Short Story: Cabin Fever

JULY

They’re in my street, filming my home, which I guess was inevitable.

The first thing I notice though is the grass. It’s all yellow and dry and it makes the house look pale. I’m surprised at how quickly it’s deteriorated.

When I lived there I made sure the lawn was green. The same as all the other lawns in the street. That was important for some reason. The grass had to be just as green as everyone else’s.

You have to blend in, be the same. It’s that kind of street.

The news reporter looks genuinely concerned. Perhaps because she lives in a street just like mine. I think that’s what’s getting to her. I see it on her face as she turns to the camera. That bewildered look.

She’s looking at the street, at the houses and the lawns, at the familiarity of it all. She’s feeling comfortable with it, nonchalant even. And then she gets the word in her ear that they’re ready in the studio, and she remembers why it is she’s there.

Perhaps she even took a quick glance at the faded lawn before they went live, just to convince herself that it was true, that something strange really was going on here. That the commentary and reports from the studio, filtering through her earpiece, really were correct.

“Police in Amberville are today investigating the mysterious disappearance of a family from the Pinewoods area of the city.

Authortities today confirmed that they had entered the house of John Carter, after neighbours raised the alarm claiming they hadn’t seen the family in the neighbourhood since April.

Having searched the property, police confirmed that they had failed to find any trace of Mr Carter, his wife Alicia, or their three year old daughter Luisa, but refused to comment further.

Mr Carter, who moved to Amberville with his wife ten years ago, had established a small building business in the city, while his wife stayed at home to raise their daughter.

It has now been confirmed that authorities are investigating whether the business had encountered any financial difficulties which could have caused the family to flee.

Neighbours however were today fearing the worst, as Helen Moss now reports…”

“Not much happens on the streets of Pinewoods, a neat suburban area of Amberville. Residents here pride themselves on their small quiet town, and are unashamed of their close-knit community. Today however, that community was in shock as it came to terms with the fact that one of its families has been missing for almost three months, and that it is only now that the alarm has been raised.

Earlier today I spoke to some of the local residents and asked them how they felt about the disappearance of Mr Carter and his family….”

“You’re a neighbour of Mr Carter. Can you tell me what you know about the family?”

“Not much really. I mean, I’ve lived close by them here for, I dunno, I guess around five years now, but we never really spoke much. A quick hello, a nod, you know, that sort of thing?”

“And are you surprised that they seem to have disappeared like this?”

“Well I am now. I mean, I never realsied until now that I hadn’t seen them for so long. It was only when the police arrived really, that I realised it had been a few months.”

“So they were quiet then? Not the kind of family you noticed much?”

“Oh, right. Well, I dunno. I mean they argued a lot, you know? A lot of shouting. And I got the impression that he was maybe a bit stressed.”

“Stressed? In what way?”

“I dunno, just short tempered. Like he’d grumble sometimes rather than say hello, or tell the kids to go play somewhere else because they were making too much noise. But in a weird way, you know? Like, if he was relaxed he wouldn’t have noticed it, wouldn’t have cared. But because he was stressed I suppose he just got annoyed with things that aren’t that annoying.”

“And you didn’t think that was worrying?”

“Well, no. I mean it’s not really that strange is it? I mean it’s only significant if you look back at it. At the time, I just figured he was stressed was all.”

“So you don’t know of any reason why the family should disappear then?”

“No.”

“And what do you think may have happened to them? Police think perhaps Mr Carter was in financial difficluties.”

“I don’t know about that. I mean, he seemed okay. Successful enough. Steady business you know? And not extravagant or anything. Just normal. So I can’t see how really. I mean unless it was something sinister..”

“So you worry something may have happened to them then?”

“Oh, I dunno. I hope not. But yeah, it’s been a few months now and no-one knows where they’ve gone, so yeah, I guess we should be worried.”

“And how do you think the community is holding up?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, knowing that the family may be missing now for three months and that it took so long before someone, in this small suburb, noticed that they were gone.”

“Well I dunno about that. I mean, I guess you’d think people would notice something like that. That’s what I would have thought. But there you go. No-one did, and I don’t know why to be honest with you, I really don’t”

“Do you think they’re still alive?”

“I hope so.”

I hope so.

I watch the T.V. screen, and even as he says it, it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe it.

That “I hope so” is just a euphemism for “no”.

He thinks we’re all dead but doesn’t want to say it on camera. And in any case, he’s not alone. The television reporter thinks we’re all dead. The police think we’re all dead. After all this time, everyone thinks we’re all dead.

But we’re not.

Not all of us.

