The Neville’s had first heard about Doyle Cottage from Mrs. Nevilles’ sister, whom they remained in contact with only out of pangs of guilt and a sense of family obligation. She had recommended the place with passion and an almost fanatical sense of excitement. Then again, she talked this way about most things. According to her, the two-story cottage rested in a secluded and cozy part of central Florida. She had told the Neville’s—who had never been that far south—this was a “magical” place. She said Doyle Cottage existed in an area where there weren’t any streetlamps to spoil the stars and where Spanish moss swayed in the breeze. It sounded picturesque to Mrs. Neville, but she couldn’t help but wonder if her sister was suggesting it as some sort of family intervention, a way in which to quietly “prescribe” the Neville’s some family bonding time.
And while Mrs. Neville would never admit it, she agreed this is precisely what they needed. Mrs. Neville had made the mistake many years ago of telling Martha about her husband’s gambling problem and the family’s ensuing financial woes. She had no doubt her sister—manipulative little thing she was—had also told the rest of the family. Worse still, she had begun to suspect the sickly sweet demeanor her sister had recently acquired was her way of “helping” the Neville’s. Condescending bitch. Either that, or it was a product of her recent “religious experience.”
Still, the brochure for the place made it look as nice as it sounded, so on the first day of July, the four Neville’s—Mrs. Neville, Mr. Neville, Marie and Tom—climbed into their cramped hatchback and set out for Doyle Cottage. They got there late in the afternoon, just as the sun was casting an eerie glow on the cypress trees and the lake behind the cottage. The whole family agreed it was beautiful, even after hours of bickering between Tom and Marie and Mr. Neville snoring in the passenger’s seat.
Tom, the youngest, ran up to the front porch excitedly. As Mrs. Neville and her husband unloaded luggage from the car, they both smiled. It was rare for there to be an exchange of joy between the two, and Mrs. Neville hoped indeed this little trip would change things for the better.
Everyone slept well the first night. The cottage creaked a bit in the warm Florida breeze, as old places are known to do. However, it was barely noticeable and to Mrs. Neville’s delight, the whole family seemed satisfied.
In fact, the stay had somehow inspired Mr. Neville to do something he hadn’t done in what felt like a millennia—cook! It was a simple breakfast, yet meticulously prepared and it made Mrs. Neville increasingly happy to see him dishing out eggs and bacon while the children laughed and joked. She had almost forgotten this was her sister’s idea…that is, until the night of the storm.
The wind blew particularly hard that night, rattling the windows. Lightning flashed behind the backyard trees, casting strange shapes on the walls. Rain lashed down, thumping loudly on the tin roof. Mrs. Neville awoke, her husband stirring groggily beside her. She felt a sudden, uncanny fear in her chest. It wasn’t just the supernatural storm—she could swear within all of its clamor, there was a faint knocking. She got out of bed.
“Sweetie…where are you?”
She ignored her husband. As she descended the staircase, the knocking was more apparent. Someone was at the door.
“Mommy, someone’s here!” Marie was in the living room, clutching a stuffed animal and looking suitably terrified.
“Hun, go back to bed. It’s probably just the wind.” But she didn’t believe her own words, and neither did her daughter.
A figure appeared in the window beside the door, illuminated by a sudden flash of lightning. It was a man, slightly hunched, wearing a long black coat and sporting a wide-brimmed hat.
“Oh my god. Stay here, sweetie.”
“What’s going on?” Mr. Neville and Tom had both come downstairs.
“There’s someone…out there…in the storm…” She urged her husband.
“Well, let him in! It’s horrible out there!”
Before she could protest, Mr. Neville had reached the door and opened it. Rain spilled in across the threshold and the man in the storm stepped in. He did not seem to be in any hurry, and as the door swung shut behind him, he shook out his hat over the foyer as if he was casually visiting the house of an old friend.
“Can we help you?” Mr. Neville asked.
The man lifted his head revealing hollow, sunken eyes and a waxy complexion.
Mr. Neville visibly recoiled at the sight. The man, however, looked right at him.
“Mr. Neville.” His voice was raspy, cold, and if it had belonged to a less threatening form, it may have even sounded somewhat soothing.
“How do you know my name?”
“Mr. Neville. You are guilty.”
“What are you talking about? Who are you?”
But Mrs. Neville understood. “Oh no. Martha sent you, didn’t she? Didn’t she‽”
The man said nothing, only repeated his claim.
“Guilty of what?” Mr. Neville was visibly shaken.
“You have a gambling problem, Mr. Neville.”
“How do you…so what if I…honey?”
“Martha is the one who told us to come here. She must have sent you. Get out now or we’ll call the police.”
The man said nothing. Tom and Marie stood aside, alarmed and confused, just like their parents.
“Confess!” The man demanded. Thunder shook the house.
“Go to hell. Get out of here.”
The man stopped. He seemed to be thinking. Then, again, throaty and loud this time:
Rain hammered down even harder and louder on the tin roof.
“Alright, whatever, I confess! Now, leave us alone. Get out!”
There was a sudden flash of lightning, an almost simultaneous crack of thunder, and the electricity went out. No street lights to illuminate the house, the family was plunged into total darkness. Marie screamed. After what seemed like an intolerable amount of time, the lights came back on. The man was gone. Rain and thunder seemed faint now.
The Neville’s didn’t sleep at all that night, and by the morning, they were ready to leave. Mrs. Neville had decided she would have a very long talk with Martha and the police as soon as they had phone service again. However, in the morning when the family—still shaken from the night before—stepped out the door to leave, Mrs. Neville nearly tripped on a thick volume on the doorstep: Improving Family Dynamics, a New Approach.
She picked it up. On the back cover, there was no author’s name, but a picture of the stranger in the storm.
Edited By Renee Luna