‘No. It’s no joke at all . . .’ Completely startled by the voice behind them, the Ruggieros spun around and MaKayla gasped. Nicolas, now remembered where he had seen the lady in the photo and MaKayla recognized her as well. She was standing right in front of them. Staring. And writing something in her hands. It was the Strange Lady they had seen yesterday in Rockinergy. It was the witch. . . . . . And she was standing just a few feet away. Staring. Glaring to be more accurate.
Salema. Salema Grimsby. As she extended her hand, the Ruggieros both recoiled, slightly at Salema Grimby’s scrawny hand that ended in long black nails. It didn’t help that her nails were all pointed. MaKayla slowly extended her hand, when Salema Grimsby’s whole demeanor suddenly changed. ‘We are sooooo happy to have the both of you!’ She sounded a bit crazy but both Nicolas and MaKayla played along, just in case. No need to make an awkward situation any worse. ‘My, my, my. . . Celebrating a 2nd Anniversary are we?’ Um yeah, that’s correct. Before Nicolas spoke, he clearly hesitated looking at MaKayla, who just returned his, ‘What the heck do we do now?’ stare. ‘My husband Warlon is outside getting all the last minute flight stuff ready for you guys as we speak. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to flying and is one of the most experienced Balloon Pilots around these parts.’
Hearing that made MaKayla chuckle a bit, mostly inside, but just loud enough to catch another glare from Salema. ‘Warlon will join us here, any minute. In the meantime, let’s get all of your personal belongings locked away here,’ pointing to an empty locker. Knowing his wife, and knowing that she was about to question the whole leave your valuables here with me, while my husband flies you off into the wild blue yonder, Nicolas beat her to the punch; ‘Tell me Mrs. Grimsby, why are patrons required to leave their valuables here before take off?’ Knowing her husband and knowing full well what he’d just done, she just gave him the Really Nic? glance. ‘Well now, I’ll answer that question for you buddy.’ The gruff voice came from behind them, making them both spin around and MaKayla gasp audibly. It came from a short stump of a man, with a hump in his back. As he extended his huge hand he introduced himself as Warlon Grimsby. Visibly afraid, MaKayla stepped behind Nicolas as he shook the man’s hand. It seemed the moments were becoming more and more awkward by the minute.
‘Good to meet you, we’re the Ruggieros.’ ‘Ahhh yes, Mr. & Mrs. Ruggiero. The Honeymooners. Welcome. Very glad to have you with us. Dear, how much have you told these fine people?’ ‘Well, Dearest, we were just about to put away all of our belongings, and then head out back.’ ‘Nice. Well, addressing your question Mr. Ruggiero, we’ve decided to enforce the long standing rules of leaving your personal items locked up here, where they’ll be perfectly safe, until our return. In the recent past, we’ve had some unfortunate accidents involving people who, let’s say, got a little over zealous during the flight. Taking pictures and getting caught up in the moment. Because of this we’ve had a few fall overboard.’ At that, the Ruggieros both heard the Grimsby’s snicker.
Speaking quickly, Salema chimed in, ‘So that’s the reason Mr. Ruggiero. It is for your safety. Besides, once you’re Up&Away, your cell phones are useless anyway. You won’t be able to get a connection up there at all.’ With that came more snickering, only louder this time. Suddenly Nicolas and MaKayla weren’t feeling safe at all. After locking away their personal items, the Ruggieros followed Mr. Grimsby, who had a serious limp, out to the back lot where their fully inflated balloon awaited them. Glancing back, MaKayla observed Salema, who stood in the back door of the building watching them as they crossed the back lot. Still glaring. The balloon was beautiful with every color imaginable around it’s design. It was being held down by 3 attendees who never looked directly at either Nicolas or MaKayla. One of them, addressing Mr. Grimsby, cowered down as he said, ‘She is ready for flight, Sir.’ As the others nodded in agreement, Mr. Grimsby smiled and said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll be taking off then.’
