I was driving through the hills of the Northern Wisconsin countryside on the way to my aunt’s cabin near the shores of Lake Michigan. Rain was coming down hard and bringing brown and orange leaves with it. Some cars pulled over to wait it out, but I kept on at a steady speed, already familiar with tough weather. Besides, if I stopped, I might have turned back.
All around, the landscape changed. As far as the road took me, the woods came and went, giving way to far-reaching fields every other mile. Crops had recently been picked, leaving the fields barren and littered with corn husks. Finally, I entered the valley and the woods only grew thicker. Then I arrived. The driveway was more like a wayward farm lane. The entrance was hardly visible from the road, and it was concealed by an ivy-covered gate. At first glance, it merely appeared to be part of the undergrowth. My car wobbled over the pothole-ridden driveway, gravel crunching under the tires. The lane was narrow, and the sides dipped down into a steep ditch on the left and a muddy creek on the right. I kept the tires in line with the two tracks long worn into the ground.
A dark green and russet orange canopy of leaves arched and wove over me. It had been thirty years since I’d been to the cabin. It had been with my aunt and mother. This time I returned alone to quietly mourn the end of my marriage. When I told Aunt Linda I had divorced Tom, she immediately made it her mission to get me to the cabin. It was something she could no longer take care of but also something to which she could not say farewell. So, she took my divorce as the perfect opportunity to commission a temporary caretaker. When I picked up the key at her home in Milwaukee, she gave me an ecstatic yet pitiful send off. Her parting gift included a collection of smut novellas, a tackle box, a flashlight, several cans of bug spray, and a dream catcher. The dream catcher wasn’t all that odd; it was a trademark Linda quirk. As long as I could remember there had always been a dream catcher for each person staying in the cabin. If there was an unexpected guest, Aunt Linda miraculously procured yet another from a drawer or a closet.
Before I could leave, she also gave me some instructions: hang a bundle of hawthorn twigs above the front door, and when the berries are gone you must replace it with a fresh bundle. I remembered this tradition. Aunt Linda always sent me and my cousin Jade out to fetch the twigs, which she would tie neatly with twine and hang above the front door. I never understood these superstitions, but my mother indulged her by silence, and so did I.
I parked the car in front of the stilted log cabin. The mossy green siding was stained brown in some places, and the shingles on the roof were wanting for replacement. It loomed over me, lonely here in the woods with no one to care for it. I tapped the steering wheel, apprehensive. What a brilliant idea – to come to an isolated cabin to get away from my loneliness, a cabin that looked like it needed a companion more than I. Grabbing my bag and box of gifts, I ascended the creaky old stairs. They had been smooth and new long ago when I was a child. Now they were grainy and rotting. Years of dead leaves carpeted the deck.
As I reached the landing, my body lurched forward. Something clawed at my leg, which sank through the wood, and my things scattered across the deck. I was flat on my stomach in two seconds. When I looked back, I saw the board had broken beneath me. I recovered my leg; the scratches were mild with very few splinters. Standing, I stepped carefully as I collected my goods and made my way to the door, testing every plank of wood before putting my full weight on it.
Hanging inches above my head from a nail in the center of the door frame was a dried, berry-less bundle of twigs. It unnerved me for some reason – this thing that was merely condition of being here. I removed it. When I pushed the door open, the security system beeped rapidly three times. I set my things on the floor and the twigs on the counter.
My eyes adjusted to the musky darkness as they scanned the kitchen and living room. The cabin was full of dust, memories, and nostalgia. My gaze fell upon the old plaid couch, Linda’s mirror collection on the far wall, the old box television, and the drabby drapes that matched the couch. The silence brought a shiver to my spine, though. I realized I had never been alone here.
Hoping to busy my mind, I tended to my scratches and maneuvered the splinters out of my leg with a pair of tweezers. Then I grabbed a broom and swept the deck. The boards at the edges were completely rotted, along with a few in the center. The stilts under the house seemed fine, so at least I wouldn’t have to worry myself over the house collapsing while I was inside.
Still hoping to distract myself, I resolved to search for hawthorn in the nearby woods. It was always so peaceful here. The loneliness outside, among the trees and the birds, was serenity compared to the loneliness inside. My fingers brushed the leaves of low hanging branches as I walked by. Filtered amber light illuminated the woods and shone heavenly beams where the sun breached the canopy. Finally, probably two miles from the cabin, there was a small grove of hawthorn. I only took a handful of twigs. No use taking more than we can hang, no use for dead hawthorn, my aunt’s voice rang in my head.
