Note: story contains brief use of coarse language
Erica jolted at the bright flash in the cabin’s bedroom – was it lightning? She blinked around the dim, moonlit space, expecting a crash of thunder. Nothing; only the twittering of mountain bluebirds greeted her.
She stole a quick glance at Barry, still slumbering beside her. Another quick glance went to her phone’s weather app: the skies over Three Bear Holler were utterly clear, no ominous red-and-yellow patches in sight. Erica sighed to herself, and shook her frowsy chestnut hair out of her eyes.
Another flash – and an unmistakable CLICK. Now Erica sat bolt upright, gasping into the silence around her. No thunder, no…nothing, again. Just the birds, and an occasional loud snore from Barry. Erica peered around the room, waiting for another flash, a bang, a knock, any sign that might prompt her to jump up and wrench Barry’s rifle out of the closet.
But the mundane silence persisted. As the minutes stretched into an hour, Erica assured herself that the flash – the flashes? – were just a flash in the pan after all, and gave in to sleep.
“Barry,” Erica called out from the mudroom, “did you see the damn light show last night?”
A gruff hum answered her from the kitchen table, where Barry stuffed another sausage link into his mouth.
““Maybe around 2 AM?” she elaborated. “I swear I thought it was lightning!”
Barry gazed up at her, still chewing his pork. “Could’ve been anythin’, hun,” he replied, with a quick gulp. “Storms crop up and move fast around these hills, you know.”
Erica’s eyebrows shot up as she pulled on her left riding boot. “Hell of a fast storm, if it left before the thunderclap!”
Barry laughed, and motioned to the bright sunshine streaming into the kitchen window. “Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now. Go have fun on the trails, hun. That’s why we’re here!”
He strode into the mudroom and gently embraced her. “You’ll love the mountains, I know it,” he whispered in her ear. “Now go on. Can’t let that mare get fat!”
“That mare”, Dolly, awaited Erica in the small paddock attached to Barry’s cabin. Erica had been as giddy as a toddler when Barry told her about his family’s luxurious homestead nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But when she heard about the paddock, and hundreds of miles of pristine horseback riding trails, it was all she could do not to load Dolly into a trailer and drive there – without or without her new husband in tow. Erica skipped up to the gate, determined to push the flashes far from her mind. All she cared for now was the cool autumn breeze, and discovering whatever mysteries made the Appalachian hills so special.
But one glance at Dolly stopped Erica dead in her tracks.
The normally carefree Tennessee Walker was clawing the ground with her right front hoof, emitting a piercing whinny every few seconds. Erica shuddered when she noticed Dolly’s narrowed eyes and flattened ears: the unmistakable signs of an anxious horse.
Erica glanced around the paddock, recalling its exact appearance the night before. There were her leather reins, hanging on a peg wall, as she left them. There was her helmet, tilted against the box of grooming tools. There was her polished saddle, with its neat array of attached bags.
Except one of the saddlebags was open.
Erica glared at the round metal clasp and loose leather flap. She never left her saddlebags open, lest a renegade raccoon make a run for a spare pack of trail mix. Behind her, Dolly let out another high-pitched whinny. Erica jerked around, alert for any sign of danger: a bear, a snake…an intruder.
Once she was satisfied that there was nothing but rustling leaves, Erica peered into the open bag. Her eyes widened as she withdrew a small, but heavy, manila envelope. Erica stared at the strange packet, mouth agape; neither she nor Barry had any envelopes like this, and why would they bring office supplies to their vacation home, anyway? The envelope was blank, devoid of any address or salutation. Its only notable featured was unsealed adhesive flap.
Erica pried it open and dumped the content onto the dirt floor beneath her boots. They fluttered down around her like butterflies: a half-dozen Polaroid pictures. Half of them landed on their white glossy back sides, showing a confusing array of numbers and dashes in black ink.
“What in the holy hell…” she hissed into the breeze.
Slowly, she stooped down to examine the photographs more closely, unable to make heads or tails of the random images and numbers. Then she spotted it: a photograph of a dark bedroom – their bedroom. Erica gulped on a bone-dry throat as she squinted at the all-too-familiar photo: Barry asleep, and her upright in bed wearing a look of terror. Trembling, Erica turned the photo over.
Yesterday’s date. And then:
YOU’RE IN MY HOUSE
Erica’s breaths turned to rasps as she stared at the photo, its wild inscription, and then the pile. But another bellow from Dolly shook her out of her horrified trance. Without thinking, she scooped up the pictures and hustled them back into the envelope.
It took Erica all morning, then all afternoon, to rehearse what she would say to Barry; thankfully, the fly fishing had been good that day, and she had plenty of time to think as he fried up trout for their dinner.
“Barry,” she called lightly from the table, “you said your parents bought this place in the 80s, right?”
Barry’s dark brown head, still bent over a cast iron pan, nodded fervently.
“Yep,” he answered. “I was just a kid. I can’t even remember when they bought it! It was probably just a shack back then before they renovated it.”
Erica nodded as she spooned another helping of corn pudding on her plate. “So you’ve been coming up here your whole life, I suppose,” she added. “Have you or your folks ever noticed anyone strange around the property? Any funny neighbors?”
Now Barry’s broad shoulders rotated fully around toward her.
“Not that I know of,” he answered. “I don’t think there are any cabins for miles, actually. Maybe not even ‘til you cross the border to Tennessee.” His eyes narrowed. “Have you seen someone around?”
Erica shook her head a bit too quickly. “No, nothing like that. But Dolly seemed a bit spooked this morning. I just wondered if there might be anyone nearby.”
“Ahhh,” Barry exhaled. “She probably saw a deer, or maybe a bear. Most of them aren’t in their caves for the winter just yet…damnation!”
