Is it Grave Robbing if you thought they were alive?
Six months had passed since Jake and I met Nan and over one month since I emailed the police. There was still nothing on the news regarding Nan. It was a closed case and no one cared anymore.
With many unanswered questions remaining, the desire to save Nan became so overwhelming it even affected my dreams, her pleading voice waking me up every evening as she called for help and begged me to come over and free her.
Jake wasn’t on board, saying it was too big a risk for too useless a cause, leaving me as the only one wanting Nan to be found and exonerated.
I felt compelled to buy a bus ticket. I didn’t tell Jake because I knew he wouldn’t approve. Worried that I'd be recognized, I bought a fake mustache as well. It wasn’t the expensive kind but it did cover most of my face, which I thought was a good disguise.
When I returned to that town, my nerves wouldn’t stop rioting as my worst memories began firing up, one of which was my experience with The Taipan and his thugs. I couldn’t believe that threat hadn’t crossed my mind before I went through all this trouble.
Nonetheless, I felt rooted to the cause, and once nighttime hit, I made my way to the woods. A particular direction seemed to beckon and I followed, walking until the familiar cabin rose once more between the endless trees.
It was surreal being back, and I walked around the perimeter with careful steps as I checked to see if the cabin was occupied. It looked even more abandoned than before, with rusted padlocks hanging from the door and the barred windows.
I stood outside the kitchen window and shuffled my feet against the dirt. I couldn’t find any doorways or latches, but one spot called to me. I set my duffel bag down, slipped on my gloves, pulled out my foldable shovel, and began digging, my quest illuminated only by the moon.
After two straight hours, I felt like I'd snapped out of a trance, my arms and back aching. I dropped my shovel and pulled out my small flashlight, shining it across my handiwork in bewilderment. The hole was as deep as my waist now, but I saw no wood, no latches, no foundation…nothing.
The wine cellar must have deteriorated over the years, there was no possible way for anyone to have been imprisoned down here.
My shoulders sagged, and I grabbed my shovel with a sullen sigh, ready to climb out of the hole.
My shovel scraped against glass.
That was definitely glass.
With my heart racing in anticipation, I fumbled for my flashlight and dropped to my knees, raking my fingers through the dirt. My fingers wrapped around something hard…
...and I pulled out a wine bottle.
Its label was barely legible, but I could make out a big, red “1990”. This had to be the vintage 1990 Nan kept talking about, but I didn’t understand why it was empty.
I set the bottle to the side and buried my hand in the dirt, shuffling it around as I searched for more bottles or a latch or wooden beams. My fingers got entangled in something stringy and I yelped as I pulled my hand out of the soil, nearly losing my glove. A knot of faded, pink tassels lay uncovered in front of me, and I aligned my flashlight as I tugged at them, trying to pull them out.
The strange, male voice rang out from above me with perfect Agent Smith mimicry, and I recoiled and hit my back against the side of the hole. I scrambled to my feet and tilted my flashlight towards the sound, and someone standing outside shined a much brighter flashlight back down at me.
Slightly relieved the man didn’t call me S705, I squinted as I raised my hand in a harmless wave. “H-hey, wow, you almost gave me a heart attack!” I managed to utter with a short laugh. “How do you know my name?”
“I found your wallet in your duffel bag up here. You wouldn't also happen to be Emmett Brown now, would you, Thomas?”
My heart plummeted. “R-Ronald?”
“None other. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I…uh, w-was just…curious about the wine cellar.” I cleared my throat. “Um, sorry for trespassing. So…I’m just gonna fill this up and go. Sorry...”
I tossed my shovel outside, mentally berating myself for not having considered the probability of getting caught. Ronald reached down and pulled me out, and I found myself dwarfed by his formidable presence as I stood by his side, my hand still engulfed in his.
I hid my discomfort behind a smile as I turned off my flashlight, not wanting to antagonize him. In contrast, he angled his flashlight square in my face.
"And would you also happen to be the elusive ‘William 'Bill' Preston’?" he asked.
I felt as though I'd been punched in the stomach. "Wh-what! No, I'm Tom Anderson!" I said, turning my head away.
