It’s that time of year again! The spooky time. And what better way to celebrate than with a spooky short story? Enjoy!
Content warning: swearing, violence, general spooks. Story begins after the break.
“Fuck,” Bruce Thompson yelled as hot grease hit his hand. He threw the spatula onto the counter and rushed over to the sink, turning cold water on full blast. As he rinsed his hand under the ice cold water, he cursed himself.
“God damn it….stupid, stupid.”
He had been cooking some bacon and hadn’t been paying attention to what he was doing. As he flipped one of the strips over, it splashed hot grease onto his hand.
After a minute or two of running his hand under the water, Bruce turned the faucet off and looked it over. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any scaring. It was just bright red for the time being. Regardless, as he lifted his head and stared out into the line of trees beyond his kitchen window, he chided himself for making such a dumb mistake.
His uncle’s old cabin wasn’t much to look at. Faded wood donned the outside, with a ramshackle wooden roof capping it off. Old wood met new in places where Bruce had done some repairs. After the previous winter, it needed some work to keep things insulated and warm.
A smoky, burning smell reached his nostrils.
“Ah shit,” he cursed to himself as he returned to the stove and scooped the strips of bacon out of the pan. Parts of them had been blackened, left to burn while Bruce had been daydreaming.
It’ll have to do, he thought to himself, pulling a plate out of the cupboard.
As he sat at the rectangular wooden table in the kitchen and ate, Bruce once again lost himself in thought. Eight months. Eight months since he’d moved out here. Eight months since he left civilization behind.
Now in his late forties, Bruce had never been anything particularly special. At six foot two, he was only slightly above average height for a man. But his hard-edged face, combined with his deep blue eyes, gave him an intimidating sense of authority. That was probably why he became a police officer.
Bruce served on the force for nearly twenty years. Then, he shot a kid. And that was it.
It had been nearly two years ago. That night had been quiet until his radio buzzed with a report of an armed robbery in progress. Bruce responded to the call and rushed to the scene, a local gas station convenience store. He entered with his gun drawn. The suspect had a gray hooded sweatshirt on, baggy blue jeans, and white sneakers. Bruce raised his gun and commanded him to put his hands in the air. The suspect wouldn’t comply and Bruce was forced to fire upon him.
Turned out the suspect was a twenty year-old still in college. It was a bad situation. The fact that the kid happened to be black only made things worse.
The trial went on for nearly a year, media circus and all. For a while, Bruce Thompson was all over the television and the papers, referenced on the radio and in blogs. In short, everyone knew him. And everyone had an opinion on him.
Eventually, it ended in a acquittal. But the fallout of the situation was that he was forced to turn in his badge.
One moment. All it takes is one moment for everything to fall apart.
Bruce shivered, drawing his light flannel jacket closer to his chest. Aside from the jacket, the long-sleeved white shirt and blue jeans did little to fight the chilly weather, even inside. Looked like a fire would be in order. After he finished eating Bruce threw on a heavier fleece jacket and made his way outside.
The cabin sat in a small clearing, surrounded on almost all sides by trees. The only exception was a small dirt road that led from the gravel to his cabin. You had to travel a while down the gravel road before you hit pavement. But that was how Bruce liked it. He wanted to be as far from people as possible.
Even after the trial was over, the chaos still continued. Someone spray painted the word “pig” on his front door. The local TV news station did a story on it and plastered his address on-screen for everyone to see.
It was only downhill from there. Eight months ago, Bruce decided he needed to get away. For how long, he didn’t know. He had remembered his uncle’s old cabin that had been gifted to Bruce when he passed. It was two states over, but that was fine. The farther, the better, he had thought to himself at the time. He still felt that way.
Bruce made his way around the side of the cabin. There was a large blue tarp off to the side, held in place by two large stakes impaled into the ground. He removed the stakes and lifted the tarp, revealing a collection of wooden logs he had gathered recently.
There was a small wooden shed nearby, a ramshackle little thing that look more like an outhouse than a tool shed. This was where Bruce kept all his tools, namely his axe and chainsaw, along with some extra cans of gas. He stepped around the black wheelbarrow sitting tipped upside down and made his way to the shed. Opening it, he found his tools right where he had left them. A spider had spun its web in the back corner of the shed and skittered away as the outside light hit it. But Bruce ignored the spider and grabbed his axe.
An old wooden stump sat nearby, which he used for his wood chopping. He dragged a couple armfuls of logs over to the stump and set to work, the thunk of the axe splitting wood echoing through the chilly fall air.
Once he was done, he moved most of the firewood over under the tarp and staked it back into the ground so the wind wouldn’t blow it away. He picked up the rest in his arms and began to make his way back inside. But when he got to the front door he paused, his eyes drifting over to the forest beyond the clearing.
He could never explain why, but it had always given him the creeps, especially on gloomy days like today.
Sometimes he thought he heard noises coming from the depths of the woods at night. But he assumed it was just nocturnal animals or his imagination. Perhaps it was even some late night revelers having a campfire. Probably getting high too, he thought to himself with an arrogant smirk.
Once inside, he loaded the wood into the fireplace. Compared to the rest of the cabin, the old stone fireplace had actually stood up well to the test of time. Aside from a covering of dust on it when he had first arrived, it was otherwise intact. It had a round, black chimney and shot up and through the roof, belching smoke whenever there was a fire. Shoving some crumpled newspapers along with some kindling into the fireplace, Bruce struck a match.
Soon enough, he had a roaring fire going.
Sitting down on the plushy old couch, Bruce picked up a book and began reading, resting his feet on the coffee table. The book wasn’t anything fancy, just a typical fantasy story of good versus evil featuring wizards, fairies, goblins and the like.
Sometimes, simple is better, he thought. Sometimes simple is what you need.
The fire crackled as he read, pulsing warmth into the living room and kitchen. Bruce lost himself in the story so much that before he knew it, he looked up and saw through the large back window that the sun was getting low in the sky. Sliding a bookmark in between the pages, Bruce set the book down and got up. He glanced at the empty wood holder near the fireplace. A small pile of wood chippings lined the bottom. Might as well stock up before it gets dark, he thought to himself. He went outside, retrieving a couple loads of split wood and depositing them into the holder. He put out the fire in the fireplace then retired to his bedroom.
