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What Comes Back

by Terrye Turpin 3 months ago in fiction · updated 3 months ago
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Sometimes they never leave

What Comes Back
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I was twelve years old that year, in 1972, the year Nixon went to China and his buddies broke into the Watergate hotel. Billie Jean King beat Bobbie Riggs at tennis, and I dreamed that even an East Texas girl could grow up to be an astronaut.

“Look there!” My cousin, Ray Kinder, elbowed me in the ribs. Ray, a year older than me and a foot taller, swung our gig pole in the light’s direction, a hundred yards in front of us.

“Hush. I see it.” I swatted away the sharp, forked tines on the end of the pole as Ray turned back to me. We’d been out gigging frogs, an operation best done in darkness. A chorus of deep croaks and high trills sounded from the creek–the bullfrogs waiting for us to sneak up and blind them with our flashlights before we stabbed them. Moonlight filtered through the pines and colored everything around us in shades of blue and gray. In contrast, the single flame in the cabin window glowed golden orange.

Brush and tree limbs covered most of the view and concealed the weathered wood of its walls, but I’d visited that cabin in the daytime and knew the shape of the sagging porch. I’d never gotten closer than that stoop, though, and that was on a dare from Ray. Folks called it the Bonner place. The woman who’d lived there had gone missing years ago, and the rumor was her husband had killed her and buried her in the crawlspace under the house.

A shadow moved across the wall behind the candle. I grabbed Ray’s arm and pulled him from the path as I clicked off my light. A mosquito buzzed against my cheek, but I stood still, goosebumps raising the hairs on my arm despite the humid summer air. A snap sounded, as though something stepped on a branch, followed by the piercing cry of a small animal. There were predators in the forest—bobcats, foxes, coyotes. They had killed the last gray wolf some years before, but there were those who swore they still heard them howling. Old folks liked to tell tales of missing livestock and bloody footprints on the road bordering the forest. The stories were meant to scare children from wandering too far into the woodlands, and before that night I’d considered myself too grown-up to give them credit.

“Let’s go,” I whispered, and we crept back home, leaving the frogs to live and sing another night.

The next morning, at breakfast, I told my mom and dad about the candle. They exchanged a look I’d seen before, when grownups were trying to decide how much to share with kids. My mom spoke first. “That would be Henry Bonner’s place. I heard he’s home from the war.”

“You stay away from there, Jo Ann. Give the man his peace.” My father pointed his fork at me. “The man didn’t spend six years over there to come home to a bunch of nosy kids.”

Dad had fought in Korea. He lost three fingers and all the toes on his left foot to frostbite at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Even in the hottest part of summer, he dressed in long sleeves and kept a quilt on their bed.

There was nothing so enticing as something they had forbidden me to do. I had the rest of that week to think about the cabin. Ray had gone off to Scout camp, and it was no fun wandering the woods alone. On Sunday, I went to church with my parents, and saw Henry Bonner for the first time. He sat in the back row, a thin, plain man with dusty blonde hair. I might not have noticed him, but the preacher called out his name and asked him to stand and be welcomed. Henry clasped the back of the pew in front of him, his knuckles white, before he rose, unsmiling.

After the service, I lingered out front of the church, hoping for another glimpse of Mr. Bonner. He must have snuck out a side door, to avoid the crowd, but I caught snatches of conversation as the congregation filed out—“Such a shame, for his wife to pick up and leave like that…” and “… a prisoner all that time, think of the things he must have seen.”

I waited until that evening, after supper, to approach my mom. “It’s too bad Mr. Bonner doesn’t have a nice garden like we do. I bet he’d love some fresh okra.”

My mother, a good Southern Baptist, agreed. “That’s a good idea.” She dried her hands on her apron and loaded up a paper sack with okra, tomatoes, and a jar of her homemade peach preserves. As she handed me the package, she hesitated.

“I’ll just set this on his porch and come straight home.” I clutched the bag with both hands and tugged it away from her.

“Don’t linger.”

I met my dad outside, on the back porch. A wreath of pipe smoke floated above his head. My mother didn’t like him to light up inside. She complained about the smell, but the scent of his tobacco reminded me of autumn and burning leaves.

