I used to meet my boyfriend where the cobblestone paths leading out of our backyards converged; three meters past the fallen willow tree, 27 steps away from the abandoned cottage, and close enough to the river that we could hear the splash the fish made when they jumped out of the water. I sat down on the ground and tried listening for his footsteps crunching the fallen leaves, but it was silent. I turned back around and sneaked a peak at the old cottage. It had always had that alluring ‘I wonder who used to live there’ vibe, but Ryan and I were always too busy to go check it out.
A loud crack erupted behind me and I stood up straight. The water wheel on the right side of the cottage turned methodically, the vines that had grown around it snapped and tore. Dust swirled in the air. Finally, the familiar crunching sounded behind me and Ryan walked into the clearing. He embraced me, but his eyes were fixed on the turning water wheel the whole time. Neither of us had ever seen it turn before, and the place where the two cobblestone paths met was a frequent getaway of ours. A light turned on in the cabin, and Ryan’s eyebrows knitted together. The doors and windows were still boarded up. He walked over to the cabin, and I staggered behind him, clamping the back of his jacket and occasionally shielding my eyes behind his shoulder. A shadow swept past a space between two boards.
Ryan cupped his hands and peaked into the window. I watched carefully from a few feet behind him. The window had been opened from the inside and there was a slow rocking sounding from the other side of the wall, like a rocking chair moving on wooden floors. I grabbed Ryan’s sleeve and peaked through a crack between his head and a piece of wood. The rocking stopped and we were left in a silence that sent shivers straight through me. A woman appeared and I flew back. Her skin was charred and patches of it were missing, and her teeth were rotten. Her eyes were a stone gray and it was hard not to look deep in them. Her wrinkled hands reached through the window and she scratched Ryan across his left cheek. He jumped back and fell, placing his hand over his bleeding face. All at once, the water wheel stopped turning, the light turned off, and the window shut with a loud thud.
Ryan stood up and ran to the door, pounding his fist on it. “Screw you!” he shouted. Nothing in the house stirred, but he kept pounding.
“Ryan, let’s just get out of here,” I called to him. He finally stopped pounding and just stood at the edge of the doorway, breathing heavily. Drops of blood oozed from the three scratches on his cheeks and he wiped them away with his jacket sleeve. A few fish splashed a good distance away in the river, but it didn’t make Ryan smile like it normally did.
The incident at the cottage was a foggy nightmare that followed me around for days after. Ryan had missed classes that Monday because he wasn’t feeling well, but I assumed he went back to the cottage while he knew I’d be busy. I went to his house the following Tuesday, not to confront him, but to check up on him. Before I could knock, his front door was opened and his mom and neighbor walked out. Both were smiling, but there was something off about them. His mom’s skin was tinted yellow and his neighbor, Jolene, who was elderly, had dark bags under her eyes. They both greeted me with warm hugs and his mom invited me in for tea.
“I think Ryan’s sleeping. He hasn’t been feeling too well,” she said. “But you know Ryan. One day he’s a complete mess and the next day he’s as good as new.” She smiled and sipped her tea. I took a drink of tea and looked around their living room. I had been there about a dozen times or so, but I was still amazed with his mom’s collection of butterflies. Ryan’s mom had always had an obsession with them. She had one case full of large Monarchs and another with Buckeyes. Monarchs were my favorite, and I could sense his mom’s admiration of my own admiration. She got up and walked towards the case. “Did you know the Monarch butterfly can fly as fast as 25 miles per hour?” she asked.
I shook my head and stood next to her. “I had no idea,” I said. She was about to go on when the doorbell rang. “Oh, will you excuse me? It’s probably Jolene. She always forgets something when she comes over,” she said as she tittered to the door. I looked towards the stairs to see if maybe the doorbell had woken up Ryan and he had come downstairs, but he hadn’t. I saw something flutter out of the corner of my eye and turned back around. One of the butterflies started moving. It writhed in its small confinement. A strange green liquid oozed from its lower end and leaked down the front of the case. The butterfly continued wiggling. I looked at it, trying so hard to figure out what it was trying to do that I ignored the fact that it should not have been moving at all. It managed to turn around and stared straight at me. Its torso was normal, its appendages fine, but its face did not belong to its body. The old woman stared at me, the same cynical smile on her face. Her face seemed more charred, her eyes more gray, and green liquid still oozed from her lower end.
“Chelsea?” Ryan called from the staircase. “What are you doing here?” His voice was a bit raspy and he seemed paler than normal. His plaid pajama pants hung loosely around his waist. His mom was at the door still, talking to Jolene. “Come here,” I whispered, gesturing my hand to show urgency. He swept down the rest of the stairs and over to me. I pointed at the largest butterfly in the case, not that I had to. The green liquid continued to pour and the woman hadn’t lost her cynical smile. Ryan stared at it, confused for a second when finally he snapped his fingers. “Oh, that’s right! Monarchs are your favorite,” he said. I looked at him with confusion. By this time, the green liquid had started to bubble and the woman was laughing. “Don’t you see her face?” I asked. “It’s the woman…from the cottage.”