“Aw, c’mon, dude, let’s go look at the old cabin.” This from Mike, annoying at worst, goofy at best.
“Seriously, man, we shouldn’t go up there.” Amos, the goody two shoes of the three, always anxious not to get into trouble.
“What?” jeered Billy, “you’re scared you might pee ya pants?”
“Knock it off, dude! I mean, it’s an old empty cabin, and it could be dangerous, ya know?” Amos chewed his thumbnail, torn between anger and anxiety.
Billy shrugged his thin shoulders. “Whatever, man, let’s take a rain check.”
The boys dispersed, heading home on their bikes through the early summer evening, the heat shimmering across the bitumen, promising to meet up the following afternoon after school.
But Billy couldn’t let it go. He kept thinking about the old cabin. It was as if it was calling to him, sucking him in, drawing him inexorably towards it like a magnet with iron filings.
The three boys lived only streets away from each other in the New England blue-collar town and would pedal to school on their BMX bikes, racing each other to the gates, none of them wanting to arrive last. It had always been that way since they were in elementary school; their respective moms had become friends at the school gates, as was the way with mothers and the boys followed suit. Sometime around the first year of high school, the boys rode to the outskirts of town and, following a disused railway track, came upon the cabin, squatting in the middle of a clearing overgrown with ivy.
They had dared each other to enter the cabin. Still, none of them had had the nerve, and it had become a right of passage most early evenings to cycle along the old track to the cabin, hollering to each other, joshing one another as they stood looking at the lopsided façade.
Later that evening, when the whining insects came out to feast on unsuspecting humans, Billy asked his parents to be excused from the dinner table and grabbed his bike, its bright orange flag waving in anticipation on the top of the flagstaff; he mounted and pedalled frantically to the old cabin. He stopped before it, looking at its dilapidated and peeling exterior. It was like looking at a bleached skull, the two front windows like eye sockets, empty and void of life.
The outside of the building seemed to swell in size, to grow and seethe, waving like waves upon the shore of some faraway beach. A vortex of emptiness drew Billy in, sucking him into the depths. He couldn’t have resisted even if he wanted to; he felt like he was standing on shifting sands.
As a young child, he had had a fertile imagination. Lying in his single bunk bed at home, he would look at the cracks in his bedroom ceiling and make out faces in the undulating terrain of plaster. Here and there, an eye, or maybe a nose. Once, he terrified himself half to death, waking early and in the growing light from a sulky dawn, thought a face was staring out at him from the wallpaper. On second glance, it had been a trick of the growing light upon the pattern.
He hopped off his bike, leaving it on its side, the orange flag now lifeless and still and mounted the front step onto the rotting veranda, feeling the ground under his feet shift, sounds coming at a great distance, then right up close, colours fading in and out, now sharp, now out of focus. He reached out a hand and touched the doorknob. He expected it not to yield or to need a well-placed shoulder shoved against it, but the door opened as if by its own accord, drawing him into the dim interior.
The cabin was simple inside; one big room at the front, leading to a smaller one behind, with a short flight of stairs up to a mezzanine level. He tip-toed straight down the middle of the building. The walls appeared to seethe and writhe, and he felt the space behind them. Did others exist in those spaces? Did they creep along in the narrow passageways tracking his movements, wanting to join him but not being able to due to the separation of plaster and timber?
Billy stood at the bottom of the small staircase and saw dust motes in a narrow shaft of fading light making their way through a gap between some boards that had been nailed over the lone window. Were the panels to keep intruders out or the occupants in? Billy looked down and noticed that the floor was scratched and gouged in places as if a thousand feet had passed over it, and Billy pressed his plimsoll-clad feet into the marks, feeling the passage of time.
As he stood there, his skin prickled with the knowledge that eyes were fixed upon him, waiting with bated breath to see what he would do next. His first instinct was to turn and flee, but the logical part of his brain reasoned that this was nothing but a crumby old cabin, just an old rundown, deadbeat has-been, just like his pa. Billy’s mouth drew down at the corners at the thought of his middle-aged, fat, balding, opinionated, jobless father. He knew what his pa would say if he were here now.
“Nothing to see here; just an ol’ clapped out no-hoper. Yes, sir, that’s right!” Billy nodded decisively, unconsciously aping his father’s tone and demeanour. Well, poop to that—just an old house.
