Published on 2011/01/09

Grandma Millie's Cabin

Laura Garrison

Robin shifted the package to the crook of his elbow in order to zip his red hoodie all the way up. He frowned at the sky, where brushed steel clouds were gathering in ominous folds. He probably should have taken his car. The forecast called for rain, but damn if it didn't feel cold enough for snow, or maybe the Erie, Pennsylvania, November Special: eyeball-freezing, underwear-soaking, soul-numbing sleet.

There was a flash of movement on the right side of the path, in a cluster of naked poplar trees. Robin turned and squinted at the spaces between the slim trunks, but he couldn't see anything. It had probably just been a deer.

He started walking again, faintly conscious of the sound of footsteps on the pavement behind him. He was on his way to Sunset Cove, a cluster of dilapidated cottages that squatted like toads at the edge of Presque Isle Bay.

His grandmother had called that morning and asked him if he would pick up a few things for her. "The Little Blue Scoot is in the shop again," she had said, meaning her old Volvo.

Robin had said that he would be happy to pick up the items she needed and drop by after his last class was over that evening. Grandma Millie was the only one in the family who could shoot pool as well as he could, and he was looking forward to trying to win back the forty bucks he had lost to her a few weeks earlier. The paper bag tucked under his arm contained half-a-dozen crullers, a bottle of Bootstrap rye whiskey, two packs of unfiltered Camels, and a single banana. "For my health," she had told him.

The footsteps were closer now, almost at his heels. Just as the first icy quills of sleet began to prick his face, someone spoke. "Lovely day for a walk, isn't it?"

He turned towards the stranger, who was now pacing beside him. She was wearing tall sheepskin boots, and her hands were tucked into the pockets of her wool coat.

"Yeah, it's great," he said. "Freezing your ass off is so invigorating."

She smiled. "Where are you headed?"

"Sunset Cove."

"Really? I just moved in there."

"Oh. How . . . nice for you."

She glanced at him, amused. Her eyes were clear and golden, like melted butter. "This will be your first visit there, I take it."

"No, no," he said. "My grandmother lives there. I've been there lots of times. I was just trying to be polite."

"You're not Robin, are you?" she asked.

"Yeah, I am. How'd you know?"

"I met your grandmother this afternoon. We had tea. She mentioned that you would be stopping by." She paused. "I'm Natalie, by the way." She held her head high, seemingly unaffected by the sleet.

Robin, meanwhile, tugged at the strings that adjusted the opening of his hood until he was squinting through a small circle that left only his nose and eyes exposed. "It's nice to meet you, Natalie," he said, with his voice muffled by the fabric of his sweatshirt. "So, why'd you move to Erie? For the happening club scene? Or do you just really enjoy the smell of dead perch?"

"Well, I do love that particular fragrance, but there was no real reason; this just seemed like as good a place as any to live for a while. I never stay in one town for long."

"A free spirit, huh?"

"Something like that."

They continued walking in silence until Robin saw another flash of movement in the trees. It wasn't a deer; it was something gray. "Hey, did you see that?" he asked.

"See what?"

"I thought there was something moving over there," he said, pointing.

"You might have just imagined it. It's hard to see anything in this weather."

When they reached Sunset Cove, Robin paused in front of the second cabin on the right. He had to shout to be heard over the waves that were pounding the pebbly shore like angry fists. "Well, this is my stop. It was nice chatting with you, Natalie. Maybe I'll see you around."

He went up the gravel walkway and knocked on the door, which was warped from the damp air. Only a few flakes of faded blue paint still clung to the wood.

No one answered. "Grandma Millie?" he called, pointlessly. He could barely hear himself over the crashing sound of the bay. He tried the handle. The door was unlocked, so he stepped into the dim entryway, where he loosened the ties on his sweatshirt and pushed his hood down.

There was a strange smell beneath the usual odors of mildew and cigarette smoke, like wet leaves on the floor of a cave. When he turned to close the door, he jumped. Natalie was standing on the front step, studying him, her head tilted to one side. "Um . . . would you like to come in?" he asked.

"Thanks," she said, brushing past him. He closed the door behind her and then flicked on the light switch.

The cabin was a mess. From where he stood, Robin could see most of the kitchen and all of the den, where a full-sized pool table dominated the room like a rhinoceros, with the rest of the furniture cowering against the walls.

The kitchen table had been knocked over, and the linoleum was strewn with bits of broken china, lemon slices, and puddles of cold tea.

In the den, one of the plaid sofa cushions had been viciously ripped open; its fluffy white guts were scattered across the rug in untidy piles. The large window that looked out at the bay had been smashed, and the carpet underneath it was soaked from the icy rain. There were deep scratches in the green felt of the pool table, along with a dark smear of what might have been blood.

"Grandma!" he called. "Grandma Millie! Are you okay?"

There was no response.

"Call the police," he said to Natalie. "There's a phone in the kitchen."

"Of course," she said, eyes wide.

Robin checked Grandma Millie's bedroom and the bathroom, and even poked his head into the coat closet, but it was no use. She was gone. He sank down to the floor with the paper bag still clutched in his hand. He heard Natalie's soft, even tones from the other room as she described the cabin's location, and then the click of the phone being returned to its cradle.

Shortly afterward, Natalie came out of the kitchen with a glass of water. "Here," she said, holding it out to him.

Robin took it, but his hand was shaking so badly that he spilled most of the water on his lap.

"The police are on their way," Natalie said. "I'll wait with you until they get here."

