• Jeff Arce/Jarce ArtThor

Dilemma (a dark parody)


Author's note:

Before we begin, let me tell you a little tale about how this story came to be. I am always searching for an opportunity to gain some kind of exposure to my work, and sometimes I get so excited about a potential prospect that I forget to cross reference the scammy internet clickbaits that flood my feed. I stumbled upon this add on Facebook for a literary website that was doing a prompt contest a couple weeks back. I clicked on it, with no real plans of participating. But I just wanted to see what the prompt was, cause I like that sorta stuff. You see, prompt exercises are cool little experiments where the host offers the theme or the first sentence to a story, and the participants must take that and run with it, wherever it might go. But this one was a bit banal. All the thing said was, "There's an abandoned Cabin in the woods, but suddenly a candle lights up in the window." Or something like that. I remember reading it thinking, "That's just silly."

And so, that became the theme to my story Dilemma. It is a horror, yes, but it is also a paradoy of both prompt exercises and the millions and millions of stories written about an abandoned cabin in the woods. I mean, how many times are we gonna tell that story. Nevertheless, I became obsessed with the idea, and before I knew it I was writing my own tale based on it. I was pretty proud of it when I was all done. It was a little scary, a little on the nose, a little funny, and a whole lot of fun. I fell in love with these characters that were born from such a very simple premise... But then, the twist came: that this prompt contest was nothing more than a money-grabbing scam. Got me again internet!

So then I tried to outsource and send my work for consideration at a few literary magazines and blog websites that I know of. But, they hated it. Lol! I think they thought I was trying to be serious.

That said: keep in mind that this story is meant to be silly. 😜

Have fun! Turn the lights low, maybe light a candle...

Enjoy!


WARNING: ⚠️ This story has some spooky stuff in it. A good read for ages 12 and up.



Dilemma

By Jeffrey Arce

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.

Dusk was just beginning to set in as they were returning home. That morning started a bit dark for a day celebrated as the longest one of the Summer. Now they were trudging right into the shortest night unprepared for what lies ahead. Samantha followed nearest by her father’s side, though, despair clung palpably onto her ambience. Fireflies swelled like embers against the dark, brightening the gloomy night, if only a little. The forest was quiescent. Twigs snapped, and gravel crunched beneath their feet, but beyond that there was serenity. Not a creature yowled or crooned. It seemed even the crickets were sent to bed early that evening. Michael wondered if the woods could somehow sense their dismay. Could it be sentient enough to recognize their loss? Could it feel the death on them? He didn’t know. Maybe he was depressed.

Sometimes when you’re upset, he knew, you can make the unfortunate mistake of believing that the entire world was right there with you having the worst longest day of their lives.

Or maybe the popular phrase “bad-vibes” was a real thing, that was infectious enough to poison everything in its way. Who knows?

Samantha was the first to see it. She glanced up only for a second, trying to navigate the familiar pathway through the hazy beam of her father’s flashlight. She halted, staring off the path into the threaded foliage. Her big brother doubled back to check on her. He was carrying a shovel over his shoulder like some lumberjack. When he approached her, he stuck the point of it into the dirt and leaned in on its handle. Their dad was too lost in his own thoughts to take notice that his family was no longer following him.

“There’s a light,” Samantha said with the slightest touch of wonder livening her otherwise tepid mood.

Michael followed her gaze. He only saw the butts of bugs winking over the blackness. “You mean the lightning bugs? It’s summer.”

“No,” she sounded frustrated. She pointed again, fiercely determined, and said, “There, in the window.”

Michael leaned forward against his shover, squinting as if narrowing his vision somehow helped to clear it in the dark.

“Come on, kids,” their father said, never slowing in his pace. “It’s getting late. I wanna wash up before dinner.”

Samantha wasn’t sure how anyone could think about eating after having to bury Russell. She kept that opinion locked up for now. Yet still, she persisted. “Dad, stop! I’m serious. A light just came on in that weird house.”

