“They said we was nothin’ but a bunch of drunk old fools,” Kelly murmured, hunched over the whiskey I bought him.
“Worse things, besides.”
“If you had it to do over again,” I asked him, “Would you still tell anyone?”
As discreetly as I could I slid my phone closer to him. I hoped any of it would pick up over the noise of the jukebox. Creaky old country tunes warbled out of the smoke-yellowed old Rock-Ola. As I waited for him to gather his reply, I idly wondered how many decades it had been since they changed the music. I glanced back at Kelly to see him staring into my face, maybe waiting to have my full attention. I gave it.
“Hell no, I wouldn’t. Not after the way they drug our names through the mud!” He said, whiskey-stained spittle showering the sleeve of my jacket. “What the five of us saw in that old hunting cabin, what we saw clear as I’m seeing you now, that was something otherworldly. As in ‘Not Of This World’”
He jabbed his finger at me like a fireplace poker, emphasizing this last point.
By the bleariness of his eyes, I privately wondered just how clearly the old man was seeing me now, but my dubiousness could not drown out my excitement. When I started researching this man, this story, I kept hearing the same thing from every source: Ronald Kelly does not talk to the press. Not ever, not since the hysteria of the Breckenridge Saucer People finally died down once and for all. Not since his supposed Nervous Breakdown.
I had all but given up hope for a chance to talk to him about the Breckenridge Gremlins until I learned from my cousin Jason he still came here, to the Breckenridge Legion Hall, from time to time. This was where, I was given to understand, the old-timers went to wet their collective whistle and maybe talk about old times. In Breckenridge, where memories ran long like the evening shadows in this blustery autumn, Kelly came hoping to drown out the memories of his public shame.
The bartender, a long-bearded Gandalf type named Bert, suggested to me (after the exchange of Andrew Jackson’s portrait) that Kelly’s taciturn nature could be softened with the application of scotch whiskey. Though I thought it was awfully convenient that the key to Kelly was the very product Bert offered, I had no better ideas forthcoming.
Now, exactly four tumblers of moderately expensive scotch later, the tip appeared to be paying off. He seemed to want to talk about it. I just had to be very careful not to spook him. I sipped at my own tumbler of whiskey, believing he would be more communicative with someone he suspected to be equally drunk. My whiskey, however, had been cut with a generous quantity of tonic water. I needed to keep my head clear and I had never been much of a drinker.
Softly, almost idly, I said, “For what it’s worth, I always believed you.”
This much was true. I can admit that. Ever since I was young I had been fascinated by all things creepy and mysterious. At the age of eight I was president of the local Bigfoot fan club. At the age of ten I learned that my great uncle, Ronald Kelly, was one of the eyewitnesses to perhaps the greatest local monster myths of all time. That story, intricately embellished by generations of retellings, was a staple of every sleepover and church camp bonfire I had ever been to. Every kid, or at least every kid I was aware of, knew the story of The Breckenridge Gremlins. It was only a few months ago that I was reminded of my connection to this case during a family reunion spent bullshitting around a bonfire with my brothers and my cousin, Samantha. It was then that I resolved to hear the tale straight from the horse’s mouth. The moment was finally here. If I didn’t mess it up.
“You know,” he said, warming up at last, “that means a lot to me, coming from family. You’re a good egg, Jimmy.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, hoping I sounded sincere. I sensed Gruncle Kelly had a keen bullshit detector.
“Now that I think about it,” I said, cautiously, “I guess I never heard the full story, before. I know what a sore subject it is for you, of course.”
I caught the bartender’s eye and ordered a refill of both our drinks. Seemingly unperturbed by my prodding, Kelly accepted the drink graciously, tipping the glass to me. I clinked my glass against his.
“To family,” said the man I had seen less than half a dozen times my entire life.
“To family,” I agreed, smiling. We both drained our drinks in a single gulp.
After a time, having gathered his wool in companionable silence, he spoke:
“For starters, you can forget what you heard about space men and all that. We never said they was from space, not once. This was 1972. No, ’71 it was. The whole saucer craze from the ’50s and ’60s hadn’t quite died down yet by that point, and the media just sorta… latched onto the idea. But we never said they were aliens.”
