By Kassandra Alvarado
Published by Kassandra Alvarado at Shakespir
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It was easy to imagine things in the dark, she thought. So quiet, so still and so cold the woods became at night. Cindy missed the quiet cackle of an open fire, the flames dancing a warm orange hue against her dad’s face while he stoked the fire. Mom would be in the camper’s kitchenette, spearing marshmallows the right way as she put it. Tom would – Tom would be…,
Cindy shook her head of such fantasies. Tom was always doing something. Restless, always on the move. Gathering fresh firewood from fallen boughs, picking up trash, cleaning his rifle, anything at all would pass under his wandering hands. Dad used to say Tom would make a good huntsman. He would direct that comment to her, sharp like barbed wire. None of them understood her books, her desire to learn.
Tom was smart enough as a high school quarterback, missing out on college to join the National Guard, wore the uniform at her college acceptance. Cindy had squirmed that day under the banner welcoming new students; Tom’s arm was wrapped firmly around her waist, pulling her close to the hard, lean line of his body. She shuddered to herself, remembering his hot breath grazing her cheek, his kiss unguarded in a moment caught by the camera her friends held.
Tom was dead two months later from a hit and run accident. Police never solved it. Just a few paint chips from a red 1998 Convertible, tire tracks on the roadway. One month later, Cindy traded in her black 1998 convertible for a sensible Honda.
That was before dad retired and mom pressured him to buy a house on the lake. Imagine! Their very own house with views of the woods Tom loved so much. But, dad still wanted to travel, compromising with an RV that had seen better trails and a house that the wilderness slowly reclaimed board by nail.
Cindy had driven up to the cabin that afternoon, parking beneath the spruce pines, crisp green needles crackling underfoot. She had avoided looking into the woods. She had looked at the house instead, the smooth gray watery reflection of the sky above. It was going to rain, she had decided, carrying an extra flashlight from the car, hoisting paint cans, brushes; a roll of kitchen wallpaper for the pantry shelves. She had promised mom and dad to have the rooms beautiful by the time they returned from Big Sur.
Up the creaking, groaning front steps she went. Three deep they were aged as the structure they mounted. Cindy had juggled the stuff in her arms, digging the set of keys from her windbreaker. A low wind was rising across the water, bearing the sharp mercurial scent of wet trees, earth and damp things. The last part of her distracted thoughts seemed off. She twisted the key in the lock, jerkily. Almost kicking the door inward from her haste to get inside.
Once inside, the musty interior washed over her, mingled with familiar scents. Dad’s whisky, mom’s favorite rose perfume…she smelt hickory from the kitchen. Cindy’s eyes grew used to the dimness, gradually. In the gloom, she could make out a sofa from the house in Rochester, covered by a white sheet opposite the mantel. It was the only piece of furniture in the room. Undaunted, she deposited her remaining articles on the sofa, resuming a check of the other rooms. The house had been wired for electricity a week ago; mom had thoughtfully left a casserole in the small dorm fridge in the tiny kitchen in the back.
Most of the rooms were devoid of furniture, a pad of notes had been left beside the kitchen sink, detailing the colors wanted for each of the rooms. She’d gotten started in the late afternoon, only pausing when the rain began. Cindy had donned her warmest sweater, walking to the edge of the porch, leaning against the front post, watching the slants of water fall.
Distantly, the hum of the microwave could be heard, spinning a plate of pasta. She hadn’t been much hungry, preferring going through the motions of normalcy. Mom had always said she was too thin. Cindy cast aside thoughts of her mother’s pinched-face, choosing instead to dare her eyes, lift them toward the edge of green coast. They were blots now, tall spires of darkness rising to the black sky. The pines, the barrens. She could almost imagine the virgin wilderness discovered by early settlers, the sea of trees that seemed to go on forever.
Cindy followed the sliver line of coast. She could forget the things the trees had seen. Admire their stoic, unyielding presence in the face of the powerful gusts bending lesser boughs. Lost in these thoughts, she didn’t know when the shadowy form appeared, ever so slight against the dwarfing aspect of the woods until it was simply there.
Lightning split the sky in a vibrant flash of light; she shielded her face from the worst of the torrential lashing. In the haze point between light and darkness, she thought she saw movement across the lake. Impossible…who would be out at this time of night especially during a storm?
