The Aurora Borealis dances above North America during a strong solar storm. Photo by Nace Hagemann. Visit the photographer’s website at Nace Hagemann Photography.
Working Title: Whistle on Whiteface Mountain
A Novel by Melissa F. Kaelin
SUNDAY, JULY 14, 2013
Squinting into the sunlight, I thought I was on the wrong path.
Above the Hudson River, the park was divided in two. The trails weren’t clearly marked. One direction led to the Appalachian Trail; one direction led to ruins.
“Maybe we misread the signs,” I said, turning to Danny.
With my dog, the two of us had been hiking up the same craggy trail for two hours. Danny knew I had a passion for photography, and he would often push me to work outside of my comfort zone. So, he had offered to show me an obscure setting in the Hudson Highlands, cliffs that towered high above the river.
“I’m sure it was this way,” Danny said.
“Great,” I said, casting my gaze out at the trail behind us. The dirt path was clearly visible on the far hill, and I stared at the vanishing point, frustrated. My eyes must have given me away. It never failed. Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could just feel Danny tense up, as if I was giving him the brush-off. “We’re lost.”
“No, we’re not,” Danny said, in a confident whisper.
“It’s your lead.” If only he was right.
The afternoon heat was sweltering. Against my better judgment, I’d worn lipstick and mascara, and make-up practically melted off my face. A woven rucksack reminiscent of the 1970s clung to my back, tribal designs visible on the shoulder bands. A Nikon D40 rested against my chest, the camera straps warm and damp on my neck. I tugged at a length of auburn hair to free it from the straps, and pushed it back.
“Patience.” Danny set his large hand on my shoulder for a second and stood close behind me, filling my senses with his alluring scent – spicy red saffron and rosewood. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
“Are you wearing cologne?” I wiped my forehead, wrinkling my nose at the wet sensation on my skin. In this sweltering heat, we both had to be crazy to use any kind of product under the inevitable layers of sweat. I turned to face Danny, passing him a sideways look and an awkward smile.
My friend was a walking contradiction. He was tall and lean with a modest chest, but his muscular arms made it look like he’d just started bodybuilding. There was something slightly effeminate about the way he acted, but his tenderness – when he let it show – was beyond compare. I raised my eyes to his, and a few loose curls fell into his face. His brown hair was wet and tousled from the hike, accenting his dark features.
He reached down to scratch Jo behind the ears.
The Australian Shepherd lifted her head in appreciation, displaying a panting tongue and an open canine smile. But I wasn’t sure what to think of him. Danny was an enigma. He was fun to be around, but I couldn’t read him. We’d only known each other for about a year, yet these days, he seemed to be my closest friend.
“Just keep going, Allie,” he said. Danny never called me by my full name. Probably a sign we spent way too much time together. He was so sure of himself, I wanted to elbow him off the trail, just to watch him waver for a second. Sometimes, I wondered if he was putting on an act. “I bet we’re almost there.”
Despite the confident front, Danny seemed to be out of his element. “Have you been here before?”
“No,” he said, simply.
“How did you find out about this place?”
“I read about in a blog,” he said, “and thought of you.”
“That’s really cool of you.” I was flattered. Eager to explore every corner of the world, I was always looking for new subjects to photograph. “What did you say it was called? The Ruins of Northgate?”
“The Cornish Estate,” he said, as we hiked farther up the path. “But some people call it that. There are supposed to be large structures of metal and stone scattered on the trail.”
“Does anyone live in the mansion?”
“Not for decades.”
“So it’s completely deserted?”
“A remnant from another time.”
“I don’t get it,” I said, trying to strike a casual note. “Why would anyone abandon a mansion on the Hudson River?”
“Urban legend has it that the owner met his demise at his desk in New York City. Twenty years after the place was built.” Danny looked off in the distance, furrowing one eyebrow. He glanced back at me, and he hastily pushed a stray curl off his face. “He just slumped over in his chair one day, and that was it.”
“From what? Working too hard?” I winked at Danny, struggling to contain an ironic laugh. My friend owned a restaurant, and he was obsessed with the place. “Doesn’t sound like anyone I know.”
“Just for that.” Danny swooped over and kissed me on the side of the head.
“Hey!” I teased, laughing. It was sweet, but a little disconcerting. I knew Danny wasn’t seeing anyone, but he also refused to take up a date. He’d been single ever since I met him. If he wasn’t trying to attract a girl, than why did he try so hard? Not that I hadn’t thought about him in that way. “Was the man married?”
