Dead of Winter ~ First Place
A black Volkswagen Jetta sped along Country Road 47, an isolated two-lane road that ran parallel to the interstate, after two hours wasted on the highway. Devin and Jenna were traveling from Athens to spend Christmas week at a cabin he rented in the country. Devin drove with furious glee since taking the ignored exit and Jenna, with a book in her lap, watched the barren pines pass like rows of gray frozen skeletons.
“This is so much nicer than the highway,” she said.
Devin laughed. “Yeah, I’m doing sixty on an open road. Suckers!”
“Be safe. I don’t want to crash on some backwoods road where a family of deranged hillbillies will rape and eat our corpses.”
“What the hell kind of book are you reading?”
“It’s hard to read when everything’s so beautiful.”
Pine trees transformed into apple orchards stretched across a clear and ice-covered landscape. Sunlight reflected through the snow in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors: blues, yellows, reds, oranges. An aged wooden sign covered in frost caught Jenna’s attention.
Welcome to Arcadia
They passed an abandoned chapel with a cemetery at the base of a hill. The tops of random headstones littered graveyard, peering above the snow cover. The town was an island surrounded by an ancient wood.
“Talk about an antique,” Devin said. “This place is set in amber.”
Jenna pressed her nose against her window. She watched a house rise above the woods and homes around it.
“Drive slower,” she said.
“Just do it.”
They stopped at the intersection of Main and Polk Street.
“Turn this way.”
“We need to get to the cabin. I don’t want to lose our deposit.”
“We have until six and it’s not even one yet. Turn here. I want to see something.”
Devin huffed but knew he had to satisfy her curiosity or the rest of the trip would degrade into a bitter fight. “Fine, but after this we hit the road.”
Jenna became more excited as they coasted toward the large house. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Stop, stop, stop.”
Devin parked in front of the aging home.
“I can’t fucking believe it!”
Jenna grabbed the book from her lap and opened the cover. The inner-fold of the dust jacket had the author’s bio, but instead of the author’s photo was the picture of the home.
“This is it!” she said. “This is the house!
“It’s the house,” she said.
“Abraham Grabowski is a complete hermit. He doesn’t do book signings or anything. He never leaves. There aren’t even pictures of him. His publisher doesn’t even know what he looks like.”
Jenna shook her head and grabbed her phone. “I need this for my blog.”
She jumped out of the car into the snow.
“Where the hell are you going?”
“This is obviously a sign I was meant to come here.”
“We can do this on the way home!”
“I’m not risking it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
She shot a video with the home behind her. She meant to post it to Snapchat, but she didn’t have any service. She recorded anyway and figured she’d upload it at the cabin.
“Hey, horror bookworms. If you’ve been paying attention to my blog at all, you should recognize the house behind me. That’s right my nerdy little nasties—it’s the home of the one and only Abraham Grabowski. I’m going to see if anyone’s home. Hopefully, I’ll have some more footage to come. Your Ghastly Girly signing out!”
Devin turned the car off and trudged up the lawn. “This might be the house, but it doesn’t mean he lives here. Hell, the guy might not even exist.”
“It’s worth a shot. Look around, everything in his books is here. This is the town he writes about. This is where all his stories come from. This is the epicenter.”
“This is crazy.”
The front door to the home opened and a young woman stepped out. “Excuse me,” Wendy said.
“Sorry, if she disturbed you,” Devin said. “We’re leaving.”
However, Jenna bolted up the stairs.
“This is it, isn’t it?” she said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. Don’t say that. This is it. This is the house. You know who lives here. Who are you?”
“Jen, you’re acting crazy.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You should be going.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Devin said. He took Jenna’s arm.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can go in a minute. Just tell me I’m right. I know I’m right.” Jenna noticed the sound of a door closing inside. She hopped to look over Wendy’s head and saw an older woman standing beside a staircase.
“Wendy, who’s at the door?”
“Nobody, Miss Catherine.”
“Nonsense. Nobody’s nobody at Christmastime. Let them in.”
Jenna glanced to Devin with her eyes wide open and a grin stretched across her face. Catherine greeted them in the foyer. The hypnotic rhythm of typewriter keys tapped through the floorboards.
“I apologize for our assistant,” Catherine said. “We like our privacy and Wendy does a good job.”
