My story, "The Cabin in the Woods" has been shortlisted for a Derringer. It was originally published in Mystery Most Geographical, a Malice Domestic anthology in 2018.
The Cabin in the Woods
Franny eased her Civic down the scrubby drive. Branches tugged at the sides of the car in the half-light, the afternoon sun blocked by the canopy of trees. Finally, the clearing, the log cabin. Why was she here? She could easily have arranged everything by phone from Toronto. The house stood surprisingly free of vegetation, except for a few junipers held in check by judicious clipping. She couldn’t picture her mother gardening. She was eighteen the last time she’d been here, a dozen years ago. Even then her mother had been on her case. Franny moved to Montreal to get away from her mother’s soul-destroying criticism. She even stopped taking her phone calls, those attack sessions that sent her spiralling into depression.
Well, there would be no more phone calls. Her mother was dead.
She sat in the car in front of the cabin, going over the long-distance call from the lawyer yesterday. Was it just yesterday? I’m sorry, Miss Callum, but your mother has died of a heart attack. It had been a shock, despite the animosity, the years of bitter arguments. There had been only the two of them. Her father had walked out when she was four. She was sure her mother had pushed him away just as she had done with Franny.
She left early this morning, driving the six hours from Montreal to Toronto in a haze, her body on automatic. The lawyer explained that her mother had named him executor of her estate. She hadn’t wanted a funeral, a waste of money, she’d said, and had arranged to be cremated. In fact, instructed him to go ahead with the cremation before informing Franny she was dead. Franny had just sat there, stunned, with the phone in her hand. The lawyer said her mother had wanted to spare her the morbid details. But Franny knew better. Her mother wanted the last word: This is what you get for not speaking to me for three years.
Franny picked up the pen and ink drawing of the cabin from the passenger seat. The lawyer said her mother had wanted her to have it. Why, she couldn’t imagine. Nothing like her mother’s usual style. Not artistic at all. More architectural. Just the log house with the flagstone walkway along the side of the yard. Except the walkway didn’t extend that far. It stopped after five feet. And her mother had forgotten Franny’s favorite spot, the bench on the flagstone patio in the back. Maybe she had gone senile.
In their brief meeting, the lawyer had announced that, apart from a small amount of savings, her mother had left her the cabin. Franny assumed she’d leave it to charity, or make it an artists’ retreat. She’d loved the place as a child, enthralled when her mother described how the cabin stood in a moraine, a geological feature left behind by a retreating glacier during the last ice age. Franny couldn’t fathom ice two kilometers thick, let alone how it carved out hills and valleys that turned into forests like the one that surrounded them. If only her combative relationship with her mother hadn’t spoiled the later years.
Reluctantly, Franny climbed the rickety stairs to the veranda, slapping flies away from her face. She held her breath as she unlocked the door with the keys the lawyer had given her. The shadowy interior smelled stale. When her eyes adjusted, she saw that everything was much as she remembered, one large room with a kitchen and living area, a sofa opposite an oak table and chairs. A current calendar on the wall: August 1990. Her mother must’ve been here recently.
Above the sofa hung one of her mother’s excruciatingly accurate paintings, a still life of fruit in a crystal bowl. Perfect, but soulless. She never understood her mother’s mania for detail, obsessively adding color, then removing it until she was satisfied with the result. Well, other people must’ve appreciated it, because her art sold. Franny preferred the interpretation of reality, impressionistic scenes. This was a bone of contention between them. Her mother had sneered at Franny’s pastel-colored landscapes with the ambiguous horizons, extrapolating from them that her world view was diametrically opposed to her own. Grow up, she said, and accept that life is dog-eat-dog. Come down to earth if you want to produce real paintings that people might buy.
Franny had put some distance between them in order to keep a modicum of self-respect. A gallery in Montreal liked her work and hung three of her imagistic landscapes, though none had sold yet. Meanwhile she worked as a waitress, and every now and then an ad agency sent some freelance design work her way.
Pulling aside the flowered curtains, she opened the windows to let in some air. She would find a local real estate agent to sell the place because she couldn’t afford to pay the capital gains tax.
She noticed a piece of paper by the phone. Names and phone numbers in her mother’s precise handwriting: the gas station she’d passed on the highway, a Chinese restaurant in the nearby town, a hardware store, Franny’s number, and the number of someone with the initials F.C. What was the name of the man the lawyer had mentioned? As executor, he had found that her mother had been sending monthly cheques to a man unknown to him. Franny had never heard of him either. She fished in her purse for the name she’d scribbled down. Floyd Cameron. Why was her mother sending this guy two hundred and fifty dollars a month?
