Safe and sound
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. "The first sentence is always the hardest," I groan after a frustrating hour and a half of writing. I slam my laptop shut and shove it aside. "You said writing would help me relax, Dr. Steve, but it isn't helping … at all! It's just stressing me out even more, if that's even possible," I exclaim, throwing my hands up as if pleading to the heavens. The vein to the left of center on my forehead pulses now with each beat of my heart. "Go! Take a vacation! Write a book! It'll be relaxing, he said. "Does it look like this is helping me relax, Dr. Steve," I shout to the empty cabin. What good does it do to pay a therapist for advice like this," I ask myself. My heart pounds as I exhale forcefully. "You've got to get a grip. Breathe, just breathe," I coach myself. Inhaling through my nose and slowly out through my mouth like I practiced with Dr. Steve helps ease my anxiety and my mind drifts back to Tuesday afternoon.
It had certainly been a busy day, but not more than usual. So what made me completely fall apart like that, ending up sobbing on my office floor for an hour on a Tuesday? A Tuesday! Staring blankly into space for a moment, I try to remember. It must have been the onslaught of unrelenting beeps and dings from my stupid cell phone. With every one, the tightness in my chest grew, constricting my heart like a snake squeezing life from its prey. "Guess it was just stress and information overload," I mumble to myself. Maybe Dr. Steve was right. I do need a break. My nerves must be really shot if something as trivial as email is gonna make me lose it to the point of throwing my cell phone across the room. Now the stupid thing doesn't work right. The flashlight is messed up and only works half the time, usually not when I really need it.
After my meltdown on Tuesday afternoon, I made an appointment with Dr. Steve for the following morning. After we talked for a while, he suggested I take a little break and go on a vacation. I decided to take his advice and leave the next morning to check out a vacation spot he recommended, Periculum Springs. The way he talked about it made it sound so peaceful and relaxing. He said, "It's got a spring-fed lake surrounded by nothing but miles of beautiful trees, and lots of fresh air." I was sold! I packed that afternoon and got up early the next morning so I could get a jump on the drive. I always enjoy road trips.
After driving long enough to finish my coffee, my stomach rumbles loudly for the third time in ten minutes. I begin looking for breakfast places along the route. Seeing nothing for miles, I start thinking about digging into the food I brought for the trip when I pass a sign which says "Periculum Springs ~ One visit and you won't leave." Surely that must've been a mistake. It probably said, "One visit and you won't want to leave." I'm sure I just misread it. There's an old cafe on the right with cars in the lot so I decide to give it a try. The weathered yellow sign with black letters reads "Periculum Cafe."
Grasping the antique doorknob, before stepping inside the threshold, I hesitate wondering what awaits. I've always had an odd fascination with doorways and locks. It's one of my quirks. Stepping inside I find a typical, small town cafe. As I wait to be seated, I see a bulletin board hanging to my left. On it are business cards, a picture of a lost cat, and a flyer with tear off tabs for someone seeking a roommate. At the bottom left is a red poster that says "RHA-ha-ha Coloring Contest sponsored by WRHA ~ The sound of Periculum Springs." In the center is a child's drawing of a dark creature. It resembles a tangled ball of yarn drawn in black crayon. A pair of blood red eyes and the dark outline of teeth are its only features. Something about those eyes gives me an uneasy feeling. They seem … malevolent. Under the drawing is a caption that reads "Better watch your back or the RHA-ha-ha will attack." Must be some sort of local mascot like Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, or Bigfoot or something I suppose. A young hostess greets me and leads me to a table. A moment later a waitress named Jodie brings me a cup of coffee and sets the pot on the table. She seems forty something but looks older. Her auburn hair has gray roots. "What can I get ya' hun," she asks, smacking on chewing gum. "Two eggs over hard, bacon and toast please," I reply. "Sure thing hun," she replies as she picks up the coffee pot and walks briskly to the counter to enter my order. I drink a couple of sips of coffee as I wait. The cafe radio plays a little too loudly. Its tinny speaker squeaks on the high notes. The song ends and the radio station's jingle plays, "Lock your doors at night. Lock 'em up good and tight, cuz the RHA-ha-ha comes at night! WRHA, the sound of Periculum Springs." The jingle is sung by children except the "RHA-ha-ha" part is done with a man's voice. It is deep and guttural with a menacing tone. An echo sound effect makes it sound a little cartoonish. A velvety smooth DJ's voice follows with "WRHA, the sound of Periculum Springs." What a creepy jingle. Just then Jodie returns with my breakfast in one hand and the coffee pot in the other. "What's that all about," I ask, motioning to the radio. "Oh, it's just an old story they tell to scare kids. That story's been bouncing around forever in these parts. Nothing to worry about, but just in case … lock your doors at night, lock 'em up good and tight cuz the RHA-ha-ha comes at night," she sings the little scary dittie from the radio and laughs as she hurries off to take an order from a customer a couple of tables away.