I found myself dreading going back to the cabin, but I resigned and returned. The dim of the little house was almost unbearable, and I flung open the drapes, soaking in the light like a dog lapping up water. There were still two hours of daytime left, which I filled with more busy work and a quick, warm meal of tomato soup. There was an old cassette player on the windowsill in the kitchen with The Forester Sisters’ All I Need loaded into the dock. I suddenly remembered my mother washing the dishes and singing as we lounged in the living room after dinner. I decided to let it play, and of course it hadn’t been rewound.
The open windows helped keep the loneliness at bay, especially as I dusted the whole place and mopped the floors. I hadn’t even realized the time had reached ten when I finally finished up. I took the bedsheets and blankets out of the dryer. Before I could properly adorn the mattress with the fitted sheet, sleep took me.
At some point in the night, my eyes fluttered open to a pitch-black room. I didn’t remember turning the lights off, but then I also didn’t remember lying in bed. My eyes began to adjust, and the moonlight coming through the window illuminated the room in a grey dusk. Shadows flickered – the trees most likely. Then, however, the light disappeared altogether. It was pitch black for a few seconds before it crept back into the room slowly, expanding across the ceiling. I tried to lift my head, but it disobeyed my command, cemented to the bed. To my left my peripherals made out a strange silhouette. The shadow moved, and my eyes locked on it – what looked like a narrow head sitting on a wide pair of shoulders. I tried to move again, to roll off the bed. The silhouette widened, shrouded in moonlight. I couldn’t see its face with the window behind it. It was so tall and grew taller as it came closer. An arm reached out towards me. I tried to scream, but all I could manage was a high-pitched wheeze. My lips wouldn’t even part. The figure grew larger still, closer. I still attempted to scream, and I tried to close my eyes. Fear, paralysis, something forced them open. I knew then. I focused on my fingers first, unsuccessfully urging them to move. My skeleton was a statue.
Then the figure bent lower, and a white, sinewy hand reached out. My fingers twitched, and that was my release. I gasped, shot up, and rolled off the bed. I reached the light switch, and the lights flickered a few times before fully illuminating the room. There was no one there. I glanced at the window. It was open but far too small for an average sized person to climb through. I was still breathing hard. I rested my forehead against the wall and realized I was dripping in sweat.
Once I caught my breath, I still didn’t want to move. I felt vulnerable turning my back on the room. After several minutes, I convinced myself to take a shower. First, though, I locked all the windows.
I had experienced sleep paralysis before, the dreadful feeling of losing utter control of your body, of sinking into the bed to nothingness. But I never experienced the hallucinations. It was the stress, I told myself, the isolation.
After the shower, in the attempt of creating my own mental placebo, I retrieved the dreamcatcher and the flashlight from the box of gifts in the kitchen when I noticed the hawthorn twigs I had scavenged for earlier sitting on the counter next to the dead, dried bundle. I found the twine my aunt always kept in what we called our “mess” drawer. It was filled with all sorts of hand tools, forest treasures, and useless trinkets. I tied the fresh twigs together and opened the door. The chirp of the alarm startled me.
I wasn’t great at tying knots and forgot to add the loop in like my aunt taught me to when I was younger, so I fumbled with the twine as I stood on my tiptoes trying to tie it to the nail. Just then, leaves crunched below the deck. I jolted in surprise, consequently dropping the hawthorn. The footsteps moved away. I chastised myself, reasoning that I was in a remote place with wild animals. I reached down, and when my fingers grasped the twigs the wood steps leading to the deck creaked. I sprung up, holding my breath, and hurriedly tied the twigs to the nail. The twine slipped off, and the stairs kept creaking to the rhythm of steady, heavy footsteps. I tightly wrapped the twine around the nail and clumsily double knotted it. I only lingered for a second to make sure it wouldn’t fall before sidestepping through the door and slamming it shut. My hand found the lock and turned it abruptly. I pressed both palms flat against the door, almost expecting it to burst open. I panted. It took some time before I could allow myself to take my hands away.
I thought about calling the police, but as I hadn’t actually seen anyone and had already hallucinated, I decided to try to go to bed. This had to be my imagination; I was unwell, distressed, mentally displaced. It wasn’t the first time I had had a nighttime episode, either. My mother told me stories about how I used to sleepwalk and have night terrors. This was just the first time I could remember it happening. I was in the woods, after all, with wild creatures and unfamiliar nighttime noises. I again picked up the dream catcher, flashlight, and a kitchen knife for good measure. This time I did not fall asleep so easily, not until the light of dawn came through the window. By then, I slept through the late morning. When I woke, I saw the dream catcher dangling from a hook in the ceiling above me. Its presence was reassuring, and I felt refreshed.
