Rose hadn’t been to her family’s cabin since four Christmases ago and, up until a week ago, had no intention of going back anytime soon. But her therapist had insisted that it was an “invaluable part of her psychological reconciliation,” and for a hundred fifty dollars a session, she wasn’t planning on ignoring her advice. So 5pm on Friday evening found her sitting in her car, contemplating the looming, blurred silhouette of the log cabin, taking hold and letting go of the door handle over and over.
“I don’t think the emotional healing starts until you actually go in,” said Brady jokingly.
Rose ignored her girlfriend’s remark and continued her staring contest with the house. She knew she was being ridiculous; it was just a house, just ceilings and floors and walls and a roof. There was no horrible evil waiting for her just inside the door—no kidnappers or ax murderers.
Brady reached over the center console and squeezed Rose’s hand. “You don’t have to do this yet if you don’t want to.”
Rose shook her head as if to clear it, her chestnut bangs falling in her eyes. “Yes, I do. I can’t keep being afraid of an empty house,” she said with a confidence she wished she really felt. “I’ll be fine,” she turned to Brady and did her best to muster up a reassuring smile, “I promise.”
If Brady had any doubts, she kept them to herself, simply giving Rose’s hand one last squeeze. They climbed out of the car and retrieved their overnight bags from the trunk before following the gravel driveway up to the front of the cabin.
Tucked away behind at least half a mile of forest, the Moran Family Cabin was the same as it always had been. Rose swallowed down the lump in her throat as she took it all in: the stepping stone pathway that cut across the yard, the familiar scent of smoke and pine needles on the bracing early winter air, the pile of firewood stacked precariously on the porch, and, of course, the sign above the door that read Moran Castle.
Rose’s father carved the makeshift sign out of a piece of firewood after her brother, Lukas, had dubbed it thusly when he was nine and preoccupied by all things fantasy. To him, the cabin was his fortress, and the surrounding forest was a vast kingdom that was his to rule and protect from all manner of creatures and villains. Rose, a whole five minutes his elder, thought her brother’s name for the cabin was silly at the time, but now, twelve years later, she looked at the crookedly carved letters and smiled.
Rose dug her keys out of her purse as she and Brady climbed the porch steps and came to a stop in front of the door. She felt Brady’s eyes on her as, clutching the key with white knuckles, she built up the courage to open it. Taking a steadying breath, she stepped forward, unlocked the door, and, after hesitating half a second longer, turned the knob and pushed the door in.
For a moment, she felt peace. And then everything inside her cried out in pain.
As she looked around the living room, memory after memory flashed in her mind. Huddling with Lukas in front of the fireplace to thaw after they fell in the lake one Christmas. Spending 12 hours on the worn, leather sectional and playing a marathon session of Bioshock. Accidentally scorching the rug when they’d tried pot for the first time.
The loudest sound she’d ever heard. A murder of crows suddenly and urgently taking flight. Tearing through trees and bushes. The forest floor drenched in snow and blood. Too late. Too late.
Every nerve in her body burned in protest. She couldn’t be there. Brady was right. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t supposed to feel pain—not here. Moran Castle was everything she loved: winter, string lights, candles, fleece blankets, the smell of apples and spice, falling asleep to the sound of owls from outside and Lukas’s snoring from the bed next to her’s. These things weren’t supposed to hurt her. They were supposed to make her feel safe. Leave, her brain wailed at her. Get out now.
“I can’t,” said Rose, shaking her head vehemently. “I can’t do this.”
“Rose, hey.” Brady took hold of Rose by her shoulders. “You can.”
“No.” Tears ran freely from Roses eyes now as her breathing got tighter and faster. “I can’t. There’s too much of him. I c–I can feel it,” she stammered, grabbing her head as if to show where. “It hurts.”
“Hey, look at me,” said Brady, gentle but firm, ducking her head slightly to meet Rose’s eyes. She brushed away a few of her tears with her thumb. “It’ll be alright. You said it yourself–it’s just an empty house.”
Rose nodded. After a few moments, her breathing slowed down and the tears subsided. “I’m okay.”