The bedroom was a small affair. It hung to the left at the end of a short hallway with a window leading off from the living room. There was a small sliding closet door to the left of the bedroom entrance, and a window on the right. The bed was directly at the opposite end of the room from the doorway, small bedside tables on each side. The leftmost table had a lamp and alarm clock set on top. The red display of the clock read “9:30 P.M.”.
Slipping into his blue pajamas, Bruce pulled the brown covers off the queen-size bed and crawled in. Fortunately the bedroom was the best insulated room in the entire place, something he made doubly sure of after his first couple of months here. Arriving at the tail end of winter, he nevertheless had to deal with some seriously cold nights. At one point, Bruce thought he might even freeze to death in his sleep. But he made it through, and spent most of the spring and summer patching up holes in the roof and generally updating any broken fixtures in the place. One such fixture was the light in the bedroom, which was so caked with dust that it refused to function at all. Bruce replaced it with one that had a ceiling fan built in, and never looked back.
Bruce couldn’t say he was exactly nostalgic for the place. His only real memories of it were from when he was just a kid. Back then all he wondered about was when his uncle was going to get an actual working TV. But now he appreciated the quietude of the place. It was a welcome change from the constant roar of passing cars, the constant jeering of the protesters outside…
Bruce laid his head down and soon drifted off to sleep.
The sound jolted Bruce out of deep sleep. Still groggy, he glanced over at the bedside clock. It was just a little after two in the morning. What was that sound he heard exactly? Almost like the sound of a twig snapping.
Then his ears picked up on another sound: crunching…like someone walking around in the grass outside.
Now fully awake, Bruce sat up and opened the drawer on the bedside table opposite the lamp, retrieving a black flashlight and a silver revolver with a brown grip. He flipped open the cylinder just to check. Six chambers. All loaded.
Bruce made his way back into the main living area, straining his ears. The crunching noise had stopped. Nevertheless, he went around shining his flashlight out of every single window in the cabin. He saw nothing. Not content with his brief investigation, Bruce stepped out the front door, swinging his flashlight from left to right.
Nothing but a cold fall night.
He began to feel silly, standing there in his cloth pajamas as the crisp air chilled his face and feet. He was just imagining things. That’s all it was. It had to be.
As he turned, the flashlight beam shined onto the entrance of the forest. For a moment, Bruce paused. A wave of intense unease crept up his back, making the hairs on his neck prickle and stand on end. But he shook it off as quickly as it came and stepped back inside, locking the front door behind him.
The pitter-patter of rain on the roof woke him up the next morning. Bruce sat up in bed with a groan. He had planned to head into town to grab some groceries. Looks like that’ll have to wait, he thought to himself as he went into the bathroom to take a shower.
The bathroom was on the other side of the short hallway, and was one of the most extensively renovated areas of the cabin. When he first arrived, the floor was little more than a moldy carpet and rotting wooden walls. Now, it had a clean, white tile floor with patterned, white tile walls. The ceiling had been redone with newly varnished wood that still shined in the light.
It was truly the place that reminded him most of his former house.
Stepping out of the shower, Bruce pulled on a pair of blue jeans and a brown sweater. He stood in front of the bathroom sink: a typical, white basin with a silver faucet head and long, brass handles that read “hot” and “cold”. Bruce looked himself over in the mirror. The once black luster of his hair was starting to fade, but hadn’t yet turned gray. He knew it was coming though. His family had a history of early onset gray hair. The fact that it hadn’t happened to him yet didn’t make him feel any better.
He opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out a small, orange container with a white top. “Haloperidol”, it said on the label. “Take two in the morning before or after breakfast”. He unscrewed the cap and shook out two circular orange pills, popping them into his mouth and downing them with a glass of water.
Things had not gotten better after the trial.
Bruce’s mental condition had deteriorated significantly in the intervening weeks and months. It became so bad that one day, while grocery shopping, he broke down sobbing and couldn’t stop. The next thing he could remember was waking up in a hospital bed. The doctors told him he had a nervous breakdown and recommended he see a therapist.
His therapist – a young male with short-rimmed glasses, medium-length brown hair, and a tweed suit coat – prescribed him Haloperidol after a few scant sessions.
He felt pathetic…weak…like less of a man. But he took the pills anyway.
After he moved to the cabin, he switched pharmacies to one in the local small town of Auburn. He had gotten tired of all the staring, the hushed whispers. At least here people didn’t recognize him. Or, if they did, they left him alone.
After a quick breakfast of cereal and coffee, he put on a rain jacket and decided to investigate outside to see if there were any signs of a trespasser from the night before.
The rain was pouring hard. His coat was drenched before the front door had even closed. He made a quick circle around the cabin, checking near the wood pile and the shed. Nothing. He moved around to the back of the cabin, where a stone fire pit sat. Nothing but damp ashes. He completed his round, ending back at the front door. There was no trace of anyone from the night before. But he didn’t expect there to be. The deluge pouring from the sky would have erased any leftover signs of a person’s passage.
The rest of the day was uneventful. He spent it reading on the couch, listening to the rain batter his tiny sanctuary. It didn’t let up until the sun had practically dipped below the horizon. Periodically, he got up to check for leaks from the roof. Fortunately, he found none. His renovating skills were evidently better than he thought.
The sun went down and darkness laid a blanket over the land. Bruce had a late evening snack, then retired to bed. Laying his head down on the pillow, memories of the previous night surfaced again, and he laughed at how silly he was. It was just his mind playing tricks on him, just the darkness putting him on edge. Tonight would be a much better night…
The familiar sound woke him up. Only this time, it was much closer. It sounded like it was right near his bedroom window in fact.
Bruce sat up in bed, listening intently. The crunching grew louder and louder, likely amplified by the fresh rainfall on the grass. The noise got closer until it sounded like it was just outside his bedroom window. Then abruptly, it stopped. Bruce sat there for what felt like minutes, but nothing else happened. He let out a sigh of relief, certain his mind was just playing tricks on him.
