Weird Fiction Monday: Away From It All

It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers!  As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.

This is another one from the archives, first written at the end of 1998.

Away From It All

When people are dying mysteriously in the mountains, a clever vacationer can get a really good deal on a hunting cabin out there. At least that’s what Mark had told them when he agreed to make the arrangements for them that summer. As it turned out, the deal wasn’t so great, and people were still dying under mysterious circumstances by the time of the trip, but they all had money to kill, and vacation time to burn, and guns to defend themselves with, so they decided to make the trek anyway.

They used Jake’s Cherokee to cover most of the distance from the big city, and Toby volunteered to drive it as far as they could take it. The cabin wasn’t accessible by road, so they had to park the jeep in a small lot about seven miles away and make the rest of the journey on foot.

The walk was hard than any of them expected. Up and down the foothills they hiked, and across small runoff streams, following the thin, almost nonexistent trail that the cabin’s lessor had promised would lead them to their vacation spot for the week. Not surprisingly, well before the log-constructed edifice came into view, Toby was complaining quite vocally about the long walk.

“I just don’t see why we need to be situated so far away from everything,” he said, pulling at the straps to his backpack uncomfortably. “I’ve seen hunters perfectly happy working right off the expressways.”

Jake looked sideways at Mark, then turned to look back at Toby.

“How many deer do you think we’ll get stomping through the bush with an army of other guys? This is the way to hunt – away from everyone and everything. Except the deer.”

“Even the deer probably don’t come this far,” Toby muttered.

Mark and Jake exchanged another glance, and the implied question between them was easily understandable. Would they have to put up with this shit for the entire week?

“Besides,” Mark said to Toby, waving an arm vaguely at the forest around them. “We’ll only be making this hike one more time – to leave. We’ll spend the week sitting in place, waiting for the animals to come to us. And we’re here already.”

The trail they had been following wandered to the edge of a reasonably large clearing and faded out. The cabin awaited them within the clearing. Jake noticed with some displeasure that it seemed a little older and less sophisticated than Mark had suggested it would be, and he wondered if that had been Mark’s exaggeration or the owner’s. This building might be a hundred years old, or more. The exterior wood was almost completely blackened, the result of the rot of countless winters. The top of the chimney listed grossly towards the surrounding forest, as if it were trying to tear itself free. Low, stunted weeds grew all throughout the clearing, leading right up to the first steps of the cabin.

“Great, eh?” Mark said cheerfully, stepping forward. Whatever Mark was seeing, his reality didn’t match Jake’s or, clearly, Toby’s. A glance back convinced Jake that Toby shared his rather dim view of the structure. They were a three hour walk from a twenty minute drive to civilization, though, and the sun was close to setting, so they followed Mark through the weeds up to the building.

Toby had fallen silent; he was either placated by the prospect of sitting down or too damn tired to complain any more. Either way, Jake was thankful.

And other than the ghastly age, the building would probably be okay. The front of the cabin sported a porch with an overhanging shade; if there were chairs inside, that porch would be an ideal place to sit and have a smoke and a beer after a good hunting day. If the interior was acceptable, they might survive. The front window was obscured by faded yellow curtains, but two doors, one on either end of the porch, led inside.

“This rocks, doesn’t it?” Mark said, reaching the stairs of the porch. He stumbled there, his rifle sliding off his arm and banging heavily upon the wooden steps.

“Watch that first step,” he said, shuffling up.

“Isn’t that our line?” Jake muttered, and Toby snickered.

“No, I mean it’s not nailed down right, and it wobbles a lot.”

“Great,” Jake said, shaking his head and looking back at Toby. Toby was busy painfully sliding his gear from his shoulders, though, and didn’t catch the glance.

“Don’t even start,” Mark chided playfully, looking back and forth between the doors.
“The left goes to the kitchen, I think, and the right to the living room.”

He made his way to the door on the right and right before it he paused. A moment later he turned with a blank expression on his face.

“What’s the matter?” Jake asked him, finally reaching the porch.

“I forgot the keys,” Mark said, and as the other two just stared at him, he laughed. “Just kidding.”

“Wouldn’t that have been great,” Toby chirped, finally making it up the porch steps. “Stuck a billion miles from humanity, in October, with the sun almost set, locked outside of our shelter for the night.”

