But plenty of blue iris
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. This is the story of how that candle came to be lit, and by whom—or what. You may hear different versions of this story from the guy at the gun shop or the gal who runs the daycare or some random little kid rolling up on his bike to give you directions. But I am going to give you the official version, the real one.
After I’m done telling you this, I recommend you make preparations to get out of here in a hurry. This is no place for outsiders. Outsiders have a habit of going missing around here, or worse. I will tell you this story and then I think you might want to change your vacation plans. We don’t mind you tourists coming here to swim in our river or buy our local arts and crafts. A woman in town makes wonderful handmade soap, by the way. We depend on tourism here to keep us going, so thanks. But trust me, you don’t really want to stick around. Keep your visit short and sweet and you will thank me for it.
When you see that lit candle, you might think it was a trick of the light, maybe the last shaft of sunset reflected in the windows. Those windows sit high on the southwest wall of the cabin looking down on the river. That’s what Jonas Hollingshead thought as he stopped his trek uphill and turned around to look at the horizon behind him. A strand of butter yellow pushed down by black clouds. Yes, that could have done it. But when he looked back at the cabin, the light was gone.
“Stupid old man,” he scolded himself. “Get your ass in that cabin while you can still see. There are snakes out here!” Hollingshead hoisted his backpack higher onto his shoulder, adjusted the cooler in his other hand, and continued his trek up the hill.
When Hollingshead entered the cabin he was knocked back by the sour smell of mildewed clothes and dirty dishes left in wash water. Mouse urine mixed in there somewhere, motor oil and Irish Spring soap. The smells were much stronger than he had expected after such a long time. As Hollingshead let down his burdens with a thud on the softened floor boards, he heard tiny feet skittering away. “Should have stopped to get mouse traps,” he muttered, making a note of how much he was talking to himself, something he didn’t do much of back home. But no one has heard Hollingshead talk at all lately.
Hollingshead said he didn’t really feel guilty since it was an accident. Things just got out of hand. They had too much to drink, it was all just a misunderstanding. Why did she have to cry so much? He thought they were having fun but on the fourth day or so she got feisty and scratched him deep on his face. It changed his plans when he had to go to the store to get rubbing alcohol, cotton pads, bandages, ointment. He explained to the clerk he and his girlfriend were just up there partying and she had gotten a little frisky.
The clerk, Clark Thomas, is a good kid but he gets things confused. He thought Hollingshead said the girlfriend, Brittany, left in her car, driving all crazy down the hill. Then Clark told me Hollingshead started to cry and mutter something about a broken engagement or the girl being pregnant by some other dude. Clark Thomas gets confused, that’s who he is. Personally, I think the girl was pregnant and that’s what drove Hollingshead over the edge. But that’s not to say that Brittany was little miss innocent, either. If I had to choose between one and the other, I’d say they’re both to blame and damn them both to hell anyway. We don’t need their kind here.
That first night in, Hollingshead pulled the dusty quilts off the bed and laid his sleeping bag on it. He pulled some packaged cheese and crackers from his backpack and then his handle of vodka. Hollingshead always was a vodka man. He didn’t bother making a fire and didn’t want to use up his batteries, so he just drank in the dark until he fell asleep.
Sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. there was a banging in the cabin that woke Hollingshead. He smelled the synthetic minty odor of Irish Spring soap, and thought he heard a woman and a man talking in low voices, the woman laughing softly. He thought he heard the sound of a water faucet, maybe the shower running, then being turned off with a soft squeak.
“Damn it, Brittany, I know you’re here. Show yourself already! Don’t think you can scare me, now!” Hollingshead felt the pulse in his neck rise then fall like a body being dropped from a gallows. No place to have a heart attack, he thought, better try to level out. He poured himself another shot of vodka and kicked it back, then another, teetering on the edge of numbness but holding onto an edge if necessary. If this is what it came down to, so be it. Then he passed out again.
The light blue sky woke him since he hadn’t bothered to close the drapes. A couple of mice had found his cheese crackers and were standing up with their front paws holding the crackers upright. They were spinning the crackers around, sawing the edges down with their busy little teeth.
