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Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

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The Cabin in the Woods

Doug Ensley
On a table under a layer of cobwebs was an old book held intact by rubber bands. Its spine had long rotted away, and the pages that protruded were gray and brittle.

“To the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet,” the old man bellowed. “And beware! The ancient ones never rest!” His words hung in the air, as sinuous and unsettling as the tobacco spittle clinging to his lower lip. The harbinger turned away from the five young travelers and disappeared into the convenience store. The twenty-somethings did not know whether to laugh in amusement or flee in terror. They should not have laughed.

“Oh my god!” said Jules from the back seat as they resumed their drive through the wispy mist. “Did you hear that? That was straight up crazy.”

“It was like something out of a horror movie,” said Marty sullenly. “Maybe we should rethink this whole remote-cabin-in-the-woods weekend plan. Somebody’s gonna get demon-possessed… or worse…” He trailed off with visions of ‘or worse’ dancing in his head.

“At least we filled the tank before he popped up out of nowhere,” Curt said, ignoring Marty. To Jules in the rear-view mirror: “Did you get what you needed for kitchen supplies?”

Jules looked to her right – Dana could break the bad news. “That store was as loony as the owner,” she said. “I picked up some canned goods, expired cookies, crushed chips, some other junk. I didn’t even recognize half the things in that store as food.”

Jules added primly but confidently, “We’ll just have to make do.”

Marty chimed in, “At least we brought plenty of beer from home.” The “s” in “least” was a tiny bit slurred. Maybe Marty shouldn’t be the closest one to the cooler, thought Holden from the passenger seat. Instead, he said aloud, “Maybe the host left us something at the Airbnb. Sometimes they do that.”

Curt laughed. Since the rental was only $90 for the entire weekend, no one was really expecting to be greeted by Super Hosts with chilled rosé. Marty was sincerely expecting demons — pretty much the opposite of rosé.

An hour later the SUV crawled to a stop on the rutted dirt road in front of the cabin that could be described as “picture perfect,” if the “picture” was a B-horror movie. But aside from its extreme isolation from civilization and its profound attraction for dirt and weeds, the cabin seemed to be pretty sound, maybe even a bargain for the price. Things were looking up.

That afternoon the five friends played cards in the dim light of the rustic kitchen. More precisely, four of them played cards while Marty looked out the window with a beer in hand, leaning against a heavy grandfather clock that had not worked since before the war. He was determined to stay alert for any impending attack of zombies, werewolves, or most likely, zombie werewolves. Three-chord angst from a teen singer-songwriter rose faintly from a portable Bose speaker into the poorly ventilated space.

As they’d imagined, the cabin’s cupboards were bare, but they were able to wash some plates and utensils after the water from the sink eventually ran clear. “I wish we’d thought to bring along actual groceries,” said Jules. “No one could make a meal with what we found at that creepy convenience store.”

At that moment a gust of wind, from nowhere and everywhere all at once, blew through the cabin stirring up dust. The ace of diamonds fluttered from the table and the music stopped with an abrupt pout. A loud thump shook the floor. And then another… The noise was coming from an area rug in the middle of the main room. Holden cautiously lifted the carpet, peered beneath, and swept it aside like a matador. All five gazes were transfixed by a trap door, now visible in the middle of the floor.

“What… the… actual… ,” started Dana, and Curt cut her off. “It’s just the door to a basement,” he said, trying to sound bravely dismissive. He and Jules walked toward the door with trepidation.

“Wait, what?!” asked Marty incredulously. “Have you ever seen a horror movie in your life? There are probably ancient runes down there that can summon redneck chainsaw killers… or worse.”

“Are you high?” said Jules, not quite rhetorically. “It’s probably just storage for camping gear or cleaning supplies.”

Before Marty could protest further, Curt had opened the door, and Jules was heading down steep stairs, flashlight in hand. Within moments all the friends had climbed down with varying degrees of uncertainty. Even with flashlights, the darkness was impenetrable, and the friends stayed close together. More precisely, four of them stayed together while Marty, muttering about demon possession and zombies, stayed near the steps for a quick escape. The dingy items around the room — at least the ones within the shallow reach of the flashlights — definitely looked more like ancient runes than camping gear.

“Hey, look at this,” Dana called to the group. On a table under a layer of cobwebs was an old book held intact by rubber bands. Its spine had long rotted away, and the pages that protruded were gray and brittle.

“Colon… County…?” Curt puzzled out the words on the faded, mottled cover. “It says Cotton Country Cooking,” said Dana, decisive once she got the proper angle of light. She slowly turned the cover. “It looks like a cookbook published by something called the Decatur Junior Women’s League.”

“It’s ancient,” said Curt. “Can you tell when it was written?”

“1972,” Dana replied somberly, turning another fragile page. “Fifty years ago. The year my mom was born.” A whispered whistle from another in the group spoke for everyone.

“I told you there would be ancient runes,” shouted Marty from a distance. “We really need to go back upstairs before anyone summons a demon.”

Dana turned to the next page of the book, which showed a list of recipe contributors, presumably from the Decatur Junior Women’s League: Mrs. Jimmy Sams, Mrs. Fred Allen, Mrs. Russell Wendt, Mrs. Jeffrey Shaugnessy, …

“Did married women take their husband’s last AND first names in ancient times?” asked Jules sincerely. No one knew for sure.

The book creaked when Dana opened to its middle. Between the recipes for Southern Rice Casserole and Spinach Souffle were handwritten notes, faded and smeared amid the page’s Rorschach stains. Looking at the text upside down, Jules asked, “Is that Latin?”

