SCORCHED (from Elements of Horror Book Three: Fire)
“My father died,” Josh said as he looked up from the black words that gawked at him from the unfolded paper he held in his hands. The envelope sitting on his desk was from his late father’s estate; he’d inherited his father’s home.
“I’m sorry, Josh,” Kenna whispered sensitively.
Kenna was the endless bright light in Josh’s life. He’d known her for almost two full decades, and not only did they share a profound love for one another, but she also kept him sane. She leaned in and kissed his neck tenderly.
“It’s ok,” Josh said delicately. He folded the letter back up and slid it into the envelope. He pushed it aside and stared at his computer. “I haven’t seen him in twenty years. After my mother died, he wasn’t himself. He couldn’t take care of us. He left…”
Childhood memories began to saturate Josh’s mind. He zoned out and pictured images of his mother losing her battle to cancer right before his eyes. He pictured his father drinking, hitting him, shouting, and bleeding from his hands. Kenna snapped him out of the horrific daydream by massaging his shoulders. He closed his eyes and smiled. “That feels good.”
“Where’s his house?” she quietly asked. “The one you inherited.”
That’s where Josh was confused. He grew up in Florida; his father loathed the cold weather with a passion. It made his skin hurt, he’d always say. “Montana.”
“It’s cold in Montana,” Kenna smirked.
That night, the clock radio next to the bed switched over to 1am. Josh couldn’t sleep. He was wide awake, lying next to Kenna. She hadn’t made a noise in hours, so he was certain she was asleep. At least one mind was at ease.
He grabbed his phone from the nightstand and searched for any information he could on Charles Peet in Montana. Aside from the address listed in the estate letter, there was nothing else about his father on the Internet. It was almost like he had gone off the grid on the other side of the country after his wife had died so horribly. Maybe he left so I didn’t have to watch him spiral into his drunken madness? Maybe he really didn’t want to hurt me, and leaving was all he could think of to protect me? But, Montana? Why so far away? Josh thought to himself.
“Can’t sleep?” Kenna asked in a gravelly voice, seemingly awaking out of nowhere.
“No.” Josh thought for a moment. “He left twenty years ago. I wonder how he lived.” He rolled onto his side and looked Kenna in her drowsy eyes. “Will you come to Montana with me?”
She smiled. “Obviously.” He smiled back as Kenna cradled him closer to her.
When the sun on Saturday morning crawled out from over the Atlantic, Josh and Kenna were already on a plane. They had a layover in Columbus, Ohio, and then it was a straight shot to Helena, Montana. From beaches, boardwalks, and gator-filled swamps, to vast wilderness, tall trees, sparkling lakes, and dense forests – it was quite the transition.
Josh and Kenna took a cab from Helena to a dirt road several miles away that went deep into the forest.
“Excuse me,” Josh said to the driver. “Is this the right way?”
“You said Hart-Tell Road, right?” the middle-aged cab driver asked, exhaling the smoke from his cigarette.
The driver smiled in the rearview mirror at Josh. “Then yes, this is the right way.”
They drove for a good twenty minutes, passing valley after valley, overgrown forests, mountains on the horizon that seemed to not move at all, and then Josh questioned the driver once again. “Are we close?”
At that very moment, the driver stopped the cab, kicking up dirt that swirled around the car. Josh and Kenna looked out the window and saw an old, rusted mailbox hanging off a bent pole at an odd angle. A dirt pathway next to it slithered back into the trees where it disappeared. The name on the box had washed out over time, but it was there: Charles Peet.
“You have the number for the cab company, right?” the driver asked.
Josh pulled out a slip of paper where he’d scribbled it down. It was sloppy, but he could still make it out. “Yes.”
“Give us an hour from the time you call to get here. Your father didn’t live in the most easily accessible place,” the driver continued.
“Will do. Thank you,” Josh said, handing the man a rather generous tip.
As the cab turned around and drove away, Josh and Kenna looked past the mailbox, and down the dirt pathway that curved around behind a thick cluster of pine trees. It was so dark that the woods appeared black.
