The dry leaves crunched under our boots as we made our way down the trail. Dale was in the lead as we passed over the shallow creek bed. I put a hand up to shield my eyes from the glare of the low October sun, the corners of my mouth turned up in a smile. Late fall, just before winter, is my favorite time of year. The invigorating chill in the air, the stark contrast of the bare trees against a slate gray sky, it’s all so beautiful to me. I took in fast, sharp breaths and called out, “Dale! Wait up man!”
He turned back to me and a sly smile crept over his face, “I should’ve known I was going too fast for you, you’re almost 30 for Chrissakes.” I waved a dismissive hand in his direction and flipped him off before I doubled over and gave my back a much-needed stretch.
“Sun’s going down soon, wanna split off the beaten path before heading back?” I asked.
“Sure.” Dale said and shrugged his shoulders, “It’s not like we haven’t seen the same trail 50 times at this point.”
We took a sharp left off of McEntyre Trail and went deeper into the woods. McEntyre was our usual hiking trail and this being our own “backyard” we felt comfortable veering off into the unknown. Besides, with the night approaching fast we had just a half hour or so to really explore before turning back.
As we stomped through the woods we saw a few nondescript farm houses dot the treeline. Most were abandoned and dilapidated after the larger commercial farms moved in bought up the land. I guess it was cheaper to use the crops and let the buildings rot away than to hire demolition crews.
“Hey!” Dale said, “That’s the old Cleary farm.” Dale directed his gaze to a huge estate that was likely built at the turn of the century and said, “My dad replaced their furnace a few years before they left town.”
Dale’s dad was known in the area as “Big Dale” of Big Dale’s Heating and Cooling. His HVAC business was one of the more prevalent success stories in our town, spawning a second location that Dale managed under the guidance of his father’s appointed general manager. For all of Dale’s bad qualities, he had certainly inherited his father’s work ethic and general charisma. Unfortunately, he also had his father’s sense of adventure coupled with the ability to convince those around him to join in whatever foolhardy idea popped into his head.
“Let’s go check it out, man! I hear that the place is seriously huge and that it still has servant’s quarters and all sorts of rooms to explore, plus we already know the Clearys are long gone so we won’t be trespassing on anyone.”
I knew I was going to lose whatever argument I put forward and grumbled an uncertain, “Okay,” and trudged towards the house.
Dale fiddled with the door lock while I hugged my body to ward off the cool evening air. I saw the sun just starting to kiss the horizon, putting our waning daylight on a timer. I turned to see Dale pop the door open with a noticeable bit of force. Bits of peeling paint fell to his feet when the seal was finally broken.
“There.” Dale said with a grin, “After you,” and motioned to the dark entranceway.
I stifled a nervous laugh and crossed the threshold. I had never really been one for childish mischief and breaking and entering was definitely out of my comfort zone but this house was abandoned and in the middle of Nowhere, Massachusetts. What could possibly go wrong?
The entrance led to a staircase that climbed up to the second floor. On the right side was a sprawling parlor room that seriously looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 1930s. The left side was flanked by a galley kitchen. The absurd sight of an old country butcher block next to an old style Frigidaire dishwasher made a slight snort escape from me. The Clearys never had any children and retired from farm labor years before they sold their land to corporate America. The place certainly seemed to have been bought during the economic boom of the 1940s and almost served as a time capsule for life back then.
“Wow, get a load of this place,” I said, glancing over at Dale as he studied the horribly old fashioned wallpaper in the living room.
“Yeah,” said Dale.
I ran a finger across the arm of a wooden chair and inspected the layer of dust that coated my fingertip. Ignoring every horror movie cliche in the book Dale straightened up and announced that we should split up. Now I didn’t want Dale to know I was getting nervous, so I sucked it up and went along with the plan. Dale said he would take the first floor so I, against my better judgment, said I would check out the basement.
Since this was “old farm country” the basement in question was actually an old root cellar built for storing food and supplies during the winter. Typically, the stairs leading down would be on the outside of the house, luckily for me, the Clearys decided to rip out the big cellar doors and built an enclosure leading to the basement off of the kitchen with a screen door facing the side yard.
I maneuvered through the tight corridor of the galley kitchen, made to seem even narrower but the glow of the waning sunlight through the kitchen windows. The low light cast eerie shadows on the walls to my left as I reached the basement staircase. There was one lone bulb hanging from a chain a few steps down. I pulled the chain mainly as a force of habit. Of course nothing happened, power had been cut off years ago.
I unclipped the mini flashlight from one of the straps on my backpack and clicked it on. This was a pretty weak light, I had never needed a strong flashlight since we normally hiked during the day, but it certainly helped me now. The stairs were fairly short and steep so I carefully descended them. I tapped my foot to make sure the following step was actually under me. I checked the ceiling above me, thick cobwebs stretched between the solid wood beams that crossed over my head. I shuddered and thought, “I hate bugs, why did I pick the basement?” My foot finally hit the cellar floor and as I steadied myself I felt the crunch of a million little insects under my boots. My body tightened up and with I shaky hand I shone the beam of the flashlight downward. The fear faded as I realized that this was an earthen floor. I scolded myself for forgetting that this cellar was built out of the ground and simply packed solid over countless decades of footsteps. As I breathed out my anxiety I noticed something that made my blood run cold. a flicker of amber light up ahead of me.
My heart pounded in my temples as I stared at the light coming from an open doorway at the end of the basement. I clicked off my flashlight and pocketed it. I looked around, trying to take in my surroundings. There were boxes stacked all along the left-hand side of the cellar wall. I could make out two doorways on the right side of me, the first was dark, a black rectangle against the stone wall, the second was well lit. It was clear that this farmhouse wasn’t as abandoned as we thought. It could have been a meth head. Labs had popped up sporadically in the sprawling farmland around Massachusetts and this would have made a fine hideaway for some people trying to keep a low profile. I should have left, or at least have gotten Dale to help me, but I went towards the door alone and vulnerable.