He fell silent and I motioned for the bartender, but Kelly only shook his head. I ordered another round anyway, and Kelly sipped at his in spite of himself.
“Now it happened around Halloween and I guess that didn’t do much for our credibility. Never mind we were each of us full grown adults by then with jobs and families. Some of us were, at least. Billy Van Pelt, he was a damned no account and a loudmouth, and that didn’t help our case neither. That just left public opinion divided between crazy, drunk, or liars. Now I ask you, just what would we have to gain from lying about a thing like that?”
“Nothing that I can think of,” I readily admitted. Privately, I could think of a few reasons. Small town types loved a chance to feel important, get their names in the paper. They loved milking people like myself for free drinks. All sorts of reasons. But I really did believe something strange happened that night, something I could get to the bottom of in a way no one else had before.
“Besides me and Billy there was my cousin Jake and his wife Sheila and my best friend Sonny Chestnut. Sonny had found out about this hunting cabin out there at Melwyn Lake belonging to some relation of his or another. None of us was much in the mood to sit around and pass out candy to the trick or treaters, but it transpires we were all of a mind to get out to the woods and maybe fire a rifle at some deer, or put a rod in the water. Turns out we didn’t do much of either.”
“Why’s that?” I said, trying to fill the silence. The old man was at least three sheets to the wind, and I didn’t want him to nod off before finishing his story.
“Those damned things showed up, for one. Kinda put a damper on the whole affair, I guess you could say. But first it was the weather. Warm, for October. I remember that. Gorgeous! Weather was clear and sunny all day long, until it wasn’t. We were halfway down the trail when the skies clouded over, and just like that, BAM! Sky clouds over, crack of lightning, and just like that it was pouring. The five of us just hunkered down and ran for the cabin.”
“I guess you were probably disappointed.” I suggested.
“Eh, not so much. Maybe Sheila was ticked off and old Billy was carryin’ on from the rain and the chill. My daddy told me no one likes a complainer but I guess no one told Billy. When it came to huntin’ and fishin’ a bit of rain wasn’t gonna cross my eyes, but since it had been a long day and spirits were low I was quick to agree to stayin’ in for the night. We had a deck of cards and I started dealing out hands while Sonny and Jake started a fire in the chimney. Not too long before it was good and cozy.
“And yeah, we had ourselves a few cold beers, what about it? Drunks my ass we were country. Country boys can handle a couple of cold beers without hallucinatin’ pink elephants or green men. We was in our right minds. Hell, Sheila saw them first and she wasn’t even drinking. She was maybe six months pregnant with Joshua at that point.
“I had the poker hand of my life, I remember that. Billy was bluffing with all the guile of a four year old with his hand in the cookie jar and Sonny never could keep a straight face. He was scowling like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle. Your great uncle Ron had the first royal flush of his adult life and was about to push his matchsticks to the center and lay the cards out for all to see when Sheila let a yell that’d curl your hair. All us men jumped up to see what was the matter.
“She was standing at the window looking out at the storm at the time and all she could do was point out there shakin’ like a leaf. I figured she had seen a bobcat or some such or maybe an owl. Turns out, it was neither.”
“What was it?” I asked, already envisioning the bug-eyed martians depicted in the famous artist’s conception.
“I was the first person to hop out of the chair and see what was the matter. The thing Sheila saw was still there, peering in at us like it was a tourist in the monkey house at the zoo. Like we was fascinating to it. It was standing like a man, but it wasn’t little. Hell, wasn’t green neither. It was the pale yella color of old paper. It wasn’t little. Hell! That window must have stood eight feet off the ground, and the goddamn thing was stooped over to look in at us!”
“Really?!” I exclaimed, drawn into his account. Already it had varied wildly from the words of the originally posted account, the one that had appeared in the November 3rd, 1971 issue of The Breckenridge County Republican. Once I had a moment to think about it however, I started to wonder if his memory was going bad, or if he was putting me on. Kelly sipped at his whiskey, woolgathering.
“Ten foot tall if it was an inch!” Kelly declared, “Had these long, gangling arms. They walked with them, like a gorilla. Quick, and graceful-like. Bet you never saw that in the tabloids!”
