Short Story: Vintage Haunt

Milton had a gruesome death. A fillet knife was plunged deep between his ribs and into his lungs. His assailant, a man he did not know, dropped the knife on the floor and fled. Blood slowly filled his chest. Breathing was hard. He pulled himself off the bed and collapsed on the floor. Blackness closed in, and he died in the trailer he loved so much.

Milton had lived in a vintage Airstream trailer under a pecan tree in the center of his 40-acre farm near Grand Bay, Alabama. He inherited the land from his elderly parents when they passed several years prior. His parents raised goats and cows on the property but never built a house there. The 32-foot early model Airstream, which Milton painstakingly restored, was surrounded by pasture and remained under the pecan tree long after his death.

Children from the neighboring farm discovered the decomposed body. The county coroner tried to clean up the mess but had little reason to be thorough. The crime scene tape eventually fell from the door, and the Airstream was left to rot. No kin ever came forward to claim his body. The fate of the trailer and farm stayed in limbo as authorities sorted out his estate.

Though his dead body had been removed, Milton never left. The sun continued to rise over his fence line to the east. Starlings flocked to the pecan tree above his trailer. Deer quietly grazed around his pasture in the early morning. The sweet smell of honeysuckle wafted through his open windows. Afternoon thundershowers pelted the aluminum roof. It was peaceful on his farm, and Milton could not be more content in his afterlife.

Years passed, and Milton’s spirit watched his beloved Airstream slowly decay; vines grew up the sides and nearly covered the roof. The tires rotted off, and the trailer settled in the dirt. To his horror one night, gunshots rang out from the fence line, holes appeared in the walls, and his windows burst into shards. Reflexively, Milton ducked for cover as bullets passed right through the aura of his body. The shooting eventually stopped, and the night was silent. The gunfire rattled Milton, all he wanted was to be left alone in his trailer for eternity.

The State of Alabama eventually sold the trailer and farm to Tom and his wife, Ruth. They were more interested in buying the vintage Airstream trailer than the farm, but it was a package deal, and they thought they could do something later with the land. For years, Tom and Ruth dreamed of restoring an iconic aluminum Airstream trailer. Tom was handy, and Ruth had vision. They planned to polish the aluminum skin to a bright shine, rebuild the hardwood cabinets, replace the curtains with art deco patterns, and install a reproduction Philco TV to complete its 1950’s transformation. They would start that weekend with the trailer still at the farm.

Milton awoke to the noise of a small engine. Someone was using a chainsaw to clear brush right outside his home. He could see two people making their way toward him through small trees, bushes, and vines. Fear struck him, and he froze in his dilapidated galley. Just in front of him, the door handle began to twist. Had he remembered to lock it before he died? No. Milton passed through a locker door and crouched low behind some clothes that had long ago rotted off their hangers. Voices were in his home. He listened to cabinet doors open and close. The refrigerator was opened for the first time in 16 years, and Milton could hear a gasp from the intruders.

“What were they doing, and why were they here,” he thought.

Violent prying and crashing noises filled the trailer for an hour or two before it was quiet again. Milton emerged from his hiding place to survey the damage. The galley cabinets had all been torn out. The refrigerator and stove were pulled from the walls and thrown outside. Rotten foam cushions and his blood-stained mattress were also tossed.

“What would he sit on, and where would he sleep?” he thought. Tears welled up in his eyes, streamed down his cheeks, and vaporized before hitting the floor.

They came the following day again and continued to gut his home. All his belongings were tossed into a pile and set on fire. The bathroom and shower were destroyed. No longer could he hide in the locker because it, too, had been removed. Milton just stood in the back and watched. Protesting was fruitless, for no sound came from his mouth. He was ignored.

Tom and Ruth were in their mid-40’s; both were on their second marriage with no children except a back Lab they had adopted to fill a void in their family. Both had jobs tied to a computer. Anywhere there was internet, they could work. The dream of traveling and working in the Southeast together in a restored vintage Airstream seemed romantic. They would pull the trailer to the Florida Keys in the winter, park it next to the water, and watch the sunset. Springtime would find them soaking up music at a festival in Nashville, or at a craft fair in South Carolina. Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains was on their list for summer camping. The smell of coffee and smoke, as Tom restoked the campfire on a crisp morning in Southern Appalachia, drifted through Ruth’s mind in a daydream.

They decided to keep the Airstream on the farm while they restored it. Tom got power and water to the property, they set up a small shed for tools and supplies and began to put the trailer back together again. A new floor was laid, the plumbing and wiring were replaced, and new cabinets and interior walls were installed. Vintage appliances were not available; new ones would have to do. A roof-top air conditioner, not even a consideration when the trailer was first built, required cutting holes in the roof and upgrading the wiring. Weeks, then months, passed as the trailer slowly came together. Its exterior was eventually polished to a mirror shine, new tires were placed, and a white and blue striped awning was installed. She was ready to travel. Milton had watched the whole transformation while silently standing out of the way.

A stranger was leaning against a fence post by the road as Ruth and Tom drove up to the gate of their property. The man had a cloth cap partially covering auburn-red hair and work clothes with burn holes on the sleeves, a welder at the nearby shipyard, no doubt. He didn’t say anything while Tom got out of his truck to unlock the gate, but he had the look of wanting to talk. He had something to say.

