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Sunday, January 15, 2023

It was cold, luckily not as cold has it could be in January. The crew had been told to suit up and make the rounds around the lake to check for any weather-related issues. It had been raining a lot lately, and that could cause issues with roads. Despite Black Pine Lake being a state park, there were people who lived along the shoreline in fancy lake houses and cabin hideaways. Too much rainfall could make for dangerous conditions, especially considering the possibility of ice.

“Man, why we gotta be out before dark in twenty degrees?” Pete groaned as he threw sturdy canvas bags of supplies in the back of the truck.

“It’s because old Karen says so,” Dean said, nudging Ben a bit roughly in the back. “Right, nephew?” he teased.

Ben rolled his eyes and threw another bag in the back of the truck. “Don’t call her that,” he told them. You know that’s not her name. And I don’t want it getting back to her.” He could care less what they called her behind his back.

Carolyn Glass was his aunt, that was true. And she had gotten him the job working at the lake. She ran the park for the state. And despite the fact that they weren’t super close, mostly because she could be, well, complicated, he wanted to keep his job. Not a lot of people wanted to hire a nobody kid from nowhere.

“Ah, are you Auntie’s favorite?” Dean teased again.

“Not even slightly.” Ben said slamming the tailgate of the truck closed. “But I like a paycheck and don’t want to lose it.” He turned around to them. “I don’t care what you guys think.”

“Alright, lazy sods!” A grumbling old man with a shaggy beard hobbled into the garage from the office. Johnson was the Maintenace manager. He’d been working for the park for a half a century. “Quit your flirtin’ and get in the truck. We don’t just work for the state park system we work for hoity toity rich folks with lake houses and poor people who refuse to be bought out of their prime real estate!” He choked out a laugh with a little bit of smoker’s cough and gestured to the cab of the truck.

They all began to climb in, Johnson in the driver’s seat, as usual. When Dean tried to climb in the front, he waved him out. “Nope,” he said to Dean. “It’s Benny’s got shotgun.” Dean looked back at Johnson like he was personally offended. “Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

Ben climbed in and shut the door, looking at Johnson. He just nodded at Ben with a twinkle in his eye, laughing without smiling. “You know I hate it when you call me that.”

“Get over it, kid.” He started the engine and yelled out, “Seatbelts boys!” And before belts were buckled, he peeled out of the garage with a squealing of tires that echoed inside the garage.

The quick exist was just for show, Johnson took the curves and twists of the narrow two-lane road that encircled the lake slow and steady. Ripping out of the garage was to keep them on their toes, he once told them. The roads themselves were too dangerous to traverse without caution. And considering it was January and temperatures were often freezing or below, the risk to one’s life was too great.

While Ben hadn’t lived in Black Pine for long, he had heard tales of people having accidents at the lake. Twisting roads, drunk drivers, wild animals. It didn’t have to be cold. There are also the missing people. Once, almost twenty years ago, a teenager went missing during a party. She was presumed dead, but they never found a body. Bem remembered imaging swimming in the lake one summer and kicking up a skeleton. Honestly, he’d probably need a change of trousers and therapy after that. But it’s not like he’d tell present company anything like that.

The plan this morning was to travel the main road around the lake, search for any issues that may have occurred during the recent heavy rainfall, and clear if needed. There were a handful of rental cabins owned by the lake. The roads leading to those would be cleared completely, right up to the doorsteps if needed. The properties owned by the rich people, well, the lake personnel were only responsible for maintenance of the first fifteen feet of those drives. It wasn’t often this time of year that they’d be staying in their fancy houses. But the less fortunate souls who owned lakeside property, well, Johnson’s gruff exterior was like the candy coating on a piece of candy. He had a soft spot for the long-term residents. Mostly because he was one.

At each lane off the main road, they’d pull over to the opposite side of the road, park the truck, and grab some flashlights. Their high-powered lights were strong enough to see twenty to thirty feet in front of them, making it easy to sweep the area for any issues. Most of the roads were high enough and situated well enough to prevent high water from washing them out, and root systems from old growth trees all over the park held the ground firm like rebar in concrete. In most cases.

All of the roads, to private property and rentals alike, that they’d inspected thus far seemed fine. But when they hopped back in the truck they all assumed they would head directly to the opposite side of the lake and check there. However, Johnson stopped at the restricted area.