Josh and Kenna walked the path slowly, keeping an eye out for bears. Several signs on their drive to the property indicated the dangers of bears in the area. The woods were serene and mostly silent. The sounds of buzzing bugs and isolated bird chirps surrounded them, although it was nothing they could see. The wildlife hid tactically in the dimness of their home.
They came around another bend and into a small clearing where Charles’ house was. It was a peculiar sight–the house was small, neatly tucked back into a part of the forest that seemed to be off that map, so to speak. It was made of logs with a brick chimney. It was smaller than a cabin, but significantly larger than a shack. Moss had overrun all sides of the chimney and covered most of the roof. The front door, which sat at the top of three, crudely built steps, was open slightly.
On the opposite side of the dwelling from where the chimney was, sat an old car covered in dirt and grime and sporting numerous cracks and chips in the windows. The tires were all flat, and the license plates had been removed. Next to the car, a gray wolf stood incredibly still, watching the new strangers on the property. Kenna saw it first and put her arm up to stop Josh. They watched the animal, which was watching them. Josh stared into its eyes, and his heart rate picked up. He’d never been in the presence of an animal like this before.
A sound from the forest grabbed the wolf’s attention–probably helpless prey of some kind–and it sprinted off and vanished into the shrubbery. Josh and Kenna sighed in relief and nervously laughed in sync with each other. Kenna gestured to the old house, “Shall we?”
“After you,” Josh said, letting his girlfriend approach the home first.
Since the door was open, they were immediately on guard for any possible animals that may have wandered inside. The daylight that wasn’t blocked by the canopy of trees outside lit up the inside of the cabin through its dirty windows. Kenna entered the house first, and the smell immediately overwhelmed her. “Smells like fire. Do you smell that? Like, burning wood.”
Josh sniffed the air as he entered and agreed with Kenna’s theory. It smelled like the remains of an old campfire. There was also a hint of burnt hair, but he didn’t dwell on that for long–it was an old cabin. However, looking around the interior, a fire clearly didn’t seem all that possible. The olive-green carpet was clean—very little dust was noticeable. The bookshelf against the wall appeared well organized, and knit blankets were neatly folded on the couch and chair respectively.
Josh continued to wander the one-roomed home. A bed and nightstand were in the far corner. A half bath was next to it, separated only by a stained, torn curtain hanging from loose hinges in the ceiling. A gas stove sat across the room next to a clean fireplace with no sign of a recent fire. A small, circular kitchen table stood next to it. Only one chair was pushed neatly under the table. Josh was confused.
“This isn’t my father,” he inaudibly said to himself, knowing that the condition of his house was the exact opposite of what the man was like twenty years earlier. He then went to the kitchen area and opened all three of the wall-mounted cabinets. There were cans of vegetables, but no liquor or scotch. He then opened the small refrigerator next to the stove – no beer, no wine. “There’s no alcohol here,” he said.
Kenna knew a lot about Charles. She’d met Josh not long after his mother died, so she was there to lend an ear, and take the verbal beatings that were intended for his father. She knew this didn’t look like a place that kind of man would live in.
She looked around and saw a light switch on the wall. She flipped it, but nothing turned on. She looked around and noticed there wasn’t a single lamp, or any light for that matter, in the entire place. “That’s weird,” she said. “Why aren’t there lights in here?”
Josh shrugged. The light from outside then started to fade and the house became a little darker. He went to the window and watched as the trees started to blow heavily, twisting branches and sending leaves spiraling into the air. He looked up, and through the small cracks in the canopy, saw dark clouds rushing across the sky vigorously. “We’re going to get a nasty storm.”
“At least we don’t have to worry about the electricity going out,” Kenna joked. Josh chuckled, but more just to please her. He felt uncomfortable at his father’s house. Twenty years had passed. He didn’t know this man–not the one who had lived here, anyway.
“We’d better find some candles.”
