The Seventh Chapter
Those snowmobilers took her by surprise. Charlotte knows she may be failing at her mission, but she cannot go down that road, not just yet. She will not be so successful if they find her again. She must remain invisible to them. She died. Her old house is empty of her presence. The little cottage in the woods does not exist at all. For now, these are the realities they must know.
Even a being of harder mind, free of either emotional attachments or sentimentality, would have to share her position. It's not just a case of sacrifices being made, of those men on their ski-doos ending their lives, slowly and horribly, believing themselves betrayed-- not by Charlotte, whom they've never met, but by everyone else they ever knew. And she understands they must have ended their lives that way, or will end their lives that way, when their bodies and minds finally give out. No, every death does not merely diminish her success: it feeds what she knows must be growing beneath the farmhouse. She imagines it must be large enough by now to contain a person or two, their private violation of nature, their little vannderjhee. She tries not to feed the image, tendrils and pulsing pustules.
That busload of girls, laughing and celebrating victory, and their chaperones, booze on their breath, and the happy-go-lucky driver, they must not be taken. Another carload, a mix of school-spirit-clad friends in daddy's car, leads them in caravan of two.
The 1967 Pontiac Parisienne made an unexpected turn onto a road that shouldn't be there. The bus has followed. Charlotte knows they've been drawn, knows the flat tire is not accidental in nature.
If she shows herself, she may be discovered. But her failure here could make her enemies too powerful, too soon. She looks to her machine and calculates. They've had a century of slow and stunted growth. She feared the worst in 1918, but matters have settled. This current decade shows signs of hopelessness, but accompanied by a nihilistic happiness that might serve the preacher's demon, but won't help her adversaries much. Perhaps make them more vulnerable, in the long run.
She has a plan.
She leaves her cabin in the woods, but she does not leave alone.
Larry I. Eltburg has driven a bus for the better part of thirty years, taking kids to school and back. He took a bit of time out after his discharge from the army. His injured leg prevented him from staying on, so he missed that final glory, the chance to see Fortress Europe fall. No mind. He passed some time with his parents, signed on at the drug store. A lot of the guys went to college. It wasn't his thing. He grew restless, though. He liked to stay on the move. By the autumn of '47, had his license and his route. Shit, he saw the invention of teenagers, Rock 'N' Roll and television and all of those goofy dances. Later it was the long hair and hippie style, which lingered, still. He liked them, though. The girls basketball team? They were straight-ahead girls, good all-American girls, and never mind the jokes old Swaggy wanted to make back at the garage. Hell, most of these chicks have long hair, and anyway Swaggy should spend less time with his dirty magazines and drug store paperbacks.
Eltburg's favorite memories have always been the charters.
He feels badly for this car of supporters, all girls from the school. He wonders what Swaggy's perverted imagination will make of that. But never mind, Eltburg can't leave them to change their own tire so, shit, here he is, getting his hands dirty, on a road he doesn't remember seeing the last time he came this way. It looks like a logger's road, or something, and he curses and then laughs at himself, all quietly, for being highway hypnotized and following the girls off the road. Still, good thing that he did. Where would they be now?
The team didn't have time to shower after the last game of the tournament. They're making jokes about their funky aroma, and treating the whole off road journey like a big adventure. He takes another look at the woods. Something bothers him. He suspects it's just his age.
"How far can we go on the spare, Mister?" the one girl asks. They still have an hour or so to go. She's seventeen, maybe and wearing sequined jeans. Some paint, in school colours, still marks her cheek.
Before he can answer, one of her friends notices the other tire.
They stare in silence. How did the other tire go?
Mr. Tibbins intervenes. "Maybe there's a place up the road? We can call."
Rachel, the cute point guard, says she hears something in the woods. What season is it? Eltburg wonders, and then he finds himself thinking about that old cartoon with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck each trying to convince Elmer Fudd to shoot the other.
Tibbins' wife has come on the trip. It's always good to have chaperones who can go where he cannot. She's the first to see it, the shape moving in the woods. The uneasiness Eltburg has been feeling congeals into frozen blood.
It's heading towards them, coming from the west. The sun is setting behind the trees, so they cannot see it clearly. If that shape is a bear, it's the biggest bear he's ever seen.
"Into the bus! Everyone!" And they run and crash against each other as the shape lets out an inhuman growl.
Something spurs him to move. Later, he will be embarrassed. He caught bomb blast and shrapnel, thirty year ago. Why is he so afraid now? With everyone on the bus, he backs up to the highway like a driver who's tied one on. Athletic prowess and training be damned; some of the girls scream. The shape looms somehow just beyond a clear view, as though it has found a permanent place in the corner of their eyes.
The next day they recover the car, the police and the animal control people. It's parked at the side of the highway, both tires still flat. No one knows anything about a road off the highway.
There's talk of a mysterious animal, and some bigshot bigfoot hunter, catching a piece of the spotlight after that footage turned up down in California, expresses interest. Then a trucker hits the corpse of a very large grizzly and so the only mystery is this matter of a road, which everyone locally pretty much forgets. Crazy kids on a school bus, they're all on dope these days, and probably their big city teachers, too.
Charlotte sits back in her rocking chair, shawl around her and a good cup of tea in hand. She's glad she conserved the energy for so long. The machine's main task will be set back, but only slightly.
She wishes she could have met with these people, talked about life and the game. The girls played in a tournament. Charlotte recalls a time when life revolves around such friendly challenges, be they recitals of songs and writings, or mock combat of the sort these girls enjoyed. It would be risking too much, she knows, while the road is there.
It's disappeared again. For a time, she can breathe a little easier.
She remembered Arthur Conan Doyle's hound, of course, but she had another model in mind. A few years ago, she’d tuned into the broadcast on a Saturday morning. Something new for the kids, a rather silly show about some hippie teens and a dog solving mysteries.
It will be awhile before she can do anything really impressive with the great machine again, but she feels positively inspired, looking at her marvelous beast. She's positioned it in one corner of the room, like she recalls a hunter in the previous century doing with his prize kills. She doubts she'll use him again any time soon; he's a short-term solution that risks attracting long-term attention, and she knows her enemies would profit from that.
The actual bear corpse, mind you, took some real doing, but the doing was a necessity. The last thing Charlotte needs is a bunch of people wandering around the woods looking for legendary beasts.
She knows they might find them.