Robert Brennan had a nightmare the night that his daughter, Sam, was born. In it, he held his precious baby girl in the scope of his rifle. He woke up — screaming and covered in sweat — just as the trigger was about to give. It was then that Nikki told him she thought she was in labor. Having had such a horrible dream made him feel like he wasn’t fit to be a father. He thought it must have been his fault — something caused by all of his apprehensions about the child being his. Perhaps it was that guilt that drew him even closer to his precious girl. He never doubted that she was his again.
Robert didn’t shy away from the delivery room, and from the moment Samantha Brennan took her first breath, at 9:05 am on June 5, 1995, she was her daddy’s girl. The marriage to Nikki — shortly following her birth — was never meant to be, but Sam would be his for life. If only he had known how short that life would be.
It was one day before Sam turned twenty-three. She seemed so fragile as she stood before her father, her long, auburn hair blowing in the soft breeze, on the dock of their family’s summer home on Lay Lake that morning. “Does he know?” a graying Robert Brennan asked.
For a moment, Sam seemed to have transformed into herself at the age of five. Her father watched as his baby girl trembled at the question. Tears welled in her eyes. “I was trying to, but he… He proposed.”
“He what?” For a moment, Robert forgot the actual reason he had asked Sam to meet him there. He bit back the thought of what a ridiculously inopportune moment poor Nathaniel had chosen. She didn’t need to be told. No one knew how shitty the timing was better than Sam. “What happened next?”
“I told him, ‘No.’” Sam’s face twisted in agony. “That’s all that would come out!” She buried her head in her father’s shoulder and sobbed.
Unsure of what his next step should be, Robert just held her as she cried for several minutes, waiting for her to cry it out. He thought of how awful she must feel. She would have never said “No” to the proposal if she wasn’t so overwhelmed with the loss of the baby. Sam’s breathing steadied, and a thought came to Robert’s mind. “Why don’t we invite him to dinner and I can explain everything to him? This is too much for you to handle on your own right now… and, I’m sorry to put it to you this way, but that boy deserves to know.” Robert regretted it the moment it escaped his lips. Would Sam break down in sobs again? He didn’t mean to sound so cruel. His bluntness had gotten him caught with his foot in his mouth again. As far as he was concerned, his frankness was only a character flaw when it came to talking to Sam. Anyone else could kiss his ass.
Sam lifted her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. “No daddy. I need to be the one to tell him.” She laid her head back on her father’s shoulder and, resolved in her burden, said, “Just give me the weekend to pull myself together. I’ll be able to tell him.”
Robert’s baby girl continued to tremble in his arms. His heart ached to heal her pain, but he knew that she would not relent. She would do things as she saw fit, and no one would persuade her otherwise. A movement in the treeline caught his gaze. A twenty-year-old memory invaded his already troubled thoughts, and Robert remembered his proper reason for meeting Sam that morning. Knowing the answer would not change, he still made one more plea for her to stay anywhere else. “I know you have your mind made up, but couldn’t you just stay at a hotel or something?”
“Dad, you know I’m not a ‘room service’ kind of girl. Why do you keep asking? What’s wrong with me staying here?”
Robert paused for a moment, trying to compose his words in a way that didn’t make him sound like a superstitious old fool. Realizing the task to be futile, he asked, “Do you remember what happened to your Uncle Jessie?”
“Well, I was too young to remember it, but I’ve heard the stories. Seriously, dad? He went crazy and his son killed him. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
“Yeah… You were too young to remember. You’ve got that right.” He grabbed her by the shoulders, staring into her eyes, pleading for understanding. “Now, I know that you’ve got it in your head that you know better. And yes, the stories did get exaggerated, but don’t you think for a moment that there’s no truth behind them. Tommy had no other choice than to do what he did. You were too young to see what had happened to Jessie. Something… well, unnatural had taken hold of him. Something from inside these woods.” He could tell that his words were failing him as she rolled her eyes. “Listen to me! It’s like he caught something that made him crazy, the way someone catches a cold.”
