Thriller Horror Suspense

Putting on the kettle was comforting in a way that starting a ritual act always is. The hours had stretched long in the cabin today and it was an internal clock that made Avery stand up from the fireplace and amble to the kitchen. The sun was tipping lower and starting to cast long shadows of the trees. Jon would be home soon, he’d want a cup of tea. The coffee was harder to come by now so they had it in the morning, one strong pot poured into the blue tin mugs they always used. Later in the winter the coffee wouldn’t be quite so strong but they would make it to Spring and to fresh supplies. They had every other year. 

Their life was built around little rituals out of necessity. It was dangerous to deviate. Especially now that it was winter. Their cabin was beautiful in the summer. Lush green grass grew around the property and the birds that occupied the small woods behind their house sang clear from April to when the leaves were falling from the branches underneath them. But in the winter there was a blanket of snow covering the plains that fell out before the cabin like some oversized quilt. The snow covered everything that was distinguishable and as long as it was cold enough it reflected back brightly for weeks after a storm. The road disappeared, their neighbors' properties fell away into the horizon. And the snow hid the Beings. 

Growing up this far north you were told about them when you were much too young. But innocence wasn’t valuable when you came face to face with a demon. Innocence wouldn’t save your life. What could save your life was having the wood chopped by August. And counting your livestock every morning. And moving quickly if you find the number is now 9 when there were only 8 the night before. What could save you is making sure there was always a fire burning. And that you always had a tool nearby to light a new one if for some reason it goes out. 

Avery’s hands were moving unconsciously grabbing the mugs and tea leaves and the kettle of water. She put away her sewing while the water heated. She looked out the window to the barn and saw the cows milling around the fence and trough. She flipped on the little radio on the desk. The one station they received carried classical music unless there was something to report. Today, Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedie was playing slowly on a piano.  

The music calmed Avery. She lowered her shoulders and let out the breath she had been holding when she reached for the switch on the radio. She turned back to the kitchen and the singing kettle. Mentally she inventoried, the fireplace was still burning on the front wall and there was a second flame burning on the stove. Vigilance could feel like anxiety sometimes, but vigilance would get them to another Spring. Vigilance was as necessary as putting food in their stomachs or checking for ticks when you came back in from the forest or having a woodpile that stood as tall as the roof of your house... 

A new item was added to the checklist after each radio broadcast, the ones that interrupted the music. They only came on when something had happened, usually when someone was gone. Sometimes missing, their body recovered some time after the snowmelt. Sometimes struck dead by someone in their home, because the people they lived with knew them well enough to know it was not really their person who had returned home. It was not their loved one who hadn’t wanted to warm by the fire when they came in from work. It wasn’t their son who answered incorrectly the question they had created to signal their authenticity.

The list was always growing and always changing, because the Beings learned. In the fall Jon would butcher a cow to trade with their neighbors for wool or corn or whatever else they needed. The other cattle would be marked in the privacy of their barn. They would be branded with that year’s shape on the inside of the split of their hooves.

That Christmas morning they had woken up around 6, like always. They savored their cups of coffee and before exchanging gifts or calling on their neighbors for a shared meal Jon went out to count the cows. She heard his slow tromp through the snow to the barn to let them out, then after a few moments she heard a gunshot. She had run out into the snowy morning barely taking the time to put on a coat and boots. She needed to make sure it was Jon who had taken the shot, and that he was alright. She pushed open the door breathless to find him standing over a lifeless animal. Or what looked like an animal. They were so good at taking the form. Jon had turned at the sound of the door and smiled at her, then slowly arched his eyebrow as he took in her appearance, seemingly unbothered at his brush with violence. Avery looked again at the body before looking down at herself, her threadbare long johns and tank top were incongruous with the cold around them. She burst into laughter at his smiling face, the adrenaline from the gunshot quickly replacing the fear she had felt with relief. A man like him was made to live out here and she was glad to be there with him. 

The list was a serious affair, but they found joy in so many other things. After Jon would come in from the field or hunting in the forest they’d play Scrabble together with a scoresheet that was years long. Sometimes she would play her guitar and he would sing along. If they had some whiskey he would sing along with gusto and she loved to hear his deep baritone. She would dissolve into giggles when he’d swing up high for a falsetto note, he did it just to make her smile. In the summer they took long trips in their canoe and didn’t worry about the livestock, the fire was solely for warmth and they didn’t need to write a word on a piece of paper to show each other in the firelight before falling asleep. 

