A short horror story by Martin S. Wathen
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. Or so, he believed it to be abandoned. And, once more, it near beckoned him like a moth to its very flame. Through the blinders of his strawberry hair which tickled his eye’s lashes, he squinted through that bedroom window but could not believe it to be true. For as far as he could recall, the cabin had seemed vacant. He’d lock eyes upon it each night, its bark panels peeking through the density of trees. A fair landmark to track winter or spring, comparing the visibility through density of leaves. His eyes were near drawn to it each dusk. It was almost ritual. Comparing the blandest of details from that night to the last. The moisture of the planks, the fade on the windows, the moss crawling up the lower lengths and creeping along external doors. Very little details would change from the last. In winter there would be snow, sometimes icicles. In summer it would be smothered in leaves. But this night? This night, straying too early to be winter, but too late to be summer, there was a candle.
Harry could not believe his eyes. He even rubbed them, like an animated character huffing on their glasses and frantically polishing, only to realise even more detail about the flame. It flickered against that musky glass. Almost massaging a stain and boiling the dust which clung tight against the glass and frame. Before he knew it, the boy was pressing his nose against that very glass. Escaping his own bedroom window, the same way he always would. Lifting it beyond the safety latch, and fashioning his duvet set to break the second-floor fall. Sometimes he’d land funny. Twisting his ankle or taking the brunt of the fall against his knee. Not this time, however. In fact, he couldn’t recall tying the sheets together. Just as so, he couldn’t recall taking the leap or the swift alteration from household warm to bitter late night cold. Nor could he recall the shift from inward household bickering and beatings to whistling rustles and empty gusts. No, it was as though he slipped back into conscience when his nose pressed against that mustard glass. Peering, squinting for any detail. Clocking the twirling of a shadow inside complimented by the pirouetting of flame. It seemed as though there should be more. Several other figures surrounding the primary culprit, yet the others did not move. In fact, they were motionless silhouettes, unlike the other. The other only moved its hand, pressed cautiously against the face of another, and plucking three fingers firmly but gently. Harry’s eyes widened, and curiosity pricked. He’d hopped from this window several times over in hours as late as this, anything to escape father’s fist, but this felt separate to the other cases. This was personal. Each night, locking eyes upon that cabin and, more so, passing upon departure of school each afternoon, he felt as though it was a part of him. It felt less so an interest, and more an extra limb. He was sure, even, that mother even decided upon this home purely for the benefit of its clear view to the lodge. Of course, a small village such as his provided slim pickings for housing – but it was a belief firm enough to be tangible. Once more, tangible enough to be true.
Before he knew it again, he was inside. Twisting the doorknob, which clung by three loose screws and thin air, and pushing inward. He hunched his back, and even questioned why he should trespass as he did. It was a broader home than it seemed in the moment he entered. For a lodge so outwardly tight, it seemed he was greeted by a labyrinth of corridors winding with their own numerous selection of doors. Each door was more worse for wear than the last. Some only hanging by one hinge, others by none – merely held trepidatiously about the frame. The mysterious flame was the only source the boy could utilise to navigate. A signal near begging him to push onward. Seductive, if he knew what that even means. Even the flame, now rising a millimetre or two, metamorphosising more so into the shape of an index finger – motioning to creep closer. “Come closer”, the crackling almost cackled. Pushing him toward the very silhouettes he once peeped through too. No longer a voyeur, and near a participant, his own shadow adjoined the rest. Climbing the wall, albeit to a shorter height than its contemporaries.
“Hello?” He called. Met by a faint whimper as he turned the corner. A man, slouched in a chair leaning downward grumbled into a whine which connoted more anxiety than fury. Flanking him, stood tall and proud, their heads tilted downward to glare into his scalp, several mannequins. The shadows and cursing of light did not allow the luxury of their detail, but their skin seemed blotchy. The plastic of which they are often formed was instead wax. Wax of differing shades, as though their master could not heed any caution to their colour. They alternated from the natural colour of skin to more ogre green, and devil red. There were portions firmer than others. Or points which tussled less with any vagueness of detail than the rest. Some hips dipped in more than thrice, but others curved so correctly that Harry was sure they could be blotchy doubles of a human. The figure which whimpered gently twisted his neck to reveal a face as mortified as Harry. Ahead was another of his mannequins. This time, the purple of an oxygen deprived corpse, and headless. Its head, cautiously in grip with a chisel and scabbed fingers, about the lap of the stranger.
“Who is that?” They called, with eyes fixed firmly on Harry. The fiery haired young man tilted his own head, for a moment, in perplexity that the figure could not see him. That was, until the flame allowed the detail of this stranger’s eyes. Eyes which were, as Harry could only compare to be matching that of the windows of his cabin in Winter nights. Frosted, somewhat scratched, and definitely broken. To gaze into them was to gaze into two foggy globes and clench with pressure as to what might float out. The fog inside seemed as though it even moved, although Harry could not believe this to be correct. Surely not, he thought as he could swear the ocular clouds tilted and swung in motion with the draughty winds.