Erica jerked up as the room went dark. Startled, she glanced back at their living room, where the lamps still burned brightly. Behind her, Barry cursed up a storm.
“It’s probably just the circuit breaker, honey,” she shouted at him. But she could hear the brittle edge of nervousness ringing in her voice. “Why don’t I walk with you to check it out?”
“Yeah…yeah…,” he stammered. But he stood still in the middle of the kitchen floor, hands limp at his side, not moving a muscle.
“Barry?” Erica called out again. “Babe – where’s the circuit breaker?”
Barry was silent, but finally gave her a half-hearted shrug. “Dunno,” he announced lamely. “I…I never had to look for it until now!”
He wasn’t lying; it took them a half hour to locate the circuit breaker in the den of the cabin, then another half hour for Barry to test each switch (apparently, he didn’t know which rooms they connected to, either).
“Well, now we know, I suppose!” he said triumphantly, as they emerged to their re-illuminated kitchen.
Barry planted a wet kiss on Erica’s cheek, but she only managed a wan smile in return.
“Now, for God’s sake, let’s pour the scotch,” he suggested. “We earned it!”
The whiskey cabinet, at least, proved much easier to find.
Even so, Erica’s mind churned while Barry drifted off beside her. The scotch, it seemed, was a top-notch product. But Erica had limited herself to only a few sips. She knew – even if Barry didn’t – that one of them needed a clear head tonight.
Once Barry was snoring loudly, Erica pulled the manila envelope out from between their mattress and bed frame. She tiptoed back to their kitchen, back to their oaken table, and spilled the photographs onto the wood. Her breath hitched when she saw the one from last night, showing her frightened face, before spying another one showing her and Barry both still asleep – that first flash that had awoken her. She remembered it now, the CLICK – the click of an old Polaroid camera.
Erica turned each photograph over to its white side. She has been right earlier: each one bore a date.
“Well,” she whispered to the darkness, “let’s line them up, then.” She quickly peered around, terrified that another bright flash might sending her screaming back to Barry.
Fifteen minutes later, each of the upside-down photos was chronologically arranged – the very first in September, 2012, the last in June, 2016. The final two photographs, taken the day before, she laid aside.
One-by-one, Erica turned them over.
September 15, 2012: A photo of a land sale contract – a five-acre parcel in Three Bear Holler. The buyer was “Anthony Pentley” – a name Erica had never heard before.
April 23, 2014: A blond young man posing against a wooden gate. It was the paddock gate, only feet away from where Erica sat. Behind him, clearly, was a brand-new version of the cabin.
July 12, 2015: The blond man hugging another, dark-haired man as both flashed gold rings towards the photographer. Erica recognized the pose immediately; she herself had just gotten married a few months prior. An engagement photo.
But the next photo turned Erica’s confusion into shock.
May 5, 2016: The two men, now both donning suits, at what was obviously a wedding reception. Only this time, the dark-haired man was turned fully towards the photographer, showcasing his grinning face.
Erica gasped as the realization left her shaking. Barry had never, ever, hinted that he had been married before, that he had ever fallen in love before he met her. But the next photograph confirmed her mounting suspicions:
June 22, 2016: The blond man, and Barry, clinking a pair of beers together as they sat on the outdoor porch of the cabin. Each man was unmistakably happy.
Erica stared at the batch of photographs, each revealing another facet, of another life, for a man that she thought she knew. But burning curiosity drove her up from the chair. Trembling, she grabbed a pen from the countertop beside her, and wrote on the back of the final photograph:
Erica retreated to the paddock and, once she was sure the coast was clear, stuffed the photograph back in her open saddlebag. As frightening as today had been, she knew that the wait until morning would be far, far worse.
A hawk’s cry in the distance awoke Erica. Barry was long gone, it seemed, and the disappearance of his tackle and bait box told her where he had gone.
“Just as well,” she groaned, pulling herself up.
Erica strode outside, only passingly taking in the bright autumn skies overhead, and veered into the paddock. She spotted her saddlebags, just as she left them, with the one sitting unclasped.
Slowly, she dug her hand around inside, half-hoping there was nothing but the singular photograph she had shoved within only hours prior. Above all, she prayed that this whole strange mess was a figment of her imagination.
She breathed a sigh of relief when her fingers grazed a single photograph, just like the one she had put in. But her relief evaporated as soon as she wrenched it out. This was not the photo of the two men clinking beers on the porch. No – this one was new. It was a photograph of a legal document.
Erica squinted to read it: a divorce agreement. Erica rotated the picture to read the date.
January, 2020 – about three months after she met Barry. But the handwriting beneath made her fingers go numb.
HE TOOK EVERYTHING I HAD
“Jesus,” Erica gasped.
Tears welled in her eyes, but the final words on the photograph sobered her immediately:
Erica leaned her full weight against a tall hitching post, and took several deep breaths. Fortunately, her years as a horsewoman helped her to concoct a plan – her escape plan, apparently – in just a few spare moments. She gathered everything she would need: her tack, bags of nuts and dried berries, a hunting knife, just in case, and a few full canteens of water. She and Dolly could drink from the mountain streams if they had to. A spare blanket, which she draped over Dolly’s back beneath the saddle. They were only a few dozen miles from the border of Tennessee; if she and Dolly could get that far, they could find a trailer and drive somewhere safe.
But there was one thing Erica wasn’t taking with her. Her final act before mounting Dolly was to stuff all of the photographs in the manilla envelope. She left it, and her wedding ring, on the middle of the kitchen table with a note:
BARRY, THERE’S AN OLD FRIEND LOOKING FOR YOU.
YOUR OTHER EX,