“Yeah,” Danny said. “They died within weeks of each other.”
“That’s depressing. What happened to his wife?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “The blog didn’t say.”
“Go figure.” At least he didn’t say she died of a broken heart. “Anything else I should know about this place?”
“I thought it would make for some interesting photos. There’s supposed to be a greenhouse covered in vines, an old barn, and a pool that’s plugged with dirt.”
The vision of a dirt-filled pool transported me to a remnant of my own life. It had been years since I’d moved a thousand miles away from the dilapidated farmhouse in Newport, Wisconsin, taking up a new life in upstate New York. It wasn’t so much the farmhouse, as it was my parents who made the place uninhabitable. After years of neglect, I was desperate to get away from them.
Liberated by my college years, I’d left my half-brother, Eric, to fend for himself back home. Moving away had always been the right thing for me, but when I missed that 14-year-old boy, the regret burned a black hole in my chest. As his only sibling, it was up to me to make sure Eric made it out of high school in one piece.
“I think we took a wrong turn,” I said. “If we retrace our steps, maybe we can find our way back.”
“Didn’t you read the map?” he asked, referring to the sign back at the trailhead. “I think we’re on the right track. The ruins can’t be far.”
Danny was hiking in front of me, his dark jeans accentuating a tight butt and sculpted hamstrings. He stopped abruptly, and I nearly bowled him over, after I came powering down a shelf of old volcanic rock. His body hardened when I ran into him, and I held his shoulders to steady myself, my breasts pressed against his back.
“Hey,” he said, in that deep whispery tone. But he was oblivious. “I think there’s an overlook.” Danny gestured to our left, motioning through the hardwood trees.
“Sweet.” I was genuinely excited, but I passed him a funny look.
Danny took my wrist in his hand, and searched my face. Our eyes met, and I was captivated by his blue irises – intricate in their design. He simply took Jo’s leash out of my hand, and unhooked the latch. “You know, she’s much better at this than you are.”
“Ha.” My comment wasn’t so much humor, as it was a rebuttal. Still, Danny was right. “She has an advantage. Four legs to my two.”
Long-haired and spunky, Jo had more coloring than any dog I’d ever seen. Her ice blue eyes peered out from behind a mask of black and tan, with a band of white framing her black nose. A mottled coat bounced when she walked, swaying in strands of silver, black, and tan.
The Aussie was a rescue. She needed constant exercise, firm boundaries, and no shortage of mental stimulation. Her new home wasn’t a perfect match, but I was determined to make it work. We’d come a long way since the first week, when she scratched up my arms out of frustration.
Jo was a herding dog, bred to master the conditions in the Australian outback. I could just see her standing on the vast terrain, perched proudly above a herd of sheep. She had the emotional perception of a human being. She watched our mannerisms for behavioral clues, and she responded to every change in voice and tone. Whenever I spoke, Jo picked up my meaning instantly.
Sauntering off the leash, Jo edged through the trees, watching her step as she ventured out onto a cliff of stone. I followed her, admiring the way her paws moved across the rocks. Dogs were always so present, devoting themselves to the challenge of the moment. In a few steps, we reached the open sky.
“If only you were that nimble,” Danny teased, joining us on the cliff.
Ignoring his flirty jab, I took a moment to catch my breath.
The hills of the Hudson Highlands jutted out of the earth, their rocky inclines bristling with the full leaves of luscious trees. The blue-gray waters of the river wound through the green palisades, tracing outcroppings and islands far below. I pictured the three of us as one little spec in a 6,000-acre park preserve. The cliff where we stood could pass for a small mountain.
“That’s one steep drop!” I glanced back at Danny and Jo, confirming they were both on solid ground.
“I wonder what your brother would think of this place,” Danny said.
“Eric?” I took a deep breath, letting the rich oxygen fill my lungs. My heart expanded at the mention of my only brother, who was busy being a teenager back in Wisconsin. Half-brother or not, there was nothing half about it to me. “He would absolutely love it.”
“I’m going to snap a few photos – maybe I’ll send some to him. Wait here, while I brave the edge.”
“Sure that’s a good idea?” Danny seemed to get taller as he stood there, and he watched as I negotiated my footing and approached the cliff’s edge.
From an altitude of about 500 feet, I could see the Hudson winding its way through the emerald highlands. The scene was breathtaking. Somewhere upriver, a little over a hundred miles away, was Albany – the city I now called home.