Sam pulled away and walked to the end of the dock. She didn’t have time to argue with her dad over some old family legend. “I need some time to myself. Hotels are too noisy. Staying with you wouldn’t allow me to clear my mind either. It’s always been so peaceful here.” She smiled, overcome with childhood memories. “You remember how I used to love for you to throw me off the pier? We used to have so much fun here. Why did we stop coming? It wasn’t because of what happened between Uncle Jessie and Tommy. Hell, we were still coming out here until I was about fourteen. What happened?” Her smile had turned as a sudden sadness came over her.
“Divorce. Your mom and I held on for as long as we could.” Robert knew that he could not talk his daughter out of her plans. She was too much like him. “Do you remember the rules?”
“Dad, please! I’m old enough to handle myself. Plus, I never obeyed those rules back then.”
“This is important. You can mull through your thoughts in the cabin and on the bank just fine. I need you to promise that you won’t go into the woods. Whether you want to believe it or not, those woods are dangerous.”
Sam told her father what he wanted to hear. They spent the rest of the morning on the dock, feet dangling in the water, just talking about the quality times they used to have at the cabin. Wanting to ask him to stay and have dinner around a fire like old times, she hated to see him get up to leave, but she knew that she had a responsibility to Nathaniel to tell him the truth. She could never do that without getting herself together first. Sam gave her father a long hug and kissed his cheek. Watching him as he walked off and got into his truck, she began to cry.
Sam had begged Nathaniel to stay home for the evening. She had something important to tell him, but after being gone for close to a month on assignment, he insisted that they do something special. He told her they were only going to the park so they could enjoy the stars as they talked. She could tell him what she needed to tell him there.
It turned out that Nathaniel had a very elaborate night planned. When they came to their favorite spot in a clearing on the outskirts of the park, Sam was shocked to see the trees draped in fairy lights and a table set up in the middle of the small grove. Soft music seemed to be coming from the trees. Her mind was struggling to process the meaning of it all. A boyish man in a formal black vest held her seat for her as she sat in bewilderment. “I… I have something… Could you sit down?”
Nathaniel smiled as he stood before her. “I have something to say too. Forgive me. The saying goes, ‘Ladies first,’ but I feel that this has to be said now.”
That he wasn’t sitting down made Sam feel uneasy. At the moment she realized what he was doing, he went down on one knee and grabbed her hand. “Samantha Brennan, I have loved you from the moment you stole my pen in English class our junior year. You have been the brightest light in my life, and now you’re carrying our child. Sam, I love you more than anything, would you marry me?”
“No.” Sam was mortified. Did that come out of her mouth? Tears ran down her face as she tried to find words to explain herself, but nothing came. Instead, she just kept repeating, “No… No… No…”
Samantha sat on the dock well into the afternoon, agonizing over that night. It was half-past three when she went into the cabin.
Because of the lack of reception at the lake, Robert didn’t see the text message from Nikki until he got home around one in the afternoon.
He rolled his eyes as he picked up the phone. It didn’t even ring once. “Do you know what your daughter has done?”
It was apparent that Nathaniel, dumbfounded by Sam’s response, spoke to Nikki about the situation. Robert wished that he had come to him about it, but Nathaniel wouldn’t. He feared Sam’s father. Through the cursing and blaming him for having such a wayward child, Robert discerned that Nikki had told Nathaniel everything. They were heading out to Lay Lake the next day to confront Sam.
“You’ve crossed the line, Nikki! Sam just needs time. She will be mad enough at you for telling him. The two of you had best stay put and let me see if I can’t sort out your mess.”
“My mess? Let me assure you that Sam is your mess!” Nikki threw more obscenities in Robert’s direction and ended the call with, “We’ll do whatever the hell we want!” Which meant whatever she wanted.
Robert dialed Sam’s number, only remembering that she would get no cell reception after it went to voicemail. Calling the cabin didn’t get him anywhere either. Knowing his daughter, the phone would be unplugged. He left a message and prayed that she would get it.