Despite his bravado, the palms of his hands were sweaty, and the hairs on his forearms were rippling. He wiped his hands on his denim-clad thighs and crept silently forward, breathing shallowly, imagining the cabin was breathing as well, in and out, in time with him. He felt waves of disapproval emanating from the walls, lapping around his feet, but he firmly ignored them.
Billy climbed the small flight of rickety wooden stairs to the mezzanine level. Noting an old day bed languishing against the back wall. Apart from that, there wasn’t another stick of furniture. He walked the entire length of the upper level and back again; it only took a couple of minutes. After the second lap, he grew bored, so he descended to the ground floor. As he passed by the day bed, something in the wall above it caught his eye in the gathering gloom. Placing his hand on the bed, he leaned closer and made out two metal rings fixed into the wall, one at each end of the bed. He ran his fingers over the rings and the wall behind them. He detected gauges in the plasterwork, and his questing fingertips made sense of them before his brain caught up. He leapt back from the wall, clutching his hand as if burned. His brain supplied the information that his fingers had known all along; the marks he’d felt had been made with fingernails.
Someone had been held here, against their will, chained to the bed for an extended period. Who though? Why? Billy’s mind was churning, discarding this theory and that one. His every instinct was telling him to get out, now, he could ask around town, do some digging at the library, but he must leave now. This he did, spinning on his heel, pattering down the wooden stairs, his plimsolls barely making any noise, through the front room, out the door, through what had once been a small garden to reclaim his BMX, all the while feeling eyes on the small soft spot at the base of his skull.
He hunched his shoulders, imagining sharp teeth sinking into the back of his neck. Without a backward glance, he mounted the bike and pedalled as fast as he could away from the empty cabin, feeling it sigh in disappointment at his departure.
The following day, after school, Billy did a most unusual thing; he went to the public library. He’d told his mom that he had a project he needed to finish for school, and with her raised eyebrows imprinted on his retina and a warning to be home by dinner time, he pedalled hell for leather to the red brick, chunky building squatting in the middle of a bitumen slab, accompanied by an equally unappealing car park.
The resident librarian, Miss Carol Cartwright, looked over her half-moon spectacles at him as he stood, kit bag slung over one shoulder, offering his little-used library card.
“History?” She inquired, her thin lips pursed in a mew of disbelief.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s right, history.” Even to his ears, he didn’t sound credible.
Her mouth puckered up like a button.
“What particular area of interest, young man?”
“Ah, well, local history, ma’am.”
The raptor’s eyes glinted knowingly at him.
“Ah, well…” Dammit, she had him there. Which era, the last decade, century, millennia?
“Oh, um, mebbe the last century; if you please.”
Miss Cartwright fixed Billy with a gimlet stare. He was a nice-looking boy, polite at least, but she wondered at the sudden interest in local history. Ah, well, at least he was learning instead of spraying graffiti or throwing stones at vacant houses.
“Go upstairs, veer right, the last two bookcases against the wall. There’s all ya’ll need to know about local history for the last three hundred years.” She nodded at him encouragingly.
Billy smiled nervously up at her. “Thank ya, ma’am, I sure do appreciate it.” And before she could ask any more questions, he reclaimed his card, turned on his heel and made for the stairs up to the next level, taking them two at a time.
The truth be told, Billy hadn’t thought the whole thing through. Sure, he had a vague idea about looking up the address of the old cabin, but he had no idea how old it was, how long it had stood there, and who owned it. Still, where there was a will, there was a way.
He took down a couple of books about the area’s general history. He flicked through the pages, not finding anything of interest. Next were a few books on the architecture of certain buildings, the men who had built them, construction yada, yada. After nearly half an hour, he stumbled upon a book about some of the families in the area, local luminaries and the like. As he idly thumbed through the pages, some of them containing black and white photographs, his heart nearly stopped as he came across an old sepia photo of a local building. Yes! There it was, the old cabin, not as it was today, but back in its heyday; a confederate homestead built around the time of the civil war.
The sepia photograph showed a man and a woman standing on the small veranda at the front, all stiff and formal in the fashions of the late nineteenth century. The man was tall with a huge beard almost reaching his chest; his wife was tiny by comparison, her head barely coming up to his shoulder, and Billy strained to make out her face under the white frilled cap pulled down low over her forehead. The only footnote to the photograph was, ‘original homesteaders post Civil War’. That was it, nothing else, and yet Billy felt as if he knew the woman, which was dumb because she’d been dead for over a hundred years.
