The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. The skies cried out as thunder ravaged the heavens and the rain was turning the earthy ground into a mushy soup of soil.
Inside the cabin however, the downpour had a rather romantic, intimate demeanour to it. Clarice had her hair wrapped in a now soaked towel as she sat on the windowsill of one of the cabins second floor windows. The old candle she'd found in one of the cabinets that now burned at her feet, let off a faint aroma of dust; no doubt caused by the years of abandon marinating into the wax. These years had cast a similar effect upon everything in the cabin. Clarice didn't mind though, in fact she rather liked it. There was a history here, a story, she could feel it in the thickness of the air, on the faded and moth-eaten curtains and on the picture-frames so densely entombed in dust that looking at them was like looking through baking paper. It was imperfect and the imperfections was what she liked about it. She absently raised a finger to tap at the window and the cascade of rain pattering down it. It was almost like her.
She was violently jerked from her train of thought by a familiar ungraceful stamping on the stairs. Her hand shot away as her boyfriend, Jackson, brought his broad-shouldered frame onto the landing. He still had his bodywarmer and beanie on from outside and his boots, which left filthy prints everywhere he went. Clarice felt a tinge of irritation but tried to bury it and not cause ‘a scene’ again. He looked around the generous sized landing obliviously. He jiggled a thermos in his hand as he approached her, but he still hadn't looked away from the landing. "Big place huh?" he muttered, "All that open space downstairs and what, three bedrooms up here?"
"Four." Clarice said matter-of-factly, prying the thermos from his hands as he finally looked at her. He looked confused, not an uncommon face for him to make and she found herself smiling with a degree of sympathetic affection one would direct at a pet as she pointed to the ceiling, where a hatch promised mystery.
"Oh, an attic, no way!" Jackson whooped, without hesitation trying to paw like a kitten at the cord that you'd use to pull the hatch open. Clarice giggled angelically, as she unscrewed the thermos and had a swig of the hot coffee, "What in the hell are you doing?" she lightly chided him. Jackson didn't let up his vain attempts to open the attic, "C’mon babe, creepy abandoned house and then we find an ATTIC? We gotta check it-" He finally grasped the rope and as he stomped back down to the landing he tore the cord from the hatch, the promise of mystery swiftly snuffed out.
Jackson stared dumbfounded at the chord in his hands.
"Bad luck, J." Clarice reassured him as she raised the thermos to her lips. The towel slowly unravelled and fell behind her, releasing cascades of her dirty blonde hair that framed her soft, pale face and washed down her back in a waterfall-like manner. Jackson forgot about the chord for a moment, entranced by such a masterpiece, bound in a maroon turtleneck, black jeans and blue and white fluffy socks. His mouth stretched into an almost unnaturally wide smile, and he sauntered to her side, taking the steaming thermos from her hand and putting it to his lips, gazing intently into her eyes.
Clarice cocked her head to one side and rubbed her forehead, "Is there something on my face?"
"Not yet." Jackson put a hand on her shoulder. For a few moments they simply stared before Jackson felt a trembling in his hand as Clarise’s shoulder violently shook with laughter. Her cackle erupted volcanically from her lips, and she threw her head back, delirious with laughter. "Oh man, what the hell was that? Was that from some porno or something?" Jackson went red in the face and turned his gaze to avoid eye contact while he attempted to salvage some of his crippled pride.
"Hey, what are the odds of this, huh?"
"We're out camping, get caught in one bitch of a storm, tent gets totalled and then.... like a miracle. We see a cabin, no one home and more secure than a nun's-"
Clarice covered his mouth, "What's your point, J?"
Jackson's lips curled up gleefully as he removed her hand and cradled it gently in both of his own; he massaged the back of her hand with the tips of his fingers.
"I'm saying it's all very convenient isn't it. Everything lining up a little too perfectly?"
"It's not exactly perfect, it’s not like I even wanted to come camping."
Jackson leaned close to Clarice, so close his breath brushed the soft skin of her cheek and sent a cool shiver down her spine. He spoke in a tone so hushed it almost was inaudible.
"I never said perfect for us..."
Clarice shoved Jackson away and rubbed her goosepimple covered neck, "Get off, jackass, I don't need all that creepy shit right now." Jackson's face dropped as if he’d just shattered mother’s favourite china.