They were able to scrounge up a handful of half-melted candles, and Josh also found an oil lamp in one of the cabinets, along with a shelf full of matches. They lit each candle and sporadically placed them around the house. They sat the oil lamp down on the handcrafted wooden coffee table and sat next to one another on the couch.
“No TV,” Kenna said. “No radio, very little food, a clean house, a neatly organized bookshelf, and a boatload of matches. Does this seem like your father?”
Josh shook his head. “Not the one I knew. But who knows what twenty years, isolated in the middle of the forest, could do to a man.”
The rain pounded the top of the house, threatening each moment with the possibility of it collapsing. Thunder shook heavily outside, and sharp flashes of lightning lit the house up for split seconds at a time. Josh looked at his phone and saw it was just past 8pm. He then noticed the 53 percent charge. “Christ,” he said.
“What is it?”
“We’re not going to be able to charge our phones – no electricity.”
Kenna slid hers out of her pocket. It was roughly half charged as well.
“We need to use them sparingly. I’ll call the cab first thing in the morning before my dies. I don’t want this house. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“You’re not even going to go through his stuff? Maybe there are some things here you’d want to remember your father by.”
“I don’t want to remember him. I don’t want any of this stuff. He was a violent man, and he left. He left me alone, with no one. He didn’t care about me at all. He wouldn’t want me to have his stuff either.”
“You weren’t alone, Josh,” Kenna said, inching closer to him on the couch. “You were never alone.” She put her hand on his leg and he exhaled. “He put you on the Will for a reason, right?”
Josh didn’t answer.
Kenna picked up the oil lamp by the handle and stood up. “Take the books at least. You can just sell them and make a few bucks.” She carried the lamp over to the bookshelf, and a flash of lightning outside allowed her to navigate to it quicker. “You can learn a lot about a man from the books he reads.”
“Yeah,” Josh muttered from the couch, “and what kind of man do you see over there? What kind of man was born in this house?”
Kenna fingered through the shelves, one by one. “He liked bird watching. He liked DIY projects. He liked maps of Montana’s Forestry and Lakes.” She looked down to the next shelf. “Oh, and the occasional dirty magazine.”
Josh laughed. “Those are just out in the open?”
“He wasn’t shy.”
Josh and Kenna were then interrupted by a shrill and rapid pounding on the front door. Josh jumped up quickly and Kenna swung around. He motioned for her to come up beside him and he took control of the lamp.
“Who knows we’re here?” Kenna whispered.
Josh slowly crept up to the front door and put his ear against it. “Who’s there?” he called out.
“Frank Gore!” A man’s voice yelled on the other side of the door, attempting to out-scream the thunderous rain and slapping winds. “I was a friend of Charles Peet!”
On a whim, Josh opened the door. A man in his late fifties, maybe early sixties, stood there in a black raincoat, holding the hood down over his head so the wind didn’t rip it off. Josh moved out of the way and let the man in. As he breezed by the couple, the scent of burnt wood stirred up again, reminiscent once more of an old campfire. He closed the door and lifted the lamp to see the man better.
Frank Gore removed the hood from his head and stood there, steadily dripping rainwater onto the wooden floor, and through the wide cracks between the floorboards. “Bless you,” he said.
“You knew my father? Charles?”
Frank looked at Josh warily. “You must be Joshua. Charles spoke of you often.”
“Oh yes. He missed you every day. He felt so much guilt for leaving after your mother passed away. He said you were angry, and he wasn’t proud of who he was. He said it was the only way that the fire in your eyes would leave—if he did.”
“No way he cared that much!” Kenna screamed with fiery rage, defending all Josh had been through.
Frank stared, off-put by the screaming.
Two candles behind Frank flickered, as if a soft wind was blowing through the room, and were then abruptly extinguished, sending a wiggling stream of smoke into the air. Josh and Kenna both noticed it. Frank continued to speak: “It’s a shame–after all he and I had been through together, a heart attack claimed his life for good,” he chuckled.