“Who is that?” He repeated, his bottom lip quivering this time and hands clenching about his scalpel. He wore a beard as frosted as his eyes, and skin so wrinkled it tangled and overlapped over itself until it more resembled a worn flannel than the tight youth it once must have. He was balding, slightly. Just about the tip of his scalp, with a retreating hairline which thinned the grey atop. His nails were either absurdly long, or excessively short, depending on finger and veins popped from hands like they were desperate worms inside skin. To Harry, a boy too ashamed to admit the cruelty of this fact in his heart, the living creature was more frightful than his dolls. Of course, he’d never admit this truth aloud. If his father taught him anything, it was certainly manners. And the teachings a fist can instil a sharp dedication to the rules pressed against them. Open or closed, the message is usually clear, so Harry deliberately over his next words with caution – and did best to mask the fear wrapped in its tone.
“I didn’t realise anybody lived here” He exuded beyond tightly bound lips, his rear edging toward the exit with each syllable.
“Well, I do”. The man replied, loosening the grasp of his tool upon catching the fluctuating tone of a pubescent boy – rather than the gruff groan of a violent stranger. “Bugger off”.
Harry curled his field of view toward the head cradled in the hands of the frosty eyed fool. It near vibrated in his loose tremble and, even with the limited light, the young man could catch the vaguest glimpses of its deformities. Like its removed body, the piece alternated in complexion by the millimetre. Once more, the points where its cheek bones should into blushing curves pointed slightly too jagged to be real. The jawline was so sharp it near slit Harry’s eyes. The skin, in all it’s colours, was leathery and glimmered twisted flame’s shine. There were balls where the eyes should be, even feigned honestly to resemble the real thing – yet this did not match the intricate details of a true eye. There vacant, empty balls lacking pupils, rings or colour. The flame allowed the details of the rest. The several members looming above wore faces similar to the first. Each vaguely differing to the last. As though their master had struggled to detail the specifics of specific faces. One had a mole, another had dimples fashioned through pricking indentations aside the mouth. One had a long ash wig, another a short mop purple. They were freakshows more than people. Though, oddly enough, Harry felt their details were intended to be more human than they truly were. The details were sharp enough to realise the handiwork had been handfuls of hours for each. Even if they were off kilter, the intentions were clear.
“It’s just…” Harry began, paused for a moment and chewed upon his words. Devouring each avenue of conversation until he happened upon one, he liked. “It’s just… the candle in the window?”
“Candle?” The man mumbled, perplexed.
“Candle”. Harry reiterated. The candle in the window.
“Strange”. The blind man returned. “Very strange”. He did not elaborate, but Harry gathered a sense that the candle’s existence confused him somewhat. That it was an anomaly, and that he was not the soul to have set it aside that window. But who else could? Sure enough, a blind man has no need to leverage light. There were mountains of dust lining segments of rotting floorboards which even doubted the existence of the man he saw. And, who else would stroll into the home of this blind stranger only to light a candle in the window then leave. And, once more, why that window? Of all windows, to which there were many musty ones in that cabin, why this one in particular? The one which overlooks the boy’s room. A flame, to which he would himself admit, summoned him and near cried for his arrival. It was far too perfect to be true. Too elaborate to be false. The boy’s brows burrowed down near his eyes and he tightened his sight with squinting lids – he was, to remark the least, perplexed.
“Why would a blind man need candles to see?” The stranger barked. It was true, and Harry eased to realise some confirmation as to the sculptor’s greying eyes. He eased his shoulders a little, some confidence gained, then barked back with a retort of his own.
“And why is a blind man sculpting these shapes of people?”
The blind man scoffed, as though the answer was simple. Of course, the young boy could not have known. Why would he? Casting one finger right, a shadow swelling above the flame, the blind man beckoned. “Somewhere over there, you’ll see, if she kept it there when she passed, a photograph of my mother”.
Harry scanned upward, peering through the dancing shadow, he caught glimpse of a picture. Almost too dusty to see what was beneath, the piece portrayed a woman cradling a child – of which Harry presumed the blind man. She was grinning, intensely, but joyously. Carefully balancing the head, ensuring the tot’s safety. At her rear was the cabin. Back then, a little less worse for wear than it was here today. There were shadows inside, Harry presumed them to be other members which eventually became dolls of their own. The tallest of the creatures, of which loomed centre ahead of the senile sculptor, was something which somewhat resembled the woman. Yes, her eyes were scratched and angled wrongfully, but it was her.