“With who knows what running around out here,” Mark added. Neither of the other two needed to know what he was referring to – they had seen the news stories. What most people thought of as a serious concern, though, Mark took as an added thrill. On that point, Jake didn’t agree.

He looked up at the dwindling sun. They had started their drive that morning an hour later than they had originally planned, and the walk from the car had taken them well over three hours. Any longer, and they might have been finding their way in the dark.

“Don’t worry, fellas,” Mark said, testing the keys on the door. “We could take care of ourselves, even if we were locked out. We’ve got food, we’ve got clothing, and most importantly – we’ve got ammunition.”

“And beer, right?” Toby asked, and Mark nodded, delighted.

“We should at that! Just let trouble come and find us!”

The owner of the cabin had promised to stop out with his ATV and leave several cases of beer stocked.

Mark grunted, jiggling a key in the second lock on the door. “It wouldn’t be able to get through the door any better than I can.”

“But now, gentleman,” he said, finally unlocking the third and last lock, “I give you – our hunting headquarters!”

With that statement, Mark threw open the door.

“Nice,” Jake said, looking in over Mark’s shoulder. The interior was dark, but enough light filtered in through the curtains and door to show that the furniture was haphazardly arranged about the living room. Several plastic chairs – no doubt the porch chairs – were stacked just inside the threshold, almost blocking entrance. Beyond those, an old lime green couch clashed its colors against the yellowish paint upon the walls, with a coffee table resting before it that was fabricated of some incongruously dark wood. What Jake took at first to be a breach in the rightmost wall turned out to be the fireplace, and at the far end of the room, next to a hallway leading further back, a squat organ was wedged into the corner.

“See?” Mark said, stepping inside and shoving the plastic chairs out of the way. “I told you it was nice.”

“I was being sarcastic,” Jake answered with a tight smile, following him. Behind them, Toby gathered his things and followed.

If the cabin owner had stopped by to leave some beer as he had promised to do, he hadn’t aired out the place while he was around. The smell of must and mothballs filled the air. Jake dropped his gear just inside the front door and went over to the front windows. The wood was warped, but with some effort he was able to open them a crack.

“Damn! We need some fresh air in here!” Toby declared as he came inside. He stopped for a moment and looked around. “No television?”

“If you can find another window in the kitchen, we’ll get a nice cross breeze coming through,” Jake said, walking further into the room. Mark had stopped over at the fireplace and was giving it a cursory inspection.

“No problem,” Toby answered, “I need to stash my food anyway.”

“We’ll need to turn on the power,” Mark commented from within the fireplace, his voice ringing hollowly. “The switchbox should also be in the kitchen.”

“I’ll see if I can find it.”

Toby grabbed his pack and his rifle and walked over to the kitchen.

“I’m trying to open the flue,” Mark explained to nobody in particular, squatting within the fireplace. “It’ll be a cold enough night that we would probably appreciate a fire.”

“Whatever,” Jake said, stepping to the back of the room. He walked over to the organ, touched lightly on some of the keys. No sound came forth. Did one need to press a foot pedal or something, or was it just broken? Probably the latter; there was no doubt that the cabin was pretty much a wreck. They wouldn’t even have hot water; the cabin didn’t have a water heater. They were paying too high a rent for certain, especially in light of the troubles that had happened in that very area.

Jake tapped the keys a bit harder. Was that nonsense still on his mind? Bad things happen to people everywhere in the world, and something those things happen near where you are. A few groups of hikers had run afoul of something bad in the woods and had not survived the experience. That sort of thing happens.

Get over it, Jake told himself.

He had just moved to go down the hall to the bedrooms when Mark cursed behind him.
Jake turned back, expecting to see some new antiquated cabin horror, and was therefore unprepared for what was really there.

“What the fuck?” Mark said unevenly, and Jake unconsciously nodded agreement.

There was now a dog sitting in the living room, a fucking dog! It had apparently entered the room while the two men were investigating the various room furnishings, and now it just sat in the middle of the room, looking at them with bright eyes. It was panting quietly in that happy way that dogs pant, and its tongue was lolling out of its mouth.

“Where the hell did you come from?” Jake said. Mark stumbled to his feet, and together the two men stared at the intruder. Distantly, Jake realized how silly the scene would look to an observer: two rugged hunters speechless and stunned at the sight of a husky – or whatever kind of dog it was. He couldn’t decide on the creature’s breed.

Toby came to the threshold of the living room.