"Oh babe, I didn't mean to-"
She rose, with her arms crossed, rubbing her biceps briskly. "I'm just gonna check out the house some more." He rose to join her but she halted him with a firm hand and she disappeared down the staircase. The stairs had no carpet and so the sound of her footsteps reverberated in the cramped enclosed area. The sound unearthed something she tried her hardest to bury, a memory. She heard the thumping footsteps she'd heard last October, on the night her sister died. Clarice shook her head clear and wiped the few teasing drops of perspiration from her brow. The rain was still prattling on the windows, the back door jolting in its frame under the buffeting of the wind. Clarice didn't pay it the slightest notice though. She didn't care. She began to rummage through the kitchen cupboards and cabinets, hoping and praying for a distraction to stave off the incoming tsunami of mental decline. She'd take anything: a rat, some 100-year-old tin of something that she could crack open and retch at. The cupboards were barren given the exception of the odd saucepan or plate. In the absence of anything of interest; she cast her gaze beyond the kitchen counter where the dining room was laid tidily. The adjacent dining room contained an oak set: 6 chairs, seated at a table that was crafted of a thick hunk of wood. A dark walnut stain slithered elegantly down the length of the table and yet this beautiful craftsmanship was undermined by blackened marks in front of the head chair nearest her. Clarice walked into the dining room and rubbed at the marks with her fingers, they were stuck there alright. Off to her right she caught something in the corner of her eye and she saw resting in front of the chair at the opposite end of the table an old polaroid camera.
She walked around the table, glancing her fingertips over the stains, feeling the coarse surface of the wood. She slumped down into the opposite chair with a sigh. It was strange. The camera was obviously an odd thing to have been left in a dining room but there was something else. Everything in this cabin was dusty and neglected. But the camera, that was as clean as the day it was unboxed. Clarice mulled this over and followed the yarn some more. If everything else here is dusty because it was abandoned, then a lack of dust would mean a lack of abandon. It could only have been left recently. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands, feeling the texture of the brand name attached to it, the smooth curves.
"So... who do you belong to?" She asked in a throwaway manner, raising the camera to her eye. The world through the lens was dark. The lights were off, and the table illuminated by a few dwindling candles. The lights cast weak amber glows onto a man sitting in the chair opposite Clarice. Her heart sunk. She could see in the small amount of light blood soaking through his shirt. The man's head hung limply over the back of the chair revealing a wide gash across his windpipe, which dribbled a necklace of crimson from it. The table was shining from the spray of the blood that covered it. In her ear she could hear a deep inhaling and exhaling, and the parting of dried, chapped lips.
"Smiiiiiiiile." said the voice.
Clarice threw down the camera screaming, and she was back in the dining room, no voice and no corpse. Yet she looked to the table and knew what those dark stains were now. She heard the stampeding footsteps of Jackson as he barrelled down the stairs to investigate her cries. He poked his head into the room in a meerkat like fashion.
"Babe? What's wrong?"
Her breath was caught in her throat and another scream was clawing its way viciously to her lips. She tried her best to compose herself and hoarsely managed to stutter, "N-nothing, I thought I saw something." He wouldn't believe her; he'd think she was crazy. Hell, SHE thought she was crazy. Must've just been a hallucination or something. Probably brought on by that...that idiot making me think about.
And now Clarice was in the hospital waiting room on that day two months ago. When she could hear the EKG beeping like the countdown on a bomb that just wouldn't go off. She could feel her airways filling with the aggressive aroma of hand sanitizer, cold tendrils snaking through her already numbingly cold body. Then there was those footsteps. Thumping, marching towards her. The unstoppable march of fate approaching in size 9 trainers. His fingers drummed on the back of his clipboard. She knew in that moment it would be bad news. He was doing it because he was nervous to talk to her. He squatted to her level, but she never met his eyes. His voice was sombre, warm even. Still warm after the countless talks like this he must have given. He sounded old, but maybe that was just the toll of the work. "As you know, Ms Dawson was-"
"Right, Tammy was in a pretty bad way when she got here. Did the nurses talk with you about-"
"Odds weren't good."
"You want me to say goodbye now, don't you?"
"I-I think that would be best."
"Babe? Hey, baaabe" That wasn't the doctor. She was back in the cabin and goddamn Jackson was snapping his fingers in her face. Clarice grabbed his hand with her own and clamped it closed. "What?"
"You were all zoning out and being weird. Are- are you on something?"
