The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. It was so faint that Riley hadn’t seen the glow until she was only a few steps away. Her foot was already firmly planted on a floorboard on the back porch when the dim flame caught her eye. Its tiny golden teardrop was poised without the slightest flicker deep within the room behind the window. She froze immediately anticipating the low groan of the old termite infested wood beneath her foot. Like a deer in the woods picking up the sound of a possible predator, her body became rigid, stiff, eyes wide with fear, warm air tickling her nostrils as she tightly kept her lips sealed.
Countless times Riley had made her way to the abandoned cabin, its old frame, shrouded with brush and swallowed by vines, had remained hidden in the dense trees of the old woods for as long as she could remember. Never once had she told a soul of her find. In all her trips she had never seen a track or even the slightest disturbance around the property. It had remained untouched by the world, sheltered by the woods from the outside worlds’ insatiable appetite, something she envied. Why now? She thought to herself. Why now, when she needed its sanctuary more than ever. Someone had sullied its very existence, entering its hidden walls, defiling it after all these years when she had been the only one to share its secret.
Riley’s mind raced back and forth in a frenzy. Surely it was well past midnight, and once she lifted her foot the floorboard would whine a retched squeal of relief giving her presence away to whoever was squatting within the cabin. She had nowhere to go, her father, in all his glorious drunken stupor would be making his way to her room in an hour or two. She shuddered at the memory, the stench of vinegar and booze, his piss stained jeans falling to the floor with a cackle as the belt buckle came free from his trousers. She couldn’t go home, and whatever lived in the woods was better than the animal that lived within her own home. What was currently residing within the cabin though, was an unknown, a chance she couldn’t bear to take. Her father would beat her mercilessly until his rotten tobacco filled lungs gave way, at which point he would cry, apologizing with slurred, drooling words before attempting to touch her. At the thought of this Riley felt the urge to vomit and decided to take her chances with the woods. Once she lifted her foot, she would pivot, and tear away at the ground beneath her, putting as much distance between herself and the cabins inhabitant before her lungs gave out. She would sleep in the woods tonight before continuing her journey away from home.
Riley steadied herself and winced at the thought of the impending pain on her feet. Snorting hard through her nostrils she pivoted on the floor board, toes contorting with the pressure as she called every ounce of energy within her body to spring from the porch and off into the dark woods. The floorboard howled at its release and her body became an arrow, the tension released with frightful power as her head reared towards the direction of the dense woods. Her body crumpled in unanticipated resistance as her face plowed directly into an unforeseen object. Riley’s eyes rolled back in her head, sputtering with dazed confusion as she scrambled to find her bearings, the wooden step piercing her back as her bottom thumped hard on the ground beneath her.
The voice was frail and soft-spoken, with a cadence like running water, “Child, no need to fear. I’d sure as help you up but… but only if you want me to, no need to fear me.” “You gave me just much a fright as I sure as did you.” Riley’s eyes had spun to a slow whirl as she attempted to make sense of the words and what had just happened. She screamed into the night air, her palms pushed down into the dirt as she attempted to create distance between her and the stranger before her. Before her a man stood, unfaltering from the impact and without even the slightest twitch in his hands. His skin was pasty white as if drawn on with white chalk like her teachers used during class. Even in the darkness of night she could make out a thick long beard, wavy thick hair beneath a wide brimmed hat, and eyes, eyes so soft they reminded her of her mothers. His brow was pinched with concern, but he remained statuesque, unmoving and gentle. His voice seeped out like honey from beneath the beard, “Child, no need to fear, this is most unnerving for the both of us…” A long coat was draped over his shoulders and settled down towards his ankles. Though the night was dark she made out large silver buttons and a square buckle glistening in the moonlight. The man slowly extended his hand but just as quickly as it came forth he rescinded the gesture, his hand retreating within the cloak as he thought better of the gesture and instead pulled back the drapes of his coat to expose his legs. “If you wish to run, I ain’t much to give chase, even if I wanted to.” The leathery boots he wore were only mid shin high, and Riley could see leather straps bound around his knees and thighs, the straps worn by amputees.
