So Halloween is finally here, and to wrap up this gloriously creepy celebration, I’ve got a spooky little treat for you. Here, for the first time ever, is a previously unpublished short story, This Old House. Betrayal, adultery and a quiet little rundown farmhouse as the unwelcome setting for murder. Read on and enjoy!
Thanks for reading over the past two weeks of The 13 Days of Halloween here at The Watershed Chronicle. I sincerely hope you’ve found something to scare the wits out of you during this best of all holiday seasons. Happy Halloween!
This Old House
She was a rather large house for this part of the country, made even more so by the utter bareness of her interior. The constant winds glided over the surrounding cornfields, slamming into her graying clapboard sides with all the force a good, unimpeded gust could muster. Her paint had peeled away years ago, leaving her looking as many people do when they age; old, gray and alone. Her now-antique boards would occasionally bend or swell, producing the eerie creaking sound that so many young children suspect is a ghost or ghoul from beyond come to claim their souls, but is only just the settling of her weight over the ages.
This house has a personality, molded over decades of spring plantings and autumn harvests, through the good years and the bad. Three generations of farmers had called her home, and the impressions they left behind will never fully be wiped away. Over the decades, she had learned to be protective of her inhabitants, as a good mother should, keeping a watchful eye, a constant vigil over their safety. But the people had left her long ago now, to wither away silent and alone here in this field. Cobwebs make up her only furnishings, and virtually every window in her has been broken.
Nevertheless, standing here idle, she still looks strangely inviting. To a weary traveler who has been moving through the brown and yellowed corn, the cool autumn air having drained the life from their once-brilliant emerald leaves, the sight of her on the horizon could be nothing if not a blessing.
Yes, she is alone now, and yet she is happy. After years upon years of large families taking up every available inch of her space, and all of the hustle and bustle that the people brought with them, she has grown to appreciate the calm and restfulness she now has in abundance. This aging home has grown quite used to quiet evenings listening to the winds rustle through the corn stalks. Her only recent inhabitants have been the occasional field mouse taking advantage of her ample shelter after a long, hard day of roaming between the rows, in the constant search for food. She does so enjoy the peace of her existence now, her time winding toward its inevitable end and, deep down, she doesn’t want it to be broken.
But on this night, the calm that she has so long cherished is snapped by something stirring in one of her upstairs bedrooms. A series of moans emanating from the small room where the youngest children used to live and laugh and play and cry, echoed through her hollowed-out halls. Inside that room was a man, struggling as he tried to regain consciousness.
The unknown man fought to get to his feet, but in his visibly weakened and unsteady condition, he immediately tumbled back to the floor, the resulting thud thundering through the old house. A small candle illuminated the room, and the shadows from the flickering light exaggerated every false, uneasy move.
“Where the hell am I?” he asked groggily, to no one in particular.
The man lifted his head, scanning the empty room, searching for any landmarks or other clues to give away his whereabouts. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the inconsistent lighting. The flame of the candle bouncing in the breeze, drifting through the busted glass of the window pane, didn’t allow for very good visibility.
Soon, however, his eyes did adjust, and the man realized he was alone in the filthy, rundown room. The chill breeze from outside caused goosebumps to rise on his exposed forearms. From his position on the dusty wooden floor, he looked out through the last remnants of jagged glass in the window, and could see a nearly full moon, partially obscured by passing clouds.
He cast his clearing gaze on the candle, which, other than the soft streams of moonlight, provided the only source of light in the room. From the look of it, the long, thin taper candle had been lit very recently. It was still somewhat rounded at the top, and no streams of melted wax had yet made their way trickling down its sides.
As his strength slowly began to return, the man once again attempted to climb to his feet, this time far more successfully as he finally made it, unsteady but upright. He slowly circled the room a few times to make certain his legs were fully back beneath him, with light wisps of dust kicked up by each shuffling step, before beginning to explore.
“What happened to me?” he thought to himself as he knelt down to pick up the candle by its small brass holder, being sure to keep a cupped hand around the flame to stop it from blowing out. Getting a closer look, the candle definitely did not appear to have been lit for very long, but who had done it? And, more importantly, were they still around? He searched his mind, trying desperately to remember what he had last been doing, scouring his still-fuzzy thoughts for any hints as to where he was or how he could have gotten here.