The restricted area of Black Pine Lake was an old access road that had been closed off a few decades before. There used to be an old mansion up there, right on the side of Black Pine Mountain, or so the stories said. Apparently, or at least what the rumors Ben had heard around the garage said, some kids went up there one summer. It had rained for weeks, and it had finally stopped so the lake was busy with people. These kids got bored with the overcrowding at the beach and went exploring. There was a series of mudslides and one or two didn’t make it out alive. State officials cut off access to the area to authorized employees only. Johnson was authorized.

“There ain’t nobody up there,” Dean grumbled from the back seat. He still sounded a little pouty to Ben.

“I don’t care if Grizzly Adams was holding a shot gun up to my chin,” Johnson said, glaring at Dean in the rearview mirror. “We’re checking it. I don’t make the rules, I abide by them.” He turned fully around to look him in the eye. “Now grab your light and get out of the truck or you’ll walk back to the garage.”

He’d said it with such an even tone that Ben was so impressed he had to get out of the truck to keep from laughing. They were parked on the side of the road opposite the restricted area. This side of the road was looking toward the lake, with trees partially obscuring the view. Ben could see the sun was beginning to rise, and the changing colors of the sky were beginning to reflect on the lake’s surface. This was one of the many reasons why he liked his job.

The area they were headed to was normally blocked off by a heavy chain fastened to large fence posts on either side of the narrow ten-foot-wide road. A metal sign was meant to hang from the chain reading “Restricted Area, Authorized Personnel Only.” There were, in fact, additional signs in either direction warning that it was a slide area and to use extreme caution in inclement weather. But when they reached the mouth of the road, the chain and sign were gone.

Johnson walked toward the fence post on the right side of the road and inspected it. “Looks like the eye hook the chain was attached to was ripped right out of the post.” he touched the pole where it had been, where a gaping hole was left, splinters sticking out around it. Ben stood next to him and searched the ground. Further in, he saw it.

“There it is,” Ben said, walking up to what he saw in the mud. It had been run over, by something with big tires, as you could see the tracks. He swiped at it with the toe of his boot, revealing the bent and muddied sign.

“I ain’t going up there,” Dean said. As if he’d even made it to the fence posts yet.

“It’s not like were going hiking,” Pete said.

“I don’t care, somebody is up there and they’re up to no good.”

Ben ignored all of this and kept walking, flashlight in hand. He followed the tire tracks that seemed to only go in and none came out. He tried not to walk on them, as if he would disturb some sacred land. As he advanced, he heard less grumbling from the rest of the group.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw something.

“If you’re not going to do anything besides grumble, get back in the truck!” Johnson shouted. A few minutes later, he and Pete approached Ben. “What in God’s name?” Johnson exclaimed.

Ben walked forward, still cautious, and reached a gloved hand out. He wiped mud away from the cold metal surface. Beneath the mud, and gleaming in the beam of three flashlights, was a silver frog sticker under a ram’s head emblem.

“Where’ve I seen that before?” Pete asked himself outloud.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen it,” Ben said, turning around to face the men. “But you’ve probably heard about it.”

“Holy Hell,” Mumbled Johnson. “We’ve gotta go, boys, we gotta go now.” He turned and started limping his old legs back the way they’d come.

“Why boss?” Pete panted as he pulled his large body after Ben and Johnson.

“That’s that missing Wilkins lady’s truck, Pete!” Ben said. “We gotta call the police!”

They got back to the truck and Johnson pulled rank. “Dean, you stay here and keep an eye on that road.”

“What?! Why?! Why me?!” Dean grumbled.

“‘Cause you didn’t want to go in the first place, and it’s in emergency.” He climbed in the truck and slammed his door. “That and I’ll fire you if you don’t. I’ve been itching for a good reason.”

It took the men quite some time to reach the garage once more, took a few minutes to get the call to go through on the old phone line. But eventually they got through to the Black Pine Sheriff’s Office. Within the hour the restricted area was less restricted and crawling with people with badges. Johnson would liken it to the slide that caused the area to be roped off from the public so many years ago. Luckily, you might say, the ambulance that was brough in would not be needed this time. There was no body, alive or dead, to be found.

To Be Continued.