So engrossed was he in looking at the photograph he didn’t hear Miss Cartwright come up behind him.
“We’re closing soon.”
Billy jumped out of his skin. “Miss Cartwright, you fair scared me.”
Miss Cartwright leaned over his shoulder, frowning at the picture. “I didn’t know you were interested in those people,” she said.
Billy looked up at her expression with interest. “What people, ma’am?”
Miss Cartwright’s mouth turned down. “The Abernathys.” She continued frowning at the page.
Billy glanced down at the book, then back up at the librarian. She knew something, probably much more than he could find in a dusty old reference book.
“Who were they, Miss Cartwright?” He assumed his most intelligent expression.
The librarian looked down at his upturned face, freckles standing out on a snub nose, a thatch of straw-coloured hair flopping over his forehead. His dark blue eyes were open and clear with no trace of mockery or sarcasm, and he was genuinely interested.
“Well, they weren’t what you called decent folk.” She glanced at her wristwatch, gauging how much time she had left before she put the books back in their respective places, rang up the day’s lending fines, switched off all the lights and made her way home.
“Oh please, ma’am, I would be surely obliged to hear it.”
Despite herself, Miss Cartwright smiled, recognising a thirst for knowledge which was sadly lacking in today’s youth. She placed the books she’d been carrying on the table and took the chair next to Billy. Taking off her glasses, she commenced polishing them.
“They were married in the church here in the town, then Abel Abernathy built that cabin,” she gestured with her glasses at the book, “and took his new wife, Rose, to live there.” She replaced her glasses, deciding how much to tell the young boy.
Billy sensed her hesitancy which piqued his interest even more. She was gonna tell him something juicy; he was sure of it.
Now magnified behind her glasses, Miss Cartwright’s eyes looked thoughtfully at him.
“Abel Abernathy was not a kind man. He mistreated Rose, and after a while, well, folk didn’t see her anymore.”
“Ya mean, she disappeared?”
“Yes, one day she did and was never seen again.”
Billy’s eyes went perfectly round.
“Then, Abel began courting another woman, Jane Franklin. Jane, like Rose, was a small woman, very fine-boned. Abel towered over her. Anyways, they were married the following spring, and he took her back to live in that cabin.” Miss Cartwright paused, looking eyeball to eyeball with Billy. “No prizes for guessing what happened to her.”
Suddenly Billy’s mouth was parched. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, trying to generate some saliva. Before he could respond, Miss Cartwright nodded at him. “That’s right, she went and disappeared as well, just like the first girl.”
Billy was lost for words; he could feel the hairs on his forearms standing up.
“So Abel took a third wife.”
“Yep, another unsuspecting young woman, Ellen Ross, only this time, she had the last laugh.”
Miss Cartwright paused again, looking at her wristwatch. Billy was impatient to hear the rest of the story, though.
“What happened to Ellen?” He pressed the librarian.
The older lady looked up at him. “One day, due to the fact she’d lost so much weight, she managed to wrench herself out of the manacles and escaped, walking into town. She told the townsfolk how she’d been chained to a bed in the cabin, starved and tortured by Abel. Once he’d heard her story, the local constable mounted his horse and rode up to the cabin. He found no sign of Abel Abernathy, not so much as a pair of boots; it was like the man had vanished into thin air.”
Billy turned this over in his mind for a moment. “But if he’d held her there, an’ she managed to get free without him knowing he’d still be there when the constable went looking, no?”
Miss Cartwright nodded. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? It was nearly dark when the constable arrived, but a blood moon was rising. He swore blind that he saw a woman standing under the old mountain ash tree as he approached the front of the cabin. He called out to her, but she vanished.”
Billy felt something icy slither up his spine to the nape of his neck. Suddenly it felt as if the temperature in the library had dropped by five degrees.
Miss Cartwright saw the boy shudder and decided enough was enough for one day.
“Well, young man, I’d better finish up here, and you need to be on your way home, or your mom will send out a search party.” She smiled at him to take the sting out of her words and shooed Billy out of the library.
