The clouds darkened to a featureless gray. Cool air hinted at the rain to come, but it was not here yet. The wide open prairie was a dim portrait of its usually bright self. It was not quite dusk yet, but the clouds blotted out any joy and the landscape stood silent, waiting for the coming storm. A light breeze combed through the solitary tree. The quiet was oppressive, and when the horse broke over the hilltop, its hooves slapping the ground as fast as his riders could urge him on, the prairie barely noticed. The sound could not fill the emptiness.
He felt her hands tighten around his waist as he spurred the horse faster again. He didn’t want to ride Henry this hard, he wanted to treat this treasure gently, this wedding gift seemed like more than just a beast of burden to him. But he knew this was silly, and they dearly wanted to get to town before the storm got here.
Henry gave a small leap over a particular rutty part of the road, and July yelped from the sudden jolt. She gripped him tighter and flattened her body against his back. He felt guilty for enjoying it, feeling her warmth, her breasts pressed against him through the thin fabric of her summer dress.
He looked up from the road as they flew down the hill. Was that thunder? He heard it again, and then the skies opened up. The rain felt as if its purpose was to flush them off of Henry’s back. Joseph spurred Henry on faster, and scanned the distance for signs of town. The horizon was black now, but just at the bottom of the hill he saw a small house, with a solitary tree out front. His surge of elation was tempered by an eerie curiosity. The solitary tree in the front yard seemed lonely. No, not lonely, some how a warning? It was odd to call it a yard even, there was nothing to differentiate it from the emptiness of the prairie. The house and tree just sat on the prairie, not apart from it.
Joseph caught this strange train of thought and extinguished it. He had found refuge for his beautiful new bride, and he pushed Henry faster down the rapidly deteriorating road toward this peculiar little house.
They galloped off the road and right up to the front porch. There were no lights on inside, and Joseph could feel July’s body shivering against his, her thin summer dress clung to her figure in a way that made him blush.
Joseph leapt off the horse, and grabbed July by the waist as she gently leaned over. In one motion he lifted her from Henry’s back and sat her down in the thick grass, they both turned, for a single instant forgetting the driving rain, and took in the house that was to be their safety. A two story farmhouse with what must have been in its day, a lovely front porch. Joseph felt troubled by something but couldn’t decide what it was. If it’s a farmhouse, where is the farm he thought? July had stopped shivering for a moment, seemingly struck by something. But their peculiar feelings were fleeting as the rain penetrated everything, and the shivering returned. They ran to the porch, and Joseph remembered Henry. He turned back, grabbed Henry by the reigns, and lead him to the porch, tying him to one of its posts.
Joseph knocked on the front door.
“Hello? We were just riding through and this storm came on. May we wait out the storm here?”
They heard no answer.
“Let’s go in. They must be in town.” he said.
But July didn’t move.
Joseph turned the door knob and cracked open the door.
“Come on.” he said softly.
But July still did not move. Then even softer than Joseph had been she said “I don’t think we should.”
“It’s OK. I’m sure they will understand, and we won’t touch anything or eat their food.” he reasoned.
“It’s just, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right.” she said.
Thinking she meant it was not right to enter someone else’s property he pressed her further “We will do the same when we have a home of our own. Come on, we must get you warm.” Her shivering shook her more violently, and she gave in. They crossed the threshold into the darkened house. Joseph went to close the front door and it left his hand faster than expected, slamming shut and rattled the dishes in the kitchen they now stood in. July yelped in surprise at the intrusive noise.
She stood still in the middle of the kitchen while Joseph rummaged around for a candle. Finding one, he led her into the next room. A sitting room of sorts, and the next room, a dining room. Each of the rooms seemed over stuffed with wooden crates, or side tables and chairs stacked in a way meant more for storage than usage. A path had to be picked carefully between the debris as to not knock something over. The windows had their shutters closed, which only allowed in a few strands of feeble light, so Joseph had to hold his candle out in an exaggerated fashion in order to illuminate their path.
“Why would their dining room not be next to their kitchen?” July mused, forgetting her shivering for a moment.
Joseph continued on wordlessly, the next room appeared to be a bedroom, similarly stacked high with piles of books, but the next door did not lead back to the kitchen. It was locked with an old wrought iron padlock the size of his fist. He turned around to go back and bumped face first into July, both of them jumped and let out a scream. After a split second of startled excitement they both grinned and then broke into laughter.
They embraced and then Joseph said softly, “We need to find a fireplace and get you warm. I think I saw stairs back in the sitting room behind some of the boxes.”
July nodded and grasped Joseph’s hand as he lead them back to that room.
Moving several stacks of boxes he cleared a path to a particularly steep set of stairs leading up into absolutely blackness.
