There is an abandoned house in the woods north of Cinder Creek, and it was long rumored that if you found it and entered, someone you knew would die. There were a myriad of theories which accounted for the exact type and specimen of evil which caused this; whether curse or haunting, the explanations varied. Just like any other urban legend, the only people who took it seriously enough to investigate were school-aged children. The even younger ones might have gotten to it first had it not been in such a remote area that required access to a car. For these reasons, the tale was more popular with the high school crowd, notably the underclassmen.
I was a sophomore that fall, and though a lot has changed since 1987, most of the elements of my teenage years are no different than those of high school kids today. The cliques and social groups, disregard for administration — all those things remain constant, and most importantly, the curiosity that drove us to that place on a Friday night was as timeless as youth itself. Curiosity is the bane of felines, and we behaved as if we had infinite lives, all of which could be expended for the most ignoble, irreverent motivations imaginable. The seniors were more concerned with getting laid and school pranks orchestrated by the football team, but for us, there was still residue lurking in our blood left over from tree houses, secret clubs, and ciphered messages scribbled before recess. Those novelties persist just a little while before they morph into sexual gossip in the hallways, when the wonder of what curiosities lurk in the dark is transposed to that which lies shadowed under clothing.
Carolyn was my sweetheart — a beautiful, dark-haired tomboy with an unmistakable laugh, a soprano giggle always muted by her left hand. She came from a decent family, better than most of us, and though I knew she must have dealt with her fair share of obligatory, adolescent baggage, she always seemed to maintain a good mind about it, never taking life so seriously as to corrupt her outward spirits. She had only moved here about a year ago, and was pretty enough to hang out with the prep crowd, but hardly interested in them. That's what I liked most about her. She could recognize manufactured people easily, by instinct alone. It was a good quality to have, and kept her — and probably both of us — out of plenty of trouble.
Carolyn had been talking about the house for a long time. It was a topic that tended to crop up around bonfires at night, and with the fall closing in on us, the creepy urban legends made more frequent appearances in conversation. One Friday afternoon, she came up to my locker between classes wearing hot-pink lipstick and a conspicuous smile.
"Let's go out tonight," she said, teasing me with a tickle.
"What do you mean? I thought we were. You don't want to go to the football game?"
"No, I mean something else, besides that. Let's check out that abandoned house."
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah. We can go afterwards. We'll leave early, that way my parents won't be pissed at me for coming home too late. Tim said we could take his car."
Tim was our mutual friend who, being a Junior, could actually drive to school. Luckily, Tim's car was such a piece of junk, he didn't mind if someone borrowed it, and since his family was in the scrapping business, it wasn't hard for him to find another car of equal dilapidation should something bad happen to it.
"Sure you won't get too creeped out once we get there?" I gave her a stare with lifted eyebrow for a moment, and her smile persisted.
"Make sure you bring a flashlight," Carolyn said, "and a crucifix in case there are vampires."
I hissed at her with my mouth wide open, bared my teeth, and lunged at her threatening to bite her neck. She screeched and shoved me back, knocking one of my books loose. Trying to catch it, I smacked my head against the open locker door. "Oh! I'm sorry," she said, with a hand covering her lips as she reached out to touch my head.
I laughed at her. "Alright. No more taunting me until school is out. I'll talk to Tim later and get the keys."
"See you tonight," she said, kissing me on the cheek and pinching me below the ribs. I watched her walk down the hall, her long hair and taught jeans slipped into the surrounding crowd of faces, every one of which I had recognized a hundred times before, but were indiscernible to me in that moment. She was the only thing I could see.
I found Tim's car in the back of the parking lot during halftime. It was an old 70's Ford Capri with rusted-out wheel wells and a smashed rear bumper. It was hard to imagine the thing was actually new at some point, though as I turned the key, it started up with a growling whir, and I realized that so long as it belonged to Tim, the body would probably fall apart before the engine stopped running. I drove up toward the back of the school where I found Carolyn standing on the sidewalk, backpack on her shoulder and a handful of pixie sticks she must have bought from the concession stand when I hadn't been looking.
"Oh great. How many of those did you buy?" I said. "As if you weren't hyper enough already today."
She laughed and skipped over to the passenger side and jumped in, smashing a dozen cans and old papers under her shoes. "Hey at least I'm in a good mood. You wouldn't like me very much if I were hyper and in a bad mood."