"Thanks," Robin said. He fished the bottle of whiskey out of the bag and poured some into his empty water glass. He started to raise the glass to his lips, then froze.

Something was moving outside, near the broken window. He couldn't tell what it was, but he could see its shadow outlined against the bayberry bushes.

"Stay here," he said to Natalie. His legs felt like uncooked bacon strips, but he managed to get to his feet. He grabbed one of the pool cues from the rack on the wall and approached the window. The wet carpet made squelchy sounds under his sneakers.

He hadn't taken more than three steps before a large animal hurled itself through the hole in the window and landed right in front of him.

It was a wolf. Each strand of its thick fur was tipped with a bead of ice. Its ears were lying flat against its head, and it looked ready for a fight. It shook itself vigorously, spraying frozen droplets in all directions.

Even in his terror, a small part of Robin's mind was glad that he had spilled that glass of water on his pants, because it might keep Natalie from noticing that his bladder had just let go. He was still holding the pool cue, but all communication between his brain and his body seemed to have broken down, and he could not make himself move.

The wolf sniffed at Robin's shoes, making low, inquisitive noises in the back of its throat. Then, abruptly, it turned away from him and fastened its eyes on Natalie.

In the fraction of a second between when the wolf noticed her and the subsequent attack, Natalie wrapped her fingers around the neck of the liquor bottle, and when the wolf sprang at her, she swung the bottle against the side of its muzzle. The bottle shattered, and the wolf's jaws closed on a sheaf of Natalie's hair instead of her neck. The girl and the wolf tumbled to the ground together.

"Robin! Help me!" Natalie pleaded, struggling to keep the wolf at arm's length with what was left of the whiskey bottle.

At the sound of her voice, Robin finally regained enough control over his movements to lurch towards them.

The wolf's mouth was bleeding a little, and there was a wound on one of its forelegs, but it did not seem to be seriously injured. It batted Natalie's arm with one paw, knocking the broken bottle away. Then it was standing over her, pinning her shoulders to the floor. As it lowered its head towards Natalie's throat, it locked eyes with Robin.

He hesitated. He had never hurt an animal, but what choice did he have? This is my last chance to be a hero, he thought. He swung the pool cue through the air like a woodcutter's axe. The butt of the cue connected squarely with the wolf's skull; the sound was like a heavy branch breaking.

The wolf collapsed on its side next to Natalie and did not move.

Natalie sat up. "Thanks," she said. "That was a close one."

"That--that thing--it must have killed my grandma." He didn't want to look at the wolf, didn't want to think about it attacking Grandma Millie, about her struggling with it until her strength gave out, about it . . . eating her. He stared through the broken window at the bay. The sleet had stopped. The waves were a little smaller now, and the clouds were beginning to break apart.

He toyed absently with the zipper on his hoodie. The sweatshirt had been a birthday present from Grandma Millie. "A Robin should have a red breast," she had said. It was an old joke; she had been buying him red shirts for as long as he could remember.

One year, when he was five or six, she had given him a red ski jacket for Christmas. That afternoon, she had put on her ice skates and pulled Robin around on his sled on the frozen bay until they were both so cold that they had to go back to the cabin for hot chocolate. Robin had never forgotten the feel of the runners gliding over the ice beneath him while the wind whipped across his face. When he had closed his eyes, it had been just as if he were riding on a giant hockey puck, zigzagging in quick bursts before whipping around in a long, smooth arc, but always safely anchored to Grandma Millie by the long rope she had tied to the front of his sled.

He turned away from the window with a sigh. "I wonder where the police are. They should have been here by now," he said.

"They're not coming."

"Wait, what? You said you called them."

Natalie grinned. "I lied. Also, you might be interested to know that this thing"--she kicked the limp wolf sharply in the ribs--"did not kill your grandma."

"What are you talking about?" he said. His hands had begun to tremble like frightened rabbits.

Instead of answering, Natalie dropped to her knees and lifted the wolf's head with both hands, turning it so that it was facing her. Its yellow eyes were glassy, and its tongue was hanging out of the side of its mouth. "Why, Grandma," she addressed it with mock surprise, "what awfully big teeth you have." She let the head thump back onto the floor. "I couldn't believe it when she got away after I bit her on the arm. Old ladies are usually such easy kills. It almost makes me feel cheap." She studied Robin's face. "She must have really loved you to have risked coming back here."

"No," Robin whispered. "Impossible. That can't be her. I don't believe you."

Natalie began to laugh. It was a howling, triumphant sound, too wild to be human, yet too cruel to be animal. The air around her began to ripple, and her outline started to shimmer and blur, as if she were standing on baking asphalt on an August afternoon. By the time the laughter died away, she wasn't a girl anymore, but a sleek, silver wolf. The transformation had been strangely smooth, almost understated, with none of the groaning angst or dramatic music of the old Lon Chaney movies.

Robin took a single step backwards and tripped over the disemboweled sofa cushion.

Natalie was on him in a flash, and Robin's last moments were a scramble of glinting fangs, tearing flesh, and raw hamburger breath.

Outside, the clouds had vanished, and the waves had resumed their normal lazy swells. The stars began to appear, Venus glowed on the horizon, and the full moon hung like a talisman over the bay, shining sleek and silver against the evening sky.

Laura Garrison grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Maryland with her husband Justin. Some of her other work has recently appeared in Jersey Devil Press, Puffin Circus, Niteblade, Pig in a Poke, and Enchanted Conversation, among others. She enjoys wandering through moonlit cemeteries in her best nightgown.