“Well, Will my boy,” he finally said to himself. “You really did it this time. Must’ve tied one on and now you have no clue where you are. Or worse yet, who you’re with.” He looked around the shabby, vacant room one last time, his glance hovering over several patches in the walls where the old plaster had fallen away into odd little piles of refuse on the floor, revealing the rows of thin wooden slats underneath. “Maybe this is Hell.”
Will finally walked through the open doorway and immediately found himself at the end of a long hall. Three other doorframes lined the way, and each was standing as open as the one he had just awakened in. He peered into each room as he went by, passing the candle just over their thresholds, finding similar empty, dust caked wooden floors and busted out windows.
At the far end of the hall, he paused, staring down a large staircase leading to the ground floor of the decrepit old house. Looking to the bottom, he recognized some small bursts of light that could only have been made by another flickering candle somewhere nearby on the first level.
“So whoever brought me to this dump must still be around,” he thought to himself as he slowly worked his way down the stairs. He took each step as lightly as he could, recoiling at every creak of his weight on the well-worn boards. Without knowing what was going on, exactly, he figured it was best to keep as low a profile as possible.
But as Will reached the bottom of the staircase, he instantly saw the futility of his plan. Sitting there, in a large room off to his left, he saw another man hunched over a small table, the candle that was throwing light in his direction standing squarely in its center. The man was holding a deck of cards, playing something that looked like solitaire. After a brief glance at his surroundings, the table and chair seemed to be the only furniture in the building. Will considered his position for a moment, thinking better of a fleeting notion to make a break for the closed front door about five feet in front of him. He finally turned to face the other man and was about to say something when the stranger caught sight of him and jumped up from the chair, leaving the cards scattered about on the table.
“Oh, I see you’ve finally decided to join me back here in the realm of the living,” the man said. Will’s heart sunk as he immediately recognized the voice as that of Jack Person, one of his co-workers at Wilpon & Heccht Insurance, where he had pointlessly toiled away for the past decade.
“Yeah, Jack,” Will began, uneasily, “What the hell is going on here?”
“You mean you don’t know? I must’ve put too much of that stuff in your food. You know, I got it from a cousin of mine who works for a drug company just outside of New York. He sent me a vial of that shit and doesn’t tell me how much to use. All he said was that it’ll knock out a 500 pound man for three or four hours, and I figured, what the hell? The worst it’ll do is kill ya, and I was gonna do that anyway.”
Will froze as he saw Jack pull a small handgun from behind his back and point it at him. Then, suddenly, a loud bang rang out from somewhere up the stairs, startling both men, causing them each to shudder in surprise. For an instant, Will had even thought he’d fired.
“Damn wind,” Jack said, still pointing the gun directly at Will’s chest. “It’s been blowing the doors in this dump shut all night. They really ought to tear this place down before it falls down.”
“Now, hold on a minute, Jack,” Will said, trying to sound soothing. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m sure we can work something out. There’s no need to do anything drastic.”
The sudden fear for his life caused memories of earlier in the evening to come flowing back into Will’s apparently drug-addled mind. He had gone to dinner at Jack’s house at his invitation, despite his better judgment. He had expected to see Jack’s wife, Kathy, there–she was the one who had talked him into going, after all, convincing him that not to would be suspicious–but when he arrived, she was nowhere to be found. Jack told him that she had gone home to see her parents, something about her mother becoming suddenly very ill. Their affair had gone on for over a year without Jack’s knowledge, or so they had thought.
“Didn’t think I’d catch you, did ya?” Jack said, waving the gun in Will’s direction. “You two thought you were so damned slick!”
“Where’s Kathy?” Will asked, hesitantly.
“I told you, she went home to her parents,” Jack chuckled as he spoke. “At least part of her did, anyway.”
“What did you do?” Will demanded, sounding about as forceful as he could, the sick feeling in his stomach getting worse at the thought of what might have happened to Kathy.
“Boy, that was one helluva dinner earlier, wasn’t it? Some really good stew. That Kathy sure knows how to put food on the table,” Jack said, still cackling.
“Where’s Kathy, Jack?” Will asked again, this time with less force. He didn’t really want the answer.
“You know, we almost didn’t have it. While I was cooking, I realized that we didn’t have any fresh meat, so I had to improvise,” Jack said, and through the darkened haze, Will could make out the giant grin on his face as he spoke. “I always said she had good taste.”