“Maybe according to that fake ID in your wallet. Interesting choice of hairstyle, William, but this retro ‘stache of yours isn’t doing you any favors.”
I tried to wiggle my hand free. “I’m not William, you've got the wrong guy!”
“Oh, I have no doubt William isn’t your real name, but I think it suits you better than Thomas or Emmett, don’t you?”
“I'm Tom Anderson, please let go!” I said as I considered dropping my flashlight and punching him.
He ignored my struggling as he shifted my glove off my wrist and smirked. “That’s quite a convenient place for a burn.”
“I burned myself cooking, that’s not a crime, is it?”
He looked around, waving his flashlight. “Where’s ‘Theodore’? Is he here?”
“Look, I’m Tom Anderson and I don’t—”
I gasped as he crushed my hand. “Will, let’s not insult each other’s intelligence.”
I stopped considering the benefits of a punch and aimed one at his face, only to cry out as his heavy duty flashlight struck me in the head before I could make contact. I fell to my knees, my hand still in his grip, and my defenses kicked in as I pounced, tackling him to the ground.
He landed with a surprised grunt but his hold remained firm, so I pulled out my new switchblade and swiped it across his fingers. He hissed as he withdrew, releasing me, only to clobber me with his flashlight again.
I tumbled off him, dazed. I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance against him in a fight so I scrambled up, grabbed my switchblade, and broke into a run. Still disoriented after the two wallops across the head, I gave it all I had as I zipped across the clearing towards the woods.
He followed, his light bobbing against the trees ahead of me like a menacing eyeball swaying to the beat of his strides. I attempted to dodge him by weaving, but I soon fell flat on my face, spasming as volts coursed through my body. Ronald only eased up on the TASER after he stood by my prone body.
"That was quite the workout, Will," he said, catching his breath. "Now, how about you put these on so we make sure you don't go scurrying off again?” He threw down a pair of cable-tie handcuffs.
I groaned as I collected myself and rolled over on my back, panting. My muscles felt like oatmeal, my knees, arms, ribs, and face were a painful mess, and his flashlight was boring into my eyes. Having dropped my switchblade and with nothing to defend myself with, I put my hands up to show my harmlessness.
“I w-won't run," I said. "We can talk. There’s no need for this.”
“Oh, we’ll be talking, but on my terms.”
“You know…Ted’s here. If you don’t let me go, he’s gonna bash your head in.”
“I can’t wait to see him try. But, until then, be a good boy and zip those cuffs on behind your back.”
I frowned as I tried to find a way out of this, but I had nothing left. I wished Jake really was with me.
I sat up, grabbed the cuffs, and put my reluctant hands behind me. My fingers got tangled in the TASER wires, and without thinking, I grabbed them and yanked hard. Riding high on adrenaline, I barely felt the barbs ripping out of my skin as I flung the wires away and attempted to run.
The sound of gunfire stopped me before I could even stand up and I ducked my head, kneeling, my trembling arms raised in surrender.
“Aren’t you a tenacious little scamp?” he said. “Let’s get one thing straight here. I’m in charge and all I’m requesting is a little obedience. Will that be a problem?”
“That’s good to hear. Now, put those cuffs on for me.”
“Good boy, Will.” He yanked my gloves off and tightened the cuffs. "There we go. And let’s get this ridiculous thing off your face.”
I winced as he peeled off my fake mustache. After he pocketed it and my gloves, he began rolling up the discarded TASER wires and I took the chance to look around. We were alone and my muscles twitched as I ached to run, but I was afraid I'd get shot the moment I stood up.
Ronald glided his beam of light across the ground until he found my switchblade. “You know, you’ve got yourself a nice little weapon here,” he said, inspecting it before slipping it in his pocket. “It’s a shame no one taught you how to use it.”
“I know how to use it."
“So, you were sparing my life, Will? Is that it? Shall I thank you for your mercy?”
“I’m not a murderer.”
He smiled as he pulled me to my feet and began patting me down. “Not according to the evidence you left behind.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“How do you think the police will react when I tell them I caught the elusive ‘William Preston’ digging up my mother’s grave?”