I shook my head, not wanting to throw the old man off his rhythm. It seemed he wanted to get this story off his chest more than he cared to admit. I lit a cigarette, a lapse into an old, bad habit. I always smoked when I drank. The old man gestured for a cigarette and I gave him one. He lit it, took a long drag, and went back to his story.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself!” Kelly said, now gesturing with the cigarette to punctuate his speech. He seemed so much more lively, more animated than he had been the entire night. From the corners of my eyes I could see the bartender and the bar’s few other patrons listening in. I betrayed no evidence of this realization and he did not seem to notice.
“As I said, it was only the one at first, watching us. It was watching us curiously, as I think I have said. With intelligence, I mean. It’s hard to explain correctly just how I could tell, but I could. In my days I’ve been stared down by everything from a hosscat to a mama grizzly once in Yellowstone. A critter’ll look at you one way, but this thing was watching us like only a person could do. I never forgot it.
“Must have been staring at the thing for ten, fifteen seconds, just frozen in place. Didn’t know what to do or think. It was Billy broke the spell. Hollered out something like ‘The hell’s that?!’ I snapped out of it and I told him, ‘I don’t know, but I’m gonna get my gun.’
“Just like that I grabbed my thirty-aught six and a deer-spottin’ light, stormed out the door. Sonny came along right after me with his rifle. Billy and Cousin Jake might have come right out after us but Sheila was screamin’ holy hell at the both of them not to leave her alone in there.
“The front of the cabin was this upraised sort of deck that ran the full length of the thing, with the ramp at the far end leading to where we parked the trucks. Sonny and I came running down that deck, determined to circle the building before that damned thing had a chance to scamper off. We were three quarters of the way down when the creature appeared, climbing over the rail spider-like just ahead. It was staring right at us, bright glowing eyes full of some unspeakable malice.
“Sonny and me, we didn’t think twice, stopped dead in our tracks. I hit it with the deer light and it froze there, shielding its big shining eyes just like a human would. Sonny leveled his rifle and put a bullet right square in the middle of the damned thing. It flopped ass over end like an acrobat and landed in a crumple against the trunk of the old elm tree. I shone my flashlight down on it, hollering at Sonny that he’d killed it. Wasn’t a moment later the thing sprung up like nothing was wrong and loped off into the darkness.”
There it was, bulletproof aliens. That, at least, had appeared in all the tabloid stories of the account. This seemingly impossible detail was at once what was so intriguing about the outlandish tale, and the point which seemed to invite the most skepticism. The token police investigation found evidence of nothing apart from the actions of trigger-happy drunks.
“Did you try to chase it down?” I asked, my first speech in quite a while. He had fallen silent and stared down at his whiskey.
“We did,” Kelly nodded, looking up from his drink. I was surprised by how alert he seemed, how energized. “Sonny and I took off after the thing, as we had assumed it was the only one. It wasn’t. We were just deep enough in the woods to realize we didn’t stand a chance of catching up with the thing, when we heard a screech and a gunshot coming from back at the cabin. We just looked at each other and ran back hell bent for leather.
“All around us we could hear movement in the trees, more things coming. By the time we was in sight of the cabin we could see them too. They came in all sizes, big and small, marching toward the others like they had all the time in the world. I saw some that made that first thing look like a child, and felt the slow, heavy tread of ones far larger still.
“We were damn near to the ramp when one of them comes swinging down from the branch of the oak tree like a chimpanzee. Made a kind of high pitched noise at us that hurt my ears. I shot that one as we was running towards it, and it goes flopping off into the dirt, screaming like a banshee. We didn’t stop, just shot up the ramp fast as we could until we were at the door, which someone inside had locked. All the while the things was closing in on us. I pounded on the door and hollered until Jake finally let us in.”
“That must have been a tense moment,” I suggested.
“Damn straight. I saw how those things could move, properly motivated. Looking back on it, any one of them coulda grabbed us, if they wanted. I think they must have been toying with us. Who could say what things like that were thinking?”
