Late at night, Todd weaves a rented Range Rover around the potholes of a dead-end dirt road. The road is beyond a rural New Hampshire town that progress has left behind, and its few inhabitants are thankful for the favor. Snowflakes, the vanguards of a December Nor’easter, begin to dance in the headlights.
In the passenger’s seat, Lindsay unfurls a map on the dashboard. “This road isn’t even on the map. Are we in the right place, Todd?”
“Beats me. They’re your grandparents.”
“I haven’t been here in fifteen years.” As a young girl, Lindsay flew from San Francisco to spend summers here in New Hampshire. But then she grew up, and the demands of college, a career, and a life with Todd took the place of the trips.
Her grandmother stayed in touch, though, the old-fashioned way: through the U.S. mail. But Gramma’s monthly letters, always lucid and upbeat, stopped three months ago. The September letter said, ‘Don’t worry about us, little girl, we’re doing well. Grampa drives the pickup into town for provisions, and social security gives us more than we can spend.’
She tried to check up on the two ninety-year-olds, her only living relatives, but no one would answer the phone. That’s why, with a pang of guilt, she told Todd, “I want to fly back and put my own eyes on them before it’s too late.”
“There’s the log cabin!” Lindsay says when they turn a bend in the road. “Stop here, I want to surprise them.” She zips up a shell jacket and reaches for an overnight bag.
“Let me walk up with you, just to make sure they’re home.”
“No, it’s fine. See all that smoke coming from the chimney?” Climbing out of the Range Rover, she catches a snowflake on her tongue.
Todd lowers the window for a kiss. “Don’t they at least get to meet your brand new husband?”
“You still have an hour’s drive. Get going and hunker down before the storm hits!” she says. “They’ll meet you tomorrow. I’ll cook dinner at seven. Don’t be late.”
“Yes ma’am!” Todd says with a salute. He drives away, anxious to see and stay with a former college roommate in Concord while Lindsay reconnects.
For Lindsay, the cabin resurrects memories of the nighttime footsteps and locking doors she heard here as a child. This place creeped me out. Steeled by a cleansing breath, she bounds into the cabin. “Gramma! Grampa! It’s me, Lindsay. Surpriiise!”
Her nostrils fill with the rancid ammonia stench of urine, amplified by the undue heat of the fireplace. As her eyes adjust, the living room’s filth comes into focus. Debris from a woodpile litters the rug, and stained bed sheets shroud two chairs that face the fireplace.
One of the shrouded chairs begins to rock and creek. Circling it, Lindsay finds Grampa, or at least the remnants of the vital man she once knew. Suspenders hold in place the baggy canvas pants and the wool shirt that drape his skeletal form. From out of his gnarled hair and beard, vacant eyes monitor the fireplace obsessively, as though he will expire along with the fire if it were to go out.
Fighting back tears of sorrow and guilt, she tries again, “Grampa, it’s me, Lindsay. Where’s Gramma?” Still no answer.
She leans in for a hug but then retreats from the body odor and fetid breath. I’ll call Social Services on Monday, she thinks. Whether he’s addled by age or that Korean War trauma doesn’t matter right now.
“Ready for tea, little girl?” Grampa whispers.
Wow, he remembers my pet name! Heartened by the lucid moment and eager to renew their long-ago talks, she says, “Sure, I could use a cup!”
“You get it, little girl. I can’t let the fire die.” He tosses kindling into the fireplace.
Going to the kitchen to boil water and escape the heat, Lindsay finds a pile of dirty dishes on the counter. Gramma always took pride in a clean kitchen, she thinks.
“When will Gramma be back?” Lindsay says when she returns with two cups of tea.
“Gramma won’t be back. She done died in October,” Grampa says as a matter of fact.
“She did? Oh no! Grampa, I’m so sorry.” No wonder the letters stopped, she thinks. I should’ve come back years ago. With mounting guilt, Lindsay begins to sob. “What happened?”
Grampa shifts his beady stare to the padlocked door next to the fireplace. “Her head was actin’ up. I kept her down there in the basement all day until midnight.”
Lindsay drops her teacup, and it shatters on the floor.
“One night, the clock chimed midnight, but I wouldn’t unlock the door, nope.”
“Oh God, why not?” Lindsay begins to hyperventilate.
“Because she tried to kill the fire. Said it was too hot.” He stirs the embers. “She stomped, rattled and banged down there, your Gramma did. And then she cut herself real good. I buried her out back in the family plot.”
As on that night two months ago, the grandfather clock tolls twelve times. A shallow scream wells up from the basement. Or is it the wind? The Nor’easter, well underway, rustles the curtains.
“Clunk . . . clunk,” Lindsay hears, and the footsteps grow louder as they get closer. The basement doorknob rattles and the door shakes violently. “Kill it,” a voice says faintly from the basement.
With mouth agape, Lindsay presses her back against the wall opposite the basement door.
“Don’t mind her, little girl,” Grampa grins. “Them noises stop. Always do.”
The noises do stop. Lindsay reaches for her cell phone with tremulous hands to speed dial Todd, but there’s no signal. When something oozes from under the basement door, she records a shaky video with the phone.
“That blood will disappear by sunrise,” Grampa says. “Always does. It’s her side of the family that taught ‘er them tricks.”
“Tooood!” Lindsay screams. In the kitchen, she finds the landline to call 9-1-1, but there’s no dial tone. Prowling the cabin in a panic, she avoids the basement door—and Grampa. I can’t stay here a minute longer with him, she thinks. Unnerved, with eyes bulging, she scoops her shell jacket and races outside to find help.
