Written by Koh Ze-Wen
Arin woke to pouring rain. It sounded like someone was trying to drown the world in rain, which she respected, as a college student who had an 8am class. Still, if she didn’t get that sweet sweet 80 percent attendance, she wouldn’t even have the opportunity to flunk out of Physics.
Lost in thought, she dumped her bag on her seat and was suddenly and rudely acquainted with someone’s butt on her desk.
“Excuse me,” she said to the butt in question.
“Hey,” the owner of the butt said. He looked vaguely hungover, and he was dressed in a varsity jacket and skinny jeans. Which was interesting, because their college didn’t have sports teams with varsity jackets, which meant he had possibly acquired some other college’s varsity jacket.
“Hi,” she said uncertainly. She thought his name might’ve been John. There were 4 Johns in her class.
“Overheard some guys say there’s an abandoned lot over at Mortem Lane, me and the football team are thinking of checking it out, you in? We’re bringing an ouija board, it’s going to be lit. I heard you’re good at kung fu or some other mojo.”
“It’s taekwando,” she said absently. “Also, dude, doesn’t Mortem literally mean death?”
“Lit,” he repeated, grinning. He had a somewhat limited vocabulary, respectfully speaking.
“No thanks, I’d like to stay alive long enough to meet my end in our midterm. You have fun with your ouija board and your inevitable demise now.”
“Yes, I poultry,” she said. Maybe if she looked directly in his eyes and spoke his language he would understand.
With excellent timing her Mathematics lecturer walked in, armed with a battalion of papers. The boy – John? – glid smoothly off her table and acquainted himself with another poor victim.
“Quiz today!” her lecturer said cheerfully. “I hope, but realistically don’t expect, that you remembered to study.”
Ah yes. Advanced trigonometry. Her acute enemy.
She spent the ride home glumly obsessing over the answer to question 13, and resolutely ignoring her mother’s attempts at a conversation.
“Hey, Arin,” her mother said.
Maybe she should’ve integrated first? But no, she’d scribbled the working to that on the table and her lecturer had glared at the dirtied wood, so clearly, that was wrong.
“Arin,” her mother said, louder now.
“Yes, dearest mother,” she said, saccharine sweet.
“No need to be sarcastic,” her mother said, which was a ridiculous assumption to be made, as though a child could not address their mother affectionately. Honestly, the state of the world right now. “I have some good news! We’re going up to your uncle’s cabin this weekend for a well-deserved break. Pack your bags!”
“That’s great,” Arin said carefully. “But I don’t remember Uncle Lee owning a cabin.”
“Oh, I was just looking through his old stuff, and I found the deed and details covered in dust in the attic, how peculiar! But I told your father, it must be a sign from the gods. Uncle Lee is looking out for us in heaven.”
Arin thought this was a nice sentiment, but Uncle Lee also used to buy used socks off eBay, which was not the best hallmark of rational consumer behaviour. She expressed this thought to her mother.
“Nonsense! You were still young, you must have misremembered. Don’t be ungrateful now. We’re going to the cabin whether you like it or not, your poor father needs a holiday.”
Apparently in this economy, the only holiday tickets one could rely on were now suspicious deeds in dusty attics. Inflation really was a demon.
“Do you think there are ghosts in the cabin?” Ten said, wide eyes staring up at her, which was the kind of thing little brothers are not supposed to say as one is swiftly approaching a desolate cabin in the woods.
“Ma, did you hear what your son just said,” Arin said flatly. “This is a sign from the gods. They’re sending us a warning, Ma.”
“Did you hear what your daughter just said?” her mother asked her father. In this family, people spoke to each other exclusively by addressing a clueless third party. “Blasphemous! Talking about the gods so casually!”
“You said the deed was a sign from the gods,” Arin said accusingly, and was then ignored, predictably.
“There are no such things as ghosts,” her father said calmly to Ten. “Hollywood made them up. For profit.” He muttered “capitalists” venomously.
“My friend Pang says they’re real. She says she’s seen them,” Ten said. He was still at that age where he resolutely believed that other thirteen-year-olds had somehow magically acquired knowledge not yet privy to himself.
“They’re not real,” her father repeated ominously, and then they’d pulled up at the cabin, which was conveniently shrouded in darkness. Great.
She thought she saw the curtain at one of the windows flutter. And then she thought to herself realistically about whether or not it was a curtain.
“I just saw someone at the window,” she announced loudly. Her family paused momentarily in the middle of unbuckling their seatbelts. “Looks like it’s occupied.”
“I don’t see anyone,” her father peered suspiciously out the window.
“You need new glasses,” her mother muttered.
“It’s the ghost!” Ten said excitedly. Very helpful.
“Clearly, the logical next step is to hit reverse, and leave,” Arin said.
“We. Are. On. Vacation,” her mother said dangerously. She felt her heart sink.
The door creaked open by itself, and Arin had to be dragged back by her father after she made a wild attempt to run back to the car.
