Horror and Thriller Fiction posted February 26, 2021


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Local legends are just ghost stories...or are they?

Cabin Fever

by Lyn Peters


The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.
Welcome, young lady. Do come in and make yourself at home.

When I agreed to share my family's story, we did not discuss the fact that I was an infant when the tragedy occurred. Your readers would not believe a newborn's account to be credible, so I will tell the story as Mother and Tommy told it. Their accounts never varied. Your readers can rest assured that I've told the unvarnished truth. We do want your integrity, as a reporter, to remain intact, do we not?

Oh dear, you've just arrived, and already I've caught you peeking at your watch. No need to look contrite. I am an old woman, and you are pressed for time. Sit down, dear, and I will begin.

Mother spoke of Annie, and of Father only during our annual pilgrimage which elevated Annie to the status of saint and ensured that we understood Father to be a monster. I resented Annie's sainthood and those trips back to that awful place, during the early years. But, in time I understood that humans use rituals as a form of cleansing. Who could blame a mother for trying to make peace with such horrors? I am certain, though, she never found the peace she sought.

I want to make clear that, despite her tragic fate, Annie was not the only victim in this family tableau. I doubt that Mother was prepared for the twist fate dealt her. Few women can see the tears waiting behind the bridal veil. You are not married? And you have no children? I think we can agree you have made better choices in life than Mother made in hers. She was a spoiled girl who was charmed by a boy who was pretty on the outside, and ugly mean straight through to the core.

Father's boss, Jeb Fisher, did what he could for Mother and her brood. Mr. Fisher sent the family to the cabin. I don't say he knew tragedy would occur at Crater Lake. I believe that Mr. Fisher thought he was doing the family a favor. He knew how little money Father had to spare, and he knew the cabin was cheap. I suspect he believed a week in a cabin would be better for mother and a newborn than a week in a tent.

Kindness was in short supply in Mother's life. She disobeyed her parents when she married Father and her act of willfulness was intolerable to them; they disowned her, leaving her to fend for herself.

Miserable though her marriage was, Mother brought five children into that sorry clan, Annie was the first and I was the last. Between came three boys in quick succession - Tommy, Billy, and Joey. Tommy was Mother's only surviving son, but I don't know I would count Tommy lucky, given what he saw that night.

Mother's youngest had no hand in the tragedy at that cabin and Tommy was just a little boy barely bigger than a whisper, and skinny as a scarecrow. I saw a picture of him, is how I know first-hand how small and frail he was at age four, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Tommy did nothing wrong and he could not have changed a thing.

Oh dear, I've caught you again, glancing at your watch. I don't blame you. Please, forgive an old woman's rambling.

Mother's recollection always began with: 'My youngest was sickly and the thought of tending a squalling, vomiting, baby while bumping along miles of miserable roads felt impossible, so I asked your father to postpone our vacation or go alone that year. But that annual outing was precious to Father, whose real aim was to find a local bar and park himself on a stool where he could drink away his sorrows and forget he had a wife and house full of brats to clothe and feed. He would not agree to go alone because he needed a woman to fix his food and wait on him. His bar-fly gal pals weren't going to clean up his puke or scrub the stains from his underpants.'

At that point in the recollection, Mother's lips would curve into a haunted smile and she would acknowledge that she did as she was told. She packed the clothes, filled a picnic hamper with hard boiled eggs and bacon grease sandwiches, and climbed into the cab of the truck with her sick infant in her arms. Father hoisted Tommy and Annie into the bed of the truck, covered them with a tarp and warned them to be still.

Before they got very far, Father wound up splattered with sour milk, which set him to cursing and swerving so violently, mother feared Tommy and Annie would be thrown from the truck bed. Tommy took a good knock to the head and Annie wound up with a fist sized bruise on her thigh. Later, Mother was asked about the bruise on Annie and the bump on Tommy's head, but she kept her silence and authorities made up their own minds. Not that it mattered, but her refusal to explain might have been a small step toward freedom.

When we arrived, Mother was left to tote the clothes and kids inside, while Father high tailed it down the hill to the communal showers. Mother had just settled her baby girl into a fitful sleep when Father reappeared. He was freshly shaved, his hair was washed and combed and he wore a smile and a shirt that didn't reek of vomit. He said he was 'going exploring', which Mother knew meant he was going in search of the nearest bar where he would sit, for hours, trading lies with the locals and spending what little money they had on drinks.

Mother said nothing, because there was nothing to say that wouldn't get her a smack in the mouth or a boot to the behind. She was too sore and tired to be willing to risk either so, she ducked her head and watched her husband stroll to the truck. Only as he drove away did she remember the basket of food she'd left on the seat of the truck. There would be no lunch or dinner for them, a thought she said made her feel 'bone weary'.

With the baby asleep, Mother went out to the yard where she drew a line in the dusty earth with the toe of her sneaker. She issued strict instructions for Annie to watch Tommy, and make sure he didn't stray beyond the line. When Tommy asked if there would be lunch, she gave him a look that warned against asking such questions, and trudged back inside to tend to her youngest.

The day was hot and the cabin stifling, and Mother meant only to lie down and rest her eyes for a little while, but she fell asleep. It's not like she did anything wrong, but in telling the story she always said, 'I admit, I fell asleep with a sick baby beside me, and two littles left to wander.' So, because that's the way she told it, that is the story to be told.