I felt as if I'd been doused in ice water. “H-her grave?” I croaked, my knees buckling.
“Whoa, there, champ,” he said, chuckling as he held me steady.
“You…you killed her?”
“As far as anyone knows, you killed her.” He grabbed the scruff of my shirt and began leading me back towards the cabin. “I knew something was up with 'Emmett' from that very first email, and your subsequent emails pretty much gave you away. Next time you pretend to be someone, try not to reveal too many identifying details."
"But I didn't reveal anything!"
"You revealed plenty. That nonsense about the cellar was never leaked to the media, and judging by your juvenile writing skills, I ruled out members of law enforcement. That left only you and ‘Theodore’ as the culprits behind 'Emmett'.”
“There was never a wine cellar?”
“Nope, but I'm glad it pulled you out of hiding.” He chuckled. "When I first learned about you two, I was overseas and took the first plane back, only to be told you both just vanished from the hospital. It was quite unexpected, but I do enjoy a good hunt and made sure the police kept you listed as persons of interest.
"Then, to my unexpected delight, you contacted me yourself. I wanted to lure you out here, but you stopped replying to my emails, which I honestly found quite rude. Yet, you later sent that anonymous tip to the police and I knew my luck had shifted.”
“They told you about that?”
“Oh, I make sure they always keep me in the loop. We laughed it off, but your suspicion had me awaiting your next move. I invested in locks and surveillance cameras, and after one month of pesky wildlife images, yours brought a smile to my face today. Lucky for me, you began digging, turning yourself into the perfect scapegoat. I'll be hitting two birds with one stone tonight.”
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, you'll see."
We arrived at Nan’s cabin, and I eyed the uneven grave I'd inadvertently dug up, my grief and dread making me queasy. I couldn't believe Nan was dead, killed by her own son.
And I was going to be framed for it.
Things didn’t look good for me at all. One phone call from Ronald to the cops and I'd be locked up in a heartbeat. Then it wouldn’t be long before The Taipan and his thugs got wind of my arrest. I should have told Jake about this.
A duffle bag that wasn’t mine sat against the cabin door, and Ronald hoisted it on his shoulder, its contents shifting with disconcerting clinks. He unlocked the multiple latches, and an unpleasant, sickly-sweet odor wafted over us as he tried to lead me inside the living room.
“I don’t wanna go in there!” I said, pulling back against his grip. “I don’t want the hallucination stuff to make me kill myself!”
He laughed. “You actually believe that ridiculous theory?”
“Yes! Those four bad guys killed themselves and that reporter lady did too!”
“Both you and I have been in here before with no ill-effects, we’ll be fine.”
The truth behind his last sentence slightly eased my mind as I stumbled in beside him, but my discomfort returned when I saw that not much effort was put into cleaning up the aftermath of the crime.
They’d mopped up the gore, but the wooden living room floor still boasted a vast russet stain and maroon flecks speckled the ceiling and flowered wallpaper. A thick layer of dust overlaid the dried blood splatter on the furniture, but even that wasn’t enough to hide the floral-print infestation.
Ronald tossed his duffel bag on the couch and led me towards one of the armchairs, which he smacked a few times with a pillow to remove the dust. After we both shared a coughing fit, he sat me down and looped a cable-tie around my ankles and one of the chair’s legs.
“Hang tight,” he said as he headed off to the bedrooms. “I’ll be right back.”
With Ronald out of view, I took the chance to try and free myself, tolerating the sharp plastic slicing into my skin as I gave it all I had. When he returned a minute later, I stopped struggling and looked in confusion at the two candle-lit lanterns he carried over.
“Aren’t these lovely?” he said, placing them on the center table. “My mother couldn’t stand to part from her antiques. I think these’ll set the mood just right, don’t you?”
He dusted the couch and sat down, finally turning off his blinding flashlight. In the glow of the lanterns, I could see he'd traded his business suit from the article photos for khakis and a polo shirt. He still looked like a hitman, though.