Nothing prepared him for the shock of seeing a silhouetted figure in a hood stroll past his window, shadow etched onto the curtains by the pale moonlight.
Bruce felt his heart jump into his throat. Panicked, he practically ripped open the bedside drawer to retrieve his gun and flashlight. Bolting outside, Bruce raised the gun and shined the flashlight ahead of him, slowly making his way around the cabin perimeter. He was breathing heavily, sweat clinging to his hands and face. Darting around the corner towards his bedroom, he shined the flashlight along the cabin wall. Nothing. His heart sounded like it was beating inside his eardrums. His hands began to shake, the gun twitching in his grip.
Damn it Bruce, get a grip, he scolded himself.
“If there is someone outside,” he shouted, remembering his police training, “make yourself known!”
His voice echoed into the night. But only silence greeted him.
Bruce made his way around the back of the cabin, then back around to the front. Nothing. He saw no signs of anyone.
For a while, he could do nothing but stand just outside the front door, confused. He had seen the shadow walk past his window, hadn’t he? Was it possible that it was just a tree blowing in the wind? No…couldn’t be. The trees are too far away from that side of the cabin. It was definitely a humanoid figure. But why would someone be pacing around the place? Were they casing it for a robbery? Were they just some punk kid looking to mess with people? Too many questions, not enough answers.
He stood in thought for a long time before he became aware that his feet felt cold and wet. Looking down, he realized he was still in just his socks. He had forgotten to put any shoes on. Grumbling, Bruce walked back into the cabin and went to the bedroom. He returned the gun and flashlight to their storage place, stripped off the wet socks and placed them in the nearby laundry basket before going back to sleep.
The next day’s weather proved to be much more accommodating. After breakfast, Bruce made his way into Aurora to shop at the local grocery store, driving his old blue pickup truck. It was roughly a thirty minute drive through the countryside, trees as far as the eye could see. Bruce enjoyed the drive. It took his mind off the previous couple of nights and made him feel relaxed. The radio chattered away as he drove, rattling off different pieces of news.
Bruce suddenly became aware that the radio was talking about a police shooting. He turned it off.
The town of Aurora wasn’t big. Its population was only around a few thousand people. Most of the city’s businesses and social areas were centered on a single main street, with the grocery store sitting at the end of it. Bruce pulled into the parking lot and went inside. After grabbing the necessities, he perused the shelves looking for anything that struck his fancy. He eventually picked up a pack of chocolate-covered almonds and called it good.
On his way to the counter, he passed some six-packs of beer. He shook his head. Not now…not later…not ever…
He greeted the old man at the counter and began unloading items from his basket. The store was one of those old mom ‘n pop stores that are always in these small towns. The locals loved those places, loved the friendly atmosphere they always gave off.
“Gotta support the local businesses,” they always say. Like it made a damn bit of difference.
It was only a matter of time before a Walmart or some other big chain store plopped down nearby. And then ma and pa would be closing shop.
Everybody loves the free market, Bruce thought, until it screws them over.
After he returned home and unloaded the groceries, Bruce went outside to chop up some firewood. Bruce dragged over a load of wood to the old stack, grabbed the axe from the shed, and got to work. He actually enjoyed the task of wood chopping. Aside from it being good exercise and keeping him in shape, it allowed him a sort of relaxation through repetition. His body and mind were occupied with the task at hand.
He had become somewhat of an expert in wood chopping over the past few months. The arc of his swings and his form were very good, and he was usually able to cut the log in half with only two or three strikes. Some of the wood had gotten damp from the previous night’s rain, which made things just a tad more difficult. The tarp had kept out most of the water, but it wasn’t perfect.
A satisfying thunk accompanied his every swing. There were a lot of things he disliked about living here, the winter being one of them. But he couldn’t deny a sort of appreciation he had gained for the art of chopping wood.
He stopped mid-swing, axe dangling over his head. Slowly, he let it fall to his side and turned toward the forest. Surely he hadn’t…?
The stillness in the air was suddenly apparent. The wind seemed to have disappeared, the trees were eerily still. A knot formed in Bruce’s stomach, and he could feel the hard thump of his heart beating.
The voice had been deep and male in tone. There was a strange familiarity in it that he couldn’t deny. Like an echo…a fragment…
The voice coming from down his driveway interrupted his reverie. Bruce turned to see a middle-aged man jogging toward him. It was his closest neighbor, Roger Whatever-His-Last-Name-Was. Bruce hadn’t really bothered to try and remember. He was a nice enough guy, a little chatty at times, but well-meaning. He had short brown hair (Bruce noted with no small amount of jealousy that it hadn’t yet lost its color), deep green eyes, and a healthy physique. He was only a couple inches shorter than Bruce, wearing a light brown jacket with jogging pants and a pair of ear buds hanging loosely down the front of his coat.
“How about that rain yesterday,” Roger asked with a light smile. “Came down pretty good didn’t it?”
“Yeah…it did,” Bruce said, a little distractedly. Roger took notice.
Bruce turned and gazed at the forest for a moment.
“Did you hear a voice from the woods a moment ago,” he asked, turning back towards the trees.
“No…I don’t believe so,” Roger said, his tone shifting to one of concern. “You sure you’re good?”
Bruce shook himself a little and returned his gaze to Roger, managing to contort his face into a friendly smile. “Yeah I’m fine,” he said with a chuckle. “I thought I heard someone calling me from inside the forest, but I must have been hearing things. Probably just the wind.”
But there hadn’t been any wind.
“Hah,” Roger laughed. “Yeah that’s probably all it was. People hear things out here all the time. Sound travels quite a ways in this area. Maybe a group was walking through the woods and you heard their voices in the distance.”
“Could be,” Bruce replied with an exaggerated nod. “Could be…”
There was a brief moment of silence. He was keenly aware of Roger looking him over, almost like a psychiatrist analyzing body language, looking for any hints of trouble. Bruce felt embarrassed, and it took all his willpower to prevent himself from breaking eye contact.