Phillip knew exactly which weird house she was referring to. The old junky log cabin has been a blemish on this property since he bought it. And though it has become something of an infamous relic in their small rural neighborhood over the years, it has not housed life since sometime in the late 80’s, and no hobo in their right mind would try now, or ever for that matter. A bridge was a better choice to seek desperate refuge than that ancient rat’s hole. It was a ruin barely standing. The only thing in the world that would want to get into that place is the blade of a bulldozer, which he already had noted in his ever-growing list of things to do.

Phillip let out an exasperated sigh as he turned to look back in their direction, blinding the girl with his flashlight in the process. It’s piercing glow set her blue eyes and strawberry red hair on fire. She winced as though the very heat of the sun was burning off her face. Her fourteen-year-old brother, however, was unaffected by the light. He only kept on looking off into the wilderness as hopelessly lost as ever.

Not even bothering to entertain the ten-year-old’s alleged discovery, their father simply slumped his shoulders and complained, “Sweety, I’m tired.”

“Just look,” she urged.

“I don’t need to. I know the place has no windows, and there are fireflies everywhere. That’s probably all you saw, honey. Now please, let’s—”

“I see it,” Michael exclaimed. “She’s right! Dad look, I think someone’s in there.”

He closed his eyes and groaned, “Nobody’s in there. I’m up to my ass in muck. I just wanna get out of these clothes, guys.”

“Looks like a candle.” The teenager was far too rapt by the sight to register any more of his father’s whining.

Seeing no other way out of this, Phillip huffed and said, “Fine, let’s check it out.”

Michael snatched up the shovel with alacrity, like a cartoon aristocrat taking up his cane.

Phillip cut through the chaparral with the beam of his light. The old, dilapidated structure stood out like an ugly skintag at the center of the small glade before them. The logs that made up its foundation were slowly deteriorating from years of abuse by the unsleeping hands of mother nature. Its roof, made up of rusting sheets of metal, haphazardly nailed into place, was beginning to loosen and slough over the edges like a bad haircut. The windows were gone. The front door was gone. The porch was a splintery death trap that looked like a yawning mouth lined with jagged fangs, and they were marching steadfast right into its clutches. Phillip quietly cursed his bad fortune. Michael led the way, bulling through the thorny brushes, ensorcelled by wonderment. Samantha reached for her father’s hand as anxiety bloomed in her chest.

When Phillip took her hand, he lashed the light into the corner of his son’s eye to steal his attention and said, “Hey, keep close.”

That reeled him in. Looking back at his father he asked, “Do you see it?”

Phillip saw it. There was indeed a yellowish glow flickering inside the vacant window to the right of the crumbling doorway. Just then, he stepped over an invisible threshold that made the hairs on his arm stand up, and raked prickles down his spine. It felt like a sickness. It felt like a trap.

He froze in his tracks, seizing his children before they could advance further. Samantha gasped as the queer sensation suddenly coursed through her as well. Michael never felt it.

Phillip’s jaw unhinged as he carefully studied the haunting structure. He knew it has been standing in that same location long before his kids were ever even conceived, and he was confident enough to believe that it would go on that way no matter how they choose to proceed. Nevertheless, he was apprehensive. He just didn’t like it.

“We should go back.”

“Oh, come on, dad,” Michael groused. “It’s just an old house.”

“Yeah, well, I got a bad feeling.”

Samantha pressed close and said, “I did too. That was really weird.”

Michael was incorrigible. He inched forward, brushing away his father’s caution to test his luck. He studied the area where the mysterious light was pulsating, trying to see around the cabin’s withering façade which stood in his way.

“We have to know who’s in there.”

He’s probably right. Phillip then grabbed his son by the arm, his focus still locked on that dancing glow inside the cabin. He said, “Stay behind me.”