******
APRIL

Ever looked at something familiar and failed to recognise it?

I don’t mean anything profound or anything. I really mean something familiar, something you know so well, you fail to acknowledge it most days.

For me it was absurd.

I had a pepper mill in my hand, then one day, when I looked down at it, I suddenly didn’t know what to do.

I stopped because I didn’t know why it was I was holding it. What it was doing there in my hand.

I was holding it, poised over a glass bowl, when I looked down and realised that something was wrong.

So I dropped it, right there in the bowl, and just walked away.

I could hear Alicia talking to me, asking me where I was going, what I was doing. Shouting at me even.

But all I could do was walk. I couldn’t speak. I had nothing to say.

There were no words in my head. Not even enough to describe something basic, like that pepper mill. Nothing.

And, feeling that, knowing that, all I could do was walk.

I came to, three days later, in a hotel room.

When I say came to, I don’t mean that I had been asleep or drunk or unconscious during that time. More that I became aware of where I was, and that time had passed without me having been aware of it.

Things were strewn around the room. Newspapers, food cartons, dirty plates and cups. There were clothes lying crumpled in a heap on a chair. Clothes I didn’t recognise, and I puzzled over their appearance in the room for a while, before realising that all of the items around me pointed to the days I had spent here in this strange hotel room.

To the things I had done, while apparently half asleep, like buying newspapers and clothes, ordering room service, drinking coffee.

I sat on the bed and thought about it. Trying to recall these things, but getting nowhere. There wasn’t even a blur in my head. All there was, was an emptiness, a blankness, as if those days hadn’t really existed at all.

When I’d gathered myself together, I decided the only thing to do was to check out and head home. There’d be some answers there.

At the reception desk the checkout girl recognised me and chatted to me, in a friendly manner, almost intimately. Perhaps we’d shared a joke, even a drink, these last days? Something about her smile seemed to suggest it.

She asked me if I’d be coming around again soon and I shrugged and simply said, I guess so.

She seemed happy enough with my answer, as if she was looking forward to my return even, and as I turned to leave she waved me a quick goodbye.

Out on the street it was early evening, the time of day when everyone is busy scurrying home. Shops were closing, bars were opening. I joined the squeeze of people on the street and headed reflexively towards the train station and home.

When I turned the lock in the door Alicia sprang up to meet me, her voice somewhere between despair and rage, but when she asked me, pleaded with me, where I’d been and saw I had no answer, saw that confusion in me, she grew silent and lead me to the sofa, where we sat together in silence, watching the room grow dark.

The next morning we left.

“We need to get out of here for a while. All of us I mean.”

And Alicia just nodded.

“Where do you want to go?” was all she said.

“I know a place.”

It was a nine hour drive. An almost endless trip, down straight, mindless roads, before it veered to the left, two hours short of the destination, and started a long, winding pull upwards.

The kind of monotonous journey you never remember taking, the only memory being that unexpected turn and that meandering incline. So that you get the impression you’ve arrived there very suddenly. A sudden sharp motion to the left and there you are.

On the way, Alicia asked me where we were going.

“Is this where you’ve been the last few days?”

“No. No it’s not.”

And she looked at me, puzzled, as if she hadn’t been expecting this. As if she had her next question all lined up, only to find that my answer had been the wrong one.

So she watched the road for a mile or so before continuing.

“Where were you then?”

I thought about it.

Where had I been after all? Some hotel in the city, flirting with the receptionist, in some semi-lucid daze. Doing things I had no recollection of, the detrius and receipts the only indication that I’d been anywhere.

What was I to say?

“I don’t remember. Just some hotel somewhere.”

“But not here?”

“No, not here.”

“John?”

“Uh huh..”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

And I was. That was the truth of it.

As the road bent and climbed, it felt as if we were floating there, in among the trees. The mountains folding around us, their outline turning purple against the dimming evening light.

It seemed so noiseless, as if the landscape was absorbing every sound, muffling it, cocooning it.

Absorbing us into it. Into this other place, this other world, that was far, far away from everything below it.

Up here it was as if the rest of the world had never existed. This was the only time. This silence, the only place.

All I had to do was keep my eyes fixed to the road ahead as we were pulled upwards by some hidden force.

I was okay. At that moment I was okay. Everything was okay.

Faced with my silence, Alicia turned away and stared out the window, the landscape sweeping over her face in her reflection in the glass.

Her blue eyes seemed to float there among the mountains and the trees, like some spectral being, so that the impression was of being watched from the other side of the glass, by some all seeing eye.

And perhaps that was what she was after all.

She had a way of understanding things without having to be told. A powerful instinct that relied on observation rather than words.

