We drove up the snowy, winding road towards the cozy A-frame cabin. Nothing appeared out of place—not a drop of frozen dew or any moss-ridden squirrels to be seen. One could even say the place was perfect; at least that’s what the reviews would have you think.
In fact, now that I think about it—the woods were a bit too quiet for my liking. If I’d been paying more attention it might have caused the hairs to prickle along the back of my neck but in that moment all I saw were the quaint picturesque woods—white firs and a neat little crisp blonde wrap around porch that faded seamlessly into two towering metal peaks—a modern a-frame cabin with floor to ceiling windows.
You could see clear through to the other side of the cabin, unobstructed views for days. Rows and rows of dotted firs and birch trees huddled along a snow covered field, sprawling all the way up the side of the mountain. There was nothing out here but trees. From the curving bend a brushed stone chimney with large reams of smoke coiled aimlessly into the misty clouds making it hard to tell where the sky began and where it ended. A gold-leaf embossed wreath hung over the door, a black glossy finish that stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the homes natural façade.
“Wow, check this place out…” My husband James gasped—he was just as surprised as I was; everything seemed too good to be true.
“The key should be right over here,” I began, sticking an ungloved hand into the nearest flower pot. The bare, hollow leafless branches were cool to the touch as I felt around the freeze-dried soil plucking a newly minted key from its bottomless confines; a dirtied rabbit foot hung from a rusty beaded chain.
“Must be our lucky day,” I whispered—a sarcastic smile gracing the edges of my lips. In all the excitement the words felt foreign, out of place. The rabbit paw, the dead potted plant—it tickled at the back of my mind, but for some strange reason I ignored the growing sense of dread. There shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
“Put a real smile on that pretty face,” my husband started, his heavy hands giving me a reassuring pat—“we’re on vacation Beth, long overdue…and we have discovered our own piece of heaven. Let’s try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Whaddya say?”
Before I could give a response— the sounds of snapping twigs and a rough grunting of someone clearing their throat could be heard behind us.
“Must be the Carter’s, am I right?”
“But…I didn’t think anyone was supposed to be meeting us here,” I started, moving forward to greet the strange man, dangling the key for him to see. “The email said to get this from the flowering pot and let ourselves in. Are you the owner?”
“Right, that’s right—I forgot. Lenny tells all our tenants that. My name's David but you can call me Dave. I am the groundskeeper, I live over that way towards the top of the mountain…” he stopped to point back over his shoulder. In his grubby hands were handfuls of kindling for the fire. A small dog stood nearby waiting.
“This here is Velcro—he’s sort of the cabin mascot. Sticks to me like glue—had him for years and years. He’s a friendly pup, there’s a treat container by the front door for him if he ever wanders this way alone, but not likely…”
The man’s voice trailed off—“will you need a tour of the home? It’s pretty straight forward—there’s the kitchen, eating area, and living area on this side and towards the back on the other side there’s a bedroom and bathroom. The house comes fully stocked with enough food and amenities to survive a small storm, and should you need to get a hold of me there’s an old dial-phone that I can be reached on, option #3.”
He paused again to scratch his bristly beard—the harsh sounds of his gruff hairs rubbing against his calloused hands swept over the wind. He continued on oblivious to my grimaces—“I can’t think of anything else…maybe except the windows are see-through. If you can see me, I can see you. Keep that in mind as there are no curtains, no walls, and no real privacy. Good thing no one else out here but us three and Velcro. The woods do a good job of keeping most onlookers away; besides, you can see newcomers for miles if you know where to look…”
By this time we’d followed old man Dave into the home and watched him tend the tepid flames, fanning them to life against the stones. The inside of the cabin was what you would expect—simple, inviting and primitive. A series of plush oversized couches framed the fireplace. Baskets of hand-sewn wool throws and thick quilts were heaped together in a wire basket and an old accordion styled fan sat on the hearth along with a series of ornate fire-tending tools.
“You want to keep this fire going no matter what. It gets quite cold in here without walls,” Dave warned—“also remember to keep the key on you at all times; I have a spare just in case, mostly for emergencies.” He whispered, tapping his front flannel pocket.
The pit of my stomach lurched ever so slightly. “You keep a key with you?”
I didn’t think of how the words would sound once I said them.
The man smiled a reassuring smile as he tucked his lips inward—“yes ma’am, it’s a part of my duty as the groundskeeper to have a master set of keys with me. There’s only one other key and it’s in your hand miss. No other copy, promise…”
Somehow the words weren’t very comforting.
My husband’s voice edged into the awkward silence with welcoming relief—“that’s fine Dave, its good knowing there’s someone close by if we need any help.”