Sam walked into the cabin and saw the little red light blinking. Without giving it a second thought, she unplugged the phone and threw her shirt over the light. Throwing herself onto the old wood couch, she curled up around a pillow. She couldn’t cry anymore — she couldn’t even think about it anymore. The self-torture for the day over. She closed her eyes.
Waking as the sun was getting lower in the sky, Sam got up and hurried out of the cabin. There was somewhere that she wanted to be at sunset. Her promise to her father would have to be broken. The path through the woods had become overgrown, and it was hard to tell if she was on the actual trail or not. After some time of feeling that she must be lost, and more backtracking, a babbling brook stretched out in front of her. Beyond it was a ridge. If she could climb the rock face before the sun got too much lower, she would have the prettiest view of the sunset on the entire lake. Climbing turned out to be more of a challenge than she had remembered from her younger days. A few missed footings and two or three close calls later, she was standing on the top of the rock face and experienced an even more beautiful sight than she had recalled. The blazing orange sun, staring at itself on calm water, sat on a field of purple and pink sky. It was enough to steal a breath.
Sam had just turned fourteen the last year that her family visited the lake house together. They stayed nearly the whole summer. That was the year she met Will. He was a soft talker but knew all the right things to say. His coppery skin and black hair was a stark contrast to Sam’s pale, freckled skin and auburn hair. She often thought he was the model from which she derived her taste in men. He took her on all the many trails through the woods and showed her the babbling brook and the crag with the scenic view. Stealing away every chance she could get, Sam would meet Will on their hill to watch the sun go down. Clumsily becoming lovers, they missed many a sunset, preoccupied with exploring each other’s bodies. The summer flew by and just as quickly as it began, they were saying their last goodbyes. They promised to keep in touch, but as fate would have it, Will fell from the ridge the next week. Nine years later, she said goodbye again, hoping that she might reach his spirit in their special place.
It was getting dark, and Sam worried that she might not find her way back to the cabin. She could climb down much easier than up, almost as if her muscles remembered the right steps from years earlier. Once at the bottom, she took one misstep and fell back into the creek. Looking up, she saw the figure of what seemed to be a wild dog and heard a low growl. She thought, at first, that it must be a coyote, but then realized that it was much too large. The animal looked thin and hungry. To Sam’s surprise, the beast stood up on its hind legs, much like a human. Before she could get up and run, it had launched itself off of the bluff and was on top of her. Its face looked almost skeletal, and its eyes were dull and dead. Inches from her face, it snarled, and the drool dripped from its fangs onto her chin. Sam reached for its neck to push the crazed animal away, but it was like grabbing at a wet paper. The skin tore and dangled from its neck. Angered, the beast reared its head back, and when it came back down, sank its fangs into her neck.
“She takes after her father, you know,” Nikki proclaimed to Nathaniel as they bounced down the old dirt road. “We’re almost there.”
“I can’t believe that she didn’t tell me.” He had not paid attention to a word Nikki had said since she picked him up from the apartment he shared with Sam. “How could she not tell me she had lost the baby?”
“… If you ask me, she’s just being selfish… I’ll never understand that girl… There’s a reason that we’ve never seen eye to eye.”
Nathaniel, having caught parts of Nikki’s rant about Robert’s errant child, remembered the animosity between Sam and her mother. Sam would never listen to him with Nikki there. “I think it would be best for me to talk to her own my own… you know… to start the conversation. Don’t you?”
“But…” Nikki protested but found that she didn’t have a rebuttal. Resentfully she said, “Harvey Miller has a store about a half mile before you get to the house. I guess I’ll just hang out there for a while.”
