The chaos of the city slowly melted away as they made their way west towards two-lane backroads and vacant acreage. They were both quiet and had been for the last two hours, the only sound being the soft murmur of the radio.
The GPS indicated that their destination was less than 15 miles away, and Jordan was determined to start their weekend without the tension that filled the car. Wasn’t that the whole point of this getaway?
“Beautiful, isn’t it?,” he asked, gesturing to the tall trees that lined either side of the road. They were the only car and had been for a few miles now, making him feel like they were the only two people on the planet. A romantic notion, he thought. He hoped she felt the same.
She nodded and shrugged. “Yeah. Feels a little claustrophobic though. Like we’re boxed in.” She crossed her arms as if she felt a chill and continued to stare out the window.
He didn’t say another word, and minutes later, they were turning onto a gravel path, heading deeper into the forest.
“Where did you find this place?” Emily asked, squinting as if to bring the cabin that was supposedly at the end of this long driveway into existence. “It’s not an AirBnB is it?”
He laughed. “No, babe. I did my research. It’s privately owned, sure, but it was voted as one of the top remote getaways a couple of years ago. Hundreds of five-star reviews and recommendations. Trust me, it’s gunna be great.”
“Sounds like a glorified AirBnB to me,” she said.
He wasn’t sure what was wrong with that, but he kept silent. He didn’t want to start the weekend off with a fight. Once she saw the place and had a glass or two of wine, things would loosen up.
The path darkened as the trees seemed to move in even closer, narrowing the path. He took it slow, bumping along for almost a mile when he finally saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Ironic, he thought.
Emily perked up, seeing it too, and as they emerged from the wooded path, the world seemed to open up.
He heard Emily gasp and smiled. This was going to be just what they needed.
It was a rustic but stunning log-style cabin standing at two stories tall, surrounded with color and lush greenery from extensive landscaping. The wrap around porch was studded with rocking chairs and a giant porch swing, and he noticed that there was a top deck on the left side of the house that boasted a hot tub. The large yard was clear of trees, and he could just imagine what the night sky would look like from that tub.
The gravel crunched beneath the tires as he came to a stop and put the car into park. They both just sat there, staring.
“Jordan,” Emily whispered. She glanced at him “It’s beautiful. But are you sure we’re safe all the way out here?” She checked her phone. “I don’t have any service.”
“Perfectly safe. C’mon. Let me show you.”
Jordan brought their bags up to the master bedroom that he realized opened to the second story porch he had seen when they first pulled up. This couldn’t be any more perfect.
He heard Emily’s footsteps as she explored the house. It had two other bedrooms and another bathroom besides their en suite, so it wasn’t so massive that they’d lose each other in the space.
He found her in the kitchen, perusing over the bottles of wine he’d requested be stocked. The fridge and pantry were also full, a little detail he had made sure of so they wouldn’t have to go anywhere at all for the entire weekend.
“Hmmm,” she said, amusement in her voice. She turned around and smiled in a way he hadn’t seen in a while. “Are you planning on getting me drunk?”
“Absolutely,” he said, making her laugh. The sound of it warmed him, and he pulled her in for a kiss. It had been a while since he’d felt her lips against his, but the beauty and remoteness of this place seemed to tear down any hesitations they’d had around each other for the past couple of months.
He didn’t know what had changed. They used to be so easy around each other. Laughing, talking, loving. It used to be effortless. But lately, he found himself second-guessing every move he made and every word he said. She always seemed on edge, and asking her what was wrong only seemed to start an argument.
So he’d planned this weekend hoping to get the woman he loved back, and so far, it seemed to be working.
She leaned back, locking her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she said, and it was like she had read his mind. “I know I haven’t been easy to deal with lately, and I’m sorry. It’s just the stress of work and the city…” She shrugged. “I don’t know, but it all feels so far away right now. Like I can breathe.”
He kissed her again.
“But,” she said against his lips, pulling away. “I am a little worried about how secluded we are. What if some psycho decides to break in?”
“Let me show you,” he said, taking her hand and leading her to the front entry. There was a little table with the typical welcome folders most places had for their guests. He flipped through them, finding what he was looking for and made his way to the little computer screen by the front door. She hadn’t even seen it when they’d walked in and just now realized that she hadn’t seen Jordan use a key.