Franny ducked her head into the studio with its canvases leaning against the walls. No answers there. She was more likely to find clues in the bedroom. The old flowered comforter on the bed in the tiny room made her grimace, reminding her of her mother. She opened the drawer of the night table. An old black and white photo stared up at her. With a shock, she recognized her father. She had only seen a few pictures of him besides her parents’ wedding photo, which her mother liked to hide. Franny had his longish face and square jaw, the same wave in her dark hair. Did Franny remind her mother of him? Remind her that he had left her after five years of marriage? Her mother avoided the subject and balked when Franny, aged ten, started asking about him. She had been persistent in her quest for answers until one fateful day, a letter arrived for her with no return address. She still remembered her father’s typed words, no surprise since she had read them over and over. It was the only thing she had left of him.
I am sorry things turned out like they did. But all of that is behind me. I am happy now with a new family so don’t look for me. You will understand when you are older.
Her father was the real reason for the bitterness between her and her mother. A few years ago she had tried to find him, hoping he was still alive, but with so little information, she kept bumping into dead ends. She recalled her father had a sister, Aunt Rose, but didn’t know her married name. They hadn’t kept in touch after her father left. When Franny asked her mother for the aunt’s surname, she became unreasonably angry, screaming into the phone. That was when Franny had stopped talking to her. Water under the bridge.
Deeper inside the drawer, Franny found her mother’s unique wedding band made of brushed two-tone gold. She had stopped wearing it years ago. Nearby, an old black iron key. Beneath it lay a yellowed newspaper clipping. An obituary.
Stan Timinsky, peacefully May 20, 1985 in Etobicoke General Hospital after a brave battle with cancer. Beloved husband of Rose (née Callum), brother-in-law of Arthur Callum and Charlotte Callum, loving father of John and Linda. Visitation at…
Bingo! Franny checked the date of the obituary again. 1985. Only five years ago. Maybe she could still find her. Maybe Aunt Rose could help her find her father. The longing for him that had never left, now surfaced irresistibly.
She ran to the kitchen and looked in the cupboard for a phone book. Along with the local one, her mother had kept an out-of-date Toronto directory.
She flipped through impatiently: Timinsky, Timinsky. A half dozen but only one with the initial R. She dialled the number, heard it ringing through. A woman answered.
“Is this Rose Timinsky?”
“I’m Charlotte Callum’s daughter. Franny. Your niece.”
Silence. Maybe she had the wrong person.
Franny smiled. “Yes. Artie’s my father…”
“Well, well. I remember you when you were three or four years old. How old are you now?”
“Well, well. It has been a long time…”
“Yes, it has. I thought you might want to know—my mother just died.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Was she ill?”
“Sudden heart attack.”
“Haven’t seen her in years. She was a talented woman.”
Franny counted a few beats before going on. “I was wondering… well, I was wondering if you knew where my father was.”
A moment of silence. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way—I have nothing against you, mind. But the next time you speak to him, give him a message from me: he’s the most selfish bastard in the world. After all these years, not to bother to pick up a phone…”
“When was the last time you spoke to him?”
“1964. I called to wish him a happy birthday. He was already drunk.”
Franny thought her mother had exaggerated about the booze. “Did he say he had plans to go somewhere?”
“Not outright. But he owed people money and asked if could I lend him some. Imagine the gall! He was always short of cash. Wouldn’t be surprised if he ripped somebody off, high-tailed it out of the country with the money.”
Franny didn’t know what to say to that.
“Wouldn’t put it past him. I’m sure he’s very happy somewhere. Who needs a brother like that?”
Franny tossed and turned in her mother’s bed that night, wishing she hadn’t located Aunt Rose. She preferred the fanciful image she’d had of her father to the real thing. Finally, she fell asleep toward dawn, but her dreams were full of shadows and eyes. When the sun was barely up, she startled awake. Someone had climbed the stairs to the porch.
She flew out of bed in her pyjama sweats, moved the curtain in the living room an inch to see out. An old guy stood there wearing a plaid shirt and a baseball cap over a long white pony tail. He caught the movement of the curtain and nodded. Now she had to open the door.
“Where’s Charlie?” he asked.
With a start, she realized he held a dead rabbit by the legs in one hand and a rifle in the other. “Who?”
“Woman that owns this place.”
“Oh. Charlotte. That’s my mother.”
He squinted at her. “You used to come here when you were a kid?”
She nodded. She vaguely remembered the creepy old neighbor, only his hair and beard had been dark then. What was his name? Ronnie?
“She likes to make rabbit stew.” He raised the dead animal in explanation.
Franny kept her eyes off it. Her mother would not be making any more stews. “She died a few days ago.”
He lowered the rabbit, the colour draining from his face. After a minute, he said. “I’m sorry… How?”
He shook his head. “We were friends. I knew her a long time.” He looked down at the bleeding rabbit. “I’ll leave this with you then.”
