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Author's Chapter Notes:
on Rannigan's Wharf
As they cast off, Shelby turned to them, saying, “Even with our engines, a trip around the peninsula and back is an all-day voyage. We’ll be lucky to make it back by nightfall. From here on out, we’re going to be using the buddy system. No one walks the deck alone. Out on the peninsula, people have been known to drop overboard without any explanation. Just leaving a hat or something drifting behind…”

Shelby shuddered, and they couldn’t help but conclude that he had witnessed such a thing himself somewhere along the way. Max and Shelby formed one team, Justin and Shades the other. Both agreeing to keep one another in plain sight at all times while on deck.

Despite being ill-at-ease about returning to Camp Stilton, each for their own reasons, they could at least take some heart from a common determination to finish what they started.

“Used to be good fishing out here…” Shelby lamented, shaking his head. “After the peninsula went bad, it became too dangerous. Things in the deep, that never used to be there. Vast, terrifying shapes that sometimes drift near the surface, some could swallow this ship whole… No telling what foul things might turn up in your net, or drag you overboard. And unhallowed things sometimes wash up on the shore up in Pickford, too. We show ’em to the kids as a warning about how dangerous the peninsula really is.”

“Aren’t we drifting a little close to the shore?” Max pointed out.

“Not in these parts,” Shelby told them. “It’s best to hug the coast out here.”

Justin recalled such a warning from the map they found back there.

“You’re lucky you folks ran aground in such a shallow inlet. Still, we have to be watchful. You know better’n most, this is no place to get stranded…”

As if to illustrate his point, they passed the first of at least a dozen houses and unmarked settlements along the shoreline, all of them as abandoned and forlorn as Stilton.

“Did anyone ever make it out of there?” Shades asked.

“Some,” Shelby answered, “but those what tried to hold out were never seen again…”

None of them cared to contemplate any of those residents’ fates.

“Leaving Camp Stilton was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Shelby sighed. “I still don’t know how I could face Lorna after that, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to look anyone else in the eye if I didn’t try to save the others…”

Staring out at the horizon for long moment before he pulled himself together and continued.

“Truth be told, I don’t even like running the motor in these parts,” Shelby admitted, “but I don’t wanna still be out here after dark. All the same, it’s safer to ride the winds and the currents out this way. Of course, the radio’s also risky. Seems to draw attention from things you’d rather not notice you.”

Shades remembered their own creepy experiences with their radios out here, that these folks had little use for making up superstitions, what with all the paranormal problems lurking right on their own doorstep.

“Such a shame about Camp Stilton…” Shelby sighed. “We built that place for the kids when the lumber industry around here was in decline. The old foreman, Mr McKenzie, used all his influence with the Rigbys to grant the place, and most of us gave somethin’— time, money, effort— to keep it running. His own daughter never even got to go… ’Course, most of us were pretty sure all Rigby was doing was letting us maintain her property until she thought she could open the mill again. Ol’ Horace’s widow, Veronica Rigby swore she’d reduce that whole peninsula to nothin’ but stumps, if that was what it took… But you never saw a single clearcut out there, did you?”

All three of them shook their heads.

“It was a terrifying thing to behold, how fast those Woods grew back,” he remarked, “just about overnight. Cut it, and it would reappear a day or two later, like magic. Folks won’t touch it, for fear it might be cursed. We lost a lot of good farms out that way, so we’ve had to lean even harder on fishing. But no one in their right mind would try to fish out here, so we’re always having to go farther upshore, and their fishermen keep tryin’ to run us off…”

Shades suspected the poor fellow was getting a load off his chest, as well as distracting himself from his own fear, so he decided to see what he could learn while the old man was being so talkative.

“We didn’t see any clearcuts, but we did find a strange circle of weathered stones.”

“The Stones?” Shelby gasped. “You saw ’em? Even Ol’ Tobey seen ’em maybe a handful of times, and he lived out there his whole life. Somethin’ of a hermit, liked the woods more than he did towns. Not even he ever figured out their exact location…”

“So they do exist on more than one layer…”

“People used to look for them?” Max asked.

“Don’t forget, the peninsula used to be safe enough back then,” Shelby reminded them. “Even children could travel safely with an adult guide. It was about a two-day walk on the road without a truck, so we often camped out along the way.”

“You don’t say…” Justin muttered.

“Ol’ Tobey lived about the halfway point,” Shelby elaborated, “used to be a guide himself. Knew those woods like the back of his hand…”

“He was also an herbalist, wasn’t he?” Shades recalled the name from the map.

“Yes, he was. But how did you know that?”

“I think we may have tried to spend the night at his old place.” Max was pretty sure he saw where his friend was going with this. “It didn’t end very well.”

Shades wasn’t sure how to tell him that his daughter’s ghost may well have saved them from ending even worse.

“Poor Ol’ Tobey, caught right spang in the middle of it…” Shelby shook his head. “With the Woods cutting him off from both sides, he was all on his own out there. I know how that sounds…”

“We know,” Max assured him. “We just spent five days out there, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

“Actually,” Shades pointed out, “I think that did just happen to our worst enemy. It’s just too bad Roxy also wound up out there…”

“No one knows for sure,” Shelby told them, encouraged by the lack of blame or judgment in his midst, “but there was some talk of him being seen on the old Coast Highway, with his big rack of herbs on his back, but when any of us asked around up in Hawthorne, no one ever saw anyone who matched his description…”

“Creepy…” Justin commented.