“It was just the wind,” he said.
“Clearly, you don’t understand the mechanism of doors,” she replied.
Stepping into the cabin also left a ghostly chill on everyone, which was the kind of suspicious omen one loved when on a fun, family-friendly holiday.
“Let’s split up and explore! I want to look at the kitchen,” her mother said, clapping her hands together. Her father was interested in the barbecue pit outside, and Ten wanted to go the lake.
“Ah, yes. Alternatively, we could stay alive,” Arin said. She could see her family start to protest, and she took a wild swing. “Guys, what happened to family bonding? It’s not been five minutes and you already want to split up? Let’s help Ma make some sandwiches for tea. Show some appreciation.”
Her mother squinted at her suspiciously, but Ten and her father agreed reluctantly to stay indoors, so on the whole, still a win.
Arin started opening all of the kitchen drawers in a valiant (but doomed) attempt to find cutlery yet unstained by suspicious brown droppings. In the third one, she found a black amulet shoved in the back.
She poked it with a spatula.
It didn’t move.
“Look, guys, I don’t want to scare you, but we’re really heading into haunted house territory here.”
Her mother peered over her shoulder and immediately tried to take the amulet out for inspection, before being accosted by Arin’s hand, because, dude, has no one seen the running gag of Indiana Jones?
“Please consider what a cockroach has probably done with, and on, that thing,” she explained.
Ten looked over briefly and declared the amulet “girly and gross”. Ah, yes, gendered items. Sometimes social constructs work out in your favour.
The next morning there was a deer carcass ten feet from their doorstep.
“I should not be the only one creeped out by this,” Arin declared. “This is frankly getting ridiculous.”
“Looks like a bear did it,” her father said disdainfully. Maybe bears were capitalists too.
“Let’s examine the evidence,” Arin said. “First, we got the location and keys to this place in an attic nobody’s been in since disco mania was still hip. Second, this place is nowhere on a map. Third -”
“Its eyes are bleeding,” Ten said doubtfully, poking the deer with a stick.
“Maybe it’s roadkill,” her mother said.
“Oh, yes. I see the kill. Point me to the road,” Arin said, gesturing broadly at the grassy clearing.
Her father looked up from his inspection of the deer, a manic gleam in his eyes. Arin looked at him hopefully.
“It’s those capitalist trophy hunters!” he declared. She swore.
Thunder. Arin curled in her bed, watching the heavy rain beat against the window. Somehow she’d been coerced into sleeping in the creepy little room by the backdoor.
The raindrops streaked across the glass. It was funny, it almost looked like – looked like –
Someone was writing a message on the window.
She froze. In the drops of water, she watched as the words “I’m here” penned itself in crude font across the window.
“You’ve got to be shitting me right now,” she whispered. She was suddenly very scared. And then proceeded to feel really angry.
“Seriously? This is frankly – This is frankly impolite, respectfully speaking. We come here as guests and you won’t stop rattling curtains and slamming doors and killing the background animals. This is – this is appalling, that’s what it is. Shame on you.”
In capital letters the words “YOU WILL PAY” squeaked angrily on the window.
“What do you want to do, mug me?” she demanded. “I’m a broke college student, I don’t have money for you, bro. As far as I can see, my uncle gave us the keys to this place and we just came here for an innocent holiday. No ill intent! You’re the one being rude!”
She stared at the empty glass. Slowly a small “sorry” scrawled itself on the corner.
“Look, if we leave by tomorrow morning will you cut all this shit out?” she demanded.
There was a long pause.
A small thumbs up was drawn hesitantly over the angry words. Arin looked at it.
“Ghost can text back and my crush can’t,” she muttered, rolling back into bed angrily.
It was time for a drastic measure.
“I am having explosive diarrhoea,” Arin announced the next morning.
Her parents eyed her. “We’ve eaten the exact same things all of yesterday,” her mother said, deadpan.
“It’s probably the cafeteria food,” Arin waved her off. “Water crisis. Terrible. No good. Nobody understands hygiene anymore.”
“Don’t make a big deal out of nothing -”
“Are you trivialising my pain?” Arin demanded. “I know about that 101 Tips to Raise Difficult Adolescents book you bought at that fair years ago, and I know you have not been reading it, because I also know it’s sitting in my bookshelf. Tip 43 clearly states -”
“Oh my God – ”
“Why were you even reading that – ”
“I like to know how I should’ve been raised, instead of on unhealthy Lucky Charms and morally ambiguous Scooby Doo cartoons. Anyway, tip 43 – ”
Her father slammed his newspaper on the table.
“Arin,” he said calmly. “You have been talking non-stop for two entire days. I will drive all of us home early right now if you will just promise to shut up.”
“Deal,” she said.
Arin looked out the window as the car hit reverse on the dirt-worn pavement, and saw the curtain flutter menacingly. She flipped it off discreetly.
“I saw that,” her mother said immediately.