Her rational mind surmised a fisherman or maybe a hiker that got stranded because of the storm. Cindy watched the form with renewed curiosity. A slight glow accompanied the figure, maybe a flashlight or a lantern. It was impossible to call out she’d never be heard above the wind and rain. Cindy moved out as close as she dared to the edge of the porch. The person whoever it was seemed to be drawing closer to the water’s edge rather than away, seeking shelter. She supposed the cabin must seem like shelter, a beacon of light shining across the choppy lake surface. Even as she thought that, there was a great sizzle and ‘pop’ as the lights went out behind her. Cindy caught her breath, expecting the wiring to give in the storm’s fury, yet not knowing when it would. Maybe that was the frightening part about it, the unknowing.
The simultaneous plunging into blackness and storm reaching its frenzied pitch sent her stumbling toward the open door of the cabin. She was being silly, she knew, leaning against the cold wood for support. Cindy half-smiled to herself, comparing herself to the lost hiker out there. She really was a silly, imaginative old thing. On the threshold, she did glance back, still curious.
The bob of light had vanished into the darkness. The wind howled, droplets spattered her face. She forced the door shut, shrugging to herself. They’d sought shelter elsewhere, she hoped somewhere dry. Cindy made her way mostly by touch through the living room into the tiny hall. In the doorway to the kitchen, she bumped her knee, stifling her curse. She’d developed that habit over the years of living alone, talking to herself. Sometimes she even imagined something listened. But that was crazy, wasn’t it?
She bumped her way to the table, grabbing a spoon by touch from the napkin roll thoughtfully left out for her. To the microwave, she went next, plucking the still steaming paper plate from the glass innards. She didn’t bother traversing the cracked linoleum floor to retrieve a soda from the black fridge. Impromptu, she leaned against the counter, propping the plate against her cold chest, she quietly ate a few bites.
This was Tom’s favorite, she remembered around bites of broccoli smothered in gooey cheese. Funny, mom should leave it for her. ‘There’s plenty to go around, honey.’ The mouthful turned to ash. She decided she wasn’t very hungry. Dumping the plate into the waste bin beside the backdoor, snatching the flashlight from the center of the table, she went up the rickety short flight to the second floor.
The fresh smell of paint wafted around her, mingled with the bitter scent of wet wood, decay. Beneath the small dormer window, the shadow of the bag lay upon the shallow seat. Cindy crossed over the plastic sheets spread upon the floor, hefting the straps even as her eye drifted toward the glass panes. She had a view of the lake, slim, small of the dark water spattered into a canvas of a million ripples. In that canvas, there was a glimmer, more than a glimmer, a glow moving in and out of sight across the lake.
Cindy raised her hand, swiping her palm against the foggy glass. There it was again! Just a flicker…moving…was a trick of eyesight? A play on her tired mind? Cindy looked toward the woods again, hardly distinguishable between land and sky. Yes, it must be a trick. But, something made her leave her bag where it was, descending carefully down the short flight around the corner into the only bathroom the cabin had.
There, in the gloom, she crouched down beside the old metal tub, peering out the side window. Cindy felt like a little girl again, watching her parents argue over Tom. “But, it’s so unnatural!” Mom cried, wringing her hands; mom feared anything unnatural. Dad sat where he always did in a green armchair with the bottom sagging. “I did it when I was a boy!” He rejoined sharply, throwing her a hard look. “Meredith never complained.”
Dad would say that, but Aunt Meredith would never stay in the same room with him. Cindy wondered if things like that ran in families. Something bad in the blood? Had Aunt Meredith ever wanted to kill her older brother? The light hadn’t ceased its steady arc, rather, closer. It brought to mind another fragment of memory. Tom striding up and down the lakeshore, gun slung over his shoulder. He’d bagged that amber-eyed owl that never left dad’s side table. He’d carried a lantern…just like that. Swinging arcs of pale illumination.
Fear trickled slowly like the beads of condensation on the window pane. Someone was out there, someone or something. Out on the dock, clambering over the frayed rope onto the worm-eaten wood planks. The light from the lantern – she saw now, it was a lantern, bobbed in a hand she could not see. A well of loathing arose in her, the stride, yes, the stride was about right. Two steps to her one, the height of the lantern held near the waist…everything!
