“Do you know where we’re supposed to park? Ingrid. Hey, did she tell you where to park?”
“What?” I turned away from the window and flashed Lloyd an apologetic look. “Sorry, I was just watching something…out the…”
“Sorry! God, it’s been a long week. No, she didn’t say but since we’re the last ones there, I would assume we just park next to everyone else.”
“Actually, we’re not,” Moss piped up from the back seat. “Ben just texted that he’s still on the 87.”
“Guy sells two songs to Maroon 5 and now he thinks he can make us wait around like he’s a damn celebrity,” Lloyd mumbled.
“Please, Ben’s never been on time to anything in his life. Isn’t that half the reasonthe band broke up?” Moss laughed.
“Nah, the band broke up because Ash got deployed and Ben was always too good for it anyway.”
Moss smiled and sat back in his seat.
Lloyd and I had been together for four years and he’d been unemployed for three of them. He’d put everything he had into his band and for awhile it looked like Vintage Truth was going to make it. Then one day his guitarist, Ashley, up and joined the Marines and his drummer/songwriter, Ben, sold one of the band’s songs to a recording label for an ungodly amount of money. Lloyd had been wandering blindly through life since.
It was a obvious sore spot for him and no one mentioned Vintage Truth around Lloyd anymore. Well, no one but Moss.
“So where did Melanie find this place?” Moss nudged the back of my seat with his foot.
“Actually, Ashley found this one. He said he wanted something on Blue Ridge Mountain.”
“I’m surprised he had the time to book it, he’s only been back from Iraq for a couple weeks.”
“It only takes a few minutes on the internet.”
“Maybe for you, Ing. But the last cabin you rented us had rats the size of Lloyd’s mom’s dildos.”
“-those weren’t rats!”
“-fuck you, Moss.”
Moss laughed. “Just sayin’!”
“Those were mice. And I’m sure he found it on VRBO, the same place I find all of my cabins.” I rolled my eyes at Moss.
“Yeah,” Lloyd complained. “Well this place is like 13 miles from town and the last 3 miles have been unpaved. You sure he’s not bringing us back here to kill us all?”
“I’m not an entirely certain, Lloyd, but if he is, I hope he shoots you first.”
“Oh come on, babe, you know love me.” Lloyd winked at me. I smiled at him and leaned over to give him a kiss. Just as my lips brushed his cheek, Moss sat up and thrust his arm in between us to point into the distance.
“There it is! Finally.”
The cabin was much bigger and older than it looked in the pictures Melanie had shown me. The home was three stories tall and built eloquently into the side of the mountain. It had a small clearing serving as a “front yard” and a dark, dense treeline beyond it.
“Wow, we’re really in the middle of nowhere…” I said to myself as Lloyd pulled into the small, dirt parking lot.
“Yep. That means we can be as drunk and loud as we want and there are no neighbors to complain.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I guess. I just hope we don’t get the bottom floor bedroom.”
“I’ll take the bottom bedroom,” Moss said from the backseat. “Lloyd’s mom needs the extra support of a concrete floor.”
“Moss, I fucking-”
Lloyd threw the car in park and lunged into the backseat just as Moss pushed open the door and ran for the staircase up to the main floor of the cabin. I shook my head as I watched Lloyd twist around, open his door and sprint out of the vehicle, laughing. Moss was inside the front door by the time Lloyd reached the bottom stair.
I got out and popped the trunk, tugging on the heavy, beer-laden cooler inside. After being cooped up with those two for three hours, I needed a drink.
I was struggling pretty hilariously when I heard an amused voice behind me.
“I can’t decide if I’d rather have the beer or the view.”
I spun around and pushed my ball cap up out of my eyes.
“Fucking Ash, get over here and help me.”
He laughed, striding casually over to the back of the car and I threw my arms around him in a tight hug. It had been 14 long months since I’d last seen my childhood friend.
“Hey, Ing, how’ve you been?”
“Good,” I said letting him go. “Have you seen your mom and dad since you’ve been back?”
Our families had always been close and I knew from talking to my mom how excited his parents were to see him.
“No, they’re flying out here next weekend. I’m picking them up from the airport like a good son.”
“Good.” I gave him a radiant smile. “So we have you all to ourselves for the next five days then.”
“Well, you’ll have to fight Mel on that. If it were up to her I’d never leave the bedroom.”
“Oh, god, gross, Ash. I don’t need to hear about that shit, you’re like my brother.”
Ash laughed. “Here about what? I didn’t say anything.”
“Don’t even imply it. Whatever you and your girlfriend do-”
“Holy shit, as I live and breathe, is that the distinguished Ashley Allender?! What are you doing down there?”
Lloyd’s yelled down from the second floor deck.
“That’s Lance Corporal Allender to you. And I’m helping your girlfriend unload the car since you’re an asshole.”
“Oh fuck, I forgot babe, hang on!”
Lloyd set his beer on the railing and ran inside as Moss leaned against the door jam shaking his head at him as he passed by.
“He really is an asshole,” I laughed.
It was an hour and a few beers later that Ben finally pulled up in his brand new H2. Ash and Moss took turns hurling insults at Ben’s new “Pavement Princess” as Melanie and I sat back on the deck and tried not to laugh.
As soon as Ben walked out onto the deck, Lloyd thrust a beer into his hand.
“Finally! Now that we’re all here I call for a toast to our asshole friend Ash.”
“Oh yes!” Mel sprang up beside me and pulled Ash back into the circle as shook his head ardently and backed away from us.