After breakfast, I get back on the road. Not long after, I pass a sign that says "Camp Periculum." Of course, there's always a camp in these little middle-of-nowhere towns. Guess I watched too many scary movies as a teenager. I finally arrive at the cabin. It's nothing special, just a cozy little hideaway. I take the three steps up to the porch and find the key under the pot plant to the right of the door. When I open the door, the musty smell of dank air hits me in the face. Inside, the cabin is nice, it's just old. The furnishings look like they're from the sixties. The couch, even though it looks older than I am, is very comfortable. The cabin could use some upgrades, especially with the lighting. The cabin is dark and shadowy. There's a sliding glass door in the back of the cabin with a beautiful view overlooking the lake. "I need to air this place out," I say as I open the sliding glass door. With the front door still open, a nice breeze from the lake blows through the cabin, freshening it up. After a couple of trips to empty out the car, I shut the front door and notice something that seems out of place; a shiny, new deadbolt. It stands out because everything else here is so old. There's no keyhole on the outside. It only locks from the inside. When I twist the handle, the bolt locks solidly with a distinctive click. The click is interesting, maybe that's some sort of new security feature. I go back to putting away the groceries and don't give it another thought.
In the kitchen, the electrical outlet to the left of the sink has a note taped next to it which reads, "Circuit breaker is outside to the left of the back porch." It has a smiley face drawn on it. The drawing is crude and has a smirk where a smile should be. I finish with the groceries and wash my hands in the sink. The water is surprisingly cold. It probably comes from one of the underground springs, I surmise. When the water is running, the ancient pipes make a loud groan from deep inside the cabin. They keep talking for a while even after the faucet has been turned off.
I have been looking forward all week to trying a new recipe I found online, lemon pepper grilled chicken with a lemony dill sauce. It sounds like a strange flavor combination, but that's probably why it appeals to me. As I turn on the portable electric grill, I decide that a frozen margarita would pair nicely. Just when I start blending the margarita, the power goes out. Remembering the note next to the electric outlet, I head out the back door to find the circuit breaker. It is easy enough to find and I have the power back on in no time. No big deal, I just need to remember not to use more than one kitchen appliance at a time. Lunch tastes delicious. While washing the dishes, wisps of steam from the piping hot water fog my glasses. Out of the corner of my eye, some letters briefly appear in the steamy kitchen window … "RHA". The letters vanish before I can get a good look. I check again but there's nothing there. "Great, now you're imagining things. You've got to get a grip before you end up in a nuthouse," I scold myself.
Maybe what I need is some fresh air. I grab my sunglasses, a water bottle, and throw on a baseball cap and head out down the path towards the lake. The clean air makes me feel better and in a few steps I settle into a good stride down the path to the lake. Everything sounds louder than usual here. Without the city noise droning all of the time, I can hear every little sound. The dry grass crunches with every step I take. The warm lake breeze flutters as it blows past my ears.