Without looking back at July so as to not lose his nerve, he cupped his hand around the feeble candle to keep it from going out and began up the stairs. The stairs flexed noticeably under his feet giving him to worry that they might collapse at any moment. Each one emitting a loud screech of protest. A bizarre thought ran through Joseph’s mind “This is good. I’ll hear anyone coming”. As quickly as it entered his mind he realized what madness had taken him. Who was going to come for them? He and his young bride were simply waiting out a storm in an empty house. They were doing no wrong. He shook his head to try and dislodge the thought, but the tendrils of it had dug deep into his mind.
The top of the stairs had three closed doors, so he started with the door on his right. The door handle was shockingly cold, and the door seemed to stick, so he gave it his shoulder and it sprung open. A blast of cold air blew the candle out and he felt July’s cold hands dig into his arm for safety. Taking a cautious step forward he felt a thick mat of cobwebs stick to his face, then a featureless form of legs in the blackness skitter across the webs on his face. Spitting and blowing his nose he stumbled backwards and clawed at his face to clear the webs and spiders.
“It’s ok, it’s just spiders.” he said into the darkness to comfort July, but her grip only tightened. He reached into his pocket for the lighter, and relit their tiny oasis of sanity. He would do better at protecting it this time.
By candle light he could see this was another bedroom, it was more full than the rest, with boxes piled all the way to the ceiling. They made intricate paths through the larger than average room, but each was a dead end. Seeing a door on the opposite wall, he handed the candle to July and began moving the heavy stacks of boxes to clear a path to it, finally arriving at the far door, and taking the candle back from July.
Joseph opened the door carefully this time, and shown his candle light in. A fairly ordinary bathroom, until he saw the bathtub. Splashed in some black filth he did not dare to go closer to or even speculate on what it could be. He tried the door that presumably went to the top of the stairs, but it was locked. Moving across to the next door, and found himself in another bedroom. One the wall to his left was another door, presumably leading to the stairs, but he also found it locked.
The room was similar to the rest, except stacks of books in this one, shutters still closed to allow no light in. He looked to the corner, behind a wall of books about chest high, and saw it, a fireplace. Joseph’s heart leapt, and he worked quickly to the other side of the room. A small stack of wood lay next to it, and he sat July down and immediately began building a fire. Soon July’s wet dress was steaming and her shivering had died down to a mild hum.
They sat for a while, absorbing the warmth, and somehow, safety, of the fire. But Joseph could hear July’s stomach. In truth he was just as hungry, but he would not admit that to his new wife.
“I’m going to find us some food.” Joseph said.
July’s calm demeanor seemed to vanish, and she pleaded “No I’m fine, just stay here with me, please.”
Taking her hand he said, “It’s ok.”
Then he got up and turned from her, her eyes begging, willing him to sit back down, but he took the candle, and receded into the darkness. Working his way as quickly as possible back through the bathroom, and into the maze of boxes. When he descended the squeaky stairs he thought he heard July yelp.
He remembered seeing a box marked “RATIONS” when he was in the room with the iron padlock, so he worked his way around the first floor, entering that room when he heard it. Henry was spooked, pulling at his reigns and making a hell of a racket. Joseph moved to the window in this room and tried to peer out through the slats to see his horse. The rain had picked up considerably since they came inside, and he felt a pang of guilt for leaving Henry unsheltered out there. Then the storm really opened up, a brilliant bright flash as lightning crashed down to the prairie, and in the flash, Joseph saw clear as day, a large man, standing several feet away from Henry, grasping something vicious in his right hand.
Maybe it was the momentary nature of the lightening flash, but to Henry the man appeared to be completely unmoving. An unnatural stone of a man, menacing in his very conception. Joseph was gripped by an indescribable terror. His throat closed up, dry as a bone. His chest tightened, and his body tingled with adrenaline. He fought through the fog of terror and remembered he was in someone else’s house. Some one else who was probably pretty curious who’s horse was outside. He made his mouth work, but his voice was slow to come. He looked up again and made to speak for real this time, to announce himself and explain this silly situation, when even through the driving rain he heard the most horrible of creature sounds. A wet sickening thud, and the unmistakable death scream of an animal. He felt the thud as Henry’s considerable bulk hit the ground.
Joseph was awash with emotions, confusion, terror, anger, sadness, anger, anger anger. He felt it welling up inside of him, building to a crescendo. When the man outside spoke.
“You’re in my house.” he tore off the last word as he spat it out. Evil infused in every syllable. Joseph’s righteous anger extinguished instantly and he dropped to the floor behind some crates, beginning to shake now.
He heard the pounding deliberate footsteps come up the porch, and slam the door open. Then slower, more ponderous now, as they worked around the kitchen. Joseph realized that he was not breathing, and forced himself to take shallow, silent breaths while trying desperately to listen for where the footsteps were going.