“So, this place is a lot more advanced than it looks, which is one of the reasons, I think, it comes so highly recommended.” He punched a few buttons on the screen, looking back to the folder he had in his hands. “It has shatterproof windows, extra thick doors, and since I know you’ve recently developed a mild phobia of staying at AirBnB’s, it has this really secure way of locking the house so no one else has access.”
“Mhmmm,” she muttered, intrigued. She had been so charmed by this place that her fear hadn’t had a chance to seep in. What if someone with a key came in the middle of the night? It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, and while Jordan would laugh at her for being nervous about it, she wasn’t the type of person to believe that bad things couldn’t happen to her.
They had happened, and, she supposed, that’s why she was skeptical.
CREATE PASSWORD popped up on the screen. He looked at her and smiled.
“We create our own password to lock up at night. See? You can only create the password from this interior console. After that, once we lock up, we’ll need to use it to unlock the house even if we’re just leaving. It keeps the house completely secure while we’re here.”
“Seems they found a way,” she said, still slightly skeptical. “Okay, I’ll text you a password to put in, just in case anyone can hear what we’re saying.” She made a circular gesture as if there were hidden cameras or microphones all over the place.
“You’re so paranoid,” he said, but there was a laugh in his voice. Whatever made her comfortable, he would do. He wasn’t sure where all this new fear and uncertainty of the world came from, but he was hoping she might open up about it while they were here.
He input the password she texted him and clicked ENTER. They heard the sliding of bolts throughout the house, but other than that, nothing seemed to change.
“Are you sure it’s more secure? Seems like a glorified deadbolt to me,” Emily said.
He groaned internally but tried to keep his tone light. “Totally more secure. Look.” He picked up an umbrella that was by the coat rack resting near the front door. He swung it at a window as Emily covered her mouth in shock, letting out a yelp. The umbrella bounced off the window, leaving no evidence it had ever tried to break through.
“See? It’s shatterproof. Like I said.”
“A little extreme in your methods, but I believe you.” She kissed him on the cheek. “By the way, what would you have done if the window had broken?” She smirked.
He looked at the umbrella and then the window as if the thought had never crossed his mind. He shrugged. “I just want to give you peace of mind, babe. This trip is supposed to be relaxing, and now, you can relax.”
She wrapped her arms around him. He really was too good for her, she thought. Planning this trip, thinking of every little detail to help her just unwind, all while she had been a complete nightmare towards him recently. She didn’t want to be that way, and it was something that ate at her conscience, but she felt as if she were losing control of herself. She was so lost in her own emotions that they kept bubbling over, and she found herself taking it out on Jordan constantly. She had to tell him, but as time kept passing, her ability to know where to start became weaker and weaker.
He kissed her head and squeezed. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said, pulling back with a smile.
He had missed this.
“Okay!,” he said. “Let’s get this party started!”
The soft morning light was streaming through the window of the master bedroom when she woke. Her mouth felt dry and her head was a little foggy, but overall she felt better than she thought she would. Jordan hadn’t allowed her wine glass to become empty, and even though she felt a little dehydrated this morning, she was glad. She hadn’t felt this relaxed in months.
She grabbed her robe and headed down the stairs, following the scent of bacon. She heard whistling and smiled. She wasn’t the only one in a good mood.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hey there, sleepyhead. There’s some water and an aspirin if you need it.” He winked as he poured pancake batter into a pan.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to take advantage of me last night.” She smirked and took the aspirin with a huge gulp of water.
“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” he said, making her laugh. Last night had been the first time they’d made love in weeks.
He put the syrup on the table along with a plate piled high with pancakes and bacon. She raised her eyebrows at the huge meal, but decided that her man had made her breakfast, and she wasn’t going to turn it down.
They ate slowly, drinking coffee and talking like they hadn’t done in a while. This was exactly what they needed, Jordan thought. His Emily was coming back.
Evening rolled in with it’s deepening shadows and bright oranges and pinks, putting everything in a romantic light. Emily sat on the porch swing, a glass of wine in hand, watching the sun drop beneath the line of trees. She took a deep breath, enjoying the peace.
She had been apprehensive about coming here. She wasn’t used to this kind of quiet anymore after living in the city for so long, and now that she was here, she found that she missed it intensely. She wondered if Jordan could live somewhere like this. Maybe… Maybe they needed a more permanent getaway.