I went about my morning routine as normally as I could with a cup of coffee and the news playing in the background. I even found a few puzzles tucked away in the coat closet. It was somewhat difficult to shake the nerves lingering in the back of my mind. Eventually, I was able to forget about it after a few nights of easy sleep with only the crickets disturbing the silence of the night. Aside from repairing the deck, my time spent at the cabin became more of a vacation. I fished, painted, read books, walked miles in the woods, visited some of the nearby farmers markets, lighthouses, and whatever else the chilled, frosty north had to offer.
Then I received a call from my aunt. She was simply checking on me, giving me advice on maintenance, and verbally mapping out the most likely places to find wild herbs and morels. Then she asked me if I was regularly replacing the hawthorn twigs. I froze, heat rose in my face with the realization of my forgetfulness. Things had been going so well that I never once thought about replacing the twigs. Part of me, I think, firmly believed it was superstition, but another part of me desperately needed those twigs to deter these hallucinations. I reassured my aunt I had replaced them, though, and I made a mental note to check once I got off the phone.
I asked, “Auntie, what are the twigs for again? What’s the meaning of the... tradition?”
She chuckled dismissively, “Well, our little old tradition I inherited from the previous owners. Now, you wouldn’t have had any nightmares, have you? The waking kind.”
She put a hard emphasis on the last two words, making them echo in my head. I think I was silent for too long because she then said, “It’s the third time you have to worry about. Just be sure to replace the hawthorn, and you’ll have a beautiful stay.”
Before I could ask her to elaborate, she told me she had to go before incoherently trailing off and promptly hanging up. I tried to ring her back, but there was no answer. I checked the hawthorn twigs immediately. All the berries were gone. A chill ran down my spine. A swift wind in the leaves echoed my unsteadiness. I put on my coat, pocketed my keys, and ventured into the woods.
After an hour, I began to panic. I couldn’t find a single twig with even a single berry on it. I regretted not marking the way to the grove I had found the last time. I couldn’t find them again, and I was too afraid to venture through unknown parts of the woods. Somehow, Aunt Linda had neglected to share any detail on where to find hawthorn berries when describing the location of every other earthly plant in this forsaken wood. I was losing daylight, and I didn’t want to be lost in the woods. Part of me wondered if I might be safer out here. I doubted it, though. I would be exposed to the wild things. In the cabin, I was only exposed to whatever fear I instilled in myself. Frustrated, I laughed. I laughed, and it echoed through the woods and shook the birds out of the branches and mocked me. I laughed because I knew that whatever was in the cabin was simply me and that I didn’t need the berries. I needed to heal.
When I returned, the beeping of the door startled me. I was determined not to fall asleep, so I put on a pot of coffee. I moved as much as I could, refusing to relax on any piece of furniture. It didn’t work.
I woke up on the couch. At some point while solving a puzzle, I must have nodded off and sleepily readjusted to a more comfortable position. The lights had gone off. I tried to sit up. Once again, I found myself completely incapacitated. I tried not to move my eyes from the fan on the ceiling. I focused again on my fingers, ignoring the dead silence.
Three rapid beeps sounded off at the door. My ears rang, and I was suddenly aware of the sweat collecting at the small of my back. I wanted so desperately to move, but no part of my body obeyed me. I could only wait to see what had just entered the cabin unwelcome. My breath quickened. Then I heard slow footsteps. I urged my body, even just my fingers or toes, to move. The shadow man with the ghastly hands towered above me. At the sight of him, I stopped trying to move. Part of me hoped that if I didn’t, he wouldn’t see me - somehow. I stared at him; though I saw no eyes, I could feel his cold stare boring into mine. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead, a chill crept down my spine. Everything was still unforgivingly ungiving.
He leaned in, and his breath clouded my face. It smelled of soil, mold, and rotting animal carcass. It smelled of all the dead parts of the wood, all the diseases of human bodies, all the sorrow of loneliness. Giving up on my hope to remain unseen, I begged my body to move again and made tireless attempts to do so with every limb. Then he laughed, husky, low and in long intervals. The air wreaked. He leaned in closer yet. I tried to scream. Something shrill filled the room. I thought it might have been me, but my scream had stopped short in my throat and my jaw was glued shut.
It was the shadow man – screaming, mocking me. It turned into a harsh laugh. I couldn’t see a mouth, and the rest of his face was indistinguishable. He was nothingness. I tried as hard as I possibly could to scream, to move, something. His hand reached out again. The fingers brushed my throat so lightly it caused me to jerk away. I was free.