“Where are you going with that bag?” He leaned forward in his chair.

My ears grew warm, and I shuffled my feet. “It’s for Mr. Bonner. Stuff from our garden.” I thought my dad would see right through me, and know it wasn’t charity that motivated me, but curiosity. He knocked the ash from his pipe, and my gaze landed on his hand with its missing fingers. I took a breath and asked in a rush, “You think he was wounded over there? In Vietnam?”

Dad stared over my shoulder at the edge of the woodlands beyond our home. I regretted my question. There were things my father never talked about. “Not everyone carries their scars on the outside, Jo Ann.” He cleared his throat and spat over the edge of the porch. “Be home before dark.”

I hurried along the trail through our woods. Under the pines, dark came early. The cicadas' buzzing call would soon be replaced with the chirp of crickets and the croak of bullfrogs. Lightning bugs flashed in the brush, taking wing like tiny stars.

As I walked, I thought about how some girls in my class wore shiny bracelets with the name of a POW engraved on the metal. When I had asked my dad for one, he told me I could pray for them instead. “Those names belong in your heart, not on a piece of jewelry.”

By the time I got to the clearing that held the cabin, the sun’s red glow lit the tops of the trees, and I wished I had brought a flashlight for the trip back home. I had no trouble spotting the Bonner place, though. He’d lit another candle. I planned on knocking and leaving the bag on the porch, but when I stepped around the side of the house, I saw the door to the cabin hanging open.

“Hello?” I rested my foot on the first step and stretched forward, peering into the dim interior. If he’d left the door open, then he hadn’t gone far. It would be better to set the bag inside. I stepped onto the porch. The wood under my feet popped and groaned. Loose nails in the boards squeaked as I crept across them. I pushed past the open door.

Inside, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Henry had nailed boards over the broken windows on the cabin’s front. I’d thrown a rock through one of those myself, and now I wished I hadn’t. Against the far wall, I found a small, chipped table. I dropped the sack on top and turned to explore the space.

“Mr. Bonner?” My voice came out barely above a whisper. I tried again. “Is anyone home?”

The main room served both as kitchen, dining, and living room. The place carried an odd odor, like earth right before a rainstorm, mixed with a wet animal stink. Dusty drop cloths covered a couch, placed before the fireplace. Several cardboard boxes sat opened on the floor, and it looked like he’d been unpacking dishes and pans. I picked up a photograph from the mantel. In it, a pretty woman with chestnut hair smiled at a younger Henry Bonner standing next to her.

The short hallway led to a bathroom on one side and, at the end, the room with the candle. A strip of yellow light outlined the doorway. I grasped the knob and pushed open the door. The flame flickered and its reflection seemed to float against the glass. A stained mattress, covered with a jumble of blankets, lay on the floor beneath the window. I didn’t notice the chair hidden behind the half-open door until I turned to leave.

Made of sturdy oak, the chair looked like one a teacher might have at their desk. The arms were thick, the back high and straight. An ordinary seat, except there were metal plates fastened to the bottom of the legs, and heavy bolts attached the thing to the floor. Leather straps covered in dark spots hung from the arms and legs. I gasped, fear freezing my insides and taking the breath from my lungs.

Dashing from the room, I didn’t stop to look back until I was outside. The cabin sat still and silent, as though mocking my fright. My legs quivered and threatened to drop me to the ground. I gulped in a breath of warm air. Dusk had arrived, turning familiar trees to lurking giants. I’d recovered enough to start for home when Henry Bonner stepped from the woods, a deer slung across his shoulders.

“Hey!” He jerked to a stop and dropped the deer. He seemed as startled to find me as I was to encounter him. I felt a little better at that until I got a good look at the dead animal.

I’d been hunting with my dad, and I’d seen him field dress his kill, the red and purple guts spilling steaming on the cold ground. I wasn’t squeamish. But this animal had not met a kind death. The doe’s torn throat revealed the top of her spine, visible at the gash on her neck. Her insides were gone. Instead of the neat cut made by a sharp skinning knife, her hide was flayed back at her chest, and ragged at the edges as though ripped apart.

“Mr. Bonner?”