When Detective Ross first showed me Ronald's picture, I couldn’t believe he was related to Nan. Yet, now, seeing him in the flesh, I was fascinated by the distorted glimpses of her in his face, his burgeoning wrinkles striving to complete the resemblance. It was like taking Nan’s features and twisting them into something rugged, derisive, and unsettling.
"Now, let's get down to business," he said, leaning forward and tenting his fingers. "Judging by your police statement and your emails, it's safe to assume you thought my mother was alive when you met her six months ago, correct?"
I frowned. "Of course she was alive, you killed her after. Why would you even do that to her!”
“She was a burden. If that stubborn old hag hadn’t been so secretive, I’d have relieved her of her cares a lot sooner. Now—”
“Did you kill your daughter too?”
I didn’t know what possessed me to say that, but the words had already left my mouth and I found myself shuddering at the cold indifference in Ronald’s eyes.
“That parasite killed my wife. The only reason I kept it around was to soften up my dear old mother. There was no use for it afterwards.”
Resentment simmered within me. “She was just a baby! It wasn’t her fault being born killed her mom! You killed her and didn't even bury her so she can rest in peace!”
"Let's not get sidetracked, Will. Now, the reason you're sitting here and not in the back of a cruiser just yet is because when you met my mother, she was a spirit. You have a unique ability, and I want you to use it to contact her for me."
I blinked, his absurd request shifting my resentment to confusion. “What?"
"I need you to do what you did last time to get her to show herself."
"We didn't do anything. She was alive and she walked out of her secret room by herself."
“She'd been dead for a year, three months, and three days when you met her.”
I frowned, wondering if he was up to something. "Is this a trick?"
"No trickery. I just believe in your gift and want you to use it."
"I don't have one. Nobody's got one. That's movie stuff."
"I thought it was 'movie stuff' too, until I heard your statement. Specifically the part where you mentioned a certain 1990 vintage Bordeaux. I'd never divulged that information to anyone and was utterly stumped at how you came about it. After going through numerous scenarios, I came to the only logical explanation.”
“This isn't logical! She was alive...and Victor visited! He wouldn't visit if his granny was dead."
“That twerp Victor drops by because this cabin is my property and I send him here once a week to check for vermin and infestations. Little did I expect to discover that I did indeed have an infestation, of the spectral variety.” He hummed a familiar melody. “I know you recognize that tune. It’s what my dear old mother used to hum to us before bed.
“Victor said he’d hear the disembodied humming during his visits, but none of us believed him. But then, during the investigation, it was said to have been heard throughout the house. She’s still here. I tried everything in an attempt to contact her, but the closest I could get was the humming.”
“It’s the radio.”
He shot me an unimpressed look. “It’s an unplugged radio.”
He sighed. “Wow. I must say, I wasn’t expecting you to be this dense.”
I bristled at his unwarranted insult. “I’m not dense! And I don’t talk to ghosts!”
"Yes, you do, and you're going to contact my mother for me. I need to ask her something important.”
“Maybe you shoulda thought of that before you killed her.”
“Had I known the documents she gave me would eventually be revealed as counterfeit, I’d have postponed her worldly departure. But I underestimated the scheming old harpy and now you’re my only link to the whereabouts of the original documents.”
“She saw right through you. You’re a monster and you deserve this. I hope you never find them.”
He straightened up, a menacing tone sharpening his voice. “Alright, I've had enough of your attitude. You can and will contact my mother, or else I'm going to turn to other methods to ensure your cooperation. Do you understand me?”
I shrank back at the unsettling look in his eyes, my indignation extinguished by a flood of dread. “But...but what you want isn’t possible. I can't talk to ghosts.”
He reached for his duffel bag. “Then maybe I have something in here that can help you realize your potential.”
“No, wait! I swear, please listen. I don’t talk to ghosts! I can’t! She wasn’t dead!”
He began rummaging inside the bag and I panicked as memories of my past resurfaced. Terrified of what he could do if I didn’t agree to play his absurd game, I decided to pretend in hopes I’d get through the night in one piece.
“Okay, okay! I’ll try!”
He turned to me. “Well, that’s a start. Alright, call her.”
“Um…N-nan? It’s me, I’ve…I’ve come to visit.”