The fraying floorboards cringed as he set his weight into the decaying wood. His children did as he commanded and fell back behind his lead, taking careful steps. When Phillip was closing on the entryway, he cast the beam from his flashlight into the stygian, cluttered womb of the old cabin. He saw a rotting desk snug against a shadowy corner, a turned over trestle chair riddled by termite damage, a tattered couch with its fluffy guts bursting out here and there. There were clumps of dust as thick as carpeting draping over everything. Scraps of crumpled paper and scattered pieces of debris populating every surface in his view. And there were cobwebs. So many hung from the ceiling it looked like an abandoned Halloween store.

Hello,” their father hailed, “Someone in here?”

No answer.

Samantha turned her head as if to glance up at her father, but she was still looking at that glowing window. She whispered, “Maybe he’s deaf.”

“Maybe he’s dead,” Michael chimed in, holding up the shovel they used to bury Russell like a baseball bat, ready to swing.

Phillip, proceeding prudently, said, “Come now. Let’s not assume anyone’s gender here.”

“Don’t be a simp, dad,” said Michael.

To this Samantha asked, “What’s a simp?”

Michael paused to think about that for a moment. Then he wrinkled his nose and answered, “Actually, I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s a—”

“Shut it,” their father hissed.

Just before Samantha was about to follow them into the dusky cabin, she heard something. In the distance, far back in the woods a dog was barking. She whirled on her heel to have a look.

“Russell?”

That stopped her father. Though he did adore their late pup, a small part of him was relieved he finally passed on. He was suffering in his final days. There came a point in the weathered old golden retriever’s life where all he wanted to do was cry or bark his dumb little butt off. It drove Phillip absolutely bonkers. Still, he knew his baby girl loved that poor mut to death. No pun intended.

He gazed at her contritely. “Sweety,” he said, “Russell…Russell’s gone now.”

“But I heard him!”

“It was the wind,” Michael offered.

Sullenly she pouted, “It wasn’t the wind—”

Suddenly, a jarring clatter in the next room brought them all back to the matter at hand. They turned to face it. Phillip was on the move again, working his way tentatively through the musty living room. He drew near. Just around the bend they could see an opening into the kitchen area. There, they found the candlelight swelling. Creaks and groans shuttered through the floorboards as they went.

Oh my God,” the teenager cried out. “What the hell is that thing!”

Samantha followed his pointing finger to the desk in the corner. She approached the ancient device where it was resting under a gauzy film of spiderwebs.

She said, “It’s like a computer…but where’s the screen?”

Phillip grimaced at it as he joined them. “It’s not a computer. It’s a typewriter.”

Ooooh,” she said with awe, like a kid seeing a dinosaur skeleton for the first time.

Michael put aside his shovel and reached in to pluck the old sheet of paper threaded into its carriage. He was too quick for his dad to stop him.

Savagely, he tore the sheet free and said, “Something’s written here! It says…”

Samantha stood on the balls of her feet to try to see over his arms, as Phillip hovered behind him, the flashlight held high to give him better light.

Together they read, “…and the sound brought them to the basement…”

Michael was not impressed. “That’s it? That’s all it says?”

Then Phillip whipped his flashlight around to show them all the crumpled balls of paper that littered the floor. Garrulous text bled through every scrap. “I think there might be a little bit more to this story, Kids.”

Just then, they heard a scrabbling sound. It came from somewhere in the kitchen. Phillip stalked after it. Samantha was at his right, Michael on his left, bat shovel ready.

There was an old iron pellet stove in there, its exhaust chimney still attached to the wall on their left. The trim around its edges was garnished with floral reliefs that ran along the stove’s four sides like lichen, ending at the base. Its trestles were shaped with the antiquated likeness of a lion’s paws. Next to this was a closed wooden door. Samantha began exploring over there. What interested Phillip and Michael, however, was a lone candle alight just before the rotting windowsill looking out onto the porch. Melted wax ran down the half-exhausted candlestick, lapping over the fringes of its silver holder. Where it cooled in tiny puddles on top a small, scarred counter they found a book—a journal.

Phillip lowered his flashlight and picked it up. His son drew in as he opened it. The book was sticky with cobwebs, and its stiff spine whined ever slightly in protest.