“They’re gone. Each and every one of them” The sculptor continued, pressing a knife against the head in his hand then scratching away. “Murdered. All in their sleep, whilst I was asleep. I woke up on that morning, and although I couldn’t see I could sense something was amiss. It was something uncanny, so I called for my mother. Climbed from bed and wondered the cabin. After a while I found this little scratching knife – then I found her. My eldest sister. The headfirst, then the limbs. I found my brother next, his right arm and then face. Then uncle Geoffrey. I felt his face, he was truly afraid when he passed. And as I found more members, I heard the faintest of whispers repeating one word: ‘lived’. ‘Lived’. ‘lived’. I carried on until those whispers became screams, finding my aunty and cousins along the way. I was sure I found my sister, although only her hand. ‘Lived’. Then my father, he was more afraid than my uncle… ‘lived’. I thought that perhaps the messages were inspiring hope, but the nearer I reached them, the more I could catch the faintest of scratching – and the phrase ‘lived’ felt more so a name than a remark”.
Henry listened, with a mouth agape as the expressions on the old blind stranger slipped into one of torture. He shook his head in disbelief, but carried on his story:
“Lived. This time, almost a chant. Lived. The scratching had a faint squelch to it which I felt I should follow. It was damp. It was haunting. I felt my legs move before my mind could register, but I carried onward – gently. Nearing the squelching scratch which felt so damp, I recalled that I had yet to find my mother. This until the noises accompanied a soft moan. A subtle, subdued whimper. Lived. So, I called again – ‘Mother?’. Now, whoever you are, as you hear this, I hope you realise why I’m doing what I do. I only want my family back, in one piece. I am remaking them as I remember them. Attached, no fearful expressions, only smiles, if I can manage that. How I remember them, how they truly lived”.
“Did she call back? After you called her?” Henry asked. Fearing the answer he may get. The blind man scoffed again, clenched his fists then dropped his jaw.
“Oh yes. She just replied on word – ‘run’. Gargling it above the cacophony of blood drowning her tongue and crunching of a blade along her neck. I heard her alright. I still here it now”.
Henry was back in his bed before he knew it. Like the moment he reached the cabin, he was back into his bed. Enveloped by the duvet he’d utilised to climb from that window, only now it felt dry. How long had he been back there? He scrambled upward toward the window and peered two eyes beyond the auburn of his fringe and squinted again. There was nothing in that window. No carroty glow emanating from the trees. No tilting of shadow in opposing motion to the flame. Nothing at all. It seemed abandoned again, and it seemed, once again, like it had been abandoned forever.
Henry did as all boys would when encountering a horror as visceral as he did – he ignored it. He did best to block it from his mind’s eye until he could not picture the details any longer. Upon every flashback, he would clench fists so tight that blood might trickle down his wrists and insist that it was only a dream. Of course, it couldn’t have been. The sensation of his un-shoed toes dragging against that rusty wood was real enough. Once more, the ache of a splinter remained for weeks yet he was too afraid to ask his father for help. It was a month-long mission, to begin the process of ignoring those details. Though, eventually, he was admirably successful. After some time, the details faded into blurs, and it became the bad dream it seemed. Of course, until only three months to the day later. Three months to the exact hour, the gentle glide of a flame’s light projected against the cheek of the boy. He felt it in an instant. Warm, although it was too distant to project heat. He curled back up from his bed, peered beyond the window and caught the flame again. In the exact spot it once stood. The wax, almost, trickling at the very same angles it had before. Splitting and even staining bark below, balancing upon the stains of before.
And, like last time, Henry was there before he realised. Pushing on the wooden door frame and creeping inside.
“Hello?” He asked, hoping to reunite with the same nervous whimper that he had before. Yet, he was accompanied by silence. Agonising silence, as he dragged one foot ahead of the other and caught his heel in the matching point he’d acquired a splinter. The only difference in tone was the chill of wind. This time more aggressive, crueller. It near chewed and slobbered at his ankles. Squeezing joints so icy tight that they cracked like glow sticks on every motion.
“Hello?” He called again, a crack in his voice which matched his withering knees. Turning a corner, he reached the chair of which the blind man once rest. Now, empty. His friends or, should one say, family remained. Only, this time, their heads pointing upward. Upward toward the candles. The shadow, as uncanny as it seems, almost tilting their expressions and emotion with each flick of flame. They seemed lonely, despite their company. Almost, in some way, sad.
“Hello?” The boy called a third time. This time his call echoed. Near reverberating about the halls onward and circling back behind him. By the call’s, eventual, end it was accompanied by another word. A word which slipped through Henry’s ears and near collared his spine.
“Lived”. It was pronounced, again, almost like a name.