So she sat there in the car gazing inwards, watching the three of us as we climbed our way forwards, further and further away from the world below and all the pressures that lay there.

Watched as Luisa’s sleep filled head fell and thumped to her shoulder. Watched as I grew lighter with every mile.

She saw all this, this quiet scene,and perhaps she thought the same as me then.

Everything is okay.

When we stopped it was dark, the cabin just a vague form in the blackness.

“Here we are then.”

“Where John? Where are we?”

“Just a minute. I’ll shine the lights on the cabin so we can see what we’re doing.”

Luisa was awake and mumbling to herself, ready to whimper or cry at any moment, and Alicia got out of the car and took her in her arms to reassure her.

“What a surprise, eh? A trip to the mountains. And our own cabin. How about that?”

But in the beam of the headlights the cabin seemed strangely darker than ever, the colour of the wood dank and green in the harsh white light.

Luisa looked at it and clutched tight at Alicia’s shoulder.

“Hey come on, let’s get inside and see if we can fix something to eat.”

I stayed outside on the porch and listened as Alicia busied herself inside. In between the rattling of drawers or the slamming of doors she’d call out asking me things.

“Where’s the food cupboard?”, “Is there a big pot here?”, “Did you bring any matches?”

Simple practical things that she always did when she was put in unfamiliar situations.

It was a nervous need to control things that she had. She always seemed to want to establish where she was. It was a compulsion really.

The first time we shared a house together it was like this. I remember she entered the hallway and the first thing she did was put down her bag and start to wander around. To open cupboards and drawers and check where things were. She even flushed the toilet.

And as she pottered around, I just stood there, listening to her movements as she went from room to room.

I was annoyed at first, because as I’d turned the key in the lock my heart had been pounding as I flashed through all the scenarios I had envisioned for this moment. All the passionate expectations that I had built up over the days leading to this.

So her lack of excitement seemed strange. Cold even.

Funny how you can live with someone for more than ten years, and they never change. Whatever the situation, they remain the same. The same reaction, the same routine.

It’s as if the world around them somehow stopped and ceased to alter. Until there is nothing new anymore. No new sensations, no surprises, no changes. Just this little world that remains just so, just the same. Suffocating and stale.

So Alicia fumbles around in the semi-darkness, in this unfamiliar place, and yet nothing changes. She does the same things as always. Busies herself with little routines that are timeless, placeless, lifeless.

While I just sit and listen to her. Listen to the familiar noises of domestic routine. I close my eyes and we are home again, the long drive just a dream. The smells around me, the dampness and the mustiness of the forest, overpowered now by the imagined cosiness of floor polish, coffee, bleach, mown grass.

Wherever Alicia is, she is always home.

Perhaps I envy her sometimes. The way it is she can be so settled, so secure in herself. But then I see a dreariness in her eyes, a tiredness in her face, and the envy turns to pity.

And that’s when she disappears. Just disolves into a greyness and becomes nothing. Her boredom engulfing her and evaporating her.

“She isn’t really alive.”

That’s what I think at such moments, when I see her.

That she is a robotic thing. A non-existent thing.Something that operates, goes through the motions, but is anything but alive.

I’d often wondered how she would be if she ever left that domestic security, that humdrum monotony. Came up this mountain with me and sat here, listening to the night.

The silence and the darkness. The damp of the mossy forest. The solid presence of the mountains. There was an inescapable reality to it all. A peace about it that made all other places seem plastic and hollow.

“There was only some soup in the cupboards. If we’re staying here we’re going to have to get to a store or something and get in some food. Why didn’t you pack some supplies John, if you knew we were heading here?”

“Tomorrow. We’ll get some tomorrow.”

“There’s not even a bar of soap. Where is this place John?”

“Just a place I know, that’s all.”

Soup and soap and stores. Why did I imagine things could change?

A small sharp intake of breath came from Alicia’s mouth, but then she looked at me and thought the better of it. Decided that whatever it was she had to say could wait for some other moment.

“Right well I’m off to bed then.”

“No, sit here a while with me, just for half an hour or so. Listen to how silent it is.”

“Tomorrow. I’m too tired now. Goodnight”

I sat there all night and breathed. Watched as the light changed. Listened as the day broke.

That morning there was a clarity to everything I’d never understood before. A peacefullness that came from things suddenly making sense.

In the early morning light, I climbed the stairs and entered their rooms.

First Alicia then Luisa.

No plan. No fear. No shock. Just a pillow over the face. Feeling the struggle. The tension and fear and strength. The sheer force of it. Of life.

I felt it. Felt it rage within them, then die.

