"you must bury the ashes in the oven, the smoke can kill you"
The old cabin drew our attention as we ran through the endless trees, and when its door creaked open at our touch, we rushed inside. Jake pulled out his gun and did a full sweep of the place
, and I stumbled around in the dark after him, my switchblade out as I covered all the windows to hide us from the surrounding woods.
It didn’t take us long to search and secure the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms, and we relaxed when the inside seemed as neglected as the outside. The owners weren’t here.
Jake and I put our weapons away, only to pull them out again when a soft, cheerful humming echoed through the rooms. We shambled our way through the dark once more, the wood creaking beneath our tense feet as we tried to figure out where the sound was coming from.
I turned to Jake, my voice shaking. “You think someone’s hiding in the walls?”
He ignored me as he walked over to the giant, old-fashioned console radio in the living room and put his ear to it. “This damn thing’s busted.”
He knocked on it a few times, then he kicked it.
The humming stopped.
I coughed out a relieved chuckle.
Jake sighed and walked to the kitchen, where he peeked behind the curtains. “I’ll take first watch, you get some rest.”
After two days of solid running, I was ready to faint from hunger and fatigue. One disappointing search of the empty cupboards later, I stumbled to the nearest bedroom and passed out on the bare, dusty mattress.
A touch on my shoulder startled me awake, and I grabbed the hand and threw my attacker on the bed, pinning him down as I pulled out my switchblade and flashed my most threatening snarl.
Despite being able to fling me across the room with a swipe of his hand, Jake patiently waited for me to get my bearings. I scrambled off him with a sheepish apology and he sat up and sighed, the early morning sun highlighting the exhaustion behind his red eyes.
“Take second watch,” he said as he walked to the bathroom. “Oh, and ignore the damned radio, it's acting up again.”
I nodded and got to work right away, trying not to ruffle the curtains as I peeked through the bedroom window. I then made my rounds through the cabin, taking note of our tracks in the dust as I peeked through the windows of the kitchen, the living room, and the second bedroom.
On my second rotation, I heard the light, melodic humming again. Now that I knew where it came from, I didn’t mind it. It was quite soothing. The melody was simple and I hummed along, mostly to distract myself from the tuneless griping of my stomach.
During my tenth rotation, Jake walked into the kitchen smelling like bleach, the top half of his soaked coveralls unbuttoned with the sleeves tied around his waist. My eyes watered at the sharp smell, but I was impressed he found a way to get most of the blood off his clothes.
“I’ll take over,” he said and the radio’s humming faded. “You go rest.”
“No, I got this. You should sleep.”
He pulled me away from the window. “Go rest.”
There was no arguing with Jake. He looked like the living dead after what we’d been through, but his will was as dominant as ever.
“I can check the other windows,” I said.
He gave me a weary look. “If they’re following us, they’ll be coming from this direction,” he said, jerking his thumb towards the kitchen window.
“Oh, right.” I licked my chapped lips. “Can we drink the sink water?”
“Better not risk it until we’ve boiled some.”
“Can we boil some now?”
“Not now, Connor. Let’s make sure we’re in the clear first.”
I sighed and walked into the living room. It was a cozy space centered on the console radio instead of a TV, and everything had flower-print. Even the walls were covered with floral wallpaper. I liked it. It was different from the harsh, white rooms and halls I grew up in.
Feeling too antsy, parched, and hungry to rest, I did what I’d been trained to do my entire life and found a broom, some old rags, and a half-empty bottle of multi-surface cleaner. I began working, and Jake shot me an incredulous glance before he rolled his eyes and went back to peeking out of the window.
Our muddy shoes and grubby hands had left their mark in the thick layer of agitated dust, giving me a lot to do. As I swept under the couch, I heard the joyful, comforting humming again. It felt like an aural hug, and I hummed along in between coughing fits.
By mid-afternoon, I’d made my way to the last bedroom, where I beat the mattress, swept the countertops, and whisked away the cobwebs. As I worked, I noticed a human-sized rectangle carved into the floral wallpaper. Curious, I knocked. I got a hollow reply.
Hoping I’d discovered a pantry, I smiled as I took out my switchblade and stuck it into the crack, prying the door open. Disappointment stole my smile when I found an empty room the size of a broom closet. I sighed as I slammed it shut and tucked my weapon away.