“Sure thing, I’ll leave you two alone so you can get comfortable and explore. Just make sure to be back by sundown, it gets blisteringly cold out here and you don’t want to get lost. Trust me; it’s a whole different world at night…”
My husband and I watched the old man slowly fade into the trees from the only real window in the cabin— a small window next to the fireplace, the one solid wall in the whole structure. “Well, he was a character eh?”—my husband said, elbowing me slightly.
“Yeah,” I whispered, still unable to shake the feeling of unease building in my chest.
“Why are you whispering, we are the only ones here,” James asked, bending over to move our stuff into the hall, “let’s get unpacked and see what this place is all about.”
“I really thought the cabin would be different. The photos showed an outdoor stone soaking tub, a fireplace and television. I don’t see that here anywhere…” I paused, looking around—the cabin was much different in person.
“Maybe those pictures were of another cabin, you know some people have more than one rental…” James added—clearly unbothered by everything. “I’m just happy to be here with you. You got to change your perspective, not be so negative eh?”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right, I’m worrying about nothing. This is exactly what we wanted; it’s absolutely perfect. Couldn’t have asked for a better spot to stay…”
“Relaxing, it’s absolutely relaxing is what it is,” James added. He was right. This was everything we could have wished for.
The bedroom and bathroom were just as dreamy, gray toned wood floors, cathedral peaked ceilings of the same hue, a bed that took up the whole space—and not a lick of technology in sight.
“There are no plugs or outlets here,” James muttered, “how are we supposed to charge our phones or watch movies later?”
“I don’t know, maybe we don’t. My phone doesn’t have a signal anyways, might be a sign—we should just embrace it and take these next few days and detox the radio-frequencies from our bodies.”
“Not so fast,” James began, “No one even knows we’re here, they don’t know where we even are. They don’t know whether or not we’ve made it. I was supposed to call Jan and Mike to give them updates… you know how I feel about being this isolated…” James began.
“I know—but what could possibly happen. You even said it yourself, I need to quit worrying so much and just relax—and I plan on doing exactly that.” The words came out well-intentioned but still, who was I trying to kid? I was just as worried.
“Well…you get comfortable; I’m going to go get some more wood for the fire…”
Famous last words, little could I know.
James marched out into the blustering cold. Flurries of dusty snow dropped down from the sky, settling onto the planked porch as he headed off into the opposite direction—down towards the stream. If I’d have known it would be the last time I’d see my husband I probably would have done more, done something different—maybe even gone with him but alas, there I stood, smiling as he blew me a kiss.
“The good wood is down there in the river,” he yelled, his gloved hands waving me goodbye. He wasn’t dressed for more inclement weather. The roar of broken wind could be heard off in the distance, mingling with the choppy ice-ridden waters coursing slowly through the mountainside towards destinations unknown—drowning out his voice as he disappeared between the snowy trees.
For the first time—the thought of being alone gave me chills. I grabbed a few throws and blankets—shaking them out a few times before draping the couch and wrapping myself up in their warmth—wondering whether or not I should run after James and join him on his quest for fire-wood.
The sounds of cracking kindling woke me after what felt like a few hours. Bone chilling cold seeped into the blankets, setting them to ice. I could see my breath slowly trickling out of my lips as the first wave of panic set in. The fireplace was barely smoldering. Drops of something wet dripped down sending sizzling pops of smoke into the air.
“James,” I called out, the resounding silence was deafening. I said his name again. Nothing—no answer, no stirring, no rustling, no snoring— the cabin was deathly quiet.
I sat up, wrapping myself in the thickest blanket I could find before making my way over to the triangular shaped glass that loomed high above me like a restless mountain. Reams of icy fog settled in covering the plains for miles. I watched the rolling clouds turn against the panes and fold into themselves in eerie stillness. James was nowhere to be found, the cabin door was still locked and bolted—our bags sat unpacked by the spiral staircase, the loft above was empty as were the bedroom and bathroom. There wasn’t even a clock in the cabin, no electric stoves or microwaves—just a grated boxed metal furnace. Perfect—I mused; just my luck.
My watch illuminated the darkness—four blue numbers showed it was nearing nine-o’clock. I dug around my pockets—I couldn’t remember giving him the key, but there I stood, keyless and confused. He couldn’t be locked out of the cabin if he had the key.
I rushed up the stairs to see if I could see out over the fog—only the tree tops were visible—the world around me had disappeared into a misty oblivion and it was growing colder by the second. It surprised me that there wasn’t a lick of firewood in the cabin already. For a place that was supposed to be constantly heated you would think there would be piles of wood waiting but no, there were no grates of wood, pine-cones or even store brought fire-starters in sight.
In fact, I had opened every drawer and they all were empty; every single one.
I went around each room—it seemed the only thing at my disposal were blankets. Nothing was in the cabinets in either the kitchen or the bathroom—and here I thought Dave said they would be fully stocked.