Especially Alicia. It was as if, sensing that suffocating force upon her, she suddenly became aware of herself. Of the stifling air that surrounded her. Of her own, choking existence. And it was as if she was angry with herself. Angry at the way she had smothered her own life. So that that final gasp was like a first breath really. A release. A filling of lungs and heart.

And for an instant I thought of releasing my grasp. Of lifting the pillow and letting her slump and gasp and rasp at the air, at life.

But I held it there, certain of my purpose. Pressed down firmly, knees on her chest, until she relaxed and relented.

And as she died I felt myself become lighter. Felt the concentration and the focus lifting me and letting me float in the moment. All thoughts, all motion, all time, were gone. We were simply there then. All three of us. Caught in this tiny moment, in that sliver of air.

It was like being on a road at night, watching the white line rise up to you from the darkness. Watching as it flies past and retreats into oblivion. And on and on you go, no destination in mind, no end to it all. Just the movement and the dark and the whiteness of that line.

In the afternoon I awoke in bed beside Luisa, the pillow still there, over her face. I left it there, and swaddled her in the sheets. I didn’t want to see her face.

Nor did I want to see Alicia. There was no need.

I wrapped and bound her and in the early evening placed her together with Luisa in their grave.

******

JULY

Since then life has been quiet and peacefull and clear. All I do is sit and wait. Wait to see how this will all end.

And now here it is, right there on my T.V. screen. Concerned neighbours, bemused reporters. The mystery and sensation of it all beamed across the nation into thousands of homes just like mine.

All those people, watching and wondering. Sitting there thinking “I wonder what happened to them?”

Well here I am and what’s done is done. For months now it’s been done.

Down at the store, Mary is probably staring at the screen in disbelief. Watching the images as they flicker by, and thinking to herself “Hey, isn’t that John?”

And sure enough, there I am, my face emblazoned on the screen. There’s no denying it.

She watches and listens. Listens to the story as it unfurls. Listens as the neighbours divulge misleading, contradictory theories as to what could have happened.

“Oh he was in financial trouble, that’s for sure. Business had been bad for John for quite a while now.”

“They were a decent family. They wouldn’t run away from trouble. Something isn’t right. They wouldn’t just leave like that. Something must have happened.”

“He was a quiet man. Kept himself to himself. I never really knew what to think of him. I just hope that little kid is alright.”

Mary listens to it all and shakes her head.

“No there’s nothing wrong. He’s here, right here. Comes in every few days for some supplies. Stays up there, a few miles away in his cabin. There’s nothing wrong at all. He’s right here is all.”

Then she thinks it over. Thinks about Alicia. Thinks about Luisa.

Wonders why it is she never sees them. If we’ve all disappeared together, then why is it she’s never seen them?

And it troubles her.

So she gets on the phone, calls Dan down in town and asks him if he’s seen the news, and hey, does he not agree that that’s me, that man on the T.V. ? That the John on the screen is the same as the John that comes into the store now and then. And hey, Dan, have you ever seen his wife or his kid?

No. No he has never seen them either.

And they pause as they realise just how strange this is.

“What should we do Dan? Should we call the police?”

I turn down the volume and let the screen flicker in the darkness. The news reports continue and for a moment, as those images of other lives, other stories flash across the screen, it’s possible to imagine that my own story has been forgotten. That the world and its attention is now elsewhere, busy with some other news, some other intrigue, some other war or scandal or gossip.

I just want to sit here and let it all happen. Let it all go on around me, without me, this flickering chaos that is everywhere.

Everywhere but here.

Here there is simply silence. Simply air to breathe and peace.

Here is the only place I want to be.

But down in the station, some young officer is getting into his car.

He’s listened to Mary and can’t quite believe what it is she has to say. Is she really sure it’s the same guy? And he’s never come in with his wife or his kid? Not once in the past three months, you say? And sure, that is really strange. And yes, of course he’ll head up there right away and check it out. And thanks for caling it in, Mary.

In his excitement, he can’t get the key in the ignition. He fumbles and sweats as he turns the engine over and heads out on to the road his thoughts haywire.

It’s only as he pulls up the hill in the darkness, as the swish and sway of the road settles him, that he starts to get a sense of what awaits him. That he starts to shiver a little with fear, with nausea. That he realises he should call it in. Let people know where he’s going and what he’s looking for. Get some other folks up there with him, just in case.

In case what, he wonders.

And if I was there with him at that moment, if I was was sitting beside him in the car at that moment, I would have told him what was coming.

Would have braced him for the sight that awaits him as he pushes open the door to find me hanging there.

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