Rose and Brady left their things by the door and starting walking to other parts of the house. At first, the pain was still strong—tight in her chest and heavy in her head. But then after a few minutes, as she wandered from the living room through to the rest of the house with Brady close behind her, the pain began to dull. She paced carefully through hallways and in and out of rooms, glancing her fingers over the distressed wood of the walls, and an old, familiar warmth diffused the air around her and calmed the pulling in her chest. Happier, safer memories chased away the scary ones, and the resistance and tension in her muscles melted away bit by bit.
Eventually, they ended up back in the living room. Brady turned to Rose and took her hand. “Are you gonna be okay?”
Rose squeezed her girlfriend’s hand and nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
The next morning, Rose did everything she could to avoid going into the backyard.
While she felt happy with the progress she had made the night before, the cabin itself was only half the battle. In order to face the problem head on, she had to go back to the exact place where it happened.
Far more easily said than done.
But Rose knew that she couldn’t put it off any longer; this was why she came, after all. She went downstairs to the kitchen where Brady was waiting for her by the backdoor. Rose held the door open for them as they stepped out onto the back porch. The morning chill took hold immediately, causing goosebumps to rise even under her coat, as they stared at the dense wall of trees.
Rose sighed deeply but nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
“I’m sure. I have to do this by myself.” She stepped forward off the porch, snow crunching under her boots, before turning back to look at Brady. “You should wait inside. You’ll freeze to death out here.”
Brady nodded, leaning forward to kiss Rose and whisper a quick “good luck” before she turned around and went back inside.
Rose faced forward again, taking in another deep breath before she started walking. As she crossed over the edge of the trees, she felt optimistic. Yes, what she was doing was scary, and yes, she would be lying if she said she wasn’t nervous, but she’d felt the same nerves about going into the cabin, and that, while difficult at first, turned out fine.
It’s just a forest, Rose, she told herself firmly. Just trees and some snow. Nothing to be scared of.
She walked for almost 20 minutes before she got to the treehouse. Her whole body tensed when she saw it, her nerves getting louder. She could still see spots of blood on the lower footholds; her stomach turned with nausea at the sight.
Her father had built the treehouse for her and Lukas during one of the summers they spent there. It started out as their fort when they would play pretend, and when they got a little older, it became a place to get away from their parents when they got tired of them. Rose smiled sadly, tears pricking her eyes as a chill she was sure had nothing to do with the cold passed over her. This had always been a happy place, but now she would only be able to remember it as the place where Lukas—
Rose nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden voice, whipping her head around to identify the source of it. She saw nothing. She held her breath and waited to see if she would hear it again, and sure enough…
“Er, ah, aagh.”
It was louder that time, but she still couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
She froze with her foot still lifted in mid-step, realizing the sound—voice—was coming from the other side of the tree. Rose took a few tentative steps forward and looked down. She could barely contain a gasp.
A man was slumped on the ground against the tree with a hand pressed to his left shoulder, blood seeping out between his fingers. He looked to be in his mid-twenties and his face, or what she could see that wasn’t covered by his full beard and mustache, was ashen. There was something familiar about him, but she got the feeling that this was the type of person she’d definitely remember meeting.
“Oh my god,” Rose gulped, her own already pale face losing what little color it had at the sight of him. “Are you okay?” She realized as soon as she said it how stupid of a question it was.
The man sputtered what might have been a laugh, although it morphed into a coughing fit.
“Right. Dumb question,” she said, kneeling down in front of the man. “What happened to you?”
“Got shot. Long story,” he managed out, wincing. “Where am I?”
“Laramie Mountains, just outside of Casper,” she said. She noticed there was a sizeable pool of blood around where he sat. It made her stomach lurch with a horrible sense of déjà vu. “What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Logan. I’m Rose,” she said in a voice she hoped was comforting, pulling her phone out of her coat pocket. “Just hold on for me, okay? I’m gonna call 911.”
“No! Don’t,” he said urgently, making Rose stop with her thumb hovering over the screen, frowning. “I, uh—” he swallowed, “don’t w-worry about it. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. The nearest hospital is about an hour away so it’ll take them a little while to get here, but I’m staying in a cabin about a mile from here and I can bring you back there and try to do something about that in the meantime.” She nodded her head towards his wound.