They progressed to the sitting room, then the dining room. The character of the sounds changing as they got closer. Just one room away now, Joseph’s mind spun in circles, nothing useful came to the fore. They were almost in the room now. Joseph was frozen. Then the sound retreated, back to the sitting room. And there they stopped for what seemed an eternity. Finally he heard it. The squeak of the first stair, and like a bullet to the brain, Joseph shot upright.
“July.” escaped his mouth unconsciously.
He looked frantically around the room for a weapon, and grasped a heavy metal object. A bookend he thought, maybe in the shape of a sailboat? His candle had gone out, so he could not know. He crouched and moved as quietly as possible through the maze of detritus, around the first floor toward the stairs. He could hear the foot steps at the top of the second floor landing now. He wanted to move faster but the fear of making noise gripped him and turned his legs to lead. It was all he could do to drag them forward at this ponderous rate. The foot steps moved into the first room full of crates, and then into the bathroom. Joseph had tears in his eyes, why could he not move faster. He was at the bottom of the stairs now. The first step would surely give him away, and he could not bring himself to take it. Tears streamed from his eyes now. A war in his mind, July sitting by the fire, so afraid, and unprotected, and him, unable to overcome his paralyzing fear to take the next step.
Time seemed to stop, he heard nothing, perceived nothing, he was locked in this shameful duel in his mind. Then a shrill cry turned to a blood curdling scream. Henry thought it sounded some how like Henry’s scream, and electricity cut through the fog in his mind. He bounded up the stairs two at a time as the horrific scream died down. At the landing he threw his shoulder into the door on the left with all his strength. Its timber creaked and some splintered, but it held. He threw his body at it again and it broke open. Stumbling in uncontrolled he caught the barest glimpse of July’s crumpled body by firelight, and the bulk of the man standing over her.
Off balance, Joseph swung at the man with all his might, the bronze sailboat glinting in the firelight. It struck the man along side his head, but was only a glancing blow. Joseph fell hard with the momentum he had entered the room with. Seemingly unfazed by the head strike the man struck down at Joseph with the now impossibly large knife in his right hand.
A blinding, searing hot pain entered Joseph’s left side, and he saw blackness.
Everything was still. Blinking several times changed nothing. Closed or open all he saw was the black. Slowly, over what seemed like an eternity, his vision began to return. He lay where he had fallen, his left side still in pain. He looked to the fireplace, to where July had laid, but the fire was out, and there was no sign of July. He scanned the room gripped with the fear of seeing the man. But saw nothing. Listening for a moment though he heard sounds coming from the fist floor. What other evils did this house have in store?
Cradling his left side Joseph got to his feet and scuttled to the corner to hide behind a large stack of books. He held his breath and listened intently.
The sounds were peculiar. They sounded almost of foot steps, or some times even voices. But as if far away, and distorted. Visions of moments before invaded his thoughts. July crumpled on the floor. Him cowering on the first floor, paralyzed with fear, his wife undefended in her last moments. A seething rage built up as he listened to these particular sounds coming closer.
Maybe the sounds down stairs were the man, or maybe it was the man’s friends. Joseph would probably die if he attacked them, but all sense of self preservation was drowned out by the shame, and rage, of failing his wife. He found the metal sailboat and gripped it tightly as the voices approached the stairs.
“I’m going to fucking kill you!” he shouted in a deep guttural burst of hatred.
The voice and footsteps stopped cold. He took the moment to move to the adjoined bathroom, and stopped to listen.
After a moment the footsteps continued, reaching the top landing. Closer now, but not clearer, the voices returned. Joseph stealthily moved into the next room. Hidden in the maze of boxes, he peaked over and saw they must have had a candle. Light spilled in from the stairs. He ducked down as they apparently entered the room. They began moving through the circuitous paths between the crates, and he prepared himself to attack. Then he heard another voice from the stairs. They must have split up. He saw his opportunity, moving quickly through the path he had made when July and he had first come up here, he worked towards the door to the stairwell. Mind clouded with fear and rage he bumped into a box just before reaching the door, knocking it over, and the footsteps in the room stopped. He froze. The person shouted something he couldn’t understand.
Joseph realized he had just a moment to do this. He closed the remaining distance to the door, and when it was just within reach, slammed it shut. Isolating this person from the other. He locked the door and slipped back the way he had come. The voice in the room sounded frantic now. Joseph grinned. He wasn’t sure if this was the same man, or one of his accomplices, but he was going to make them pay for July.
The person bumped into boxes and raced toward the now locked door, smashing into it and banging on it. The voice on the other side sounded frantic as well.
