When I first met Mackle Twombly he was buying an old door at a local curio shop. He did not look like the other locals in this sleepy little village. He was freshly shaven, wore a starched pink and white striped shirt with cuffs and flashed a rather large onyx ring set in gold.
"I am leaving for Europe next week," he said to the clerk, a small, rather voluptuous young woman, who was at least six months pregnant. "I need someone to watch my place."
"I am looking to do some kayaking down here," I volunteered, surprised that I interrupted their conversation.
Both looked at me with curiosity.
"Sorry," I said, "but I couldn't help overhearing your conversation."
Mackle paid for his door and made arrangements to have it delivered to his place. I, feeling much like a spy or voyeur, listened for the address. It was several miles west on a road that turned to dirt and lacked electricity. There were several farms in that area and swampy ponds where daring fishermen would risk life and limb due a profusion of alligators and water moccasins. Lately, Burmese pythons had invaded this area and the authorities were at wit's end to catch or control this exotic pest.
As I leafed through a large pile of old magazines, trying to find one from a certain month and year in which a former boyfriend of mine was featured in an unusual marriage ceremony to the woman who stole him away from me, I suddenly smelled fresh, expensive men's cologne.
"Would you be willing to stay at my studio?" Mackle said. I had not noticed him walking up to me until he was almost looking over my shoulder.
"Oh," I said, "Just where is it?"
Soon we were riding down Arbuckle Road in Mackle's brand new pick-up truck. It took the bumps of the dirt road nicely. I wondered what kind of shock absorbers he had.
Mackle drove fast but was in full control of the road. I felt comfortable, even as the landscape transformed from neat houses and yards to sparse settlements. Then there were no more houses, just flat expanses of land separated by clumps of trees and shrubs.
Mackle took a sharp right into one of these thickets and the truck wove between low hanging branches and vines along a path only an Indian scout might be able to spot. I was sure I had made a mistake. Now I wondered if I would ever get out of this alive. This man was a total stranger. Perhaps he tricked me by saying what he did in the curio shop. Was he one of those people who looked for innocent victims to lure to his den of iniquity?
"Well, here we are," Mackle said. I jumped from my seat. He looked at me.
"Didn't mean to scare you," he said, smiling.
"Sorry," I said. "My nerves have been a bit on edge lately." That was true.
Mackle showed me the main house, hidden from the road by foliage with large leaves and trees and brush which looked like they had been there for many years. Inside, there were beautiful doors, panels, plaques and chests, all in the process of being decorated with cunning artwork. There was a fresh smell of turpentine, varnish, wax, oil and various other paint related odors.
"You do this?" I said.
"Yes," Mackle said. "I am going to Europe to buy antique wood pieces in poor condition. I have them shipped here for refinishing, painting and of course, to sell to decorators."
"This looks pretty valuable," I said. "I don't think I want to be responsible for all this. I just need a place to stay while I do some boating in the swamps."
"Nobody comes here," he assured me. "Don't worry. Besides, you won't be staying in this house. Let me show you your place."
Was he already assuming I would take this on? I felt overwhelmed. But in this weird little forest, I did not have much choice but to go along with this strange artist. I could always hightail it back to where I came from once I got back to the curio shop, where my car was still parked.
But would I get back there? Would this man keep me captive in 'my place'? I began to doubt my sanity at this point. So far, this man had not done anything unusual. He was showing me his place. Had I not been the one to interrupt the conversation at the shop, showing interest in his place?
My place turned out to be a much smaller cottage about fifty feet behind the main house. The entire property was virgin forest. There was no lawnmower, no tree trimming or bush pruning going on here. Yet it looked rather refreshing, with various blooms and tropical vines hanging down. I could hear birds singing high above in the tree tops.
"A hundred dollars," Mackle said. "You can send it to me every month to my post office box."
The price was cheap. If I did stay here, I would have enough extra money from my vacation budget, to buy my own sports equipment, instead of renting or borrowing much of it.
Then I saw it. "What is that?" I said.
Next to the sleeping area of the small cottage was a low door, about three feet high. There was an old fashioned lock securing it, the kind that needs a long key.
Mackle took me outside and showed me the structure to which the door led. It was also fairly low, perhaps five feet. Only a child or a person crouching down could enter it.
