He waited. A bead of sweat traced along his eyebrow. It tickled. He twitched his cheek and blinked, trying to get the droplet to fall. He wanted badly to reach up and wipe his face, but he dared not take a hand off the gun. Despite the pleasant October temperature, his body was overheating from the tension of the moment. How long was he supposed to wait before the coast was clear? It’s not a coast, it’s a cabin, a voice in his head chimed in. It’s a figure of speech, he parried. Bolstered by the annoyance of his inner dialogue, he removed his left hand from the gun and reached for the key in his right pocket. It was a slight struggle to reach the envelope and he had to twist his hip left and up, at one point leaning the barrel of the rifle against the door to balance himself. Finally he was able to pinch the edge of the envelope between two of his fingers and gingerly lift it from his pocket. He tore it open with his teeth and the key slid out into his palm. The gun was getting very heavy at this point, so once again leaning the barrel against the door he reached out for the padlock. There’s nobody inside.
Brady’s sudden outburst was so loud and so unexpected that Richard’s body reacted before his mind had a chance to chime in. Adrenaline hit him like a punch to the gut and in a fraction of a second spread out in a wave across his body. His eyes bulged and his muscles flexed involuntarily from the added stimulus. Just as his brain was about to tell him to calm down, it was just Brady, it had an entirely new, and much louder noise to decipher. An experienced gun owner will tell you to keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. He may have told you, but apparently he hadn’t bothered to tell Richard. The deafening noise that erupted from the muzzle two feet in front of his face, and probably the recoil as well, sent Richard flying backward off the porch. He landed flat on his back, his limbs splayed out in four different directions, the gun knocked from his hands.
The echo of the gunshot seemed to go on forever, but long after it ended, the ringing in Richard’s ears still sang. He closed his eyes. The grass was warm and tickled his bear arms and neck. He usually avoided lying in the grass; too many insects. He always imagined ants crawling into his clothes and through his hair. Once as a child while playing outside with his siblings he sat up after a tumble through the grass and felt something crunchy at the back of his mouth. He spit it into his hand and saw the masticated remains of a ladybug. He rose to his elbows and looked ahead at the cabin door and the bullet hole it now displayed. That will have to be fixed. How would he explain it to Kevin? He probably wouldn’t have to, he never came up here, would probably never know. But for his own sake he’d better fix. It wouldn’t do to have a gaping hole in the door letting insects in at night. Duct tape would block the whole for now; he’d worry about a more permanent replacement later. He did remember to pack duct tape, right? Yes. Bottom of the pack, next to the-
The cabin. Intruders. The gun. The fall must have knocked the sense out of him. He scrambled for the gun and swung around to face the cabin. No one had come out since he fired. He hadn’t heard anything either. Where was Brady? He looked around for the dog. Probably hiding. That was one hell of a noise. He rose to one knee. His shoulder ached from the rifle’s kick. That will take some getting used to. On his feet again he approached the cabin, more quickly this time.
“Anyone in there?”
The question came out a hoarse croak. He tried to clear his throat and realized how thirsty he was. He took the porch and reached into his pocket for the key. Setting the gun down against the doorframe he undid the lock. He was no longer thinking about squatters, he was trying to do as little thinking as possible. He was keeping embarrassment at bay as long as he could. When that stopped working, he’d start rationalizing his actions. He had every right to be cautious, he told himself. Everyone knew animals had a sixth sense about things. He picked up the rifle and cracked open the door. Seeing nothing, he pushed it open a little further. It was pitch black inside. The sun was coming from behind the house. He looked to his left and saw the window was shuttered. They all must be. He looked again into the interior darkness of the dwelling and decided to remove all the shutters first. Good decision. But first he would get a drink of water. Maybe find Brady. Another good decision.
He reached into the Jeep for his water bottle and upended it, relishing the cool liquid as it wet his dry mouth and throat. He finished the rest of the water and dropped the bottle onto the front seat.
“Brady! Brady, here boy!”
Richard paused to listen and was taken off-guard when a slobbery tongue attacked his face. He turned to see Brady’s saggy face staring at him. The dog must have retreated to the backseat of the car when the gun went off. Richard scratched Brady’s head reassuringly and the dog relaxed.
Careful to take the gun with him under his arm, Richard approached the front of the cabin to inspect the window. Nailed shut. That could be a problem; he hadn’t packed a hammer. Maybe he’d have better luck with the other windows. He rounded the cabin to the left and proceeded to check the only window on that side, finding it in much the same condition as the first one. He sighed. It was going to be a dark week. The two windows on the back of the cabin where also nailed shut. He pulled at one of them: it didn’t budge. Fully expecting the remaining windows to complete a matching set, he was surprised to find no windows at all on the right side. Instead he found a wall of ancient tools. Chains, traps, saws, picks… Richard set the rifle down and traded it for an axe. Most of the tools were rusted from years of weather and disuse, but the axe, while certainly not new, at least looked as though it had been kept indoors. He ran is thumb along the blade and discovered it was still sharp. A stack of wood sat under a small lean-to at the side of the cabin, and a chopping block a few feet away, but there were no signs the axe had been used recently. He set the axe back in its place on the wall and spied a crowbar. Just what the doctor ordered.
