Copyright is held by the author.
TALL WEEDS danced around the small, broken down cottage at the bottom of the hill. The pebbled driveway was littered with broken twigs and the front porch had collapsed near one end. Jake strained his thick neck, the leash tightened in my hands.
“Hold on,” I said.
He turned his yellow head and looked up with deep brown eyes before letting out a deep sigh and sat at my feet. The grey skies and cooler temperatures meant a lot of people who vacationed in the various sized cottages in this resort, deep in the quiet hills of northern Pennsylvania, would stay inside or run to the local town. I swiped open the camera on my phone and snapped a few quick shots of the house. When I had chosen to bring our family to this resort, I had no idea the goldmine I would find. There were almost equal numbers of empty cottages as the inhabited ones. This area had been hit hard by the last recession and this particular house was one of the worst I had seen since we arrived.
I picked up Jake’s leash and started down the hill. I had never been caught or thrown off any of the properties I explored, luck seemed to follow me. Even so, after years of exploring forgotten places, my heart was clutched and my stomach knotted. Like any obsession the unexplainable high of breaking and entering into locked up houses or buildings, photographing the interiors and then extricating myself with no sign of security or police was too hard to resist. Like a game of chicken, except instead of jumping off the tracks, I pushed the boundaries of how far and how long I could explore. It had become a game, the harder building to access, the greater the accolades from a group of like-minded peers, the Amazing Abandoned Places Group. An online community where members went out and explored forgotten places. They photographed them and then, uploaded the pictures to a private online gallery. It was thrilling and no one knew my real identity. They would be shocked to find on the other side of the screen an almost divorced mom to three kids.
I walked up to one of the mature trees that provided shade for Jake and patted his wizened head. “Good boy. Now I won’t be long.”
My mother had taken my brood out for the afternoon, so I had a few hours of freedom. I turned and looked at the house, tried to figure out the best way to access it. Sometimes in these places the front door was already open, kids or homeless people taking up residence. But here, there was a large two by four nailed across the doorframe blocking any access. A familiar rush of adrenaline zipped through my veins. The house seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. I had never been to this resort before, and I don’t think my group members would have been here either. Most of the properties photographed were local to Ontario.
Jake growled and stood up, his neck hairs bristled. I glanced over my shoulder and froze. A tall, lanky figure walked up the hill and stood at the top of the driveway. I plastered the rehearsed look of confusion on my face and tried to come up with a plausible excuse why my dog was tied to the tree on private property. The figure waved and I let out the breath stuck in my throat, it was just Sam. Sam was a chatty, Harley-riding divorced dad who lived down the road from the place we had rented for the summer. He was the one who had given me a brief history on the house. The story about it being occupied by the owner’s brother for years, a strange man, the kind you didn’t want around your fire pit. He spun tales of the various renters had been there after that, each one leaving the place a little more destroyed.
“Hey,” he called out and then, walked down the driveway. “Thought I spotted you out walking this old man.” He patted Jake on the head who relaxed. “What are you doing down here?”
“I . . . well . . .I . . . .” The flimsy excuse about looking at the fascinating landscape flew right out of my head.
He smiled, deep wrinkles in his tanned face. He was at least 15 years older than me with a college bound daughter, good-looking in a rough sort of way. “You were checking the cottage out weren’t you?”
“No. Jake seemed to want the shade.” I pointed up at the tree, my cheeks heated with the lie.
Sam winked. “Of course.” He sauntered over to the front porch. “Can’t get in this way, you’ll fall right through. See the rotted wood?”
“I wasn’t going to do that.”
“Carrie, you have been walking by and staring at this house for the last week. I saw you snapping photos. What else were you going to do? Come on, there’s a back door.”
I paused, rain clouds rolled above in the darkening the sky.
“Come on, my daughter and her friends did the same thing once, went inside. There’s something about an abandoned place isn’t there?”
“But what about Jake . . . if it rains?”
“He’s protected by that tree. Does he look unhappy?”
Jake had nestled into the tall grass, and let out a large grunt.
I shrugged, tucked my phone into my jeans pocket and followed Sam around to the back of the property avoiding the large tree branches in the backyard. Sam walked ahead, opened held the back-screened door ajar.
“Here, hold this door for a minute.”
I stood beside him, wondering if the cottage was truly unlocked. Sam pushed his shoulder up against the wood door until at last it gave way under his weight and creaked open. He waved me inside.
“Enter my fair maiden.”
“You aren’t coming in?” I asked and tried to hide my disappointment.
His yellow bandanna slipped down over his forehead. “No, I get claustrophobia. When I had to come and get my daughter, I just stood here and yelled. It’s not a big cottage.”
“Thanks.” But my feet didn’t move, not yet. I looked up at him. He was about a foot taller than me. “Why are you helping me? This is breaking and entering.”
“Well, I know that door is always unlocked, and what if you need help?” He scratched at his beard and looked away. “And maybe you’ll have me over for a drink one night. Introduce me to your mom? She’s single right?”
Of course, he noticed my mother. The tall, good-looking blonde was often the focus of most men. Nothing had changed since high school, most of the boys commenting on how hot my mom was. It annoyed the hell out of me, even now, but I wanted inside that house.
“Yeah, okay. Deal.”
“Watch those floors, if they are anything like the porch some of it’s going to be rotted.”
I walked past Sam into what used to be a kitchen and he closed the screen door after me.
“I’m right here.”