“Come on, guys, this is embarrassing. Don’t fucking toast me.”
“That’s the whole reason we’re here, baby!”
“Come on, Ash,” I teased. “Let your friends toast you. We haven’t seen you in forever.”
“Fuck, alright, make it quick.” Ash tried to look annoyed but failed hilariously.
“I’ll start, then.” Ben held up a bottle of his fancy Trappist beer and everyone else followed suit.
“Well, you are the lyricist.” Mel rolled her eyes playfully and pulled Ash’s arm around her.
“Ashley, what else can I say but thank you for both your service and the great honor of being your friend. We’re glad you’re home.”
We clinked our bottles together as Moss murmured: “That was disappointing.”
It was many cheers and many rounds later that I found myself alone with a drunken Moss and Ash.
“I- I’m so proud of you, Ash.” I stuttered, putting a friendly arm around him. “I wasn’t sure about all of this when you told me you’d enlisted but dammit if I’m not honored as hell to call you my friend.”
“Thank you, but honestly all the praise sorta makes me uncomfortable.”
“Because I don’t know….most of the last 14 months was just training. I was only in Iraq for about 6 of it, in actual combat, for less.”
“Yeah, you must have seen some shit, though.” I nodded my head at him.
Ash was quiet for a beat too long and even in my drunken state I could tell the air had shifted. Moss – who was good at reading people and situations – broke the tension before it got too thick.
“I’ve seen some shit too, man.”
Ash and I looked up at him as he took a long, intense swig of his beer.
“On Lloyd’s mom’s website.”
Ash and I laughed and looked over at Lloyd, who was staring down at his phone, shaking his head.
“On fucking day, Moss.” He said without looking up.
“Oh, come on, man. That’s what I do. I’m a stand up comedian; it’s my job to make people laugh.”
“A struggling stand up comedian.” I added with a wink at Moss.
“Hey, Ben, you alright, man?” Ash asked and we all looked over to the corner of the deck where Ben was just standing, looking out into wood.
He didn’t look at us, but motioned Ash over with his hand. They stood in the corner and exchanged quiet words.
“What is it?” Mel asked after a minute.
“I think it was just a bear.” Ash answered her.
“Just a bear? A fucking bear?” Mel pulled her hoodie tighter around her.
“Well, we are in the middle of the woods, darling.” Moss said casually from his chair.
“Yeah, bears are to be expected out here,” Ash said, and gave Ben a look I couldn’t translate.
“Fuck that, I’m going inside. A bear could climb up on the deck you know,” Mel strode quickly over to the sliding door.
“That’s why you never come out into the forest without a gun.” Ash said from the corner of the deck, and he continued to stare out into the trees.
The next day no one got up until 11AM. By the time I walked out into the living room, Moss, Ash and Ben were up guzzling down water and wearing sunglasses to block out the bright sun streaming through the large, bay windows. Melanie was cheerfully making pancakes in the kitchen and Lloyd was out on the deck smoking a cigarette.
“Last to the party, Ingrid. Means you have to go upstairs to my suitcase and grab more Excedrin.”
“Fuck you, Ashley.” I murmured as I dropped onto the sofa and threw my arm over my eyes.
“Guys!” Mel sang out from the kitchen. “We should go on a hike today!”
Her suggestion was met with a collection of unappreciative groans.
The hike didn’t happen until around 2 o’clock, after I’d had a shower and the boys had had a hair of the dog.
It was beautiful out, cool for that time of year, but no snow, at least. The hiking trail was well marked and easy to follow and I was glad for the fresh air. We were loud and boisterous but no one was around to hear us anyway. Our chance of seeing any animals out in nature, though, was laid completely nil. They could likely hear us coming from miles away.
I was at the back of the group with Ben and Lloyd. Ash had naturally taken the lead followed by Mel and Moss.
“How’s the music industry, Ben?” I heard Lloyd ask, nonchalantly.
“It’s good, man.” Ben seemed to hesitate for a minute. “But it needs more actual talent.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard what’s on the radio, I can’t disagree with that.” Lloyd laughed.
“I mean it needs you, man.”
“Me? I’m quit making music, you know that. I’m concentrating on writing my book.”
Book? I’d never heard Lloyd talk about a book.
“Yeah. I’m writing a book. In the high fantasy genre.”
“Oh. You know you didn’t have to, though. Quit music.”
“Are we really gonna have this argument again, man? The band broke up, Ben, what do you want me to do. That was years ago.”
“It didn’t break up, Lloyd; you gave up on Vintage Truth. Yes, Ash left but you still had me, we could have found another bass player.” Ben said, accusingly.
My ears perked up. This was a version of the story I hadn’t heard before.
“You’d just sold ‘Tempered Hearts’ to Atlantic. You think I was going to hold you back?”
“You weren’t holding me back, Lloyd. All I wanted was to keep Vintage Truth going – you knew that and you left anyway. I told you I wanted to invest that money back-”
“Ben!” Ash’s voice called out ahead of us. “Can you come up here?”
“One second,” Ben said, and then disappeared to the front of our group. I raised an eyebrow at Lloyd.
He shook his head and looked away from me, pulling his pack of cigarettes from his pocket.
“You know,” I laughed, “the fresh mountain air-”
“Fuck the fresh mountain air.” Lloyd muttered.
The smile dropped from my face. We stood in an uncomfortable silence listening to Moss tell Melanie about a terrible date he’d had until Ben returned.
“What did Ash want with you?” I asked.
“Oh, come the fuck on, Ben, what did he want?” Lloyd asked.