Snatching it off the wall, and nearly forgetting to grab the rifle in his excitement, he took the crowbar to the first window and got to work pulling nails. They gave surprisingly easy and the shutters were pulled back in two moment’s time. He dropped the nails into his pocket and moved around to the second window, making quick time of its shutters, too. Richard allowed a smile to creep across his face. The embarrassment of his fearful display just moments earlier was being ebbed aside by the small satisfaction he received from triumphing over the windows, because this put him back on equal footing with the cabin. Cabin one, Richard one. To Richard, this was the turn of the tide. The cabin had him at a disadvantage upon his arrival. He was out of his element, the cabin definitely in its. But as the last nail squeaked in frictional resistance before giving up its hold of the last shutter, Richard was confident he would prevail over anything the cabin, or the mighty forest in which it stood, had in store for him.
The shutters open, ambient light poured into the rustic cabin, giving Richard his first revealing look at the interior. Not much to write home about. But he wasn’t here to write about the cabin itself. Stepping across the threshold he found himself in a modest foreroom. Must have been the original hunting shack. It was furnished with a wood burning stove against the right wall, a wooden rocking chair, a simple, hand-made four-legged table, matching chair, and an oil lamp. Against the wall to his left was a hutch, out of place in the cabin with its intricate wood carving and elegant design. To his right was the kitchen, but to call it that was a serious exaggeration: a sink, another wood burning stove replete with oven and range, a small piece of butcher’s block for a counter, another lamp, and empty pantry shelves. A door in the upper right corner of the foreroom sat slightly ajar. Richard stepped in and put his hand to the door, opening it slowly. A brass bed-frame supported an ancient, naked box springs and a mattress that’d seen better days decades ago. Next to the bed was an end-table with wash basin and pitcher, and across the small room was a chest-of-drawers, a lamp and vanity mirror. Out from under the bed poked a chamber pot. God almighty, I hope that’s empty. Richard patted the mattress and a cloud of dust billowed up around him. He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed and the springs groaned and creaked loudly beneath him. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep. He looked out the window and saw the sun sinking low on the horizon. Better unpack before dark.
Richard returned to the Jeep, threw his pack on his back, and grabbed the duffel in one hand and the suitcase in the other. While packing for his trip he felt no small amount of pride at being able to carry everything he needed for a week away on his person at once. Minus the sack of apples and sack of potatoes, but he wasn’t counting those. He set the bags down in the foreroom and entered the bedroom. There he flipped the mattress over and unrolled his sleeping bag on top. In the kitchen he filled the empty shelves with the canned and dry goods from his pack. From the Jeep he then brought in the perishable apples and potatoes and set them high on the shelf. He looked at the layout of the foreroom. This won’t do. With great difficulty, he dragged the hutch to the same wall as the front door. The sun was setting behind the cabin, making that the west wall, and the left wall the south wall. His home office was set up so that his writing desk faced the south window, preventing any glare from hitting his computer screen. Ignoring the fact that he had no computer or electricity at the cabin, Richard determined it was still the best arrangement for writing. He placed the table and chair in front of the window on the south wall, and the rocker against the west wall. He stood back to admire his work. It wouldn’t win him any design awards, but it suited his needs.
Finally he picked up the suitcase and laid it carefully on top of the table. He unlatched it and raised the lid as if opening a treasure chest long hidden. Richard sat and marveled at what lay before him: a portable typewriter. His fingers ran over the keys, up from which stuck the purchase receipt. He plucked the receipt up and placed it into his wallet. He bought the typewriter months earlier on a whim, before the idea of his forest retreat had occurred to him. Looking back on it he believed it to have been prophetic. A sign that he was meant to be here, to do this. That his plan would succeed. He found it quite by accident. On a day like any other he found himself with a sudden urge for adventure and so paid a visit to a thrift store he had driven by hundreds of times but never stopped. Thrift stores were not Richard’s style, but that was the point – adventure! As much as he felt comfortable with. He took his time, perusing the aisles, picking up and looking over many of the items. He spent a solid twenty minutes practice swinging the discount golf clubs. He was fascinated by the number and diversity of things for sale. While in the house wares department he came upon what he thought was a suitcase. Assuming it had either been placed there by mistake, or more likely, by some teenage punk who thought he was being funny, he decided to play Good Samaritan and take it back to the luggage department where it belonged. But when he tried to hoist it up he found it much heavier than expected. That punk’s gone and filled it with something. Frustrated, he knelt down to open the suitcase. His frustration was quickly replaced with awe. He snapped the lid shut and hauled it to the register and purchased it without a second thought. He was not an impulsive person, and so it is no wonder that without a plan for its use, he placed the hastily bought treasure in a closet and soon forgot about it until Kevin’s words “no electricity” caused the synapses in his brain to pull the memory of the typewriter to his conscious mind.