After a few seconds of anticipative silence, he asked, “Is she here?”
“How did you call her last time?”
“We didn’t. She was hiding in her secret room and came out the next morning. She was al—”
A soft melody hummed around us and I stopped talking, my breath held as I listened to that familiar, soothing tune. It sounded quieter, weaker. The radio was probably breaking down.
Ronald smiled and stood up, his eyes searching the room with eager wonder. “Where is she?”
I didn't reply, and he turned to face me. “Will. Where is she?”
“Mister, please…I don’t wanna do this.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Are you telling me you can’t hear the humming?”
“It isn’t her. It’s the radio. Please, I don’t wanna do th—”
“I thought we agreed you’d try,” he said with a stern glare. “We hear her, she’s in our realm. I need her to talk to us. Tell her you’re here.”
Frustrated tears lined my eyes as I played along. “Nan? I came to visit. I’d really like to see you. I’ve missed you.”
“That’s good, Will. That’s good. Is she here?”
“No." I sat up at an idea, hoping I'd found a way out. "I don't think she's gonna show up because I don't think she remembers me. She was senile.”
“Yes, you mentioned that in your statement, but that old shrew was as sharp as a tack before her death. I hope for your sake she still has enough sense to show up and answer my question. Call her again.”
I stifled a hopeless whimper. “Nan? Please, I’d really like to see you. Um…I’d like to hear about your grandkids again.”
“Good, good, link her to her life, that’s good. Is she here?”
He looked around with an impatient sigh. “I don’t like waiting. How can we speed things up?”
“I don’t know.”
He turned to me, and a conniving look swept across his face. “She cared about you, didn’t she?”
“She was nice,” I replied, uneasy. “She was nice to—…what are you doing?”
I tensed up as he started digging through his duffel bag again. “Have you ever gone hunting, Will?"
"So, you've never experienced the thrill of the chase, the celebration, the preparation, the trophies?"
“No, I don’t like hurting or kill—…what’s that?”
He flaunted a blade with a strange hook at the end. "This is a gut hook knife. Do you know what it's used for?"
He smiled. "Good boy, Will. Yes, it's used for guts." I shied away as he walked over. "Specifically, to remove them."
My terrified gasp squeaked in my throat as he grabbed my neck, pushed me back against the armchair, and sliced through my shirt.
"No, please!" I wheezed, trying to twist away.
“Well, it looks like I’m a little late to the party,” he said, his fingers examining the chaotic ridges in my skin. “You’re a resilient little trooper, aren’t you? Does this motley assortment of scars cover your entire body?”
“Why are you doing this? I did what you wanted!”
“It apparently wasn’t enough. I think we need to try harder to encourage my dear old mother to grace us with her presence, and your distress may just be what will bring her to your rescue.”
“What! No! This isn’t gonna work!”
“How do you know? Neither of us are experts, so we’ll just have to experiment.”
I gasped as he pressed the blade against my skin. “No, don’t! Stop, please! STOP!"
The humming abruptly cut off.
He pulled the knife away and looked around. “What does that mean?”
“Sh-she…uh, she’s here! She’s here now!”
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Really? Where?"
“On that armchair, there. She…she said she’ll talk to you if you let me go.”
“Nice try,” he sneered as he brought the blade back to my stomach.
“No, ow! Stopstopstop! You...you scared her! She stopped humming and ran away because she got scared! She doesn’t like violence!”
He studied my face, and I looked back at him with as sincere an expression as I could muster, hoping he’d believe me.
“Alright,” he said, releasing me and straightening up. “Call her back.”
I sat up, trembling. “Sh-she’s gone. She left. I can’t…um, sense her. She isn’t coming back.”
What little patience he had left evaporated from his cold eyes as he narrowed them at me, clenching his jaw. He side-saddled the armrest of my chair and twisted me around, the gun on his hip digging between my shoulder blades as he pushed my head back against his abdomen and pressed his knife against my throat.
“Enough impudence from you, Will. Call her. Now. If she doesn’t like violence, tell her she’ll be the one responsible for what’s going to happen to you if she doesn’t give me the location of the documents.”