She flicked off the stovetop burner and poured hot water into their tin mugs. She went into the cellar to grab a jar of applesauce to go with dinner and when she came up again she heard Jon’s boots on the steps. He stomped off the snow once, twice, three times and opened the door. 

Avery emptied the cups into the sink and poured the steeped tea into the warmed cups. Jon was bent over untying his boots and finally stood to give her a large grin, his blonde mustache covered in snowflakes, “Hallo.”

“Well hello to you.” she smiled back and held out his cup. 

He looked at it for a moment then asked, “what’s this now?”

“Just thought you might want to warm up your insides,” he crossed from the door to the kitchen, glancing at the fireplace as he walked. He took the cup from her and lifted it to his lips. He took a large gulp of it and set the cup on the table. Avery scrutinized him for a moment. The tea was making her mug almost too hot to hold yet he had seemed unfazed by it. She took a tentative sip and swallowed quickly feeling it burn her lips and tongue. Jon had walked to the window in the kitchen now and was looking out into the trees.  

“Did you get all of the fence mended?”

“Ayuh, just about.” He kept staring out into the trees and the snow. 

Avery waited on him to elaborate. Usually she didn’t have to work so hard to pull the words from him. The herbal tea normally calmed her stomach but she felt a dark sick feeling start instead. She watched the fire burning in the hearth and was comforted by its flame because she’d always been told that the Beings couldn’t stand to be near it. That it would drive them back if they meant to descend. She looked back at Jon and noted that the kitchen window was as far as you could get in the little cabin to be away from the fireplace. He was still staring out the window and she saw his lips moving but whatever he was saying was too low for her ears. The sick feeling started to rise again regardless of the music that played now, another piano ballad, she thought maybe one of Chopin’s Nocturnes?

His lips were still moving and she strained to hear if even a whisper was coming out.

“What was that?”

His face was somber and focused looking out the window but it split open again into a smile when he turned to her, “Nothing from me.”

She thought back to the dark cabin the night before, to the word he’d written down, shown to her and burned in the fireplace.   

“That’s right, you haven’t said anything to me yet.” 

He looked puzzled now. He glanced back out the window and then back to her. “What do ya mean, I greeted you and we shared the tea.” He stepped closer to her, “We were just talking about the fence, and I was going to ask you about your day.” He took another step closer. 

Avery had stepped back in response. She felt the metal of the stove in her back and couldn’t retreat further. With a shaky voice she said, “You haven’t said it Jon. Please say it.”

She thought of the word, it glowed like a neon sign in her head and she willed him to say it to her. 

He was one step closer now and she thought she saw something move outside the kitchen window, something darting between the trees. 

“Oh Avery, you silly thing. I’ll say it for you if that’s what you want.” He took another step putting him almost in arms reach of her. 

She screamed the word internally. She prayed that he would start forming the first letter with his lips. She felt along the side of the stove and grabbed hold of the metal poker she had laid there a few hours earlier. A few hours ago when she was fixing the buttons on his shirt. And planning what they would eat for dinner. And wondering if she should walk out to the fence to check on him. There had been so much snow lately and she knew that his eyes were tired from squinting into it while he worked. She had thought about bringing him a hat. She hadn’t done it. Now she wondered if that’s where his body was, or if he was one of the ones that they would never recover. 

He took one more step and Avery swung hard with the poker. She sobbed as it hit his head and he stumbled back. She turned her back for a moment to light every burner on the stove and the shriek that escaped him was terrifying. She stumbled back and grabbed the revolver from the desk, a glissando spanning what sounded like the entire keyboard was coming from the radio and she pointed the gun at him bloodied and huddled in the corner unable to take his eyes off the flames on the stove. 

She had to try, just once more, “Jon”.

His eyes slowly shifted to her, no more smile playing on his lips. He glared up at her. 

“Please say it.”

She heard a thump on the front steps and his head swiveled towards the sound. He smiled this time but it wasn’t kind. He opened his mouth and she shot twice. She ran to the living room and threw three large logs into the fire. She put on one of the thick leather gloves next to it and grabbed a half burning log like a torch. With the gun in one hand and the torch in the other she walked to the door to greet the footsteps she heard behind it stomping once, twice, three times. 

January 15, 2022 03:49

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