The snow storm’s intensity had peaked, waves of snow rushing against my car as I drove down Highway 43 to my small hometown of Starling. The storm should have been at the height of my concerns, but the dread sitting heavy in my chest was mostly due to the fanatical ramblings of my mother coming from the speaker of my dying phone.
“I’m trying to get there in time, okay? There’s literally a blizzard out here!” I tried to explain as I held the phone to my ear with my shoulder, my hands white-knuckling the steering wheel to keep me from veering off of the slick back road I had taken. It wasn’t my choice to brave those conditions just to get home. I didn’t want to go home in the first place, but my college’s winter break arrived, and I had to leave the dorms. Against my will, I packed an overnight bag with clothes and necessities, like my books, threw it in the backseat of my car, and left campus, grumbling the entire time. On campus, I felt free to be myself, not having to conform to the strict guidelines of the residents of Starling, home to gossip and drama.
“Don’t you raise your voice at me, Belle! Tommy and Laura came over tonight to see you. You should’ve planned better and left earlier,” my mother’s voice rang through the phone speaker, prompting me to hold in a sigh.
My mother was quite known around town, somehow landing herself on the town council. Everyone knew her, and she knew everyone and their business. There were no secrets in Starling, no whispers that went unheard. Because of that social culture, I had been taught exactly how I needed to act and what I needed to do to become an admirable citizen in town by my mother since I was young. The first chance I had to flee, which was college a whole few towns away since I couldn’t afford out of state tuition, I took it without a second thought, claiming that I was chasing a law degree, which was just a lie to get my mother off of my back and let her have something to boast about to her friends.
In reality, I was majoring in social work, hoping to help people in need. I wanted to be the opposite of my town and of how I grew up. I wanted to be better. I wanted to be selfless, and I had to be now. I knew that I had to go home and see my mother despite our differences and how little she actually understood me. The loss of my father when I was young destroyed the both of us, and a part of me still felt the need to support her despite her not supporting me.
“Okay, okay, I’m hurrying,” I spoke into the phone, hearing a few beeps from my phone soon after. I glanced at the screen, unease filling me as the name Gordon popped up on the screen along with multiple text messages. “Did you tell Gordon that I’m coming home?” I asked, irritation spiking in my tone.
“Well, he asked, honey, and I didn’t want to lie.”
“We broke up! I don’t like him,” I groaned, my mouth opening to rant more until the call went silent. I glanced at my phone to see that it had died, a frustrated sigh breaking from me as I tossed my phone into the backseat. When I fled to The University of Balton Park, I was not only running from my mother and Starling in general, but I was also running from Gordon, who I had broken up with just before I left. The thought of him made my skin crawl, nausea striking me as memories of our rocky relationship flooded back. He had left an impression on me, and it wasn’t a good one.
I refocused back on the road, which was completely dark besides the soft beams of my headlights on the snow-covered road. All I could see were the dark outlines of the trees bordering the lone road, snow continuing to pelt against my windshield. I leaned forward, making out a turn in the road up ahead. I pressed on the brake, turning the steering wheel only slightly to drive along the curve. Regardless of my precaution, I heard my tires squeal, my car sliding sideways across the slick road before its passenger’s side crashed into one of the tall pine trees.
I gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I could, but my body still lurched once I crashed, my temple striking the window hard and my overnight bag spilling its contents all over my backseat. Then, there was silence, snow silently falling all around as I sat dazed in my seat. A soft groan sounded from me as I gingerly touched my fingers to the side of my head, feeling something warm and wet coat my fingers. I turned to see a light amount of blood on the window pane from where my head had struck it, my eyes lowering down to my shaky fingertips in the darkness. I could just make out what looked like dark stains on my skin, a dull ache throbbing in my head.
After breathing for a few moments and trying to calm myself, I tried to start my car again, only to hear it stall out. Panic dawned on me as I tried again and had no success, my skin flushing with anxiety as I tried to think about what to do. The cold from outside had already seeped into the car, chilling me as I sat in my thick black winter coat, black leggings, and a grey long sleeve shirt. My layers offered me no warmth to fight the chill, prompting me to exit the car, my eyes glancing over to see where the metal of my car was dented from the hard impact. I had been prepared for today to be an awful day, but reality had really shown me up this time.
I glanced up and down the snow-covered highway through the thick flurries, seeing nothing but trees and asphalt in each direction. I was in the middle of nowhere between my college town and my hometown, and I cursed myself for taking that highway because I knew no one really took it and that it was basically a backway. With my phone dead, I was absolutely stranded. Paired with my anxiety, the sharp coldness of the air made it hard for me to breathe, faint puffs breaking from my lips as I gazed around frantically. For a moment, I was convinced I was going to freeze to death in the middle of nowhere. Then, I saw a light.
At first, I thought the impending hypothermia was making me grow crazy, but the harder I stared, the more evident the small golden light became as it peered at me through the thickness of the trees. I couldn’t fully make out what it was exactly, but I knew it was either check it out or stay there on the road and freeze next to my broken car. Without another thought, I trudged across the street and into the woods, my winter boots crunching down against the snow blanketing the ground. As I continued to weave through the trees, I slowly started to realize that the golden light was coming from a large wooden cabin.