Jenna couldn’t speak. Her senses were choked—soaking in the details of the home. “This is it,” she muttered. “It’s all here. Everything from every book!”
“I can see you’re a fan,” Catherine said.
“More than that,” she said. “I actually write book reviews and Mr. Grabowski’s books are one of my favorite topics.”
“Oh, a journalist.”
“So, this is the place she thinks it is?” Devin asked.
“That and so much more.”
Catherine asked Wendy to make some tea and returned her attention to her guests.
“We can sit in the study. I do enjoy company.”
Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with leather-bound manuscripts and wooden boxes. Devin and Jenna shared a loveseat while Catherine sat in the armchair.
“Do you help Abraham with his books?” Jenna asked.
“Abraham’s the writer, as you can hear.”
The clack of the typewriter hadn’t stopped since they entered. Catherine held her bony and withered hands up.
“And, these hands create the death scenes,” she explained.
Wendy returned to the study with a tea service.
“Wendy, my dear. Bring one of the displays to show our guests.”
“Certainly, Miss Catherine.”
She brought one of the boxes to Catherine. She opened the lid to reveal an intricate diorama.
“Oh, my God,” Jenna said. “That’s Marlon from A Cry in the Night. That’s amazing.”
“Very good,” Catherine said.
“She’s read every book,” Devin added.
“I’m actually finishing Babylon right now. How long have you two been working together?”
Wendy returned the diorama to the shelf.
“Since the beginning. I’m convinced that fate brought us together.”
“Is it possible for me to meet him?”
“Anything’s possible if Abraham ever comes out of that basement. These winter months are when he’s most productive. Once you hear the typewriter going, it rarely stops.”
Catherine sipped her tea, undisturbed by the mechanical keystrokes firing away like a machine gun from the depths.
Devin insisted on leaving after one cup of tea. On the trek back to the car Jenna stopped to take a few more photos of outside the home. When she was content, she jumped in.
“Why don’t you have the car running?” she asked. “Get the heat on, I’m freezing.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got in here?”
Devin checked his phone for the time. “It’s three o’clock. My phone’s not getting any service. Can you call the cabin and see if they’ll hold our deposit?”
“No service for me, either. It hasn’t worked since we got here.”
He slammed his hands into the steering wheel.
“Don’t get mad. Try and see what’s wrong with the engine. I’ll see if they’ll let us use their phone.”
Devin popped the hood and Jenna ran up to the home. Wendy answered.
“Hi again,” Jenna said. “Can we use your phone? Something’s wrong with our car and I’m not getting any service.”
Wendy led Jenna to the kitchen.
“Wow, a landline. I haven’t seen one of those since I would visit my grandmother’s house.”
“Yeah, but we rarely leave the city.” Jenna let out a humiliated and exhausted sigh. She took the phone from the receiver, but there was no dial tone. She pressed down the cradle three times, but nothing. “Does your phone not work?” she asked.
“It goes in and out around here.”
“It’s pretty dead in the winter around here.”
“Do you have a car? Maybe you can drive us to the next town so we can find a phone?”
“We don’t have a car and anyone with a car has already left for the winter.”
“I was gonna ask if other people lived here, because we haven’t seen a sign of life.”
“Anyone that hasn’t left just digs in.”
The basement door opened and closed. Catherine entered the kitchen.
“Why, Jenna, I thought you and Devin left.”
“I know. I’m sorry. For some reason our car won’t start. I wanted to use your phone.”
“Ha! Good luck. We basically live on a frozen island.”
“Man, Devin’s going to be pissed.”
“Why should he be upset? We aren’t that bad of company.”
“No, it’s not you. We rented a cabin and if we don’t contact them before six we’re going to lose our deposit and I feel like it’s all my fault.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. One day you’ll learn that some events are out of our hands. If you can’t get your car started, I insist you stay here the night. We don’t mind.”
Devin came inside. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” he shouted. “Any luck on the phone?”
“Devin,” Catherine said. “Jenna told me about your plans and I feel awful that you stopped here and now can’t go. Let Wendy know how much the deposit was for the cabin. We’ll pay for it. We have plenty of money.”
Catherine looked back to Jenna.
“Perhaps the phone will be working tomorrow,” she continued. “It goes in and out all the time. Wendy, get the guest bedroom livable. I’m going downstairs for a little while longer.”