“I want to get in close.”
“Just not too close.”
“But that’s what I do,” I replied, tossing him a smile.
I snapped a few photos on my digital camera, then moved closer to the edge. A glare streaked across the camera’s LCD screen, making it difficult to preview any of the images even for a second. A trip of the settings, and there wouldn’t be much worth keeping. The sunlight was so brutal, it could wash out the definition in the frame.
Behind me, I heard Danny talking to the dog. He was probably trying to keep her close, maybe even calm himself in the process. This trip was out of character for him. Given a choice, he’d go for a silent safe haven over daring wilderness stunts. I wondered if he was trying to impress me. I’d been to the highlands before, just not this part of the park.
“Look at that,” I said, my voice full of wonder. In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an unrivaled view. A twisted trunk hugged the rocks, the old cedar hanging off the side of the cliff, splitting the sun into eight distinct rays. I glanced back at Danny, whose expression was full of doubt. He moved cautiously toward me.
“You’ll never make it out there.”
“Hold on.” If he could see through my eyes, he wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment. “Danny, we don’t have the same perspective. I can see so much from here.”
“You’re not going to –”
“If I can just reach that branch…” I inched toward the roots, balancing my feet between two grooves, and closed the shutter on the scene. “Got it!”
A sharp pain shot into my stomach.
I cringed and fell to the earth, grasping at a weathered branch to avoid sliding off the edge of the highlands.
“Allie!” Danny darted toward the old cedar, and he wrapped his arms around my waist. He slowed my fall, steadying me on the rocks and lowering my body to the rock surface. I was disoriented, but fully conscious.
“I’m okay,” I said, gasping for air. My footing was solid. If it weren’t for the pain, I wouldn’t have slipped.
“What happened?” Danny asked, gently brushing sweat-streaked hair off my cheek.
“I don’t know.” I writhed in pain. I squinted to see Jo, who stood attentively by Danny’s side.
“Are you hurt?”
Confused, I shook my head. I studied my palms, but there was only dust and dirt. I looked at my waist, but there was no sign of a wound. The pain was excruciating. I’d never felt anything like it. It cut deep into my stomach and shot out into the rest of my body, like an electrical surge. Worst of all, it came with a clear sense of dread.
“Where’s Jo?” I asked.
“Right here.” Danny reached his palm over to pet her head.
“Are you –”
“I’m right here,” Danny said.
Things were starting to get fuzzy. The sun beat down on the bluffs, and I waited out the worst of the pain, still buoyed by his arms. It was so bright, I wondered if the sun was emitting more light than usual. It didn’t seem like such a thing was possible, but if it were, it might explain the amplified scorch of the summer rays.
I squinted to see Danny’s face. “It’s hot,” I said, my mouth dry.
“Are you dehydrated?” Danny didn’t wait for an answer. He eased the rucksack off my shoulders, working around my body so that I would remain still. He loosened the straps and reached inside, fetching water bottles for us.
“There’s a bowl for Jo,” I said. Then I took a drink.
“I’ll get her some water,” Danny said. “First, we’ve got to come back from the edge.” He tucked a water bottle under one arm and me under the other, leading me back onto the flat stone surface. “Lean your head back against this tree.”
I followed his advice, resting on the rock surface. He grabbed a collapsible fabric bowl from my pack and poured the water. Jo lapped it up, dropping face-first into the bowl and shoving her paws out behind her. Her legs stretched out beside me in total submission to gravity. The sight made me laugh.
“You okay?” Danny asked.
I nodded. I still didn’t know what happened, but I concealed the pain. On my first hike with Danny, I didn’t want to come off as weak. He only wanted to know I was safe, and I was. Besides, he had a tendency to fret over things he couldn’t control.
“Rest here for a minute,” Danny said, setting the rucksack down beside me. “I’m going to get a look at the trail.” Danny moved back toward the trees, maybe looking for a marker or signs of a trailhead.
Jo panted heavily, her mouth dripping, while I petted the white spot on the top of her head. It was called a Bentley Mark – a distinctive feature bred into Australian dogs.
“Good girl.” I’d fallen in love with the Aussie, only to learn after adopting her that she was a working dog, not intended for urban lifestyles or apartments – like mine.
The pain slowly began to subside. I stood up, stretched my legs, and slung the rucksack over my shoulders. Although I’d seen Bannerman Castle, the collapsed structure across the river on Pollepel Island, I had no idea where to find the ruins. At this rate, it could take longer to hike to the car.