“I hate to be a bother,” Roger began, “but is everything okay? I normally see you out and about when I’m on my late afternoon jog, but lately you haven’t left the cabin much.”
“No I’m good,” Bruce insisted. “Just been taking care of some inside stuff. Preparing for winter…that kind of thing.”
Roger seemed to accept that answer.
“Ah…gotcha. I know after last winter you weren’t exactly looking forward to it this year. You did good work on the place man. I bet this winter will be a breeze for you.”
“That’s the plan,” Bruce said with a wink, resting the axe on his shoulder. The unease he had felt just a moment before had evaporated. Despite his occasionally irritating nature, Roger was good at making people feel relaxed.
“Well hey, if you ever need help with home improvement this winter, just give me a holler. I’m just down the road a ways, as you know,” Roger said.
“Good man.” Roger lifted one ear bud to his ear as he started moving back toward the road. “Well I should get going. The wife will be mad if I’m not back in time for dinner.”
“Hey,” Bruce called after him, pointing the axe in his direction. “Say hi to Nancy for me will ya?”
“Sure thing. If I don’t…you gonna come after me with that axe?”
Bruce slapped the axe head against his free hand in a mock threatening gesture.
“We’ll see…” he said with a mischievous grin. Roger laughed.
“Well gotta go! See you later Bruce!”
Roger turned away, putting the other ear bud in and jogging lightly down the road. Bruce watched until he disappeared around the corner, blocked from sight by the trees. About five minutes later, he had finished his task. He moved the cut pieces of wood back over to the pile, pulling the blue tarp over them.
Bruce rushed back inside, letting the front door slam behind him.
The rest of the afternoon went by without incident. The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time Bruce started cooking some burgers on the stove. The scent of searing meat reached his nostrils and left his mouth watering for more. It had been a while since he had eaten hamburgers, and tonight was a long time coming.
He wasn’t sure what time it was, but at some point he became suddenly aware of a flicker of orange light behind him, reflecting off the wooden wall. He turned, not really sure what to expect.
His jaw dropped. A hooded figure sat outside, with a fire roaring in the pit.
For a brief second, Bruce couldn’t move. His legs felt like stone, rooted to the spot. He just stared at the silhouette outside. He could even hear the faint crackling of the fire. The figure seemed to be unaware of him, intently focused on the roaring flames.
Then, the fear vanished, replaced by a red flash of anger.
Bruce stomped into his bedroom, retrieving his firearm and flashlight. He rushed out the front door without hesitation, raising the gun as he stormed around the side of the cabin.
“Look, I don’t know who the hell-”
But his words and the anger that fueled him vanished as he rounded the corner. There was nothing.
No hooded figure.
There wasn’t even any sign of a fire. Blackened ashes still lay in the fire pit, left over from the last time Bruce had used the pit.
That had been weeks ago.
The world suddenly felt like it was tilted, making Bruce unsteady on his feet. He stumbled forward, nearly slamming his shoulder into the cabin wall. He felt almost like being drunk, unable to think or walk straight.
But no, he was not drunk. He hadn’t had a drop since that night almost two years ago, that night he had been slurping on a bottle of whiskey when the dispatch radio crackled to life…
He felt a creeping shiver rush up his spine, tiny electric needles pricking his back. Spinning around fast, he accidentally lost his footing and fell. He ended up sprawled on the grass with a yelp, staring out at the darkness of the trees.
“No…no no no,” he mumbled to himself as he got up from the ground. He hurriedly made his way back to the front of the cabin, holding his hand against the wall to steady himself. Bruce ripped open the front door and rushed inside. He leaned against the door, panting.
Bruce, it’s only-
“Shut up shut up,” he screamed aloud, covering his ears with his hands. “You’re not real! You can’t be real!” He panted heavily, his whole body shaking. He slid down the door until he was sitting on the ground. The urge to cry was overwhelming…an intense wave of raw emotion rolling over him.
Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes felt like hours. But eventually, his breathing became steady. He pulled his hands away from his ears and listened.
And then, Bruce laughed at himself. So stupid. So fucking stupid. Voices in the woods? What is this, some cheap b-rate horror movie? Bruce got to his feet with a chuckle and moseyed his way back to the kitchen.
His good humor only lasted for a moment when he laid his eyes on the blackened pieces of meat still cooking away in the pan.
“God damn it,” he muttered to himself, picking up the spatula and removing the slices of meat.
It wasn’t quite the meaty reunion he had wanted, but surprisingly, despite being a little crunchy, the hamburgers actually tasted just fine. Add in some lettuce, tomato, and bacon, and he could’ve had himself a regular BLT. But for now he just plopped some cheese on top. He sat down and ate at the kitchen table, the fear a distant memory. Of course it had been his imagination. What else could it have been?
Denial is a powerful motivator.
When he had finished eating, Bruce got up and set his plate in the sink. Turning around, he found the revolver staring at him from the kitchen table. He had forgotten to put the gun away, had just set it down on the table along with the flashlight after getting back inside.
“You’re getting on in years old man,” he told himself. “Your mind’s going and you’re starting to see and hear things.” He picked up the gun and flashlight, making his way toward the bedroom.
He had almost forgotten there was even a window at the end of the hallway. When the hooded figure suddenly loomed up from behind the curtains, Bruce uttered a startled cry and stumbled backwards, falling onto his back. Gasping heavily, he sat up and pointed the gun at the window But the figure was gone.
Suddenly, Bruce found himself wishing he had his service weapon from back on the police force: seventeen-round clip, semi-automatic…much better than the clunky revolver with its six-round cylinder and obnoxious recoil. But he was stuck with it.
Young Bruce had thought the gun looked stylish and cool.
Old Bruce thought Young Bruce was a dumbass.
Still shaking, he nevertheless managed to pick himself up off the kitchen floor and make his way to the bedroom. He set the gun and flashlight down on the bedside table and collapsed into bed, not even changing into his pajamas before falling asleep.