The old man must have confused himself—which was sort of how I felt at that very moment. The unease was hard to ignore as I rummaged through my over-packed suitcase. At least I had enough clothes for a few days-times; my husband’s suitcase on the other hand seemed much emptier, things I had packed for him were missing—his poncho, snow-boots and travel case were gone.
Maybe he’s in the car warming up—I pondered every scenario—all failed attempts to normalize the situation. Deep down I knew something was wrong.
A knock at the door startled me from my worried thoughts.
“I wondered what happened to you…”
Just in the shadows of the open door stood a man much taller than my husband, a small dog rushed inside no doubt to escape the blistering cold but it wasn’t much better in here either.
“I told you to keep the fire going…”
It was Dave. Velcro ran over to the couch jumping up and burrowing deep within the blankets.
“I…I fell asleep. My husband James went out for firewood hours ago and never returned. I just woke up, I can’t find him…”
“That’s not surprising. A car light was seen down the road some ways; figured you guys had left when I saw the cabin dark and no smoke coming out of the chimney.”
“What…” I whispered—the earth shattering beneath my very feet as I stepped onto the porch. I felt nothing—no chill, no pain, just anguish. The car was gone.
“My husband had the keys—the car keys, the cabin key. He must’ve taken the car…I don’t understand…”
“I don’t either Miss but we’ve got to get a fire started back up before anyone notices…”
“What do you mean? Before who notices…”
“Don’t want to frighten you but we really need to get a move on,” Dave’s voice was urgent, filled with unspoken fear. He never answered my question. He never even stopped to look in my face. His eyes were drawn and sullen; a flicker of terror welled along the lids—and for a split-second it seemed we both shared the same dreadful gaze.
He shoved a nearby blanket into the cold fireplace and set several sparks atop—“that should do it for now, keep this going I’m going to step out and grab more wood. Whatever you do, don’t let the fire dissipate…” he warned, handing me the fan.
“Fan it every few seconds; throw whatever else you can into the fire if you have to, break down the furniture…the more the better. See if you can get it roaring…but whatever you do, don’t go outside…not for anything until you can see the sun high over the trees,” he paused, picking up a nearby wooden stool and tossing it into the fire, running his hands along what appeared to be dripping drops of liquid on the mantle. The gray-ish matter ran down between the grouted stones like bloodied black lava.
“Keep an eye on this,” he muttered. “Velcro, stay here,” the dog gave a tail-wag as the old man headed out. “Lock the door. Here’s my key, keep it with you. I will knock twice. If Velcro growls do not open the door; also—make sure you keep enough blankets for you guys. I will be back shortly.”
“What do I do if you don’t return?”
Dave said nothing as he gave a simple head-nod, stepping into the darkened night.
How long could it take to get a few measly pieces of wood? A few seconds later there was a short rapping on the side of the cabin—nearest the fireplace. I almost thought it was the wind until I heard it again—a hesitant precise knock—two-times—on the front door.
I stood frozen to the spot. Velcro’s sudden growl stopped me.
“It’s nothing, no one is there, it’s just the wind,” I whispered but it did little to quell Velcro’s snarling grumbles. I wrapped the blankets tighter around my torso, continuing to fan the flames and toss bits of a broken picture frame in as I tried my best to ration the pieces.
The rest would have to wait till morning—I could hold out long enough for the sun to rise before tackling the shelves and cabinets.
The sounds of sizzling caught my attention once more as drops of something cold splashed down onto the roaring sparks.
I heard Dave’s voice in my head—no matter what, keep fanning, keep the fire going. Velcro barked again, this time louder, shriller; the hairs on his body were raised enough to distract me from the ceasing flames as two succinct knocks echoed through the cabin. I knew it wasn’t Dave, something in my heart told me it wasn’t.
The room began to dim, more drops spluttered onto the charred remnants of a blanket, a picture frame and a worn out stool. I rushed over to the kitchen, fire-poker in hand as I attacked the cabinet doors—I had to get the fire back.
There wasn’t time. It wasn’t even midnight yet. I still had at least seven hours until a full sun would be out, eleven if I waited until it was high in the sky. I couldn’t wait that long, whatever was out there would surely get to me if the fire fizzled out.
Banging, rapturous knocks barraged the front door. I chucked pieces of splintered cabinet doors into the fireplace but nothing happened. The fire had fully extinguished. The air from the cabin was gone and the sounds of muffled steps trudging along the floor were all that could be heard as I felt something sharp course through my veins; short, raspy breaths cut along the back of my neck as the cabin went dark and I felt myself dragging along the floor. Cold hands gripping tightly to my arms as I slipped into a deep sleep, lapping waters rushing in around.