Frank Dunning was eight years old when his family moved out into the New England countryside. The earliest years of Frank’s life were spent in a tiny apartment on the fringes of one of Boston’s ghettos, sharing a bedroom with three siblings and living off mac and cheese while his father struggled to make it as a writer and his mother worked double shifts down at the corner diner to make ends meet. Even as a child Frank knew that things weren’t the turning out the way they were supposed to. Though his parents did their best to put on a smile and hide it, he could hear them arguing about money at night through the thin wall that separated their bedrooms, and could see the fear on their faces whenever they discussed “the bills”, whatever those were. But one day, seemingly in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Frank’s father, after years of fruitless toil, had finally broken through. He had a blockbuster novel, and the family, for the first time, had money.
Frank’s father told the children that he had bought a cottage out in the country. He had never liked the city life, and wanted something quieter and simpler. He wanted to live in a place where there was nothing to distract him from his writing, where nobody locked their doors because nobody had to, where his children could run and play outside in the fresh air all day. As soon as school let out for the summer, the family packed what they had into a moving truck, and Frank found himself transported into a new life he had never known existed.
That summer would be the happiest time of his life. Entire days spent running and playing outdoors with his siblings, splashing in the creek and playing hide and seek in the woods. Instead of living in a world of bricks and concrete and boarded up buildings where they were forbidden to be outside without their parents, Frank and his siblings had entire acres of unspoiled nature to themselves. At night, the children would feast on banquets that his mother prepared, and then play board games together, or sometimes huddle together in the dark while their father read them scary stories of witches and ghouls by candle light. Not only did Frank’s parents not fight anymore, but his mother was smiling and even laughing. He couldn’t remember her ever doing that when they had lived in Boston.
That cottage in the country was their paradise, and perhaps they could have lived their forever, if only Frank hadn’t broken The Rule.
There was a lady who lived next door, old Miss Osborne, who Frank had heard talked about but never seen before. His father had told him that she simply preferred her privacy, but the children at Sunday School had said otherwise; they had said she was a witch. You were only supposed to say her name in a whisper, you were never to make eye contact with her on the rare occasion she went out into the town, but most importantly, you were never, ever to go onto her land. That was The Rule.
Frank hadn’t meant to go onto her land. He had been chasing a frog through through the woods, and was so wrapped up in it that he didn’t realize he had crossed over the fallen remains of the old wooden fence that marked the beginning of Miss Osborne’s property. Just as soon as he had managed to catch his slippery prey, he felt someone grab his arm hard, hard. He dropped the frog and was spun around by force, and found himself staring at a stern-faced crone with eyes full of rage. She didn’t eat him or skin him alive or turn him into a snail, as the other children had suggested she would, but she did scream at him in an almost incomprehensible rage, all the while her grip on his arm getting tighter and tighter. She was unbelievably strong, and she was hurting him, and he could only blubber out apologies between the tears and sobs. Finally, she gave him a stinging slap across the face with her other hand and released him, and Frank ran home as fast as he could, bawling all the way.
When Frank told his parents what had happened, they were furious. At first he was worried that they were angry at him, for trespassing, but it was Miss Osborne who was the target of their outrage. Her bony fingers had gripped him so hard they had left purple bruises on his arm, and his face still bore the red welt of her slap. Frank had seen his father so angry before. He watched his father charge through the woods toward Miss Osborne’s property, and worried that he might never see his father again.
His father did come back though, alive and in one piece.
“Did you fight her?”, Frank asked.
“No, but I let her have a piece of my mind, that’s for damn sure.”
Several days had passed. Frank’s bruises had healed, and he had mostly put the incident out of his mind, although he was still wary of getting within sight of her fence. The children were playing in the yard, while nearby, Frank’s mother turned the burgers and vegetables on the grill. They were almost ready, and smelled fantastic. Frank saw his father walking back from the house, but something was wrong. He wore a blank expression on his face, with tears streaming down his cheeks, and instead of the buns and condiments, he instead carried a large steak knife in one hand. Frank’s mother turned at his approach, and started to say what sounded like the beginning of a question when his arm jerked violently upward, plunging the knife into her neck, then just as violently wrenching it back out again. She dropped to the ground, her hands trying desperately to staunch the wound on her neck. They failed. The blood went everywhere.
