‘I just can’t do it anymore.’
And that was that. Six months, and it still hurt. I hadn’t moved on.
I walked through the cabin as the morning light rose. The owner had dusted just before I arrived, and everything smelled of fake pine air freshener. Why they decided to cover the natural smell with the fake one, I didn’t know. Surely the point of being here was for the real pines just outside.
This was what people did, right? They retreated to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, next to a lake, in some woods. They found themselves again. They spent the last of their savings to stay away from everyone else for two weeks. Because that made perfect sense.
I dragged my bag over to the bedroom, and before I began unpacking, tested the bed. Perfect. Not too hard, not too soft. I sunk into it, and stretched out, then relaxed into the fluffy duvet.
‘Why am I here?’ I asked the empty room.
There was no response.
I sighed, the feelings of sadness threatening to come back in.
‘Well, start the week as you mean to continue, I guess, Sarah. Jeez.’
The drive had been murder. Literally. I’d hit something on the way through the woods. Just a small creature, but that had almost started the waterworks right then and there. But I’d soldiered through. I wasn’t going to give up now just because of a fluffy bed.
I pushed myself off the bed and started unpacking my clothes. In honour of wanting to forget about everything else, I brought only the bare essentials. Not enough to last me the two weeks, and at some point I’d have to wash my clothes in the lake.
The cabin was beautiful. That’s all I could really say. There was wood. I must have skipped the day in school where they taught you the difference between beech, oak, pine, ash, or whatever. I had never thought it mattered. There were different types of wood in the cabin, and the dresser wasn’t the same as the floor, the table wasn’t the same as the dresser – you get the idea. It looked haphazard, but it looked honest and real and natural.
My mobile was off and tucked away in my bag. There was no signal out here so I figured I might as well save battery. I know that a lot of people, when deciding to hide in a secluded cabin to escape from their lives, would forsake all technology. But I needed one thing.
A laptop. No internet connection, no games installed, no procrastination engines. A simple word processor. Some people are snobs and think that you need the tactility of a typewriter, the touch of mechanical keys, and artisanal paper beneath your fingertips. I say, if you need your five senses to engage your mind, then where’s your imagination. This laptop was new and digital and cutting edge. It was imagination incarnate, the likes of which mankind wouldn’t have thought possible only a few decades ago. Fuck typewriters.
I placed it on a desk with a window that allowed me to look out over the lake and the surrounding forest. This is where I would heal myself. This is where I would create. I would let the words flow from my mind, to my fingers, to the keys, to the pixels on the screen, and once I was done I will have transferred my pain to the page.
In theory. Writing had always been just a hobby. I enjoyed making up silly stories about hot guys and beautiful girls. Sometimes there were pirates involved. Every now and again a dragon would turn up. It had never been something… real. I never expressed my emotions through it – but hey, this was my last resort. I figured myself out now, in two weeks, or I gave up.
I sat down and opened a fresh document. Let the healing begin…
But first, I decided to check the fridge! The owner had said that there would be plenty of food. Enough for a month, so two weeks definitely wouldn’t be an issue. He’d also said if things got really bad, there was a hunting rifle and ammo tucked away in a closet. He’d laughed, so I hope that meant it was a joke.
Luckily, the fridge was packed full of colours and smells. Unlike wood, I knew what was going on in the fridge. I poked around a bit. Everything was fresh. Not a scrap of shrink wrapped plastic in sight. Everything was small and ripe, like it was grown from someone’s backyard instead of mass produced for maximum yield to increase profits. I riffle through the drawers, finding new treasures everywhere. I pulled out a ginger root, scratching the skin off, and inhaled deeply.
‘That’s some good fucking ginger.’
I decided to look up some recipes online. These were the kind of ingredients you can’t just throw in the pan. These deserved some respect. I was going to make the shit out of those vegetables.
My laptop pulled me back to reality.
‘Oh yeah. No internet,’ I muttered.
