volunteer investigator named Jonah Gordon found… Smith.
Part of him, at least.
I do not know whether Smith’s family felt any measure of relief at the incontrovertible proof that their son had not been the murderer, or whether they instead were engulfed by grief and horror at the fact that only his severed head was found, partially buried in the mud, at the edge of one of the shallow lakes which had arisen after the bolide explosion many years prior. The discovery had been made within Wentworth property, and so some speculated that perhaps Smith had been killed by a ranger or warden employed by Charles Wentworth to watch over the perimeter of his land, but my father, when interviewed by the local papers, was quick to point out that Charles had not hired anyone at all to watch over the ruins of his property but a single groundskeeper, who had no orders to use violence on trespassers at all. Indeed, the entire area had been essentially abandoned since the tragedy and nobody had had reason to go there after the husk of the never-to-be-built hotel had been stripped of all valuables by creditors.
My father, as the legal American representative of the Wentworths in the state, granted full access to investigators, but after an entire month of searching they had not found Smith’s body anywhere. Another piece was added to the chaotic and ghastly puzzle. Nobody knew of any animal which could inflict such a clean slicing wound as to have the effect of beheading a human being with the precision of a guillotine. Not even a deranged human, unless extremely skilled and well prepared, could have come close to perpetrating the gruesome act with such perfection. There was also the fact that, try as they might, investigators never found the slightest trace, track, or hint of any other human being in the vicinity. What, then, had killed Smith? For he could not have done this himself – there was no possible way. If he had indeed been the murderer of his other companions, somehow managing to incite two of them to fight to the death and forcing three others to dig their own grave, why would he have then been beheaded? And by whom, or what? No weapon was found, no blade. No body. The only thing which was pointed out by the doctor who examined the already-decomposing head when it was delivered to the village by the lake was that decomposition itself was not progressing as fast as it should have been in the hot summer weather. Closer inspection by the doctor attributed it to the fact that the head appeared to have been colonized by a variety of mold with which he was not familiar, and which appeared to be limiting the normal spread of bacteria through the decaying tissues.
Alas, for a long time I held the belief that the doctor had simply come across something akin to the penicillium fungus and had simply not known it for what it was. Now I know better… But at the time, no more thorough analyses were carried out and the head was simply shipped off to Maine for interment.
Soon after this discovery, information on the matter dried up due to the fact that there was simply nothing else to report. The entire search effort had been prohibitively expensive, and after the corpses had been dutifully shipped to their families along with the personal effects of all of the victims to whatever catastrophe had befallen them, public interest in the tragedy declined very sharply. Caine tried to keep the matter alive for some time by focusing on the angle that perhaps Robertson, through mysterious means, had orchestrated the entire thing – and yet it was impossible, the mere speculation refuted by the fact that Robertson had been in no condition to travel and by the fact that there were dozens of witnesses all over the village where he had stayed who had seen him, each and every day, until after the first body was found.
As for myself, I tried to forget about the matter as August turned into September and a particularly challenging semester at the University began. I was successful for the most part, but a fragment of my mind had latched onto the horrific events and would not let go. There was no rational binding thread between this tragedy and the one I had survived so many years ago, and yet I could not shake the thought that perhaps the two things were somehow connected.
How I curse my insightful instincts. How I wish I had never harbored even the slightest fragment of curiosity about the affair. But I did, and I was not the only one, I later discovered. Because that September, after a decade of not seeing him, Charles came back to America to study at the University at Albany.
Thanks for reading! What do you think? Is the creepiness increasing? I'm having a lot of fun writing this story, and I hope you'll have fun reading it! Chapter 3 will come out next Monday. I look forward to your comments, as always! They mean a lot