The children screamed, but in their shock and confusion did not run, and would not have time to. Frank’s father fell on them in a frenzy, wielding the knife with such savage strength that he nearly decapitated Frank’s oldest brother with a single furious stroke. His movements were bizarre and unnatural; Frank was reminded of a marionette on strings he had seen once.
In what seemed like only an instant, they were dead. Frank snapped out of the shock and tried to run, only to discover that his legs had turned to rubber and he was now sitting in the grass. He tried to scramble back to his feet, but too slowly; his father caught him by the collar of his shirt, and held him at arm’s length while raising the knife over his head. His expression was completely blank, like a mask, yet tears continued wash a path through the blood that now spattered his face. Frank tried to think desperately of something he could say or do, some brilliant gambit that would let him escape, but found that he could only sob and piss his pants. The knife began to plunge down at him.
And halfway, it stopped. The arm holding it strained and flexed, as if fighting against some invisible force. The knife would first be pushed one way, and then the other, in a conflict that lasted only seconds but felt like an eternity. Finally, one side gave way.
With what appeared to be a great surge of exertion, Frank’s father stabbed the knife into the side of his own neck, pulled it across from ear to ear, and died.
Frank had tried to move on for years, but now, as an adult, he had come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t move on. Not until he had answers. He had to know why his father had done it. Could he have possessed some dark secret, or been hiding a mental illness? After some digging, Frank had gotten his hands on the police files, and all the details his family had tried to avoid discussing around him.
Only, there weren’t really any details to discuss. The police had found no evidence of a hidden violent side, a secret double life, an unchecked and growing madness, or anything that would explain what had happened. Nobody around town, or back in the city, had any information they could offer up, and Frank had been the only surviving witness to the murders.
And that, it turned out, was the thread that Frank was able to grasp onto.
Because there had been another witness, or at least a potential one, that the police had tried, and failed, to locate. They had attempted, on several occasions, to contact Miss Osborne, to see if she had seen or heard anything while Frank’s family was butchered just down the road, but she had seemingly vanished overnight. Her property was eventually declared abandoned, and follow-up investigations confirmed that nobody had ever seen her in town again. She was not suspected of any crime though, and was eventually written off as just another dead end in a cold case. Frank wasn’t ready to write her off yet.
Property records showed that her land still lay abandoned, even as Frank’s old home, the site of a gruesome multiple murder, had been occupied for years. More than a decade had passed, but it seemed that this town still remembered The Rule.
But Frank would break it again, and this time on purpose.
He wasn’t sure what he expected to find, but he kept a pistol with him just in case. The old house was rotten and damp now, but still standing. The old hag must have left in a hurry, because the house remained full of moldy furniture and rusted pots and pans. But nothing personal, though. No pictures of family, no books on the shelves, no old letters forgotten in the back of some drawer. Nothing to give any clues about the woman who had lived there. She may have left in a hurry, but she didn’t leave carelessly.
Finding nothing he could see any value in, Frank left, dejected, but halfway to his car, decided he couldn’t resist the urge to walk through those woods one last time. It had been the last place he could remember being happy, and so he crossed into the trees, and as he gazed up into their canopy, he noticed something he had never seen before, all those years ago. Far up in the branches, and well-concealed by leaves, was what appeared to be a tiny tree house. Frank had never seen it as a child, but he had also only been on this side of the fence once before, and his eyes had been on the frog he was chasing.
He found some old planks nailed into the side of the tree, in a makeshift ladder. Climbing them, he found himself in what wasn’t really a tree house, and in fact barely even qualified as a platform. A few wooden planks formed a surface just large enough for a single person to kneel on, and more planks created a wall a few feet high around the perimeter, tall enough for a person to duck behind, with vines clinging to the surface, providing a natural camouflage.
The woods had provided a barrier between the Dunning and Osborne properties, with neither side being able to see through to the other, but this platform, high in the trees and near the property line, was a veritable observation post, with a clear line of sight straight through to the Dunning house. Straight through to the patch of yard where Frank’s family had been grilling that evening.
Repositioning himself, Frank’s hand went into a pile of leaves that had accumulated in a corner of the platform, and he felt something inside of it. He pulled out a small, crudely whittled wooden puppet, while he couldn’t quite say why, he couldn’t help but be reminded of his father.
His investigation was only beginning. Frank would find Miss Osborne, he would get his answers, and he would avenge his family.