The food could wait. It was time to create. Something short to start with. Quick and easy, just to get me warmed up. I wrote something about a young girl, an outcast, different from everyone around her. A vampire, because vampires are cool, and I wanted her to be cool. But because she was a vampire, someone wanted her dead. Obviously. But what was the hook? She loved the vampire hunter’s son. Boom. Short story done. Instant number one bestseller, guaranteed.
I was just about to write the scene where the heroine discovers her own powers, when a knock on the door made me jump and let out a little cry.
I giggled to myself as the shot of adrenaline buzzed through me and I headed to the front door. Without hesitation, I opened it. I mean, I was in a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere. Why wouldn’t I open the door for a random person.
‘Hello, Miss.’ The man said with a smile. He was a big, bear of a man. Early forties, perhaps, with a shaved head, but a greying beard that made up for his lack of hair up top. ‘You can call me Lou.’
‘Oh, hey Lou. Nice to meet you. Sarah’s fine.’
‘Nice to meet you.’
We shook hands, and he was clearly brought up with the foundation that a firm handshake should be given to everyone. Even women half his size and age, that struggle with opening jars. I managed to not shake the pain out of my hand once he’d released it.
‘Do you want to co—‘ I started to invite him in.
‘No thank you, Miss,’ he interrupted. ‘You rented the cabin from me, so far as I’m concerned, I have no right to it till you leave. Your privacy is your own. Bit of an unspoken rule, but I’ll speak it for you – any meetings with the locals, have outside on the porch.’
I pointed to the desk by the window. ‘Don’t worry, not getting up to anything weird.’
‘Not yet,’ he grumbled. ‘Folk from the city tend to get bored and start doing things, after a few days.’
‘Anyway, I just wanted to make sure you’d found everything all right?’
‘Yeah, it all seems to be here, just as advertised, I guess.’
He nodded, then started counting on his fingers. ‘All cleaned and dusted for you, fridge stocked, generator running, wood stack ready for chopping, and the gun just in case.’
I ticked my own fingers off. ‘Lack of dust was noticeable, the fridge is divine, what the hell’s a generator, fire sounds awesome but didn’t realise I’d be chopping the wood myself, and what is this, Chekov’s Gun?’
His kind eyes turned dead serious as they locked with mine ‘Check-who? No, Miss, no commies up here, that’s for sure.’ After an awkward second, he laughed. ‘I’m just teasing you, Miss. If you’ve got time, I’ll show you the generator. It’s just out back next to the wood pile.’
‘Lou, I’ve got nothing but time.’
He nodded behind me. ‘But first, the gun’s in that room there. Cleaning supplies too, if that’s your thing.’ I eyes him suspiciously, and he threw his hands up in defence. ‘Some people like cleaning, Miss. Didn’t mean it in that way. We’re equal opportunity up here. If you can cut wood, you cut wood. I’ve known plenty of ladies than can skin a deer faster than I can.’
He took me round the back of the cabin and showed me a blue engine looking thing. It was all new and modern, and if it stopped working for some reason, make sure it was topped up, then push the start button. He showed me where the axe was for wood chopping. He handed it to me, and I made a valiant effort to not drop it, and just about succeeded.
‘Not to worry, Miss,’ he chuckled. ‘I’m sure I can find a bit of time to cut a few logs for you. Just to get you started, of course.’
‘Of course,’ I groaned just before he took the axe back from me single handed, as if it didn’t weigh half my bodyweight.
‘That’s about it, Miss. I’ll come back in a week, make sure everything’s okay. Bring over some perishables, if you need, but otherwise, I’m out of your hair from now.’
‘Aww, Lou, my hair will miss you.’
He frowned, not quite getting me, it would seem. He pointed round the lake to the right. ‘That there’s my cabin. I’m your neighbour, but I’m a few miles off. So again, privacy is all yours if you want to blast some music, or whatnot. If you need anything, you’ll have to make the walk, I’m afraid. No phones out here, as I’d said in our emails.’