“We barred up the doors and prepared ourselves for a siege. I think I put on a brave face, but privately I was worried what it would take to stop these creatures when high caliber rifle fire barely slowed the damned things down. They were standing at every window now, staring in at us like bugs in a jar. They all looked more or less the same, like old men. Old men older than the oldest man you ever seen by maybe about 500 years. Dried out and withered looking like mummies, only stretched out long and thin with those terrible, vital eyes staring at you.”
He paused, considering, and corrected, “They never was human. I’m sure of that. Close enough you could call them men, after a fashion, but never human. They were things from somewhere outside of what you or I know.”
“Outside People,” I said, softly. I’m not ashamed to admit how drawn into the man’s story I was.
He looked at me and nodded, “That’s right. Or at least, that’s close enough. I don’t know what they wanted from us, but for that entire endless night they never stopped looking for a way into the cabin. Only, as soon as any of them tried we’d fire a couple of rounds into them. It didn’t stop them, but it would sort of discourage them for a spell. They’d be content to watch us, to taunt us from the windows, to scratch and knock at the walls. To whisper.”
“They whispered?” I asked, “What did they say?”
He shook his head, “Never could understand them. But I’ll tell you one more thing for free, I didn’t like it. Like to make my skin crawl. You couldn’t listen to it too hard, neither. It got to you, started pulling you towards the door. We learned that all too late when we lost Billy. We was spread out keeping an eye out at every window when we heard the door slam. Wasn’t long before I gathered he took off out the door. Sonny said he saw Billy’s face as he ran out into the yard. There wasn’t nothing in his eyes no more, he was gone. He just disappeared into the darkness and we never saw him again.
“The things got bolder after that. They were trying to rush us, I guess, but they didn’t account for our firepower, and we held them off throughout the night. By the time the sun was peeking out above the horizon they were starting to thin out. By the time it was properly light out, they were gone. We judged it was safe by then and sped off back to town to talk to the police about what had happened. If Billy hadn’t run off like that and disappeared, we never would have told anyone what we saw. Lucky we didn’t spend the rest of our lives in prison.”
“Did you ever go back?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he told me, “Many times. Once our story got out it seemed like hardly a week would go by without the police or the papers dragging us out there for one thing or another. We never saw hide nor hair of them again. Sonny’s relative, Feller, who owned the cabin in the first place, his son owns the place now and so far as I know still keeps it up. I was out there myself not three years ago for fishing with Sonny, who died about a year and a half later. Hadn’t been up since then.”
He looked over at me with a sort of glimmer in his eyes and added, “Still remember the way, of course.”
“Do you think you could take me there?” I blurted out. I couldn’t help myself. What could be a more perfect end to my story than with a visit to the legendary cabin itself? The photos alone… But I never expected him to say yes.
He slowly drained the last of his whiskey, scrubbed his mouth with the back of his hand, and said, “Fifty bucks, you can drive me up there right now. Ain’t quite midnight yet, and I’m still feeling plucky.”
I still had twice that in bribe money tucked into my wallet, so I quickly agreed. I could scarcely believe my luck, to be standing in that sacred place on the actual anniversary of the event! I paid the tab to the bartender, who was smiling through his mustache and pretending to have heard nothing of our conversation.
We drove to Melwyn lake mostly in silence, apart from the directions given to me by my elderly companion and the soft, furtive music on the radio. The mood was understandably strange. In that late hour, we had the roads mostly to ourselves, and the Halloween moon lit up the endless rolling Kansas hills, shrouded in fog. I thought of alien landscapes where ancient, withered beings held an inscrutable court. That such places might be located a short, thirty-minute drive down the highway fascinated me.
Kelly, seemingly half asleep, directed me to turn off the main road and I did, entering a dirt road shrouded in dense autumn foliage and choked with fallen leaves. I proceeded slowly with my headlights sweeping through swirling fog banks and the division between road and ditch growing indistinct. I took a deep breath and realized I was frightened, in spite of myself. I choked out a weak laugh and drove on through the winding path.
At Kelly’s direction, I took one more turn deeper into the forest and off the beaten track, this one scarcely a one-lane driveway. After a time we reached a gate, which Kelly assured me would be unlocked. I told him to sit tight and jumped out of the truck to open it.