“He said someone was following us.”
I stopped and turned around. “What? Really? I haven’t seen anyone.”
“That’s what he said and he wanted me to watch the back of the group.”
“And did you see him? The guy following us?”
“I didn’t see shit, Ingrid.”
“That’s fucking weird.”
“Honestly, I’m not entirely sure Ash saw anything at all.”
Lloyd stared out into the wood and ran a hand through his mess of hair. “Do you think he’s still adjusting to being back?”
“Yeah, I do,” Ben admitted. “He was in an active warzone for four months. I think he might need more than a couple weeks to get used to being home.”
Over the next two days a thick blanket of tension descended over the cabin. Ash spent most of his time walking around the house, staring out the windows and going on solo hikes. Lloyd stayed in our room every day until the sun went down writing his book and Mel ferried back and forth between the two trying to get them to loosen up and socialize.
As for Moss, Ben and I, we spent our days getting drunk and trying to break up the tension. When that failed, I started looking around the cabin for books to read since clearly it was going to be a long week.
After a thorough search, I’d learned the only literature in the house was a Pictionary Dictionary and what looked like a handwritten diary.
“What the hell do you think this is?” I asked nobody in particular.
“It’s like a journal where past cabin guests write about their experiences.” Ben said from the couch nearby.
“Huh. Well, I do need something to read.”
“I wouldn’t bother,” Ben shook his head. “There’s never anything interesting in those things.”
I shrugged and threw the book on the kitchen counter, then went to grab another beer.
On the fourth day of our trip, I decided to get up early and make breakfast. I was upset that everyone seemed so down when this was supposed to be a fun trip to welcome Ashley home. It was time to make eggs and mimosas and change the waning tide.
When I walked into the kitchen at daybreak, I was surprised to see Ash standing over the sink staring out the window intently.
“Morning, Ash. What in the hell are you doing up so early?”
He didn’t answer me. I went to stand beside him and tried to follow his gaze.
“What are we looking at?”
“There’s three of them.” He said without moving.
“Three of what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay…” I backed away from the window. “Are you okay, man?”
Ash suddenly pointed out into the forest. “There! There’s one right there! Did you see it?”
I peered cautiously over his shoulder. I searched the wood but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“What am I looking for? The bear?”
“There was no bear.”
“What was there, then?”
Ash didn’t say anything for a moment. “It’s hard to describe.”
“Alright. Can you draw a picture then?” I laughed. Ash finally looked away from the window.
“Yeah, I can.”
He grabbed the cabin journal off the counter where I’d thrown it the day before and tore out a blank page. Grabbing the nearest pen, Ash made a handful of strokes and handed the paper to me.
I looked at in confusion. “This is a stick figure.”
Ash nodded and went back to looking out the window. “Sometimes they seem to disappear, but they always reappear a few seconds later, close to where they were before.”
“Okay… Ashley, this, ah, stick man thing, it has a perfectly round head like this?” I pointed to his drawing. Ash nodded.
“And little stick arms and legs? And a little stick body?”
Ash suddenly spun toward me and grabbed my shoulders. “Ingrid, I don’t want Melanie sleeping in the room upstairs anymore. I can hear them at night. They walk around on the roof and tap on the sliding door to the balcony. She needs to sleep downstairs with you. These things are not safe.”
Ash let go of me and walked out of the kitchen, taking the stairs two at a time up to his room. I didn’t end up making breakfast; instead I sipped mimosas and stared out the window for awhile, though all I saw were squirrels and deer.
Moss and Ben were the next to wake up and stumble into the kitchen. They walked right by me with a bleary-eyed nod and grabbed three beers out of the fridge, handing one to me. We drank in silence for a minute while I tried to decide on the best verbiage to tell them about Ash. Just as I was contemplating telling them at all, Mel bounded into the room and took stock of the three of us as we all froze mid-gulp. She tsk-tsked.
“Look at all these beer bottles littered around the cabin. Are you guys planning to clean up your empties?”
Moss, Ben and I exchanged glanced. Ben was first to lower his beer.
“Oh, don’t mind these fallen soldiers,” he said, bring a trash can to the edge of the counter and sweeping a group of empty bottles into it. “Thank you for your service, boys.”
Moss and I lowered our drinks and saluted the bottles as they clanged to the bottom of the trash can.
“Oh, you three are ridiculous. And probably alcoholics.” Mel laughed and shook a righteous finger at us.
“-no probably about it.”
“-cheers to that.”
“-it’s easier to do Lloyd’s mom when I’m drunk.”
Lloyd walked into the kitchen just then and threw Moss such a rage-filled look that I involuntarily took a step away from him.
“M- morning babe…” I tried.
Lloyd grabbed the nearby empty orange juice bottle from the counter and threw it into the trash. Saying nothing to anyone, he stalked back to his room just as Ash came down the stairs. He was holding his beanie and his jacket.
“Hey, where you goin’, man?” Ben asked.
“To the nearest cabin I can find.”
“Wait, babe!” Mel ran over to him as Ash turned away from us and threw open the front door. “Why? Do you want me to go with you?”
“To find more ammunition. I didn’t bring enough.”
“Enough for what….” Moss asked slowly.
“For them. They’re getting closer to the house. They’ve started coming out in the day now, too.”
“Who is, babe?”
Ben and I exchanged a glance over a confused Moss and Mel.
“Ashley.” Ben said soberly. “If someone is stalking us, let’s just leave right now. Why bother with ammunition?”
Ash laughed as if it were the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “We can’t leave. They’ve already disabled all the vehicles.”