"Yeah, that was last week, and it wasn't from pixie sticks." I stuck my tongue out at her.
I drove out onto the empty roads, a quiet night in a quiet town where the Friday football game was the most important event of the week. Not even the cops were on patrol; they went to the game like everyone else. No one had a clue where we were going or what we were up to, which was a big relief from my usual, regimented life. Sure, it was a bit of a childish pursuit, but that didn't matter to me because Carolyn was happy. It was just exciting enough to do anything without criticism, and the best way to do that was to keep it in relative secrecy. That's why kids keep so many secrets. Adults are keen to help you learn to walk and use the toilet, but when it comes to adolescence, they don't generally have anything positive to offer — only critiques and curfews.
After twenty minutes, the glow of sunset had nearly vanished. We turned down Lunn Road, remote and quiet, surrounded by acres of corn, and ahead I could faintly see the silhouette of a long tree line.
"That's it. Slow down. It's supposed to be near the creek," Carolyn said as she rummaged through the items in her backpack. I slowed down as the road dipped, and on the other side of a small bridge, there was an overgrown drive. I turned onto it, but made it only twenty feet before jamming the brakes to avoid hitting a fallen tree.
"Well," I said, "I think it's safe to say that no one lives here."
I shut off the car to avoid attention from anyone who might drive past. As we got out, I could smell the long, green weeds underneath the car being singed by the hot muffler. Carolyn had already turned on her flashlight, and the dew from beneath the car steamed in front of her as she pointed it up the driveway into the tall pine trees that surrounded us. A few hundred feet ahead, we could see the outline of an old barn. As I walked around the front of the car to Carolyn, I noticed her whole demeanor had changed into a strange, removed disposition. She was focused entirely on her surroundings. I might have mistaken it for fear, had I not known her. Far from it, she was entirely mesmerized by what she was seeing, enamoured by the atmosphere, feeling it like a hypnotic drug whose effect washed over her. Curiosity pulled her forward, almost blind to my presence, so I turned on my flashlight and followed her quietly up the overgrown path, perhaps more intrigued by Carolyn's trance-like demeanor than our original purpose.
Though it hadn't rained in days, the ground was still damp, and as we moved farther up the path, it grew softer under our feet. The woods were alive with a thousand insects, singing together in rhythmic patterns that shifted as they heard us trample through weeds and step over brush. Our flashlights lit the tall, thin pines, casting quick moving shadows as we walked, making the trees behind them flicker from light to shade to light. I heard the sound of the creek, and we caught our first view of the house as we came around a bend.
It was a two-story house, and looked as if it had been abandoned for half a century or more. There wasn't a chip of paint left on it, and some of the siding had fallen off, though it's structure still seemed intact, built on a stone slab foundation — probably the only thing that kept it from sinking into the ground. There was no porch, and only a few windows in total. A cool wind fell on our faces from the hole in the canopy where the house rose up, and it made Carolyn's hair flutter as she gathered it back with a hand. She pointed her flashlight up at a tiny window near the peak of the roof.
"It looks like this place has been abandoned forever ago," I said. "I'm betting people have broken in and ransacked the place. It's probably totally empty."
Carolyn didn't respond, though I was sure she heard me. She stared at the house in absolute wonderment, and I realized there was no way she was leaving tonight until she saw everything inside it — empty or not. Her eyes were filled with a kind of ravenous appetite I had never seen before, and the rest of the world and its priorities were suddenly non-existent. Nothing could compete with her strange fixation on the house.
"Look," she said, spotting something just above the front door. It was a horseshoe, thoroughly rusted, nailed to the top of the door frame. She walked toward it and reached for it. Pulling hard several times with her whole body, she managed to pry it loose from the old wood. "These are supposed to be good luck, right?" She turned it over while inspecting it.
"I guess so," I said, "but this doesn't exactly seem like a place that's had good luck."
She pulled on the old door handle, but it would only open a few inches. The bricks on the doorstep were uneven, and blocked the door from opening more. I stepped behind her and pulled the door up on its hinges to get it open, noticing small planks that were once used to nail the door shut. She stepped inside slowly, and I followed.
