“Stay away from that house. It’s evil.” Who would honestly have taken the scruffy half-drunken hobo seriously? The five of them certainly hadn’t. He had a mad glow to his eyes, the kind that you’d expect to see in those cuckoos that run around proclaiming the end of the world.
Now Jake had a paring knife sticking out of his throat, a sick gurgling replacing his would-be scream. Each panicked breath spattered fresh blood over the oak-stained Victorian countertops.
Despite the whispered rumors surrounding the old home, nothing terribly interesting had happened at first. They passed through a dark living room, dust coating the clear plastic sheets that blanketed all the furniture. They had peeked up a darkened stairwell, but then voted to check out the kitchen and dining room areas first. (From the beginning they decided to make choices as a group. ‘Can’t split up in a haunted house’, Jake had joked, shining his flashlight under his chin)
A few of the smaller items scattered on the kitchen countertop clattered about once they had stepped in. The tables and chairs clattered against the floor. It was like there was a little mini earthquake in the room, but the floor never moved. The toaster popped. The microwave turned itself on. Parlor tricks according to Cameron. Lucas insisted it was just the Schnapps. Sarah was convinced it was some ghostly chef. Mitch had given an unimpressed ‘harrumph’ and resumed texting his girlfrend.
Lucas Naples was sprinting towards the front door as fast as he could. He didn’t know where the others were; he didn’t really care. They had scattered like roaches under light. His stomach twisted with guilt as he heard Jake’s shoes squeaking on the polished wooden kitchen floor.
“There’s nothing i can do,” he told himself. “If I go back in there, I’ll just end up like him. Besides, he’s probably already lost a lot of blood.” His justifications weren’t helping. If anything, they made the wrenching in his stomach even worse.
He slammed into the hundred-year old door with every ounce of his two-hundred pound frame, grabbing the doorknob fiercely enough to tear it off. Crunch. He staggered backwards, a blinding pain shooting through his shoulder. It hadn’t budged. It was more than locked. It hadn’t moved an inch. Ignoring the throbbing, he grabbed the knob with both hands. It turned fine, but it didn’t move.
“Come on, open it. Open it.” Sarah Kylie stood behind him, her sweat-soaked bangs stuck to her forehead. Two minutes ago, Luke had been weighing the odds of ever getting to sleep with her. Now he barely noticed her presence as he frantically bashed against the door, blood trickling down his knuckles as the wood splintered into his fists.
“Dude, stop.” Mitch Owens grabbed Luke’s fist mid-swing. “You’re going to hurt yourself.” Luke’s frantic gaze met Mitch’s steely confidence. Luke swung around, grabbing Mitch by the shoulders.
“Were you and I in the same room just now?” he shouted. Mitch wiped the saliva from his glasses.
“Yes. And that’s why I called an ambulance while you were busy bloodying your hands against the doors.”
Mitch was terrified, but he refused to show it. Terror and serenity are equally contagious, his dad had always told him. His father had worked on the S.W.A.T. team for seventeen years. He headed up most of the hostage situations, and his ability to talk down even the most frantic criminals was widely renowned. Mitch wasn’t as good as his old man, couldn’t ever hope to be, but he prided himself in having a similar skill. “Doesn’t matter how weird the situation is,” he said. “Losing your head never helps.”
“Yeah? Well I don’t see you in there helping him out, Mother Theresa.” Luke drove an accusing finger into Mitch’s chest.
“It’s too late. The house killed him,” whispered Sarah. She had curled up into the corner nearest the front door, her legs pulled up to her chin. “We’re all going to die.” Sarah had only come along because of Luke. She was horribly superstitious, always had been, and the thought of visiting a haunted house terrified her. When she had asked Luke what the admission was, he had given her a spooky laugh and said “your soul”. Recreational haunted houses were bad enough. But this was the real deal. She rocked back and forth, clutching a rabbit’s foot in one hand and her Japanese good-luck phone charm in the other.
“Look,” Mitch said, crouching down in front of Sarah. “If this house was so keen to kill us, then why is this foyer so quiet, hm? Perhaps the kitchen has some sort of electromagnetic field. It could have been an accident.”
“Then where are the paramedics? The panicked staff?”
“It’s one-thirty in the morning. Maybe it’s automated. And I told you earlier, I already called the ambulance.”
Luke’s voice suddenly became deadly somber. “And what do you plan on telling the paramedics, Mitch? We were alone in the house with him. Now his throat’s been cut. You think they’re going to buy the poltergeist story? Maybe we should tell them we were filming a new haunted cooking show.”
Mitch froze. He honestly hadn’t thought about it. His first response to an injury was practically instinct — contact the proper authorities. But now that Luke mentioned it, there was no reasonable way to explain it.
“Hey, where’s Cameron?”
The three of them shared a silent glance down the hallway. They had torn out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and bolted around the corner to the front door and main stairwell. None of them had seen a trace of him.
“We’ve got no reason to believe anything bad has happened to him,” Mitch said.
Luke jerked her to her feet painfully. “Shut up. Just shut up, okay?” She did. She didn’t speak, didn’t move. She just trembled, collapsing back into her corner the instant Luke’s vicegrip faded.
