I was the last person to see my brother alive. Today would have been his birthday, his 27th, and lately I haven’t been able to get him out of my head. Little Joel, seven years old forever. Because of me, because I couldn’t resist my curiosity about those damned woods, that damned house.
Because I wouldn’t go alone.
I’ve replayed the events of that terrible day over and over again, tried to make sense of it. I never told anyone what really happened, I lied. I told them we got separated in the woods and I couldn’t find him. That I searched for hours until it grew dark, and finally went home hoping he was already there. A flimsy story, but they believed it. Certainly I must have looked haggard enough, exhausted enough for my parents to believe the lie.
The police, my family, my neighbors, they combed the woods for weeks hoping to find some trace of him, a scrap of clothing, a shoe. Anything. I helped too, though I knew there was no hope. Because he wasn’t lost, not in that sense at least. Something took him. Something that wasn’t a man, something that wasn’t an animal either.
It could have been me it found, shivering in that closet on the second floor. Could have been both of us, if we had hidden together. Just dumb luck. That phrase, repeating in my head: Just dumb luck, could have been me. Survivor’s guilt, I think they call it.
I’m writing this… I guess you could call it a confession, out of the dim hope that it will alleviate that guilt somewhat to finally tell the truth, to tell what really happened. I doubt you’ll believe me either, you’ll probably just regard it as just another campfire story, something to scare the kids before bedtime.
That’s OK, you don’t have to believe me, but please, would you just listen to my story?
The town I grew up in was tiny, less than a thousand people lived there and in the surrounding farms. There was a drug store where I bought my comics, a Dairy Queen, a couple dusty old shops. Not much else. I was a shy kid, never had many friends. I spent most of my days alone, reading or playing Nintendo. If I was bored, I’d ride my bike around town, although there was never much of anywhere to go (apart from the aforementioned drug store, anyways).
When I was about the age of 10, I was fascinated by nature. I would go catching frogs and crawdads under the bridges, read all the books the library had about sharks and wolves, even had a brief flirtation with bird watching. Nothing compared to the woods though. Exploring the woods shifted fascination into obsession.
I could spend hours in the forest enjoying the silent, green tinted solitude. As I became familiar with all the landmarks, I began to regard it as a secret place, all my own. But not the deep woods. Never alone. I couldn’t tell you how deep was too deep, exactly. Only that after a certain distance from the treeline, when the wheat field where I would leave my bike was completely swallowed by the woods, I would grow uneasy. The solitude became oppressive and I would go no further. But I wanted to know what lay beyond, my curiosity eventually became too strong to resist.
And so I enlisted my brother.
Joel was three years younger than me, and perhaps my closest friend. I guess he looked up to me, and he seemed eager to see this place I disappeared to nearly every day that summer. I packed my book bag with some bottled water, a couple granola bars I nabbed from the pantry, and two flashlights. I stuck a baseball bat in there too—just in case, I told him. The handle protruded from the bag in such a way that I could draw it like a sword. Thought it was pretty cool. My parents were both working at the time and my older brother was absent as usual (he was nominally in charge of us, but being the outgoing one he typically left early in the day to hang out with his friends) and so we told no one of our plans.
So we hopped on our bikes and pedaled through the field that ran behind the house until we reached the treeline. We dumped them off in my usual spot and I showed him the narrow tunnel through the weeds that served as the entrance to the woods. He was already a bit nervous, but after a bit of cajoling we were on our way.
We lingered around my woods for a bit. It was an area that amounted to perhaps no more than a 150-yard radius from the entrance. I showed him all my usual haunts, including my favorite landmark which lay on the outskirts of my comfort zone. It was a pair of broken trees that seemed to spell the word IT. He seemed unusually disturbed by this, which at the time I blamed on my Aunt. She didn’t care much about what we watched when we visited, and the Stephen King movie was a fairly recent selection (You might remember the fairly disturbing scene where the suicidal Stan scrawled IT on the bathroom tile with the blood from his slashed wrists).
I could tell he wanted to go back home right then and there, and we hadn’t even begun to explore the deep woods yet. I was fairly insistent that we continue, but eventually had to bribe him with a candy bar I intended for myself. So we hiked on and it wasn’t far beyond that point that we were deeper in the woods than I had ever personally trekked.