She waved her hand vigorously. “I’m vegetarian.”
He gave a crooked smile. “You’re not much like her. What’s your name?”
“That’s right. She talked about you. I’m Floyd, your neighbor.” He pointed the rifle behind himself.
“Floyd? Floyd Cameron?” He stared at her. “But my mother called you ‘Ronnie’.”
“My mother has been sending you cheques every month.”
His small eyes widened in surprise. “You know about that?”
“Her lawyer told me. What are they for?”
“I… I take care of the place for her. Maintenance and such.”
So he was the gardener. “It seems like a lot of money for that.”
“She is…was a generous woman.”
“Not the person I knew.” Franny could’ve used that money.
He watched her as if he guessed what she was thinking.
She felt uneasy with the rifle. “What did she say about me?”
“Oh, this and that. She said you turned into a beautiful young woman.” He squinted at her. “She was right.”
Franny thought, she never told me that. “She ever talk about my father?”
“Not really. Good riddance, I say.”
“You knew him?”
“Enough to know she was well rid of him.”
“Because he drank?”
“Because he was a mean drunk.”
Could she trust what this man said? “What did he do? When he drank.”
He looked past her into the cabin, making her more uneasy.
He was lying.
After mumbling some parting words, he stepped down from the porch and across the clearing before disappearing into the woods. Fast for an old guy. He recalled, all right. Why wouldn’t he say?
When she was sure he was gone, she headed for the back of the yard where a bench stood on a small flagstone patio. The stones had seen better days, some shifting out of alignment in the sandy soil. She sat down on the bench, trying to erase the picture of Floyd Cameron with the dead rabbit. The man had his nerve, bad-mouthing her father.
Franny warmed up a tin of vegetable soup from the cupboard for breakfast. She ate while staring down at her mother’s drawing of the cabin. The lawyer had presented it to her wrapped in tissue paper inside a leather portfolio, as if it were a precious work of art. Which it sure as hell wasn’t. The will specified that Franny could do whatever she wanted with the paintings in the rented Toronto apartment—she had dropped in for a quick look around before driving north—but she was to hold on to the drawing. Her mother had singled it out. What was so special about it?
She couldn’t put her finger on why, but it seemed imprecise, unlike her mother’s paintings. Despite the solid lines of pen and ink, the scene was dream-like and oppressive. When she screwed up her eyes, she could detect a face like a gargoyle peeking out from the top of one of the trees. A gargoyle? Dropping her spoon, Franny snatched up the paper and stepped outside.
She stopped beside the house where her mother would have stood, trying to find the perspective of the drawing. An obvious error astounded her. Her mother had badly misjudged the crawlspace delineated by the stonework along the bottom of the cabin. In reality, the stonework only extended about a foot above the ground. In the drawing, her mother had exaggerated it to three times its height. A conundrum, considering her obsession with accuracy. She wouldn’t have made a mistake like that. What was down there?
She told herself she wasn’t climbing into the crawlspace on a stupid hunch. The place was dark as pitch.
Franny walked back into the house, into her mother’s studio. She lifted the rag rug off the floor. A shiver skipped across her. There it was: a square of wood in the linoleum, the door hatch to the crawlspace. She tried to lift it but it was locked. Too bad. Then she remembered the old iron key in the drawer.
She fetched it from her mother’s night table. Fumbling with the key in the lock, she turned it. The hatch creaked open, stiff, like an arthritic joint. A rickety ladder reached down into the murky black.
She found a flashlight on a nearby shelf and aimed the beam down. From where she crouched, she could see a few boxes amid the dust. Why was she doing this to herself?
Gripping the sides of the ladder, she eased herself down, cursing. She shone the flashlight beneath her, watched a centipede scurry away. Once on the bottom, she had to move around on her knees. It wasn’t called a crawlspace for nothing.
She opened two cardboard boxes, raising up dust. Both held old National Geographic magazines. She pointed the flashlight through the shadows, her eyes falling on a leather case from her school days. She unlatched the lid and found her ancient manual typewriter. Stashed inside were some folded sheets of paper. They appeared to be drafts of a typewritten letter with lines struck out, some words written in her mother’s hand. When she read the first one, she stiffened.
I can’t help how things turned out. Don’t look for me. I have a new family and am happy now. Forget about me.
It wasn’t my fault how things turned out. Don’t ever look for me. I am happy now. Goodbye.
Franny had the final version at home in her drawer. Her mind could not get around it. Unsettled, she searched the floor with her flashlight, landing on an old cookie tin. She opened the lid. Inside, sat another sheet of paper and a rubber stamp. The printed letter was word for word the one she had received from her father. The rubber stamp was set to a date: September 10, 1970. The day her father’s letter had been stamped, supposedly by the post office. The letter he had never sent.