‘Sounds good.’ This was what I’d wanted. To find myself. ‘Wait, if there’ no internet then how’d you send emails?’
‘I drive to the nearest town once a week. Got to keep the cabin renting business alive.’ He smiled at me.
We said our goodbyes, and I went back into the cabin. It was just past midday, and I decided that a I deserved a nap after my long drive and a morning of gushing my creative juices.
I woke up and it was dark. The bed felt much harder than it had when I’d collapsed in it. Shit. So much for taking a “nap”. The noises of the forest night were loud. Much louder than I’d expected. It almost made me wish for the peace and quiet of rush hour traffic right outside my window. A breeze blew strands of hair across my face.
The haze cleared, and I jerked up. I was lying on the ground in the middle of the forest. I jumped to my feet, and fear set in. How had I gotten here?
The next thing I noticed was the cold biting my skin. I started shaking. It shouldn’t have been cold enough to seriously hurt me, but… I didn’t know how long I’d been outside, or what had happened to me before I left the cabin or… I was wearing a white, almost see through dress. I own, let alone bring with me to the cabin, a white, almost see through dress.
I wrapped my arms around my body, and my shaking intensified. I wasn’t wearing underwear either. What the fuck happened?
I saw a light in the distance. It was my only point of reference in the otherwise dark forest, so I moved towards it. And discovered I wasn’t wearing shoes. Fuck. Every step hurt as the forest floor, which looked like it was covered in soft leaves and supple dirt, turned out to be covered in sticks and stones.
It was as if the light was moving away from me as I closed in on it. Like a dream where you’re running but can never actually reach your goal. Or get away from whatever’s chasing you. After what felt like hours of painful walking, but was probably only a few minutes of cold, painful stumbling, I stopped.
My feet felt like they were cut up something bad, but it was too dark to tell. My shiver had turned into a full on dance as I couldn’t keep my limbs from shaking like leaves in the wind, and my teeth were chattering together loud enough that I couldn’t hear the bugs squealing in the night anymore.
I placed a hand against a tree to steady myself, to rest for a moment before I continued, but my arm caved under my weight, and I fell to the floor, grazing my ribs against the rough bark on the way down.
It was too much. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know anything. And I still couldn’t have him back. I came here to forget, not to… whatever the fuck this was.
I cried. I couldn’t stop myself. Tears poured from my eyes, and I gasped in air so that I could sob some more, and it was horrible. I hadn’t felt this hopeless since he left me.
‘Fuck,’ I mumbled.
‘Fuck it, what’s the point,’ I sobbed, getting louder.
‘What the fuck happened to me,’ I asked the cold night between my shaking teeth.
‘Fuck!’ I screamed at the night, and at my life.
The night returned a howl.
‘Brilliant. Fucking wolves. Of course there are.’ I’d gone back to a mutter now. I was feeling tired. I was so cold, I might as well sleep until morning when it would be warmer. I let my eyes slip closed, the small speck of light in the distance was the last thing I saw.
‘Hello?’ A voice shouted against my closed eyes. ‘Somebody out there?’
“Somebody”. Like I was already just a body. Already dead. I giggled at the thought.
‘Where are you?’ The voice shouted again.
Already dead. Was that what I wanted? It was the easy option. Just keep my eyes closed. The voice in the night would give up and go away. Assume the voice he’d heard was just a whisper of the wind through the trees.
‘I’m here.’ I said.
Fuck no, I didn’t want to die. Let what everyone thought about me, that I couldn’t go on without him, be true. I’d come to this cabin to find myself. To rediscover my life. So I’d do just fucking that.
‘I’m here!’ I shouted.
‘Sarah? Is that you?’
Lou. Fucking Lou, my saviour. ‘Lou. It’s Sarah!’
‘Keep talking. I’ll come get you.’