“Thanks.” I turned away, pulled out my phone and snapped pictures. The house was a mess. Beer cans were piled in a disgusting ceramic sink. There were no appliances, just gapping holes where they used to be. A thick layer of black grime covered what used to be a linoleum floor. It was open concept, almost like a bachelor apartment. In one corner sat an old cast iron fireplace, its grate door wide open. A scurrying sound came from inside the long pipe that led up to the ceiling. Rats, I hated rats. The familiar sensation I had earlier when I first came upon the house intensified. The base of my skull prickled, some revelation or insight about the house or previous occupants wormed itself to the surface of my consciousness. Call it a sense, instinct, but more often than not it was correct. I was not gifted psychically, but sometimes pieces fell together and I caught a glimpse of a life inside of a house.
Pushed up against one wall was an old, tattered couch. The cushions had been removed and holes were chewed across the bottom and the back. A strong smell of urine, mould and stale cigarettes permeated the air. Off to one side appeared to be a small washroom but what captured my interest was the narrow staircase at the far end of the room. It led down which I found interesting since I had assumed the cottage was one level. I stepped around the garbage, old food wrappers, and feces that covered the floor, my finger tapped over and over on the screen as I tried to capture everything. At the staircase I peeked down, it was dark. My heart rattled deep in my chest, I hated dark staircases. They perpetuated a fear lingering from my long-ago childhood.
Back then I had been part of a group of kids that spent humid summer nights sauntering around the neighbourhood. It was typical back then, our parents socialized in the backyards and we wandered around the streets, gossiping and pretending to be older than we were. An old run-down house at the end of our block had been a fascination for us all year. It had a long winding driveway up a small hill. We had heard rumours of an old man who lived there alone, but no one had seen anyone in years. Some said the old man was a ghost, an apparition, seen only by those who had death hovering at their shoulders. We scoffed at such a ridiculous notions, death and spirits. We were the generation of Freddy and Jason. We loved a good thrill but weren’t fooled into thinking any of it was real.
“Carrie, go on up.” A particularly annoying boy, a small skinny kid with big brown eyes and crazy black hair named Derek, had taunted me. He was the only kid shorter than me and most of the time we shared a cheery bravado, often making similar jokes to offset our insecurities.
“Nah, you go.” I had shrugged and eyed the two-storey house with peeling paint with some trepidation.
“I dare you.” He smiled knowing full well I prided myself on never turning down a dare.
“It’s not a big deal, just an old house.” A lump formed in my throat, part of me didn’t want to go. But of course, I went, climbed the grassy front yard and up to the front porch. It was quiet, too quiet. The typical evening chirrup of birds had even gone silent. I paused, looked down at the gaggle of friends all waving me onwards. I turned the front door handle, hoped it was locked. But it wasn’t and instead swung open with the customary scary movie squeak from the rusted hinges. Dust particles drifted in the stale air, but the house was not destroyed inside as I had expected. What shocked me the most was the outline of a figure at the top of the staircase. A person who wobbled on two, thin, long legs and whom pointed a bony finger at me.
“What the hell.”
I heard the words from the figure, saw the sunken cheeks and deep sockets of what looked like a starved elderly person who was almost skeletal in appearance, I couldn’t decipher if it was real, a ghost or a bit of both. I screeched when he took a slow step down the stairs, flew onto the soft grass and shouted at my friends, “Someone’s there, run!”
We all took flight like a flock of birds in every direction. I glanced back over my shoulder, the door was open and I expected to see the old man, but no one was there. I almost stopped and went back, but a strange feeling came over me, like an icy bucket of water had tipped all the way down my back. I ran as fast as my legs would go until my lungs burned with fire. It had taken me weeks before I had walked near that house again. My friends thought I had played a trick on them, howled in disbelief about how I had tricked them. So I stopped talking about it and the whole experience faded away like other childhood memories, until that is I started exploring abandoned places, not sure what I was searching for, just that I felt compelled to break into houses and buildings again and again.
Today, looking down the staircase in shock at a shadowy figure, that this old man, the one now hunched at the bottom of the stairs of this dilapidated cottage far away from my hometown, he was what I had been seeking. He turned around. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. He stood up, but this time he didn’t point at me but stepped back and waited. I caught a look of sadness on the sunken bony face when I was flung forward down the stairs, bouncing like a rag doll, my bones snapping and cracking. I tried to cry out, to tell the old man to help me, to stop this horrible thing but he just shook his head as I landed in a pile at his feet.
“Children.” I croaked, pictured the three of them abandoned and alone. Unbearable pain of every kind coursed through my entire body. Sam’s heavy boots thumped down the stairs after me. The old man leaned over. I felt his cold hand on mine as he whispered in my ear.
“They will be safe and fine. Your mother and their father will care for them.”
The pain started to ebb away and I found I could move. He grabbed my elbow and helped me up. I grasped onto him swaying back and forth like a tree in the wind.
“Come now child, you ran from fate once. But not twice.”
A calm acceptance washed over me as my legs rooted themselves to the ground. What was done was done and it was with no surprise I saw my broken body at my feet. The old man guided me towards the stairs but I paused, compelled to glance where Sam now kneeled over my lifeless body.
The old man tugged at my arm, “Don’t look back. You don’t want to see that.”
As we ascended the stairs, the dark cottage filled with light. Somehow he opened the front door and we stepped into the sunshine. Jake waited near the tree, unleashed.
“Of course. He was waiting for you.”
The old man no longer looked decrepit, but regal in a way, his white hair flowed and his cheeks were no longer bony but healthy and full. The three of us walked away together down the road away from the cottage.