Josh noticed an ominous suggestiveness behind Frank’s words. “What can I do—” Josh stopped in mid-sentence as he witnessed yet another candle behind Frank flicker and go out. A shadow crept across the ceiling, directly above the candle, and crawled down the wall by the bed. The sight, unnatural to Josh’s eyes, sent a chill down his spine.
“I assume you want to know why I’m here,” Frank said. “I just came to grab a couple of my things before you seize control of the house and all of Charles’ belongings.”
Kenna didn’t like that idea. She nudged Josh, and he agreed, still trying to shake the shadowy anomaly. “With all due respect, Mr. Gore, I don’t know you. Before you take anything from this house, it should probably go through the courts first.”
Frank stared at Josh with dead eyes. His demeanor changed almost instantly. “Charles had borrowed some items from me. I came to take them back.”
“I understand. And I’m sure you can have them back. But, legally.”
“And not late at night, during a storm,” Kenna heatedly added. She was right though, Josh thought. What an odd time to drive out to the middle of nowhere.
“What exactly are these items?” Josh asked, keeping his protective girlfriend at bay from the stranger.
Frank just stood there and stared. “You didn’t know your father like you thought you did. But I did.” He aggressively flipped the hood back over his head. “I’ll be back at daybreak. If you find a black bag, leave it outside the door. It’s mine. You won’t be taking it.” Frank stormed by Josh and Kenna and tripped on an uneven floorboard in front of the door. He looked down to his feet and then up at the couple. He smiled threateningly and winked. He opened the door and walked out into the wicked storm outside. Josh shut the door and locked it.
“What a freak show,” Kenna said.
Josh, however, had something else on his mind. He turned back to the dark corner of the house where the bed was. “Did you see the shadows?”
“When the candles flickered out, some weird shadow appeared on the ceiling and slid all the way to that wall, and then went down the wall near the bed.” He jogged over to the dark corner and lifted the oil lamp. The flickering flame from the wick projected dancing shadows on the wall over the bed. Black handprints speckled the wall. He lifted the lamp and followed the prints up the wall, across the ceiling, and above the front door. He lowered the lamp just as a shadow, the size and shape of a small child, sank deep into the shifted floorboards.
Josh and Kenna both jumped; the latter letting out a startling shriek.
“What was that?!” she screamed, grabbing onto Josh’s arm. He didn’t respond; he focused his eyes on the door and the floor below it. His heart rate increased noticeably.
The remaining candles all began to flicker, and as a flash of lightning zapped the darkness outside, roaring thunder shook the cabin’s foundation. The flames vanished from the wicks. Smoke climbed the air, and the only light remaining was in the limited range of the glowing oil lamp. The house began to creak and crack, and the windows rattled. Quiet whispers began to circle Josh and Kenna—soft voices of the old and the young. The voices began to say things that the couple didn’t understand, but it quickly became clear that the voices were not of a living man, woman, or child. They were coming from…somewhere else.
“Who’s there?!” Josh called out. Kenna began to sob and buried her face into her boyfriend’s side. The overwhelming stench of death engulfed the house. It was horrible; it stunk of rotting flesh and burnt hair. The smell of fire then overpowered it. Josh’s attention was drawn to the oil lamp he held in his trembling grip. The handle became hot and the flame inside the glass grew larger and larger, before it popped. The glass shattered and Josh let go of the handle. The remains of the fiery lamp fell to the floor and broke open. Flames shot out in all directions and spread across the wooden floor swiftly. The furniture, the bookshelf—all ignited in bright, yellow-hot flames.
As the flames arose from the floor, they carried with it dark, shadowy, human-shaped figures. The frantically twitching flames from the uneven floorboards in front of the door – the same area where the mysterious campfire smell seemed to linger – lifted them. There were now dozens of the shadowy figures, all standing around Josh and Kenna. The flames shielded some; others seemed to be fragmented versions of their former selves—whoever they were.