“Of course they did.” Ash said, incredulously.
“We’ll call for a tow then.”
“Yeah, on what? When is the last time any of you saw your phones?”
I glanced around the room. Not since yesterday.
“Look, just stay in the house,” Ash ordered. “I’ll be gone five hours at the most. No one leaves, no matter what you see outside. They’ll probably be more brazen once I’m gone. Got it?”
“Ashley…” Mel whispered, uneasily.
“Just…sigh…just stay here, Mel, please. I can’t protect any of you if you go outside.” Ash walked over and hugged Mel tightly, kissing the top of her head.
“Ash, let me go with you.” Ben said.
“Ashley, take someone with you.” I agreed.
Ash let go of Mel and walked out the door without saying another word to anyone.
We spent the rest of the morning trying to find our phones, connect our laptops to wifi and start our cars. When all of that failed, we tried to drink our worries away while Mel sat on the loveseat and stared out the window arranging her gentle features to an impassive, stony expression. And when the rain set in around 1, and the thunder began to shake the house, we stopped drinking and started pacing.
Lloyd – deeply focused on his book – wouldn’t unlock the door or speak to anyone until the rain started. At that point Ben and I sat everyone down and told them we knew of Ash’s current state of mind. The five of us stood in my bedroom leaning against the wall and rubbing our faces in stress and exhaustion.
“Why the fuck did you guys let him leave?” Lloyd asked in horror.
“I don’t know!” Melanie cried. “I didn’t want him to; I tried to go with him!”
“I’m talking to these three drunk idiots over here.”
Ben opened his mouth to object but I beat him to it.
“We’re on fucking vacation, Lloyd, that’s why we’re drinking and hanging out while you’re sitting behind a closed door working on some fucking book I’ve never heard of.”
“All you, Ben and Moss have done is get drunk for the last three days, Ingrid.”
“At least we’ve been doing something!”
“Alright.” Lloyd sighed. “Let’s figure out what we’re going to do.”
“I’m going to go upstairs and lay down.” Melanie said, flatly. “Wake me up when Ashley gets back.”
“Mel-” started Ben.
“Please.” She held up a hand, “I can’t. I just need to lay down for awhile.
As soon as Mel walked out the door, Moss began talking lowly.
“Guys, it’s now been 5 and a half hours since Ash left. He said 5 hours at most. I think we should go look for him.”
“No!” Ben said quickly. “We can’t leave the house. That’s the last thing Ash said before he left.”
“Ash isn’t thinking clearly,” I interjected. “He may be hurt or lost or both. We need to go find him.”
“Does he have his phone?” Lloyd asked.
“No one has their phones.” Ben’s voice was impassive.
As Lloyd listened to Moss and Ben make their arguments for going after Ash or listening to his warning, I stared out the window at the trees Ash had been watching earlier. Movement had caught my eye beyond the treeline and I was desperately trying to find what was out there. But, in the darkened, stormy sky, the task was almost impossible. I listened absentmindedly as I searched.
Lloyd: “What made him think there were any cabins nearby?”
Moss: “I figured he saw one on the way in.”
Lloyd: “And what made him think those cabins had spare ammo?”
Moss: “I think that was a gamble on his part.”
Lloyd: “So then he must have seen something that really freaked him out.”
Ben: “He did.”
Lloyd: “Then, what, he disabled all the cars himself? And stashed the phones somewhere?”
Ben: “This is really not good, guys.”
Moss: “Look he’s our friend and he needs help. Whatever he’s doing, you know he doesn’t realize he’s doing it.”
There! There it was. In the trees. Something was high in the trees, hanging on one branch from their arms and standing on the one below it facing the cabin. There was no way it was an animal. Even in the dark and the distance I could tell it was human. Just as I was about to point it out to Lloyd, lightning flashed and my night vision disappeared. I would have looked for the figure again but something else had caught my eye in the half second of light. Something that was in the clearing that shouldn’t be there.
Without saying a word, I walked out of the room and down the hall to the living room. Though the sky was dark and the light was minimal, there was no denying what was laying out in the darkness.
The boys had followed me with questions and alarm but when they saw what I saw the cabin went silent.
“What the fuck…”
Moss gave a nervous laugh. “He’s fucking with us. That’s Ash fucking with us. It has to be.”
“I don’t think so,” Ben whispered.
Through the sheets of rain and the encroaching fog on the mountain there had appeared a fresh mound of dirt the size of a person and a large rock that seemed to serve as a tombstone.
It was a grave, though I had no idea if anything was in it. I tore my eyes from the macabre scene in front of me and Lloyd suddenly grabbed Moss and pinned him up against the wall. I hadn’t heard was said, but Lloyd was suddenly very pissed off.
“Is that another fucking joke about my mother, Moss?!”
“No! No man, I was just saying-”
“I’ve had enough of your goddamn shit. If you ever-”
“Lloyd,” I screamed at him, “Let go of him. Since when do you give a wet fuck about Moss’s jokes? We have bigger issues right now!”
“Stay the fuck out of this, Ingrid.”
I looked to Ben for help but he was still staring at the grave outside.
A creak of old wood behind us broke the spell and we all turned to see Mel coming down the stairs.
“Why are you guys yelling?”
I took a step toward her like I was trying to corner a frightened animal. “Mel…”
“Has Ashley- what the fuck is that?”
Lloyd let go of Moss and took a step toward Melanie’s other side. “Mel.”
Mel stumbled on a stair but caught herself. “Is that a fucking grave?”