I looked up at the sky peeking through the gaps in the forest canopy and saw the moon shining down at me. It did little to illuminate the path, which but for the light of the headlights was near total darkness. I thought I could feel eyes on me from every direction, but I told myself I was letting my imagination get away from me. I also told myself that I would get in the cabin, take the photos I needed as quickly as possible, and get the hell out of there.
The gate was held closed by a loop of baling wire, which I unwound easily enough. The gate swung on rusted hinges screeching loud enough to wake the entire woods. I cringed as I heard something crashing through the underbrush, and told myself even as I dashed back to the truck that it was likely nothing more dangerous than a rabbit or a skunk.
“Just a mite further,” Kelly assured me as I climbed back into the cab.
“Good, good,” I said, softly. Why was I so rattled? I was acting like what could only be described as a Silly Goose.
The driveway stretched on for another quarter mile or so, where we finally reached the cabin. It looked as though it had seen better days, which did not surprise me. The roof and the windows were mostly intact, which genuinely did surprise me. Despite what the old man had said, I couldn’t imagine a cabin like this could survive four or five decades of Kansas winters. Most houses in town didn’t look so good.
“Think I’ll sit here and wait for you if you don’t mind,” Kelly said, eyes half-lidded. “Nice and warm in here, but I suspect it’s grown a bit chilly out there for these old bones. Mind keeping the heat running?”
“Yeah,” I said, distracted. My heart was thumping in my chest, but I knew I couldn’t back down after having come this far. “No problem.”
“Key should be up on the door jamb,” Kelly told me, “if they even bothered to lock it from last time.”
I took out my phone to switch on the flashlight function and swore. I had left the voice recorder running and it was nearly out of juice. Enough for those pictures, I hoped. I walked up the deck by moonlight, slowly so as to avoid falling through a rotted board.
At the door I reached up for the key and found it just where the old man said it would be. As I slid it into the lock the quiet was broken by the blare of the truck’s horn. The old man leaned out the driver’s side window and laughed.
“Hope your article is worth it, ya rotten bastard! Thought you could liquor up an old man and trick him out of his secrets? I told you a country boy could hold his booze! Have a nice walk home!”
I dashed out after the truck but quickly saw the effort was futile. The old man whipped the truck around and sped down the dirt track. Like Billy in his story, I never saw the old man again.
Cursing and spitting, I stormed into the cabin. Therein I found an old lantern and a jug of oil, enough that I would at least not have to hunker down in total darkness. Furiously I resigned myself to having to spend the night in that dank old place.
In the dim, flickering lamplight I observed my surroundings. The Cabin consisted of a sparsely furnished common room, a crude kitchen, two bunk rooms, and a closet. The closet was locked, and I assumed that it contained the only items of value in the entire place. I thought of trying to get it open but the key didn’t work and I had nothing to pry it with. I quickly gave up on the enterprise and turned back to the chimney.
In a bin next to the hearth were a few desiccated logs of firewood and some yellowed stacks of newspaper. I gave them a cursory flashlight scan for brown recluse spiders and, satisfied, transferred them to the grate. Within moments I had a cozy fire going, which chased the chill away and did much to improve my mood. That didn’t last.
The couch I settled on was musty but comfortable enough, and in the warmth of the fire and with the lateness of the hour, it wasn’t long before my anger faded and I began nodding off. Before I could even fall fully asleep, I was alerted by a soft thumping sound, causing me to snap bolt upright.
After that initial shock, I realized the old man must have turned the truck around after driving just far enough away to get me going. I laughed softly to myself and rose to my feet, internally debating as to whether I should throttle the old bastard or congratulate him for a job well done. What the hell, I thought, he’s family.
Halfway to the door, I had just opened my mouth to say something like, “About time you came back, you son of a bitch!” when I heard the thumping sound again. And realized it wasn’t coming from the door. It was coming from the window to my right. The one eight feet off the ground.
Unable to control myself, I turned and walked toward the source of that sound. That’s when I saw the thing for myself. That’s when I saw my first Breckenridge Gremlin.