“Josh,” Kenna’s voice trembled as she gripped his arm so tight that he had to peel her hand off to stop it from cutting off his circulation. “JOSH!” she screamed.
Josh swung around and found he was face to face with one of the necrotic entities. It was charred completely black; small glowing embers pulsated intermittently among the genderless body. It reached for him, ashes falling from its arm and rickety hand, which still had a diamond ring on one of the fingers. Josh couldn’t move—terror conquered his mind. The figure grabbed Josh around the neck—its scorched hand crumbling as it gripped tighter. Josh stared into its eyes, which were nothing more than empty cavities, sparkling with orange embers. It opened its mouth to speak, but only a ghastly wail emerged. Ashes spewed out and covered Josh’s face.
Josh thrashed and swung his fists wildly, completely destroying the being in a dusty, black cloud. He turned and grabbed Kenna by the arm and ran for the front door. He could see the flames had completely engulfed the only exit, but it didn’t matter—it was his only chance. Josh gritted his teeth and ran faster and harder toward the door. He threw his shoulder into it, crashed through, and dragged Kenna out quickly. He pulled her several yards away from the burning cabin and they both collapsed to the ground, frightened and out of breath.
The rain continued to fall, although it didn’t seem to do anything for the fire. Thunder rumbled above them, and the sky lit up as lightning spider-crawled through the clouds. Screams from the dead creatures inside exploded, seemingly louder than the thunder and pounding rain combined. The screams were horrible, terrifying, but also…sad.
Josh and Kenna sat in the saturated grass and watched the house continue to burn through the night.
The fire trucks arrived later, along with an army of police cars and detectives. Before the fire was extinguished, Josh and Kenna were transported back to Helena where they waited to be interviewed.
Josh waited out in the station’s homicide department while he assumed Kenna gave her statement. He was covered in soot and his eyes were red. He looked at the wall next to him. Dozens upon dozens of missing persons flyers congested the space. There were men, women, and children—all missing in the Montana Mountains. The amount of people missing was concerning. He looked carefully at one girl in particular. She was young, with blonde hair and a smile full of life. Her eyes were crystal blue, and she rested on her side next to a Christmas tree. The picture appeared to have been taken of her without her knowledge of it coming–possibly by a boyfriend or husband. It was a good choice of picture to use if the family was looking to tug at heartstrings in order for attention to be drawn to their missing daughter. She looked very happy. She wore an oversized red hooded sweatshirt with a Calgary Flames logo on the chest. Josh followed the sleeve down to her small hand where he saw an engagement ring on her finger—a shiny diamond was neatly set in the middle of a smaller ring of diamonds.
He recognized the ring immediately. It was on the same charred hand that grabbed at his neck back at his father’s cabin. The gears in Josh’s head began to spiral out of control. None of it should have made any sense, but it made perfect sense. Is this what my father was up to this whole time? Josh thought to himself as he became flushed with dread and guilt on his father’s behalf.
He looked back at the dozens of other flyers surrounding the blonde-haired girl. The dates from each report varied—one went back twenty years…just after he’d left Florida.
“Mr. Peet, were ready for you,” a sharply dressed and experienced detective said as he stood in front of Josh. Josh looked at him completely astonished. “This way, sir.”
The daunting theory of his father being a serial killer and burying his victims scorched bodies under the floorboards of his remote cabin in the middle of nowhere spewed out almost immediately in the interview. The mention of Frank Gore only added a mystifying element to his theory.
“I’m sure Kenna told you all about it, but he was looking for a black bag.” Josh said. “He seemed very adamant about getting it out of the house.”
The detective took notes on everything Josh said and recorded the interview for extra measure. He then looked up at Josh and saw he was pale. “Are you feeling okay, Mr. Peet?”
“Just…” Josh began, but couldn’t find the right word or phrase for what he felt; for what he’d experienced.
“I understand,” the detective said. He glanced back down at his notes before returning his attention to Josh. “Now, tell me, Josh, who exactly is Kenna?”
The detective held his look on Josh. “Your girlfriend?” The detective didn’t seem to believe him.