“Damn little bastards, get out of here!” Hollingshead bellowed, throwing his boots at them. It seemed like they laughed at him as they ran off. “Fishing better be good today,” he said to himself. Then he made a mental note that he was talking out loud to himself again.
Hollingshead climbed down the back way to the river, to the east. The slope is easier back there, and prettier. Lots of blue iris blooming that time of year. Brittany loved blue irises, and liked to cut them, keeping the long stalks so they would stand up nice in the plastic pitcher they had back at the cabin. Hollingshead was hung over so he wanted to get to the fishing spot and then relax, take a couple of pulls on his vodka and just wait for the fish to bite. The point wasn’t really to fish so much as to calm these crazy visions, just to feel some peace.
Hollingshead woke up and saw her leaning over him, hair in her face, her breasts hanging forward. He reached up to touch one of them, hoping that their familiar softness would help him relax, like reaching for a peach on a summer’s day. But when he did, what he touched felt weird, squishy. He jolted himself awake, and found his right hand wrapped around a large blubbery something. There was an odd smell, and one of his fingernails pierced the blubber and the smell got worse. He let go of this thing and flung it from him. His eyes still clearing, he saw a big toad flipping itself from back to belly, then lumbering off.
Hollingshead squeezed his eyes tightly together, trying to clear his vision and found himself on his knees in the mud partway into the riverbed. His face and inside his mouth were all gritty with a sour taste. He spit out the grit in his mouth and felt nauseated. His stomach ached in a way it didn’t usually when he was hung over. “I need to get me something to eat,” Hollingshead decided, “Those cheese crackers didn’t do it for me. Damn, I have to go into town after all.” He really didn’t want to deal with all that. He thought he’d have caught some fish by now and wouldn’t have to deal with any people while he was at the cabin. But he was so hungry!
Hollingshead looked around but his fishing pole was gone. So was his bait, and all that remained was his cooler. What the hell? He lifted up the lid, hoping to take a short swig on the vodka to get him straightened out just enough for the hike into town. But when he pried off the lid from the cooler, he saw that the bottle was half empty.
“What the hell, I had at least three-quarters left in there…. Damn kids!” Hollingshead looked up in response to some rustling in the bushes and saw three teenagers on the bank across the water. They were laughing—laughing at him? They were dressed in black hoodies, bright sneakers and short pants. They looked like they were all wearing frameless sunglasses. One of them had his arm around the waist of a young woman.
Wait, that girl looked like…no, not possible. Brittany? Hollingshead screamed across the river, “Hey Brittany, Brittany, it’s Jonas! Stop right there, girl!” The young guys started laughing louder and the girl wouldn’t turn around to look at him. But the guys kept looking at him with their black eyes.
Hollingshead shook his head to clear his vision. When he opened his eyes again, the kids and the girl were gone. “Damn vodka, I need to get me something to eat.” He stowed his cooler behind a big rock and put some leaves over it, then started down the path northeast into town.
Hollingshead pulled out his pack of Marlboro Reds. Just five left, not enough to get him by for the rest of the weekend. He needed some chow, more vodka and more smokes. He felt in his left pocket for his wallet—whew, still there. He counted out the bills. Wait, didn’t he put $300 in there? Hollingshead counted five 50 dollar bills. He was short $50. If those kids took it while he was passed out, why didn’t they take the whole $300? Hollingshead figured he needed to eat something pretty bad, so he picked up his pace into town.
By the time he got to the town’s convenience store, Hollingshead was hot, angry, even more nauseated but strangely hungry. The shakes had set in. He hoped he didn’t smell too bad and figured he smelled more like B.O. than booze at that point. He tried to cinch up his mouth into a fake smile just to pass as sober enough to buy something and not be bothered. As Hollingshead looked through the glass doors he saw who stood at the counter. It was none other than Clark Thomas, everybody’s favorite dumb-ass kid who never asked questions. There is a God.