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I’m Jo Ann. I saw you in church this morning. My mom sent some vegetables for you. I live on the other side of the woods.” I pointed a shaking finger past his shoulder.

“The Kinder place?”

I nodded in answer, and he relaxed. “Wait here.”

He grabbed the doe’s hind legs and dragged her onto the porch, then disappeared through the open door. I was congratulating myself on not getting caught inside the cabin when Henry came out carrying a rifle and a flashlight. He clicked on the light and handed it to me. “We’d better get going.” I realized then he meant to walk me home. We set off through the forest.

I’d been tramping through those woods since I was old enough to tie my own shoes, and I could have found my own way home. The thought of that odd chair stuck in my mind, and I tried to keep some distance between Henry and me. He stayed right behind me, though, and at first the sound of his footsteps covered the noises coming from the brush beside us. The snap of twigs and crunch of fallen bark grew louder until I realized something followed us.

We reached that spot in the trail where me and Ray had seen the candlelight when the night suddenly grew silent. No frogs, no crickets, no rustle of night birds. If I turned around, I’d see the yellow-orange light in the window of the cabin, but I didn’t want to look, afraid of what else I might find behind us.

“I’m sorry.” I wished I had dropped that sack of goods on the porch, and never set foot inside his home.

Henry grasped my shoulder, pulling me to a stop. We stood on a high spot in the path, beside us a drop-off down to the creek. I glanced back at him. He touched a finger to his lips and lowered the rifle from his shoulder. Leaves crackled somewhere to our side. I swung the flashlight to light up the brush, but he knocked it aside. A low growl issued from the dark space between the trees. I caught a harsh odor, like meat gone bad. My knees buckled, and the back of my mouth filled with bitter vomit. I choked it down and hid behind Henry.

A black shadow detached from the trees, and I cried out, “No!” Henry shoved me, hard. I fell, rolling down the incline. The flashlight fell from my hands and went out. Above, the rifle cracked. A long, anguished cry rang out, followed by the low whimper of a wounded animal. I dug my fingers into the cool mud along the creek, and hid my face.

“Girl?” Henry called.

I kept silent until I heard him stir and grunt, then I crept up the embankment, keeping behind the trees as I made my way back to the trail. He didn’t look at me, as he was busy picking up the pale form lying on the ground. As he lifted her, I glimpsed her face. A single bullet hole formed a circle I pictured as red, but it was black in the night. Henry stood with her draped over his shoulder. Tangled chestnut hair hung down from the naked woman he carried. A thick, black substance caked her fingers. It could have been mud, but the same substance was smeared around her mouth.

I ran, fast as a deer. Home, I collapsed crying against my mother. Words wouldn’t come, not until I’d cried out all my fear. Still, I trembled as I told my parents what I’d seen. My mother made the phone call to the sheriff, while my father got his shotgun. He wrapped me in a blanket, then sat beside my bed as I slept.

We learned about the fire the next day. Neighbors to the north spotted the blaze, but by the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the cabin and an acre of forest were gone. They found them, Henry and his wife, after the embers died. They are buried, side by side, at the graveyard behind the Baptist church.

I left East Texas for college, then years later I returned to teach in the junior high I’d attended. My parents still lived in the house I’d grown up in, and sometimes I would walk through the pines and along the creek where Ray and I hunted frogs. No candles burn there now, and all of the cabin is gone except the stones laid for the foundation. I wonder sometimes why he lit it—was it meant to be a warning, or a beacon?

fiction

About the author

Terrye Turpin

Terrye writes stories set in Texas and other strange places. She enjoys exploring antique, junk, and thrift stores for inspiration and bargains. Find her books on Amazon: Terrye Turpin

Follow her at https://terryeturpin.com/

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Comments (3)

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  • trE Loadholt2 months ago

    This is incredible storytelling, Terrye!

  • Sean Byers3 months ago

    Well done. Appreciate the authenticity of the TX setting. Wrote something for the same competition myself -- but missed the deadline: https://vocal.media/horror/the-experiment-xjbixo08cj Amazing how the same prompt can inspire such different ideas!

  • Sarah Johns3 months ago

    Love the ending and how it’s still such a mysterious story even after we finish reading!

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