“What’s this,” Phillip wondered, reading the frenzied writings preserved within.

“What’s it say,” Michael asked, intrigued.

Phillip’s eyes scanned the passages studiously. After a moment to digest it, he at last answered, “It’s his journal. The guy who lived here. Looks like he was a writer of some sort. According to this he was suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block after a…prompt exercise left his imagination stunted.

“What’s a prompt exercise?”

Phillip was thumbing through the pages. He took note how increasingly chaotic the handwriting had gotten toward the end where it all just abruptly stopped in the middle of the journal, leaving the rest of it blank and untouched.

“It’s a kind of creative writing challenge,” Phillip decided.

Meanwhile, Samantha was examining the door behind them, wondering where it might lead. She reached out for the rusty knob when something slipped out from beneath the door and slid between her feet. She knelt to retrieve it: a very old newspaper clipping. She picked it up from the floor and read.

“He gave up his job,” Phillip continued, pulling more information from the mysterious journal in his hand. “Says here that he spent most of his life savings procuring this property, hoping that a change in scenery might help to clear his mind.”

“Sounds like he was obsessed.”

“I think he was,” Phillip agreed with his son. Then he flipped to the last entry. Another chill raced down his spine as he recited the passage he found there.

“…it dwells in the woods… It haunts the cabin…”

Michael asked, “what does?”

A fair question.

Samantha was still squatting over the floor, reading the newspaper clipping she had found.


Writing Contest!

Participants have the chance to win up to

$5,000 in prizes!

We are looking for only the scariest stories.

All entries must begin with the following prompt:

“A lonely cabin in the woods is abandoned for many years, until one day, a light comes on in the window.”


That’s strange, Samantha mused.

Then the door towering over her suddenly unlatched and slowly drew open. Samantha clutched the scrap of paper to her chest and stood, gaping at the inky void there on the other side. She saw stairs descending into complete darkness. Just as she was about to retreat, she heard an animal down in the depths growling.

Russell?

Though circumspect, she stepped closer to the threshold. She leaned in, hoping for a clearer look at where the stairs led to. A susurrus of strange whispers seemed to be stirring down at the bottom. It was like a tribalistic cult of witches chanting their maledictions under a cloak of shadows. But there was more to it than that. There was conflict. The voices were arguing.

One was saying, “Perhaps it’s a ghost?”

Then another spurned, “No, that’s too predictable.”

“Maybe the candle is some kind of allegory,” the whisper offered again.

“Don’t be naïve,” the other voice countered.

Then a shapeless appendage exploded from the void and coiled around her legs. It lassoed her up, ripping her off her feet and immediately began dragging her down the stairs. She let out an ear-splitting scream. Her father and her brother spun around at once, startled. The door slammed shut before they could get to her.

SAM,” her brother cried.

Instinctively, Phillip tried twisting the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. Then he rammed his shoulder into the door thrice, but it wouldn’t give.

“Let me try,” Michael said pushing his dad aside.

Then he threw the point of the steel shovel with all his might into the latch of the door, loosening splinters. After a couple of whacks, an anxious Phillip snatched the tool from his son’s grip, trading it up with the flashlight. Then he tried hacking at the door with a loud BANG! BANG! BANG! But it was useless effort.

Samantha was bawling her pretty little head off, squirming and thrashing as the black, slimy tentacle continued to wrap up her thighs. She caught ahold of one of the steps and heaved, fighting the creature’s overwhelming strength. She looked back at it from over her shoulder. It was hideous. She mostly saw it with her mind rather than with her eyes. It felt like great loss, and doubt, and failure all rolled up into one spectral entity. So desperate it was to solve the impossible puzzle that plagued its very being, it would dare throw anything it could grab at it, even lives that weren’t for it to claim. Anything to escape its grasp.

Her fingernails felt like they were about to break off as she scratched at the steps to resist its pull. She heard the voices quarrelling behind her again.