As Billy pedalled slowly home, he turned the story over in his mind. Two of three wives had disappeared, but the third had escaped and lived to tell the tale. Ellen would have been too weak to kill Abel Abernathy, and Billy remembered the photograph of him; a massive mountain of a man, hands like dinner plates and the strength of a bear, probably. And who was the woman that the constable thought he’d seen standing under a tree as he pulled his horse up at the front door?
All through dinner, Billy turned the facts over in his mind. His parents were too busy arguing over whether they should stop using the ceiling fans and thus reduce their burgeoning electricity bill to notice his uncharacteristic silence. Even whilst drying up for his mom, he couldn’t stop thinking about the cabin and the Abernathys. There was only one thing for it; he would have to go back to the house; it was the only way to find out more information. Billy was sure that the secret would reveal itself when he went back. The weekend was approaching, the days were long and hot, and it stayed light beyond nine o’clock at this time of year. He’d go back on Saturday night; tell his mom that he was hanging out with Mike and Amos at the skateboard park. Yeah, that would do; he could be alone at the cabin to continue his investigations.
Billy set off just as the day’s heat was starting to wane. He’d promised his mom he would be back before bedtime, and she seemed satisfied with the explanation as to his intended whereabouts. Truth be told, she had her hands full with his pa, who’d been drinking since 10 o’clock and was waxing belligerent by lunchtime. Now it was after dinner, and he was getting downright nasty. Billy made his excuses and beat a hasty retreat.
Just as the sun was sinking into a bruised sky that augered a sultry, sweaty night, Billy reached the old cabin.
It squatted, ramshackle and derelict, what glass there was left reflecting the dying sun’s rays in a desultory fashion as if to say it didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what went on today or any day. Billy took heart from the disinterested nature of the homestead. It leant an ordinary, everyday feeling about the place, mundane even, subtracting any sinister undercurrents from itself. He dismounted, leaving his bike in what had once been a flower bed, complete with a picket fence if he wasn’t much mistaken. He mounted the few steps onto the lopsided veranda as he had on the previous visit and felt that odd, shifting sand sensation again. As he had done before, he placed his hand on the front door knob, feeling it give way under his shaking hand, and the door swung inwards, emitting a gust of fetid air.
He stepped over the threshold, the air thick and heavy around him. He almost recoiled from it but was determined not to let the house see his fear. He took a deep breath, puffed his thin chest out, and pushed forward.
On this occasion, it felt like wading through glue. His plimsolls made sucking noises as he walked over the bare floorboards to the back room and the bottom of the staircase. He looked up at the dust motes swirling down in the backdraft caused by his coming through the front door, which he had left open just in case he needed to make a quick getaway. He swung his kit bag off his shoulder, retrieving a box of matches which he slipped into his pocket. He wasn’t sure where to start. His legs were heavy as if he’d run a marathon and a sort of lethargy descended upon him; he put it down to the heat and anticipation.
Billy climbed the few stairs up to the upper level, noting the day bed and the rings set into the wall. He’d use the matches once the sun began setting, but for the time being, there was enough natural light to make out the shapes of the furniture, such as they were.
He walked over to the rings, looking at them closely. They were made of solid metal, bolted to the wall. He ran the flat of his hand over the fingernail marks, feeling a frisson of something shoot up his spine as he remembered the two dead women that had been held here against their will. What sort of guy did that to a woman? Especially one he was married to.
Billy remembered what Miss Cartwright had told him about the local constable riding out to the homestead and seeing a woman standing underneath the tree to the side of the house. He thought rapidly. What date was it? He closed his eyes and recalled the calendar hanging on his bedroom wall, which had the phases of the moon on it. That’s right; it was a waxing moon; the next full one was in two evenings’ time.
The window above the bed was too high to see out of, so he walked back down the stairs. Looking around, he noted that only one window in the back room was to his right; it would give him a good view of the tree once dusk began falling. For the moment, though, he continued his search of the empty room, knocking on walls (he wasn’t sure why he was doing this, but he’d seen his pa do it in their house looking for load-bearing walls), noticing that in places there were patches of wallpaper peeling off the old lathe and plaster walls. One particular patch was a soft green, depicting part of a country scene. Billy guessed one of Abernathy’s wives had tried her hand at a little interior decoration.
For the next half an hour, Billy knocked on walls, stamped on floorboards, knelt and examined skirting boards, and tried to pry up some floorboards, all to no use. His search had yielded a big, fat zero.