Richard pulled a stack of paper from the duffel and rolled one blank sheet into the machine. He sat with his fingers at the ready on the keys. And he continued to sit, motionless. I need a drink of water. Richard sat up and walked out to the Jeep to grab his water bottle. Empty. Taking the bottle to the kitchen faucet, he turned the tap on, and nothing happened. Not even a drip escaped. Kevin said there was running water. He knelt down and looked under the sink, but the only pipe was the drain. He stood up and realized the water pipe was coming from the ceiling. Rain catch. He hadn’t taken notice of it earlier, but he did see a large barrel or drum at the back corner of the cabin. Richard walked outside and around to the back. Sure enough, the roof gutters all fed into a fifty-gallon drum, raised up on a scaffold. It occurred to him that ten years of debris probably chocked the gutters and that whatever water was in the drum was stagnant and undrinkable. It also occurred to him that he failed to bring any water of his own, save what he filled his water bottle with at the house. And that water was long since drunk. Cabin two, Richard one. He worried more for Brady’s sake than his own. The dog hadn’t had a drink of water since they left the house. He decided to get to bed early to get an early start on the day. First thing’s first – clean water supply.
As he stepped onto the porch to enter the cabin, he heard Brady bark yet again. Maybe bringing the dog was a mistake after all. It came from behind the cabin, where he’d just come from. Richard rather perturbedly rounded the cabin to bring Brady inside. Brady was acting as before when they first arrived, hunched over and growling, this time not at the cabin, but at the outhouse behind it. He realized he had failed to inspect the outhouse yet. Not about to repeat his embarrassing display from earlier, he was about to tell Brady to knock it off when he heard scratching come from inside the outhouse. He froze. His mind immediately searched for his gun. It was propped next to his bed. He looked to his left, toward the wall of tools. Toward the axe. As quietly as he could he side-stepped toward the cabin and lifted the axe from its perch. Brady barked again, and again the scratches from inside the outhouse. Mustering every ounce of courage he had and taking out a loan for the remainder, he found enough to approach the tiny structure, axe in hand. Brady watched his master tread stealthily forward. Richard reached out for the door but snatched it back when he heard more scratching and saw the door move slightly. He swallowed hard and reached out again with his left hand, the axe held high in his right. Counting down from three to himself, he threw open the door with a yuppie-Viking cry – which turned immediately into a shriek as a raccoon burst forth from the outhouse and scrambled for the cover of woods. Brady took off like a shot after it, his blood-hound instincts taking over.
Richard called out after him, but all he heard were the diminishing sounds of the chase. He faltered for just a second before running into the woods after Brady, knowing full-well there was no way he’d be able to keep up, and that it was possible to get lost in these woods. But reason yielded to his attachment to Brady. He paused to listen for any sounds of his dog, heard scurrying ahead, and took off in that direction. Every few moments he paused to listen and chased after the noises he hoped were Brady. There was maybe a half-hour of daylight left before the forest was plunged into darkness. If he didn’t find Brady soon, he’d have to backtrack to the cabin alone. The forest seemed ominous and foreign in the orange/purple light of dusk. Shadows stretched into unnatural and sinister shapes. Crickets and other nocturnal creatures began to stir and fill the air with clicks and song. He paused again to listen and heard something not far off. He jogged toward the sound and to his great relief found Brady sniffing at the ground. Richard exhaled an enormous sigh of relief and knelt down next to the dog. He scratched Brady’s back and haunches. Brady meanwhile was engrossed with something on the ground in front of him.
“What have you got there, boy?”
Richard leaned forward to inspect what held the dog’s attention. The smell hit his nostrils at the same moment his eyes fell upon what made the smell. Richard reeled back and stood up, coughing. He looked again, from a safe distance, at the remains of… a small animal was the best he could tell. A bloody skull stared up at him from empty eye sockets, and fur was scattered everywhere. It was a kill site, for sure. His first thought was what kind of predator would leave only fur and a skull. His next thought, and slightly more urgently, was to wonder if it was still nearby.
“Let’s get out of here, Brady.”
Having sufficiently sniffed the area, Brady was content to follow Richard away. The two of them turned their backs on the remains to retrace their steps back to the cabin. Unseen by either of them, behind a tree opposite the kill site, sat a neat pile of the dead animal’s internal organs.