After finishing my janitorial duties, I shuffled back to the living room, and a startled yelp flew out of my mouth as I dropped everything and fumbled for my switchblade.
Jake ran over at my alarmed cry, his gun drawn, and we both stared in bewilderment at the little old lady sitting in one of the armchairs.
If I had to think up a frail geriatric, even I wouldn’t have imagined one this stereotypical. She wore a floral-print dress with a pink, tasseled shawl draped over her hunched shoulders, and her blue eyes glimmered behind her glasses when she saw us.
I glanced at Jake as I lowered my weapon, but he didn’t lower his. The old lady didn’t seem to notice this, nor the suspicious stains on his undershirt and coveralls. Maybe she needed new glasses.
Her face scrunched into a thousand wrinkles as she smiled, her bare gums glistening. “I’m so glad you’re here! Please, you must bury the ashes in the oven, the smoke can kill you.”
“I…I’m s-sorry, ma’am?” I stammered, her request as baffling as her presence.
“Oh, I love being called Nan,” she said, fondness warming her eyes. “My grandchildren call me Nan. They’re my treasure. My smart Denise, my brave Liam, my talented Skylar, and my dear Victor who visits me every Wednesday evening.”
She put an arthritic, spotted hand to her heart. “And my innocent little Natalie. She loves my lullabies but she needs to rest. We need to bury the ashes in the oven, my dears.”
“Um…” I turned to Jake in bewilderment, not sure how to respond.
Jake eyed Nan for a few seconds before he let his gaze study the front door. He then turned to me, nodded his head to the side, and made his way to the last bedroom. I followed after shooting Nan an apologetic smile.
“I don’t like this,” he growled, ignoring the renewed humming in the background. “I didn’t hear the door creak open. How’d she come in?”
“She lives here. Look, I found her secret room.” I pried it open for him with my switchblade. “Bet you she hid here when we broke in last night and got out when I was sweeping the other bedroom and you was in the kitchen.”
“Ugh, it’s worse than the hole. This entire place is a mess. There’s no electricity, and before you cleaned up, it was a health hazard.”
“Maybe she ain’t got no strength to do much and has to wait for someone to come visit and help?”
“Wait, she said her grandson visits Wednesday evenings, right?” he asked, his eyes glinting with hope.
I nodded. “Yup, Victor. I’m thinking his parents drive him up here, unless he’s old enough to drive. This is good, right? We can ask them for help?”
“This is more than good. We’ll deal with the old lady now and whoever visits tonight and take their car and—”
“What! Jake, no, I don’t want no blood on our hands!”
“It’s too late for that.”
“That’s ‘cause we had no choice! But we do now, and I don’t want no killing. Jake, please. Can’t we ask them to drive us someplace safe instead?”
“Connor, we’ve already gotten them implicated in our escape. They’re better off dead than be questioned by The Taipan’s thugs if they manage to track us.”
Deep down, I knew he was right, and guilt washed over me. “Can…can we not kill her yet?” I asked as the last notes of the humming faded away. “It ain’t fair, Victor come up and not see his granny. Can it wait ‘til then?”
Jake rolled his eyes and brushed past me, and I panicked and ran after him, only to see him lock himself in the bathroom. With an anxious sigh, I returned to the living room, and my heart sank when Nan greeted me with a troubled expression.
“You must bury the ashes in the oven, my dear,” she said, pointing towards the kitchen. “The smoke can kill you.”
My feelings shifted from worry that she’d overheard us to confusion at her repeated request. “Ashes, ma’am?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, I love being called Nan! My grandchildren call me Nan.”
Her invitation was unexpected. I’d never experienced this type of heartfelt acceptance before, and I gave her a bashful smile as I said, “Um, okay…Nan.”
“You must bury the ashes in the oven, my dear.”
Before I could reply, Jake joined us, grumbling as he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “The water tastes like rust.”
“Can I drink some too?” I asked.
“No, it’s not safe. It’s red and bitter.”
“Oh, just like my Ronald’s 1990 vintage bottle of wine!” Nan said. “If you find it, you must be careful, my dears.”
I straightened up, licking my lips. “You got wine? Where is it?”