My frantic pulse thudded against his ruthless grip, and I began to cry as I sensed I wasn't going to make it through the night in one piece.
Noticing my tears, he mockingly soothed, “There, There. This can all be over once you get that old fossil to tell me where the documents are. I won’t even get the police involved. But if you two insist on taking your time…well, I’ve got all the time and tools in the world.”
I tried to maintain my last wisps of courage as I said, “Mister, p-please. I swear I can’t talk to ghosts. I’m s-sorry…”
He sighed in disgust. “You must be the slowest, most witless person I’ve ever met."
I'd barely finished my tearful plea when Ronald released me.
I looked back at him in fearful confusion, only to scream and cower in my armchair as he plunged his knife into his abdomen.
His eyes pleaded beneath his perspiring forehead, but his face was emotionless as he slid the blade up his body with a swift and steady motion, releasing a torrent of blood. I turned away and buried my face in the cushions, my stomach twisting at a sickening splat followed by the knife clattering and a heavy thump that shook the floor.
I didn’t even have time to collect my thoughts before my body swiveled and sat upright, my frozen eyes observing the shift in view with terrified disbelief.
My arms broke the cable-tie cuffs, and I mentally cried out as the plastic sliced my outer wrists. I watched in horror as my body bent over and my hand reached for the knife lying beside Ronald’s twitching, moaning body, my fingers curling around the bloody handle.
I thrashed inside my own mind, trying to regain control, but it felt as though a smothering cloud of smoke was pinning me down.
I stared, aghast, as my hand pressed the blade against the inside of my wrist, the only violent action I'd ever considered in my life.
It was an action I'd contemplated in the past during my weakest moments. An action I'd never executed because Jake set me free. An action I'd never considered since. I didn’t want to die, not anymore! Not like this!
My heart hammered against my ribcage as my mind screamed, but my body didn’t even flinch as I drew blood.
And then…a sweet, melodic humming filled the cabin.
The fog in my mind sifted, and I dropped the knife as I jerked back into the armchair, trembling. The whole incident barely lasted a few seconds, and my fitful breaths wheezed as my mind struggled to make sense of the inexplicable nightmare it experienced.
Movement to my side drew my attention, and a choked gasp staggered in my throat as I stared at the armchair perpendicular to mine.
Nan was alive.
Alive, sitting there, humming the concluding notes of the familiar tune. She looked just as we'd seen her six months ago, floral dress and pink, tasseled shawl, but the smile was gone, her haggard face darkened by weariness and sorrow.
“N-Nan? Wha-wha-wha…” I stammered, not trusting my eyes.
“I’m sorry my dear, I’ve gotten weaker,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “I’m so glad you came. I hoped you would, with all my might. You must bury every part because the smoke can still kill you. We need to rest.”
It was her. It really was her. I didn’t understand why Ronald said she was dead. I didn’t understand why he wanted me to "contact" her. The only rational thought emerging in my distressed mind was that this had to do with the documents she refused to surrender.
Maybe that’s why he’d been keeping her prisoner. Maybe she’d been calling out my name and Ronald assumed she had a soft spot for me and thought he could break her by torturing me.
And now the hallucinogen made him kill himself, and it almost made me do the same until I came to my senses thanks to her humming. She was the one humming. It was her. It was always her.
She knew what the hallucinogen was and had been trying to warn us the entire time, asking us to bury something that clouded our minds with “smoke”, something that her humming somehow countered. It must be related to Natalie’s remains, but according to the articles, they were already buried and the entire oven was removed. There had to be something else.
“N-Nan, are you okay?”
“There were so many people, we couldn’t rest. They buried the ashes but it wasn’t enough. My dear, you must bury every part. There isn’t much, but innocence deceived is such a force. The smoke can still kill you.”
My heart twisted as I understood why she looked so exhausted. Ronald had somehow kept her prisoner here even during the investigation, and she must have hummed the entire time to keep the hallucinogen from killing everyone.
“Why didn’t you ask the police for help, Nan? They could’ve saved you if you told them the truth!”
“You must bury every part, my dear. Innocence deceived is such a force. I’ve been found, and after I’m gone, I cannot help.”