"What? No, of course not"
"Not that I'd judge you or anything! I know things have been rough since Tammy had the accident, but we came out here to get you feeling more like yourself, you know?"
Clarice had no control of her body in that moment, in a fit of primal instinct she stood up and slapped Jackson hard in the face and left a bright red print on his cheek. "You don't speak about her. Ever. And no, I'm not on drugs, I lost my goddamn sister you freak, I don’t have to get over when you decide you’re done dealing with it."
Jackson's jaw hung stupidly as he chewed a combination of words trying to form a sentence but finding nothing that seemed appropriate. A twinge of guilt rested in Clarice's chest. Did she even need to be sorry? What had she even done? Still, he was frozen like a deer in headlights. A damn stupid deer in headlights. "Sorry," she tried, "It's something about this place." As close to the truth as was likely believable. Jackson shrugged it off like he hadn't just been paralysed on the spot, "It's all good. Place does give off some weird vibes."
"No, I mean. I think something happened here." Her voice was barely above a whisper, as if she felt the cabin itself was listening. Jackson swiped the camera and before he could be stopped, held it to his eye.
"Like what? You think they maybe used this for some sleezy porno thing?" He laughed obnoxiously and framed Clarice.
"You- you can't see anything in there?"
"Well of course I can," SNAP, the blinding light of the flash and the subsequent humming as the camera spat out the picture, "I see you, seriously in need of cheering up." He shook the picture and turned it to her, "I mean, look at that grumpy face." In the sepia-soaked polaroid was Clarice, pale and distressed, and behind her...
He was hunched to be at her level, a gaunt early 40’s-man, skin pulled tight and tinted yellow from what could only be a diet of strictly nicotine. His pointy chin was lined with stubble and sickeningly long fingers curled around Clarise's shoulder, gripping onto the flesh of her arm. His smile was like an axe wound in his face, a pitch-black pit where only bad things reside.
"What the fuck?" but when she turned to look, nobody was behind her. She'd hadn't felt anyone touch her arm, but now it was on her mind, did her arm feel warmer? She looked back to the polaroid, and she was the only subject in the picture.
"Jackson, something’s-" As she looked to her partner all her prior rage melted away like candle wax. Jackson wasn't there. His body was but there was nobody present behind those eyes. His pupils had rolled up into his head and where they had been, were canals of blood vessels taking over the whites of his eyes. His jaw was slack and thick streams of drool poured over his lips. From somewhere always just of sight, a voice called to Clarice.
"I think he's better like this, don't you? I for one was tiring of his assault on my ears with his banal yammering."
"Please don't hurt him." She was cradling his face now, gently slapping him in hopes of rousing him from the catatonia.
"You're afraid of losing anyone else."
A choked gurgle left her throat as the words she would try to form were flooded with the tears that were pouring from her eyes. The voice was closer, so close. The hairs on the back of her neck suddenly all stood on end and terrified, she realised she could feel the voice's spittle on her skin. She spun on her heel and this time he didn't disappear. He stood with a sick beaming grin showing mustard-coloured teeth heavily clad in tartare and pieces of food. He spread his arms wide and breathed the musky air in deeply. "This place, I can’t wait for you to discover how glorious this place is.”
She backed away and fell against Jackson but he was glued to the spot. "What did you do to him?"
"Improved him. He's more beautiful now." The stranger's voice went lower as he said this, there was venom in his voice. His smile tried to hide it, but his eyes gave everything away. Hunger and hatred were what burned inside him. He circled Clarise and slung his arm carelessly around Jackson and put on a strange southern drawl, "Say there buddy, how about me and yous go throw the ol pigskin and let wee miss ova here get acquainted with the place?"
"You're not taking him anywhere." Clarise choked, she tried to feint bravery. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful, and the stranger laughed a low, sinister laugh. "I have work to do now. So, get. acquainted. Or," His face slackened into a comical frown, "I'll peel all his skin off. Au revoir! Oh and I do hope you enjoyed my last piece" He nodded towards the table, in particular towards the stain.
"You..." She blinked and they were gone. Jackson with god knows what that thing was. Oh god, it's happened again. She thought. Another person, gone. Another person, dead. No, not dead. Not yet. Nobody else. Panic was setting in. The sound of an EKG pounded in her ears "Clarise..." Clarise heard a voice cut through the racket like a stone slicing through water’s surface.
"I was alone. You left me alone."