So, as he should have some time before, he ran. No, he sprinted. Hurdled, galloped, stampeded. Bare feet clapping against sodden wood as he raced from right to left, then left to right. For the life of him, he could not recall the way he got in. It all seemed different now. It seemed recognisable, but wholly alien. Like he had been there before, but it was not the place he had entered. Long cabin hallways which surged in frantic directions with no rhyme nor reason. He dashed one corner to find an etching in the wall. An etching formed from red. Red which was not blood. No, it couldn’t ever be that simple. Red made from wax. Wax scratched into bark wall. Like crayon, etching a word he dreaded to see. Etching a name, he dreaded, honestly, to see:
There was a hatch at the bottom of the red written message. With frantic pattering to his rear appearing suddenly, and enthusiastically, his feet carried him through. Hands clasping onto the iron bars of a ladder. A ladder which slipped into a pit of empty. Even three bars down, Harry was swallowed into darkness. Ten bars deep and he couldn’t see the light of above. Twenty and he was lost forever. All he could do was descend. At thirty deep he did try to alter direction, retreating back upward, only to find no bars above. Each bar he descended slipping into the emptiness of that around him. So, without option, he descended. Forty, fifty, five hundred, five thousand. He slipped so far deep that he lost count. He slipped so far deep that he felt his own bones stretch and features contort into an age far beyond that in which he entered. The itch of whiskers appearing on his chin, eventually slipping into the thick bush of a beard he could not control. He moaned and winced, descending, as he felt his own skin curl and loosen into wrinkles. His own bones shrink as they once had stretched, his lungs wither, his heart wilt. That very beard he felt slip in, matting in on itself until it dirtied and, no doubt, greyed. He felt as though he was ready to waste into ash until he eventually reached salvation. The wonderful, magnificent, slip of his toes around soil. The rise of light as his toes buried beneath and accompanied the worms.
“Hello?” He asked again. This time his voice was unrecognisable. It was frail, husky. There seemed to be eight inches of mucus lining his throat, but he could not cough it away. His hand trembled and, as he peered down to it, he met wrinkles and thin skin. Thin skin blotted by liver spots and exposing veins. The veins were almost alien to him. He could, if he shifted focus hard enough, catch his own blood pulsing through them. He wondered why, if they were containers for his plasma, that they matched the hue of a lilac plant. He cringed upon witnessing it, almost sensing that blood slipping through. As he shifted focus from it, he noticed the room around him did not match that which he might have expected. It was, although not identically matching, almost a church’s hall. Lines of benches on either side leading an aisle in the centre. Toward its edge there was a large, dusted mirror. Dirty, almost rotting. Ahead were the blind man’s wax family. Bowing, praying but remaining motionless. They each face the mirror, faces downward to the red carpet beneath. There was a whisper amongst them – “Lived”. Each voice uttered the name separate to the last. Some laughed it, some cried it, some plainly called it. As Harry edged closer, their voices got louder, near screaming but refusing alteration in their opted tone.
Reaching the mirror, Harry peered in to catch the old man that he had become. The bags beneath his eyes. The unrecognisable features. The nails which were so long they almost curled into themselves. Hair no longer fiery orange, now ash grey. A beard so matted and dirty, he was that combing it might mean the tearing of his skin. He peered, squinted. Afraid, but also intrigued. The voices repeated the phrase all the same, but they seemed to have slipped into his subconscious. Sure, there remained loud all the same, but his ears had grown accustomed to their clammer. In the dust, he pressed one wrinkled finger against the mirror and etched the message into the dust.
Squinted, pondered, processed the phrase. To his rear, footsteps clattered near again. With his peripherals, he caught the blind man. This time floating. Hands surrendered to gravity. As though, he was a corpse floating through the sky. His own husky, cowardly, voice whimpered this time. It was louder than the rest, and more agonising to hear.
“Lived”. He cried. “Lived. Lived. Lived. Lived”.
Harry span back to the direction of the mirror. This time catching the shadow of the blind man approach. His heart raced. He only wanted to close his eyes, but the room would not allow it. The calling of the name uttered, almost massaging his ear. He reeled, almost hissed at it. Lifting that finger and pressing it against glass another time. This time, beneath his initial dusted note. Pressing so hard against the mirror that he scraped skin from his finger’s tip. With each curling of the new phrase’s letter, a droplet of blood trickled beneath. Reforming the name again. Only, now, in reverse. Letter by letter, wetting the mirror along its journey. He sensed, in some manner, that the mirror thirsted for the blood he fed it. Salivating each droplet until he reached the final curl of the capitalised ‘L’. Then, he sighed. Finally, oh so finally, relieved to close his eyes again. He was not transported away, only granted the mercy to endure his fate without witnessing its consequences. Alone, in his mind, he mumbled one word. One word which, he almost uttered as if it were a name:
About the Creator
Martin S. Wathen
A writer practicing in both prose and script. With a deep passion for film and screenwriting, I use this platform to publish all unique ideas and topics which I feel compelled to write about! True crime, sport, cinema history or so on.
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