Carter had set aside his pancakes to examine the list of rules and the photo book. "You really believe all this, Drew?"
Andrew motioned for Carter to lean in to eliminate the chance of being overheard. "I looked at those photographs for nearly two hours. There are six different Sasquatches."
Carter leaned back. "I noticed that as well. So what?"
"Where do you suppose they got all those costumes?"
"Spencer's. I want to see the pawn. Do you have it in that bag?"
Andrew grabbed the backpack and slid it underneath the table. "Yeah, I brought it with me. Don't take the whole thing out. I want to keep this between us."
Carter chuckled as he pulled the backpack closer to him. They had taken a booth seat with a window at the back of the establishment, which was populated with older folks disillusioned with the modern world and in dire need of coffee. Carter leaned in, blocking any potential view of the pawn from the diner. He checked outside the window to make sure nobody was watching them before opening the backpack.
"Looks awfully crude," Carter said.
"I think they did a pretty good job considering they probably can't have a lathe shipped to their cave."
Carter smiled. "They live in caves, then?"
"We could try asking the one I'm playing."
"No. Instead of that, try getting him to tell us where he got his hands on teak wood. Teak doesn't grow around here."
"Huh. That's kind of creepy."
Carter gripped the carving of the squirrel in his hand. "Speaking of which, I'm not picking up any bad vibes from this thing like you did."
"Do you play chess?"
"No. I prefer Scrabble or Clue."
"There you go. Besides, you weren't picked for this. I was."
Carter set the photo book and the rules beside him and started eating before his meal got cold. He was thinking about it.
Andrew started in on his French toast. "You don't have to go if you don't want to. I thought you would be a little more interested. I can figure out a way to do it myself."
Another chuckle from Carter, followed by a big smile. "Is that so?"
"Yeah. I've got a good camcorder. It's got a time delay. Or whatever that feature is called. All I really need is a tripod."
Carter looked down at his plate and shook his head. "You think you'll be able to sneak that by the 'squatch, Drew?"
Andrew put his utensils down with emphasis, drawing Carter's attention to him. "I snuck a lot of things by a lot of people. I'll be fine."
Carter wasn't fazed. "I didn't mean it like that. There's plenty of shit out there that doesn't need to follow the same rules we do, and a lot of it is out there in the woods." He spoke from the experience of a private memory. "This is a Sasquatch we're talking about. Presumably. They can't be as stupid as a fish or a deer."
"I get what you mean, but I'm still risking it. If the 'squatch gets spooked, it won't show up and I'll come back the next day, ready to behave."
"Were you planning on digging through public records to make sure there haven't been any disappearances associated with this cabin before you rented it?"
"No, but that is a good idea, just in case I'm imagining things. I'm pretty sure I'm not. I know how crazy it sounds, but it's real. In fact, I think that hex may already be at work." Andrew rubbed his eyes. "You know that feeling you get when you need to do something you have to do, but you would rather be doing something you wanted to do? Playing chess with that 'squatch is what I would rather be doing than having breakfast with you. Or anything else, for that matter."
Carter finished his meal and cleaned his face with a napkin. "I'll believe it when I see it. Count me in."
Andrew smiled. "Thanks. This will be a whole lot easier with another person."
Carter nodded. "I'll see if I can find anything suspicious about that cabin over the weekend. If I don't, we'll rent it under my name, using my money."
"You want me to cut you a check?"
"No, don't worry about it. We can talk about that after this is all over. I'm going to bring my satellite messengers along so we can keep in contact while I'm scouting the area. When we get the date set, make sure your girls know about it. Minus the part about the 'squatch, that is. I know I'll be telling my kid. And the ex. We may be staying at a cabin instead of roughing it, but that really doesn't make much of a difference, especially considering what we're doing. It's still dangerous."
"You're overthinking this."
Carter looked out the window, seeing far beyond the view. "Maybe."
Andrew wanted to pry and find out what was on Carter's mind, but restrained himself. If Carter felt like sharing, he would. Until then, there was a game to be played.
"Just so we're clear, this video isn't going up on the Internet," Andrew said.
"People still wouldn't believe you." Carter returned his attention to Andrew. "Nearly everyone is braindead these days. They believe whatever their phones tell them to believe. Google doesn't want anyone thinking about anything they haven't approved. Cryptids aren't on the agenda. They're too exotic for the grind we're all in. Besides, if we threw this up on YouTube it would ruin the little ritual the 'squatch has got going. Whoever is left with the hex still in effect would be in quite a bad spot trying to find another person to play after the game has been permanently called off."
Based off that answer, Carter was the right man for the job. Andrew couldn't be more certain.
Andrew parked his Jeep Wrangler next to Carter's Chevy Silverado. The one he had lost in the divorce. He and his ex-wife had to be getting along better than Carter let on. A variety of items were still in the bed and the interior of the vehicle. Carter had insisted they travel separately due to the amount of equipment and supplies he wanted to bring.