Joseph adjusted the metal weapon in his hand, and then with all of the rage at his own cowardice, his failing of July, he leapt out of his hiding place at the voice pounding on the door. His mind a focused razor with one intent: to kill this person.
The night’s peculiarities, and fear, and rage tempered what he saw next. The ghostly white, purple outline of a man. Was it the same man? It did not matter. He couldn’t explain anything from this evil night. He charged at this apparition with all of the hate he could feel, letting out a scream that scared him almost as much as it appeared to scare the ghostly man.
Before he could land a blow the apparition ducked and ran full speed toward the opposite wall. Joseph was on him now, sprinting toward the man. With no where to go, the apparition crashed through the shuttered window and fell head first toward the ground, landing with a sickening crunch and thud, then silence.
Knowing the second voice would be coming for him, Joseph turned quickly to assess where they were. He glanced back at the broken window for a brief moment and noticed the storm outside had subsided. In fact, other than a few dozen feet of grass stretching out from the house, there was just blackness. He could not see the expansive prairie, or anything beyond the one solitary tree.
The foot steps in the next room over brought his attention back to the situation at hand. He might escape from this yet. The foot steps were in the bathroom now. Moving silently, he unlocked the door to the landing, and came around into the room where July had been slain. The voice called out, almost understandable this time. Was it a name? He couldn’t be sure.
Joseph put his back against the wall next to the bathroom door. They seemed to be inspecting the bathtub. Gripping the metal sailboat, he flung him self into the bathroom and again was confronted by the strange purple white outline of a person. This time a women he thought. They reacted fast though, falling down to avoid his swing, falling back into the tub, splashing the filth everywhere. Joseph stumbled back as it stung his eyes. In the split second he was on his back foot they sprung up and fled into the maze of boxes in the next room. Joseph pursed, knowing the rooms maze better now, he took a short cut and when next to them, pushed a wall of boxes over on top of the ghostly figure. With them pinned under the boxes, he tried to strike them with his weapon again, but they flung them selves and several boxes to the side, and were up and running again.
Joseph running again, almost flew, his anguish over July driving hims faster than he could imagine down the stairs after them. Knocking over what ever was in his way, the figure of the woman reached the kitchen door and flung it open, the sounds coming from her now more discernible as terrified wailing. No matter, he was moving so fast now he would catch her. He sprinted out the front door right behind her, closing in on her he noticed her wearing the most peculiar clothes.
They both leapt off the porch where Henry had been tied up, all he could see was the thick grass of the yard, his ghostly quarry, and the blackness. So much blackness. His gaze rose to see the sky, except there was no sky, it was all just black, no not even black. It was just nothingness.
It so gob smacked him that he slowed his pace. And then watched as the apparition of the strangely dressed woman evaporated as she crossed the threshold from grass to nothingness.
The detective loved that first sip of coffee. It was 5am and the phone call had been a bad one. Getting dressed in the dark he made his way to the station just as they brought the suspect in. The arresting officer suspected drugs, but now that he got his first look at her, it was hard to believe. Slight features and stylish clothes, her face a mask of grief and fear. He drew in a mouthful of the dark, warm swill that the rookies said was terrible, and looked at the notes at the top of the file. The address jumped out at at him. “Not again,” he said under his breath. He closed the case file and opened the door to the interrogation room.
“My name is detective Johnson.” he started.
The young woman didn’t respond. So he sat down across from her at the table.
“You know, I’ve been a cop for a long time.” he paused. The girl remained expressionless. “In my almost 40 years on the job, this is the 4th time there has been a homicide at that house.”
That got her attention. She locked eyes with him, but remained silent. “Progress” he thought to himself.
“I interrogated all of them you know. Well when there was a survivor anyway. The second time was a murder-suicide.”
Pausing for effect before continuing.
“And every time, they have the same excuse: The house is haunted they all say.”
That got her, she burst out “It is!” almost crying as she did so.
“mmhhmm. Ya know after the second time I looked into it. Did you know that in 1806 there was actually a double murder in that house? A man and his wife.” Calmer now, her gaze fell to the floor “I know, it was in the book.”
“Ah yes, Haunted Houses of the Midwest. I picked up a copy after I heard about it 20 years ago.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I told the others over the last 40 years. That story ain’t going to fly in court. So you better come up with some better real fast.”
She burst into uncontrollable sobbing. He picked up the folder and left the room. It’s best to let that sink in, give them some time to think about it and then come back in for another run at a confession.
Everything was still. Blinking several times, changed nothing. Closed or open all he saw was the black. Slowly, over what seemed like an eternity, he vision began to return. He lay where he had fallen, his left side still in pain. Hadn’t he been chasing someone? A noise came from down stairs, voices. Joseph stiffened and felt for his metal boat, his trusty weapon.