All I wanted was one perfect Thanksgiving with my wife and kids, like the kind we used to have when I was little. Before cell phones and computers, we used to sit around, drink hot cider and really talk. To be fair, it wasn’t always pleasant and loving, but at least it was real.
So I rented us a cabin several miles south of Flagstaff, on the way to Lake Mary. It was close still, but the woods around the cabins made them feel remote, cut off. Most importantly though, no cell phones, tablets or computers allowed. I alone brought my cell in case of emergency.
“But how are we going to cook thanksgiving dinner in a cabin?” Abbey whined from the back seat.
“The same way the pilgrims did it,” I said, trying to catch her eye in the rear-view mirror. But she was too busy looking out the window, pouting. “It will be educational.”
“We’re supposed to be taking time away from school,” argued Holden. He was in high school now, so his tone had a sharper edge than Abbey’s. “It’s called vacation for a reason.”
Tiffany reached over from the passenger seat and laid her hand on my knee. My face must’ve been turning red again. I just focused on the road and kept driving deeper into the woods.
If Abbey hadn’t needed to pee, we probably would have missed the pull-off completely. It was an unmarked dirt road that I was going to take just to give my daughter some privacy. But as I drove up it, I found the sign with the word “cabins” painted in white, followed by an arrow.
“The GPS on your phone said we still had two more miles to go,” Tiffany said.
“Must have relocated recently or something,” I assured her. “Those things are wrong sometimes.”
I told Abbey she needed to hold it because the cabins were only half a mile up the road, but even that turned out to be incorrect. We were driving for 15 more minutes before I pulled off to let her go. Tiffany asked Holden to go with his sister.
“Something isn’t right,” she said once they were both out of earshot. “We haven’t gone too far, we can still get back to the main road and see if we made a wrong turn.”
“You’re right,” I said, “we haven’t gone too far. Not far enough to know for sure.”
“Fine. But if you get us lost or stuck…”
She broke off at the sound of the van door sliding open. Silently, she threw me a threatening look that finished her sentence for her.
Luckily it wasn’t long before a small clearing revealed a circle of cabins a little farther up the road. Still, Tiffany looked uncomfortable.
“They look abandoned,” she said. “And that gate’s closed.”
“They’re just old, probably, and it’s not locked. Holden will you go open it for us?”
The chains just needed to be unwrapped and Holden was able to roll the gate out of the way. I was going to ask him to close it up behind us, but I was starting to feel a little uncertain too. The closer we got, the more I realized Tiffany was right. The cabins looked run-down and abandoned.
“This isn’t the place,” Tiffany said quietly. “This isn’t it.”
“I know it’s not luxurious, but —”
“No, David!” She shouted. “I’m telling you, David, that I saw the pictures online and this is not the place!”
“It could easily have been an old picture, or —”
“Goddamnit, David, turn this car around. Now!”
I’m not really sure where I found the confidence to do what I did next. My wife doesn’t yell much, but when she does it’s pretty terrifying. Still, somehow I unbuckled my seat belt and started marching towards the office. Never mind that the “office” sign was dangling at an angle because one of the chains was snapped off, and two of the windows were shattered.
I reached for the door, and by some twisted miracle the handle turned and I found myself standing in a musty room with a fire burning in the hearth. Behind the desk was an old, emaciated man whom I almost mistook for a skeleton. His pale skin was pulled impossibly tight around his skull.
“Can I help you?” he asked in an unsteady voice.
I told him about the reservations that we had made. It took him a while to flip through his old notebook to find the right date. From what I could see, it seemed like it was almost completely empty. He just kept flipping through until he landed on the page November 27, 2015. And there, in tiny writing was my name.
It felt weird to be validated at least. Despite my determination to see the Office building, and to know for sure, I was almost certain that my wife was right. Now that I had the proof that we were where we ought to be, I felt unsure about my eccentric Thanksgiving plans. So I got the place right… but now we have to spend it here?
I paid the man and thanked him for the keys that he laid on the counter. Cabin 2 was all ours, but by the look of the place, we had run of the entire grounds. I walked outside and saw for the first time just how far away from Flagstaff we actually were. The dirt road had taken us up a little incline, but from where I stood, the whole city lay as far below as if we were atop a huge mountain.
I caught Tiffany’s eye through the front window and dangled the keys victoriously. She just rolled her eyes and turned to say something to the kids that I couldn’t hear. Probably told them what an amazing, great guy I am… told them how incredibly smart I am and how I’m always right. Yeah, I’m sure that’s why she immediately broke off from talking when I opened the door.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Abbey said, unenthusiastically.
Turns out that the place was even more remote from civilization as we thought. There was no electricity nor any running water. For a bathroom, there were some rickety outhouses in the courtyard area, next to the pathetic swing-set, missing three of the four seats. They were just chains now, tinkling in the wind.