I saw a flashlight turn on and start scouring the woods. It didn’t take long for him to find me. He scooped me up in his arms, making me feel like a child being picked up by her dad. He was warm. So warm. I nuzzled my head into his chest, and let him carry me, knowing, knowing that he’d make it okay.
‘Hey,’ his gruff voice barked in my ear. ‘Stay awake. The cabin’s just here.’
I mumbled something incoherent even to myself. He shook me.
‘Warm,’ I said. ‘I want to be warm.’
He took the steps to his cabin and was about to open the door when he stopped. He put me in a chair on his porch and went inside. I wanted to be inside – in the warmth. After a few seconds he came back out with arms filled with blankets and started wrapping me up in them.
‘Inside,’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘I’ll keep you warm out here…’ he seemed to realise what he was saying. And for the first time I saw him look unsure. He took a good long time looking around. I could tell he didn’t want to be disturbed, so I just got on with shivering.
He cursed under his breath. He picked me up and took me inside.
The lights hurt my eyes, but the warmth instantly began soothing my pain.
He placed me at his hearth, in front of the fire. I tried to curl up into a ball and let sleep take me, but he stopped me and laid me out. He pulled the blankets off me and asked, ‘Where does it hurt?’
‘Be specific, Sarah. Where hurts the most.’
I felt naked before his stare. Probably because I basically was, which brought me back to the uncomfortable question of why I was wearing a dress I didn’t own and nothing else.
He examined my feet.
‘I bet you weren’t expecting to see me again so soon.’ I giggled. It wasn’t funny, but I wasn’t exactly thinking straight.
He grunted. ‘I was going to come by tomorrow. Make sure you had enough food.’
Something in my brain clicked. He only did that after a week. I tried to sit up, but his hand was instantly on my shoulder, keeping me down.
‘Lou. Crazy question, but when did I last see you?’
He grunted. ‘Week ago.’
I clamped my eyes shut but could feel the tears escaping from them immediately. ‘Lou. What happened to me?’
‘You’ve cut your feet pretty bad. Don’t look at them, it’ll just make it worse.’
I opened my eyes and saw his face. Luckily, my tears weren’t blurring my vision. He was inspecting me. His eyes caressed my face as a whole, then focused on my eyes, and my lips, then my neck.
‘How do you feel?’ He asked.
He nodded. I heard the howl of a wolf from outside once again.
‘There’s no need to be.’ He paused and looked around his room, then sighed. ‘I’m going to get a doctor. You’re safe now. This fire will keep you warm. You can sleep, okay Sarah?’
I nodded. Sleep sounded like a great idea. In sleep, I wouldn’t have so many questions.
He covered me in blankets again, grabbed his coat, and walked out, locking the door behind him. The room suddenly felt so empty. It was just the crackling of the fire and myself. It cracked and popped, and lulled me from consciousness.
I shook my head against the sleep. Going to sleep is what had caused all this in the first place. I had just wanted a stupid nap. Christ. He’d said I’d hurt my feet. I pulled off multiple blankets. I sat up, feeling dizzy and sick. I looked down, feeling stupid in this white dress, but there was no blood on the blankets. Using everything I had left in me, I curled one of my feet up towards myself to inspect the damage. It was there, all right, Lou hadn’t been lying. Large cuts made the soles of my feet look like ribbons. But the flesh was pale white. Not a single drop of blood. I wracked my brain for something that could do that. Maybe a certain drug would account for the memory loss – an entire fucking week – and no blood in my extremities. That could be a thing, right?
I lay back down, and pulled the blankets back over myself.
Keep yourself together, Sarah.
I just wanted to call him. He’d know what to do. But he’d left me. I hadn’t been ready for him to leave me. It had come out of nowhere – no reason, nothing. Just one morning, I woke up to find a note on the table, and he was gone.
Keep yourself together, Sarah.
TO READ MORE, download the pdf for Chapters 1-4 here: Strange Lake