She was so caught up in the fantasy of what that future could look like, that she almost didn’t notice the rustling in the trees just beyond the edge of the yard. There was still the dim twilight of sunset, but it was eerily dark in the thick of the woods. She squinted, trying to see into the tree line as the rustling grew louder, tensing, getting ready to jump up off the swing and run inside.
A deer leapt from the shadows, and she nearly screamed. She closed her eyes, letting go of the breath she was holding on to. Okay, so maybe she’d forgotten the tidbit about wild animals running rampant out in the country.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the deer was still in the yard. It was statuesque, staring at her, and all she could do was stare back. Could deer get rabies?
It finally moved, stumbling lethargically before it collapsed. Emily remained where she was, trying to process what had just happened. When her mind caught up with her senses, she raced to the front door, ripping it open and yelling for Jordan.
Walking quickly down the porch steps and into the yard, she briefly wondered what the hell she was doing. This deer could have some kind of disease, and here she was, getting a closer look. It was small and quite beautiful, and as still as it lay, it seemed to be sleeping. Or it was dead, she thought.
As she got near, the metallic scent of copper reached her nose. She heard the front door slam followed by Jordan’s heavy footfalls as he ran towards her.
“I don’t know,” she said, gesturing toward the deer. “It came out of nowhere and then just fell over.”
“Is it dead?”
She shrugged. Its back was to them, and it didn’t seem to be breathing, but they approached cautiously.
It had been difficult to see in the dimming light, but now that they were standing only a couple of feet away, they noticed a pool of dark liquid staining the grass beneath the deer’s body. Jordan walked around it and sucked in a breath.
The deer’s belly had several wounds, each slowly oozing blood as the pumping of it had stopped.
Emily came to Jordan’s side and gripped his hand. “Do you think it was attacked? By a mountain lion or something?”
Jordan squatted down, tilting his head as he studied the wounds. He reached out, but stopped just inches from the deer’s neck when Emily gasped. It had some kind of burn around it’s throat, it’s hair pulled out haphazardly, the skin underneath red and agitated. What the hell?
“I don’t think so. The cuts are too clean. I’m no expert, but I would think a mountain lion would have torn into it a little more.”
“Then what killed it?”
He didn’t want to say what he was thinking. It looked like the deer had been stabbed, and only one animal could have done that. He stood and looked around the yard, his adrenaline surging.
He took a deep breath and tried to relax for Emily’s sake. He didn’t want to scare her, and honestly, the deer could have run into something sharp in the woods and done this to itself. That was more likely than someone being able to come up on it and stab it three times.
“I don’t know, babe. Maybe it injured itself. Come on, let’s go inside. We’re leaving tomorrow. We’ll call the owners on our way out.”
“We’re just going to leave it here?”
He shrugged. “I’m not sure what else we can do.”
Emily wrapped her arms around herself, and Jordan grabbed her hands.
“Hey, it’s the circle of life. Completely normal. We just don’t see it much in the city.”
She nodded and they walked hand in hand back to the house, trying to ignore the fact that there was a mutilated deer in the front yard.
Emily took it upon herself to lock up the house as soon as they got inside. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
“Hey,” Jordan said, wrapping her in his arms. “It’s our last night. Let’s try to forget about the deer and enjoy it. Want to go in the hot tub?”
She shook her head. The thought of being outside in the open felt strange. She felt safer in the house and told him so.
“Okay, well, how about you get comfy, I’ll get us a couple of drinks, start a fire, put on some music.” He started dancing, taking her hands and twirling her around. She couldn’t help but smile, but it felt awkward. He was right: she needed to shake this off.
She changed into her pjs and headed back downstairs to find Jordan holding out a glass of wine. The fireplace was lit and soft, instrumental music played. A little bit of the tension left her shoulders as she sipped her wine which would, hopefully, handle the rest.
They talked and drank, but Emily still felt heavy, the image of the deer never leaving her mind. All that blood. Her breath came faster as she stared into the fire, picturing it.
“Babe, what’s going on?” Jordan finally asked. He could see the lightheartedness she’d had since they got here fading back into the tense, locked up version that he had come to know recently. He had wanted to give her space to come to him on her own, but he couldn’t go back to that. They couldn’t go back to that.
She angled her head in question, but he could see something acknowledged in her eyes.
“Look, I haven’t wanted to push, but something’s wrong. Something’s been wrong.” He set his drink down and took her hand in his. “I just want to help.”