Opening the carriage door, he gestured for MaKayla to enter. ‘Ladies first.’ Extending his huge, sweaty hand, he took MaKayla’s and held it as she climbed on board. Grimsby’s hand was extremely cold and wet feeling at the same time. Quite slimy to the touch, it was like grabbing a huge snail. Trying to hide her disgust, MaKayla wiped her hands on her jeans as soon as Mr. Grimsby turned to address Nicolas. Having touched Grimsby’s hand earlier, Nicolas helped himself aboard and Mr. Grimsby quickly followed. Securing the carriage door, Mr. Grimsby picked up a clipboard to complete a pre-flight check. ‘Have to make sure all is right before we take flight.’ More snickering. Cute.
The Ruggieros looked around the carriage, too. It was evident that the Grimsby’s went all out to make sure the balloon’s carriage was top notch. Looking around, made them both feel better about the flight. There was an ice chest full of cold drinks, a small Bose boombox and a nice compact couch. It also had a huge Medic+Bag as well as a fire extinguisher. Looking around MaKayla noticed a beautifully engraved wine case that contained 2 Crystal Champagne glasses, a fancy corkscrew and monogramed coasters. Very nice. ‘Now I see where they are spending their money,’ she whispered to her husband. ‘For sure,’ he whispered back as he marveled at all of the amenities. It seemed the perks were beginning to outweigh the quirks.
The carriage was larger than the standard size carriages found on most hot air balloons and everything appeared to be new. After about 10 minutes of pre-checks, Mr. Grimsby looked at the attendants, still holding ropes and told them to release the balloon. As he turned up the heat the balloon began to slowly float upwards. ‘Happy Anniversary you two! May this be a trip you won’t soon forget!’ Within minutes, the attendees, who continued to stand by, seemed to be less than an inch tall. The Ruggieros could see the top of the building as well as the entire lot. Although, neither of the Ruggieros mentioned it, they were both a little surprised that no one else was taking flight that day. Did the Grimsby’s even own another balloon? With the amount of money they’d put into this balloon, they probably couldn’t afford another one. It was evident that MaKayla seem to be filling up with excitement with every passing moment. This re-ignited Nicolas and he was once again happy that he had booked the flight.
The sky was beautiful and clear with only a few clouds passing by. It was an amazing view and for a minute MaKayla wished she had her phone to snap pics of their adventure. Nicolas did keep one of his phones. As an engineer he had always kept a second phone as his primary for work. He didn’t want to mention that he’d brought along his work phone since it was their Anniversary, but now he was glad that he had. He had it tucked away in his right sock and for a moment thought that one of the attendees would pat him down. Thankfully, no one did. As Mr. Grimsby began to go on and on and on about all of the perks, he finally reached into the Medic+Bag and pulled out 3 brochures. Before handing them out, he pressed play on the boom box. Float On by the Floaters began to play. Wow. Talk about effect. Grimsby passed out the brochures and began to talk about the 5 Hidden Lakes of Colorado: Lake Isabelle, Alpine Lake, Leviathan Lake, Island Lake and Dream Lake.
The brochure contained beautiful pictures and information of each of the lakes. ‘Wow! They are ALL gorgeous!’ exclaimed MaKayla. Nicolas agreed and asked which of the 5 would they get to see. ‘Glad you asked. Today we will float right over the top of Dream Lake.’ Hearing that, the Ruggieros kissed and hugged, but MaKayla began to feel a little light headed. Noticing that she seemed a little woozy, Nicolas asked if she was okay. She nodded her head, but he could clearly see that she was not. Sitting her down on the couch gently, Nicolas grabbed a bottle of Fiji water out of the ice chest and gave it to her. Mr. Grimsby reached into the Medic+Bag and grabbed a bottle of pills. Handing Nicolas 4 of them, he said that they were for motion sickness so they should help. He advised Nicolas to take 2 of the 4 pills to help prevent him from having the same symptoms. He took them and gave the other 2 to MaKayla.