Sam woke up in the creaky old bed in the master bedroom of the cabin. She was out of breath and sweating. She grabbed at her neck, searching for the wound. There was nothing — no broken skin. She ran to the bathroom. The mirror was small and dirty. Her father must have forgotten to clean it. She craned her neck and turned in every direction, but there was no evidence of a bite. A debate stormed through her mind. It all felt real to the animal’s teeth sinking into her neck. She couldn’t have dreamed it, but there was nothing — no fang marks — not even a bruise. She sorted through the evidence, and logic took over, telling her she had to have been dreaming.
Lucid dreams were not new to Sam. Although she had not had one in some time, she had experienced them as a teenager. She looked at her face in the mirror and slapped it. “Looking a little rough this morning,” she said to herself. Not able to take her eyes from the mirror, she thought something was different. Peering closer, she noticed that her eyes were no longer a vibrant green, but a dull gray instead. She pulled the skin under her eyes down and moved even closer to the looking glass. Blood trickled from under her fingers and, upon inspecting them, she found her fingernails chewed, jagged and covered in blood. All the stress must have had her biting her nails again. Glancing in the mirror again, to her horror, there were eight deep scratches and streams of blood pouring down her cheeks. She thought she must have been putting more pressure on her face that what she thought. Her neck tingled in the place where she had been bitten in her nightmare. She craned her neck to look once again. This time she saw a long, thick hair protruding from her skin. The tingle turned into a maddening itch. She pulled at the strand, violently tearing it out, but the itch only gave way to pain as her skin tore away with it. Screaming, she backed away from the mirror.
Sam crouched on the floor — sobbing — trying to regain the courage to look in the mirror again. From the chunk of skin that she now held in her hand, she could tell that she would need to seek medical attention, but would need to look again to assess whether she would need to call someone or take herself to the hospital that was little less than an hour away. Slowly, she stood up. The image that greeted her was no longer bloody. Her skin was smooth, with only a slight red irritation under her green eyes and no gaping wound on her neck. She looked in her hand that was holding the bloody lump of flesh. There was only a rag. “Going a little crazy, aren’t we, honey?” Sam told herself that the stress must be the culprit, and she needed to sort things out soon before she went off the rails.
Trying to bar all hallucinations from her thoughts, Sam, realizing that she was hungry, made her way to the kitchen. She could have killed for some bacon and hoped that her father stocked the fridge for her. Robert Brennan did not disappoint. He must have gone to Harvey Miller’s convenience store. She recognized the paper wrapper. Lay Lake seemed suspended in time — nothing ever changed — and that thought made Sam smile. She grabbed the bacon, threw it on the counter and went to look for the cast-iron skillet that her father used to use. The smell of the bacon was so powerful — and Sam so hungry — that she thought she might eat it raw if she couldn’t find the pan. Just as she found it, she noticed a familiar figure walking up the dirt road towards the cabin.
Harvey Miller was coughing and hacking. Just about the time he thought that he gave up the butts ten years too late, he saw Nikki Brennan step out of a Toyota Prius. There was no mistaking her. She hadn’t seemed to age. The young man that was in the passenger seat seemed to disagree with her, and she was very animated. Nikki had always had a flair for the dramatic. She threw her hands up in the air. Harvey could hear her say, “Well, fine! It’s about half a mile that way.”
The callow man headed out towards the Brendan’s cabin and Nikki came storming in Harvey’s direction. The looks of her still made his heart skip a beat, even if she was pissed off. Harvey had found the courage to tell Robert that he had always had a thing for Nikki just the day before. “She sure is a fine woman,” Harvey had said.
“Yeah… She’s a looker… Crazy as hell, but nice-looking,” was Robert’s reply as he took his cap off and scratched his head.
At first, she seemed to be coming towards Harvey in slow motion, like in a dream. As Harvey was coming out of his daze, she was two steps away, “That damned boy is just as stubborn as she is. It wouldn’t hurt anything to take my car.” Harvey could tell that Nikki was getting highlights in her hair to cover the gray, and a thick layer of make-up hid her crow’s feet. “What’s wrong with these kids?”
Harvey, unsure of what Nikki was talking about, just shrugged. “That girl of yours takes after you.”
