My family owned a big cabin in a wooded gorge several hours from town. Every summer a bunch of my aunts and uncles and cousins would join us there for a week-long vacation.
The last year we did it, we showed up and everything looked normal on the outside. Inside, however, the place was a mess. In the kitchen, for starters, all the cabinets were open. We didn’t keep any food there while we were away, but several of the doors were falling off their hinges. The floors everywhere were covered in smeared tracks. No one could agree on whether they were animal or human. And there were these scratches on all the walls. Not just light scrapes in the wood, but deep, splintered gouges.
My dad was furious. He blamed vandals and kept threatening to call the cops. We were all pretty shaken by it, but he seemed to take it the worst. Fortunately for everyone else’s sake, my mom managed to calm him down by supper time and we were able to enjoy a mostly pleasant evening.
It rained that night, so we were all stuck inside. Usually, the younger kids were allowed to stay up late on these vacations, but this time my cousins and I were sent to bed early, presumably to get us out of the way while the adults cleaned up. The girls slept in one of the upstairs bedrooms while the boys took another. After a few hours of lying awake in the darkness, it became apparent that the adults weren’t cleaning anymore. They were talking and laughing downstairs, playing a game by the sounds of it. And there was something else. Something that didn’t fit.
It was a scraping, splintering sound. It seemed to be coming from the hall outside, moving down the corridor.
I was always a curious child, less afraid of the dark than I was of not knowing things. For instance, it drove me nuts lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the grownups having fun and not being able to take part. I wondered what game they were playing. I wondered if they were eating snacks. It was this same hunger to know that led me to peek out the bedroom door when other kids would’ve cowered under their blankets.
There was enough light rising from downstairs that I could see the hallway clearly. The rough-hewn walls. The rustic floor. I could still hear the splintering sound, but I couldn’t find a source.
There was a soft squeak, and the door next to mine opened just a bit. A girl’s face peered through the crack. My cousin, Lauren.
“You heard it too,” she whispered.
I nodded and pointed to the floor, where pale, jagged grooves plowed through the wood.
Lauren shook her head. “Those were there before. I remember.”
“What about those?” I adjusted my arm so it pointed at Lauren’s door.
She opened it more and leaned out to study the wood around the doorknob. I watched her eyes grow huge. “No, those weren’t.”
I glanced up and down the hall one more time. Still no sign of anything strange. The noises had stopped, and the only sound was the adults’ laughter. I nodded in the direction of their voices. “Should we tell the grownups?”
“We’re supposed to be asleep.”
“But they’d want to know about this. We won’t get in trouble.”
Lauren seemed to shrink away, then her face vanished and her door clicked shut.
I shrugged before heading downstairs by myself. I was surprised to find the living room empty. There were a few open cans of soda sitting on armrests and end tables, but nothing else. I went to the kitchen, where I found some cleaning supplies on the counter, but again no grownups. I could hear their laughter still, deep and hushed, but now it seemed like an echo in my ears with no obvious source.
It had to have a source, though. I focused, and determined that it was coming from somewhere close by. I focused harder, and the more I did, the more I thought that it didn’t sound like laughter at all, really. It was something else. Something guttural. Something coming from…the cupboards.
I faced the rows of knotted cupboard doors above and below the counter. Yes. The sounds were definitely coming from inside. I tried to figure out what they were, but then one of the doors rattled, threatened to open. For some reason, that suffocated my curiosity. Suddenly all I could see were the deep scratches that covered all the woodwork and the faded remnants of smeared footprints that refused to be scrubbed away. I became less concerned with why our parents had vanished and left all the lights on, and more concerned about how alone and vulnerable I was. A child out of bed at some unknown hour of the night, hounded by obscure noises and more questions than even my curious mind could handle all at once.
I ran back up to my room. On my way, I noticed that the girls’ bedroom door was wide open. Was it Lauren, awaiting my return? I didn’t see her face peering from the darkness, and no one called out to me as I drew near. No matter; I just wanted to crawl back into my sleeping bag and wait for morning to make everything normal again.
It was quiet as I smothered myself in protective warmth. No more scratching noises from the hall, no more voices from downstairs. There was only my breathing and the scrape of fabric against my skin as I settled down. And someone crying. I tried to block it out, but since it was the only palpable sound, it demanded my attention. It was coming from next door. I couldn’t tell who it was, but I guessed Lauren, since she was the only one who I knew was awake. Her sobs were broken and muted. Choked. Like she was trying to hold them in, or something was keeping her from letting them out. It became less like crying and more like nothing I’d ever heard before. It clicked and gasped, and every time Lauren’s voice broke through it was weaker.
And then the scratching started again. It ground against the wall that separated our rooms, drifting up toward the ceiling and meandering back toward the floor. Then it was out in the hallway. This time I wasn’t curious in the slightest. In fact, I’d never wanted to know anything less. Whatever was moving around out there, gouging the walls and now playing with my door, I didn’t want to see it. My desire not to see was so strong, I didn’t even try to run when the doorknob started to turn. Instead, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed.
That’s all I’ll tell you about that night. Skipping ahead to the next morning, I remember what scared me most was the lack of a pattern. All the adults were gone. Half the kids, including Lauren. Half. Whatever it was, I don’t know how it chose. Random. Senseless. To think that I had a fifty percent chance, to realize I didn’t even know what I had a fifty percent chance of becoming; that’s what’s kept me away all these years.
The cabin’s still in the family. No one wants it, but we don’t want to get rid of it either. Don’t want to curse some other family with whatever’s taken up residence there. And it is still there. I know it is, because every once in a while there’s a news story about a hunter who goes missing in that gorge.