If Carter had seen him pull in, he wasn't coming out to give Andrew a warm welcome, which worked out better for him. Andrew reached into the backseat and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of a cooler. He broke the seal and drank directly from the bottle. Two gulps. Four. Alcohol helped keep the urge to play at bay. Over the past week, he had been drinking like he was in his twenties again. Previously, he would have found such a feat unthinkable since his stomach came to reject alcohol entirely in his late thirties. For reasons he could only assume were related to the hex, he had regained his ability to indulge in alcohol.
Andrew had a look at the cabin he would be spending the next four days in. Enjoying a good degree of popularity, it had been booked solid for almost two months. It was as gorgeous as the online photos had suggested. Four bedrooms. Two and a half baths. A fabulous kitchen. Game room. Jacuzzi. Bar. Even a theater and access to the Internet, which both seemed to defeat the purpose of getting away from it all. There was also a two-car garage he'd be using later. An extensive pond full of fish was nearby, with three rowboats awaiting use.
Though the amenities were more than accommodating, Andrew couldn't appreciate them. His focus laid entirely on the game of chess he would play against the 'squatch. The hex at work, no doubt. Andrew had another drink.
Carter stepped out of the front door, smiling. He had buzzed off his hair and wore a regular shirt with a pair of camouflaged pants that were almost an identical match of the nearby terrain.
"Drew! Good to see you. How was the drive?"
Podcasts and music hadn't helped dull the need to play the game. Andrew got out of his vehicle, whiskey bottle in hand. "Excruciating. What happened to your legs?"
Carter looked down at his pants. "What do you mean what happened to my legs? They're right there."
"Really? I can't see them."
Carter smirked. "Alright, you got me. Very funny." He pointed at the bottle of whiskey. "You just start in on that?"
"Yeah. It makes tomorrow get here a lot faster. I have three more in case you're thirsty."
"I'll pass. We can share a drink when this is all over. You're not planning to play the 'squatch with a hangover, are you?"
"Absolutely not," Andrew said. "It's the hex, Carter. I know it must be hard for you to understand because you can't feel it, but trust me. I wouldn't want you to feel it. I haven't been able to think about much else aside from tomorrow for the past two weeks. I've even been dreaming about it."
"Do you win?"
"In your dreams. Do you win the match?"
Andrew suppressed the urge to have another drink. "No. They get all funny towards the end and I wind up waking up."
"Funny like how, exactly?"
"What, are you a shrink all of a sudden? They're dreams. Stupid things happen. Like I'm back in high school again playing against the 'squatch in the weight room or there's too many pieces on the board and I don't remember how all of them work. Sometimes it's both."
"Sounds rough. Maybe you'll feel a little better if we talk about how we're going to handle tomorrow. I had some stuff I wanted to go over with you before we get settled in. Come on inside."
Steaks were cooking in the kitchen. Carter had put They Live on the seventy-inch television mounted to the wall above the fireplace in the living room. Roddy Piper and Keith David were having a heated disagreement in an alley. Carter muted it. A map of the area they were going to be in was on the coffee table. Carter had added a series of lines and notes to it written in red ink.
Andrew's attention to Carter's plan was interrupted by the sight of a Mosin Nagant sitting in a twelve-hundred-dollar recliner. "You brought your nugget. Why am I not surprised?" Andrew set his bottle of whiskey on the table and picked up the rifle, noting by the weight that it was loaded. A scope and a sling had been attached to the weapon.
"That rifle saved Russia from the Ottomans. If all this does turn out to be a setup, it'll be more than enough to help us get home safe."
Andrew aimed the rifle at an old globe standing in the corner as part of the decorations, looking through the scope out of habit. "You're not planning on shooting anyone, are you?"
"Not if I can avoid it."
"Can I get your word on that?" Andrew returned the rifle to where it had been.
"Yes, you have it. Take a look over here." Carter pointed at a line he had drawn on the map. "At zero seven hundred, I'll take a slightly different route to get to where we're going. After I make sure everything looks good, I'll leave my rifle against a tree five hundred yards from where you'll be playing." Carter tapped an X. "Right there."
Andrew nodded. "Sounds good."
Carter reached into a pocket and pulled out a white chess piece. The king. He put it down on the meeting spot. "I don't know if you'll be able to decide where you're actually going to play, but try to do it here." He placed the black king from the same set off to the left. "I'll be right there. Less than thirty yards away." Carter reached into a backpack sitting on one of the couches and pulled out two satellite communicators. "This is how we'll keep in touch."
Andrew accepted a Spot X communicator. "These look a lot nicer than the ones I had to work with."