Riley was only a few feet away but at the sight of his legs, knew she could easily sprint away from the strange man without even the slightest worry of him pursuing. Again, he reached out his hand, the furrowed brow seemingly distraught from unnerving her. His hand was pale, with dirt, caked deep in the nails and any crevice it could find itself a home. Being this deep in the wood Riley knew another scream wouldn’t result in much more than a nuisance to herself, the stranger and the animals of the forest. She found her legs and stood up in defiance of the outstretched hand. Her body trembled, but willfully, she let her voice loose, “Why are you here? Why now and how? This is my family’s cabin; my father will be here in the morning, so we can get some fishing in by the stream tomorrow.” Riley hoped the lie would dissuade the man from any further interaction and he would simply limp off from whatever dirt ridden road path he had made to get here. His hand again retreated back towards the drapes of his cloak and he smirked gently. “Maybe I’ll join ya’ll, being that this cabin and that stream, are both on my land. Land been in my family for hundred some odd years now.” His voice was still soft, and unthreatening, though they both knew a game of words had been unfolded. The man, sensing her pause, continued, “Child, you ought not be running through these woods at this time of night, seems to me you might be running from something, and that something ain’t me. I’ma head in, you more than welcome to stay the night, hell I’ll keep my legs in the living room if some peace of mind be welcome to yah. Long as you promise to leave em’ by my bed for’e you leave, come sunrise.”
Riley stood in defiant silence, running the propositions through her mind, debating her choices, though she already knew the strange man had called her bluff correctly. She couldn’t help the anger she felt towards him, this stranger had dropped in from nowhere laying claim to her sanctuary and weighting her down with an ultimatum she wasn’t particularly fond of. Standing silently, she unflinchingly stared into his eyes and to her surprise, found he couldn’t keep her gaze. His eyes dropped towards the floor with meekness. Riley couldn’t imagine a man in his sorts being much of a threat and simply nodded in acceptance of his proposal. Kicking his right leg out an angle, he pivoted in her direction and with eyes still downcast murmured, “Names Roe, I ain’t much for walkin' and talkin' but that’s my name, and ye’r more than welcome to stay here the night child…hope that settles your soul, even just a bit.” Roe shuffled towards the porch, grasped the frame of the cabin, and disapeared on the other side of the cabin, the clack of his boots heels fading towards the direction of the entry.
A few moments passed, pacing furiously, Riley decided to make her way inside the cabin. The moon was faltering in the sky, giving way to the dark as it descended towards the tree-line, and in a few hour’s time the sun would rise erasing its existence altogether. Her father had probably torn her bedroom to shreds by this point and though he would spend the next few hours blacked out in the hallway of their home, would surely wake and begin searching for her. He only had her to berate with his torturous impulses, since mother had passed, she had become the whipping post, and then some. Riley entered through the front door of the cabin and paused, her eyes falling on Roe’s shadowy figure lumped into the dilapidated chair, quietly rocking, even paced, by the fireplace. The old ceramic pit was unbothered, long nested by birds, squirrels, and many other forest creatures, making less than ideal for a fire. The mantle however, was covered with candles, its protruding brick brow providing the perfect resting place for the assortment of light givers. Roe’s eyes remained steadfast, staring into the empty fireplace, his pale face dimly lit by their light, as he gently rocked himself in the chair. Riley stepped to her side, pacing the perimeter of the room as her eyes dutifully kept watch over Roe. Though she doubted a sudden explosion of movement, she still felt the need to be prepared for some unforeseen trap. His voice sauntered out from his silhouette, filling the rooms dim space, “Can of soup on the counter, ain’t warm, but sure it’s not the worst yah had.” His chair maintained its pace, rocking to and froe slowly creaking the floorboards beneath it. Riley couldn’t contain herself any longer, emboldened by the man’s handicap she abruptly cut the silence, “Why now? Why are you here if this is your families land…nobody has been here for years. I’ve seen it, I have been here, nobody within a mile of this cabin for years?” Her query was met with silence, Roe stopped rocking in his chair and spoke, “Been away a long time, guess you could say something just called me back…aint exactly quick on my feet as you could see…took a bit to make my way back, back to these parts.” Riley bit her lip and once the chair began to rock, poured some of the cold soup into an old wooden bowl. She made her way to a chair across the room from Roe and took a sip from the bowl, diligently keeping her eyes on Roe. Without a break in the rocking of his chair Roe spoke, “Been coming out awhile eh? No need to share with me, but…if you were to, at least it be with an old cripple in the woods.”