Within minutes, her dizziness began to subside and she began to feel more like her old self. Once she began to feel better, Grimsby finished telling all he knew about the 5 Hidden Lakes. He mentioned that the only way to get to any of them was to hike which the Ruggieros found interesting. But getting to see any of the lakes from above would be a privilege since getting to them was no easy task. The view up here was absolutely breathtaking. For the moment, Nicolas and MaKayla couldn’t have been happier. As he stood behind her and held her he felt lost in love. She felt the same as he held her. For a while they felt that they were up there all alone. Just floating. The clinking of Crystal Glasses brought them both back to reality as Mr. Grimsby began setting up the mini-bar. Holding a bottle of Krug Clo d’Ambonnay, he grabbed the fancy corkscrew out of the wine case he began to uncork the bottle of Krug. Wow. Wasn’t that stuff extremely expensive? Neither of the Ruggieros were sure, but both felt like it was a tad bit out of their budget.
Looking at the wine kit, Nicolas thought it reminded him of a small coffin. Bizarre. He wasn’t sure why he had that thought, but he knew not to voice it and spoil the moment. ‘Hang on folks. We’re just a few miles from being right over the top of Dream Lake! Aiming the bottle over the side of the carriage, Grimsby popped the cork saying, ‘Here’s to your 2nd Anniversary!’ As the champagne suds poured out of the bottle, Grimsby grabbed up one of the glasses and filled it to the rim. Setting that one down, he grabbed up the other one and filled it, too. He handed one to MaKayla and the other one to Nicolas. As he held the bottle up, he said, ‘I want to propose a toast to the luckiest couple in the world. Happy Anniversary and may you have many more!’ Nicolas said, ‘I second THAT!’ which made them all snicker.
Watching them turn their glasses up, Mr. Grimsby waited until just the right moment and turned up the bottle of Krug. No need to waste excellent champagne. It was very strong stuff. The champagne mixed with motion sickness pills gave both of them a serious rush. Buzzing and feeling good, Nicolas and MaKayla finished off their glasses when they noticed Mr. Grimsby had fallen silent. Looking around, they saw him standing near the edge of the carriage still holding the bottle of Krug and now holding his chest. ‘Mr. Grimsby?’ No response. ‘Grimsby?!’ Still no response. As he stood there on the edge of the carriage, eyes stretched, pupils dilated, MaKayla wondered if he was even breathing. Grimsby stood there silently as a gentle breeze blew by. Seconds later and his eyes began to roll up, leaving only the whites of his eyeballs exposed. Was this a cruel joke?! Neither of the Ruggieros thought it was funny, if it was a joke.
As Nicolas handed his glass to MaKayla, they looked in horror as Mr. Grimsby began, first, to fall forward, then began to slowly fall backwards . . . ‘GRIMSBYYYY!!!’ Nicolas yelled and grabbed, barely missing one of Grimsby’s feet. Grossly misjudging the distance and now intoxicated, Nicolas fell slamming his head into the side of the ice chest as Mr. Grimsby fell over the side of the carriage. Screaming, MaKayla dropped the glasses and rushed to Nicolas’ side. Blood poured from the side of Nicolas’ head and she realized he’d knocked himself unconscious. Close to hyperventilating, MaKayla scurried over to the Medic-Bag and pulled out a couple of towels. She could hear herself breathing hard and could feel her anxiety increasing with each passing second. The scene caused by Mr. Grimsby’s apparent heart-attack, then falling overboard and Nicolas knocking himself unconscious might actually be funny, if this were a movie. But the reality of it caused MaKayla to come very close to going into shock.