The air inside was dusty, and surprisingly dry compared to the thick air outside. The floor was bare wood and the windows were intact. For such a rumored place, it didn't seem like it had been tampered with very much. There was a iron wood stove on the far end of the living room, which was joined to the kitchen, where we stood. Some old appliances from the 40's were still there, but the wares were gone. There was a couch on the far wall that was older than any furniture I'd seen, even in my grandmother's house. Flower-print wallpaper peeled on the walls of the kitchen, but most of them were bare and without decoration. The whole house had a feeling like people had left suddenly, but not in a panic. Most of the belongings were taken, but the larger items were left behind. Carolyn looked at everything, keeping mostly quiet. She was fascinated, and surveyed the place almost like it was a crime scene, believing she could discover everything that had happened by examining remnants and assembling the clues.
As she silently moved about the first floor, the roof creaked from the wind outside — or what I assumed was the wind outside. I was never a generally skittish person, but the longer we stayed in that house the more anxious I became. I wasn't worried about ghosts or being in a dark place — years of camping had made me practically immune to those things. The creepiness came from somewhere else that I couldn't explain, but the more we saw of the house, I became convinced that being in the house in this way was wrong. It was like an invasion of privacy. The objects left behind were interesting, but as I touched them, it became clear to me these were not just old artifacts from a history book. These were remnants from real people's lives, and though I didn't know them personally, I could imagine what it might be like if I had. It seemed wrong to be rummaging around in someone else's things, whether they were even still alive or not.
"I don't really think we should be here," I told her.
"Why? Too scary? There's no one here!" she smiled.
"No, it's just...it's strange in here. This isn't our stuff, and it just doesn't feel right."
Carolyn, kind as she was to the living, was undeterred, making her way upstairs where the bedrooms were, and I followed. The master bedroom had a shredded mattress left behind, along with an old vanity that was grey with dust. At the opposite end of the hall was a child's room. There was a baby crib in one corner, and seeing it there made me start to feel ill as the house continued to creak around us. Carolyn walked towards it and picked up a small cloth doll. It had hair made of yarn and a smiling face stitched in with red and blue thread.
"I don't like this. It's just not right."
"Nobody cares that we are here. No one even lives here anymore. This stuff is so old, if someone wanted it they would have taken it a long time ago. I don't know why you are so worried."
"Don't take that stuff. I know nobody lives here, but it's not ours either."
She twisted her lips to express how silly I sounded. "I'll leave the creepy doll, but I'm keeping the horseshoe. Dead people don't need good luck anyway."
"Whatever," I sighed.
"I'm just going to look in the other room, then we can leave."
"OK. Just hurry up."
She walked back to the hall and into the adjacent room. I didn't want to see more of the house. The further away I could get from the room with the creepy doll, the better, so I walked down the stairs back to the living room. I could hear her opening furniture drawers.
"Wow..." I heard her say from upstairs.
"What?" I said from the bottom of the stairs, though I didn't really care what she had discovered. She must have set her flashlight down in the bedroom so she could use both of her hands, because as I looked up, I could see her shadow projected onto the wall above the staircase. Her head was bent downwards and her elongated hands looked strange on the wall as they picked up several small items.
"There are all these little bottles, like perfume or something."
"Wonderful. Are you finished yet?" She ignored my impatience, continued examining different bottles as I watched her shadow pick them up one at a time and open them to reveal their scents.
Then I saw it begin to descend — slowly, like watching something awaken from a Victorian hibernation, unfolding, unfurling, stretching its thin limbs — many of them — downward like smooth tentacles as it hung from the ceiling. The long shadows reached toward her shadow from behind, bending like some kind of magnetic attraction, slowly, cautiously. I twisted my head and moved closer to the stairwell as I watched the shadow slither from where it hung.
"What the hell? Carolyn. Carolyn!"
They struck like vipers, all attaching in synchronous thirst. I heard bottles and glass breaking on the floor and Carolyn gasping for breath as her shadow was pulled upwards toward the ceiling, her arms flailing in panic. I rushed up the stairs, stumbling with fear, and as I reached the top I could see her suspended by something invisible but dark, the tips of her toes were dragging along the floor, her face held and her body without motion in a strange paralysis. The black parasite, clutching her by the back of the head, had drug her out to the top of the staircase in front of me. I was so afraid, my legs gave out from under me, and I fell to my knees in the middle of the stairway, paralyzed by fear as I saw her bound by an otherworldly predator.