The local park in Auburn afforded a good view of the surrounding area. Trees waved back and forth in the breeze, and the sun was high. The nearby lake sparkled in the sunlight, gleaming white. As Bruce casually strolled through the park, he knew it was just what he needed.
He had felt so cooped up in the cabin the last few days that he just need to get outside and take a walk, needed to get some distance between him and the forest. The day was perfect. It had actually warmed up for once, and Bruce was able to get away with just a light jacket. The breeze wasn’t too harsh, and the sun felt warm on his skin.
As he walked, he noticed a small family playing in the grass: a mother, father, and two boys. Bruce had never bothered to settle down and have a family. He never had the time for it. His job was his life in that regard. Never married either. Sure, he had a couple of flings over the years, but nothing serious ever came out of them. He made certain of that. No need to get tied down, Bruce thought to himself.
Nevertheless, as he watched the father and the two boys toss a ball back and forth, a pang began to form in his stomach, a type of yearning. He wondered how things might have been different if he had taken the time to develop a serious relationship. Would he have ended up in the same place? Would it have lasted?
Bruce shook off the sudden feelings of regret and continued walking, basking in the warm light of the afternoon. After about an hour of strolling around the park and surrounding areas, he returned to his car and drove back home.
As he pulled up to the cabin, he couldn’t shake the sensation that it had transformed into a prison…
Bang bang bang
Three loud knocks shook him out of his sleep. Well that’s new, Bruce thought to himself, still so groggy that the seriousness of the situation hadn’t yet set in. Bruce got up from his bed and went to take a look, leaving the flashlight and gun behind. As he entered the kitchen, the banging sounded again.
It was coming from the front door.
Now fully awake, the fear began to grip him. Who the hell is knocking at my door at this time of night? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. Without even being aware of having done so, Bruce found himself standing in front of the door, hand outstretched toward the door handle.
He blinked. Why in the hell would he do that? There was no one out there that he’d want to talk to, not this late in the night.
The knocks came again, this time quieter but more insistent.
Knock knock knock…
Bruce flew from the door and rushed back into the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind him and locking it. He clambered into his bed and pulled the covers up over his head. His whole body shook, in the grips of ice-cold terror.
The knocking came again…only this time it was coming from right outside his window…
Knock knock knock…
Bruce scrunched his eyes shut. He didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to see.
The knocking continued in intervals for what felt like hours, but was probably only ten minutes. Eventually, it stopped and the oppressive feeling in the air vanished. Bruce stopped shaking and his breathing slowed down to normal.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next time he opened his eyes there was light streaming into the room from the slight opening in the curtain.
Fuck this, he thought to himself as he haphazardly threw clothes into a suitcase. Fuck. This. I was a cop for nearly two damn decades. I’m not gonna let some damn noises in the dark be the end of me. I’m not gonna let my imagination get the best of me.
That morning, he made the decision to get away from the place for a little while. He wasn’t sure where he was going to go, but he figured he could find a cheap motel for a few nights.
Once everything he needed was in, he slammed the suitcase closed and latched it. Making his way outside, he threw the luggage into the back of his truck. The air had chilled again, and he shivered a little as he climbed into the truck. He put the key into the ignition and turned.
He turned it again.
The engine didn’t even chug. The truck was dead.
Bruce sat there staring in disbelief. How was that possible? He couldn’t be out of gas. He had topped the car off just yesterday. Could it be the battery? He checked to make sure he hadn’t left the headlights on or anything else. Nope, everything was off, just as he had left it. Even the overhead dome light was turned off.
He was silent for a moment, utterly still like a statue. Then, without warning, he began furiously punching the steering wheel, cussing and screaming. This lasted for a good ten seconds before he fell silent, his hands aching. He unclenched his fists and looked at them. They were bruised red, raw from the sudden rush of anger that had overwhelmed him, that had driven away all common sense.
As quickly as it had come, it passed. Rationality reigned once again.
Roger…Roger would be on his jog this afternoon. He could ask him for help when he passed by. Suddenly his situation did not seem so dire.
But a realization hit him, and his heart sank like a stone. He was out of firewood. And the only way to get more – his eyes moved slowly toward the treeline – was to go in there.
Intense trepidation filled his entire being. He still hadn’t been able to explain his irrational fear of the place, nor the strange apparitions and voices he had seen over the past week. He wasn’t yet ready to accept a supernatural explanation. But there was definitely something wrong with the forest…he knew it deep inside every time he looked at the trees.
Now, staring into its depths, the knot in his stomach only grew tighter.
The way he saw it, he had two options: either risk freezing to death, or face his fears. As he open the car door and stepped back outside, he decided on the latter. He grabbed the chainsaw from the shed, dropped it in the wheelbarrow, and made his way into the woods.
Bruce kept his eye focused straight ahead, didn’t want to look to either side, didn’t want to see if there was anything watching him from behind the trees. He was in the grip of full blown paranoia, sure that everything in the forest had eyes on him. He gritted his teeth and kept pushing forward, the wheelbarrow rocking and jostling over every little bump in the ground.
Eventually, he came to a small clearing. It was here that he found his target: a couple of large oak trees that had been struck down by a storm. He had scouted them out the last time he went in the woods to chop up some logs. He parked the wheelbarrow and ran his hand along the bark of one of them. He was relieved to find it completely dry. That should make the job easier, he thought to himself as he pulled his ragged work gloves on.
A buzzing roar ripped through the air as Bruce started the chainsaw’s motor. It made quick work of the fallen tree, cutting it into nice, thick logs. In a short time, he found himself done with one tree and began work on the other. It felt like barely any time at all had passed before he found himself with a wheelbarrow full of logs, ready to be split.
Bruce found himself looking forward to the feel of a warm fire in the fireplace as he swiveled the wheelbarrow back around, making his way back along the path through the trees. In his current state of mind, he felt so silly about everything that had come to pass over the past few days.
Damn, he thought to himself, I should’ve bought some marshmallows at the store. He always enjoyed campfires as a kid, making s’mores. Maybe that was what he needed, a good reliving of the past.