Catherine returned to the basement. Jenna explored the study with Wendy following her like a doe-eyed lost child, brushing against her softly and asking endless questions. Devin struggled in the frigid temperature with the car, but was lost with mechanics. When nightfall descended, he returned inside with their bags. Wendy and Jenna were in the kitchen chatting, laughing. The scent and warmth from a well-used kitchen filled the home.
“What’s for dinner, ladies?”
Wendy hovered over a cooking pot, stirring the contents. Jenna glanced at Devin with a playful grin. An open bottle of wine rest on the table next to her.
“We’re having sausages with boiled cabbage,” Wendy said.
“I hope you were taking notes,” Devin said.
“The recipe’s a secret,” Jenna answered.
The white noise of the typewriter filled the pauses between the conversation.
“He really never stops,” Devin said.
“When a story grabs him, it becomes his obsession.”
“Is there any way you could tell me what the book is about?” Jenna asked.
“I don’t even know if he knows, yet. He says it depends on what the characters do. I mean he knows what the end result will be but he never knows exactly how they’ll get there.”
Dinner ended with empty plates, followed by dessert.
“Wendy, dear. Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.”
“Thank you, Miss Catherine. I just follow the recipes you give me.”
“Yes, yes, but it’s the subtleties that transform food into cuisine, just like the nuances that augment words into prose.”
“It was very good,” Jenna said. “Wasn’t it, Devin.”
“Oh, yeah. The best sausage and cabbage I’ve ever eaten.”
“My dear, you are more than a cook, you are a chef de cuisine.”
Wendy nodded in thanks and Catherine let out a satisfied sigh. “I believe it’s time for me to go to bed,” she continued. “Wendy, make sure our guests see their room.”
“Of course, Miss Catherine.”
“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Jenna added.
Catherine retired upstairs, followed shortly after by Wendy, Devin, and Jenna. Wendy stopped at the first door by the stairs.
“This is where Miss Catherine sleeps,” she said.
“Just Catherine?” Jenna whispered.
“Her and Abe don’t sleep in the same bedroom?” Devin added.
Wendy shook her head. The next room had an open door. It was cramped with a large bed, a mirrored dresser by the door and a chair by the window.
“This is my room,” she continued. “If you need anything, come see me.”
Ahead of them was a third room with two windows that gazed across the archipelago of little shingled roofs.
“This is where you’ll be sleeping tonight,” Wendy said.
“Do you hear that?” Devin mentioned.
Wendy and Jenna turned to him standing in the doorway. They waited for him to answer his question.
“It stopped,” he continued.
“What stopped?” Jenna said.
Jenna paused and glanced to Wendy. “Does this mean we might get to see Abraham?”
“No,” Wendy answered. “Abraham stays downstairs when he’s writing and he’s always writing.”
Wendy left them alone. Jenna and Devin gazed across their room.
“Separate beds,” he said. “Not quite the romantic getaway I planned.”
“Welcome to a simpler time.”
“You wanna push them together?”
“Their house, their rules.”
“Do you think it’s weird they don’t sleep in the same room?”
“Yeah, but my grandparents lived in separate rooms for the last twenty years of their marriage. Look, as long as Abraham keeps putting out books, I don’t care where he sleeps.”
“Well, I’m going to use the little boy’s room. Did she give you the money for the deposit?”
“Really, you’re going to ask that now?”
“Hey, she offered. I was just curious.”
“No, she hasn’t.”
“Let’s find out how far the next town is tomorrow. If we can get there maybe we can use a phone and maybe the cabin hasn’t been rented so we can still have a vacation where we can share the same bed.”
Devin took a change of clothes and meandered down the hall. Jenna gazed down to the street. Devin’s car was parked beneath the streetlamp. She undressed away from the window, facing the wall. After removing her top, the door opened. Jenna turned but was startled to see Wendy.
“You shouldn’t stay here,” she whispered.
“We should leave tonight.”
“I have a car,” Wendy continued.
“I asked if you had a car earlier.”
“I couldn’t say anything. It’s parked on the edge of the woods. The keys are inside. Gather your things. We can leave, right now.”
Jenna sighed. “I’m tired and it’s too late to go anywhere tonight. We can leave tomorrow.