When he’d asked her before, she’d immediately become defensive, not wanting to revisit the pain and throwing everything she didn’t want to feel in his face. He sat intently, waiting patiently for her to open up to him, concern and love in his eyes. No judgement. No anger. Just hope.
She sipped her wine. Her mouth had gone dry, and it tasted like ash. She sipped again anyway.
“A few months ago, while you were away for work, I started cramping up.” She looked at him, waiting for him to ask questions, but he just waited for her to continue.
“I thought my period might have been starting, but it kept getting worse. I did start bleeding, but… It was a lot more than usual, so I went to the hospital.”
He squeezed her hand. “Why didn’t you call me?”
She shook her head. “I was pregnant. And in that same moment, I wasn’t. I didn’t really know how to tell you both wonderful and terrible news at the same time.”
He pulled her in to his chest, wrapping his arms tightly around her. “Jesus, baby.”
“You’re not mad?”
He scoffed. “Why would I be mad?”
“Because I didn’t tell you. Because I’ve been a complete bitch for the last few months. I don’t know why, but part of me was holding it against you. It doesn’t make sense now, but… I’m just so sorry.”
He kissed her gently, brushing her hair back from her face. “It’s okay. I’m so sorry, too. I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t tell me, but baby, you can tell me anything. We’re in this together.”
She smiled, feeling both relieved and exhausted. She hadn’t realized how much weight she’d been carrying, and as she let it all go, she leaned in to kiss him again.
The power shut down, cutting off the music and leaving only the sound of crackling embers in the fireplace. They sat still a moment, processing the sudden silence.
“That’s weird. There’s not a storm coming, is there?”
Jordan shrugged. “I don’t think so. The weather was supposed to be clear this weekend.”
“Well,” she said, gripping his arm as he was beginning to rise from the couch. “That makes this all the more romantic.” She grinned, and he smiled back, knowingly.
A loud bang from upstairs jolted them from the moment. They both froze, tension immediately replacing the relaxed and cozy vibe they had just been sharing.
The bang sounded again, as if someone were taking a baseball bat to the roof.
Emily jolted off the couch. “What the hell is that?,” she whispered frantically.
“Stay here,” Jordan said, making his way to the stairs.
“The hell I will,” Emily said under her breath.
They tiptoed up the stairs, consistent banging ringing in their ears to the beat of their speeding hearts.
They reached the hallway, slowing as they approached their door. The crashing seemed to be coming from their bedroom as if someone were beating on the French doors that led to the patio.
Jordan turned to Emily. “Please, baby. Just stay here.”
She just stared at him, cocking her head. She was terrified, but there was no way she was letting her man check this out alone.
“Ok, fine, but stay behind me.”
The banging stopped.
They both looked at the door to the bedroom, the small crack in the opening shining with moonlight.
Jordan pushed it open cautiously, keeping his eyes focused on the patio doors. The only evidence of someone being there was the small indentation of something being hit hard against the shatterproof window.
“I’m going to go check it out.”
“Are you crazy?!”
“It could have been some sort of animal,” Jordan said, although even he could hear the doubt in his voice. It was evident that Emily could hear it too.
“I vote that we call the cops instead,” Emily said, picking up the landline. She dialed 911 and was relieved to hear ringing through the receiver.
“911 what’s your emergency?”
“There’s someone outside the house, trying to break in.”
“Ok, ma’am, please stay inside and on the line. What’s your location?”
Emily spouted off the address, adding, “Please, hurry. Some maniac has been banging on the house with a baseball bat or something.”
The line went quiet. “Hello?,” Emily said.
Deep laughing erupted through earpiece, making her jump. “Actually, it was a hammer.”
The line went dead, and she threw the phone onto the bed as if it had burned her.
“What?,” Jordan asked, grabbing the phone, listening for a tone that was no longer buzzing.
“Someone… there’s someone…,” Emily said, backing away from the room, not knowing how to explain, only knowing that she wanted to get out of there.
“Hey! Are they coming?”
Emily was dazed, taking small steps backward, her eyes wide, darting from the phone to the window. Her shoulders rose and fell rapidly with the pace of her breath, trying to keep up with the pumping blood and adrenaline coursing through her body.
“Emily!,” Jordan yelled, gripping her shoulders firmly. “Hey,” he said more calmly. “Calm down, baby. It’s going to be okay.”
Emily shook her head.