“Yes, my girlfriend,” Josh reiterated. The detective seemed confused. “I’m sorry,” Josh added, “I don’t understand. You just spoke with her, didn’t you? Did she say something different?”
The detective sat his pen down and shrugged. “Did I speak with her?”
Josh was fuddled. “Are you serious?”
The detective just stared back.
“Kenna was at the house with me. She’s my girlfriend. We came here from Florida together.”
“How long have you known her?” the detective asked, picking his pen back up.
“What? You’re not implying that she–”
“I’m not implying anything, Mr. Peet. When did you meet her?”
Josh was perplexed by the detective’s questions but decided to roll with it and basically humor him. “It’s been years. I’ve known her since we were kids. I met her right after my mom died and my father left.”
The detective picked his pen back up and starting writing notes again. “She was there with you, you say? At the cabin tonight?”
“Of course she was!” Josh became irate. “She’s here at the station! You brought her back in the same car as me!” Josh stood up and rushed to the door where a small window looked out into the waiting area. He smiled when he saw Kenna sitting on one of the chairs with her legs crossed. She smiled back and waved at him. “She’s right there,” Josh said peacefully.
The detective stood up and walked to the window. Josh moved out of the way and let him look through the glass. Three chairs sat in the waiting area — empty.
“You met Kenna after your mother died and left you alone with an abusive father?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. She has basically helped me through life since then. I owe her everything. She’s kept me sane.”
“Sane,” the detective repeated to himself softly. He turned to Josh and smiled. “Well, Josh, you’ve been through a lot.” He backed away from the door and motioned for Josh to sit back down. Josh took one more glance out the window and waved at his beautiful girlfriend again. He sat down, across from the detective.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Josh asked, finally in a calm and relaxed state of mind.
“Well, there was significant evidence at the cabin that backs up your story. We think your father may have in fact been the serial killer that’s terrorized this area for decades. We did find a black bag, but I cannot disclose its contents. And we have put out an APB for a Frank William Gore. We’d like to talk to him specifically about your father and his possible participation.”
Josh seemed to drift away again.
“Are you okay?” the detective asked.
“I think so. I feel so guilty about what happened to those people,” Josh said, glancing out the window at the wall of missing people. “They did nothing to deserve this.”
“Please don’t feel guilty, Mr. Peet,” the detective said. “You have enough on your mind. You let your past haunt you. You don’t need to carry any of this. We’ll take it from here.”
The detective stood up and grabbed his notes, cramming them back into the torn folders. “Wait here. I want to give my friend at Wallington Hospital a call.”
“Okay,” Josh said. The detective left the room and closed the door. Josh stood up and wandered the room for a moment, stretching his legs. He looked back out the window and blew Kenna a kiss. She blew one back.
“You know, you can help make up for what your father did to us,” a young woman’s voice said from behind him. He turned around and saw a beautiful blonde girl sitting in the chair where the detective had been sitting. She had a gorgeous smile and looked very comfortable in her Calgary Flames sweatshirt. The diamond ring on her finger glittered in the light.
“How?” Josh asked. “I’d do anything to right what my father’s done. No one deserves that fate.”
The woman smiled. “Your father is dead, but Frank Gore isn’t. Your father would strangle us to death. Frank Gore would burn our bodies. When he arrived at the cabin tonight, his presence woke us. We have hope for final retribution”
Dozens of other people appeared in the room. Josh was overwhelmed. There were men, women, and children—all of them identical to the faces on the flyers.
The blonde woman rested her hand on his. “Help us,” she asked.
Josh wasn’t like his father. But, when he needed help, Kenna was there for him. Now, he had a chance to help others because of his father’s uncontrollable violence.
“Will you help us?” she asked again.
Josh responded with a cold, detached smile, without a hint of hesitation: “Frank Gore will burn,” he whispered.
Find Scott’s book, Cheater, Cheater, on Amazon here
Elements of Horror Book Three: Fire is now available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.