Nan pointed towards the kitchen. “Outside, underground. My Ronald put it there with me.”
I looked at Jake, but he shook his head. We couldn’t risk going outside. Not for food, water, or even wine. Dejected but not losing hope, I turned back to Nan.
“You got anything we can eat or drink indoors?” I asked, crossing my fingers.
“My Ronald told me it’s a bottle of wine for a special occasion.”
“Um…are we still talking ‘bout the one outside in your wine cellar?”
“My Ronald put it there with me. It’s a vintage 1990. If you find it, you must be careful.”
I blinked in confusion at her repetitive words before it dawned on me. She must be senile. My guilt grew, but Jake shook his head in exasperation and stomped over to the kitchen to resume his watch near the window.
“My dear, please bury the ashes in the oven!” Nan called out, her voice cracking. “We can never rest until they’re buried, the smoke could kill you!”
“We aren’t doing any damned cooking, there’s nothing to eat,” Jake snapped.
Not wanting to be rude, I looked around the room for an excuse to change the subject. “That’s a real big radio, Nan! Too bad it’s busted, would’ve been cool to listen to music right now.”
“Oh, I used to open my radio every day,” Nan said with a smile. “My radio keeps everything safe.”
I smiled back. “I feel the same way ‘bout music too! And movies. They make me feel safe even after a horrible day. They’re what keep me going…and Jake of course! He’s my big brother and he looks out for me. You got family visiting other than your grandkid, Nan?”
“Oh, my grandchildren are my treasure! My smart Denise, my brave Liam, my talented Skylar, and my dear Victor, he visits me every Wednesday evening. And my innocent little Natalie.” She sighed. “She loves my lullabies, but she needs to rest. We need to bury the ashes in the oven, my dears. The smoke can kill you.”
Overlooking her repetitive request, her love for her grandchildren was touching, and I wished there was a way I could spare her and her family from the mess we’d put them in.
I opened my mouth to reply, only to jump at an abrupt noise coming from the kitchen. I turned in alarm to see Jake running towards the last bedroom, and I excused myself before I rushed after him.
Fear trickled down my spine as I watched him crouch down and peek through the lower corner of the curtains. The radio began humming again, but it wasn’t enough to soothe my nerves.
“What is it?” I whispered.
He jumped up and grabbed my arm, dragging me towards the first bedroom. “We have to go, they found us.”
He ripped the curtains aside and opened the window. “Go, hurry.”
“No wait, we gotta take Nan!” I yanked my arm free and ran to the living room. “We can carry her! We can—” I gasped when I saw her empty armchair. “She must’ve hid in her secret room!”
“Connor, forget her!” Jake said as I dodged his outstretched arm and ran to the last bedroom.
I pulled out my switchblade to pry open the hidden door, but Jake yanked my sleeve, causing me to drop my weapon as he dragged me back to the first bedroom.
"Go!" He yelled, throwing me out the window.
We ran like madmen, desperate to pass the clearing as we heard yells from behind us. Shots rang out, and I gasped when Jake fell to the ground. I skidded to a stop and ran to him, but he yelled at me to keep going as he began shooting back at four of The Taipan’s thugs.
It was too late, though.
“Let him go!” Jake yelled as we struggled.
“Didn’t think you’d risk everything for this squirt,” F299 said to Jake with an ugly laugh as the other three tied us up. “The Taipan's quite disappointed you bailed on your sixteenth birthday ceremony. Bet he’ll still make you go through with it.”
“Connor doesn’t deserve it! He’s only twelve!”
“He was chosen and he should be honored to be flayed alive by you for the glory of Zeodhael.” He looked at me with a smirk. “Aren’t you, S705?”
Jake didn’t give me a chance to reply as he said, “Take me instead and let Connor go!”
“No!” I cried out. “I don’t wan—”
Cloth was shoved in my mouth and F299 chuckled. “That’s it, pack ‘em up, boys.”
Within a minute, Jake and I found ourselves each bound and gagged inside our own leather sack, weaponless, bruised, and bleeding. I could hear Jake continue to protest and struggle, but fear had paralyzed my body, leaving only my heart buzzing in my chest.
After a minute of being dragged across the coarse ground, my stomach clenched when I heard the familiar, lighthearted humming. I hoped the thugs would ignore it, but that hope was quashed by the sound of a door creaking open.