Before we got around to unpacking, I had the unfortunate privilege of being the first one to get to use the outhouse. It was nice to have some time away from Tiffany while she cooled off, but there was something inherently terrifying about that outhouse. I remember sitting there, letting a log drop and thinking to myself, “Holy shit, I still haven’t heard a splash.”
So after I was done I went outside to find a big rock and let it drop down the hole. I counted over 15 seconds before it finally splashed into the liquid below. Fifteen seconds. I’m no mathematician, but even I knew that was a hell of a drop. I promptly told the kids to be careful using the bathroom, which was promptly met with sass.
“I’ve never fallen into a toilet before,” said Holden. “Don’t plan to out here.”
Abbey and Tiffany set about cleaning up the cabin while Holden and I unloaded the van. Turns out the inside of the cabin was just as shabby as the outside appeared to be. There was layers of dust on everything and old cobwebs stuck in every corner. Tiffany had successfully dusted the whole bottom floor before I carried a trunk upstairs and knocked a whole new layer off the bottom of the floorboards. That was my fault too, obviously.
The next order of business was finding a way to actually cook Thanksgiving dinner. And it proved to be a much more monumental task than I had anticipated. The hearth was just large enough to stuff a turkey into, but I’ve never heard of anyone cooking a whole turkey over a fire. Apparently it takes hours in a normal oven. So instead Holden and I started digging a pit outside. I don’t know much about cooking, but luckily I’m an okay pit cook.
We were just covering the pit with some old sheet metal when Abbey pulled on my shirtsleeve and pointed out into the forest.
“He’s there again,” she whispered.
“No he isn’t,” insisted Holden.
“Who is?” I asked.
Apparently had seen a man in the forest while we were driving up the road. She said that every once in a while she would see him again, like he was following us or something. She said he looked very old, but he could move fast, like a deer.
“Because it is a deer, idiot,” said Holden.
“You think I don’t know what a deer looks like?”
“Seems that way.”
I told them to stop arguing, but had to agree with Holden. There was no way someone could have been following us on foot. Especially not an old man, if that’s what she saw. She’d always had an overactive imagination anyways.
“If you see him again, tell me,” I said.
“He’s right there,” she said, pointing back to the same spot. “He’s been listening to you the whole time!”
I raised myself up and followed where she was pointing. There was nothing there, except the slight movement of some bushes in the wind. Still, I did feel a little strange all of a sudden, like there was someone watching me.
“Is he there still?” I asked.
“No, he left when you looked up. I don’t think he likes you.”
“You can tell all of that from so far away?” Holden mocked.
Abbey didn’t say anything more. She just shrugged and walked back inside. Holden and I followed her, towing the empty ice chest in as well.
“Sorry I couldn’t come to the back, what did you need?” Tiffany asked me when I came in.
She was at the counter, chopping lettuce on the newly cleaned counter. Abbey and Holden had plopped themselves on the old sofa, looking bored and miserable.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I heard you knocking at the back door, but I had my hands full. When I finally got to it, you weren’t there.”
I told her that I was out front with Holden digging the pit, but she was adamant that she heard something. I said something about the women in our family all being silly, which was met with enough scorn to send me to the ice chest for the rum. I poured two drinks, but Tiffany shook her head, so I down both of them.
“Happy Thanksgiving, guys,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Isn’t this nice?”
No one said anything. Abbey simply got up and said that she had to use the restroom. As she went out, I came up and tried to kiss Tiffany’s neck, but she pulled away. The liquor made me feel better at least.
Suddenly there came a knocking at the back door. Tiffany pointed towards it with her knife and gave me a told-you-so kind of look.
“Guess it must be the guy from the office,” I said.
But when I opened the door, no one was there. The view was breathtaking though. Off to the south, you could see Lake Mary beginning to open up, then to the north NAU’s big, white dome was clearly visible, skirted by the red-brick buildings on campus.
I heard a loud banging sound, like wood on wood. It clapped again and then Abbey’s scream punctuated the still air. I rushed around the side of cabin and found the door to the outhouse banging open and close as if it were being lashed by the wind.
“Daddy! Please help me!” Abbey screamed from inside.
I tore the door open and found two little hands grasping onto the inside edge of the wooden toilet seat. It didn’t take me but a heartbeat to grab hold of her little wrists and pull her up. But something was different; her weight was different. She was only six-years-old, but felt like she suddenly weighed two hundred pounds.
“What the fuck are you doing? Pull her up!” Holden yelled.
I moved to lay both of my hands on just her right arm, while Holden grabbed onto her left wrist. We both strained as hard as we could, but she only barely started coming out over the edge of the seat.
“It hurts, daddy,” she cried out. “He’s holding onto my legs.”
Without thinking, I told Holden to hang onto both of her arms and not to drop her, no matter what. I don’t know what compelled me to believe her at that moment, but I rushed out and grabbed the biggest rock I could.