Clark looked up from his phone where he had been watching a YouTube tutorial on fight strategies for CyberPunk. Clark knew everybody thought he was an idiot and laughed at him behind his back but he didn’t care. He was getting out of this dead-end town soon, as soon as he got noticed for his gaming skills and could go pro. But for right now, he had to wait on this old drunk guy. Oh, and hey, it’s Jonas Hollingshead, everybody’s least-favorite drunk who nobody has seen since his girlfriend went missing three years ago. Look at this guy, frozen in time, just as messed up as he was the day he reported her missing. Same five o’clock shadow, same muddy-ass pants, same smell. God, that smell.
“Hey, uh…Cl..ark, right?” Hollingshead thought maybe he could fake being neighborly and then no-questions Clark Thomas would really ask no questions and he’d be good.
Clark nodded and came back with his own fake, neighborly smile, “Mr. Hollingshead, long time no see, sir. You up at the cabin for some fishing, I imagine?” Yeah, great, guy. Your girlfriend goes missing and to celebrate you go back to the last place you had her all to yourself. Everybody knows you did something to her and you’re drinking yourself to death out of guilt. Piece of shit.
Clark kept his plastic grin on his face and rang up Hollingshead’s purchases: four packs of Marlboro Reds, two fifths of Smirnoff vodka, two pounds of hamburger, a brick of cheese and a family pack of Doritos. Clark thought he could smell the cabin on Hollingshead, and swallowed hard while he bagged everything up and took Hollingshead’s money. Always fifty dollar bills, showing off his money as usual, Clark thought. What a loser.
“Hey, Clark, there were some kids by the river with a girl. They looked kind of weird, like they had some frameless glasses on or, I don’t know. And the girl with them looked like…. Well, never mind, but I think they were up to no good. I was taking a nap and I think they ripped off my fishing pole and some of my money. Have you seen some guys come through in hoodies, weird guys? Maybe they’re townies, I don’t know since I haven’t been here for a few years.”
“No, Mr. Hollingshead,” Clark replied, “I would have noticed guys in hoodies. Nobody dresses like that here, especially not in the summer. I would be surprised if there was anybody out besides you since last night. We had an all-points bulletin from the Sheriff. Some guy broke out of the high side last night. The police helicopter reported him out somewhere by The Forks. Mayor said everybody just stay in today and let the cops run the search themselves. If they need volunteers, they’ll ask.”
Hollingshead thought, oh great, all I need right now, some kid catching me up on current events. I really need to get back to the river and rest and stop doing all this thinking. But what he said to Clark, was, “Oh, hell no, an inmate broke out of the high side? Do they know what he’s in for?” Hollingshead ran a quick roll call through his muddled mind. Had he forgotten to get his keys back from any of them? Crazy what a guy would do for a pack of cigarettes or an opportunity for sex. Risk it all in one last big push.
Clark felt vindicated that he knew something that Hollingshead didn’t. “Murder for sure,” he said. "The Sheriff said in the broadcast this morning the guy is doing time for a triple murder. Killed a guy and his girlfriend and turns out, the girlfriend was pregnant at the time. Nasty stuff. Yeah, everybody’s pretty rattled about it. If you had come through town on your way up to the cabin last night, you would have heard about it from someone. You might have turned right back around and gone home. Sorry you didn’t know, sir.” Clark felt strangely protective of Hollingshead. He felt sorry for him, being a drunk and all, and his girlfriend either leaving him or going missing or whatever the hell happened to her.
Hollingshead suddenly felt really sweaty and shaky and knew Clark could probably see it. He had better sit himself down and have something to eat. “Hey, Clark, get me some of that fried chicken, too, would you? Looks mighty good and I forgot to bring dinner last night. Just really eager to see the cabin again and get in some fishing before the end of the summer.”
The fried chicken did look strangely delicious, little bubbles of fried fat throughout a dark brown corn flake coating. Hollingshead’s mouth watered as he waited for that first bite, tearing off the deep fried skin and piercing further into the greasy white meat beneath. “Give me a large Coke with that, too, Clark, thanks.” Hollingshead sat down on one of the metal stools at the counter and waited with happy anticipation.