The sun sank low on the horizon. The wind picked up. It sent a chill down my skin as sweat evaporated from my neck.
“We should head back,” Danny said, reappearing on the cliff. “This seems like a lost cause.”
“Why? You’re not ready to give up, are you?”
Danny looked at me, furrowing his brow. But he turned, and I followed him onto the trail.
On the way down, we passed the places where the trail split in two. Many of the divergent trails were unmarked, and one of them must have led us astray. I still wanted to see the ruins, but I was starting to get nervous. Even though the pain faded, the dread was something I couldn’t shake.
“Do you smell that?” Danny asked. “There’s something on the wind.”
The smell of burning wood drifted toward us, followed by wisps of grey.
“Fire.” I couldn’t deny the sight of smoke rising up the trail. Unsure what to do, I eased forward, trying to locate the flames.
“Watch your step,” a man said loudly. His voice carried through the trees, as we turned a corner in the path. “The wood here’s so dry, that fire is burning somethin’ fierce.”
Up an incline to the side of the trail stood a stocky man. He had a round face with pockmarks and bushy eyebrows that were so mousy it was hard to make out their color. His pants were torn at the ankles – the seams falling apart – and his forehead was smudged black.
“Hold on a minute,” Danny said. He took a stance at my side.
A low growl sounded from Jo’s throat, as she hunched her back and snarled at him.
A tall but contained fire burned in front of a fallen log. The man leaned against the log, and Jo let out a bark. He swung his legs over the log and strode toward her.
“Hey,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Curtis,” he told me. He had a bit of a lisp. He lifted his arm into the air and waved it theatrically toward the south, then held it there. “Been hiking the region for days. No sense going into town, with hills like these here. I was just going to burn some tube steak.”
Danny passed me a look. I shrugged.
I hadn’t heard that word in years, but there was something familiar about the way the man talked. The more I listened to him speak, the more I could hear my late father’s voice, as if he stood reincarnated before me.
“You folks want some?”
“No, thanks,” Danny said.
“Suit yourself,” he said. He slid a hotdog on a roasting stick, and held it over his smoky fire. “Look at her burn. Those flames licking the edge. Just like our planet. Earth’s atmosphere is gonna’ fry tonight.”
He sounded like a lunatic. I wondered if he had a tin foil hat hidden somewhere behind the log. Something compelled Danny to stay a minute longer.
“What do you mean?” Danny asked.
“Didn’t you hear?” He bit the end of the hotdog off the stick. “The sun hurled a massive solar flare in our direction. If the magnetic field don’t hold up, there’ll be radio blackouts and electrical grid collapse tonight.”
“A power outage?”
“That’s just the beginning,” he said. “Last time the sun launched a storm this big, the whole of Ontario lost power.”
He sounded like a conspiracy theorist. As we stood there watching him, it was all I could do not to laugh.
“Right.” I just wanted to get on the right path, so we could find the ruins and finish our hike. “Could you tell us, do you know how to get to the estate ruins from here?”
“Aw, that’s easy,” he said. He waved his arms wildly and gestured downhill. “Just take a left on that trail there.” He grabbed the hotdog with his bare hands and took a bite. “Follow her uphill to the estate. It’s a long haul, but you’ll know when you get there. Cain’t miss it.”
“Hope the lights stay on for you,” he said. “Nighttime’s closing in.”
“Let’s go,” Danny said. Eager to get away from the stranger, he led us onto the well-traveled path toward the Cornish Estate. He was no expert at hiking, and I wasn’t sure either one of us still had our bearings.
“That was crazy,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief.
“What was he talking about?” Danny said. “A blackout? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“At least, he’s behind us now.”
As the sunlight dimmed in the evening sky, we hiked up the gradual incline. Enough had happened that we dropped the debate on whether to keep going, driven by sheer adrenaline. The sounds of the forest rose up around us, and my thoughts drifted to my camera.
For years, I’d dreamed of starting my own studio. I wanted to take my photography to the next level. I wanted to make fine art. In my mind, I envisioned gallery walls lined with nature scenes, panoramic sunsets, and close-ups on endangered wildlife. I could see myself standing by a large canvas wrapped print, discussing camera techniques with anyone who would listen. That would be a huge risk. I couldn’t afford my life as it was.
If I was going to visit Eric as often as I wanted, I needed more paying gigs.