“Why are you getting a rock?” Tiffany cried out. “What are you doing to her?”
I just rushed back into the outhouse, aimed the rock and let it drop just behind Abbey. I heard a far-away thunk and suddenly Holden lurched back, yanking Abbey out of the outhouse hole. She hugged onto him as hard as she could and started crying her eyes out into his shoulder. It was growing darker every moment, but even in the coming night, I could tell Holden was crying too.
Tiffany was looking at me with a mixture of anger and relief burning in her eyes. I nodded, without saying a word, and started walking towards the office building. Behind me, I heard Holden stand up and carry Abbey back into the cabin where Tiffany was likely going to start getting our things together. Whether he was there to give us our money back or not, I knew we had to go.
Of course, he wasn’t. The door was not locked, but inside the fire had gone out and the room was dark and cold. I quickly went upstairs to see if he had a room, but I found the space completely empty. It looked oddly vacant, like there was supposed to be someone up there. But there wasn’t. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was we had to go, with or without an explanation.
“Did you feel it?” I asked Holden when I came back into our cabin. They were hurriedly gathering their things together, stuffing it all haphazardly into bags. “Did you feel how heavy she was?”
“I told you he was trying to pull me down,” as Abbey said this, her eyes started watering again. “Look.”
She rolled her shorts up on her right leg, revealing a fading red imprint on her thigh. Tiffany stopped what she was doing and leaned in close to look at it. She looked suddenly as if something had broken inside of her. Grabbing me by the arm, she hauled me into the other room.
“Where did you go after you went to the back door?” she hissed.
“What do you mean…” I asked, suddenly realizing what she was saying. “Are you fucking kidding me, Tiffany? Are you seriously going to stand there and suggest…you’re sick. You’re fucking sick.”
“What’s the alternative?” she almost shrieked this time. “That there’s a monster living in the toilet that reached up and snatched her?”
“Yes. If it’s either that, or suggest that I would try to hurt our daughter, then fucking yes, you are supposed to believe that.”
She just gave me a freezing look and turned to continue packing.
By the time we had everything packed and ready, it was completely dark outside. It must have gotten cloudy too, because not even the stars were visible. I just threw the keys out the window at the office door and pulled out onto the road. When we got to the gate, Tiffany shuddered and put her hand over her mouth.
“It’s locked,” Holden said, disbelief in his voice. “With a padlock. How?”
“It wasn’t me,” I said quickly.
“Of course it wasn’t you, daddy,” Abbey said.
I gave Tiffany a look and repeated, “Of course it wasn’t you, daddy.” She just rolled her eyes, looked out the window and screamed like I had never heard her scream before.
There, standing not several feet away from the car, caught in the high-beams, was the old man from the office earlier that day. Except this time he was covered in brown stuff, dripping wet. His face was an icy blue, his lips purple. He was ghastly white, shaking and sodden. He went to take on step and the next moment he had his nose pressed to Abbey’s window.
I didn’t even hesitate in throwing the car into drive and accelerating as fast as I could. I’d seen that shit in movies, so I was praying that it would work in real life. Luckily, it did. We hit the gate full-force and knocked the entire thing over.
But even as we tore down the winding hillside path, Abbey kept looking back and shrieking, over and over. I knew something must be following us, but I was too zoned into driving to look back. One wrong move and I could potentially destroy the car and us inside.
“Everyone buckle up!” I shouted.
The clicking of the belt-buckles gave me at least a little relief. The next 10 minutes were agony, navigating the winding road while listening to Abbey shrieking in the backseat. Tiffany tried reaching back and holding her hand, but nothing would console her.
At last, the dirt road wound its way to the asphalt of the highway. As soon as the tires hit the street, I felt a huge rush of relief. Everyone else must have too, because the shrieking stopped. There was not a sound but the engine running for a good 30 minutes before Holden was the first to giggle a little.
Suddenly, Tiffany gave a little snort. The full weight of how ridiculous, impossible and terrifying everything was flooded through the car. We were all laughing and looking at each other. Once the laughter died down, Abbey piped up.
“You weren’t the ones that almost drowned in an outhouse. I don’t think it’s very funny at all.”
Once we got into town I took the kids to Denny’s for our Thanksgiving dinner. I guess, in a crazy way, I finally got what I wanted though. We were all sitting around the table, talking and laughing like nothing had happened. It almost felt like we were one of those close, communicative families.
“So what brings you guys into Denny’s on Thanksgiving?” the waitress asked.
“Just a very poorly planned trip to the Starlight Cabins by Lake Mary.”
The waitress looked at us weird, like we had just spoken nonsense. Tiffany asked her why she was looking at us so weird.
“That place has been closed for years,” the waitress said. “Some gang went up there, robbed the owner and threw him down into an outhouse well.”