“What are you guys – Jesus!” he said, finally noticing the animal. “What’s that wolf doing in here?”

Mark laughed nervously. “It’s not a wolf – probably a stray, looking for scraps.”

The men and beast watched each other warily – or at least the men were wary. The beast seemed perfectly comfortable and calm, and cheerful as can be. In fact, it seemed hardly to care about them at all, for the most part –

“It seems interested in you, Mark,” Toby said.

That much was true. The animal hadn’t even turned to look at Toby when he came to the room. Its eyes remained watching Mark, and it sat patiently.

“Well, what are we going to do about it?” Toby asked. There was a heavy pause in the room, and the men looked at each other.

“It’s probably looking for some food. Get some food,” Jake said at last, and Toby nodded agreement and went back into the kitchen. They couldn’t have a strange animal wandering about their home, could they? An image of a hollowed out, bloody chest cavity, with ribs protruding forth, came to Jake’s mind, a picture that had been posted on one of the online tabloid sites. No dog like this could have done that sort of act, though.

In a few moments, Toby was back, fiddling with a package of freeze dried provisions.

“Toss a little to it here, and then we’ll toss the rest outside,” Jake ordered. Without a complaint, Toby broke off a small piece of the ice cream sandwich he had brought and lobbed it towards the dog. Did the animal’s eyes flicker briefly in Toby’s direction? If they did, they came back instantly to Mark and stayed there. And they didn’t glance at the food at all.

“Try it, boy, try it,” Mark was saying to the animal, motioning down to the food. The dog was unimpressed. Mark turned towards the kitchen.

“Dammit, Toby, couldn’t you have gotten something more appealing to a dog than freeze-dried ice cream?”

Toby shrugged. “How am I supposed to know what dogs like?”

Mark sighed, heading towards the kitchen himself, and as he moved the dog burst into motion as well, moving after him. It brushed easily past Toby, eliciting a cry from him, and cut the corner just before it reached Mark, moving out of sight beyond him in the kitchen. Jake hurried to the doorway beside Toby.

The dog was sitting again, facing the men, its tongue still hanging out happily. And it was still watching Mark. Mark stood in the kitchen, one hand frozen upon the package of beef jerky he had been about to open.

“Jesus, it really is interested in you,” Toby said shakily.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mark snapped, but he seemed a little uncertain himself. Jake didn’t know what to say at first.

“Mark, come on back into the living room,” he eventually said softly. Mark nodded, and backed away from the dog towards the connecting doorway. Just as Toby and Jake started to move aside to let him pass, the dog leapt to its feet again, racing ahead of Mark back into the living room area. Its fur brushed lightly against Jake’s leg as it passed.

“Shit,” Mark said, standing in the doorway. Jake turned to look at the dog. It was sitting in the center of the living room now, resting upon the faded rug.

“What the hell do we do about it?” Toby whined. Jake looked at him. Toby was visibly upset, his hands clutching tightly the remains of the ice cream sandwich.

“Mark,” Jake said evenly, “Why don’t you walk outside?”

“What the hell will – oh,” he said, “I see.” He stood in place for a moment longer, glaring at the dog, and then with a snort he walked over to the open front door and stepped just beyond it. The dog remained in place; the only change in its behavior was to cock its head slightly.

“I told you it wasn’t watching me,” Mark said irritably. He pulled a piece of beef jerky from the container and began to nibble upon it.

“Move further away from the door,” Jake said, watching the dog. Mark laughed and took several more steps, moving out of the doorway. Through the front windows they could see him shaking his head. When this change of position also produced no reaction he turned and stomped down the porch steps into the weeds.

That did produce a reaction. As his foot cleared the bottom step, the dog stood up and trotted over to the open doorway, and just beyond it sat down again, watching Mark.

Jake took a step towards the dog. It didn’t turn towards him as he moved, even though his footfall was clearly audible. The head slightly cocked again, though, and an ear twitched. It was listening out for him.

“This is bullshit,” Mark protested, marching back up the steps to the door. As he approached, the dog loped back inside, moving near the passage to the kitchen. Toby shied away as it approached.

Mark walked back in and looked at the dog. Jake almost laughed at the dour expression he gave the creature.

“Scram!” Mark shouted, stomping his foot towards the animal. The dog didn’t move. It seemed quite unperturbed.

“Beat it! Beat it!” Mark yelled, waving his arms and stomping his foot again. He might as well have told the dog to stay.