“Mel, relax, it’s just Ash fucking with us,” said Moss.
“Shut up, Moss, Ash didn’t do this.” Ben snapped.
“Is that a fucking grave?!” Mel yelled and bolted for the sliding glass door to the deck.
She slid the door open and was about to run out into the rain when Ben caught her around the waist. “You can’t go out there!” He yelled.
Mel collapsed in a pile of tears and moans.
“It’s him! It’s Ashley, he’s dead! Oh my God, Ashley no, fuck, who did that. Who put him in there? Ashley…”
Ben deposited Mel on the loveseat and Lloyd closed the door. Mel buried herself in the cushions and sobbed.
“If it is Ash in that grave, “Lloyd whispered to us. “Then who buried him?”
“Ask Ben.” I shot Ben a questioning look. It was clear he knew more about the situation than he was saying.
He returned my look with one of warning.
” I know you saw something, too, Ben.”
“Well, what did you see, Ingrid?” Moss asked.
“I- I saw someone in a tree. I think. They were hanging from one of the branches at the top.”
“Yeah,” Ben sighed. “I’ve seen them, too.”
“Them?” Lloyd raised an eyebrow.
“Or ‘it’, rather. It’s not a person.”
“Well, then what is it?”
“It’s…hard to describe.”
“Wait!” I ran into the kitchen and grabbed Ash’s drawing off the counter.
“Did it look like this?” I held the paper out to Ben.
“Yes. Sort of. I mean I think so, I didn’t see it that well.”
Moss laughed. “That’s a stick figure. Big round head, lines for body and limbs… That’s a child’s drawing.”
“No,” I said, “It’s Ashes depiction of what is out there, this is what he thought he was seeing. Look, if it’s Ash or somebody else – and fuck, I pray that it’s Ash – I agree with Ben that it’s not safe. Maybe they’re just trying to scare us but either way, we can’t leave this cabin.”
“Somebody go get Ashley…” Mel moaned from behind us.
Lloyd shook his head and gave her a gentle look. “There’s nothing we can do, Mel.”
The rain let up as the sun set that night, though we had already been under darkness for hours from the storm. We’d agreed that Moss and Mel would sleep on the 2nd floor – the main floor – with everyone else. We also decided to rotate sentry shifts all night so that someone was always awake waiting for Ash and watching for the figure in the woods. All except Mel, who was an inconsolable mess. She was the first to pass out.
I conversed quietly with Lloyd until Moss and Ben went to Ben’s room down the hall to sleep.
“I don’t want to sleep, Lloyd. I can’t.” I whispered in the darkness.
“You need to try. Your shift isn’t until 4am.”
“I don’t want to sleep in the back bedroom alone.”
“Then you shouldn’t. Go get the quilts and pillows and sleep out here next to Mel.” He yawned.
“It’s freezing out here.”
“I know, Ing, I’ll go down to the basement and throw some more wood in the furnace. I would have done it earlier but…that room freaks me out.”
“I haven’t been down there yet but everything about this cabin freaks me out. Are you gonna be able to stay awake until Moss’s shift?”
“Yeah, I’m going to write.” Lloyd pointed to his laptop on the couch.
I gathered up 2 quilts and a pillow from our room and left the rest of the bedding for Lloyd. Even though I didn’t feel at all tired I fell into a dreamless asleep almost immediately. I woke up just as the first rays of sunlight were drawing the darkness from the room. I shot up when I realized I must have missed my shift.
Mel was still sleeping next to me, shaking in the cold of the morning. It was clear Lloyd had never put more wood in the furnace. There was no one else in the room.
“Lloyd?” I yelled down the hall. He didn’t answer.
“Lloyd!” I yelled louder and got to my feet, dropping my quilts over Melanie.
A door opened and a red-eyed Ben stumbled out. “What’s wrong?”
“I slept through my shift. Did you?”
“Yeah…I think Moss took them all. Is he not out there?”
“No. Is he not in there?”
We both turned our heads at the same time to look down the hall at Lloyd’s door. The implication was sobering. Ben turned back and gave me a nod that acted more as an agreement between us. He turned back down the corridor to check on Lloyd and I drew a deep ragged breath before I turned around to do my part.
And it was there, the thing I hadn’t wanted to see. A second grave had appeared next to the first; with another giant rock to serve as tombstone.
“We have to wake her up soon.” I looked over at Mel as I sat on the couch absentmindedly folding and unfolding Ash’s drawing over and over.
“Not yet.” Lloyd stared through the window at the rain and smoked out of the cracked door.
“So…he didn’t say anything to you? Did he tell you he was planning to go outside?” I asked.
“He didn’t say anything to me. I woke Moss up, told him it was his turn, he nodded and then got up and I went to bed.”
“We told him to stay in the cabin,” Ben muttered, shaking his head. “It’s not safe out there. They’re out there.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“Does it matter?” Ben didn’t spare me a look.
Lloyd flicked his cigarette outside and slid the door shut. “Not anymore. This is only a game of survival now.”
“Yes it does matter,” I countered. “Part of surviving is knowing how to defend ourselves.”
“Then we do what Ash told us to do and stay in the cabin until someone comes looking for us.” Ben said.
“And if Ash is the one doing this?” I shot back.
“It’s NOT Ash.”
Mel continued to sleep while we argued quietly with each other. The rain the day before had left the mountain cloudy and soaked in mist. The graves were thankfully concealed by a thick, gray fog by the time Mel woke up.
