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The Souls of Lost Lake
Author: Jaime Jo Wright


Campfire Tales

Campfires were meant to be places of shadows. In between the flickering light of orange-and-blue hues, raging white centers, and filmy smoke tendrils lingered the dark places. In these places hid the stories that flavored the tongue of every storyteller, tightened the chest of every listener, and perked the ears of the most afraid.

“This is the tale of Ava Coons,” the story begins.

A marshmallow catches fire, flames into a gorge of sticky mess, and falls into the flame, consumed by the raw heat that shows mercy to none.

“In the days of prohibition, before the Depression was at its worst, and before Hitler became a household enemy, there lived in the Northwoods, in a place near Tempter’s Creek, a backward family of questionable origin. Few in Tempter’s Creek truly knew who the Coons family was, and the fact that they lived deep in the forest once inhabited by the Chippewa made them even more of a mystery. But they were a mystery few cared about, and few gave any thought to. Until that morning, the morning of July seventeenth, when a girl emerged from the woods, her flour-sack dress stained with the blood of her family.”

A gasp follows.

A camper flicks on a flashlight for safety.

An adult waves it back into darkness.

Two girls huddle closer together.

The storyteller scans his listeners, identifying them all by the flickering glows against their faces. Their eyes whiter as they widen with fear.

“She limped forward, her right hand gripping the thick handle of a logger’s ax, which she dragged behind her because of its weight. When she approached, the townsfolk noted the ax was bloodied, darkening the wood of the grip, dried to the tip of its blade.”

The storyteller pauses.

The fire cracks its regrets and its conviction that the story has much yet to be told.

“It was murder. All of Tempter’s Creek knew it. The Coons family’s only daughter had brought the weapon to their doorsteps. Ava Coons, a thin, dirty backwoods girl, vowed she knew nothing of what had happened to her family. Vanished was the word Tempter’s Creek applied to the Coonses. To the father, the mother, the two older boys, and even the family dog. A search party gathered, and into the woods they traipsed. Calling, looking, and very much afraid of the carnage they would uncover.”

An owl warbles its night cry.

A camper yelps at the eerie sound.

The storyteller waits until all the attention is back on him, riveted to his next words.

“There was a lake hidden miles into the forest. Surrounded by oak and aspen. A haven for water birds like the wood duck, the loon, and a hiding place for the black bear, coyote, and the raccoon. Few knew of this lake, but that day the search party stumbled on it. Lost in the wilderness, they found its shoreline, and set away in the woods they uncovered its horror.”

“What was it?” A camper breaks into the story.

The storyteller is not perturbed. Instead, he smiles. That sneaky, knowing smile that the story is only going to instill more delicious campfire fear.

“The Coons cabin was burned to the ground. Its charred remains left only a portion of its southern wall. There was no blood. There were no bodies. The only clues left behind from the horrific scene were a lone shoe that had dropped halfway between the cabin and the lake, and on the shoreline, long rivets in the wet earth, as though someone’s fingers had raked into the soil trying to save their life before being swallowed by the lake itself.”

Silence meets the storyteller.

The campers, enthralled and terrified, are exactly where the storyteller wishes them to be.

“And Ava Coons grew up with no memories. They called her the ‘Wood Nymph’ of Lost Lake. Until one day, years later, when she wandered back into the woods and vanished. Just as her family had. The only object she left behind was the logger’s ax, leaning against the house that had given her shelter as an orphaned child. Bloodied once more with the stains of her guardian. Knowing she was a murderess, the town of Tempter’s Creek argued over how a girl could wield a logger’s ax and dispose of her entire family to the depths of Lost Lake. They argued how, years later, she could have hypnotized them all into believing her to be an innocent, only to be starved for more bloodlust. Assuaged now, Ava Coons was out there. In the woods. She wandered there. She wanders there still. Ava Coons and the souls she has buried there, and the souls she still takes from time to time. The souls of Lost Lake.”




Ava Coons

JULY 1930

If someone had asked what her earliest memory was—and if she had been truthful—Ava Coons would have described the metallic scent lingering in the air, a blackbird eyeing the grisly scene from its perch on a crooked fence post, and her bare toes curling into a pool of blood on the front porch of her family’s cabin.

That was most of what she could remember. Odd, how a small memory could wipe all others from a person’s mind. She’d been thirteen when they found her wandering the outskirts of the small logging town in northern Wisconsin. The “Wood Nymph,” they’d called her—she supposed it was because she’d come from the woods. Deep in the woods. In the places where, hundreds of years ago, only the Indians knew how to maneuver through them, and now few white men bothered to inhabit. The forest was good for logging, and that was about it. There were even rumors that it was in danger of limitation because of a new government movement to turn the woods into national forestry. Habitation this far north was for the hardy, not the cultured—especially during these troubled times when the economy had gone bust and work in these parts was scarcer than a tick on the back of a coon dog.

Ava dangled her legs as she perched on a wood barrel, topped and sealed with its tin binding. Inside, the contents boasted a sort of liquid prohibitionists would be appalled to see out in the open. But again, this was up north. No one here cared about laws and rights, or anything American other than the freedom to exist. To remember. But she didn’t even have that. It had been six years since they’d found her, covered head to toe in dried blood that wasn’t her own. They said she’d kept muttering something about “they’re all dead, they’re all dead.” Yet they never found anyone. No bodies. No family. Nothing. Except for blood, and an ax.

Even now, blades intrigued Ava, and she couldn’t rightly explain why. But that ax had been heavy. A logger’s ax. Too heavy for a slip of a girl to wield over her head and incite that much inferred carnage. Still, she was the only survivor. Assuming anyone was actually dead. Without bodies, there was no case, no broken laws, no ghastly crime scene. There was just Ava Coons, the Wood Nymph, and her empty memories. Her parents—her brothers? They were shadow people in her memory, or who she saw from time to time out of the corner of her eye. When she looked directly at them, they vanished. It was their thing, she supposed, the vanishing. Vanishing left the questions, and the questions, if Ava thought too long about them, made her think she was going crazy.

“Here.” Ned Hampton jabbed a peppermint stick in her direction. When she took it, he left a dirty fingerprint on its sticky side.

Ava stuck it in the corner of her mouth anyway. Like a cigar. She’d admired men who smoked cigars. It made them look like one of them Chicago gangsters minus the Tommy gun.

“I’m not a kid, Ned. Don’t need candy.” She mouthed the peppermint stick. It was delicious, but she wasn’t going to admit that to Ned.

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