Clark took the chicken out from under the warmer lights with tongs and put it onto a styrofoam plate. He placed it with some plastic flatware and a napkin in front of Hollingshead. Then he poured a large Coke, dumping a scoopful of ice into it. The identity of this crazed lunatic on the loose became less and less important. All that mattered to Hollingshead was this wonderful, greasy meal.
With the food settling his stomach and his blood sugar rising, Hollingshead felt more human in a few minutes and with that, started to share. “Some strange things have happened to me today, Clark. I guess you could call them visions. No one has seen Brittany, have they? Damn it I miss her so much. Why did she have to run off like that? We were going to get married and I was looking forward to starting a family, old fart like me. It’s funny, all those years with those pretty new C.O.s flirting with me to try to get promoted, and I fall for one of them.”
Then Hollingshead proceeded to tell all to Clark. Not just the strange experiences he’d had back at the cabin and down by the river, but the lonely life of a bachelor with a fat paycheck and a pension plan. How he had saved his money in the hope that one day he could build a new house for a pretty wife and have a few kids with her. Then he worked his way back to the last day. The lit candle he saw as he approached the cabin but which was unlit when he got inside the cabin. The strange smells like someone had recently vacated the place perhaps within a few days, not the three years since he was last there. And the half-dream about the smelly piece of blubber and the laughing teenagers. And seeing Brittany, maybe. But why would Brittany be hanging out with a bunch of teenagers?
Clark said later it felt like he was a priest at a Catholic confessional. Here is this old guy, this drunk, unloading his whole life story like it’s his last chance. Brittany was the only woman he had ever loved, he said. She made him feel young again, like there was something to strive for. He showered her with jewelry and gifts as much as he could, his money finally going toward something and not sitting in the bank. He had never wanted children before but with Brittany it was different. It felt like a fresh start. Clark said he felt so sorry for this old guy who nobody liked that he listened patiently, not interrupting him. He even brought him a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream on the house just to cheer him up.
Hollingshead finished his meal and gathered up his bags of groceries, cigarettes and vodka. “Clark, I appreciate your kindness, hearing out an old man with a broken heart. Here’s something for your time.” Hollingshead, as if controlled by something else, pulled out one of those precious 50 dollar bills and handed it to Clark. Clark was dumbfounded.
“Thank you, sir. You don’t have to do that.”
“No, you earned it. And besides, something may happen to me up there. There’s no cell phone service and my heart isn’t like it used to be. I haven’t been feeling at all well and the climb up the hill last night really took it out of me. Promise me that if you don’t see me come down the mountain between now and Monday that you’ll send someone up there, or go up there yourself. That’s one of my worst fears, dying by myself and no one finding me until I start to rot. If you see my car at the bottom of the hill on Monday, something’s not right. Please come up and check on me, okay?”
Clark felt a mixture of dread and sympathy for the old guy. “Sure, Mr. Hollingshead, sure thing. You still driving that steel grey Navigator?”
“Sharkskin grey, yes.” Hollingshead was pretty proud of that custom dip, cost him enough.
“You bet, sir, I will go by there Monday morning on the way in to work. I’m sure you’ll be gone and on your way back home by then.”
Hollingshead thanked Clark and again, moved by something to act out of character, he hugged him. This shocked Clark but he played it off. Then Clark watched Hollingshead walk across the street, light a cigarette, and continue southwest in the general direction of the river.
Monday morning came and as Clark was shaving before work he had a vision of Hollingshead’s permanent five o’clock shadow. Saturday afternoon was when he had sold him the fried chicken and seen him walk across the street and back toward the river. Perhaps that was the last time Hollingshead was seen in town?
Clark called up Brenda, who owned the one bar in town, asking her if she’d seen Hollingshead at all that weekend. Brenda was known to sell no-tax carry-outs on a Sunday morning in case of emergency. If anyone had seen Hollingshead, no matter what condition he was in, it would have been Brenda.