I heard a dull scraping sound from up ahead. It was constant, happening every few seconds. I crept along slowly, aware of every step I took. I tried my best to not make a sound but realized I had been holding my breath and let out a slow sigh. The scraping sound stopped. I hugged the wall trying to make myself disappear into it. As I pressed the back of my head against the rough stone I shut my eyes tight and prayed that I make it out of here alive. My temples throbbed as I imagined a pair of hands grabbing and dragging me to my death. My thoughts cleared as the scraping resumed just ahead of me.
I cautiously peered around the doorframe and saw a long workbench with flies buzzing around it. Some sort of bloody mess laid in a dingy animal cage at the end of the table. I swallowed hard trying to force down the bile rising in my throat. The smell was bad, but not awful which told me that whatever was killed was killed recently. A single candle flame lit the room. The light flickered and cast warped shadows on the bare stone walls. I struggled to focus my eyes on what was the source of the sound I was hearing. A ball of lead formed in my stomach as I stared at what stood before me. I didn’t even realize there was a person standing there, they almost looked like covered furniture left over in the house. It was a small form, hunched and frail, covered head to toe in a drab tattered cloak. The being’s hands worked feverishly in front of them, hidden from my view.
I stared, feet fixed to the spot, dumbfounded as what to do. I slowly eased one of my feet back to steady myself when I felt something brittle crack under my foot. My heart jumped and I looked down at the small bone or stick that sat broken in pieces under my boot. When I raised my head to focus on the figure before me I saw her sunken eyes staring directly at me.
Her milky white eyes fixed on me. The candle light accentuated the deep grooves that etched her face. Her skin was a deep espresso color that faded into the darkness of her hooded cloak. A shock of gray hair peeked out over her ears. “Jonas!” she hissed as a smile of yellowed teeth broke out across her face. “Do you have it?” she asked and raised the palm of her hand at me. I gaped at her and realized that her eyesight was gone but was unable to think of any reply. I glanced around the room and tried to find absolutely anything I could use to my advantage. I saw that the mangled mess at the end of the table was a pile of dead crows, blood and feathers littered around the cage. Resting on the table beside the old woman was a stone mortar and pestle, flower petals and stalks of unknown plants laid beside it. Her wide eyes narrowed as she waited for an answer. She slowly raised a skeletal finger at me. Her mouth slowly drooped into a scowl and I knew I had been found out as a stranger. Suddenly heavy footfalls sounded overhead and my paralysis was broken. I tore out of the room and sprinted for the stairs as a shriek followed me out of the cellar.
I burst out of the doorway back into the empty kitchen. My momentum slowed as I slammed against an ancient butcher block table bookending the countertop. I kept my stride intact though, pure adrenaline coursed through me. I rounded the corner and saw the front door looming in front of me. It was only a few feet away and my arms were already outstretched grasping for the knob. I could taste freedom just out of reach when I felt a strong grip on the straps of my pack pulling me backwards. Two arms wrapped around my chest and pulled me into the small closet off the main hallway. I spun around ready to fight off my attacker and came face to face with Dale holding a finger up to his lips.
“What the fuck Dale?” I angrily whispered. We were inches apart and I saw the terror on his face.
“He’s outside the door waiting for us,” he said through shuddering breaths.
“Who is,” I asked in bewilderment.
Dales’ eyes blazed into mine, “I don’t know, some huge guy, he’s like six-five, I saw him through the upstairs window walking around the back of the house.”
He took a breath, “I ran downstairs and saw him walk past the windows with a fucking axe!”
He ran a shaking hand through his hair and rested it on the back of his neck.
“We have to leave, there’s someone in the basement too,” I said while rummaging through my backpack.
“What?” Dale cried, “What the fuck are we going to do?”
I grasped my small hunting knife in my hand, “We run for it,” I said and slipped the pack over my shoulders.
We creaked open the door and peered out into the still hallway. I glanced right first, toward the front door, nothing there. I turned left and saw two half-open doorways. Nothing there either.
We edged out slowly towards the front of the house, I took the lead while Dale covered our rear. We prepared to bolt out the door and not look back until we were at least a half mile away. As I readied myself to throw the door open a loud bang thudded from just to the left of me and a spray of splinters hit my cheek. I snapped my head around and stared at the head of a hatchet embedded in the wall beside me.
I heard thudding footsteps coming down the stairs and turned to see a hulking man making his way toward us. Instinct took hold and I grabbed the doorknob, twisted it, and felt the door resist even as I threw my entire weight against it.
My heart sank, the looming figure was almost on us when I remembered the side door at the end of the kitchen. I nearly yanked Dale’s arm out of its socket as we tore into the kitchen. My legs felt as if they would buckle at any moment, the floor seemed to wobble beneath me.
Finally reaching the door, I gave it the hardest kick possible and, mercifully, it flew open and nearly off its hinges. I motioned Dale to go first but he didn’t need any urging from me and escaped to the outside. I took one last look behind me and saw a pair of cloudy white eyes burning into me from the bottom of the stairwell. I ran without hesitation into the night.
About an hour later, Dale and I collapsed onto the sofa in my living room with the first of many Sam Adams bottles clutched in our hands.
“What the hell was that man?” asked Dale, shaking his head.
“No idea,” I said, and raised the beer to my lips.
“I guess there are just some crazy squatters out there in the farmlands,” Dale said, and pointed his bottle out west.
“I don’t know man, it just seemed like something else was going on out there, it was all too weird,” I said.
I took another pull from the bottle and stared out my front window at the dark sky, the new moon made the night black as pitch. A crow’s caw sounded off in the distance.