“That was uncalled for, Luke,” Mitch said, barely able to repress the urge to punch him in the face. Under normal circumstances, he would have beat him into the dirt, but if he knew anything, it was how to keep his cool. Luke would get a fist to the face as soon as they got out of the house, but for now–
Sarah’s piercing scream shattered his train of thought. She pointed back behind Luke, behind Mitch, motioning down the corridor they had run from. Before either of them had a chance to turn around, she sprinted up the stairs, taking them three at a time. Halfway up she tripped, and before she could even stand, she was scrambling, desperate to climb away. Within seconds she disappeared into the gloom.
Jake’s lacerated body smiled at them from the far end of the hall. His face and arms were covered in deep gashes, the knife that inflicted them clutched in his left hand. He moved with a jerky, stiff gait, like an action figure with too few many points of articulation. As he took another step, blood sputtered and bubbled from his throat as a whistling, airy laugh passed through the slit in his flesh. Another step. The bubbling, wheezing sound took form — a single phrase. Left me.
Luke doubled over and emptied his stomach, unable to do anything else. Mitch was frozen, unable to comprehend what was actually happening.
This isn’t possible. It can’t be happening. Haunted houses don’t exist.
But every puppeted step Jake took defied Mitch’s wavering clutch on logic, his maddening refusal to accept something unexplainable. As if the apparition were reading his thoughts, Jake’s head suddenly jerked to the side, the smile widening. Cuts along the side of his mouth split further, and the flesh around his jaw peeled away, leaving nothing but exposed muscle below the nose. Like too-warm cheese, the flesh dripped to the floor. Mitch barely heard Luke’s terrified yelp, hardly noticed as the boy scrambled up the stairs even more frantically than Sarah. He was frozen. Paralyzed.
A few moments after scrambling up the stairs, Luke heard a gutteral scream explode from the bottom of the stairs. He could barely see straight, but he ran further. A window. He needed to find a window. But as he ran down the second story hallway, all that greeted him on either side were the same old doors, barely hanging from their hinges, every shadow beneath them seemingly alive, twitching at every shift in the silvery moonlight that flooded in from somewhere. It was maddening. There wouldn’t be moonlight without a window. But where was it?
Door after door. A terrifying suspicion snuck up on him. He gingerly smeared some of the blood from his knuckles against one of the posts. Thirty seconds of running later, he glanced at the doors surrounding him. Adrenaline tore through his stomach, twisting it into knots. The doors on both sides were bloodied, identical to the smear he had left.
He tore one of the doors open and hurled himself through. The door slammed itself shut behind him, trapping him in a suffocating, tangible darkness. Only one sound penetrated the blackness. Music. It was old, clinky music, like that you might hear from an old jukebox or infant’s mobile. The melody was beautiful, but there was a dissonance to it. As stupid as he felt for thinking this, it was as if the music itself was…evil.
A little girl’s laughter intermingled with the twinkling notes. He felt cold fingers moving through the darkness, wrapping themselves around his cheek. Two pinpricks of a darker darkness swirled in front of him, eyes blacker than void. Ice cold breath wrapped around his ear as a chilling whisper followed the laughter.
“Do you want to leave, Storyteller?”
Luke nodded. It was all he could bring himself to do, but he put every last bit of himself into that one action. As soon as he did, the door burst open. Sarah stumbled through, stumbling for a light swtich. Click.
The darkness dissipated, retreating into the corners of the room. Luke squinted, blinded by the sudden light. Oof!
Before he could see her, he felt Sarah hurtling into him, wrapping her arms around him in a tight embrace. As his vision slowly returned, he saw Sarah looking up into his face, tears of both joy and horror streaming down her face. Through her smeared mascara she managed what might pass for a smile.
“I thought you were dead,” she said. “Cameron, he…I heard him. I saw it from the balcony. This thing came up to him and asked . . . and asked some kind of question. I didn’t hear what it said, but I heard Cameron mention looking for us. Before he could say anything else it ate him.” She grabbed handfuls of his shirt, pulling him closer, tighter. It almost hurt. “Ate him. It was horrible.”
Crack. He felt a snap through his body. Pain jolted through Sarah’s expression. Trembling, she held her hands up. Her fingers had broken backwards, and were curling up towards her forearm. She stumbled backwards.
Crack. Her entire body went rigid, bent backwards, folding itself in half. Bones tore through flesh. Screams tore through silence. Craaaaaaaaaack. Her bones ripped themselves free of her flesh, leaving nothing more than a twitching gory mess, shredded clothing covering it like a horrific confetti.
He lunged forward, suddenly found himself falling. Shattering. Glass. The ground rushed up to meet him. He landed with a painful thud against the grass, bounced, rolled away. He stood up, brushing himself off, glancing up from where he had fallen. The house’s second story window had been shattered. It took Luke a minute to realize he was bleeding, shards of glass stuck in his clothes and hair.
The whine of an ambulance cut through the cool night air. Lucas backed away from the house, turned and sprinted, almost crashing into the same old man that had warned them of the house in the first place. When he saw Luke, his eyes filled with sorrow.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Luke, putting a consoling hand on his shoulder.
“Sarah,” he mumbled. The old man gave him a pat on the back. “I couldn’t do anything about it. They’re all gone.”
“Don’t take it hard, boy,” the old man said. “You couldn’t have done anything about it anyway.”
Thu-thump. Luke’s heart jumped into his throat. His stomach did a backflip. “You — you know?”
“It always leaves one alive, son. Just one.”
With a final pat of consolation, the man turned and disappeared into the evening.