This story is by William Babb and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Miranda was worried about money. She barely scraped by with her waitressing job but renting out her cabin for a month was going to solve her problems, at least for the short term. She was driving to the cabin to make sure it was ready, meet Alya Richardson, her new tenant, and hand over the keys.
She wondered why anyone wanted to rent the cabin this time of year. Pine, Arizona alternated between hot and dry, and monsoon storms. This was the first time anyone had wanted to rent it in August. She pulled off SR 87 onto a narrow, paved road that meandered through the pine forest.
When she was little, her uncle would tell her spooky stories about vengeful spirits that haunted the mountains. There was even a story about something horrible happening in their cabin. Her dad didn’t want him to tell her, but her uncle told her about a mountain demon with blazing eyes that had caused a grisly murder-suicide there. She never learned the details, only that it happened on August 3rd a long time ago. Neither her dad nor her uncle would even set foot in the cabin on or around that date. If they ever referred to that story, they just called it ‘the tragedy’. Her dad said being there anywhere near that time gave him the creeps. She laughed at the story and never believed any of it. She thought they were both ridiculous.
The cabin was old, but her uncle had renovated it to use as a hunting lodge, and he had done a decent job maintaining it. It was a nice little house with magnificent views, even if it was isolated. It had all the modern conveniences. All it ever needed was a good cleaning and a few basic repairs. She turned onto the dirt road that led to the cabin. When she saw it, she thought of the old story and it made her uneasy. Somehow the cabin looked a little sadder and more desolate than she remembered.
Miranda checked that the steps, covered porch, and flooring were still in decent shape. She pushed opened the front door of the little cabin and the hinges groaned mournfully. She hesitated on the doorstep before going in. It was a hot day, but she shivered slightly as she glanced around the dimly lit cabin.
“You’re just being silly,” she said to herself. “It’s the same cabin in August as it is in December. Pull yourself together, you need this rental!” She wrinkled up her nose at the dead, musty air, sighed, and wondered despite herself if she was doing the right thing renting out the cabin over that date.
She ran through her checklist making sure the cabin was ready. As she finished dusting in the kitchen, she heard a car drive up. She put away her dust rag and spray, rinsed off her hands and hurried to the door. Alya was just getting out of her car as Miranda got to the door and waved.
Alya smiled and waved back as she walked toward the cabin. She judged from her appearance that Alya would be a good tenant. She looked physically fit and a few years younger than herself, possibly about thirty-five, casually but fashionably dressed. Miranda was a little surprised to see that she had come to the cabin alone. That was unusual.
They introduced themselves, and Miranda began the brief tour of the cabin. She explained the workings of the evaporative cooler and the cabin plumbing.
“This place is perfect!” Alya said, smiling, looking out the window, and breathing in a deep breath of mountain air. “I need some seclusion and great scenery like this so I can work on my art.”
“I would love to see some of your work,” Miranda said, genuinely interested.
Alya’s face lit up. “I’d love to show you what I’m working on. Give me just a minute.” She hurried out to her car and brought in several large sketchbooks. They spent an enjoyable hour going through the sketchbooks, getting to know each other.
After answering her questions and exchanging phone numbers, Miranda had to leave to get to work. Alya thanked her and assured her that she would get along fine, the cabin had everything she needed.
Driving home, she thought about the date of ‘the tragedy’ just over a week away, and she was leaving Alya alone in that isolated cabin. It felt wrong. She wanted to warn Alya, but it wasn’t her business, she chided herself, and she needed the rent money.
Miranda and Alya got to know each other that week, meeting for lunch a couple of times and chatting on the phone, answering Alya’s questions about the local area.
The day before ‘the anniversary’ Miranda was anxious. She called Alya and offered to take her to dinner in Payson for a change of pace, saying she needed the company.
“Thanks, but I really need to get these moonscapes sketched while the moon is near full. How about next week? I’m sure I’ll need a break by then,” Alya said enthusiastically.
Miranda wanted her in town overnight but couldn’t bring herself to explain why. It took a long time to fall asleep. She awoke from nightmares where a dark shadow with blazing eyes was coming for her. She was drenched in cold sweat, her heart pounded. She didn’t sleep the rest of the night. She dressed early and arrived at the cabin just as the sky was growing brighter.
When she got to the cabin everything was quiet. Normal people would be asleep this early, and she sat in her car wondering what to do. She had hoped that the sound of her car would have awakened Alya, but apparently it hadn’t.
She called Alya’s phone and could hear it ringing inside the cabin. Miranda called out for Alya. After waiting for a response, she went to the front door, and it swung open at her touch. It hadn’t been properly closed. Her throat tightened as she tried to swallow and call out to Alya again.
The old floor issued a loud creak with each step. She kept calling to Alya as she checked the kitchen and peeked into a bedroom. The bed hadn’t been slept in. She investigated the second bedroom and found Alya sitting in a chair with her back to the door in front of her easel with the moon sketch. Her head was down on her chest looking like she had fallen asleep while working. She seemed to move as a breeze through the open window stirred her hair.
Miranda sighed in relief on finding her and said her name again as she touched her shoulder. It was ice cold, and Alya slid sideways off the chair landing on a dark mass that Miranda recognized now as a large pool of congealed blood. Lying on the floor, Alya’s head stretched back at an impossible angle that opened the slashed throat all the way to the bone, her lifeless eyes looking up at Miranda.
Her blood froze, she couldn’t move or draw breath. Paralyzed, she saw first the bloody knife on the floor, then the picture Alya had been working on. It was a sketch of a dark figure with blazing eyes, in the bedroom silhouetted against the window, a full moon over his shoulder, holding the same knife that now lay on the floor at her feet.
The scream that erupted from her seemed to reanimate her legs. She ran screaming from the house, jumped into her car and drove away as fast as the car would go.
As she turned onto the paved road, her tires squealed, her rapid breathing made her head spin. She took a slow steadying breath to calm down and struggled to decide what to do now besides get as far away from that dreadful place as possible. Her tires squealed again as she made the turn onto SR 87 not slowing down as she ran the stop sign. She pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor. She should call 911.
She felt a presence next to her causing her to glance over at the passenger seat where Alya sat staring at her, eyes unblinking, dark blood covering her shirt, the turn of her head causing her throat to gape open.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” Alya’s voice was clear but soft as if it came from a great distance.
Miranda wanted to say something, to explain that she didn’t know, but could only stare into Alya’s pale, accusing face. She was so frozen with terror she didn’t notice when her car left the road and plummeted a hundred feet into the rocky ravine.
The police were baffled by what appeared to be a murder-suicide. The officer who filed the report noted the coincidence of this tragedy occurring on the anniversary of another murder-suicide years ago at the lonely cabin.