by David Badurina, Copyright 2022
This was my first attempt at a planned short story, and my first attempt throwing my hat into the horror genre ring. Everything I write tends to have some kind of supernatural element to it, and this story definitely hits on something sinister below the surface of what’s presented. This came from a writing prompt through Vocal.com. The prompt was to write a traditional campfire “spooky story” that you’d tell over toasted marshmallows on a dark night in the woods. The requirement? It had to start with this first line: “The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.” I took my time constructing this one to get readers relating to these characters quickly, have a great ending, some skin-crawling descriptions, and to seal it up with a bow on top with the very last line. I am very proud of this one, as it’s one of those great moments where the final product exactly matched my vision for it. I hope you love reading it as much as I loved writing it!
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.
Moonlight flooded the twisted oak branches that swayed in the crisp, evergreen-scented winter air. Malevolent shadows crept and crawled along the slender path to the cabin, as if clutching and clawing at the two sets of footprints leading to the front porch.
A scream pierced the frigid, moonlit night.
Inside the cabin, Ashley scrambled atop a rough-hewn farm table held together by hand forged wrought iron nails. The ceramic mug holding the remaining few sips of her hot chocolate tumbled to the floor and cracked in half. Her wide eyes focused on the sizeable spider making its way across the room.
Mark looked at the spider on the floor and laughed. “Relax, Your Majesty, I’ll take care of your birthday spider.”
“That’s the third one today! It’s not funny!” Ashley smiled, amused by her own dramatic reaction to the critter on the cabin floor.
Mark leaned down, raising his slipper above the fuzzy intruder. “Sorry, little guy, I don’t know how you survived in this cold, but you broke one of my rules. No spiders allowed during father-daughter weekend in the woods.”
She flinched as her father smashed the spider. He picked up pieces of broken ceramic and sighed. “You know, your great-grandfather loved throwing pottery. That mug was the first thing he made after he finished building this cabin.”
Ashley crawled off the top of the table. Her head was on a swivel for any other creatures crawling around in the flickering candlelight. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry, but that thing was big enough to eat my brains.”
“All hail Her Majesty, the Tik Tok dancing Drama Queen!” He winked at her.
She laughed and smacked him on the shoulder. “Oh my God, shut up!”
“You ready for bed, Ash? How about a lovely, spooky story? It’s been years. You’re eighteen now. This might be the last of our spider-slaughtering weekends in the old family cabin.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Oh fine. I’ll humor you. I don’t need to come here again, but if you book a father-daughter trip to, like, Italy? You could convince me to tag along.”
Her Dad lit a small oil lamp on the butcher block kitchen counter and the two made their way down the hall, past the basement door. Mark knocked on it and gave her a sly smile. “We could go look for more spiders if you’re not tired?”
“You are so lame. I saw that basement once when I was little. It still creeps me out!”
Mark kissed his daughter on the top of her head and hung the lamp on a bracket beside the bedroom door as Ashley settled into the nest of quilts on her bed. Sinister shadows of warped, swaying branches writhed across the worn planks on the far wall.
Ashley burrowed in the stack of patchwork quilts. “It’s getting cold.”
Mark pulled a chair up beside the bed. “Don’t worry, I’ll load up the stove one more time before I settle in. You ready?”
She sighed, “Sure, why not? Scare the crap out of me.
“I just want to tell you a story about your great-grandfather.”
She laid back and closed her eyes. “Whatever makes you happy. Try not to bore me to sleep.”
Mark smiled at his daughter. “When I turned eighteen, my dad brought me here just like I brought you, and he told me this story about his father.”
Ashley opened an eye to peek at her dad, then closed it and took a deep breath.
Mark continued, “When your great-grandfather built this cabin, he had to search the surrounding woods for the material he needed. Back then, everything was done with hand tools and horse power. He was very skilled with his hands. He knew this area well. So he set off into the woods, and got lost for days.”
“Shocking,” whispered Ashley.
“He kept a secret about that trip, until just before he died. He found something in a small cave close by. A burden he carried his entire life.”
Ashley opened one eye and peeked at her dad. “Burden?”
Mark nodded and looked out the window. “He claimed to have encountered a demon in that cave. One that terrorized him until his last days.”
“Did that demon have a name? Frank? Bob? Boaty McBoatface?”
Mark shook his head and kept staring out the window. “Everybody knows demons never reveal their names. That’s their power. On the off chance that this story has some truth to it, maybe tone down the sarcasm, Ash.”
She closed her eyes again. “Way to freak me out, Dad.”
“It’s not wise to tease demons.”
Mark took a deep breath. “The cave was black as a void, and cold as death’s hand, according to your great-grandad. Once he entered, he couldn’t leave. Now, he only had a hand axe – one he made himself. He tried and tried to fight it, but it was no use. According to the story, the demon demanded his flesh, and would only allow him to leave if he stripped it off his body.”