The entire morning something had been bothering me about the room we were standing in. Something was not right, something had changed. I could see it there out of the corner of my eye. But every time I turned to look nothing was out of place. It distressed me to the point that I brought it up to Ben and Lloyd.
“Do you guys notice anything…I don’t know, different around here?”
“Yeah. There are graves in the front yard.”
“No, Lloyd, I mean different about this room. Something is agitating me…”
I followed my peripheral vision around the room again but nothing popped out at me.
“No, Ingrid. Right now we’re trying to figure out how best to survive outside of the house.”
“Wait, we- we’re leaving the cabin?” I sputtered.
“Lloyd thinks we should,” answered Ben.
“What, no, why the fuck would we do that?!”
After continuing to argue for hours with Ben and Lloyd about the best course of action we decided that, in the absence of phones and neighbors, the two of them would have to try and fix one of the cars with their limited knowledge of mechanics. Since Lloyd’s jeep was the oldest – and therefore, they reasoned, the most mechanically simple – they decided to work on that car first.
I was to stand guard on the overlooking deck and watch anything that moved. Ash had taken his gun with him when he left the day before, but we reasoned a warning was better than nothing at all.
Mel spent most of the morning sitting on the deck with me, watching the trees through the fog. I don’t know when she noticed the absence of Moss and the appearance of the second grave but she never said anything about it either way.
The boys had only been out there an hour when I heard a loud thud from above us. It had come from the roof.
“Mel, did you hear that?” I whispered.
She nodded but continued her vigil over the wood. I leaned over the railing and yelled down at Ben, who was sitting in the front seat of the car keying the ignition.
“I’ll be right back. Mel will watch you guys.”
Ben nodded but Lloyd had his head buried in the engine which was desperately trying to turn over. Mel turned her head to look down at them but otherwise seemed uninvested.
“If you see anything, yell out, ok?”
Mel gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“I mean it, Mel, anything.”
Having no plan at all except to hope I’d hear it again, I went inside and climbed the stairs to Mel and Ash’s room on the 3rd floor. I stood there quietly for what seemed like ages with only the sound of the jeep turning over to pierce the silence of the mountain. Finally, I went to the sliding door to look at the treeline of the forest, which was now almost entirely veiled by fog.
And then I heard it. But it wasn’t a thud…it was footstep. I caught my breath. And then another footstep. Someone was walking on the roof directly above me. They were slow, heavy, careful footsteps.
On blind, dumb instinct I ripped open the sliding door to the balcony. Just as I took a step out, an earsplitting scream sliced through the chill, outside air.
I spun away from the door and ran down the stairs as fast as I could, falling once on the landing. I jerked on the front door to run outside but it wouldn’t budge. In desperation, I ran out onto the deck to find Mel where I’d left her – completely unaware and again staring at the trees.
I ran to the railing and saw only one person; someone was running towards a copse of trees and dragging something behind him. It looked too tall to be Ben or Lloyd. I screamed for Melanie and she instantly snapped out of her spell.
“Wha- what happened?”
“Didn’t you hear Lloyd scream?!” Mel followed me inside and I again tried the front door, screaming for Ben and Lloyd in blind panic.
“Ingrid?” I heard a voice echo up the basement stairs.
“Ben!” My voice broke over his name.
I ran down the basement stairs skipping two or three steps at a time as Mel hurried behind. When I reached the bottom, Ben was standing in the doorway of the basement bedroom holding a small, black box.
“Ben, where’s Lloyd?” I choked out as soon as I saw him.
“Where the fuck is Lloyd?!”
Ben looked perplexed and nodded at the open door I hadn’t noticed before. “He’s still out with the car, wh- why aren’t you guys watching him?”
“He’s not there,” I shook my head in despair and tears spilled down my cheeks. “I heard him scream and I just saw someone running away from the jeep.”
The small box fell from Ben’s hands and crashed to the floor, assorted tools fanning out in every direction. I made for the door but Ben caught me in one arm and slammed the door shut with the other.
“No, Ingrid. Don’t.”
I thrashed against him ineffectively until I melted into a sobbing pile of broken girl at his feet. Ben sat down on the floor next to me and held me while I convulsed in sobs. Mel watched the scene for a moment and then slid down the side of the old, metal furnace to rest her back against it and silently cry.
I don’t know how long we sat there but it felt like only minutes. The tears hadn’t even dried from my face when we heard a door creak open upstairs. I knew immediately it was the jammed front door.
Mel’s eyes widened and Ben slowly let go of me and stood up. He put a finger to his lips and began quietly climbing the stairs – we’d left the basement door open.
Mel and I barely breathed as we heard Ben’s footfalls reach the landing. Suddenly there was the sound of heavy footsteps running across the floor above us. We heard Ben run up the rest of the way to the door and slam it shut. Then silence. Mel and I got to our feet.
Ben descended back down to the basement and by the time he got to the bottom his face had drained of color and his body was wracked with shudders.
“Who was it, Ben?”
“Was it Ashley?”
Ben shook his head and ran a trembling hand through his hair. “The- the door locks from this side. We should be safe.” But I didn’t think a locked door was going to stop it.
We sat Ben down and Mel held him while I paced around the room. There was no more sound from above but that meant we hadn’t heard the thing leave, either. I walked back and forth the basement floor staring out the window as I passed by it until the fog momentarily cleared and I saw the third grave. Lloyd’s grave. I grabbed onto the window ledge as my legs gave out beneath me. I tried to recover quickly, for Mel’s sake. I knew she was barely holding it together.
“What? What is it?” Mel asked.
“Nothing. It’s nothing; I just haven’t eaten in a couple days.”