"No, Tammy, I wouldn't"
"I thought you were my family Clarise."
"I- I am."
"No, not anymore, I'm not here anymore."
"No...no you're not"
The words rung true round and round in her mind, anchoring her to some semblance of reality. She's not here, she's not here, she's not here. The floor started to feel more tangible and that musky quality to the air slithered up her nose once again. Hunched over and sucking in great lungsful of air; tears streamed down her face. Her throat had tightened too much to do anything but wheeze and rasp. Composure was impossible but getting close enough to function would have to do. She took the old polaroid in her trembling hands and weakly walked from the dining room and out into the kitchen. She looked down the lens once again.
Nothing. Was she being crazy? No, no she can't have been, the table was real. He mentioned it, he knew!
Damn, there's no time, I have to find Jackson before…don’t even think about it.
The kitchen seemed empty, nothing had happened here but a neglect of hygiene and a congregation of flies finding the holy land of rot and mould. Clarise's unsteady legs carried her to the stairs she'd so thoughtlessly stomped down just 10 minutes earlier. Now it seemed 100 miles long, an unpredictable no man’s land that could very well be a entrance to hell. A sickening sense of vertigo seemed to occur as she tentatively mounted the first step. The step groaned and screeched a long painful whine and like a babe to its mother, Clarise clung to the banister until her knuckles went ghostly white. The stairs were a near unsurmountable challenge; with each one she expected something to burst through the wood and drag her into the abyss. But she was fortunate and when she reached the landing her knees finally buckled, and she dropped to all fours panting like a dog trying to slow her pounding heart.
Dead ahead was the first door.
It was painted white, but the faded wood was showing beneath chipped paint. The door handle once painted gold was now worn away to copper. This cabin and everything in it, was in a state of decay. She walked over the creaking floorboards towards the door; the camera in one hand and the other reaching for the handle. As her clammy hand closed around it the door handle started to shake in its frame due to the trembling of her hand. The door handle turned, and the door opened just a crack before Clarise stopped, overwhelmed by the anxious knot in her stomach and the chary instinct in the back of her mind. The room had an odoriferous quality that was like spoilt milk and a noxious smoky metallic smell. In that moment she was thankful for her lack of appetite, so she had nothing to bring up. When her sense of smell eventually adjusted (or was so damaged by the nauseous stench that she couldn't smell the room) the door opened fully and she found, "a... kid’s bedroom?" or what was left of one. The decay touched everything, even the pure sanctity of childhood. Faded, flower covered wallpaper wilted from the walls, curling inwards like a hand closing into a fist to trap or to crush. In the right-hand corner of the room was a single bed with a pink stained duvet. It had unicorns on it and sitting by the pillows was an assortment of stuffed animals hanging together by a thread. But one, a small monkey, had fresh blood dripping from its fur. A rocking chair beside the bed fluttered back and forth. The table came back to her mind. How she'd raised the camera and seen-
The camera had a fine coating of sweat from her hands, it almost slipped from her grasp a few times as she raised it to her face. Through this lens might be another
Hell. Murder. Crime. Piece.