So engrossed had he been in his search that he realised that dusk had come on quickly and it was getting quite dark. He decided further looking would be fruitless, so he walked from the back room through the cabin making for the open front door.
Only it wasn’t open. The front door was closed. Billy felt his heart speed up. He definitely had left the door open, he knew he had, but now he was staring at the back of it. The hairs began to stand up on the back of his neck, and his eyes dropped to the space on the floor where he’d left his kit bag. Where the hell was his bag? Had he taken it upstairs and forgotten it? No, he’d left it by the front door. The door that was now closed.
A prickle of sweat formed at his hairline, and he could feel his armpits getting damp. Okay, dude, don’t panic; you’re imagining stuff. He nodded encouragingly to himself; he’d left his bag upstairs. He turned and retraced his steps, through the back room, up the small flight of stairs looking around him the whole time willing his kit bag to appear with every fibre of his being. Nothing, not so much as a handkerchief.
The sweat around his hairline was joined by perspiration at the back of his knees; he could feel the denim of his jeans sticking to his skin. The air around him seemed denser now, with an odd smell. He spun on his heel, nearly tripping over his own feet. At the bottom of the stairs, he drew a shaky breath, trying to compose himself and, turning his head, looked out of the lone window. A woman stood underneath the branches of the mountain ash dappled in the rays of a rising moon. She was dressed all in white, a white-frilled cap pulled low over her brow, casting her eyes in shadow, but Billy could feel her eyes boring into him, waves of hatred emanating from her.
Billy felt his bladder spasm in panic; oh God, he had to get out. He ran to the front door and yanked on the doorknob, and it didn’t budge. He pulled on it with all his strength but didn’t yield. He hammered on it, but nothing gave. He spun around, running through the cabin, up the stairs, leapt onto the day bed and, putting his foot on one of the metal rings, scrabbled at the wood, trying to gain some purchase in the wall. A part of his brain not immediately occupied with escape told him that he was too short to reach the small window above the bed, but the panicked part of his brain, the one that was like a bird that has flown down the chimney and was now beating itself senseless trying to find a way out was screaming at him to jump, try to scale the wall, to gain a foothold, anything.
Billy tore several fingernails trying to get a handhold in the wooden wall, and he could hear the rasping of his breath as he tore desperately at the wall. He sobbed with fear and frustration as he wrenched his shoulder, trying to reach the windowsill. He fell back onto the bed, banging his knee, and the box of matches flew out of his pocket. He slid off the bed, kneeling on the floor, his heart pounding with tears and snot running down his face.
As he patted his hand around on the floor, frantically feeling for the box, suddenly it was thrust into his hand. He cried out in terror and scrambled into the corner of the room, where he cowered in the corner. He sat there shaking, clutching the box of matches like a talisman. After what seemed like a lifetime, he fumbled the box open and prised out a match. Feeling with his index finger, he located the flint on the side and stuck the match against it. In the wavering flame, the woman who had seen under the tree stood opposite him, her expression evil in the extreme, long hair framing an oval face, the eyes fixed and staring, the mouth open, a hissing sound issuing forth.
Billy dropped the match, which immediately went out. He ran blindly for the front door, crashing against it in his panic, fingers clawing at the wood, feeling his nails tear as he scrabbled wildly for a grip, all the time aware of the woman behind him, the stench of her breath reaching him as she got closer. Waves of hatred rolled off her, seething around them both like a miasma. Billy just knew without being told that this was the woman who had been incarcerated in the house, chained and tortured by her husband until she died. Her breath wafted on the back of his neck, hot with anticipation. Now, she was taking her revenge on the only male she could; the man child. Him.
His mouth opened in a silent scream, the barest whisper of air escaping, feeling his lungs bursting, trying to inject as much force and volume into his larynx, but just a choked sob emerged. No one would hear him; no one would come, and no one would reach him in time.
And besides. The cabin was empty.
E Atkinson lives in rural Australia. She recently won Runner Up in Flash Fiction in Grande Dame Literary Journal in the USA and has had stories published in Sour Cherry Magazine, Australia, Free Spirit, India and Clayjar Review, USA. She has just finished her third book in the Grace Beale Trilogy.
You can find her on Instagram @crabbeshome or on her website https://eatkinson.carrd.co.