Ben gave me a look that said he knew what I’d seen and Mel sprang up to run to the window since she wasn’t buying it either.
“No…” Mel whispered and her voice cracked. “No! We have to find Ashley. He can stop all this!”
Before I could grab her, Mel was on the staircase, taking them two at a time.
“Mel!” I screamed at her.
“What if that was Ashley up there? What if he’s come back for us?”
Melanie, being the gentle soul that she was, just wasn’t prepared to handle anymore. She had finally snapped and was out of her mind in grief and fear.
By the time I caught up with her, Mel had already throw open the basement door and stepped out into the living area. There was nothing there. I entered the room cautiously behind her and immediately noticed that whatever had been bothering me that morning was still there and that the uneasy feeling it gave me was more pronounced than ever.
“Melanie…” I breathed. “We have to get out of here.”
I stepped toward her to drag her back down the stairs but she bolted for the front door which was still standing open. I took one last long look around the room figuring that – since the feeling was now so strong – it should be easier to discover the source of it. Failing, I ran out the door and down the stairs after Mel.
By the time I reached the ground, Ben had already thrown open the basement door and was ahead of me in the chase. By the time he reached her, Mel was tearing through the wet soil of the first grave plot with her bare hands.
Ben went to pull her away and then suddenly froze. I came up next to him and watched as Mel tore through the mud and dirt for an eternity until she finally hit packed earth.
“It’s empty.” She looked up at us with mud and tears dripping down her face. “Ashley isn’t dead!”
“Ash is alive…” I breathed. “Are- are all of these graves empty?”
I walked over to the grave that would have been Lloyd’s and began scraping away the loose earth. It was much easier to dig up than the first plot had been because the grave was fresh and the dirt was dry. Mel sat back on her haunches and watched me hopefully as Ben stared out ahead of us.
“Ben, fucking help me.”
“Guys, we have to go. Now.” Ben said without looking away from the trees.
My fingers caught on something hard deep in dirt. And I didn’t have to know much to know I was suddenly holding a rib cage. I jerked my hand out in horror.
I fell back on my hands and recoiled from the hole in revulsion.
Mel shook her head in disbelief. “But…”
“Then it’s Ash!” I screamed at her. “It’s Ash who’s doing this! He’s killing everyone, he killed Lloyd!”
Mel shook her head fervently and stood up to walk over to me. “How-”
“He’s been murdering us, Melanie, don’t you get it? His mind is fucked. He killed Moss and he killed Lloyd and he’ll kill you too. He’s out there right now-”
Melanie pulled her hand back and cradled it to her breast. “How dare you. How dare you?! You’re supposed to be his friend, Ingrid, you’ve known him all your life. Ashley didn’t do this. Ashley would never hurt the people he loved!”
I cupped my cheek with the hand that had so recently held Lloyd’s bones. “There is no other possibility, Melanie.” I said, icily.
She took a step away from me, and opened her mouth but it fell into a gape and her face suddenly went white. Mel stumbled and fell to the ground but was back on her feet in an instant. She looked up at the house and then back down at me.
“He deserved better from his friends, Ingrid.” Mel’s voice cracked and then she turned and fled for the treeline.
“Ben!” I screamed, “Stop her!” But Ben was already moving toward me at lightning speed. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet and back toward the cabin.
“Ben!” I screamed. “We have to get Mel!”
“Mel is gone, we can’t help her now.”
As soon as the door to the cabin closed behind us, I ripped off my mud caked jacket and threw it at Ben.
“What the fuck are we doing?!”
“They were there. They were out there.”
“There is no ‘they’, Ben. There’s only Ash.”
“No, Ash is dead; he was probably dead within minutes of walking out of this cabin.”
“Then where’s his body, Ben? Why was his grave empty?”
I knew I was starting to snap. The shock, the absurdity of it all…my brain couldn’t compartmentalize it anymore.
“I don’t know. It was the first grave; it was made to- made to draw us out there.”
“By Ash. There’s no other logical-“
“No,” Ben shook his head, “Mel was right, Ash wouldn’t do that.”
“Well he did do that.”
“Because there’s no other alternative-”
“Those things we’re seeing aren’t Ash!”
“-and I refuse to believe that stick figure people-”
” You have to accept the fact-”
“-are running around the woods killing our friends-”
“-that we’re being hunted out here-”
“- and field-stripping their dead bodies!”
“-by something fucked up and inhuman!”
“-when it’s clearly Ashley suffering from some sort of PTSD!”
“It’s not Ash, Ingrid.”
“He murdered Lloyd!”
“Listen to me-“
“Ashley fucking murdered Lloyd!”
“I DID IT! Okay? I killed Lloyd!”
I shook my head, disoriented and took a step backward.
“It was me, Ingrid! I killed him.”
“Why are you saying that…” I choked.
“Because it’s true. Out by the jeep-”
“And I’m pretty sure that Lloyd ki-”
“Ingrid, you have to listen to me if you want to survive. Those things, they have this power – when they’re near you – to make you so angry. Fuck, I mean, fuck, I just, I couldn’t stop beating Lloyd’s head in with a-”
“STOP!” I gasped, trying desperately to draw air into my lungs. I clutched the back of the couch for support. I could feel a blind, foreign rage building in me and I turned my knuckles white trying to quell it.
“Are you on Ash’s side?” I whispered, finally. “Did he tell you to hurt Lloyd?”
“No, I just…I just killed him.”
“And who peeled the flesh from his bones and buried him in the ground then, Benjamin?” I said and was unsettled by the flat, impassive tone of my voice.