Scurrying back to her husband’s side, with 2 towels from the Medic+Bag, MaKayla folded one of the towels and placed it under Nicolas’ head and neck. She placed the other directly on the wound to help stop the bleeding. The direct pressure helped. Once the bleeding had stopped, MaKayla grabbed more towels from the bag to help cushion Nicolas where he lay. Although he was unconscious, his breathing had returned to normal, which relieved MaKayla. Her relief was abruptly cut short, when a loud noise rocked the carriage. Not really sure of what had just happened, MaKayla looked up and noticed the flames had gone out on the balloon’s burner. She could feel the balloon dropping, but was afraid to look over the side of the carriage. She could also hear water rushing along below so she knew they were coming closer and closer to ground level. The sound of rushing water became louder and louder. We’re they headed for a plunge into the lake? She grabbed as many items as she could to help absorb the inevitable impact that was quickly approaching. All of a sudden, part of the balloon caught the branches of a nearby tree. We’ll what do you know? After a huge snag and being tossed around inside the carriage, it finally came to rest just a few feet above the ground. Finally, with the courage to look over the side of the carriage, MaKayla peered over the top to see a beautiful shore. The area was reminiscent of a rainforest, with huge trees, vegetation, and a gorgeous sky in the background. If only Nicolas was conscience to see all of this. Feeling the effects of the Krug and whatever-the-heck that pill was that Grimsby had given them, MaKayla slowly began to fade from reality. She tried to stay awake. Be there for Nicolas when he woke up. But the harder she fought, the more she struggled to stay awake. She was so tired. So… tired.
Nicolas woke up in a complete panic. He felt that someone or something had been standing over him. Watching. Waiting. It was dark and he had no idea where he was, where MaKayla was, or why he heard the sound of water…? As he moved, he realized MaKayla had fallen asleep in front of him. How long had they been out? As he peered over the rim of the carriage, he could clearly see the lake under the moonlit sky. The carriage was dangling just a few feet above a hill near the lake and as the waves crashed gently upon the shore, Nicolas gently woke up MaKayla. Coming to in a panic, Nicolas held and shushed her because he wasn’t sure of their surroundings. The feeling he got was that they were not alone. Once MaKayla got her bearings, Nicolas began to formulate a Plan of Action to get them to safety. ‘Honey, although the balloon portion is badly tangled in the trees, we are just a few feet from the ground.’ Partly in shock, MaKayla peered over the side of the carriage to see just what Nicolas had seen. The night was very cool and still. The stillness made Nicolas very nervous. If not for the sounds of waves washing up to the beach, the Ruggieros would have clearly been able to hear each other breathing. Both of the Ruggieros were in excellent shape so the short hop from the dangling carriage, to the ground below, hardly phased them. Agreeing that they should keep their load as light as possible, they set out in search of anyone who might be hanging out overnight in camping mode. Nicolas carried the Medic+Bag, which was filled with more supplies than they could ever need. MaKayla had a bag filled with bottled water of which they each grabbed one.
It was a clear night. The moon above was full enough to cast light along the path the Ruggieros took down the lake’s shore. In fact, they both carried flashlights they’d found in the Medic+Bag but had yet to turn them on. On their journey they hoped to see at least one overnight camper, but so far there were none. They’d walked for several hundred yards, when they came upon a huge crater. It was just off the shore, far enough that the lake had not disturbed it. Nicolas, who had been leading the way, nearly stumbled and fell over in it. It was apparent that something had fallen, hard, from high above, to leave a hole this size. Holding his hand up for MaKayla to stop and stay back, Nicolas turned on his flashlight and slowly looked over into the crater. What he saw made him stumble backwards and drop his flashlight. MaKayla, the more curious of the two, immediately picked it up and took a look for herself. What she saw made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Gasping and stepping back, she looked at Nicolas in horror. This couldn’t be happening right now. At the bottom was the hat that Mr. Grimsby had been wearing during their flight. It was a little muddy, but clearly recognizable.
MaKayla spoke first, ‘Maybe a couple of campers drug him out of there?’ Nicolas didn’t respond, but the look on his face suggested that he wasn’t sure what had happened here. As they stood there every sound seemed to become amplified. Nicolas took the flashlight back and directed it’s light around the outside of the crater. Surprisingly, there were, what appeared to be footprints, just to the right of the hole leading towards the direction the Ruggieros had been traveling. Further investigation revealed that someone or something had been drug along in that direction as well. ‘So I guess we’re heading in the right direction?’ said Nicolas, finally speaking. MaKayla responded, ‘Yeah, but I’m not so sure we shouldn’t head back the other way after seeing this.’ Nicolas knew that she meant it. ‘Backtracking at this point would be counter-productive MaKayla. There’s a chance that we may find the folks who grabbed up Grimsby.’ Both, still in shock from the whole scene, they stood there in silence for a long time.