He was in high spirits as he pushed the wood-filled wheelbarrow down the trail, the crisp fall air filling his nostrils. Yellow and red leaves were fluttering down from the trees above, as they shed their foliage in preparation for the coming winter. This year would be different. This year he would keep a good stockpile of wood going. He would have a fire every night, and wrap himself up in a nice, warm blankets.
He wouldn’t let the cold get to him. And, if anything went wrong, he could always call upon Roger for help.
His mood came crashing down the moment he heard the voice. He stopped the wheelbarrow and turned around, eyes quivering as he scanned the treeline. No…no no no…this is not happening again, he thought to himself. This is NOT happening.
Bruce…it is only natural that you feel this guilt after all that has happened…
The familiar voice echoed, wispy and faint, but distinct at the same time. He was beginning to place it in his memory, but how could it be possible…why was he hearing him all the way out here?
Your mental state is hardly surprising…
His psychiatrist…that goddamn tweed wearing shrink. Why here? Why now?
Another voice yelled out into the forest. His heart began to beat rapidly, thundering in his chest. He stood frozen on the path, staring into the darkness of the woods.
All units, we have a 10-65 in south end…
A distant voice…a radio from another place, another time. Memories…shadows…resurfacing…
Just another “good guy with a gun”, right?
“No…shut up,” he said aloud, putting his hands over his ears.
Jail the pig! Jail the pig! Jail the pig!
“Shut up shut up shut up,” he shouted, his voice becoming more hysterical.
JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG
The voices were so loud now…they were practically screaming in his ears.
JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG JAIL THE PIG
“SHUT UP SHUT UP FOR FUCK’S SAKE SHUT THE FUCK UP,” he screamed at the top of his lungs.
Almost immediately everything stopped. Bruce pulled his hands down from his ears and looked up. The silence was deafening…everything was absolutely still. It was as though time itself had been stopped. There was no movement, no noise, nothing.
But he could still feel it…deep in the woods, watching…and waiting…
One second, everything was still. Then, without warning, an inky black mass erupted from the treeline in front of him. It surged forward like a massive wave…liquid darkness…shadowy evil…
Bruce wasted no time. He abandoned his wheelbarrow and sprinted as fast as he could back towards the cabin. His lungs were burning hard as he ran. He could feel the darkness behind him, keeping pace, maybe even moving a little faster than he was. He broke free of the trees into the clearing and sighted his cabin…his comforting, warm cabin. Bruce rushed toward the cabin as the darkness continued to ooze toward him from the forest. When he reached the front door he took one last glance toward the forest.
He wished he hadn’t.
The darkness now towered above the trees, eclipsing the sky. Day turned to night in an instant. The inky mass rushed upward and then started to pour down, toward him, toward the cabin.
Bruce ripped open the door and ran inside, slamming it shut. He stood in the entryway for a moment, panting and terrified.
It was the burning in his throat that made him realize he had been screaming.
Thinking quickly, Bruce locked the front door. He rushed around the cabin, shutting the curtains and making sure all the windows were locked. He could feel the black mass pulsing outside, coiling, looking for a way in. His head began to hurt, as though someone was putting pressure on it. Once he had locked and curtained all the windows, he rushed into his bedroom and shut the door. He retrieved his gun from the drawer and sat down against his bed.
His temple pounded. His forehead felt swollen. He held his head in his hands, rocking back and forth, scrunching his eyes shut. It was the migraine to end all migraines, and no matter how much Bruce tried to ignore it, the pressure only intensified with each passing second.
He could feel it. It was boring into his mind, his soul…
And then, he screamed.
“He wasn’t armed! He didn’t have a gun! He never had a gun!”
Almost instantly, the pressure relented. The presence was still there, but for the moment, his body and head felt some relief.
But it didn’t matter. He had said it. After all this time of denial, it had exploded out of him.
The truth was a runaway train that couldn’t be stopped.
Bruce stared ahead blankly, his eyes glazing over as the facade he had erected over his life came crashing down…
We love to tell ourselves that we are the hero in our story. The idea soothes us, give us solace when life is bitter and unforgiving. But the reality is that the narrative of our existence is much more complicated.
That night, as he sat in his squad car with a half-empty bottle of whiskey, Bruce Thompson found himself itching for some action.
He had been sitting at the same intersection for an hour now, watching out for traffic violators: speeders, drunk drivers, and so on. It was a boring job and a boring night. Wednesday was not a good day of the week to be stuck alone at a traffic stop. But it was his job, and so he was here.
The crackling radio interrupted his ruminating.
“All units, we have a 10-65 in south end, armed robbery in progress at a local gas station convenience store. Any nearby units in the area, please respond.”
Bruce picked up the radio.
“Thompson, squad car four. Can you send me the address? I’m right in south end.”
The radio crackled with static briefly, distorting the female dispatcher’s words. But Bruce believed he heard the address clearly. He punched it into his GPS and sped off to the location, sirens wailing.
It was only a couple of minutes before he was pulling up to the gas station. He slammed on the brakes, leaving his car parked just outside the front doors. He jumped out, hand already at his holster. In his haste to rush inside, he didn’t even notice the two people sitting outside having a smoke, nor did he see the odd look they gave him.
He burst through the door, drawing his gun into his hand. A quick scan of the store revealed that there were only two people present: the cashier, a young male with brown hair and brown eyes, and someone in a gray hoodie, baggy jeans, and white sneakers.
Bruce caught the confused, scared look of the cashier seconds before he raised his gun. At the time, he just took it as fear from being held at gunpoint by a robber.
“Police! Put your hands up and turn around slowly,” he commanded.
The hooded figure flinched, frozen stiff. Then, hands still close to his side, the figure began to turn around. Something metallic glinted in the light streaming in from outside.
One word flashed through Bruce’s mind.
“Wait…don’t shoot!” But the cashier had spoken up too late.
BANG BANG BANG BANG
Bruce fired four shots, each one striking center mass. The person in the hoodie jerked spasmodically as the bullets hit their target. The figure collapsed to the floor in a heap, their breathing hoarse as blood pooled on the tile beneath them.