That feeling of unease and fear still lingered, although I was comforted by my brother’s presence and the bat protruding from my backpack. It wasn’t the fear of getting lost, we followed a dry creek bed, and following it back would be no challenge. It wasn’t the fear of encountering any sort of aggressive wildlife, I had my bat and in all my time there I had yet to see an animal larger than a jackrabbit. It was just a sort of vague feeling that I was somewhere I didn’t belong. I put it out of my mind, at least as best I could. I was exploring, and I was having fun.
I could tell Joel felt the same way, and so I cracked some jokes and sung the songs I knew to keep the mood light. It seemed to work pretty well. Or at least he wasn’t begging for me to take him home. I can’t tell you how far we traveled, but we walked that dry creek bed for a couple of hours at least, hopping from stone to stone chasing bullfrogs and trying not to bust our asses. Eventually I nearly forgot my fears entirely, but I kept a careful watch on the sun when I could see it through the trees. I had no desire to be in the deep woods after it set and darkness took hold, flashlight or no.
With respect to the oncoming darkness, I judged it was about time to turn back. I turned to brother to say so, and that’s when I noticed the house. Set back a short distance away from the creek, it was barely visible through the trees, a gray monolith standing out in the fading light. Puffed up from my own bravery, and my damnable curiosity once again piqued, I knew I had to see it up close.
I could see that Joel felt no such urge. If he was hesitant to enter the woods, if he was reluctant to continue past the IT tree, he was adamantly against approaching the house. Not that I could blame him really. That deep in the woods, so far removed from civilization, I could not imagine why or how the house could be there. But it was that very mystery that made the house so compelling to me. I had to unlock its secrets. I tried to coax him into it with all my usual tricks and bribes, promises of bribes to come. He would have none of it.
I could see that he was on the verge of tears, he was so frightened of that place. Or perhaps it was a combination of that place, the deepness of the woods, and that old lingering dread I myself still felt. At that point I almost dropped the whole thing and just took him home. God, I wish I did. I think of those moments the most, those moments when he wanted to leave and I forced him to stay with all my big-brotherly authority. I hate myself for that, I really do.
But as I said, I was curious. Curious and overconfident from an afternoon without incident. I knew the sun wouldn’t begin to set in earnest for more than an hour, and I felt exploring the house would put a perfect cap on the day. I had to see it. I had to. So like a bastard, I offered him that old big brother ultimatum: I was going, so he could come with me or stay here. If you’ve ever been a younger brother, you know there’s only one answer to that, so he came with me. Just a brief look, I promised.
But even that was a lie.
We climbed up the creek bed’s steep incline grasping roots and digging our feet into the soft soil. It was slow going, but we managed. Once we were back on level ground, I dusted myself off and look back toward the house. From that distance I could see it was not someone’s hunting lodge, as I initially suspected, but an old two story farmhouse. Though it must have been many decades old, it appeared to be standing in reasonably good shape. However, the nearby chicken coop and tiny stable were in shambles, overtaken by newer growth.
I ventured toward it, Joel lingering not far behind. The only sounds I recall were the sounds of the leaves kicked up by our progress. The bullfrogs and cicadas fell silent here, even the wind seemed to die as we approached that old house. I could see that some of the windows were still intact and the door, though obviously rotting, was still more or less on its hinges. Even at that age I knew that this was a good sign the house was long abandoned, and not the target of squatters and vandals. This assuaged my fears somewhat, and I urged my brother to continue. He seemed less comforted than I, but was no more willing to be left alone. After some hesitation he followed me to the front porch.
I tested the boards carefully, not eager to fall through and risk injury. They were definitely soft, but solid enough to support my weight. I was a skinny kid. Before trying the door, I drew the bat from my bag, and the flashlights. I gave one to Joel, which he promptly switched on. I ignored the fear in his eyes, and turned back to the door.
It was definitely rotting off the hinges, it gave way without even the trademark haunted house creak. Nearly fell on top of me, as a matter of fact. I caught it and leaned it over against the side of the house, trying my best not to make any noise. The windows afforded the inside of the house a dim but serviceable light, but even so I switched on my own flashlight, for comfort. With my free hand I held the bat aloft, ready to strike at anything that came leaping out. Nothing did, not then. I stepped inside.
The first room was clearly the living room, judging by the fireplace and the old, rotting couch. Beyond it was a kitchen, some old utensils laying out on the dusty counter, a wood burning stove. No fridge. The place looked like it never knew electricity, which was not totally surprising, given its remoteness.