“Only in looks. She’s bull-headed like her father.”
Scratching his beard, Harvey nodded his head. “Yeah, I can see that. You know that she’s been wandering the woods, don’t you? I saw her heading up towards the ridge yesterday as the sun was starting to set.”
“Oh… You don’t believe that old story. Have you been talking to Robert?”
“He stopped in yesterday. Asked me to keep an eye on her.”
“Oh sure. It’s fine for you to look after her, but I’m not allowed to be concerned.” Nikki crossed her arms over her chest and started tapping her foot.
Harvey knew the look. He loved how she twitched her hip with every tap. Hating to sound like an old fool, but knowing that Nikki needed to know the trouble her daughter was dancing with, Harvey said, “The Indians call it a Wendigo. Now, I don’t know what the hell a damned Wendigo is, but I do know that whatever is roaming those woods is no good.”
“That’s enough of that!”
“You know what happened to Robert’s brother, Jessie, but did you also know that the same thing happened to that boy Sam had taken with? What was his name? Will?”
The morning sun was shining off of his black hair, making it almost look blue. As Nathaniel was coming down the dirt road towards the cabin, Sam didn’t know whether to run into his arms, to be mad or to just enjoy her breakfast.… Hungry… He was probably a hallucination too. He stopped about ten yards out. He was bewildered, and he was the one who mad. Unable to keep his emotions bottled up any longer, he yelled, “Why didn’t you tell me, Sam?” He picked up a rock and hurled it in the at the cabin door. It was all he could do to keep himself from barreling in and possibly hurting Sam. He needed her to know the pain that he was feeling — needed her to feel it. Again and again, he launched whatever he could get his hands on until he bellowed, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Sam panicked.… So hungry… She knew her mother must have told him. Her father never would have betrayed her like that. Knowing that she couldn’t be upset he was angry — his anger was well earned — but also unaware of how to fix the situation, she ran into the bathroom, as it had no windows, and hoped that Nathaniel had not seen her.
He had seen her, and a rage that had subsided engulfed him again. Nathaniel came running into the cabin, moving from room to room. “Sam? Come out! I know you’re here.”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry… I’m sorry,” came Sam’s pleading apology from behind the door.… Starving... All of her pain laced into every word.
Unable to hold his anger at the sound of his love in agony, he put his back to the bathroom door and slid down to the floor. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were on assignment and I didn’t know how to get in touch with you.” Distressed by all the memories of the past month, Sam crumpled to the floor and tried to hold back the tears.… Ravenous... This was not how she wanted him to find out. “I’m sorry… I just didn’t know… and everything was so surreal… I don’t blame you for being mad, but I was just in so much pain… I didn’t know what to do… and then you proposed…” Sam could hold the sobs back no more. “I’m so sorry.”
Realizing for the first time, since hearing about losing their baby, that Sam was in pain too, all of his anger gave way to mourning. “I’m sorry too, Sam. I was so mad that I didn’t…”
Her attention diverted by the churning of her stomach, Sam could not listen to Nathaniel.… Must feed… At first, she thought the turmoil of the situation was causing her upset stomach, but then she realized that it was something else. Confused as to why she was experiencing an overwhelming hunger at such a critical moment, she pressed her ear to the door, in hopes of his voice cutting through the rumbles. She couldn’t make out the words but could tell by his tone that he was hurting. She put her hand on the door where she thought his face might be, wishing that she could say something to make that pain go away. Her stomach was hurting, and she felt nauseated. The more she imagined being beside Nathaniel to comfort him, the more she salivated — like a dog looking at a piece of meat.
“Sam? Are you okay in there?” Nathaniel stood up, concerned about the growling noises he was hearing from behind the door. “Why don’t you come out? Let’s talk face to face.”
The door swung open and Sam stared at Nathaniel with dull gray eyes.
“What the hell’s happened…”
Nikki, never being one for patience, grew tired of waiting. “This is bullshit! I’m going to set that girl straight.”