Riley exhaled, and after a long stretch of silence, spoke her story. “My dad…father, he’s…not well. Never has been, but, after my mama passed, well…every cat needs a post to claw.” Riley winced at her own words, as they left her mouth, with a bitter aftertaste, she couldn’t help the feeble forgiving tone they embodied, even though she held disgusted malice rotting in her heart. Roe continued rocking in his chair, his eyes unmoving from the fireplace, “Don’t look much like a post to me, and by the way you running, doubt it was just claws you been dealt on his account.” Riley’s cheeks flushed, and she swallowed the beat of her heart as it thumped within her chest. Fighting the urge to throw the bowl that rested in her palms at Roe’s stupid unflinching face, she fumed. What did he know about what she had been through. He couldn’t speak about her that way, this crippled man had no right to assume. The copper taste of tart blood entered her mouth, seeping from the points where her teeth had dug into her cheek, she fought back tears, and a ravenous anger. Roe stopped rocking in his chair, “Child, I mean no disrespect. I’m sorry for your pain…you too young to have been dealt this hand, not that anyone ever should, but you…a child, I’m sorry for your pain.” Riley’s steely gaze remained resolute as she stared in Roes direction. His chair continued to rock back and forth before slowing to a halt. “I can feel those eyes girl, you may not know it, but them little coals be burning through the leather of my jacket like embers on a woodpile. I’ll be seeing myself to bed now, leave the legs by the door…just as I said. Before I wake, s’pect them be right back there, and good luck with your travels youngin.”
Riley intensely watched his every move, from kicking out his wooden legs, to meandering towards the bedroom of the candle, the heels clicking and dragging across the old floorboards as he ambled into the dark. Once a good amount of time had passed, and the shuffling from within the room had fallen silent, she cautiously walked towards the door. The legs, with hanging leather straps weaved amongst themselves like vines tucked into the empty compartments that held his residual limbs, sat by the door. She snagged them up and slammed the door shut, scuttling back towards the empty fireplace lit by waning candlelight. What remained of the night passed incredulously, Riley never finding the peace of mind required to shut her eyes. When the chirp of birds began their chorus around the cabin, purple-ish, burnt orange colors subtly shining through breaks in the wood, fleshing out the walls within the cabin, she swiftly picked up the legs, returning them to the spot Roe had left them. She hadn’t slept for a second, her eyes only closed when the urge to blink was too strong to resist. After blowing out the candles, she had sat in the dark, listening for the slightest creak of wood. Her thoughts were muddled, sifting back and forth between the journey ahead of her, the monster she had escaped, and this squatter who had laid claim to her sanctuary.
As Riley gathered her thoughts, confining the more anxiety riddled presumptions to a subsect of her mind in order to concentrate on the next day’s journey, a loud clack came from the bedroom. Her head jerked towards the doorway of Roes bedroom. Riley’s eyes, following the sound, were met by Roes gaze coming from within the still dark hallway. Roe stood in the doorway of the bedroom, his furrowed brow still gentle but accompanied by a wry smirk etched across his lips. “You follow direction well child, but best be time for you to head home, best for you that you forget this cabin existed at all…jobs done now.” The words held a different tone than previously. Roes voice had dropped to a lower octave, a mischievous ill willed intention hung to the words as they fell upon her ears. As Roe stood motionless in the hallway Riley’s eyes picked up a shiny glint from behind his silhouette. The realization set in, Riley’s eyes widened in disbelief and terror, the legs…their straps, still wrapped around the tops of the boots, the shiny glint of the loopholes giving way their position where she had originally left them. Riley clung to the wall behind her, her legs turning to quivering jelly at the realization that Roe was standing on two legs…two normal legs. A drawn-out cackle seeped out from between his cracked pasty lips, “Yes’m, your eyes do not deceive you child. You been coming here a long time…so long, your hate, you’re torture, bringin’ every drop of your horror with you. You gave this home life again, you gave me…life again.” His voice began to rise with enthusiasm before yelling out, “I’m yo Daddy now girl! but ain’t want nothin’ from you…nothin’ like your old wicked man at home. Getcha’ ass back home girl, you see what I’m talking bout, but remember this. You owe me two more…two more souls, on my time, when I’m ready I’ll find yah. You know when the cabin calls yah.”