“Yes, it is. Someone’s just messing with us. Someone who lives way out here and doesn’t like visitors. That’s all.”
Another crash sounded from behind Jordan, and Emily screamed, fighting the urge to run.
Jordan turned around to see a figure standing on the patio in the dark. A hammer hung from his hand, and black eyes stared out from under the shadow of a ball cap. He cocked his head and smiled, flashing dull white, rearing back again with the hammer to land a blow on the indentation that had been left by his previous work.
Emily screamed again, and Jordan grabbed her arm before she could turn around and run.
“He can’t get in. We’re safe.”
“No, Jordan. The phone.” She looked at the phone then at the monster standing outside their door, and he just shrugged, swinging the hammer back again for another hit.
She covered her ears, panicking, and turned to run, slipping through Jordan’s grip. She raced down the stairs, stumbling, hearing Jordan’s muffled voice yelling her name. She made it to the front door and stopped. If she entered the password and unlocked the house to escape, it would let the monster in as well. Jordan.
The doorbell rang as footsteps and heavy breathing came up behind her. He grabbed her hand and they both stared at the front door. Ding dong.
Ding dong. Bang. Ding dong. Bang. Ding dong. Bang.
It was a symphony of shock. What was happening?
Jordan pulled her back towards the living room, the romantic scene by the fireplace a distant memory as the glow of the embers faded with the moment.
“What about the phone? Emily! What did they say?”
“It wasn’t them,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it wasn’t the police. It was whoever is doing…” She gestured wildly. “This!”
Jordan ran and grabbed the phone that was hanging on the wall in the kitchen. There was no dial tone.
“What did you expect?,” Emily asked, feeling more and more defeated with every ringing bell and crashing blow that echoed through the house.
He hung the phone back up, his mind racing, every thought interrupted by the cacophony of noise erupting around them.
He looked around, taking in the half empty wine and whiskey glasses. The orange glow of the fireplace that was nearly burned to ash. The couch where they had just been kissing a moment ago. Was it really only a few minutes ago?
Emily was wringing her hands, flinching with every sound that threatened to break through these walls that he had told her were safe.
He had to get her out of here.
He grabbed the car keys that he’d tossed in the corner of the kitchen counter when they’d arrived. He pulled two large kitchen knives out of their butcher block and wrapped her fingers around one of the handles.
“Hey,” he said, trying to get her attention. She couldn’t seem to focus. “Emily, look at me.”
Her eyes met his, the glaze of shock shining over them.
“We can do this. Just stay with me. It’ll be two against one through the front.” He kissed her. “Just stay with me, okay?”
She nodded, dazed, and he grabbed her free hand, pulling her towards the ringing front door.
He squeezed her fingers in his one more time before releasing them to enter the password to unlock the house.
She nodded, the knife trembling in her hand.
His fingers ran over the keyboard, typing in the passcode, then hovered over ‘ENTER.’
He took a deep breath, bracing himself, and hit the button.
‘RESET YOUR PASSWORD.’
He typed it in again with increasingly shaky fingers. The ringing and the banging were knocking around every thought in his head.
‘RESET YOUR PASSWORD.’
“What the hell?”
The house went quiet. The echo of the chaos that had ensued rang in their ears, and they both found themselves squeezing their eyes shut against the pain of the sudden silence.
There was a click and a turn, and their eyes both shot open with the realization.
The front door swung open slowly, squeaking against its hinges.
Several dark figures stood outside, wrapped in shadows that were only enhanced by the glow of the moon behind them.
Jordan lunged, swinging his knife wildly, losing control in his panic. The figures dodged his predictability, drawing him outside into the group, knocking the weapon out of his hands and subduing him to his knees.
Emily stood their shaking, the knife dropping voluntarily to the floor as she saw her boyfriend fall.
“But… but you can’t… the password…” She stammered, unable to put words together as they came into the light, the grins on their normal faces more frightening that the monsters she had envisioned in her mind.
They laughed, surrounding her.
“You think that is going to protect you?” The man that held the hammer stepped closer, walking in a circle around her. “A computer screen?”
She could hear Jordan’s muffled screams coming from the yard, fading as he was dragged away.
Her throat closed in fear as warmth trickled down her leg. She heard the slap of metal against skin as the man palmed his hammer.
“Honey,” he laughed with pity. “That kind of safety. It’s just an illusion.”
He lifted his hammer.
“Welcome to the real world.”