Bruce stood there for a long time, staring…disbelieving…
It was a kid…just a kid…he was probably in his early twenties. He had dark skin, dark brown eyes, and – from what Bruce could see – black curly hair underneath the hood. There was no gun in his hands…just a set of car keys, along with a pair that were probably for his apartment.
He couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. His gun was hanging limply by his side, as the horror of what he had just done washed over him.
Bruce Thompson had the wrong address.
Bruce Thompson had misread the situation.
Bruce Thompson…was a murderer.
Everything was a blur after that. He was carted to and from the courthouse every day after the trial started. And every day the protesters were waiting for him.
“Jail the pig! Jail the pig,” they shouted. That was their favorite chant. Even Bruce had to admit that it had a ring to it.
He said nothing during the trial, didn’t want to say anything. He vaguely remembered the prosecutor’s opening arguments. “Just another “good guy with a gun” right? I’ll leave it to you, the jury, to decide. I know you’ll make the right choice.” Then the prosecutor sat down, shuffling his papers. A moment later, his lawyer stood before the jury. He painted Bruce as a dedicated professional, a great cop with a long career. He told them all about how Bruce had served for nearly twenty years, painted him as a pillar of the community.
Was it all lies? Bruce didn’t know anymore.
It was only after the trial that he found out about the video one of the two witnesses outside the store shot on their phone and how it was confiscated by the police. It managed to get mysteriously corrupted shortly after the prosecution requested that the video be turned in as evidence. He didn’t realize how his buddies on the force had surreptitiously removed the half-empty bottle of booze from his squad car, how they had “forgotten” to give him a breathalyzer test on the scene.
He realized none of these things. Or didn’t care. It made little difference.
The trial ended as the jury handed down a verdict of “not guilty”. Evidently the prosecutor wasn’t able to prove that Bruce had intended to kill the kid when he fired.
Had he shot to kill? Even he didn’t know. He just remembered thinking “gun” and then his weapon going off. Regardless of the verdict, he was forced to turn in his badge and was placed on probation.
Months went by, and he stayed in his house as much as he could. He didn’t want to go outside, didn’t want to go into public. The accusing glares followed him, the hushed whispers, the hateful yelling…it was everywhere. He didn’t want to step outside and see the graffiti plastered all over the front of his house. He had given up on painting over it because for every one he covered up, four more would appear in its place by the next morning.
He spent a lot of time with a knife or gun in his hands, sitting at the kitchen table, pondering how easy it would be…
Then, one day when he was forced to go out for groceries, he was wandering the aisle when he spotted a kid playing around with a colorful toy gun. The kid pointed it at him, mimed shooting him.
“Bang bang,” he said. “You’re dead mister.”
That was it…that was the final blow. The tears flooded out and he collapsed into a ball on the floor. The next thing he knew people in white coats and blue uniforms were looking down at him.
He saw the therapist the next week.
“Bruce, it is only natural that you feel this guilt after all that has happened. Your mental state is hardly surprising,” he remembered the therapist saying. “I’ve treated a few cops in my time, and the symptoms you are showing are nothing unusual. Have you been having any nightmares?”
His dreams were filled with gunshots and screaming, were filled with the bodies of dead children…
A few sessions later, he walked out of the therapist’s office, pill bottle in hand. Haloperidol…he had been diagnosed with what the therapist termed as “Post Traumatic Stress-induced Psychosis”. Now he was on meds, just like the rest of the country.
A couple of months went by, the graffiti and the protests outside his house never letting up. Then one night, someone hurled a brick through his living room window.
He decided to leave town the next day.
He packed up his essential belongings and was gone that same day. He drove all day, across state lines, farther and farther from civilization. He slept in a parking lot that night, cold and miserable.
The next day, as he continued his drive, the radio reported that there had been a house fire. It was his house. It burned down the night after he left.. He listened to the news with little more than a cold numbness. He deserved to burn, along with that house.
He arrived at the cabin later that day. It was a frigid, late winter afternoon, and the state of the cabin was pathetic to put it mildly. No one had been there in years.
The first few days were the hardest. Nightmares assaulted his sleep every night, and whenever he woke up he was greeted only by the bone chilling cold of winter seeping in to the cabin through any passage it could find. He was eventually able to procure some firewood for himself. He made a nice warm fire every night and slept on the couch, at least until the weather warmed up.
And somehow, someway, as time continued to march on, Bruce began to change his narrative. He told himself that the kid he shot had indeed been a robber, had indeed been armed and had indeed meant to shoot him. He told himself that he had been in the right, that he had made the only decision he could.
He began to believe it.
The lie became reality.
And the truth became nothing more than a distant, repressed memory.
I shot that kid, he thought to himself. Shot him in cold blood…god I’m a miserable, stupid fuck.
Bruce sat against his bed for what felt like an eternity, wallowing in his self-imposed misery. How had he let things get this far? How had he convinced himself that he had been in the right? It perplexed him, but at the same time he knew it didn’t matter. The past was the past. There was no changing it.
Bang bang bang
The intense knocking interrupted his thoughts and broke him out of his trance. Bruce stood up and made his way into the kitchen hesitantly. It was pitch black outside as far as he could see, but somehow he knew the darkness was ever shifting, pulsating, observing…
The banging grew louder and more insistent. It was at the front door. Bruce opened his mouth to say something, but the words caught in his throat and refused to come out.
He raised his gun as the door before him began to buckle, the wood splintering as whatever was behind the door continued its assault. Bruce felt his grip on the gun tighten. His breathing intensified, the adrenaline rushing through his veins. He felt focused, ready to take action.
The door broke with a loud cracking noise and fell to the ground.
BANG BANG BANG
A moment passed. He let the gun fall to his side. He stared. No…it can’t be…that’s impossible…
Dead brown eyes looked up at him from underneath a gray hoodie, little strands of curly black hair slinking out. It was him…the kid. The kid that he had shot. The hooded figure that had been taunting him at night. The kid was here. But that was impossible. He was dead. He had died nearly two years ago.