“You don’t have to, really, I’ll be fine-ahh!” He cried out in pain as he attempted to sit up.
Rose shook her head and took off her scarf, helping him press it against the wound to staunch some of the bleeding. “I can’t just leave you out here like this,” she said. “You’ll freeze to death. If the blood loss doesn’t kill you first, that is.”
“Okay, you win.” Logan managed something like a smile and said, “Thank you.”
After she called 911, Rose managed to help Logan get to his feet. Although it wasn’t easy, because he was nearly a full foot taller than her 5’3” stature, and almost all dead weight at that point. Once they were both standing, she got an arm around his back and let him lean on her as they started walking, slowly but surely, back to the cabin.
“You seem to know these woods pretty well,” Logan said after they’d been walking for a few minutes. “Do you live around here?”
“Kind of,” she said, starting to breath heavily under Logan’s weight. “My family bought this cabin when I was little and we used to spend Christmases and summers up here. My brother and I played in these woods a lot.”
“Why’d you stop coming?”
“What?” she asked, surprised by his question.
“You said you used to,” he asked, his voice even more strained than it was before. “Why’d you stop?”
“Oh,” she said. For a moment she wondered why he was using the energy to ask her about her family in his state, but decided not to think on it too much. Maybe it was easier to focus on that than the pain. “That’s kind of a long story.”
“Do I look like I have anywhere else to be?” he asked, smiling dryly.
Rose laughed nervously. “Well, basically, um, there was a hunting accident and uh, Lukas, my brother…” Her voice trailed off for a moment, partly from lack of breath and partly because she hadn’t told that story to anyone in more than two years. “He was shot.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “Some drunk guy with a shotgun thought he was a deer, and when he realized he wasn’t, he bolted. We didn’t find Lukas until, uh, until it was too late, and, well…” She swallowed hard and took a deep breath to steady herself. “Anyway, none of us have really been that eager to come back since.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Logan, his voice surprisingly ardent.
Rose shrugged. “It is what it is,” she said, far more casually than she felt.
Neither of them spoke for the rest of the walk, the silence only punctuated by the crunching of snow under their feet. Once they got back to the cabin, Rose managed to awkwardly get the door open with one hand, and she felt Logan relax significantly once they were in the warm kitchen.
“Rose? Are you back?” Rose heard Brady call out.
“In here,” she called back, helping Logan over to sit at one of chairs at the table.
“Oh good, how did it—oh,” Brady stopped short in the doorway when she saw Logan, all pale and bloody, a look somewhere between confusion and uneasiness on her face.
“Oh, right, um, Brady, this is Logan. Logan, this is my girlfriend Brady,” Rose said, gesturing respectively.
Logan smiled and waved, rather awkwardly. “Nice to meet you.”
“It’s uh, nice to meet you too,” said Brady, her apprehension of the situation clear on her face. “Um, Rose, can I talk to you for a moment?” She glanced pointedly at Logan. “Alone.”
“Yeah, just let me take him to the bedroom so he can lie down.” She helped Logan up again and walked him through to her and Lukas’s old room, helping him lie down on the bed closest to the door.
“Okay, I’ll be right back. Don’t try to move or anything,” said Rose, putting her hand on Logan’s shoulder as he tried to sit up. “Just lie still.”
“Okay,” Rose began as she re-entered the kitchen. “I know what you’re gonna say.”
“No, I really don’t think you do,” said Brady, eyebrows raised.
“Look, he was at the treehouse when I got there. He’d been shot, Brady. I couldn’t just leave him.”
“Yes, but did the fact that he’d been shot not set off any red flags? Maybe let you know that you shouldn’t bring him into your house?”
“Well where was I supposed to bring him?” Rose asked indignantly.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe a hospital?”
“And you think it would’ve been smart for me to drive a man with a bullet wound in my sub-compact VW Golf? He needs an ambulance. I just wanted to give him somewhere warm to wait for it to come. He’ll be gone soon, okay?”
Brady sighed, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes for a moment. “Fine.”
