I’m out with my Uncle Tavis and Gramps in the middle of Coachman Lake when it happens.
Coachman Lake is a large freshwater body in northern Wisconsin. It takes about an hour and a half to canoe around the perimeter, and there are several small islands dotted throughout its center.
For years it was a rich person’s retreat, far from any peasant civilization or small towns, tucked back in the otherwise-untouched wilderness. My dad’s side of the family would have an annual camping excursion in the surrounding area, and this year we happened to have a canoe with us. Most of Coachman Lake’s residents don’t come up here anymore since the Recession, and we decide to go explore what was once forbidden territory.
The three of us shove off from the southern bank— me in the back, paddling and steering, Gramps in the center, and Uncle Tavis paddling at the front.
The treehouse is in this huge fat tree on one of the nameless islands in the middle of the lake. The island is small, no bigger than an average suburban yard, and the tree dominates. It has a massive trunk with gnarly bark, almost like a redwood with hickory bark. The tree pretty much IS the island.
We don’t see the treehouse until we’re cruising past the island. We’re slipping by the eastern shore when Gramps points out a window barely visible in the branches. None of us had any idea it was there.
A treehouse in the middle of the lake. We decide this must be investigated further.
We circle back around and land the boat on the southern edge of the island where, hidden by brush and bushes, we discover a small wooden landing dock.
Upon disembarking from the canoe, we realize the giant tree is fake. It’s surrounded by real trees, almost invisible. The brush and bushes that surround the island were planted. The dirt is soft and covered with dead leaves that we discover are also fake. They’re made of this rubbery substance. That would explain the tree’s impossible-to-classify species and why it still has all its leaves in late September.
The treehouse turns out to be in the tree itself — there’s a little door in the fat trunk. The trunk is the bottom floor and the upper floor is an actual little treehouse set into the center of the branches.
The door to the treehouse is small, as if fantasy dwarves live here. It’s a perfect replica of a suburban house door — painted red with a brass knob. The door swings open easily when I try it. Why would anyone lock this thing?
Inside it’s abandoned and going to seed, but you can see it was once luxurious — more like an abandoned cottage than a treehouse. We’re surprised. We were expecting a wooden shell. Instead we get what looks like an abandoned condo.
The only odd thing is that everything sized down about a third from regular scale. The doors, the windows, the ceiling itself — we have to duck our heads to move around. There’s an upstairs and downstairs, an inside staircase and a second outside staircase that curves around the trunk.
The downstairs is a living area and kitchen. It’s all carpeted, painted cylindrical walls, drywall. It really feels like a small condo. There’s nothing in the living room, just this fluffy grey carpet and clear white walls that have nail holes in them. The sun comes in through the window and makes shadows on the walls.
The kitchen is small and all the appliances have been torn out — the stove’s gone, the fridge is gone, the microwave alcove is empty. It’s just a bunch of cupboards and drawers and a sink that doesn’t do anything when I turn on the faucet.
I open the drawers and cupboards, properly exploring. There’s a few random empty little Tupperware bowls in one cupboard, but other than that everything is empty.
“Look at this,” says Uncle Tavis, opening drawers.
He’s found a picture of a girl.
“I think it’s a graduation photo,” he says.
“Do they even have these anymore?” I ask. “These printouts? All the kids keep their photos on their phones now.”
“This looks like it was from the early 2000s,” says Uncle Tavis.
The girl is white with medium-length reddish hair. She’s dressed in a black outfit. I don’t know anything about fashion — it’s a tight longsleeve shirt and tight pants. She’s lying on her side on a cobblestone walkway and smiling with impish adolescence up at the camera.
“She looks like a real troublemaker,” comments Gramps.
We put the picture back in the drawer and leave it there.
The inside staircase is too cramped for any of us to use, so we get back in the canoe and go around to the back staircase, which start off on this second little cement landing area on the eastern shore. We park the canoe again, drag it up onto the landing.
The little square of cement is fenced in with these short stone walls. It’s covered with more of those fake leaves. You can see a spot in the corner where they must’ve put a generator — there’s a bunch of oil stains.
Uncle Tavis is too fat to fit up the stairs, and Gramps says he needs to give his knees a break. So it’s just me.
I bound up the stairs, moving fast. Everything seems structurally sound. At the top, there’s a bedroom with an old TV. There’s little turds all over the carpeted floor — mice. How the fuck did mice get to the island?
The bunk beds are metal, still have mattresses and sheets and blankets. Everything looks like it was from the 2000s. This place must’ve been built around the turn of the century.
I go into a tiny room off the bedroom. It’s so small I have to squeeze through the door.
There’s a weird smell in here, and it’s not the mouse turds. All of a sudden I get a bad feeling. This is the only room in the house where the carpet’s been removed. The wooden floor is bare and carpet staples are sticking out everywhere.
It hits me — this treehouse was for kids. A rich kid’s retreat, their millionaire daddy built them this getaway in the middle of an island.
I go back into the bedroom and there she is.
It’s the girl from the photo. She’s in there kneeling in front of the dark tv. She’s got her dark reddish hair, round dollish face, pretty in an art student kind of way. There’s no way she could’ve gotten up here.
She turns and sees me.
“Hi,” she says and smiles. She’s about 14.
Her right eye is dark red, full of blood. It starts to leak down her cheek.
I don’t hesitate. I run down the stairs again, get the fuck away.
We launch the canoe and speed away. I excitedly tell Gramps and Uncle Tavis what I saw. I can’t believe something this interesting just happened to me.
“It was a ghost,” I say excitedly. My bloodstream is all adrenaline right now. I don’t think my feet touched a single stair on the way down.
Uncle Tavis thinks I’m fucking with him, but Gramps just goes, “I felt it the second I laid eyes on that goddamn window. That place is haunted. I felt someone watching me. Watching us.”
I turn and look behind me as the island gets smaller in the setting sun. I can’t see the upstairs window — now it’s just the incredibly-realistic fake tree’s gnarled branches sticking up and waving its fake leaves and pine needles.
At 8-Hi that night, we tell them about the treehouse.
“Oh, you met Marie,” says Kevin, the bartender/proprietor.
“Yeah. Marie Conkin. She was a high school girl, murdered there about fifteen years ago.”
“Got stabbed in the eye,” says Kevin. “Jealous boyfriend type thing. One of the Coachman grandchildren did it. That’s who built that treehouse. Built it in the late nineties as a present for his grandkids. They say the oldest son did it, but nothing was ever proven. They never found her body.”
“No idea. They say he killed her in the treehouse and cut her up and threw her body parts in the lake. Little rich prick, probably would’ve gotten away with it even if they had caught him. Glad they don’t come around here no more.”