He still had the wounds. They looked the exact same as they had that night, meaty chunks of flesh ripped aside from the passage of the bullets.
The darkness quivered outside…laughing…
A stark sort of clarity came over him. Of course it had to be this way. It was always going to be this way. There was no other end for him, no other course. His fate had been decided the night he pulled the trigger. It didn’t matter what he did, how he struggled, what he changed about himself. All paths led him here. There were no more forks in the road.
His hand moved as if it had a mind of its own. Cold steel kissed Bruce’s temple.
Sheriff Terry Turner shook his head as he gazed down at the two bodies.
“What’ve we got here George,” he asked the coroner.
“If I had to guess,” the coroner replied, “looks like we got ourselves a murder suicide.”
The sheriff shook his head again, deep green eyes looking over the corpse with a hole in its head. Bruce goddamn Thompson…so this is where you’d been hiding all this time. He nodded at the other body.
“Roger Freeman,” the coroner replied. “Local neighbor. He was the one that called us last night, said he heard Thompson in the woods screaming his head off. He phoned it in, then must’ve come here to see what the problem was. I’m betting it was him that broke down the door to get in, after he couldn’t get a reply from inside.”
“Little did he know Thompson was waiting on the other side, with a loaded gun,” the sheriff finished.
“Poor fella…he was just trying to do the right thing,” the rookie deputy standing next to him said sadly, his brown eyes twinkling. The sheriff had no reply. He had seen so many scenes like this. What was one more?
“Thompson ran all the way out here,” the rookie mused. “Didn’t someone burn his house down?”
The sheriff shook his head.
“That’s what they thought at first, given all the controversy surrounding him. But in the end, they found it was just a faulty outlet that sparked and set the whole thing ablaze.”
Just then, another officer emerged from the back hallway, carrying an orange capsule.
“Sir, take a look at this.”
The sheriff took the pill bottle from the officer’s hand. He let out a low whistle.
“Haloperidol huh…that’s a pretty strong anti-psychotic right?”
“Yes sir,” the officer replied.
“But from the looks of it,” the sheriff continued, “this pill bottle’s been empty for a while…weeks even.”
“If the last refill date on the bottle is correct,” the officer said, “then it’s been empty three weeks.”
Sheriff Turner looked over the bottle, then back down at the bodies on the floor. He was silent for a moment. Then he shrugged.
“All right, I think I’ve seen enough,” he said, handing the bottle back to the officer. “Bag it and tag it.” He turned to the coroner. “You’ll send me the autopsy notes when you’re done right George?”
“Yes sir…just finishing up here and then I’ll cart these two to the morgue,” he replied.
“Good. Let’s go kid,” he motioned to the deputy and the two of them exited the cabin. Once they were outside, the deputy spoke up again.
“So, what are we putting down on the incident report?”
The sheriff let out a small laugh. The deputy looked confused.
“Did…did I say something funny?”
“No,” the sheriff replied. “I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be new. I’ve been at this so long that crime scenes just speak to me, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“I-I think so,” the deputy stuttered.
When they got back to the sheriff’s truck, he leaned on the roof, examining the deputy carefully.
“It’s a pretty open and shut case. At some point in the past few weeks, Thompson went off his meds. With his fragile mental state following everything that had happened, it was only a matter of time before he suffered a break. The lack of meds must have accelerated the process. He became paranoid, delusional. Probably thought Mr. Freeman was a robber or something and shot him dead. And then, after seeing what he did, he shot himself,” the sheriff concluded, miming a gun to the head.
For some reason the deputy didn’t look totally convinced.
“What’s on yer mind kid,” the sheriff asked. The deputy paused for a moment before answering.
“It’s just…I’m thinking about Thompson.”
“Yeah? What about ‘im?”
“Well, when we talked to those local shop owners over in Auburn, they said he seemed cheery and normal, like it was just another day for him.”
The sheriff was starting to get irritated.
“And…what,” he said.
“I don’t know,” the deputy replied. “I just think it’s weird that he seemed so normal just days before he shot himself.”
“Look kid, Thompson was off his meds. Nothing he did probably made any sense to anyone but himself. You gotta learn to let things go sometimes. I doubt you’d find anyone too interested in knowing why he did what he did. Thompson was public enemy number one in a lot of people’s books for a while.”
“I just thought it was worth looking into,” the deputy said.
“Well it ain’t. His motivations don’t matter. He was crazy, simple as that.”
“I thought we were supposed to chase every avenue of investigation.”
“There’s a difference between avenues of investigation and plain nonsense,” the sheriff replied. “Guess which one you’re going after?”
“Sorry…I just thought I was being helpful,” the deputy said, looking downcast.
The sheriff sighed, his anger cooling.
“It’s all right kiddo…you’ll learn to recognize what is useful information and what is just fluff. It’s part of being a cop…learning to read between the lines. Now come on,” he said, pulling open the driver’s side door, “let’s get back to the station and finish this up.”
The sheriff stopped, one leg inside the car. He got back out, staring at the forest beyond the clearing.
“Hey Sheriff,” the deputy’s voice called, “everything all right?”
“Did you hear a voice just now,” the sheriff asked after a moment.
“No…might’ve just been the wind.”
“Yeah,” the sheriff said. “Just the wind.”
“That’s all it was.”
The two of them got into the car and closed the doors. The sheriff did his best to hide the fear in his eyes, but his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He didn’t want to think about the hospital, didn’t want to think about all those nights he chose to work the job rather than visit. He didn’t want to think about that demon cancer, how it took her over and wasted her body away.
He didn’t want to think about how she had died alone in her bed, while he was dealing with a couple of drunk teenagers.
Sheriff Turner put the key in the ignition and turned the car on.
He shifted the car into reverse and backed up so quickly that the deputy let out a nervous chuckle, gripping the door handle to steady himself.
“Whoa…easy there chief…we in that big of a rush?”
Sheriff Turner didn’t respond. He shifted into drive and sped off down the driveway. He didn’t know why, but his gut was telling him he needed to get as far away from the forest as possible.