"It's very easy to use. I'll be sending you updates at least once every fifteen minutes." Carter paused, weighing his next thought. "If I miss a single update, come look for me with a gun. You did bring one, right?"
"Just my Mossberg. Nothing fancy."
Carter grimaced in disapproval. "I guess that will work."
Andrew chuckled. "Carter, like I said, we're going to be fine."
"I don't think that's something we ultimately are able to decide for ourselves. Not out here, at any rate." Carter took a seat on the couch and fiddled with the communicator.
"Has something got you spooked?"
Carter took a moment to reply. "Yes. There's a reason I must take this seriously. Drew, sit down, would you?"
Something wasn't right. "We can talk about something else. What other movies you got on that thing?"
"Plenty, but that's beside the point. I had a feeling I would have to tell you this story. I was going to wait until tomorrow, but it might be better for me if I let it out now."
Carter motioned to the recliner supporting his rifle. He had made up his mind. A secret needed to be shared. Andrew sat the Nagant on the floor and took a seat, ready to hear whatever Carter intended to say.
"Remember my kid? Brandon? I used to take him with me. Outside. I wanted him to be interested in something before video games inevitably caught his eyes. On our third trip, I decided to do a little hunting. I wasn't even going for deer. I wanted a rabbit, and I got Brandon excited to taste one. I decided to use a bow since he was still a little young and I didn't want his first experience seeing something die in front of him to be too traumatic. Didn't matter. He cried anyway." The strain of the memory made Carter sweat. His hands were shaking. "Can you believe that, Drew? Over a stupid rabbit. My dad would have hit me. I couldn't do that to Brandon. I had to do something, though, so I told him it wasn't that big of a deal and called him a wiener. That didn't help. I left him crying in the dirt and went no more than twenty yards to collect my kill, only to find that it wasn't there. My arrow was, though. Sticking out of the ground. No blood to be found. Then I realized Brandon had stopped crying, so I looked at where he should have been. And he's gone, Drew. Just. . .nowhere to be seen." Carter sniffed and rubbed his nose. "Shit, telling you this is a whole lot worse than I thought it was going to be."
"If you need to stop-"
Carter held out a trembling hand. "Let me finish. Please. That's when I remembered every story I've ever heard about people that go missing in the woods. I also realized that the last thing I said to my son hadn't been that I loved him. I called him a wiener. That hurt more than some of the work I had to get done in the military, and realizing that made me feel even more vile because I had to do a lot to make it out alive."
Andrew couldn't think of a way to cut the story short to save Carter the pain of remembering it.
Carter cleared his throat and started off on a higher note than usual. "So, I look and look and look for about thirty minutes, but I can't find him. No tracks. Nothing. I took out the communicator I just gave you and tried to hit the SOS button, but my hands were shaking so bad I couldn't get the cover off. Then I hear something coming towards me. I ready my bow for a shot and turn, and it's Brandon. He's all smiles. Not a scratch on him. I had a rule that he would never see me cry unless it was at a funeral, but I broke it right then and there. I asked him what happened. He points at a tree directly behind where he vanished and says two tiny women living in it called him over. They said the rabbit was going to be okay. Then he makes this weird face like he ate something sour and waits for me to say something about it before telling me that the women told him to tell me that if I ever shoot at an animal ever again, I'll be in big trouble." Carter shook his head. "The tree had a few hollows in it. I steered clear of it on the way back to the tent."
"I believe you," Andrew replied without hesitation.
Carter sighed in relief. "I knew you would. It doesn't make this any less unpleasant."
"I don't know if it would make you feel any better, but I've got a few stories like that myself."
"I'm sure you do. Most of us usually pick them up in the field." Carter wanted to end the conversation. "Anyway, I begged him not to tell Amanda, and I don't think he did, and now he doesn't remember any of it. I sure as hell do. I can't help but be a lot more careful when I'm out on a hike all by myself." He chuckled and shook his head. "I used to enjoy going fishing a lot more than hunting, but now I can't even do that. Not even if I planned on releasing what I caught." He paused. "If that hadn't happened to me, I doubt I'd be out here with you. It's also the reason why I'm a little on edge. That's it. That's the story."
"If you ever need to tell another one, I'll hear you out." Andrew stood up, eager to leave Carter by himself for a few minutes so he could recover. "In the meantime, I think I'll have a look around this cabin."
Carter had regained some of his composure. "Feel free to claim the master bedroom upstairs."
"You sure? You put up most of the money for this trip."
"I know. This whole cabin is too rich for my blood. I'd feel a lot better in a good tent." Carter grabbed the black king from the coffee table and held it up for Andrew to see. "There's a chess set in the game room. I can't play to save my life, but I'll let you kick my ass a few times if you want to warm-up for tomorrow."
"Sure, we could do that."
"Yeah, right after you remind me how the knights move."