Tom recognized this and challenged him, “What do you want?”

The man looked at him with a grin and said, “You know they found his murdered body in that there trailer. Stabbed’n the heart with a fishing knife. Body left to rot, rats eatin’im an everthang. They say the farm is haunted an all.” The man glanced at Ruth then wandered off, down the dirt road, without saying more.

Caught off guard, Tom tried to digest what he had just heard. “Who died in our trailer?” he thought. “Murdered with a knife?”

Ruth hadn’t heard what the man had said by the gate, and Tom was debating in his mind whether to tell her. He chose not, at least for a while, until he could get the rest of the story. As they drove up to the trailer, Ruth asked what the man wanted. Tom shrugged, “Nothing, just being neighborly.”

Tom searched the internet that night for clues to what might have happened on their newly acquired property. He uncovered a news article from a decade earlier describing a grisly murder in a trailer on the outskirts of Grand Bay. No suspects were ever named, and the motive was elusive. The man died without any known family, and his property was given up to the State. “Hence the auction sale,” Tom thought. He would not tell Ruth what he had learned, not now.

Three days later, Tom and Ruth decided it was time to take their newly restored trailer for its maiden voyage. But first, they wanted to spend the night where it was on the farm, under the pecan tree, to make sure everything worked: the stove, the heater, the fridge, etc.

It was late October, the evening air was crisp, and the moonless night was dark. Ruth had an unsettled feeling for no apparent reason. She had grown up in the country and should have felt at home on their farm. Something wasn’t right. Tom seemed edgy to her as well, but he denied it. The dinner dishes were done, Tom was fiddling with the stove, and Ruth had a book open in bed but couldn’t concentrate on reading. Although they both felt it, they could not have known for sure this would be their last night in the trailer.

“Bam,” a sound shattered the quiet evening. “Bam, bam,” again and again. Ruth sat straight up in bed, terror coursed through her body like electricity.

“Pecans,” Tom said, a little shaken himself, “Just nuts falling on the roof.”

They eased back on their pillows but could not sleep. The wind picked up and whistled through the ceiling vents. A light rain started to fall. The droplets sounded to Tom like little rat feet scampering across the roof, and then they both heard a hissing sound coming from outside.

Tom grabbed a coat and a flashlight. From the open doorway, he trained the beam across the grass. Nothing. The hissing was coming from the other side of the trailer. Cautiously, he stepped around the front and saw that his tires were slashed, and the trailer was starting to list. The hair on the back of his neck tingled. Again, he swept the property with the light beam, but nobody was there. The rain was coming down in sheets now. Tom ducked back inside to tell Ruth about the tires and all that he knew about the murder 16 years ago.

They decided to leave the trailer right away and drive home, but their truck would not start. The engine had been tampered with. Back in the Airstream, they huddled behind a mattress in the back bedroom with kitchen knives and a fire extinguisher. The rain stopped, and the night was quiet once more.

“Something is rocking the trailer,” Ruth whispered. Tom could feel it too, ever so slightly. Then it stopped.

“On the roof,” they both thought they heard the distinctive popping of sheet metal under the weight of a shoe. The roof vent at the far end of the trailer suddenly shattered as if hit with a baseball bat. Ruth held back a scream. Tom trembled.

“I know y’all in there,” a voice said, coming from the roof. “You know this property ain’t yours, and I don’t take well to strangers stay’n here.”

Tom didn’t believe in apparitions or ghosts, Ruth did, and he thought he should never have told her about what the man at the gate had said. The footsteps started to cross the top of the roof, coming closer. Ruth was in sheer panic. Tom tried to hold it all together for her sake.

Whatever it was, slid off the roof and landed softly in the grass. The quiet was once more broken by the sound of creaking metal at the door. “A pry bar or tire iron could make that sound,” thought Tom. It would not be long before it was inside.

Milton had seen and heard the whole thing from the galley. When the man with the auburn hair busted through the trailer doorway, he immediately recognized him as his murderer. Rage filled Milton’s entire soul.

The man with the auburn hair sat at the dinette and calmly lit a cigarette. He knew that he had the couple trapped in the back of the trailer. He needed to savor this moment, extend the terror, plan his next move carefully. Tobacco smoke filled the cabin air.

“Hey, cutie, are you there?” the man said, referring to Ruth, as he inched his way back. Suddenly, as he was taking a deep draw on his cigarette, a fire flash shot out of the oven, filling his lungs with hot fumes, burning his auburn hair, and causing his skin to shrivel into blackened cakes. The tire iron dropped from his charred hand, and his body slumped to the floor.

Tom and Ruth ran through the smoke, over the body, and out the door. They continued to run.

The police taped off the crime scene and started to sift through the intruder’s past. He was a loner who lived nearby but never seemed to cause any trouble. Odd though that the trailer was the scene of two horrible crimes. The charred body was promptly removed, and the trailer door was padlocked shut. Tom and Ruth were done with their Airstream dreams. They would put the farm and trailer up for sale as soon as possible and planned never to return.

Milton surprised himself. Somehow, he managed a gas leak in the oven, which exploded as the murderer passed and saved the couple’s life. “He was a hero,” he thought as he sat alone in his newly restored vintage Airstream, under the pecan tree. “Revenge,” he smiled.

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