The tires crunch the gravel driveway in a satisfying way as she pulls up to the cabin. The sound draws out a memory of summers in New England. Only the gravel was seashells then, millions of them, smashed up and laid down as filler for their family vacation home. Rachel shakes her head, erasing the thought. No memories. Not now.
She parks the Honda and looks over her new home. It isn’t much, just a simple cabin, four walls of weathered clapboard on a raised foundation. The wood is grey and bare except for a few small patches of stubborn flaking paint, likely white at one time, but aged with grime that makes it the same color as decayed teeth. There are long smears of rust from dozens of nail heads that look like draining bullet wounds. Bushes and trees push in on the structure from all sides. Vines cover the south wall, tentacles stretching from ground to roof, fingers dug into the seams between the boards, prying into them and buckling them outward. It looks as if the forest has been caught in the act of choking the cabin to death right before she showed up and ruined all the fun.
“Lovely,” she says, opening her car door. She points to Underwood and Daniels. “You boys stay here. I’ll check things out.”
She closes the door and presses her key fob, chirping the locks. It’s a ridiculous notion as she doubts there is anyone around for miles. But some things are hard-wired into her. A decade of living in New York doesn’t leave a person unscathed.
She walks up to the gate on the picket fence that stretches across the front of the house. She marvels how it hangs slanted on its hinges and creaks back and forth in the breeze in a perfect horror movie way. It makes her smile. As does the bleached white bull’s skull sitting on a rock next to it, thick horns arching up over its cracked bones and vacant, staring eye sockets. Her kind of place.
She nudges the gate open and walks through.
There’s a door halfway down the length of the wall. Because of the raised foundation, there are old, crooked stairs that lead up to a small landing. The wood creaks in protest as she puts her weight on the first step and tests whether it will hold her. She’s not so sure. From where she stands she can see that the top section of the door was a screen at one time, but it’s so shredded and baked by the sun that it looks more like a nest of spiderwebs hanging there. Through the hole she sees the heavier interior door with four window panes. This door’s cracked open, which surprises her.
“Hello?” she calls out. She looks at her watch. She’s early but the person she’s meeting must have arrived before her. But there hadn’t been a car. None that she’d seen anyway. “Anyone there?”
Only the wind answers, rustling through the trees that sway in a slow dance overhead. The frayed strands of the screen lift into the air briefly, then resettle. The interior door doesn’t move.
It would make sense to walk up the three stairs and knock on the door, but something about the whole situation bothers her. She walks past the door and heads around back.
The cabin is right on the water’s edge of the lake and, as far as main attractions go, this one doesn’t disappoint. A small grass yard, surprisingly cut down so it looks like a plot of green suburbia right there in the wild, stretches the thirty feet from the deck attached to the back of the cabin down to the water. It is a gentle slope, which explains the need for the cabin’s raised foundation. A floating dock extends like a single finger into the water and ends with a rectangular platform on which sits a single Adirondack chair. She spies a canoe off to the side, stored upside-down, weeds growing up around it.
But the view beyond the pier is the star of the show. The lake is deserted, the wooded shoreline unbroken by another cottage as far as she can see. Gone are the evergreen pines from the drive down, replaced by the riotous colors of the birch and elm in the peak of their fall transformation. The sun has dropped low on the horizon and sets the forest on fire, sparking a thousand diamonds on the lake surface rippled from the breeze.
“Can I help you?” a man’s voice says to her left.
She’s so taken in by the view that she doesn’t even turn.
“I don’t think you can,” she whispers.
“Will you let me try?” he asks.
She turns as the man walks up from the water, a form silhouetted by the sun. She squints to get a look at him, feeling a tingle of anticipation, hoping.
“I don’t tend to accept help from strangers,” she says.
“And I tend not to rent my cabin to them. First time for everything, as they say.”
“Who says first time for everything?”
The man shrugs and steps forward. “Just people.”
He wears blue jeans and a flannel with rolled sleeves. A few days of beard growth covers face, but it makes him look rustic unlike those pretentious fakes in men’s magazines. Although she figures his strong jaw and blue eyes alone could have gotten him work in one of those publications if he wanted it.
He holds out his hand. “Name’s John.”
She takes his hand and shakes it, noticing it’s softer than she imagined which puts his whole outdoorsy look into question.
“Rachel,” she says.
He smiles like her name is a snippet of attractive music.
“What do you think of the place?” he asks. “Will it work?”
She looks back out over the water. It’s exactly what she needs, the place she would paint as her perfect spot if she had any skill with a brush at all. “It’s fine,” she says.
He grins as if he can see right through her and knows she’s dying to sit in the chair on the dock, feel the wind on her skin, the sun on her face. Just her, a notebook and Mother Nature in all of her soothing grace.
“Okay, it’s more than fine. It’s perfect,” she says.
Title: The Torment of Rachel Ames
Author: Jeff Gunhus
Genre: Thriller / Horror
Suffering from writer’s block, novelist Rachel Ames escapes to a lake cabin to calm her mind and regain a sense of herself. The location is perfect. Isolated. Beautiful. Inspiring. It even comes with a good-looking landlord who shows an interest in her. But she can’t shake the sense that something terrible has followed her to the lake, something just beyond her consciousness, something out on the edge where the sounds of a raging fire and sirens linger whenever she slows down to listen. Determined to make the cabin work, she tries to settle in and give her new life a chance. But when strange things begin to happen around her, she wonders if she’s made a terrible mistake. As the darkness that’s followed her manifests itself in inexplicable ways, her concept of reality is stretched thin and she realizes nothing at the lake is what it seems. As she fights to survive with her sanity intact, she understands too late that the location she’s chosen for herself is far from perfect.
Jeff Gunhus is the author of thriller and horror novels for adults and the middle grade/YA series, The Jack Templar Chronicles. The first book, Jack Templar Monster Hunter, was written in an effort to get his reluctant reader eleven-year old son excited about reading. It worked and a new series was born. His books for adults have reached the Top 100 on Amazon and have been Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Finalists and Gold Medal Winners.
After his experience with his son, he is passionate about helping parents reach young reluctant readers and is active in child literacy issues. As a father of five, he leads an active lifestyle in Maryland with his wife Nicole by trying to constantly keep up with their kids. In rare moments of quiet, he can be found in the back of the City Dock Cafe in Annapolis working on his next novel.
Author Site: www.Jeffgunhus.com