Devin entered. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay. Wendy was just making sure we had everything we needed.”
Wendy nodded slowly and exited.
“What was that all about? She seemed a little into you.”
“I still got it.”
“Okay, we can stay an extra night, but only if I can watch?”
“You’re an absolute pig. You’re just lucky I love bacon.”
Jenna awoke to a chill that swept across her body. She wasn’t accustomed to sleeping alone and slid out of bed to join Devin. However, he wasn’t in bed and the mattress was cold.
“Devin?” she whispered.
The home was silent, even the mechanical chug of Abraham’s typewriter was quiet. Jenna glanced out the window and saw the car was no longer on the side of the road.
“What the hell?”
Jenna crept along the hall. Wendy’s door was open and her bed was empty. From out of the silence of the home, the cellar door closed. Jenna peered over the banister but found no one. “Damn it, Devin,” she said.
Jenna rushed downstairs and pressed her ear against the basement door. She struggled with what to do: knock, enter, yell. She chose to enter. A banker’s lamp illuminated the underbelly of the home. An unmade bed below rested the steps. Flush with the far wall was a workbench with small intricate tools, fabric, boxes, wood, and clay. With her final steps, she discovered a writing desk with a typewriter and a stack of paper next to it. One sheet was clamped into the carriage half-typed.
“Devin,” she said. “Are you down here?”
Before escaping the basement, Jenna decided to investigate the upcoming book. She looked over the two dioramas Catherine left on the bench. The first appeared to be the study upstairs, intricately designed down to the tiniest detail, but with the figure of a man dressed like Devin, hanging by his feet from the ceiling. A bucket rested below him to collect the blood that coursed from his gaping throat. The next box looked like the front of the home and the edge of the street. Across the snow-covered ground, drag marks and a trail of blood led to the street, but it was unfinished, the body was missing.
The slide, crash, and ding of the typewriter shifting to the next paragraph. Typing soon followed. She read along as each letter was hammered into the page:
Jenna gasped for air as the prisoner spirit cried out to her, “Run.”
Jenna clambered up the stair and fled the basement in the desperate hope of finding escape. She stopped at the door as the typewriter continued to tell its tale. A slow-moving shadow in the study coaxed her attention. Light from the street lamp sprinkled through the front room. Devin’s body hung from his feet in the center of the study. An occasional drop fell from his gaping throat as the gentle motion of the home swung his body from side-to-side over a cooking pot.
Jenna burst from the home but a bloody trail of drag marks led from the steps across the lawn. In the middle of the street Wendy’s corpse lay slumped and twisted in the street. The word DISLOYAL was written with blood in the snow. Jenna ran back through the house to the door in the kitchen that led to back of the home. She could find the car Wendy had mentioned.
She stomped through the snow mounds toward the woods. Her feet and body were frozen to the point that she no longer felt cold. Frozen moonlight blanketed the world. The bony arms of the trees reached out to her in waiting and wanting. When a flash of light from a torch appeared from within the shadows, followed by another and another. From the darkness, robed figures emerged, their faces obscured.
“Winters are long but our homes remain strong by feasting upon the body and the blood!”
A collective voice followed.
“The body and the blood!”
“We must feed the spirit!”
“And, the spirit will feed us,” the group countered.
A light feathery snow began to fall.
“Don’t cry, my dear. This was meant to happen; our lives are forever guided by the hands of fate.”
A knock rattled on the front door of the old home. The winter continued its frozen onslaught. Parked in the street was a red 1998 Toyota Corolla. A cheery-eyed dark-haired girl hopped in glee when the door opened. She looked back to her friend, Ally.
“I know this may sound strange, but is this the home of Abraham Grabowski?”
“You have the wrong house.”
Catherine descended the stairs.
“Who’s at the door?” she asked.
“No one. I was just telling them to leave.”
“Nonsense, Jenna. No one is no one. Let them in. You know I love guests.”
Ellis Sinclair is a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. As a freshman in high school, he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. This event and a series of bizarre experiences guided him to writing. He grew up in a poor neighborhood. He worked overnight at a gas station which allowed him to read and write as much as he wanted. He has a wide range of interests with writing and some of his favorite writers have been: Hemingway, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Steinbeck, and Philip K. Dick. Email: ellissinclair[at]outlook.com