She was afraid she’d get taken away and could no longer provide protection against the hallucinogen. In her senile mind, she must not have understood how they could help her. I must be the only one she trusted right now.
Responsibility and gratitude bubbled in my depths. She saved my life, I had to return the favor. I straightened myself out on the armchair, swaying but determined to see her requests through this time before I went on the run again.
“Where…what should I bury?”
“My radio keeps everything safe. It holds my treasure.”
I turned towards the console radio, frowning. “Is it in the radio?”
She smiled. “My grandchildren are my treasure.” She sighed. “We must rest.”
“I’ll find whatever it is and bury it, Nan, I promise.”
I looked down to search for the knife, and I gasped as my eyes landed on my wrist. I'd cut myself deeper than I expected, my mystifying circumstances muting the pain and hazard. I still had movement in my hand, but I was bleeding profusely.
I found the knife and used it to cut my shirt in strips as I worked on putting pressure on my wrist. After wrapping up the hemorrhaging wound as tight as I could, I took a look at my stomach. A few crimson beads lined the superficial cuts, and I sighed in relief as I wiped them with a leftover shred of my shirt.
After slicing through the cable-tie around my ankles, I stood up and almost toppled over, my vision speckling. I sat back down and leaned my head against my knees with a groan. I wanted to call Jake, but I didn’t want to put him at risk. The last thing we needed was to get arrested, or worse, found by The Taipan and his thugs.
I took a few deep breaths before I stood up again and shambled over to the console radio. I flung open every moveable piece, but I found nothing noteworthy. Bracing myself, I pushed it away from the wall, its rusty wheels creaking as I sweated, my head throbbing and my aching body complaining.
A hole in the back panel caught my attention, and I grabbed a lantern and sat on the floor to inspect it. It was too small and dark for me to see through, so I held my anxious breath, slid my finger in, and pulled. The panel gave way, revealing a hidden compartment filled with dusty albums and thick, yellowed envelopes.
I peeked around the radio, and I allowed myself to breathe when Nan gave me a tired yet serene smile. Her humming could bring me back if I was affected again. Turning back to the hidden items, I rifled through them with shaking hands, finding legal documents, money, and five baby albums.
Each album had a name written in cursive on the cover: Denise, Liam, Skylar, Victor, and Natalie. Inside, I was astonished to find not only photos, but also baby "keepsakes" like belly buttons, first nail clippings, and locks of hair.
I slammed the albums shut, my pulse racing. These old baby remains had to be what were releasing the suicide-inducing hallucinogen, just like Natalie's remains.
I scrambled over to Nan and placed the documents and money on the table before I held up the albums. “Is it the gross baby stuff in the albums, Nan? Is that making people kill themselves?”
“Innocence deceived is such a force, my dear. You must bury every part, we must rest.”
“I will. I’ll bury all the baby stuff and I’ll call the police for you after. I’m gonna make sure everyone knows you didn’t kill Natalie and to find you a good home. Okay, Nan?”
She smiled, and I smiled back before I cradled the baby albums and staggered outside. I grabbed my shovel and kneeled beneath the nearest tree, digging until I was certain the hole was deep enough to hide everything without worry of discovery. After I stacked all the albums underground, I packed the hole and hobbled back to the house.
Nan wasn’t in her armchair when I returned. She hadn’t touched the documents or the money, and I stumbled back outside and called out her name, worried she may have tried to follow me. When she didn’t reply, I grabbed the knife and one of the lanterns and made my way to the last bedroom, prying open her secret room. It was empty.
I searched the entire cabin, and I ended up collapsing on the kitchen floor. She was too senile to understand and must have ran off. I had to get somewhere safe and make an anonymous call to the police so they could know the truth and find her.
I groaned as I crawled towards the door, my vision blurring as my wounds seared into my consciousness. A cold sweat rippled beneath my skin and I laid my heavy head down with labored gasps, convincing myself that I only needed a few minutes to rest.
The ringing in my ears amplified to a shrill, pulsating constant, but it wasn't enough to mask the creak of the door and the concerned whisper of a familiar voice.