Not that this was one. Our adventure to the ruins was how I decided to spend my afternoon off. Come to think of it, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d taken a full day for myself.
Danny and I were deep in the forest, when the tree cover finally opened up overhead. The ruins of a barn rose out of the ground. Next to an old-fashioned silo, a stone archway stood as a single wall, with a notched window just below the pinnacle.
“We made it.”
“Strange,” Danny said. “I thought there’d be more.”
“Still,” I said, taking it all in. “This is surreal.”
Danny stood there thinking, but I couldn’t wait to look around.
With Jo beside me, I traced the edge of the building, and I realized the structure had another floor. On the lower level, shallow stone walls with identical square windows formed the outer shell. It looked ancient. Around the wall, decaying machinery and farm instruments had sunken into the ground. I stood beneath the ruins, noticing crisscrossed beams that created a pattern against the sky, like open windows.
I crouched down beside Jo, rubbing her fur and admiring the ruin. Then I snapped a few photos.
“It’s getting dark,” Danny said, coming around the corner with hesitation in his voice. “We should get out of here.”
“You’re right.” Then I realized something. “I’ve never taken pictures in the dark.”
“Another time?” Danny paused. “I can’t believe we didn’t find the ruins of the estate.”
“What do you call this? It’s a ruin.”
“This can’t be it,” he said. “What I read about was a massive stone mansion with two exposed fireplaces.
“It’s not as cool as all that, but it’s my little ruin.” I offered a smile in the fading light.
“Can we go?”
“Not yet,” I said, wandering into the open-air structure.
Twilight transformed the shade of the sky to a deep Prussian blue. The cadence of crickets and katydids lifted into the forest outside the stone walls. The air was so clear the stars appeared like tiny beacons, shining boldly from a shore somewhere in space. To me, there was something spiritual about standing beneath the stars. Others put their faith in organized religion, or an omniscient god, but not me. If the divine existed anywhere, it was in the forces of nature.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen the stars,” I said. “Aren’t you amazed by the sheer number of them?”
“Sure, I guess.”
In between the crisscrossed beams, Scorpio appeared. The constellation gleamed brightly, especially for so early in the night.
My mind drifted to my brother, Eric. The kid was a Scorpio through and through. He was stubborn and brave – attributes that could only help him at home.
My mother had given birth to Eric when I was 12. Her pregnancy came so late in life, she’d injured her spine. After she delivered the baby, she struggled to take care of herself short of strong medication, let alone her newborn son. She was so withdrawn, I sometimes had to press her for hours just to get a word out of her. If she spoke at all, it was usually something trivial.
The volley of stares and sighs between us was hard on me. I could never understand what my mother wanted. It must have been even harder on Eric, a child thrust into a silent world of reproachful looks. Like the remnants of stone in the forest, neither of us felt like we belonged.
Stepping up to help, I raised my brother from an early age, changing his diapers and feeding him bottles. As he grew older, I taught him the alphabet and helped him learn how to talk. A few years after he was born, I went to high school, but that didn’t make any difference. I gave up time for studying, school clubs, and social calls to care for my little brother.
Over the years, Eric became my angel – the light around which my world revolved. I spent every spare moment thinking about him or planning our next adventure, even though my college choice put us nearly a thousand miles apart. I scraped up the money to visit him every four to six months, jam-packing each visit with new experiences. Only, what if it wasn’t enough?
As I turned to head back down the trail, moving along the crumbling wall in the dark, I saw a pair of eyes glowing in the brush. I looked at Danny, who stood on the other side of the ruins, likely counting the minutes until we could leave. From above, a small, winged creature darted in front of his face.
“What the?” he jolted backward, as the bat made another pass. Panicked, he called out to me. “Okay. Time to go.”
“Come here, girl.”
Jo trotted up to me, and I quickly attached the leash to her collar, keeping her at my hip. Danny turned to survey the forest floor, jumping when the masked animal disappeared into the brush.
Tugging gently on the leash, I urged Jo to hurry along on the trail. We had a decent hike ahead of us, and it seemed dark even with a flashlight. Danny and I moved down the trail at a swift pace, listening as the noises of the night grew in volume. The croaks of frogs and other amphibians rose up from the valley, and an owl crooned from somewhere above us.
Alert to the sounds of creatures on all sides, we walked for a mile or two down the trail. We hiked as fast as we could, and the electric sensation of being out at night quickened our pace.
By the time we made it back to my car, the sky had gone completely black.
. . .