Ashley kept her eyes shut tight and pulled the quilts closer. “What? Peel off his own skin?”
Mark nodded, looking out the window again. “Yes. Somewhere out there, in a dark cave, a demon wanted to escape. Now, your Great-grandad obviously didn’t want to peel himself like an apple at the county fair. So he struck a deal.”
She opened her eyes and stared at her Father. “You’re telling me that my Great-grandfather struck a deal with a literal demon?”
Mark shrugged and turned up his palms. “This is how his story goes. The demon let your great-grandfather free on a promise that all of his offspring, through all of history, would relinquish their skin once they turned eighteen. Peeled from their bodies, head to toe, with the very axe that your great-grandad used to build this cabin. The demon would use our skin to hide among the living – and this is how that foul thing would live on forever.”
“Dad. That’s seriously gross.”
Mark turned to his daughter. He detected a hint of deepened fear in her voice. “You know, a funny thing happened when my father brought me here right after my eighteenth birthday.”
Ashley stared at him.
“He told me this story, and said that there was always a warning sign that the demon was close by.”
“Dad? You’re kinda freaking me out.”
Mark locked eyes with his daughter. “Sweetheart. It’s really important that you know the sign. Because I saw it.”
She swallowed, hanging on her Father’s words. “What’s the sign?”
Mark gave his daughter a wicked smile. “Spiders.”
“What the hell!” Ashley shouted, sitting up and hitting her father on the shoulder through layers of quilts.
Mark laughed and held up his hands. “Gotcha, Your Majesty!”
“You suck, Dad! Seriously suck! Ugh!”
The two settled down, and Mark took the lamp from the bracket beside the bedroom door. He walked over to his daughter and gave her a kiss on her forehead. “I love you, pumpkin. Thanks for humoring me.”
Ashley sighed, “I love you too, Dad, you jerk.”
“I’ll make it up to you. Buttermilk pancakes for your first breakfast as an eighteen-year-old.”
Mark walked out of the room, leaving his daughter’s bedroom door open a crack. He made his way to the kitchen, his oil lamp casting deformed shadows across the walls. The dying embers of the wood stove crackled, nestled in a deep orange hue. He placed two additional logs on the fire and opened the rusted vent to encourage them to burn.
A snapping branch outside grabbed Mark’s attention. “Just the wind,” he whispered to himself.
The frozen winter wind picked up and Mark could hear it whistling through leafless branches among the ancient oaks outside. He stood, peering around in the dim light of the kitchen. He squinted as he looked into the dark edges of the room.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted the dead spider laying still in the middle of the floor. Mark sighed, then reached into the cabinet and set out a bowl, a bag of flour, and a clean skillet for the morning’s pancakes. He picked up his lantern and walked down the hall, trying to be as quiet as he could.
Through her bedroom door, he could see his daughter, fast asleep. Through her window, the branches seemed closer, moving faster in the frantic wind. The cast shadows seemed to pull themselves into the cabin with each icy, chilled gust.
Another sharp crack from a fallen branch echoed through the woods outside. Mark turned his head to look down the dark hallway. He took a few steps, stopping beside the basement door. He turned the handle, and made his way down the creaky plank stairs.
The musty scent of the earth floor filled the stagnant basement air. Mark held the lantern high as he scanned the small cellar space. He made his way to a makeshift wooden cabinet in the basement’s corner, unlatched the door, and swung it open. Inside the cabinet, hanging heavy on bent wrought-iron nails, was the object Mark had come for.
A crooked handle, constructed from the gnarled oaks of the sinister surrounding wood, affixed to a hand-hammered iron axe head. The honed edge, reflecting the dim lamp, glimmered in Mark’s eyes. He smiled, wrapping his fingers around the handle and lifting his Grandfather’s axe from its peace.
Mark turned and walked to the steps. He pressed the axe edge to his forehead and slid it across his skull, just below his hairline. Flesh popped open. Blood poured from the gash, streaming down his cheeks and dripping to the dirt floor.
Slow and steady, he ascended the basement stairs. He inhaled the musty scent of the stagnant basement. The steady tapping of his blood against the aged wooden planks accompanied the sound of frozen branches smacking together in the wicked woods. He reached to his forehead and dug his nails into the gash, gripping the flesh from his skull and peeling it past his grotesque grin.
Sinewy skin snapped and curled as he tugged and ripped it from his face. Glistening blood poured down and stained his clothes. He stepped into the hallway and turned his stripped visage toward his daughter’s bedroom.
He whispered through exposed, crimson-stained teeth. “Happy birthday, pumpkin.”
Outside, the wind began howling. Malevolent moonlit shadows of the gnarled oak branches scraped and clawed at the cabin. The candle in the cabin’s window flickered out.
A scream pierced the frigid, moonlit night.