Just the thought of what Jack implied made Will double over, dropping the candle by his side. His stomach, already twisting and roiling from fear and the after-effects of the drugs, seized mightily and he spilled its contents all over the floor in several massive heaves.
“Aw, what’s wrong?” Jack asked, faking sympathy. “A little cannibalism’s good for ya. Keep’s the cholesterol down.”
“You sick bastard!” Will sputtered from his bent over posture, the vile, acidic taste of the vomit still fresh in his mouth. Jack just laughed heartily, still pointing the gun at him.
“You won’t get away with this,” he said, wiping away some of the vomit from his lips. It was a pathetic and cliched last attempt to put doubt into Jack’s mind, but Will, himself, knew it wasn’t at all convincing. How could he be?
“Will, my friend, I already have gotten away with it. I’ve been planning this for weeks. I liquidated all of my assets and have the cash out in my car,” he said. “After I get rid of you, I’m on my way to living out the rest of my days as the king of some Caribbean paradise somewhere.”
Jack walked over to where Will was still hunched over, his footsteps echoing lightly through that large room, and placed the barrel of the gun to the side of his head.
“Say goodnight, Will.”
At that instant, just before he was set to fire, the front door of the house that was closed directly behind Jack inexplicably flew open, blindsiding him and sending him and the gun flying into the large, open part of the room. Will saw his chance. He lunged across the floor toward where the gun now rested, just underneath the table, and grabbed it before Jack was able to compose himself. Will stood up quickly, the sick feeling in his stomach passing, replaced by a burning rage, and pointed the gun at his would-be murderer.
“Say Goodnight, Jack,” Will said, but before he could fire, the house began to tremble. Will staggered as the floor beneath him rocked, and he could hear doors all around the house slamming shut, then open, then shut, again and again. He looked down at Jack, who was now curled up in the fetal position, visibly frightened. Will wasn’t certain if he was afraid because of the sudden turn of events or the unexpected rumblings of the old house, and he really didn’t care. The bastard deserved to be afraid, after what he’d done to Kathy.
“It’s just a damn earthquake,” Will said, the trembling still noticeable beneath his feet. “We haven’t had one of those for years, but I have to say, the timing of this one was impeccable. I’ll see ya around, Jack.”
Will steadied his aim through the rumbling, and squeezed off three rounds directly into the man’s chest. Just as Jack let out his final breath, the shaking stopped as suddenly as it had started, and the peace and quiet of the secluded, rundown house was restored.
“See, I told you it was just an earthquake,” Will said, as he bent over and fished Jack’s car keys from his front pants pocket. As he stood up, he tossed the gun onto the prone body and headed for the still-open front door. Before he stepped outside, Will paused and turned back toward the body on the floor.
“The king of some Caribbean island sounds pretty good to me, old buddy. Thanks for the cash.”
He gave the now-departed Jack a short salute, then headed out onto the front porch, passing through the same door that only moments earlier had saved him from being the one shot dead on the floor. As Will headed down the four steps leading from the porch to the overgrown walkway leading away from the house, he was day dreaming about the sun and the sand, and how much Kathy would have loved it. Oh well, he thought to himself, there’s always other women. Will smiled softly, but as he placed his foot on the bottom step, the board gave way under his weight and his leg went crashing through.
Will lost his balance and pitched forward, but his leg was still stuck, shin deep, in the front step. He heard the sickening crack of bone as his body fell but his leg couldn’t follow. There was a momentary sharp explosion of pain from his leg, cut short only when his body twisted and his torso met the partially rotted picket fence that lined the walkway, impaling himself on one of the few remaining pointed posts still upright.
Will used the last of his strength to turn his head slightly toward the old house. The final thing he saw from this vantage point was the front porch, with its railings somehow still intact, almost glowing in the soft moonlight. He thought for just an instant that it looked as though the house were smiling.
Undaunted by the happenings of the night, the wind continued on its great, endless journey through the corn. The old house settled once more in the calming breeze, a few various creaks and moans betraying her years. Then, once again, she returned to having only the rustling stalks to break the silence. This house, even at her age, has a personality. And she does not appreciate having her quiet evenings disturbed.
This Old House, copyright 2011, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications. All rights reserved.
The 13 Days of Halloween