It had all been a sham. Her father had never cared enough to send a letter. Why had her mother done it? To get Franny off her back.
She realized something was left in the cookie tin: a slim leather wallet. She opened it and found a business card in one of the slats: Ace Motors, Yonge Street, Toronto. Beneath, it read Arthur Callum, salesman. Her shoulders tightened. In another slat she found a social insurance card with his name on it. Her hand trembled as she pulled out the driver’s licence with a tiny photo of him. Signed by Arthur Callum. Expired in 1965. A year after he had run off. Had he left behind his identity as well as his family?
When she got back upstairs, she found a magnifying glass and held it over the photo in the licence, the longish nose, the square jaw. With a chill, she leveled the glass over the gargoyle in the drawing. It hovered in the branches of the pine tree, the nose and jaw too familiar, only made of stone. And amid the pine needles, behind the head, stone wings.
Franny took the drawing outside, heading for the pine. It had grown taller in the back corner of the yard. She looked up into the branches where the gargoyle would have floated, trying to position herself beneath it. She found herself stepping onto the flagstone patio. The stones were so loose, she kicked one of them aside. Then another. And another. Her heart raced. She pushed the bench off and worked for fifteen minutes, heaving and sweating. She stared at the exposed soil, horrified at what she was thinking.
Looking around the yard, she found a rusty shovel and began to dig down into the earth. She didn’t believe she was doing it, but she dug down one foot, two feet. She stopped a minute for air. When she was nearly three feet down, the shovel hit something besides earth. She cleared the soil away carefully with her hands until she touched something hard. Something yellow-white. A bone, large and contoured. Could it be an animal? She kept moving earth away from the area with her hands until she came across more bones. This time, several thin bones together. Something glinted among them. Catching her breath, she lifted a ring from the soil. A band made of brushed two-tone gold. Someone screamed. She realized it was her.
The bushes moved apart and Floyd Cameron stepped into the clearing.
She jumped up, crying, “You killed him!”
He took off his baseball cap and stared at the bones, unsurprised.
“You were in love with her and you killed him.”
He shook his head dolefully. “You got it all wrong, missy. She did it.”
He looked at her with pity. “She had every right—he was beating on her.”
“Might’ve killed her one day. More to the point, she was afraid he would start beating you too.”
“I hoped I’d never have to tell you. He was mild when he was sober. Not a prince, mind you. But when he started drinking, watch out.”
She shook her head. “That can’t be…”
All those years of waiting for him to walk through the door. The fantasy of him loving her.
“People aren’t always what you want.”
She stared down at the bones, feeling sick. “What happened?”
He stroked his beard, gazing past her. “One night I heard a commotion going on, louder than usual. I knew how he was, so I came running. They were screaming at each other on the porch. Her face was bleeding. He’d hit her. She went inside and I thought that was that.”
He put his cap back on. “But then she came out again, this time with a cast iron frying pan. He was lunging at her when she hit him in the head. Went down hard. She hit him again. And again. Strong for a woman.”
Franny could barely breathe. “How could she…?”
“She was afraid for you. You were a little thing. She was afraid he would go after you next. She told me. She did it for you.”
Franny shook her head. “For me?”
“She loved you.”
Franny felt tears sting her eyes, the first for her mother. “She never showed it.”
“She wasn’t the type. She was a funny woman, your mother. Proud and prickly. But she loved you.”
Everything she’d ever thought about her mother, every memory was wrong.
“I wish that…” She shook her head. There was no point wishing, she almost heard her mother say. “Then what happened?”
“I buried the body.”
He picked up the drawing from the bench. “She drew this right after… Wasn’t herself for weeks. Then I took the stones from the walkway and built the little patio, like a kind of memorial. We prayed there. That made her feel better. After a while. she could let it go.
“She insisted on sending me money. Consider it a pension, she said. Gratitude for helping her, not judging her. Said she got her life back after that.”
Franny burst into sobs, grieving for the first time. Her mother was sending her a message in the drawing. She knew Franny would figure it out. She wanted Franny to know the truth.
Floyd took her in his arms gingerly and patted her back while she wept.
“I’ll get him out of there,” he said. “Bury him in the bush.”
In a moment of clarity, the mystery of her mother mingled with the mystery of the glacier and Franny could finally picture the two-kilometer-thick swath of ice, could hear it thunderously carving out the hills and dales where the forest would take root. She loved the huge murky scale of it, the diminishing in size of human troubles. Her father, unknowable to her forever, would transcend whatever he’d been in his short life and merge with the forest.
She wondered what color paints she would need to depict ice. Her mother would have a good supply of oils in the studio. Franny could count on her for the important things.