When Mother woke, the sun was low in the sky. She bolted to her feet, her heart hammering, believing she'd heard a child's panicked shrieks. She stood in the gloom, on full alert, a heavy silence pressing in on her and she relaxed a bit, thinking the screams had been nothing but nightmare echoes. How cruel that instant of relief proved to be.

There were no lights on inside the cabin and the shadows were deep, so it took longer than it might have for fog of sleep to clear. When it did, she saw a large shape in a corner of the cabin crouching over a smaller form. It took long seconds for her to recognize the huddled form on the floor was Annie and the looming shape was her little girl's father. He seemed to be stroking Annie's hair, the way a normal man might pet a dog. But Father was not given to touching and stroking--he was a man who punched and kicked.

Mother took a step forward, her mouth working to shape jumbled thoughts into coherent
words, but at that moment I started to wail, and she turned to tend to me.

As she bent to shush me, Mother heard the sound of a blade sinking into raw flesh. She turned, smiling, thinking of fresh rabbit or squirrel stew, and saw what Father had done with hunting knife he carried in his belt. Her smile morphed into a scream.

The sound of Mother's howls brought both the manager and his wife running to cabin four. Father was standing over Annie, holding the bloody knife when they burst through the door and the manager, shotgun quivering in his fat hands, ordered Father to move to the table and sit. Father offered no resistance. He did as he was told and sat rocking slowly to and fro mumbling incoherently.

The manager switched on the only light in that cabin and the single bulb cast a feeble glow. It might have been kinder to have allowed the dark to swallow the scene, but I suppose Mother needed to see that her little girl's spirit had moved on.

Through the years the gossips and the nay-sayers held firm to the belief that the shock and grief experienced on that evening created a terrible illusion. They said Mother could not have seen what she claimed. No one believed that when Mother approached the body crumpled on that filthy floor, she gazed down into a face that did not belong to her Annie, instead she claimed to have seen the face of an ancient hag with age-spotted and sallow skin. People called Tommy crazy too, for sticking to his story about the old woman who fed him cookies and then disappeared like windblown smoke. Of course, no one could explain the chocolate smeared on Tommy's mouth, or the milk moustache Annie wore. But people don't always allow facts to get in the way of what they choose to believe.

That cabin next to number four was boarded up when the family arrived on the day Annie met her fate, it had been for years. An old woman had been murdered in that nasty place and local legend held that the woman's soul was caught there, unable to move into the afterlife until another soul volunteered to take her place. But no one beyond the age of ten was going to admit they believed the stories so eagerly shared as entertainment round the campfire or whispered in the dark to frighten 'fraidy cats.

Tommy told his part of the story every year, during our pilgrimage. And his story never varied any more than Mother's did. He and Annie explored the area inside the line Mother had drawn, but they grew bored and hungry and when the lady in the house next door called them over and offered them cookies and milk, they went.

Remember, this was back in an era when children respected and trusted adults. "Stranger
danger" was decades in the future. Two hungry young children, in that day and age, would no more have thought to decline the offer of food and drink than they would have thought to talk back to a grown-up.

Tommy insisted there were no boards on the windows or doors. He was firm about how the woman stood in the open doorway waving to them, and when they walked into the house, sunshine poured through the windows.

Tommy said the woman was old, with lots of wrinkles and a long, hooked nose. He said the woman smelled funny, but she was nice, and the cookies were warm and tasted so good he bit his tongue in his haste to fill his empty belly. When she asked them if they wanted more, they both said "Yes, Ma'am" and "Thank you, Ma'am," and the woman pinched Tommy's arm and said he was just a skinny as a scarecrow.

"Would you sell your soul for a good, hot meal?" She asked, leaning so close to Tommy that her breath made his eyes water. Tommy turned his head away from her and, before he could say a word, Annie piped up and said, "Yes ma'am, I would sell my soul if it meant I never had to go hungry again." That was it. That's all it took. One small slip of the tongue by an eight-year-old girl who just didn't know any better than to sell her soul for a full belly.

Until the day he died, Tommy was haunted by the vision--one minute the old woman was standing beside him and the next she disappeared, evaporating like mist in the morning sun. The sight so terrified Tommy that he turned and ran, looking like he'd seen a ghost which, of course he had.

Things might have been different, but Father came along at that moment, with Tommy
streaking past him, screaming like a banshee and Annie chasing after him cackling about rejuvenation and her plan to take a second soul to keep as a spare.

Father, spent the rest of his days on Death Row trying to convince anyone within hearing
distance, he was protecting his little girl from evil, that he would not have harmed a hair on the girl's head. Even as they lead him to his death, he insisted his intent was to rid her of the demon that had taken her. He had no way of knowing this, but he succeeded.

You see, an infant's soul is so fresh and new and can so easily be snuffed out, during those early, vulnerable weeks of life. It took no effort at all to slip away from Annie and ensure myself another century of life.

Now though, as you are aware, we are approaching the centennial anniversary of the murder at Crater Lake. My time is nearing an end and I want, very much, to extend my stay on this plane but the world has changed so. Children are much more wary of strangers and parents much more attentive than they were in bygone days. How lucky for me you called, asking to interview me for your story.

No need to look at your watch now, dear. You must realize your time is up. You see, when I feigned disinterest in your project, you did specifically you said you would 'sell your soul for an interview'.




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© Copyright 2021. Lyn Peters All rights reserved.
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