The afternoon was aging. A dense, buggy heat had settled down over the trees, and the constant drone of mosquitoes gave their hapless trek through the dense undergrowth a particularly annoying edge.
Edgar Reeves had been right when he’d said the trees had grown up all around the cabin. The scarred, weed infused remains of the old building stood cheek to jowl with a sizeable army of thick trunked green warriors. Their shade cast the old bones in shadow and kept them moist enough to retain their shape without crumbling, while the dense cover probably kept the rain away and allowed the skeleton to age with grace.
One wall of the structure was covered in moss and some kind of hearty vine. The glassless window on that side was nearly obscured by the determined green stuff. Though the frame where a door had most likely once been was empty, the ground leading up to the door was cleared of brush, as if someone came to the cabin on a fairly regular basis.
Maddy’s pretty cheeks were rosy and a fine sheen of sweat made her glisten in the dappled light beneath the trees. She swiped a filthy hand over her face and looked at Adam. “It’s incredible.”
Adam frowned. They’d fought their way through the dense woods and bugs and god knew what else to find the cabin, spending the better part of two hours doing it, and the moment Adam stepped from the trees and saw the structure, he’d known it was a mistake. The place just reached over and wrapped cold, bony fingers around his heart, squeezing with cold malevolence as if to ask, “Why? Why didn’t you do something about this a long time ago?”
Looking at it, even rationalizing that the passage of time and changes wrought by climate and nature had reformed the structure into something sad and despicable, Adam couldn’t help the painful jolt it gave his heart to think about the people who’d been relegated to its rustic bosom all those decades earlier.
It was probably safe to say that Adam had some guilt issues about the whole slavery thing.
The spiny leaved green growth behind them thrashed wildly and colorful language stung the air. The woods finally spit Mink, red faced and manically scratching, into the small cleared space where the cabin stood.
“Just step on my damn throat and be done with it!” He exclaimed as he surged toward them. Something long, determined, and green clung to one of his rubber legs with the tenacity of steel bands and Mink nearly went down under its clingy grasp. “I can’t believe I let you two talk me into this.”
When his friends didn’t respond to his outburst, Mink glanced in the direction they were both staring. “Well strap me into a milking machine and hit the on switch,” he murmured.
The aged, log walls seemed to collect the dappled light of the small clearing and kill it, submerging it under years of black taint. The logs rose to about a height of six feet and then succumbed to a clutch of mud and tangled grass that must have once been a roof. The gray mud had dried to a kind of concrete substance that was probably impervious to most anything after more than a century of exposure. The whole thing gave off an aura of rejection, warning onlookers away from its pain-filled presence.
Maddy finally stirred and moved toward the cabin.
“You’re not going inside?” Mink’s voice was strident with emotion.
She stopped, jerked around and frowned at him. “Of course. We came all this way.”
“It might not be safe, Mads,” Adam told her. “I mean…structurally.”
“She glanced back toward the cabin and thought about that for a moment. “I’ll just stand in the doorway then and look inside.”
Adam nodded, staying right where he was. He had no desire whatsoever to become any more intimately acquainted with the terrible place.
Maddy walked slowly, her hands up in front of her as if prepared to fend off an attack. Adam knew the only attack she might have to defend against was one of horror at the timeless evil saturating the cabin’s rustic walls.
She stopped in the doorway and leaned inward, poking her head just beyond the frame where the door had once been. Her gasp brought Adam jerking forward to protect. “What is it, Mads? What’s wrong?”
She turned an expression filled more with surprise than horror in his direction. “Somebody’s been here recently. There are fresh flowers on the floor.”
Adam stopped beside her and peered inside. The smell of stale dirt and old wood assailed him, making his nose itch with a building sneeze. The lighting inside the old cabin was dim and dappled, sneaking through lost chinking and wafting through the single, glassless window. Sitting in the very center of the musty space, bathed in the weak light from the window, a scattered bunch of yellow daisies drooped against the dusty ground.
They couldn’t have been there more than a couple of days.
“Holy shit.” Maddy whispered, grabbing Adam’s arm. “Adam…”
Adam followed the direction of his business partner’s gaze, sliding upward from the bunch of flowers. He gasped. A thick, rough rope hung from the ceiling, flung over the single beam defining the center of the roof, and hanging down about a foot from the beam. The end of the bristly rope was twisted and looped into the perfect noose.
“Fuck me.” The cold fingers around Adam’s heart tightened, cutting off the air in his chest and sending a cold sweat flashing through him.
The noose was dancing softly on a breeze, waving and spinning over the scattered array of drying flowers. Outside the cabin, not a single wisp of a breeze touched Adam’s clammy skin.
Mink shoved his face between Adam’s and Maddy’s. “What’s in there?”
The strident sound of Mink’s voice startled the shadows into action. The ceiling of the cabin started to bubble, and a soundless wave of inky black suddenly shot downward and headed directly toward them.
Adam screamed like a girl and stumbled backward, yanking Maddy down to the ground with him and flinging himself over her. A cool, musty wind rushed past and something touched Adam’s skin and hair with spectral fingers, leaving behind the bright tang of pain. Beneath him Maddy started to chant the Lord’s Prayer, which was a notable event since Adam had never seen his partner enter a church or utter a single statement of belief in a higher power in all the years he’d known her.
The dark wave seemed to go on and on, for several minutes. When it finally passed and the clearing around the cabin settled into silence, Adam suddenly remembered Mink.
He slowly cranked his head around and peered up at the spot where he’d last seen his high-strung friend. Mink didn’t look as if he’d moved. He appeared to have simply settled in to ride out the horror. His small, perfectly manicured hands were splayed in front of him as if he were performing a number in a Broadway musical. His rubber clad legs were spread wide, the massive booted feet firmly planted in the dirt, and his head was bowed, the ridiculously enormous bill of the dumb fuck hat covering his face. On closer inspection, Adam saw that Mink’s narrow shoulders shook with a barely discernible tremor.
Adam and Maddy sat up and Adam said, “Mink?”
The overlarge bill slowly lifted and Mink’s fingers curved inward, into fists. He turned to Adam, only the angry twist of his lips visible beneath the shadow of the stupid hat. “Adam. Those were bats. I was just attacked by an angry mob of nasty, filthy, flying rats.” He glared down at them. “Bats. Adam. I told you I didn’t want to come out here. You forced me. You brought a terrified, gay as a peacock, city born and bred realtor into the jungle and subjected him to a haunted cabin and an angry mob of bats. I think I wet myself. Adam, I’m gonna slosh when I walk.” He stopped, filling his narrow chest with a shaky breath. “That was the worst two minutes of my life. I’ll probably need a therapist. What do you have to say for yourself, Adam Hoale?”
Adam and Maddy shared a glance. Maddy’s cheeks were pink, her lips rolled inward in an obvious attempt to keep from smiling. Adam widened his eyes, giving his head a tiny warning shake. Mink was a man on the edge. A harpy perched on the precipice. A single wrong step and they’d send him into his shrieking mad man persona. That was something they tried to avoid at all costs. Besides, it might startle the bats into returning to their roost.
Steeling himself, Adam finally turned toward Mink and said the only thing he could under the circumstances. “Who knew the dumb fuck hat would come in handy?”
Maddy snorted out a laugh and started to climb to her feet. Mink’s mouth snapped shut and he lifted a hand, pointing a shaky finger at them, his body rigid with anger. His lips parted, but nothing came out.
The unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked filled the silence. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing on my property?”