Harvey went into the store and grabbed the phone. “Robert, you might want to get out here. The shit’s hitting the fan.”
Nikki parked her car and marched down the dirt drive and went barreling into the cabin without even considering knocking. What she didn’t know was the horror into which she would be marching.
“Oh my God! Sam!”
Having been disturbed from her breakfast, her insatiable appetite still growing, Sam glared at the woman before her. Nikki had deserted her in her greatest time of need — had turned her back on her as if it was Sam’s fault that she lost the baby. Rage boiled within her, and Sam launched herself at her mother.
Robert went as fast as he could, but even driving like a bat out of hell, he wouldn’t be able to do better than forty-five minutes. Something in him had told him he should have stopped Nikki and Nathaniel. Nikki had never forgiven Sam for being a daddy’s girl and reveled in any chance to punish her. Nathaniel was just hurt, and Robert could understand that. There was just too much ugliness — it had gained momentum — about the whole situation to have stopped anything. Sam would be irate, and that fiery, red-headed temper was nothing nice when she got going.
Only giving stopping by to talk to Harvey a moment’s thought, he went flying past the convenience store at 8:54 am. He was pulling up to the cabin less than a minute later, throwing his truck into park next to Nikki’s white Prius. Not sure what he would do with it, even if the situation had gotten out of control between Sam and her mother, Robert grabbed his rifle from behind the seat. He walked up to the cabin and pounded on the door. The door slammed open. A horrifying site was unleashed, causing him to forfeit his breakfast.
The first thing he saw was Nikki, but he wouldn’t have known it was her, except for her highlighted hair and the style of clothing that she wore. Her face was mutilated, looking as if it had been scratched until the skin shredded. Bloody bubbles were coming from her mouth and Robert realized that she was still alive. He ran over to her, and that was when he heard the growling sounds from the corner.
Sam’s face was all clawed, and she had a large gash in her neck. Her fingers looked as if something had gnawed them to the bones. Robert was making his way over to her when he noticed that Nathaniel’s body lay before her. Half of his neck had been ripped out and one of his arms looked like nothing more than hamburger meat. Robert backed away. Sam cackled as he placed his hand on Nikki’s shoulder, trying to comfort her. He then realized, to his terror, that Sam had been feeding on Nathaniel’s body.
His precious girl’s, once vibrant, green eyes were gray and dead looking. Her hair was matted with blood, and she cackled and snarled at him. Then for a moment a little green shown through the murkiness in her eyes. She looked tired and sad. He knew at that moment what he would have to do.
Memories of holding his baby girl for the first time came flooding into his thoughts. For a moment, he was tossing her into the air on a beautiful spring day, the sun bouncing off her lovely red hair. He was catching her in his arms as she ran down the pier and tossing her into the water. The memory of the day before, reminiscing with their feet in the water, made him think of how he was hoping for an invitation to dinner. Oh, how he wished that he had suggested it. Envisioning her as the gorgeous bride that she would have been, he broke down in tears.
Cursing the day that Nikki had convinced him it was still okay to spend their summers at the lake after Jessie died, he now looked at her once lovely, mangled face. The bloody bubbles had ceased, and he knew that she, too, was gone. A low, eerie laugh came from the corner.
At 9:05 am on June 5th, 2018, Robert Brennan once again held his beautiful baby girl in the scope of his rifle. “I love you, Sam. I’ve always loved you.” Sam growled and lunged towards him. Filled with pain, he yelled with everything he had in him as he pulled the trigger.
Harvey had called the police when he saw Robert blow by his store. They arrived to find Robert cradling Sam in his arms and screaming. Having assessed the scene, they found that he had acted in self-defense, just as Tommy had twenty years earlier. He was sent home to mourn his family. He would never heal.
Knowing that this tragedy would happen to someone else, Robert led a campaign to close off that piece of land on Lay Lake, so that no one would have access to it. In 2019, they denied the proposal.