With a purposeful stride through the darkness, Marty said, “No, No, NO! I’m drawing a line in the sand here. We are not reading Latin in the basement of a haunted cabin.”

Dana said, “Relax. It’s not Latin. It’s just cursive.” A long pause. “Can anyone read cursive?”

Holden rotated the book to himself and studied the page. “My mother is a teacher. I can read cursive.” A pause. “Ewww, this is a recipe that calls for SpaghettiOs, Jello, and Vienna Sausages.”

Jules looked at Dana with a mix of disbelief and terror. “Those are some of the random things we bought at that creepy store.” No one breathed. No one noticed the muffled ticking of the grandfather clock in the room above them.

“It’s just a coincidence! Do you think the book knew what you bought?” laughed Curt, breaking the nervous silence. No one else laughed. “It’s more likely the store hasn’t changed its inventory in the last 50 years.”

“You have all lost your minds,” he added as he headed for the stairs. The others followed with furtive glances back at the book, still open with pages shuddering in the impossible basement breeze.

As they emerged from the door, they stopped in their tracks. There was a woman standing in the kitchen that had somehow become spotlessly clean. The woman wore a blue dress and white apron and sported a vintage, flip hairdo. She was removing something from the refrigerator — something shiny, the color of bodily organs, quivering in a ring surrounding what might be human toes. The woman placed the culinary curiosity on the counter, looking up in recognition of the group for the first time. “You’re just in time for my SpaghettiO – Vienna Sausage – Jello Casserole,” she said in a genteel, Southern accent. “Y’all must be hungrier than a tick on a teddy bear.”

“I could eat,” said Marty, walking toward the table as if pulled by a magnet. “Me, too,” echoed Curt, pulling up a chair. The vintage lady was already gingerly placing shimmering slabs on five serving dishes. Dana asked the obvious questions: “Who are you? And how did you get here?”

“Well, I’m not sure how I got here, but I am Mrs. Robert K. Anderson, Jr. from Decatur, Alabama.”

Holden was the first to make the connection between the mysterious woman and the creepy cookbook. He offered to retrieve it for Mrs. Anderson, who thanked him and proclaimed herself to be happier than a butcher’s dog. He hurried back downstairs, but when he picked up the book, it disintegrated into a cloud of gray powder the consistency of cremation ashes. Beneath the dust lay two faded index cards with “Kiss the Cook” embossed on the top right corners. In dismay, Holden carried the cards back up the steps.

“What did you do?” asked Jules as he emerged. “Mrs. Anderson vanished into thin air.”

Holden looked at the spot in the kitchen where everyone else was staring, the spot where Mrs. Robert K. Anderson, Jr. stood no longer. He looked down at the recipe cards. “These are recipes for Dorito Tuna Surprise and Fruit Cocktail Ranch Salad.”

Jules seized the cards. “These use the other ingredients we bought from the convenience store,” she said incredulously. “I don’t understand how any of this is possible.”  Finishing her thought, Curt added, “But we will not go hungry this weekend!”

* * *

The next morning Holden rose early to clean up the kitchen and brew some coffee. They had been up late putting together the meal, laughing at the campiness of it all but genuinely enjoying the ancient recipes. We must have been hungry, he thought. Dana in particular had really been in the zone, deciphering recipes, portioning ingredients, barking instructions, discovering odd utensils from the depths of the cabinets. She was like a whirlwind, Holden thought. Almost like a demon possessed? The phrase felt appropriate, but it sat uncomfortably in the back of his mind.

As if on cue, Dana emerged from her room with a yawn. Her shoulder-length black hair turned up slightly on the ends. Holden said good morning a bit too loudly, perhaps to drown out that phrase still echoing in his subconscious. “I tried to make coffee,” he said sheepishly, nodding to the antique percolator now sitting in a steamy, brown puddle bespeckled with grounds. “But I’ve only ever used a Keurig before.”

Dana swept into the kitchen, ready to take charge. “Well bless your heart, darlin’,” she said in an unmistakable Southern accent.

Photo by Doug Ensley. Definitely-haunted cookbook courtesy of Billie Ensley. Fearless readers are invited to visit


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About the Contributor
Doug Ensley
Doug Ensley, Contributing Writer
Doug is an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Shippensburg University (Pennsylvania) who relocated to Leland in 2022. He holds a PhD in mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University and continues to contribute to mathematics professional organizations in his retirement. Within the mathematics community, Doug is known for his leadership and his innovative uses of technology in teaching. He regularly exercises his right brain with word puzzles, poetry, and fiction. He resides in Brunswick Forest with his wife and her cat.

Comments (6)

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  • C

    Charles BinsDec 11, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    This is hilarious and has me yearning for red Jello with grapes and celery!

  • J

    Janet Marie StieglerOct 30, 2023 at 4:29 pm

    So well written, Doug! And I love how the kids can’t read cursive or work a regular coffee pot. So true!

  • D

    Daniel NeizmikOct 7, 2023 at 8:24 pm

    What a great story… well written and captivating. It’s the kind of story you want to read more than once. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

    • D

      Doug EnsleyOct 14, 2023 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks Dan! I appreciate the encouragement 🙂

  • J

    Judith CovingtonOct 2, 2023 at 9:20 pm

    Even better than the first one!!

  • C

    Charles BinsOct 1, 2023 at 8:07 pm

    Thanks for your campy, spooky Halloween story. You do know how to stir the cauldron.