“Could the cabin be alive,” One voice husked.

The other rebuffed, Yeah, I’m sure nobody’s ever thought of that before!”

“Maybe it’s a monster. Maybe it baits its prey with the light…”

“Maybe you’re an idiot!”

Their curious squabbling only served to terrify the girl even more.

Daddy,” she wailed, tears streaming down her face, “Help me, please! I’m scared!”

“I’m coming, baby,” Phillip promised as he jabbed and jabbed with the shovel, his son joining him by kicking at the door as hard as he could.

Samantha was seconds away from losing her grip. In that fateful moment she thought only of Russell. She remembered how his golden, fluffy chicken’s butt bounced gracefully up and down as he went loping after a ball or a Frisby. She remembered how he always looked like he was smiling at her, with his silly tongue lolling to one side. His playful puppy-dog eyes loving every moment of life with Samantha and Michael. She’ll be seeing him again, she supposed. She just did not know how soon.

A beast snarled above her head. She looked up to find Russell and his feathery coat billowing over her. He appeared as a slightly transparent phantom, lunging at the monster in the dark with violent intent.

As the ghost-dog arched through the air with its claws drawn and its jaws out, she heard the whispery voices saying incredulously, “Saved by her dead dog?”

“No! That’s cliché!”

“Not even death can break their eternal bond…”

“It can’t be…”

Russell pounced on the snake-like appendages around her legs and sunk in his teeth. He ripped at it until a screaming hiss came raking from out of the darkness. Then, the girl was free. She ran back up the stairs as fast as she could manage them, not bothering to look back.

The toxic voice rasped, “it’s banal!”

Its counterpart retorted, “using fancy words won’t help!”

“This is a terrible twist!”

“It’s overdone!”

“That won’t work!

Then, as the door flew open and Samantha leapt into her father’s unsuspecting arms, they both collapsed to the floor. The creature downstairs roared, “NO! NOOOOOOOOO—"

The flame from the candle blew out from the breath of their momentum, leaving only a wisp of smoke clinging to its charred wick. And then, the forsaken log cabin went quiet and still. The kitchen was dark again. The monster in the basement was gone.

Samantha was laying on her father’s chest mewling in his embrace. He tried to slow his breathing as he soothed, “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”

Michael ran up on them and asked excitedly, “What happened? What did you see?”

Samantha wouldn’t be able to answer that question if she had a thousand years.

They gathered themselves and retreated, hurrying swiftly out of that place as if it were on fire. All Phillip knew for certain was that he needed to get that shack demolished first thing in the morning.

“I don’t know,” Michael protested. “That was kinda cool, I think we should keep it.”

Both Samantha and Phillip glared hard at that response.

Michael shrugged his shoulders, “What?”

Later, Samantha would try to piece it all together in her head. She tugged at her father’s sleeve and asked, “So, the person that used to own this place somehow got so absorbed by his obsession to try and solve this dilemma that he became…whatever that thing was in the basement?”

“Seems to be the case,” Phillip said contently.

Duh,” Michael put in.

Samantha was mystified. “But…that doesn’t make any sense.”

Then Phillip knelt to her level. He set his hands on her shoulders and he said, “Sometimes, sweety, I think it’s safe to say that the silliest solutions make the best stories.”

She mulled that one over for a minute. Then she smiled brightly at him and said, “I love you, Daddy!”

Phillip blushed as she jumped into his arms for a deep, long embrace.

“Me too, hon…Me too.”

While she was hugging him, she saw a bushy pup with a golden mane grazing along a wall of shrubs far off in the distance. The dog then stopped wandering to look up at her. That familiar smile and lolling tongue was overjoyed to see her.

She whispered, “Thank you, Russell.”

As if to answer her, Russell barked her way three times. Samantha, believe he said, “I love you.” That thought warmed her heart. Though, if truth be told, ghost-dog was only doing what dogs love to do best: bark their dumb little butts off.


The End.


CARTOON BREAK!!!


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