The house gave every impression of being long abandoned. There was no garbage, no old food or junkie needles. Nothing that gave the suggestion that we weren’t the first two souls in the house since time out of mind. I don’t know how long I stood there transfixed, taking it in. Surely no more than a minute. The spell was broken when I felt something clutch at the hem of my shirt. I let out a gasp that didn’t dare turn into a scream, and whipped around to face my attacker. It was Joel. I whispered out a chuckle, and told him to follow me.
It was my intention to find a souvenir, something to take back and prove we were there, and then leave. As fascinating as the place was, and as abandoned as it seemed, it was still very frightening to be there with only my kid brother for company. Peering into the kitchen, I saw nothing of worth. Just some rusty old pots and pans. There was a heavy looking trapdoor which I judged lead to a root cellar. I was certainly not brave enough to face that place, so I turned my attention elsewhere.
Adjacent to the living room was a narrow hall. Here there were two tiny bedrooms, both with no door and bereft of anything more than the remains of a bed covered with a filthy, dirt encrusted mattress. No souvenirs here. From the window I could see that the sun was setting fast. It was summertime, though, and I knew we could return much faster than we arrived. Just one more thing to see: Upstairs.
At the end of the hall I found the stairs. The staircase was narrow, but the stairs themselves seemed solid enough. I tested each one carefully. They creaked and groaned, but none of them seemed weak enough to give. At the halfway point I motioned to Joel to follow me. His flashlight was pointed toward his face, and I could see he was crying silently. Still though, he followed me.
I was afraid too, there was something about that place gave me the creeps. I couldn’t place it at the time. I can’t say what it was that stopped me from turning back then, leaving that place. Maybe if I did, maybe if I decided we should leave at that moment, Joel would still be alive. But I didn’t. I had to see the top floor.
The stairs ended on a narrow landing, leading to the master bedroom. I waited there for Joel to catch up. From there I could see that the master bedroom was nearly as bare as the rest of the house. There was a bed, a wardrobe, a table, and a chair. There was a small object laying on the table.
“Let’s get out of here,” Joel whispered from behind me.
“Just a second,” I hissed, throwing him an irritated look.
As I stepped into the bedroom I could see the object on the table was a book. It looked old, but relatively undamaged from the elements. It was bound in leather, and looked handmade. There was no title on the cover. I thought it must have been some kind of journal, and it seemed like the perfect souvenir to leave with. That was my intention. I would grab the book and we would hotfoot it home.
I reached out and touched the book, ran my fingers across the cover and felt the grain of the leather. It felt odd, warm and greasy like it was sweating. I took this to mean the book was rotting away, like the rest of the house. But it was then, just as I was about to pick the book up and stuff it in my backpack, that’s when I heard the sound.
It was a long, sustained creaking sound, the sort I expected from the front door, followed by an echoing slam. The sound of something heavy hitting the floor. I froze in place, the book momentarily forgotten. It could only have been the cellar door. I turned to Joel and put my finger to my lips, hoping the urgency in my expression would be enough to keep him from crying out.
For a moment all was silent, almost long enough to dismiss the sound. Almost. Just as I was nearly ready to make a run for it, I heard another sound. A wet slap, faint but audible in the silence. Another. Footsteps, it must have been.
But it sounded… wrong.
Whatever it was, it must have known we were there. Every wet slap sounded closer than the last. It must have been in the hall now. I turned back to Joel and mouthed a single word: Hide! He took my advice and ducked into the wardrobe. I could see there was only room enough for one in there, so I took the closet. Like the rest of the house, there was no door. It was shadowy enough to hide in, though, so I crouched as far back into it as I could.
My plan, inasmuch as I had one, was to wait for whoever it was to come into the room, and hit them in the back of the head with the bat when their back was turned. Then I would yank Joel out of the wardrobe and we’d make a run for it. I clutched the bat to my chest and waited.
It was at the stairs now. Another wet slap, then a creak as it put its weight down. One after another, it was a wonder it never broke through. Whatever it was, it sounded much heavier than my brother or me. Closer and closer it came, until I could hear it breathing. It was a sickly sound, wet and bubbling like someone dying of pneumonia.
Then came the smell. God, it was horrible, I’ve never smelled anything as bad as that thing smelled. Words fail to describe it. There was the rotten egg smell of sulfur, sharp and pungent, but that wasn’t all of it, not by far. It smelled of rot and of excrement. When I was younger we lived in a house with a storm cellar where small animals would get trapped and die. That punky-sweet gritty reek of decay was heavy there, unbearable. Even so, it was nothing, nothing compared to this. And it got worse with every step. My eyes watered, my vision blurred. Not enough though, because I could still see it when it stepped into the room.