Riley unfurled a shriek from within her lungs, as no words could be found to rebuke Roes devilish diatribe. She hadn’t even quite understood the strange things he had said. Still clutching the wall behind her she spat in his direction before lurching towards the entry way and barreling out onto the porch. As she sprinted through the woods a cacophonous chortling emanated from the cabin, filling the woods behind her, causing the morning birds to flee overhead, filling the sky like wasps escaping a knocked down nest. Riley ran for what seemed to be a lifetime, her feet raw with missteps and constant tumbling. Bursting into the clearing of the pasture beyond her home, she knew she was only a short distance away. Her mind raced with the words Roe had said, none of it made sense, she knew she was racing home to a beating she would never forget, but still found some solace in knowing she would be away from that cabin, from Roe. Better the monster you know, then the one you don’t, she thought to herself in reassured panic. Her small ramshackle house came into view on the horizon, fighting the pressure of her lungs pleading for her body to falter to a brisk walk, she continued running, half limping on beaten legs. Her father was surely nestled up against a wall in the hallway, his body fighting to dilute the poison running through his veins. She toyed with the idea of creeping into her closet, maybe he would assume that he had been too drunk to find her, instead of realizing she had run away. Approaching the door, a strange noise came from within, causing her ears to perk up. Like someone mopping the floors, followed by a muffled slap. She pressed her ear to the door as her hand rested gently on the door knob. The sound came from the back of the house near the bedrooms and continued in a disjunct pattern. Riley lifted her hand from the door knob, listening intently for the sound within. Again, she heard the dragging coming from within, she took a step back and stooped low on the porch. Gingerly she began to walk along the shacks perimeter careful to keep the top of her head below the window frames as she made her way towards the back of her home. Just then a loud crash came from within, the thud of furniture turned over and glass shattering on the floor echoed throughout the home as she froze, her back pressed firmly into the shacks outer wall. Riley kept her eyes sealed for a moment, breathing deeply through her nose just as she had done the night before. Continuing to slip along the perimeter of her home she made her way to the back window of her father’s room. Her father never entered this room anymore since her mother had passed, mostly settling himself in the hallway or living room, curled up like a dead fetus against one of the corners. From here she might be able to see if he was in the hall. She found the courage to turn her body towards the window, gently resting the tips of her fingers on the ledge she slowly lifted her head just enough for her eyes to peer over the window latch. She scanned the room…it was empty…the hall was cluttered with broken glass; a candle lay broken in half amongst remnants of the old wooden table resting in pieces on the doorway. Her father must have been in a fit of rage…but the sound, that awful dragging sound, where was he? From her peripheral she caught movement by the bed. A hand slapped the floor on the other side of the bed, its owner hidden between the bed frame and the closet. Riley, suspended in dread, couldn’t bear to move for fear of giving way her presence. The hand reached out again and thudded hard against the wooden floorboards, followed by a frightful groan as the fingernails anchored themselves into the wood, dragging out the shadowy figure of her father. Riley remained frozen with fear as her father’s body came into full view from behind the bed frame. His arms scraped at the floor as he heaved himself out from the shadows, his head facing down towards the floor itself. As her father’s full body came into view, dragging himself like the wet entangled strings of an old mop across the floor, her heart stopped beating within her chest. Riley let out a shriek of terror and confusion as the legless body of her father continued dragging itself into the hallway over the broken bits of wood and glass. Finally freeing herself from the paralysis of fear she peeled herself off the window sill and slumped onto the floor of the porch struggling to constrain her labored breathing. Looking up she caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure across the pasture. Roe’s long jacket swayed in the breeze, the buttons glistening as bits of light found them amongst the shadows. The outline of his shoulders remained unmoving amongst the tree-line, until his arm began to raise from the shadows of his cloak, two of his fingers unfurled themselves from his clasped hand as a wry smile etched across his emotionless face.
“You owe me two more…two more souls, on my time, when I’m ready I’ll find yah. You know when the cabin calls yah.” Roes voice repeated in her head followed by the snickering of his laugh.
Roe turned and disappeared into the trees. For hours Riley remained slumped on the porch, her eyes looking towards the direction in which he had vanished. All the while listening to the groans, whimpers and creaking of wood as her father dragged himself throughout his ramshackle cage.
“You owe me two more…two more souls, on my time, when I’m ready I’ll find yah.”
About the author
An aspiring author following through on a long overlooked ambition. Re-discovering myself due to a life altering injury and kindling a passion for words and story. I hope you enjoy. Read, enjoy, comment...stay awhile.
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