Thanks to Jake, I was saved and my tracks were covered. When I woke up safe and sound the next morning, he told me he'd burned down the cabin and all the evidence inside, but not before taking the money and retrieving my duffel bag.
I yelled at him, furious at his endangerment of Nan, but my anger soon turned to shock when the news revealed that it was indeed her grave I'd unknowingly dug up.
The smoke had drawn attention and firefighters were quick to control the blaze before it graduated to a forest fire. Once the cabin had been extinguished, the police were called to the cursed location yet again and a new investigation was opened up.
They confirmed that Nan’s time of death was around the same as that of Natalie’s, when they both went missing almost two years ago. As for the wine bottle, it was found to contain traces of cyanide, later identified to be Nan's cause of death.
Ronald’s charred remains were found inside the incinerated cabin, and his security footage implicated Jake and me. Although Ronald didn't have any cameras indoors, they caught his interaction with me near the grave as well as Jake's arrival and our departure. The police had no answers, and Jake and I were still wanted men.
Jake didn’t care about the developments of the case at all. He only cared about me. After he relocated us and secured our new identification, he sat me down for a brotherly talk.
“Cole, I want you to promise to never run away like that again and leave me panicking.”
I looked down with remorse. “I promise. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you afraid and risk everything you did to keep us safe.”
“From now on, I don’t want you to hide anything from me. Ever. You can talk to me about anything. Okay?”
I looked up at him. “Jake?”
“It’s Sean now.”
“I know, but we’re alone.”
“It doesn’t matter. You have to get used to saying it so you don’t slip up.”
“Did you hear Nan’s voice in your head too?”
“Don’t say stuff like that. I didn't hear anything and neither did you.”
“Then how’d you know where to find me?” I asked.
“That old lady's all you’ve been talking about since we met her, it’s obviously the first place you’d go.”
“Do you think we can see ghosts?”
“No. That stuff isn’t real.”
“But what if it is?”
“No, listen, Sean,” I said, sitting up. “I thought it wasn’t real too, but that’s Nan’s body they found and they said she'd been dead long before we met her. What if she was a ghost? What if that’s why she was all...repeaty? Maybe ghosts only care about what’s keeping them here, so...like, for Nan, it’s Natalie’s remains, the stuff in her radio, and her murder weapon!”
He sighed. “Cole…”
“And I think the ‘smoke’ was Natalie’s spirit!” I said, on a roll as excitement seeped in. “It seriously felt like smoke when it possessed me! I think it’s because she was killed so young so she's, like, revengy. Is that the word? Nan kept saying ‘innocence deceived’, I think that’s what she meant!”
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s why she had to hum a lullaby all the time to calm her! And that’s why she wanted us to bury all of Natalie's remains so they could both rest and Natalie would stop killing people using their own violent acts on them!
“Like, she made the thugs kill themselves like what they do to others! And she made Ronald gut himself like he does when he hunts! And even the reporter lady, she must’ve suffocated someone too, right?” I paused as my eyes widened. “Jake, Nan totally saved our lives in two ways! She hummed to save us from Natalie, but she also stopped humming to save us from the thugs!”
He held my shoulders with a stern gaze. “Cole, enough. All that stuff’s nonsense. Don’t talk about these things or people will think you’re a lunatic. Okay?”
“But what about how she was dead before we met her? And what about the humming?”
“The humming was the radio, and the old lady was alive when we met her. The police miscalculated her time of death.”
“But then...how did I see her again and talk to her after Ronald killed himself? How—”
“The hallucinogen makes people hear and see things before they kill themselves, that’s why you thought you saw her. There’s nothing supernatural about it."
"Drop the subject, Cole. Only lunatics talk about crazy stuff like that. Are you a lunatic?"
"Good. Promise to never bring this up again? To anyone?"
“Good.” He stood up. “I'm going to make lunch now. What do you feel like?”
"Mac ‘n cheese?"
Jake walked to the kitchen, but I remained sitting as I mulled things over. My experiences confused me and Jake’s firm footing in logic was usually reassuring. He was always the smart one. Was he right about this too?