Finally, after several minutes, the Ruggieros decided to continue their trek in the direction they started. After almost a mile, they could still see the tracks, but along the way, there seemed to be others who joined the two that were dragging Mr. Grimsby. Seeing the extra footprints made both of them really nervous about what was up ahead. ‘We may have to find a spot to rest soon, Babe.’ ‘No, MaKayla. I’m not so sure it’s safe to stop moving. Something’s not quite right out here. We’ve seen all of these footprints, some of which are fresh, but we haven’t seen any campers. Don’t you find that odd?!’ Looking past Nicolas, MaKayla noticed what appeared to be a fire just on the other side of the lake. ‘Nicolas, look there!’ It was indeed a fire. From the looks of it, a campfire. It had to be the campers, hunkered down for the night, probably making s’mores and singing campfire songs. Maybe even telling a few campfire ghost stories. ‘Finally,’ said Nicolas and they both headed in the direction of the glow. After several hundred yards and with only a few hundred left to reach the campfire, Nicolas stopped MaKayla. With all that had happened in the past 30 plus hours, he felt they probably should take caution before showing up unannounced at some strange campfire.
Just to be safe, Nicolas re-routed them to a path that would put them 20 feet, or so, above those over at the campsite. Just so that they could check out the area. MaKayla, given all of the strange circumstances, agreed and followed her husband as he left the original path they’d been traveling for hours. The moon was still bright enough to help light the way, so the Ruggieros decided to leave the flashlights off, now that they were approaching a campsite. They didn’t want to alert or startle anyone that might just be enjoying the beautiful night out at Dream Lake. Soon the Ruggieros were close enough to see that there were people there at the site sitting around the fire. The camp, being back off the shore, was backed by a large hill. The only way the Ruggieros could get any closer would be to go up the side of the hill and stop mid-way. This would put them about 20 feet above the campers and the campfire.
Silently signaling MaKayla, Nicolas motioned for her to leave the bag of water and to follow him, quietly. Placing his bag down beside hers, he turned and began walking towards the hill. MaKayla followed him quietly. The closer they got to the hill, the louder the voices became. It sounded like there was a party going on for sure. This made Nicolas even more cautious given the fact that he was out here, a little banged-up, tired, hungry and with his beautiful Bride of 2 years. He didn’t for see anything violent happening, but out here they were vulnerable to a certain extent. He purposefully decided to lighten their load for that very reason. The only weapons they’d have would be the flashlights, if it came to that. Now, at a point where they could position themselves right above the campers, the Ruggieros crouched down and lay flat on their stomachs. There were a few large boulders and smaller ones blocking them from the view of the campers. MaKayla also noticed that the only way out of there spot was to either backtrack and go down the path that led them to their current location. Or jump down from the ledge and surely break a leg or ankle. Maybe both. Now in a position to peep over the rocks and listen in the Ruggieros did just that.Within seconds they knew their decisions to walk anywhere near this campsite was a bad one. All of the people sitting around the campfire, upon first glance, looked like people that lived on the streets. There clothes were tattered, worn and torn. Most didn’t have shoes and those who did, only had one or maybe toes hanging out. It looked like a hobo convention, except . . . something was way off about this particular gathering. They were all grumbling and mumbling when finally the one, who seemed to be in charge, held up a large bottle. Silence fell upon the group. The Ruggieros fell back in horror as Mr. Grimsby began to speak. It was his unmistakable, cold and dark voice! It seemed even more sinister out here, around a blazing campfire, in the dark of the night with all of these hobo looking characters around. ‘So we drink tonight in celebration of the Ruggieros!’ With that they all laughed evil laughs that made Nicolas and MaKayla wished they’d gone in the other direction for sure.