After hearing multiple horror stories about cabins in woods and that sort of scenario, I found myself stopping in place, merely staring at the still structure as snow fell on its triangular roof and on the top of a smoking chimney. It didn’t take long for the chilly wind to convince me to check it out. If there was a serial killer in the cabin, I’d die. If I stayed out in the cold, I’d die. I just had to take chances, so I walked up to the cabin, glancing through one of the two windows on the front of the building. The glass of the window was skewered, making the inside look warped to the point that I could only see an orange glow and still dark silhouettes.
I clenched my jaw as my teeth began to chatter uncontrollably, prompting me to stop creeping in the windows and knock on the thick wooden door. Silence followed my heavy knock. I wrapped my arms around myself tightly, bouncing on my feet as I waited impatiently for someone to open the door. Someone had to be around since there was a fire in the fireplace of the cabin. One of the few things that I was grateful to my mother for was eliminating my social anxiety at a young age. Being forced to talk to everyone in town on a daily basis made it fairly hard for me to be afraid of talking to them. I just became annoyed instead.
I knocked once again, using the side of my fist to pound heavily on the wood, its surface styled with carved in lines. If they hadn’t heard me before, they should have heard me then. When I received no answer, I opened the door, a feeling of unease filling me. I knew I shouldn’t have done that, but I was in the middle of an emergency. I was literally stranded in the middle of nowhere, and I had no contact with anyone that could help me besides the owner of the cabin wherever they happened to be.
I poked my head inside of the cabin, nearly sighing in relief as I felt the warmth from the fire brush over my skin. I didn’t remember ever feeling so relieved in my life as I stumbled fully inside of the cabin, immediately shutting the front door behind me to trap the cold outside. I leaned against the door for a moment, enjoying the smell of the burning wood and its warmth as it seeped into my clothes and skin. The heat felt healing to me, recharging my strength and making me forget that my head was bleeding until the feeling finally returned to my body and I felt a small line of blood trail down the side of my face.
“Hello?” I called into the cabin, stepping forward a little to immediately enter what I could guess was the living room area of the cabin with its large leather lounge chair and its operating fireplace. After turning my head to the left and right, I noticed that the cabin was a multi-room one, prompting me to think the owner was just in another room and hadn’t heard me. “I just need some help,” I spoke again, my boots slowly stepping onto a red rug in front of the large fireplace.
I glanced around the living room, noting the various items on top of the fireplace’s mantle. I saw one picture frame and a football, dust coating their surfaces like they hadn’t been touched in years. The rest of the cabin didn’t have much dust, so I knew it couldn’t be abandoned. It just seemed lonely in there and far too quiet. The unease from that nearly made me back out and leave, but the fire felt too comforting for me to brave the cold again.
There were two openings in the living room, one that led to the left and one that led to the right. I knew they had to lead to other rooms, but all I saw in them was complete darkness. I decided to explore the right for the owner. I wasn’t exactly sure how deep the cabin went, so they could’ve been way back in another room and didn’t hear me. As I stepped to head to the right, I heard a creak from behind me. I whipped around toward the left opening, watching the shadows depart from the darkness.
For a moment, I wondered how shadows could spill out from itself, but then I realized that the moving shadows belonged to a black robe. My eyes slowly lifted, fear filling my chest to the point where it was so tight that I could hardly breathe.
A hood topped the robe the figure wore, his steps heavy and slow as he moved toward me. The hood was large, draping shadows on the face of whoever wore it. The figure had to be around six feet tall, towering over my average height with a threatening demeanor.
As the person kept coming toward me, I kept backing up, my boots grazing the red carpet as I breathed in shallowly. I knew I had a weird feeling about that cabin for a reason, and now my ignorance was going to get me killed. The back of my knees hit the edge of the black leather lounge chair, making me collapse back into it. I tried to scramble back against the back cushion, my boots scrabbling against the seat cushion as the figure kept creeping closer.
“What are you doing here?” His voice boomed throughout the cabin, its tone deep and accusatory.
“I … uh … my car …,” I trailed off, my lips still moving but no words coming out. They were lodged in my throat, refusing to exit as I gazed up at the cloaked figure.
“You’re not supposed to be here!” the figure grumbled, shaking his head as he stood over me, the orange glow from the fire surrounding his outline.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go!” I exclaimed in one breath, managing to say something, which was nothing but the hard truth. The last establishment I had seen was thirty minutes away and my hometown was twenty minutes away. I’d catch hypothermia on the walk and most likely die. As dead as I felt in Starling, I didn’t want to die before I finally started living.
“So, you break into my cabin?” The figure growled, his hands slamming down on the armrests as he leaned close.
My eyes trailed down to his hand, immediately noticing the pointed edge of his nails. I started to shake even more than I already was, ripping my eyes from the short animalistic claws to the darkness within the hood. I was petrified, my heart threatening to beat right out of my chest as I stared into the unknown. What I didn’t know usually didn’t scare me, only what I was stuck with knowing was true. I knew that I had to put distance between Starling and my mother for me to progress as a person. I knew that the death of my father, who had been passionate and kind, had helped propel my mother into the materialistic, image-obsessive person that she was, which had been put onto me. Those things, the things that I knew about my life, scared me more than my unknown future.