“Nope, sure haven’t, Clark. To be honest, with that murderer guy loose around here, I closed early Saturday night and laid low and hung out with my pooches. Hollingshead creeps me out anyway. If he’d showed up here with his hair on fire, I doubt I would have opened my door to him. That guy is bad news.”
Clark wiped the rest of the shaving cream off his face and put on his socks and shoes. He knew what he had to do. Look for the grey Navigator and when it wasn’t there, ease into a sense of relief that he could go about his day and get back to CyberPunk.
Clark took his usual route from his trailer down gravel to Highway 7, then took a right to the south toward The Forks. He saw the river from the road and noticed as if for the first time how it looked emerald green in the morning light. I have to get down here more often, maybe before work, and meditate, he thought. It’s beautiful. How did I forget how beautiful it is?
Clark drove farther down to the highlands above The Forks where the terrain gets steeper. When he pulled up to the trail leading to Hollingshead’s cabin, he saw the wrecked Navigator. Its custom sharkskin paint job looked more like gun metal grey from a fine coating of road dust. The left front tire was flat, and the rim bent. The whole driver’s side of the car was smashed in, an angry V shape protruding into the cab. The windshield was cracked and what looked like blood outlined the crescent shape broken out from it. It looked like someone’s head had hit it.
Clark could feel his pulse jump, his heart skip, speed up, then slow down. He pulled his car in about four yards to the side to avoid the glass, put it in park and just sat there a moment. Did he really have to look inside Hollingshead’s car? His stomach came up and he swallowed hard, thinking about how the cabin would smell to distract himself from what he had to look at first. With time moving very slowly, he took off his seat belt and got out of his car, shaking and breathing as if through mist. He walked through the broken glass and holding his breath, looked through the driver’s side window, which itself was cracked and half missing. Lots of blood on the seat but no Hollingshead. Clark laughed to himself, “Where is Hollingshead’s head hiding? Say that three times fast!” Then he made his way up the steep path to the cabin.
The door was slightly ajar. Clark pushed it open to the inside and the unforgettable aroma of Irish Spring, mouse piss, dust and mildew registered in his mind like the name of a favorite song. How could it smell the same as it did three years ago? He looked around and saw three empty Smirnoff bottles, all of them upright on various tables and the kitchen counter. A glass was also upright in the kitchen sink. There was another odor very familiar to him—that of tallow which his mother used to make handmade soap, a favorite with the tourists who came through the area.
In the one small bedroom, slumped in a rocking chair was Hollingshead, clearly dead and very bloody. His chin rested on his chest, his boots were off, his pants half unbuttoned. In Hollingshead’s firmly clenched right hand was a skeleton key. It was also very familiar to Clark from when he worked at the prison. Very hard to find a locksmith willing to make duplicates.
Since he had found Hollingshead already, Clark drew a sigh of relief and went about looking through the rest of the cabin. Perhaps Hollingshead had left some money behind—what good was it to him, now? On a hunch, Clark looked under the bed and found Hollingshead’s wallet and in it, $100 in two fifties. Clark helped himself to the cash then came round to the front again.
As Clark walked through the hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen, he found the plastic beer pitcher he had saved from Brenda’s and given to Brittany as a memento. There it stood, with a couple more chips out of the top rim. In it stood a perfect blue iris in a few inches of water.
Then Clark smelled something warm, like hot wax. He looked over at the front of the cabin, toward the south-facing windows. On an end table behind one window sat a brass candle holder. It had a half-melted candlestick in it. He went over to touch it. The wick was still warm.
About the Creator
Come join me hanging out with the Dodo Bird on the beach, waiting for the odd chupacabra, or chasing shadows into corners. And you can read about my life as a therapist on Medium.com.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
I read this one awhile ago, had to revisit it. Very well done!
Good stuff, Sir. Well written and engaging. Subscribed.
Whoaaa, the ending! Such a gripping story right from the beginning! Fantastic story! Loved it so much!
This was a great read! The characters were believable and it leaves you wanting more. This could be saved great movie! Good job!