The open path begins to narrow as the trees close in. My shoulders tense. Engulfed by trees on all sides and feeling a little claustrophobic, I pick up the pace hoping the trail will open up. After about half a minute the trail widens and my shoulders relax. Stopping to catch my breath, I can't help checking my broken phone for messages, but there's no signal. As I resume walking, I suddenly have the uneasy feeling that I am being watched. I discreetly glance around but don't see anyone. I guess my overactive imagination is playing tricks on me again. Wait. Up ahead, I do see something. What is that? Something dark is moving slowly in the trees just on the other side of the clearing. From this far away, I can't make out what it is. Whatever it is, it stops moving when I look in that direction. I turn my head as if looking elsewhere and it begins slowly moving again. The hairs on my neck and arms stand on end. Whatever's over there, doesn't want me to see it. Acting casually, when every part of me wants to run, I slowly turn around and head back up the path towards the cabin. It could be a bear or some other wild animal so running would be a bad idea. Walking slowly at first, I make it past the first bend so it won't seem obvious that I'm in a hurry. Once I'm out of its sight, I pick up the pace. Whatever it is, is probably more scared of me than I am of it, I try convincing myself. That helps some and I breathe a little easier. I begin to slow down when I hear branches breaking behind me. My heart races. Adrenaline floods my bloodstream and my mouth becomes bone dry. Something is after me! The sound is far enough away that I might still have a chance to make it back to the cabin. Looking ahead, I check for trees I could climb if needed. Pressing onward, I round the last turn in the path when I hear the grass crunching, this time about half as far away as before. Panicked, all rational thought now replaced by raw fear, I sprint toward the cabin faster than I thought I could run. Gasping in ragged breaths, fear drives me forward. Just a few feet in front of the cabin steps, my feet hit the gravel driveway and I go sprawling. Desperately, I clambor my way up the cabin steps on hands and feet before bursting into the cabin and slamming the door behind me. With my back against the door, I quickly turn the deadbolt and it locks with a reassuring click. Still unsure if I am safe from whatever it was, I slowly turn my head to peek out the window, half expecting something to break through the glass and jump into the room, but there is nothing. Trying to slow my staccato breathing, my brain struggles to make sense of what just happened. What was that? It couldn't just be my mind playing tricks on me again, could it? No. I definitely saw something moving, something dark. Also, I heard something following me. Shaken, I put my mouth under the kitchen faucet and greedily gulp a couple of mouthfuls of the icy water. My knees sting from where I scraped them during the fall on the driveway. Grabbing a wet paper towel, I dab at the blood and a twinge of pain makes me wince. A strong gust of wind rattles the shutters on the back of the cabin. I rummage around in the closet and find a baseball bat which I carry around the cabin like a security blanket. Eventually when my curiosity outweighs my fear, I peer out the front window again. That's when I see my pursuer. A heavy-duty black plastic trash bag, blown by lake winds and now caught on a tree stump, flails its arms in the wind like a demon. That's it! I've totally lost it; running in a blind panic from a plastic bag. I feel my grip on reality really might be slipping.
To distract myself and calm my nerves, I try working on my story. Sitting on the couch with the laptop perched across my thighs, I struggle to come up with the beginning for my story. Each time I type something and delete it, I can feel my blood pressure rise a bit more. Unable to write more than the first sentence, my heart starts pounding and my face becomes flushed. I slam the laptop shut and shove it aside in frustration. I switch on the radio. It has a broken antenna and the signal cuts out for random periods, which is annoying, but all the silence is too much for my shaken nerves. I pour a margarita from the fridge and fall onto the couch, wondering if I can cobble my broken dignity back together. The margarita relaxes me and I drift off unexpectedly.
It's nighttime in my dream. I'm not sure why but a wave of panic hits me and it feels like I'm falling. Everything but the path is shadows. Around me I hear noises, like nature sounds, but they sound distorted and unnatural. Then, I hear dry grass crunching behind me … something behind me, and I run. I turn to look behind me and see those blood red eyes from the cafe poster. I run faster but they grow closer still. Suddenly the path falls away from beneath me and I plummet headfirst into the darkness. I awaken with a thud as I fall off the couch, hitting my head on the hard, wooden floor.
"What a great idea this trip has turned out to be," I say, rubbing my head. I look around the cabin for something to take my mind away from my nightmare. My eyes find the laptop, but I'm not ready to try writing again yet. Instead, I grab a beer from the fridge and walk out to the back porch.
