I could see the headline already as the bus lurched, front wheel careening into a ditch: Mass murder survivors killed on route to therapy retreat. But the driver corrected, got himself back on the road, no harm no foul. One more near miss.
The roads got progressively worse as we drove deeper into the woods, the trees on either side of us increasingly wild and foreboding, grey with occasional flashes of fire. Autumn had been merciless here. The forest seemed to drop off as we approached the site, revealing a weather-beaten log cabin squatting glumly beyond a final row of cedars. My head swam with sounds and images: heavy breathing – trees bobbing in front of me and sloshing side-to-side as the earth lurches beneath my feet – screams fading into the distance but still echoing in my ears – branches slicing my skin, brushed away by a bloodied hand.
It was all too familiar, but I guess that was the point. Exposure therapy, they called it.
It’s a story you’ve heard around the campfire.
An autumn night in 1980, two teenagers went parking near Lake Silvermoon. The next morning, the girl stumbled into town, covered in blood; the boy was found in the driver’s seat, a screwdriver shoved through his skull.
The police were willing to file it as self-defence – the boy had gone too far, the girl had fought back – but she refused to go along with that. A crime of passion, then. The girl was sent away for manslaughter.
Two years later, it was two couples, a few miles down from the first tragedy. A long weekend, an old family cabin. By the time the sun rose, only one of them was alive.
She was nearly catatonic when they found her, but it was obvious what had happened. The three victims were found beheaded, and one of them – the one whose head had been displayed on a pike at the entrance to the property – had a baggie of marijuana in his pocket. This was classic drug gang retribution – make an example of the offender (and anyone else unwise enough to associate with them) – but leave one alive to pass along the message.
Yes, it was odd to have so many tragedies strike a small town, within a few years and miles of each other. Then again, the victims had been a (probable) sex pest and drug pushers. Nice, normal people, the authorities figured, had nothing to worry about.
At least, until six Bible Camp counsellors were butchered the very next year. Once again, one survivor. What were the odds.
I was nearly up for parole by the time they figured out it was the same guy doing it all – an old hermit named Christie, who’d slunk into the woods when the sawmill closed and never left. They released me outright (with a big settlement cheque), but I didn’t feel free until I saw his body on the slab.
In a way, I still don’t.
That’s what the public doesn’t understand about people like me. They like what we represent: if one person can survive, then maybe we all can. The illusion crumbles as soon as you look close enough to see our scars. People who’ve never stared down death directly don’t understand when you tell them that not dying once doesn’t imbue you with immortality; that just because your heart is beating and your lungs are taking in air, it doesn’t mean you’re living; that just because you’re out of the woods, it doesn’t mean you’re not still running from something.
We were contacted out of nowhere, the invitation appearing in our mailboxes. A three-day healing retreat led by psychologist Victor Chase – state-of-the-art techniques employed in a controlled environment to allow us to confront and contextualize our trauma. Our privacy would be paramount, the location secret.
Worth a shot, we all figured. But other than the frigid, uninsulated rooms, nothing about this was all that different from the hundreds of therapy appointments we’d all already sat through. And Victor was odd, asking irrelevant questions that bordered on inappropriate, questions that took us right back there.
“Did you see any of the heads after they’d been severed? Did you look into their eyes to see if there was any life left in them?”
“No. Their eyes were all closed.”
I think we all considered leaving after that one.
On day two, he startled us again by leading us to a basement full of hanging bags and floor pads, where he ran some self-defence drills. “When you women were victimized, it wasn’t even close to a fair fight,” he informed us, as if we needed to be told. “We can’t let that happen again.”
Now, I’m not sure if basic karate would have been any use against an armed, three-hundred-pound woodsman who ambushed us in the dark. But I still imagined Christie’s face at the end of every punch.
When we talked about survivor’s guilt on day three, I excused myself for a smoke. Survivor #2 followed me.
“I never got that,” I said, passing her a cigarette. “Beating yourself up because you happened to live when someone else didn’t. It just feels…self-indulgent.”
“Light?” #2 said. She’d come a long way from shock-induced mutism, but she still never said much.
I tossed her my Bic.
“I don’t know,” I continued, thinking aloud. “Maybe it’s because I had to fight for my own freedom from the second I escaped Christie. Did you know I got lost in the woods?”
She shook her head no, still struggling to light the cigarette.
“Twenty-six hours I was trying to find my way out, hoping the old man wouldn’t catch up with me. I was so elated when I got to the edge and saw a police car. Until they slapped the handcuffs on me.”
The end of the cigarette caught fire, a flash of orange like the last stem of fall leaves clinging to a November tree. #2 took a long drag, closing her eyes like cigarette commercials were still legal and she was in one.
“I know how you feel,” she said finally. “Obviously not – like, I didn’t end up in prison. But I came out of a coma with the whole town thinking I was a drug dealer and saying my dead friends deserved what they got. So, I get it.”
She handed back the lighter.
“Then again,” she added, nodding toward the room, “she had to deal with being the atheist who survived instead of a half-dozen upstanding Christian kids. She was only working at that camp because she got caught with a joint and her parents thought it would be good for her to ‘give back.’”
I hadn’t thought of it like that.
Having said what she needed to say, #2 went back inside. Leaving me feeling kind of like shit.
“I had such a bad attitude. I was forced to be there and I didn’t let anyone forget it.”
Girl #3 was openly sobbing. Weirdly enough, this was a first for the group.
“I remember staggering out of that cabin, tripping over the police tape, and there were cops everywhere and the parents of the other counsellors had already gotten there. Trying to find out if their kids were okay. I remember them all staring at me, like, why are you alive? Even my parents – when they saw me they looked so relieved, and the first thing my mother said was, ‘Where is your brother?’ And when I shook my head, her face just fell.”
Turning my head, I met #2’s eyes. They felt like the only safe place to look, the only thing to do that wasn’t staring at the crying girl or looking pointedly away from her. I wished I’d made that cigarette last longer.
“My brother was the one who was into that churchy stuff. But he wasn’t like, preachy about it, you know? He was just genuinely good. A good person.” Her voice hitched. “Why did I survive instead of him?”
“This isn’t about who deserved to live and who didn’t,” Victor chastened her.
His tone was sharper than usual, and my head bobbed up.
“You know it’s not about that,” he continued, his voice softening. “But I also don’t want any of you to think it was blind luck that brought you here. You don’t escape someone who’s homicidal, heavily armed, and had the element of surprise by chance.”
I squeezed #2’s hand.
“You women outwitted, outran, and, in some cases, out-fought one of the most prolific killers the world has ever known. You survived, even when the odds were against you.”
He paused, and an odd light came into his eye.
“And that’s why you’ll be so much fun to hunt today.”
We just sat there for a while, as if he couldn’t have said what we’d all heard him say. As if there were an alternate meaning to his words. I closed my eyes as the lights in the cabin sputtered and shut off, and I heard the electronic locks on the doors click shut.
That’s the thing about surviving. You never know when you’re done.
(C) Madison McSweeney 2021