The world shrunk into the cage of the petite glass window and through it she saw into hell. The chair rocked a large man with a generous beer belly, a scratchy beard that spread too far down his neck and an oily sheen all over his pasty skin. In his hands he cradled a shotgun like he'd cradle a new-born. He was whispering something as he rocked, "I'm so sorry, Bailey. Daddy's so sorry, he was stupid, he was so damn stupid." With a swiftness that shocked her, Clarise watched as he flipped the shotgun in his hands and pursed his lips around the barrel and before her scream for him to stop could ring free, the trigger was pulled, and he blew apart like a firework. Something changed as the trigger pulled, and as he flew apart, the pieces of what was once a man slowed, slowed and stopped. Frozen. The air in front of him shimmered like she was looking at him through a layer of water. She saw all the inner workings of his head, every spicule of blood and brain matter. One of his optic nerves was still attached to a hazel brown eye. It was almost entrancing, how it hung there like a jumper on the end of a bungee cord. Without a sound the eye snapped to her, and the camera dropped from her grasp and clattered to the floor. He was gone, the memory remained. A kind of paralysis was coursing through Clarise's bloodstream. She didn't scream, she didn't blink, her hands were still upright like the camera was still there. She wasn't even breathing, a solitary tear swept down her cheek and the coolness of it shocked her into inhaling as it brushed past her nose. Without taking her eye from where he'd been she collected the camera into her grasp and backed out of the room. The door swung shut of its own accord. Stiffly her neck turned to look down the corridor and saw two remaining doors. Two more? The man who had Jackson, what had he done? There was a coldness to her movements now, a numbness to her fear. She opened the second door to the sultry notes of a church organ and without deliberation, peered through the lens once again. Another bedroom. A bible lay spread open. Leviticus 18:22, circled in red and beside it, a sheet of paper with a speech, an evil, bitter thing. On the wall...was its writer. His clerical collar gave away who he was, and the verse what he'd done. And when she looked upon him, with his arms nailed akimbo and his legs nailed straight into the wall, she knew why he was here. Penance. That watery sheen returned in front of the disciple, he was frozen but still alive, a scream was still leaving his lips and begging to be heard. His tongue was also gone however, and so even if the sheen hadn’t muter him, he would be silent. Clarise should have been horrified, but the only thing that crossed her mind was, "one more door"
Beyond the final door was the windowsill she'd sat on, the candle still cast a beacon into the stormy night. She couldn't fathom why, but she found herself raising the camera to her eye again and she saw herself perched by the window, the candle heat licking delicately at her legs, her gaze contently fixed on the weather. Although outside was a presence that hadn't been there, or one she'd been unaware of. A woman. Her skin was greying, and shards of glass were lodged in her cheeks she banged bloodied fists against the window, screaming Clarise's name but like the preacher, she could no longer be heard.
"Tammy." Clarise whispered. The final door opened of its own accord and within was Jackson, bloodied and tied to a chair. His mouth was gagged but his muffled cries just about reached Clarise. She had to tear herself away from the camera before she frustratedly turned her attention to him. The distaste quickly dropped from her face when she saw him though and she hurried into the final room. It swung shut behind her and a lock clicked into place. Behind the door had been the stranger, his grin still carved into that dry husk of a face. "Did you like the gallery?"
"In another life, I wanted my photos to mean something. Confined to the mortal coil they would forever find their wings clipped. Here, here they can fly. Did you notice anything about my work?"
"They were being punished."
His grin grew wider, "Justice."
"My work is retribution. I wish to do the same for you. That's why I brought you here Clarise," he walked to her reaching behind his back and as his hand returned, she saw a long silver blade in his grasp, "You deserve justice."
He pressed the knife into her hand and gently rested his hands on her shoulders, firmly turning her towards Jackson. "He hasn't done anything." Clarise protested quietly.
"Oh, he has," The stranger whispered, "Poor Tammy, it broke your heart didn't it? You sat there alone in that waiting room. You watched the life leave her eyes, and you had to stand alone. And what did he do in this time?"
"He can't know how it feels, he just wants you to forget her, to be good ol Clarise again. Does he want that for your sake?"
She looked to her boyfriend, bloodied, and whimpering weakly at her. She knew behind the gag he was begging. She looked to the knife and saw her warped reflection in the clean metal. "For his."
"He has to know Clarise. He must feel how you feel. Do you see what I offer you?"
Clarise simply nodded. She kneeled in front of Jackson and tears now ran freely down his face soaking through his t-shirt. He shook his head frantically at her but behind her eyes was a cold certainty. A clarity. She pressed the knife to his chest and hovered it around until she felt the galloping of his heartbeat reverberate through the blade. She looked into his eyes.
"You'll be my finest piece yet." The stranger gleefully purred. The blade pushed through each layer of Jackson's skin, blood pooling through his shirt as his muffled screams carried agony into the air. When all that remained outside of him was the hilt, she saw the light finally start to fade from his eyes and the final scream faded to nothing. With the last of his life, his eyes found hers. Suddenly a coldness swept through the floor and began to rise through her body. Her limbs getting stiffer, her face stilling, the breath freezing in her lungs. In front of her very eyes, she saw that familiar shimmer. The stranger crouched in front of her, "You truly are beautiful Clarice. A masterpiece if ever there was one." In his eyes was genuine admiration, almost worship. "I don't know how I'll find a subject more perfect than you but," He pointed to the attic door, "An artist’s work is never done."
Outside the storm continued, the rain hammering the ground and thunder tearing through the sky. In an upstairs window of a lonely cabin, a candle stood flickering in the upstairs window. It dwindled and then gently went out.