The first thing I saw was the black mist, like a dark fog so thick with water vapor that it was turning again into rain. Whatever it was, it surrounded the creature like a caul, dripping and pooling on the floor. Where it fell, it sizzled against the floor and disappeared, leaving only a singed mark on the boards. Then I could see its head, if you could call it that. It was something like a horse skull, at least as I remember it, bits of flesh still clinging to the bone.
The black vapor hung around it in a dank miasma. It walked on two legs, more or less upright like a man, but hunched over. It had long arms that nearly dragged the ground. The flesh that clung to it was gangrenous and rotting. I couldn’t see its body for the mist that clung to it. The footprints that trailed behind it, long and terribly unnatural, were black and hissed caustically in the weathered old floorboards.
I was raised Christian, and I was certain then that I was looking at the devil himself. No red suited, fork-tailed imp could have been so bad as this. Somehow I managed not to cry out in terror.
Its wet, croupy breathing grew heavier as it entered the room, searching from side to side. I shrunk back into the closet as far as I could go, hugging the bat to my chest so hard it left a mark that lingered for days afterward. My plan was forgotten, I only prayed it wouldn’t find us and would return to the hell it came from. My prayers were not answered.
I heard another sound, barely audible over the creature’s breathing: a soft whimper, a cry of fright. It was Joel. I saw the thing tilt its head to the side, listening. The wardrobe, he knew. While I shivered in the dark, unable to run or even to move, it tore the door off its hinges effortlessly. My brother shrieked when he saw the thing, mad with fear. He shrieked louder still as it took him in its great spindly arms and threw him over its shoulder. I heard a hissing sound and a new odor hit my nose: the smell of my brother’s skin burning. Whatever that black mist was, it was eating him alive. His skin bubbled and melted at its touch.
As the thing turned to leave, apparently satisfied, my brother turned and looked my way. I don’t know if he could see me there in the darkness, but the last time I saw my brother alive, he was pleading with his eyes. Pleading for me to do something, anything. But I couldn’t. I was his big brother, I was supposed to protect him, but I did nothing. I only hid in that closet, listening to his screams as the thing took him away.
I hid there until my brother’s screams were cut off with the sound of that cellar door slamming back shut. After that there was nothing, silence prevailed again. Eventually my fear broke, and I sprung out of that closet and ran. I ran down the stairs, down the hall into the living room, I ran out the door not even daring to look back into that kitchen.
Thankfully, I only had to follow the creek back home, and so I didn’t get lost in my fear. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, not even pausing to turn my flashlight on. I ran in the light of the moon. Somehow I managed to keep my footing on those mossy old stones and never fell like in those cheesy old movies.
Eventually I found myself in a familiar area, heralded by the IT trees. From there I knew, somehow, I was home free. I slackened my pace somewhat, but still I would not look back. I knew that if I did that terrible thing would be right behind me, breathing its terrible breath down my neck. So I pressed on, until I found the entrance and from there my bike. I mounted it and pedaled as fast as my exhausted legs could manage it.
I didn’t slow down until I was in the door, immediately confronted by my parents. They were both nearly panic-stricken, demanding explanations. I knew they would never believe me, but my biggest fear was if I told them about the house, they would want to see it. And I couldn’t go back there. Not then, not ever. I never told anyone about the house, and if anyone in the search party found it, they made no mention of it or that strange book. For myself, I joined in the search party only as much as I thought was necessary. Only by day, and never alone. After it was done, I never set foot in another forest.
And I never would, except…
Except I know there’s only one way I can assuage my guilt. I’ve been thinking about it for these last few weeks, mostly in the early hours of the morning when I’d awaken from my nightmares, stifling screams to avoid waking my girlfriend. With growing certainty I know what I have to do: I have to go back. I have to find that house in the woods. I have to find that book and see what secrets it holds. I have to confront that thing in the cellar once and for all.
Perhaps I’ll find the house burned to the ground, taken by lightning and the cellar swallowed up by the Earth. It’s been years, maybe I’ll return and find that land has been developed, a mini-mall or an apartment block put up in its place. But somehow I doubt it. Whatever happened there before the place was abandoned, whatever happened to the people who lived there, whatever it was made it a shunned place. And anyone foolish enough to set foot there was damned. I think of the forces that drew me there the first time. I blamed it on childish curiosity, but I can feel it pulling me there again.
God damn it, it’s pulling me there again.