Jake shrugged. He could probably just stand there all night and enjoy Mark’s irritation, but they did have some unpacking to do. And they certainly weren’t going to let some flea-ridden mongrel camp out in their living room. Jake moved towards the dog, shaking his head.

“All right, boy, enough’s enough,” he said, and reached out to grab the fur at the back of the dog’s head –

– and suddenly, the dog was growling at him. Jake’s hand froze well before he touched any fur. The animal’s demeanor had changed instantly; one moment it was sitting there with a light doggy smile, looking at Mark, and the next it was filled with anger and threat, all directed at Jake.

The creature snarled, and all three men stood silent. Jake slowly pulled his hand away and stepped back, and as he moved a respectable distance away, the dog looked back at Mark and seemed perfectly happy again. It was as if its emotions were on a switch. One moment it was all fangs and growls, and then… nothing.

The dog licked its chops casually.

“What the fuck…” Jake said aloud, and he meant it.

“I’m going to… to go unpack in the bedroom,” Toby suddenly said, moving away from the kitchen towards the back hallway. His eyes were as fixed upon the dog as the dog’s were upon Mark. “It’s getting late, after all.”

He moved past the dog, and the two other men, and disappeared into the back of the cabin. The dog didn’t seem to notice him leave.

“Son of a BITCH,” Mark snapped, storming over to his gear by the front door. As he moved that way, the dog suddenly stood and moved towards the center of the room again, driving Jake towards the back wall and the organ. Mark grabbed his rifle and, fiddling for a moment in his pocket for some ammunition, began to load it.

“Mark, what are you doing?” Jake asked, though he knew damn well what Mark was planning to do.

“I’m going to blow this thing’s head off,” Mark said, raising the rifle.

The dog just remained where it was, directly between the two men. It looked back once towards Jake, and it looked like it was smiling. Some fun now, it seemed to be saying.

“Don’t be an idiot, Mark,” Jake said, moving around the dog and between it and Mark. A glance back showed that the dog had cocked its head to keep an eye on Mark. “Do you want to spray dog’s brains all over the place? Do you want to clean it up? Or pay for the cleaning?”

“Fucking thing’s pissing me off…” Mark argued, waving an angry hand towards the thing.

“Look, it’s a damn dog,” Jake interrupted, dropping his voice to a whisper. He wondered why he was bothering to do so. “Just go out the door like you did before…”

“What the hell good is that gonna do?” Mark snapped.

“… and I’ll shut the front door behind you. You just walk over to the kitchen door and I’ll go over and open it up for you. You come in, dog stays out. Fine?”

Mark seemed stunned by the simplicity of the plan.

“Just put down the damn gun.”

Mark slowly unloaded the rifle, and propped it against the edge of the fireplace. Jake motioned an arm towards the front door, and Mark marched out without comment. Jake watched him go. When Mark had almost reached the kitchen door, the dog stood up and trotted outside after him.

“That’s it, stupid,” Jake muttered, closing the door behind the dog. This would end their little dance, he reckoned, absent-mindedly twisting the multiple locks on the door shut.
And the dog did seem to treat it like a game, he thought, moving towards the kitchen. That dog had been looking at Mark like it was expecting to be played with.

Or fed.

As Jake walked, an odd thought occurred to him.

You don’t get between a dog and its food; that’s why it had growled at him. Another image from the tabloids, of chewed, dismembered bodies, picked apart at leisure, came to Jake’s mind. But this time he couldn’t push the image away.

“Jake!”

Mark had screamed out Jake’s name in a voice so high pitched it sounded comical. Suddenly Mark was pounding frantically on the locked kitchen door and rattling the doorknob in a desperate attempt to force it open. Jake turned to look outside, and his heart skipped a beat as the creature on the front porch with Mark, no longer quite a dog, moved rapidly past the front window towards its meal with its talons outstretched.

*********************

Lots of my stories are based on dreams that I’ve had, this one perhaps much more than others.  Almost the entire structure of the story — hike to the cabin, the odd game with the dog and its transformation at the end — came directly from one particularly disturbing dream that caused me to jolt awake at the end.

It’s probably worth noting that the role of “Mark” was originally played in my dream by my friend Damon.  That reminds me that I should share the story of how Robert Bloch and H.P. Lovecraft killed each other off a number of times in their fiction…

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