“Thank you,” said Rose, kissing Brady.
“You’re lucky I love you,” Brady murmured.
Rose smiled, kissing her one more time. “I love you too.”
She went to the bathroom and found the first aid kit, then went back to the bedroom. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Oh, never better,” said Logan.
Rose perched on the edge of the bed and looked at him for a moment. Now that he was in front of her like this, she could see him more clearly. He was wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans, both which looked to be a couple sizes too big for him. She wondered why his clothes didn’t fit him, but his shoes—a pair of plain black sneakers that kind of looked like nurses shoes—looked like they did.
Rose shook her head. It hardly mattered at that moment, after all.
“Hey,” she said, poking Logan in his non-wounded side when he started closing his eyes. “Don’t fall asleep. I didn’t carry you a mile in the snow just to have you die in my house.”
Logan laughed, wincing as Rose used the medical scissors to cut his sweatshirt open and started cleaning the skin around the bullet hole with peroxide. As she did, she kept talking to keep him awake.
“There was this one time, when Lukas and I were little,” she began, “that we were playing at this pond nearby. It was towards the end of December, so it was in that state where it was frozen over but not completely solid yet. Lukas saw that it was frozen and got all excited and wanted to go out on it, but our mom had told us to stay off it earlier so I told him not to.
“Of course he didn’t listen to me and went out on it anyway. Went right out into the middle of the pond and started jumping and dancing around, trying to make me laugh. He was always trying to make people laugh. Always did, too.”
Rose paused for a moment as she started rolling out some gauze, smiling. “Anyway, obviously the ice wasn’t thick enough to support a 70 pound child jumping on it, so it broke. He fell in, so of course I had to go on to the lake and get him. But all that ended up accomplishing was me falling in with him. So we’re both in this frozen lake, screaming and kicking and half drowning, and we probably would’ve died if our parents hadn’t happened to be coming to get us for dinner at the time, so they were able to get us out.”
Rose’s smile faltered when she realized what she’d said, and refocused all her attention into bandaging up Logan’s wound. The silence that settled over them felt heavy, and Rose hated herself for the tear that trailed down her cheek.
“Alright,” she said, managing a smile as she finished dressing the wound and pulled his shirt back over it. “I didn’t even try to get the bullet out, but that should tide you over until the ambulance gets here.”
As she said that, the doorbell rang.
“And there they are now,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Rose crossed through to the living room to answer the door, and when she opened it she found the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, but not an ambulance.
“Sorry to bother you ladies,” said the officer with a thick western accent as Brady came to stand behind Rose, “but we’re looking for someone we think might have come through here.”
Rose and Brady exchanged a look. “Who are you looking for exactly?” asked Brady.
“Escaped convict, broke out of the state penitentiary about 40 miles east of here. Would be about 6’2”, caucasian male with brown hair and a beard.”
Rose turned around and ran back to her old bedroom, leaving Brady to explain the situation to the cop, but she was too late. The bed where Logan had been was empty, and the window was open.
Brady cursed quietly as she came up behind Rose and saw the empty room, and the officer went around her into the room to look out the window. Rose couldn’t stop staring at the bed.
“Alright, well, thank you ladies for your help,” said the officer as he left the room and walked back into the living room, followed by Brady. Rose was frozen—a statue in the doorway. “If you see or hear anything, please let us know.”
“Of course, officer,” said Brady. “But, um, before you go, can I ask–what did he do?”
“Involuntary manslaughter—hunting accident in Jackson. Shame, the kid was only 16.”
Rose’s stomach dropped to her toes. She heard Brady say goodbye to the police officer but she was miles away.
She couldn’t stop staring at the bed.
Logan’s words echoed in her mind—all he had asked about her family and her brother, how sincere he sounded when he said sorry, how quiet he got after.
An image flashed in her mind then: a newspaper, from almost exactly a year to the day Lukas was shot, with a picture of Logan in handcuffs underscoring the headline.
Rose stared at the bed, Lukas’s bed, at the fresh bloodstain on the comforter, and she screamed.
Abigail Davenport is a fiction writer who knows nothing about herself and ghost writes drill tweets.