The helplessness I felt in that moment was unlike anything I'd ever known. I was confronted with something that defied all natural explanation, more frightening than my nightmares could have conjured, and it was strangling the most wonderful girl I had ever known. In my horror, I could only scream with all of my being, and unexpectedly, I heard it echoed by the fiend. It shrieked in a high pitched whistle, and recoiled away from her, thin limbs flailing until it dissolved back into the shadows of the ceiling. Leaving Carolyn standing, eyes forward at the top of the stairs, and just as she gained her breath, she looked at me, and her entire body lost its strength, sending her tumbling down towards me.
I tried, largely in vain, to catch her, managing only to stop her momentum, though I knew she must have been injured. I dragged her off the stairs into the living room, still hearing a high-pitched groaning from the thing upstairs. I tapped Carolyn on the face and called her name, desperately trying to wake her. She was breathing, but unresponsive, and I couldn't wait any longer for her to regain consciousness.
I had to drag her most of the way back to the car, through the mud and weeds, her poor body felt lifeless to me, and I might have believed her dead had she not been mumbling strange words I couldn't comprehend. The only thought I had was getting as far away from that house as quickly as I could manage, and when I got her back in the car, I drove faster than I ever had before, tearing down country roads to make it back to civilization, to get her to a hospital. I realized quickly that even if she recovered, I would have to answer for everything that had happened, and I had no clue how I could explain.
The following weeks were obscure, and my mind didn't do well at adjusting to normal life. I visited Carolyn in the hospital, which was only after I had pleaded to her parents and explained as best I could what happened, leaving out the most horrifying parts. I simply told them that she had grabbed hold of the broken banister, which gave way, causing her to lose her footing. My persistence and their kindness caused them to have sympathy, and they soon understood how much I really did care for Carolyn, and though our stalking around in abandoned houses at night wasn't exactly the most responsible thing to be doing, I would never intentionally cause harm to her.
As Carolyn's condition gradually improved, I spent a lot of time with her parents, and learned more about her than she had previously told me. Her parents had actually adopted her, and only a short time before she arrived at our school. Though they didn't give me much detail about her past, I could deduce that it had been far more turbulent that she ever let on. Most disturbing, something happened when she regained consciousness that I could never have anticipated.
She did not recognize me.
The doctors said this was due to the injuries that she suffered, which induced retrograde amnesia. While she did not suffer debilitating brain damage and eventually recovered, she had lost all of her memories of the few months previous to the trauma. Despite the scientific evidence, my experience told me something very different, and in the subsequent weeks, I had formulated my own theory on what had really happened to her.
There was something specific, even among all the terror that I had seen that night, which made me believe her amnesia was not caused by the fall. When the shadow released her as she stood at the top of the stairs above me, just for a second — she looked at me. As confused and helpless as I'd expect her to be, I couldn't help but feel she was confused also at my presence. Sometimes, just a quick glance can reveal much, and as far as I could tell, she did not recognize me even then. The look was not one of longing for me to help her, but a blank stare, as one would stare at a stranger, and the more I learned about Carolyn, I was convinced the demon had drawn the memories straight out of her mind, from present to past, siphoning all her experiences attempting to fill some strange thirst.
If this was the case, it left me with even more questions about both Carolyn and the shadow. What horrible tragedy could have been hidden inside of her that made it choke as it siphoned out her memory? Even more strangely, what kind of dark entity could be so thirsty for a softer existence, to mercilessly scrape it from anything that came close to it? Perhaps its isolation became so intense that it transformed into violent compulsion, shaping its phantom body to that of a predator, actually becoming a horrible leech waiting in the shadows, longing to steal the soul of a human being — all to make up for the existence it never had — a tortured ghost that refused to pass on to the realm of the dead; dark and colorless, vampiric, willing to discard the husk of a broken girl. It's an admittedly strange theory for a strange creature, and perhaps logic isn't equipped to make sense of the event or provide any answers.
Whatever true answers may be found, I will readily leave them on Lunn Road, to rot in that horrible, treacherous house — and for a very good reason. If it really did imbibe the same parts of her mind that she had forgotten, the slithering creature had knowledge that would forever make me uneasy, always hoping it would remain within that house, wishing it would never take flight outside.
Unlike Carolyn, the shadow probably knew me.