Someone in the group spoke out, in an even darker voice, ‘Enough of all the jibber-jabbering! Past the champagne around Warlon, don’t be a hog!’ ‘Shut your mouth!’ responded Grimsby. With that he jumped up and grabbed a piece of the burning wood and slammed it into the face of the man who’d interrupted his speech. The Ruggieros could hear the man’s neck snap as his head fell backwards and his body hit the ground. The others just sat and watched the whole thing, with no reaction at all. As the man lay there, partially on fire, Grimsby picked up where he’d left off. ‘So by now I thought the Ruggieros would have joined us, but since they haven’t we may have to go looking for them.’ More evil laughter erupted from the group. Then, what sounded like a woman’s voice, sounded off, ‘I think we shoulda killed them as soon as they landed! Are you sure they’re gonna come this way, Warlon?! I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse!’ Then another one spoke, ‘Calm down Cecelia, you did eat a horse earlier today!’ Laughter erupted. ‘Well, I ate it’s rider!’ shouted another, ‘Quite an appetizer!’
As the evil snarls, growls and gut wrenching laughter continued, Nicolas looked at MaKayla’s helpless face there in the darkness and for the first time wished he’d chosen Hawaii instead of a Balloon Flight, despite their schedules. It was a hindsight thought, but in their current situation it was all he could think about. It helped to keep him from totally losing it. He had never felt such fear and was sure that she hadn’t either. They needed a Plan B and a quick one, if either of them were to survive by morning. Taking a long swig from the bottle, Grimsby passed it to his left and stared at Cecelia. ‘We will have to be patient, dear. If it hadn’t taken y’all so long to get this fire going, they probably woulda been here long ago. You know I enjoy a good hunt more than any of you, but to set a trap and wait is far more fulfilling! You guys shoulda seen me up there though. I gave an absolute Oscar performance as I toppled over outta the carriage. I’d planned for the burner to go out just high enough that the balloon would come crashing down, breaking a leg or two, which would’ve made our chances for a feast even better! But the balloon getting caught in the trees wasn’t part of the plan.’
At that point, the fella Grimsby had smacked in the face with the burning log began to stir around. Sitting straight up, his head snapped back into place as he spoke, ‘Dagnabbit, Warlon! What’d you do that for?!’ ‘Don’t ever interrupt me again Gerald or the next time I’ll rip your heart out and you won’t get up!’ The threat was the coldest, darkest thing either of the Ruggieros had ever heard. And they all knew that Grimsby meant it. Too scared to move and too scared to stay put, the Ruggieros couldn’t believe what they were seeing or hearing. These people were clearly not human even if they had been at some point. The talk of eating others and eating animals had made MaKayla nauseous and had she eaten anything, she would have not been able to hold it down.
Nicolas had no plan of escape and couldn’t even move. Suddenly, the one named Cecelia hopped up. It was so unnatural, the way she stood. It was like a jack-in-the-box. She stood there looking around and tilting her head back. . . sniffing. ‘I smell them and they’re really close.’ ‘Yeeeeahhh…. I smell something, too!’ said Grimsby. At that they all began to pop up as Cecelia had, one by one, grunting, growling and sniffing. Knowing that they would be sitting ducks in the spot that they were in, Nicolas motioned for MaKayla to follow him. As they slowly crawled back down the side of the hill, they could both hear growling, snarling and grunting. There was also the unmistakable sounds of bones breaking and snapping and screams of agony that sent bone chilling fear through both of them as they tried to escape.
As Nicolas and MaKayla began to crawl a little faster, trying to keep the dust down to not give away their location, music began to play loudly. As everything fell silent, the music continued loud enough for everyone and everything to hear it. It complete terror, MaKayla recoiled and Nicolas reached frantically for his sock where he’d stashed his back-up phone, but he was too late. In the midst of everything going on, he’d completely forgotten about it. He’d also forgotten that it was his backup alarm clock so he didn’t turn it off before tucking it away in his sock. Ironically, the tune ‘I Only Have Eyes for You,’ would be the last they would ever hear, so Nicolas let it play. As the creatures closed in on their exact location, he took his wife by the hand as they stood. As they kissed and hugged, tears ran down both of their tired, terror stricken faces. Closing their eyes as the creatures swarmed the hill, from every angle, they held each other tight and whispered, ‘I Love You . . .’ Their last words to each other as their favorite wedding song filled the cold, night air.