The Cabin in the Woods

This is a series of short stories, detailing the adventures of Chelsea Childling. You can start with her origin story or pick something from the index.
***

The cabin had two rooms, and one of them was the bathroom. Chelsea had had to buy her own sheets, but considering the spiders in the place, that wasn’t a bad thing. Still, she’d stayed in worse hotel rooms. 

She’d also bought a bed for Bentley. It was too big to keep, but for the next few weeks, he’d have some place to lie down that wasn’t the couch or the bed. 

In fact, she’d gone on a little bit of a shopping spree. Besides the sheets and Bentley’s bed, she’d indulged in some sundresses, shorts, and tank tops, and now had two easels. One held a corkboard. The other sat empty for now. She had plans for it.

The small, ancient fridge held a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market in town. Chelsea munched on an apple before testing at her coffee. She grimaced a little, adding more sugar. The beans were roasted locally and ground fresh. It was still an overly bitter brew. Briefly she considered ordering something from the west coast, but her expenditures would catch up with her soon.

Barefoot, she slipped out to the porch, enjoying the quiet of the woods. The cabin was paid in full for the summer. She had expected the campgrounds to fill up on the weekends, but the sheer amount of people on Friday had overwhelmed her. This quiet Tuesday morning was much more to her liking. Her nearest neighbors were well down the path. Bentley pushed his way out the door and sat beside her. She rubbed at his neck, enjoying soft fur under her fingers, and stowed her growing doubt. “So, we’re settled in. Ready to become real investigators?”

Bentley yipped his response before heading back into the cabin. Chelsea laughed quietly at his usual grasp of language as she followed him.

A few pieces of paper sat on the floor by the easel with the corkboard. She picked one up. It was a copy of an old newspaper article showing a group of smiling teen-aged boys. “So Bob is from here. Played basketball. Made it to the state finals his junior year.” A pushpin skewered it to the board.

She pulled a printout of a webpage. “He opened his business a few years after college.” Another article joined the first, a spotlight on local businesses. “Seemed his grandmother gave him his inheritance early, and he invested it in a few boats. He rented them and gave tours of the river.” These papers joined the first one.

Chelsea stepped back. “No trouble with the law that I could find. Not that I know how to do more than search a database of old newspapers.” She sighed. “I don’t really know what I’m doing here, Bent.”

The dog’s answering whine was followed by a knock on her door. Chelsea whipped around, looking for her hatchet. It sat beside the woodpile, though she didn’t use it to cut wood. She would never dull her ax on something so mundane. 

Handle smooth and warm in her hand, she opened the door to Miss Amy’s smiling face. That huge grin hadn’t altered by a hair since Chelsea paid for the entire summer up front. “You got a package, Miss Childling.”

“Thank you. I’ve been waiting for this.”

“The artwork you mentioned?” Miss Amy had been chatty. So chatty Chelsea had found herself babbling about needing the solitude to finish her painting. And then it had seemed prudent she get something to paint.

She wasn’t sure why she chose this painting, though. She’d never finished it, and truly never could now. The oil paints had long since dried.

Miss Amy held up the large rectangle. “It’s heavier than it looks. Not that it was heavy.” The corner of the packaging was rumpled.

Chelsea grabbed the thin rectangle and shut the door abruptly. She sat on the floor of the cabin, pushing Bentley away as she settled. Her knife made quick work of the tape. The canvas inside was undamaged, to her great relief. She sighed as she put it on the empty easel.

It was more unfinished than she remembered. Most of Jackson Hawk’s face and hair were done. Vibrant as only oil paints could be, nearly alive.

It was why she had chosen this medium. Jackson had always been more alive than anybody she knew. Somehow, he was in every moment, present and there.

No, she’d captured his face quite well. It was the rest of the picture that had stumped her. What pose for his body? What kind of background? She had no idea, even now, how to finish a painting of him. At least, not the painting she wanted.

What she did have was the time to try a few out. While the local cop, who knew about monsters, did the official investigation, and Chelsea looked up what she could, there would be hours, maybe days, of waiting. More than enough time to get some painting done.

She moved the unfinished painting to a nail on the wall and put a new canvass on the easel. No oil paints this time. The process was costly and expensive, as well as time-consuming. This was the summer of acrylics.

Pencil in hand, she roughed out Jackson as she had first seen him, hood up, under a streetlight. She knew the final portrait, the real one, would show his face. But she needed these moments, too. She needed that posture, the way he was both in every moment and just outside it.

There he stood, about to face a nightling head on and alone, and he cracked jokes, waiting patiently. The sketch came quickly, and she let it be slightly imperfect. It was more about capturing the emotion than being realistic.

Setting up her paints and her brushes was a soothing ritual. It had been too long. Sketching was fun, and photography an amazing outlet, but painting she had always loved. Watercolors with Mama on rainy Sundays…

The ringing of her phone startled her. She muttered curses as she hurried over to the table. Jackson Hawk’s name soothed her. “Hey, Jack! I’m putting you on speaker. I’m in the middle of painting.” She set the phone on the bookcase by the other easel and picked up her brush.

“Painting?” His voice picked up speed. “So, you really got the cabin, huh?”

“Yes, and I wish I could take it with me. It’s nice to have a place to stretch out. And seriously, how do hunters do research without places to put stuff? I’m just supposed to have piles of paper in my car?”

Jack laughed. “Car? Try researching while living in someone’s rental.”

She shook her head. “I can’t. Literally, I only have so much anti-anxiety medication.”

He laughed again. “But seriously, what have you found out?”

“Well, there’s no credible sightings of a Kipsey in the local waters. It’s all obvious animals and hoaxes. And Bob has no known history of violence, not even in passing. Like I couldn’t find any unexplained injuries or attacks near his home/business, no missing pets or people either. And he’s lived here all his life, so it would be pretty easy to find this stuff.”

“Good start. Have you talked to any of his friends?”

“No, mostly because it hadn’t occurred to me to do so. This is my first real investigation.”

“Well, local man in a small town. Trust me, it’ll be easy to find someone. Was he in a social club or business association?”

Chelsea glanced over at the other easel. “He played basketball in high school.”

“There you go.” Jack’s confidence warmed her. “Some of those guys are still around too. Even if they don’t hang out now, they’ll know who did.”

“That’s a really wonderful suggestion, if I had any idea how to get that kind of information out of someone.”

Jack seemed to be losing the fight to laugh, but he struggled on. “It’s all about getting the other person to talk about themselves.”

“Oh, my goodness.” Chelsea rolled her eyes. “You sound like Mama.” She didn’t mean to slip into Georgia, but her natural drawl sauntered out, anyway. “‘Just ask questions. People love to talk about themselves. You can learn a lot if you just ask nicely.’”

Jack burst out laughing. “See, you can do this. You already have the training in small talk.”

She smiled at the canvas. “Maybe I can do this.” Soothed by the conversation, she picked up her brush once more. “I have some painting to do. Tell me what you’re up to.”

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