When I stood, I found myself staring at two figures standing against the opposite wall. No, I corrected myself, it’s our reflections in the assortment of mirrors. One figure had my face, but both had white, glowing eyes. I screamed, and my mirror jaw unhinged.
I ran to the light switch and flicked it up. The lights did not turn on this time. I saw the flashlight on the coffee table. The shadow man hadn’t moved, but now, when I lunged, so did he. From his mouth came a mixture of shrieking and cackling. I dove over the couch, grabbed the flashlight, and shone it at him, or at least where he had been. No one was there.
The door was still latched - all three locks. I rushed to the lights again, and they worked. There was no sign of the shadow man in the dark little cabin, but the eerie silence remained. I ran to the bedroom and emptied the dresser. When I got to the last drawer, I noticed a cigar box tucked under some of the pillowcases. Something tingled on the back of my neck. I knew I had to open it. When I did, I found several photos. They were old, grainy, and faded. The first one was of me, my mom, Aunt Linda, and Jade. The next few were of Linda, Jade, and my uncle, who I barely remembered. One of them was speckled and yellowed from the sun peeking out of the corner and into the lens. He had passed away shortly after they bought the cabin. The thought sent shivers down my spine. How could I have forgotten that?
The last picture was just of my uncle. He was standing in the lane outside the cabin. He had dark bags under his eyes, which were distorted by what I thought might be the sunlight hitting the camera lens from behind. He looked sullen and worn down. He slumped and his head hung low. It was sunset, and the trees behind him were blurred. But then, with dread in my stomach and a racing pulse, I saw the silhouette behind his left shoulder. There was no mistaking it. I flipped the photo over. In a tight scrawl were the words, “The Collector.”
I fled from the house with all of my things and threw my bag in the back of the car, only taking care to shut off electronics and lock the door. When I turned the key in the ignition, though, the engine sputtered. Frantically, I turned it and turned it, but the engine wouldn’t start. I slapped and punched the steering wheel, screaming in frustration. Then the lights in the house came on.
Tentatively, I exited the car and made my way up the steps, flashlight and car keys in hand. If anything, maybe I could use the phone and wait in the car. Halfway up the steps, I heard the leaves crunch somewhere nearby and ran across the deck and through the door. I slammed it. With my back to the wall, I slid down and sat on the floor. I ran my fingers through my hair, unsure of what to do. I sat there for a while, crying.
Finally, I stood and grabbed the phone. I still wasn’t sure I wasn’t hallucinating, panicking and delusional. I called my aunt. When Linda answered, she said, “Is he there?”
I sobbed, and she didn’t need me to say yes. After a while, I calmed down and said, “I have to leave. I can’t stay here, but my car won’t start.”
She was silent. I thought the phone might have lost connection. I wanted to make sure she was there, but what came out of my mouth was “how did he die?”
Still silence, this time I had to check. “Aunt Linda?”
“We thought they were lying to us. We didn’t know any better. That thing went after him, though. He never once told me about it coming after him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you send me here?”
She paused for a few minutes, then said, “It’s a lonely place, and it needs someone. And I couldn’t get rid of it, what with it being the place my sweet husband spent the rest of his life. With me. I found out, though, something they didn’t tell us, was that the dream catchers work. They only told us about the berries, but after he passed, I found out the dream catchers worked when the berries ran out. If you have the dream catcher, you can ride it out until morning. Just make sure--“
The lights cut out again, and the phone was dead. I dropped it and ran to the bedroom where I had hung the gifted dream catcher that first night. I slammed the door and locked it, crawled into the bed, and hugged my knees to my chest. I still had the flashlight, but I had to use it sparingly. Even if the dream catcher worked, I wanted to stay awake, needed to.
Thoughts of my mother, so happy here, swam through my head. Visions of my aunt and cousin making this the best version of a home that it could be recalled themselves from deep within my memory. Then something, some remnant of my uncle, surfaced. His sunken eyes were closed, lashes curled over sharp cheeks. His eyes opened; they were pure white.
I opened my own eyes. I thought I had been screaming, but that was only in my mind. I had fallen asleep, and frustration came out in the form of tears. As I gazed up, my heart dropped. The webbing in the dream catcher was gone. In the distance, I heard three rapid chirps and a husky laugh.
Hannah Seda grew up on a farm in Illinois and studied English at Illinois State University. She has lived in three state capitals in five years, gaining inspiration from the landscape wherever she goes.