I realized at that moment, I never truly believed in the thing, in anything supernatural. Some part of me just liked to pretend to believe in such things. Bigfoot, Nessie, Ghosts. Naively, I thought the possibility of such things’ existence was what kept the world feeling magical and mysterious. It made me happy. The thing I saw in that window, the reality of it, did not make me happy. It made me sick to my stomach.
Its eyes, vaguely luminous, were large and bulbous, though not featureless. They consisted of concentric rings of red, black, and gold, which narrowed and widened constantly. Its gaze was fixed on me, and I found it difficult to pull my own gaze away. I forced myself to. The rest of its face was an indecipherable mass of deeply wrinkled flesh, pale and yellowed like a smoker’s ceiling tiles. A ragged gash that seemed to serve as the thing’s mouth worked and writhed. I realized it was muttering something I could just hear but not understand. My stomach turned and twisted.
With a gnarled and impossibly long finger, it reached out and tapped the window. Tap, tap, tap. I made a small strangled sound and began to stumble backward. Nictitating membranes blinked rapidly across the thing’s eyes and it began to make a strange chuffing sound. Was it laughing?!
Before I could even hope to process this, much less come up with a plan, the rest of the things decided to make their presence known. All at once, countless things began tapping at windows, knocking at the door, and pounding on the walls.
I began screaming then, and fell to my knees. I shoved the heels of my hands into my eyes, unable to bear the sight of them any longer. I could feel the phantasmal touch of their terrible, crooked fingers on the nape of my neck, and for a time I lost touch with my senses.
I’m not sure how much time I spent gripped in a panic, but when I returned to them I was surprised to find myself still alone in the cabin. Gathering my will, I forced my gaze toward the window. I allowed myself a sigh of relief. I saw nothing there.
But I had to be sure. Slowly, deliberately, I rose to my feet. It was too dark outside, even in the moonlight, to look for them out the window. I would have to go outside to be sure. I would just have to lean out the front door, and I’m sure I would see if they were still out there…
My fingers were just grazing the doorknob when I came to my senses. I thought of Billy, running out the door to his doom, and gasped. I realized then that I could hear them. I couldn’t make out anything you could call a word, but the cadence was clearly some sort of chant. I strained to listen and my traitorous hand began to grip the knob almost without me realizing it.
I made myself walk to the window where I could see them if only to move away from the door. Those things, those Outside People, were gathered out there, encircling the cabin. The sheer number of them was staggering. I could see them chanting and swaying slightly on their four spindly limbs. Most of them were at least ten feet tall, though I could see some that had to be closer to twenty. One of them was so immense that its limbs looked like the trunks of withered, fleshy trees. A creature of that size could peel back the roof of the cabin like the lid on a coffee can and pluck me out at its leisure. So why were they content to wait? To taunt me?
I began to feel panic tear at my mind yet again. By sheer willpower, I held it at bay and forced my uncooperative limbs to take me back to the couch where I could think. I realized I could think much better outside, under the stars. I was almost to my feet again when I caught myself and forced myself to sit back down. The influence those damned things had on me was so strong!
The only conclusion I could come to was that the things needed me to come outside. They either could not or would not come in here. Cold comfort. It was all I could do to resist them. My only hope was that they would be gone with the morning light, still hours away.
I held my hands to my ears to shut them out and realized I was hearing the chant inside my head. I could almost feel an invisible force, like a tether, trying to pull me up and outside. Only by filling my head with thoughts could I hope to resist.
I remembered my notebook, which I still kept with me despite my reliance on audio recording. Unable to think of anything else, I decided I would write out this entire story. I would leave nothing out and hope I could keep it going until morning.
Now I’m sunk, I think. I’ve told everything there is to tell, and I’m so tired. The sun is still down and the Outside People are still waiting for me. I only have to keep resisting. Keep writing. I think I could think of more to write if I were outside…
Editor’s Note: Ronald Kelly returned to the cabin the following day, only to find the front door standing open and the cabin abandoned. The notebook of James Marshall, his great-nephew, was found laying on the deck in front of the cabin. It remains one of only two clues as to the nature of his disappearance. The other is a tangled mass of footprints found in the muddy soil surrounding the cabin. To this day, the animals who made these tracks have yet to be identified.