"That is not part of the deal," Mackle said with finality.
I did not dare ask him any more questions. Something told me to go ahead and agree to stay here for a hundred dollars a month, sending the check to a post office box. Mackle told me some friends of his would come by occasionally to see if I needed anything and just check up on the place.
The first night in the cottage was uneventful. I cooked some hamburgers on an open fire, watching the smoke disappear into the canopy of leaves above. Frogs began croaking and various night sounds broke the stillness of this remote area. I heard a small deer rustle in the bush. Barking of dogs from distant farms was barely audible.
I slept soundly and woke when the sun was high and found my bedding wet from perspiration. I walked outside and turned on a hose to shower myself since the cottage only had a toilet.
I spent the day kayaking, renting the craft from the fish camp which was only about six miles from my new home away from home. When I returned to the property, everything seemed to be in place. The main house looked like nothing was amiss. No broken windows, no tracks of other vehicles, nothing but a small black snake slithering under the doorsteps.
Hungry, I began to gather twigs and branches to make a fire. The smell of smoke had been pleasant the night before and I looked forward to another such meal tonight.
I had just taken out some hot dogs from the small refrigerator, when I heard a noise from the small room adjoining my sleeping area, the one with a locked door.
Then I heard a whining. It was not human. Was it a dog? A raccoon? A deer? How could it get into this little locked room? There was no sign of any creature digging under the walls and entering from below. The roof looked untouched. It was several sheets of tin and nailed neatly to the wooden frame.
Perhaps the sounds came from behind the structure, from nearby bushes. I decided to go ahead and poke the hot dogs with a stick and sat on a rock by the fire. Above the crackling of the fire, I heard the whining sound again, then a scrambling noise, like limbs pushing against a wall.
I dropped the hot dogs into the fire and ran to the other side, distancing myself from the cottage. How was I to sleep there tonight? Would I make it till the night? I could not go in the main house. It was not in our agreement. I only paid for the little cottage, except for that little side room, which was not much bigger than a doghouse.
Although I had done some strenuous kayaking during the day, now my appetite was gone. I wondered why I felt so apprehensive, why little noises would make me drop my dinner and lose my hunger.
I entered the sleeping area, holding a rock in my hand, just in case a snake or other critter would come out of nowhere.
All seemed in order. I had smoothed out the small bed - and decided to lie down for a few minutes. As soon as I got comfortable, I heard the whining again. This time there was a much louder scraping against the wall behind the locked door.
In a fit of panic, I smashed the rock against the lock, which almost crumbled under the impact. I pushed the door inward and was overwhelmed by a stench.
In the darkness of that enclosure two eyes were now looking at me. They were surrounded by slicked down gray hair. The creature whined again, but there was no scraping or scrambling.
I reached my hand toward this fur-covered face and felt a cool licking on my palm. There was no pain, to fangs drawing blood, no venomous sting.
I groped further and felt a body, covered with wet fur, very warm and when I found the legs, they were twitching.
I pulled my hand back and quickly ran outside. There was a machete leaning against a pine tree nearby and I quickly began hacking the outside of this lean to room, careful not to pierce the walls, just break them open.
Soon enough, daylight entered as I ripped off the tin roof. A very sick adult dog was lying there, looking at me with sad eyes. There was excrement and rotting food on greasy blankets on the floor.
"You poor thing," I exclaimed. "You poor thing."
The vet told me this dog would have died that night had I not found him. He had a severe case of tick fever and it would take weeks of intensive care for him to recover.
I decided to cut my vacation short and took the dog, whom I named Kayak, back to my house in town to nurse him back to health. I had a large back yard and would make sure he had the best of care.
I sent a check for one hundred dollars to Mackle's post office box with a note that I had rescued a dog from that room and would keep him and adopt him.
I never heard from Mackle again. The check was never cashed. I have never driven down that road again, nor do I expect to anytime soon.
Kayak and I are the best of friends. He is a mutt, and would not win a prize in a dog show. I never did find the magazine where my old boyfriend married another woman. Instead the old boyfriend found me, after the other woman left him, and between him, Kayak and me, we have a grand time living happily ever after.