Now, she quailed from the window for it seemed he had paused, fixating on her one window where she crouched in the blackness of the dark cabin.
Hiding childishly under the covers on the floor in the last corner of the upper bedroom, Cindy heard the tinny faraway sound of a knock. Bones, she thought, reminded of a distant hollowness thumping against the front door. Moving on, the window across from the sofa. Farther away, the west window in dad’s tiny study. The north window, the one she had looked out of…around the back of the house.
Cindy covered her ears, held her breath. Then, nothing over the sigh of the wind, but the pulse of her heartbeat. She dropped the blanket from her body, padding to the door. Not a sound was to be heard not even the stray skitter of a mouse. How she rejoiced in that silence, listening with her ear cocked on the upper landing where she had dared draw near.
Why it was almost laughable to be sure! It had only been a man with a lantern and a noise – the noise— was no longer silent. The stairwell was a pit of contained darkness, through it, three soft taps of varying sound reached her. It was a game he used to play, rapping with each knuckle, waiting for the rustle of bedclothes, for her to hide in the smallest corner.
“My little rabbit.” Whispered a hollow male voice down below. There was no lantern now. He had never come with the warmth of light, but with the coldness of winter. Cindy wanted to scream, her throat clogged with the throttle of it. The iciness was upon her, the frigid chill from the deepest of waters, the coldest of pits fluttering against her cheek.
“Why won’t you stay dead?” She cried, the spell breaking. Cindy dashed across the hall floor, heart pounding sickly in her chest. There, she had said it. Those forbidden words that had choked the screams in her throat, lulled her sickest dreams. I can’t bear it, she’d once thought with a head full of undergraduate studies. She couldn’t meet the eyes of the girls who’d met Tom that day and told her how lucky she was to have such a fine piece of ass for a brother. The girls were vulgar, their thoughts revolved around sex. But, Nipa…Nipa was different. Her first friend from a faraway, sun-soaked country where poverty lied like a blanket. Nipa with the solemn brown eyes, soft of cheek and gentle of care. She shouldn’t have known, shouldn’t have been dragged into the mess Cindy called life; but it was too late. Nipa knew everything there was to know, she was a physics major with a brother dead of malaria. Nipa would know how it felt to be suffocated, walled up alive on a desert land.
Cindy’s very soul shriveled to pieces when Miranda sent her the picture cheekily taken beneath the banner welcoming students. Tom kissed her as a lover. Nipa burnt the picture ceremonially, undertone Hindi curses in an ash tray left behind by Cindy’s absent roommate. Nipa listened to her…,
Thump. Thump. Thu—mp.
‘He used to knock with each knuckle before entering my room.’
‘He said I was his. His own little rabbit and he was the big, bad hunter.’
She shuddered violently, the blanket falling heedlessly to her lap, puddling. Cindy was six with a teddy bear, thirteen in boxer shorts and a Carebear T-shirt. She was fifteen and Tom was slugging the boy who’d asked her out to a dance. Put the boy in the hospital and dad was boasting about it over morning coffee.
“Tom? Big brother?”
That was silly to call his name.
Tom was dead and he couldn’t harm her ever again.
The door remained shut; rain lashed the windows of the shuttered cabin.
Nothing stirred save for her breath.
It was a tree branch, she thought, smiling crookedly. Wind rattled the small weather-beaten cabin, producing the same sharp thumps of someone’s knuckles. Cindy smiled at herself, rising incautiously to her feet. Padding softly, she went to stand at the window, drawing the curtain back to the rain-slicked night. Condensation had formed on the glass, tracing a dripping heart pierced by cupid’s arrow. Cindy gasped. Arms that had lost their substance encircled her body, robbing the life from her limbs and wildly beating heart. The stench of scorched asphalt mixed with that of rotted earth. It filled her nostrils. She nearly doubled over, gagging aloud, tears flooding her eyes.
“Didn’t I tell you once…,” someone or something whispered in her ear. “I’d never leave you, not in this life…or the next.”
AN: Found this in my doc box, had it kicking around in there since 2013. Figured I might as well polish it up and publish it. Thanks for reading.