“Why would they do that?”
Ben nodded to Lloyd’s computer, which was sitting open on the coffee table where he’d left after he went to bed at the end of his watch.
“Read what Lloyd has been writing, Ingrid.”
Keeping a wary eye on Ben I rounded the couch and picked up the computer, waking up the monitor with a swipe of my finger.
There were only 15 pages – which didn’t seem like much for the days he’d spent locked away writing – and while it started out like any other story, the text quickly descended into nonsense and random strings of alphanumeric until the last three pages on which he’d simply typed It Eats Us over and over again.
I slammed the laptop shut and threw it on the loveseat. Then I walked over to fridge, pulled out the last beer in it – one of Ben’s- and dropped down into the nearest chair.
Ben hadn’t moved.
“I’m so sorry, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. I loved Lloyd like a brother and I just snapped. I was just holding the crowbar and thinking about-”
“Stop talking, Ben.”
He stopped but choked on a pent-up sob. Ben was right. Mel was right. It wasn’t Ash, it couldn’t be. It was something else all along, something that lived out in the wood.
“Ingrid, I have to-”
“Ben, the only reason you’re telling me this is because they want you to, I’d guess. I don’t have a reason to hate you and so they’re allowing you to give me one.”
Ben and I looked at each other and then at the door to the basement. It was coming on the stairs.
I knew it was over, we were totally fucked. There was nothing left to do but die. I raised my beer to Ben, gave him a solemn nod, took a long gulp and then hurled the bottle at the basement door where is shattered into tiny pieces.
“Ingrid. Ingrid, please.” Ben brought my attention back to him and he looked at me pleadingly, through the veil of a thousand different emotions. Run.”
Before I could respond, Ben dove for the basement door and threw himself down the stairs. I shot up out of the chair in horror as his body made the most tortured and sickening screams I had ever heard.
I stood there for long seconds listening to his flesh ripping apart to the soundtrack of a low, satisfied growl.
I was frozen. I was alone. And as I looked desperately around the room for something to fight it with, I found the thing that I couldn’t see before, the thing that had bothered me about the room since Moss disappeared.
And it wasn’t unexpected or unsettling; it was just…out of place.
There had appeared sometime overnight a long, very thin black line that ran vertically against the wall from floor to almost ceiling. It was hard to see and at first glance it appeared to be a crack in the wood but when I really looked at it, it somehow wasn’t actually on the wall at all.
And then, as I was studying it, it moved and expanded to become the tall, black stick man from Ash’s drawing. No, it hadn’t expanded…it had turned toward me. And the thing was as thin as a piece of construction paper.
I can tell you that when you’re presented with something so impossible and something so innately wrong, you don’t scream. You don’t gasp. You just stand there frozen with confusion and, in my case, crippling fear.
It took another creak from the basement stairs to snap me out of my catatonia. The creature that had been quietly standing in front of me suddenly sprang to life and ran at me with all the fluidity of an animated drawing.
Since it was between me and front door I turned and fled out onto the deck through the sliding glass door which Mel had left blessedly open. I ran to the end of the patio, and without taking half a second to think, climbed over the wooden railing and jumped off.
I heard the bones break underneath me when I landed but adrenaline kept the pain from crippling me entirely. I ran as best I could across the clearing toward the treeline. The fog thinned suddenly in the direction I was running and I saw the third stick man waiting for me in the trees.
I quickly tried to change course and fell on my broken ankles. When I looked up to see if it was coming toward me, I saw that it wasn’t actually a stick man at all, it was something almost worse. It was Melanie.
She was hanging by the neck from a tree branch, facing the cabin and, consequently, me. I was on my feet and running toward her in under a second. When I got to her I could tell immediately that I was far too late and too short to reach the branch she was hanging from. All I could do was watch her dead body swing in the wind and cry. The rope she hung from looked like it couldn’t hold her wait, but it did. Where did she even get it?
I looked back at the house then, to see if the stick men were close, but it wasn’t them that I noticed. It was what Melanie had seen out at the graves, the thing that made her run.
Ash was on the roof, lying there, splayed out for us all to see. His head was untouched and his face held a look of intense pain and horror. His hands and shoes were pristine, too. But the rest of his body; from his neck, to his wrists, to his ankles were picked clean of flesh. He was simply a brittle skeleton with a face.
So, they had done this. They had done this to Ash and they were doing the same to Mel, giving her the tools she needed to die. And soon she would look just like Ash did. I couldn’t bear the thought.
I tried everything I could think of to get her down from the tree until the physical pain ebbed in and, just as it did, I saw the shape of a stick man walking toward me through the fog. I told Melanie I was sorry and then I ran, falling only once as I sprinted away from the horrors of the mountain.
The Stick Man never caught me because it didn’t want to. After hours of walking, when I thought the agony of my broken bones and soul was going to kill me, I could still see them in the wood. And Ash was right, there were three. They would appear as a silhouette and then disappear as they turned to walk and reappear…well, anywhere. But they would always end up closer to me than they were before.
And then, long after night had fallen, I tripped on a dirt road and didn’t get back up. I stared up at an empty, starless sky and waited for a passerby or a Stick Man to claim me. It ended up being the former.
No one ever believed me about the Stick Men.
They told me all of our phones were found in our rooms. They said there was nothing wrong with the cars. That may be true now, but it wasn’t then. I know they’ll never believe me about what really happened out in the woods, but I’ll always know. The Stick Men stripped our souls away. And then the Stick Men ate what was left.