Fearing for Nan’s safety, I joined Jake as I began to scream and struggle, but a few vicious kicks to my ribs brought that to a stop. Curled up and groaning, I listened in despair as footsteps entered the cabin.
A few seconds after the door slammed shut, the radio stopped humming, and all I could hear were Jake’s growls and grunts beside me as we remained outside.
Certain the thugs were going to hurt Nan once they found her, I thrashed and twisted again, hoping to free myself and distract them before they found her secret room. My determination wasn’t enough, though, and I ended up drenched and gasping for air inside my claustrophobic, leather prison.
I took a break, and my heart dropped when I couldn’t hear Jake anymore. Panicking at the thought of losing not only Nan but my brother as well, I doubled my escape efforts, but my stifling circumstances worked against me and I soon began dipping in and out of consciousness as I struggled to breathe.
I woke up to police officers pulling me out of the leather sack and untying my ropes. Despite my weakness, my pulse began to race and I fought to get their hands off me. Jake and I couldn’t get arrested.
I squinted against the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances as I searched for my brother, and I gasped when I saw him lying still on the ground surrounded by paramedics.
“Hey, hey, relax, you’re safe now,” an officer said to me.
“Is he alive?” I croaked as I stopped struggling and looked at her in despair.
“He is. You two are very lucky a relative of the homeowner drops by every Wednesday night, or we wouldn’t have found you in time.”
I turned towards the cabin door, ready to ask about Nan, but the officer said, “No, don’t look inside. You don’t need to see that. Look at me. Hey, look at me…”
My heart sank and I turned to her, and she gave me a sympathetic smile as she put a blanket around my shoulders and gave me a water bottle. “My name is Officer Weiss. Can you tell me your name?”
Jake told me to never give personal information to the police because they couldn’t be trusted, but right now I needed them to help him. I gripped the water bottle in silence, my mind racing. I didn’t know what to do. I also didn’t know why The Taipan’s thugs left us behind after killing Nan.
My confusion, distress, and guilt overwhelmed me and I began to cry.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay if you don’t remember,” Officer Weiss said. “You’ve been through a lot. Just take it easy. We’ve got you.”
I nodded in thanks, wiping my tears on my damp sleeve, and I remained silent as they lifted Jake and me into ambulances. At the hospital, Jake was wheeled in for surgery, and I eventually found myself tucked in a bed with an IV in my arm and a cup of lukewarm orange juice in my hand.
Other than exhaustion, dehydration, bruises, and abrasions, I was deemed fit for questioning, and Detective Crawford had been with me for the past twenty minutes, trying to grill me on the murders inside the cabin.
The gruesome murders of four unidentified males that were discovered by Nan’s grandson.
Detective Crawford wasn’t as considerate at Officer Weiss, and the crime scene photos he showed me were horrifying. The bodies were barely recognizable. Barely, unless you knew them well. And I did. They were the corpses of the four thugs.
What was done to them was inhuman, but I knew that kind of evil existed. I was a first-hand witness to The Taipan and his thugs flaunting it. But they didn’t do this, not this time. Someone else lurked in this world with just as much bloodlust and cruelty. It frightened me, and I was glad Jake and I were spared, as defenseless as we were.
What also frightened me was the fact that The Taipan and his remaining thugs were going to keep searching for us. Jake and I had to find a way out of this mess and keep running, because we weren’t going to be safe. Not in the hospital, not even in prison.
The only relief I had was the absence of Nan’s photo among the victims. Detective Crawford hadn’t mentioned her yet and I wanted to ask why, but I didn’t want to involve myself. I wished Jake was with me, he was much better at dealing with these sorts of things.
I continued to remain silent as Detective Crawford bombarded me with questions regarding the identity of the victims, my identity, Jake’s identity, and the reason we were tied inside leather sacks.
After an hour, a stern nurse walked in and asked Detective Crawford to leave me to rest. To my relief, he listened, shooting me an exasperated look before letting me know he’d be returning tomorrow. I didn’t respond, hoping that by then, Jake and I would be on the run again.
Despite my discomfort and worry, a movie playing on the television distracted me enough for exhaustion to plunge me into a heavy and dreamless sleep