The full moon is so beautiful and bright tonight. The stars seem brighter here than they do back in the city; less light pollution, I suppose. Clouds start rolling in as I head back to the kitchen to grab a bag of pretzels to go with my beer. When I return, the clouds have faded, apparently taking the moon with them. Rubbing my eyes, I'm starting to second guess myself more and more. When I look back to the sky again, all I can see is blackness. It's as though the night has swallowed up all of the light. I must've hit my head harder than I thought. I take a seat in the creaky wooden rocker to listen to the night and drink my beer. A single cricket starts to chirp. Then another joins. Before long, they seem to be chorusing all around me. Strange, how with all of this quiet, everything seems so much louder than normal here. Their chirps grow louder still, then suddenly they all go silent as if something is approaching. Maybe this is a good time to head back inside. I grab the beer and pretzels and close the sliding glass door, locking it behind me.
I hadn't thought about how creepy the cabin would be at night. The sound of the wind rattling the shutters unnerves me. The old cabin creaks and moans as I walk across its wooden floors making me jumpy. I need a distraction. "Okay, I guess I've procrastinated enough for one day," I say as I grab the laptop and plop down on the couch. Staring blankly for a few minutes at the laptop screen, I think maybe I'll feel more like writing after a hot shower. As I walk to the bedroom, the dimly-lit cabin gives me the willies. There's only a single incandescent bulb lighting the kitchen and living room. The light it gives is yellow and dull, so to brighten the cabin I light a candle on the kitchen table. The candle casts eerie, moving shadows on the walls of the unfamiliar cabin, setting my nerves on edge. I quickly scurry to the bathroom and start the shower. As I turn to grab some towels there is a flash of movement outside the window. "No. It's probably just another plastic bag. I'm not letting my mind play any more tricks on me," I declare, pushing the unwanted thoughts away as I step into the shower. The hot water feels so relaxing on my head and shoulders. This showerhead alone is worth the trip. For a moment, I imagine seeing the letters "RHA" in the steamy shower door. "Nope, there's nothing there," I tell myself as I turn off the water and step out of the shower. I wrap a towel around my waist and lather up my face to shave when I feel a cold breeze behind me. It gives me a chill. Turning to look, I slip and almost fall on the wet floor. Suddenly, the lights go out. Must be the circuit breaker again. I fumble around in the dark for my cell phone. My damaged cell phone flashlight flickers on and off as I make my way through the cabin to the back sliding glass door. The flickering light from the candle and my flashlight casts shadows on the wall which move. Goosebumps raise the hairs on my arms making me hesitate before unlocking the door. I quickly make my way outside and over to the circuit breaker. Just as I am about to reset the breaker the flashlight dies, leaving me standing alone in the darkness wearing only a towel. A cold breeze sends a shiver up my spine. I flip the breaker back on and hurry back into the cabin. Making sure to lock the back door, I head back towards the bathroom to finish shaving when I hear a noise coming from the back of the cabin. There's a low staticky sound followed by an otherworldly screeching. Startled, I lunge toward the cabin door, run outside and hide behind my car, not noticing the rough gravel under my bare feet. Torn between the fear of being outside in the dark and the thought of something waiting inside the cabin, I am at a loss for what to do. Petrified, unable to move, I hide in the dark at the back of my car for what feels like an eternity. Straining my ears to hear any sound, after a minute I hear something faintly coming from inside the cabin. It sounds like music. Then I recognize it. It's that stupid radio station jingle! It must've been that flakey radio that scared me out of the cabin. I forgot to turn it off. Relieved but still trembling, I cautiously approach the cabin, ready to run at any sign of danger. Becoming more confident as I move closer that what I heard was only the radio, I carefully step onto the porch. A loose plank creaks as I put my weight onto it, almost sending me running again. I stand next to the door for nearly a full minute before building up enough courage to continue. Holding my breath, I can barely hear anything over the sound of my pounding heart. Peeking around the doorframe into the cabin, I breathe a slow, deep sigh of relief when I see everything looks normal. Finally convinced that the old radio was playing tricks on my frazzled nerves, I cross the threshold, gently shutting the door behind me. Wind from the open door must've blown out the kitchen candle. Relieved to be back safely inside, I'm able to breathe again. I start walking towards the bathroom to finish shaving when suddenly everything goes dark. A terrible, sick feeling forms in the pit of my stomach and an icy chill goes down my spine. There's something breathing behind me! Too terrified to scream, I stand motionless, unable to run. Trembling, I slowly turn my head to look behind me. I see those blood red eyes just as the deadbolt locks with a click!
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!