“That reminds me,” Shades added, “the whole reason we walked to Pickford was because the map warned us not to go to Rannigan’s Wharf.”

He had already cautioned the others not to bring it up before, as they were already pressing their luck just getting anyone to take them out here in the first place. Now that they were well underway, it was time for some answers. If there was no chance of following up on Roxy out there, they wanted to at least know why.

“And with good cause,” Shelby warned them. “Rannigan’s was the first to fall. It was where we first tried to evacuate, since it was closer, but the group that went for more ships never returned. We also never got any further radio contact, either.”

“So, nobody knows what happened?” Max pressed.

“By that point, nobody wanted to know,” he answered. “No survivors made it out of there, so when more ships came from Pickford, we picked up anyone along the peninsula who had the good sense to get out of there, and we never looked back. Far as we know, only one person ever made it out of Rannigan’s, and that was years later.”

“What happened to him?” Shades hoped it might shed some light on what anyone else who went out that way might be up against.

“It didn’t end well for him,” Shelby told them. “See, he was part of a crew what stumbled onto the coast out there, near the Saltwater Fens, and when they found Rannigan’s, they decided to do some scavenging. By then, the whole town was in ruins, but they must’ve figured there was somethin’ worth pokin’ around for. Said there was giant mushrooms growin’ out near the Fens, big as trees, and you’d think that’d be cause for second thoughts, but not those folks. He got left behind on the ship as a lookout, while the others disappeared one by one. Lost all radio contact, and even when the rest tried to run back to the ship, none of ’em ever showed up…

“Said it was creepy, felt like he was constantly bein’ watched. Even farther in town, the others kept sayin’ somethin’ about a ‘fishy’ smell everywhere they went. The very last thing he heard on the radio— what scared him into abandoning the others— was one last, garbled call for help from one of his mates, just screaming and strange gurgling, sloshing noises…”

He could tell from the looks on their faces that he had already talked his passengers out of any foolhardy plans to venture beyond Stilton, yet still he continued.

“After that, he said he tried to put out to sea, despite having to run the ship all alone, but somethin’ hit it from underneath. Smashed the hull, ship started sinking. With no other way out, he hopped on a lifeboat and tried to row back to the peninsula.”

Even as he said this, they passed by another shipwreck. The largest vessel they’d seen out here, and snapped in half like a toy. As if by a child in the world’s largest bathtub.

“By the time he drifted out near Pickford, where a fishing boat found him one morning, he must’ve been out there for at least a couple days. By then, he was raving mad with fright and exposure… and maybe somethin’ else. He had scrapes and bruises, and a really bad gash on one arm, though no one could figure whether he was infected or poisoned. It all amounted the same. All we knew, he had a really high fever, and was only making much sense for a couple hours that first day. Confessed to runnin’ out on his mates, doomed as they surely were, sayin’ he was cursed. The rest of his tale we had to piece together from his fevered ramblings…

“Despite our best efforts to nurse him back to health, he died a couple days later. Whatever was in his arm kept spreading, and was too close to his shoulder to amputate. A lot of folks wanted to dump his body back in the sea, fearin’ he was plagued or cursed, but in the end, we couldn’t bring ourselves to do that. Instead, we had a funeral pyre, like in some outland customs, and that at least quieted any talk of plagues. We even buried him in a local graveyard, out of respect, that his soul might find some peace after all that horror…”

By late morning, they were rounding the peninsula, passing a few more abandoned settlements, and a couple shipwrecks. Out near the tip of the boot, they cruised past a small island with a squat-looking stone house facing the mainland, and a lighthouse up on the highest elevation. Shelby only commented that it used to be a resort home of the Rigby family, Woodbine.

Not long after that, they neared Camp Stilton.

Ever wary in these waters, Shelby insisted on slowing down, taking out an old spyglass to scope out the situation onshore.

“You boys were serious…” Shelby breathed. “That thing actually flies?”

“It did before,” Justin assured him.

And perhaps she might again. Though Shades kept that part to himself for now. Lorna had told them that the Shorewind, like all motor-powered vessels in Pickford, was required to carry tow cables for emergencies, to keep any of their few fishing boats from drifting downshore to the peninsula.

Much to their relief, the Albatross was still moored on the beach where she ran aground, but everything was dead still. Of course, with the Woods at your back, staying inside would be the wisest course of action. Against Shelby’s better judgment, they also tried the radio, but no one answered their hails, which was also perfectly understandable if anyone over there was hearing the same ominous tom-tom drumming they were.

Which left only one option to investigate things any further.

Shelby brought them as close as he dared, before the water became too shallow for a ship of Shorewind’s size, then dropped anchor. They then lowered the lifeboat so they could row ashore. Though their chaperone was loathe to be left alone out here, he made no secret of being even more afraid of the land beyond.

“Somebody needs to stay with the ship,” he said, visibly shaken at how thoroughly the Woods had pushed back into the camp site. “I ain’t settin’ one foot in that accursed place…”

So the three of them rowed over to the beach, hauling their craft well ashore and mooring it to a narrow rock outcropping when they disembarked.

Max, at least, taking some small comfort at seeing the seaplane looking no more aged than when they left it, but as they drew nearer, all of them could see where the paint had been scratched away by unknown claws, and all the windows were blocked from the inside, the cargo door shut up tight.

Steeling himself, Max stepped up and knocked on the cargo door, calling out, “Take it to the Maximum.”