Plodding towards town, three miles away, the wind howls as the Nor’easter peaks. The swirling snow blankets her, and ice cakes on her face. An hour later, in a whiteout, the town still isn’t in sight. How far have I gone?
Turning around, she heads into the frigid wind and back to the cabin, the only building on the road. With no hat or gloves, frost-bite turns her extremities white, and her face, hands, and feet lose feeling. In another two hours, shivering with hypothermia, she smells the smoke billowing from the cabin’s chimney. Almost there!
Through the driving snow, she stumbles up to the front door. She turns the knob, but the door is locked. With body and brain slowed by the cold, she knocks feebly. “Grampa, help meee,” she whimpers. No response. A flicker of light from the fireplace draws her to a window nearby. Disoriented, she calls, “Grammaaa!” and then stretches up to the window, but it’s out of reach.
She slogs over to take shelter in a rusty Ford pickup truck, Grampa’s link to town. Trying both doors, she finds they too are locked.
Listless and about to give up hope, she remembers a toolshed behind the cabin and trudges to it. The shed, though, fell apart long ago.
At the family burial ground, next to the shed, Lindsay collapses against the nearest grave marker. She closes her eyes and prays, “Help me, Gramma. What should I do?” Torpid and confused, sleep overcomes her, with the smoke wafting down from the chimney her only measure of warmth.
Late the next night, Todd crunches through the ice-coated snow and up to the log cabin. Greeted by a hot draft of air, he bounds inside through the unlocked door. “Sorry I’m so damned late!” he says to anyone in the dark living room willing to listen. “We dug out from the storm in Concord, and now the Range Rover is stuck back in town.”
The cabin’s stench makes him want to step back into the crisp, tranquil air outside. Filtering his nose with a scarf, he thinks, I’m getting Lindsay, and we’re outta here.
When his eyes adjust, he spots the white-haired man in the shrouded chair keeping the enduring fire alive. “Hello there! You must be Lindsay’s Grampa. I’m Todd,” he tries. May as well make the best of it. In front of Grampa, though, the hand he extends hangs in the air.
Spotting a cellphone on the floor, he steps over the shattered teacup to pick it up. “Where is she?”
“Oh, she’ll be here soon enough, young man.”
When Todd swipes the phone, a short video plays on the screen. In it, blood oozes from under the padlocked basement door. Beads of sweat form on his brow and his heart pounds.
Then, the grandfather clock chimes midnight. “Clunk . . . clunk,” he hears. In a moment, the basement doorknob rattles and the door shakes. Todd’s eyes dart from the cellphone to the door, anticipating the blood’s arrival. “Kill it,” he hears.
“Them noises stop. Always do,” Grampa grins, and then he stirs the fire with the last piece of kindling.
Bile burns Todd’s throat. Searching for clues, he discovers Lindsay’s jacket missing and the overnight bag unpacked. She must’ve gone outside, he thinks.
Bundling up in a coat and scarf, Todd again hears footsteps. But the sounds don’t come from the basement. This time, the footsteps come from outside the front door. “Crunch . . . crunch.” As the faint sounds in the icy snow grow louder, Todd exalts, “Thank God!” He reaches to open the door and warm his wife with a hug.
But Grandpa shuffles past Todd and slides the deadbolt shut. The front doorknob rattles, and they hear a feeble knock. Then a voice whimpers, “Grampa, help meee.”
Todd elbows Grampa aside and slides the deadbolt open. Outside, he sees only footprints in the snow, and no one that could have made them is in sight. “What the hell’s going on, old man?”
Grampa grins and says, “Don’t worry, son. Them noises stop. Always do.”
The new footprints, though, come only towards the cabin. Todd wades through the knee-deep snow to find the source of the one-way prints, with the December full moon lighting the way. At the burial ground, the tracks begin at the first grave marker. He brushes snow from the marker and finds scratched on it the name of Lindsay’s grandmother and an October date.
Digging deeper at the spot, he sees a hand reaching out of the snow. The ring finger wears the shiny wedding band Todd placed on it three short months ago. Desperate, he clears the snow around Lindsay, right down to the shell jacket. “Nooo!” echoes in the still air. Unglued, he drops to both knees and presses the hand, frozen solid, against the tears on his cheek.
Lumbering behind, Grampa finds Todd shivering and weeping at the burial ground. As he always did when Lindsay cried as a child, Grampa places a comforting hand on Todd’s shoulder.
“Crunch . . . crunch,” they hear from the direction of the cabin. In the snow, a new set of bodiless tracks take shape. Step-by-step, the one-way footprints they saw at the front door return to where they began. When they reunite with Lindsay, the crunching sounds stop.
“How ‘bout that, young man? Her Gramma passed down them tricks. But don’t worry,” Grampa grins. “See how them noises stopped? Always do.”
Grampa sweeps off two logs at a woodpile next to the collapsed toolshed. With a rusty hatchet, he chips the wood into thin kindling. “Gotta keep the fire alive,” he says and carries the life-giving bundle back inside the cabin.
Thinking about the sliding deadbolt lock, Todd picks up the hatchet. Holding it at his side, he follows Grampa into the cabin.
A short time later, Gramma is afforded the simple courtesy she requested all along. Starved of the kindling that sustains it, the undying fire finally goes out.
BIO: John Mara began writing fiction beside a serene New Hampshire lake after years writing business articles inside a stale New York cubicle. He writes with the creative input of his wife Holly. They never fail to attract mortified glances when they discuss dastardly characters and plot structure in restaurants. Besides Liquid Imagination, John’s short stories are published in Bewildering Stories, J.J. Outre Review, Youth Imagination, Dark Fire Fiction, Sirens Call, Fantastic Horizons and other venues.