Spook House: Chapter One

Sheri Foster shuddered, but not because of the air conditioning.  Sure, a cold breeze blew from the Pontiac’s vents, laboring to combat late August heat, but that wasn’t why she felt a chill.  Not tonight.

Her foot tapped the floorboard, looking for a brake pedal that didn’t exist.  Jeff was the one driving, and there was no stopping him when his knowledge had been called into question.

Why couldn’t she just agree for once?  Now he had to come out here and prove her wrong.  It was all so childish and stupid.

The woods were dark, even with brights on.  Weeds and tall grass choked the dirt road ahead, low-hanging branches clawing at the Pontiac’s metal top as it passed beneath them.  Something ran across their path, caught by the headlights, a creature with huge, bright eyes; there and then gone.  Sheri clamped her hands over her mouth and screamed through her fingers, not much of a scream—more of a quick yelp, really—but loud enough for Jeff to hear.

“Just a possum, hon,” he said with a laugh.  “Or maybe a big rat.”

She lowered her hands to her lap and glared at him.  “You’re not helping.”

He laughed again, keeping his eyes on the narrow road that wasn’t really a road at all, just a very long driveway.

The trees on either side slid off into shadow, giving way to a clearing of tall, unkempt grass and dwarf bushes.  Sheri could see the night sky clearly now, a velvet blanket littered with a million stars, a beautiful sight marred only by the dark, gabled roof of a farmhouse.  There it is, she thought, the old Fuller place.

“See?”  Jeff smiled victorious in the dim dashboard light.  “Told you it was still out here.  You didn’t believe me.”

Sheri didn’t believe much when it came to this house.  Oh sure, she’d heard the stories since childhood.  Everyone had.  Heard how the man who owned the place, Sam Fuller, had been a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, head of the whole “Realm of Indiana.”  How, in 1946, he’d lynched an entire family just north of Harmony, hung every man, woman, and child, and watched them flail and kick until they’d died.  And how, about a month later, according to local legend, Fuller had fallen into his own threshing machine.

Supposedly, the man’s death was ruled an “accident,” but no one in town seemed to buy it, then or now.  And over the years, the stories of ghosts and karmic retribution had been repeated so often, and with such conviction, that they were widely accepted as canon.

Sheri’s eyes shifted to the left, to the distant shadow of a barn.  It leaned to one side as if tired of standing.  Is the machine still in there?  Still covered in Fuller’s blood?  She shuddered.

When the car finally came to a stop, the house stood squarely in its headlamps, huge and sprawling and showing both extreme age and total neglect.  Windows had been boarded at random, leaving unprotected glass to shatter; the jagged shards hung from the panes like crystalline teeth.  Indiana weather had not been kind to it, stripping its paint and leaving naked wood to crack and gray.  Winds stole its shingles, and seasons of heavy snow had weighed down its roof until it sagged and buckled beneath the memory of past strains.  Even the front door had abandoned it, leaving a vacant hole just as dark and sinister as the house itself.

Sheri stared up at it, almost hypnotized, and when Jeff spoke, she nearly leapt from her seat.

“Creepy place, huh?”

“Yeah.”  She looked away, glanced down at her arms, and found that her skin had turned to goose flesh.  “OK, you were right, they didn’t tear it down.  Can we go now?”

“What?”  He gaped at her, puzzled.  “We didn’t drive all the way out here to just turn around and leave.  There’s a flashlight in the glove compartment.”

“We can’t go in there.”

“Why not?”

“That’s trespassing.”  She tried to say it with authority, as if she were afraid of being caught.  She was afraid all right, but not of that.  They were miles away from anywhere, with no reason to believe this place was on any cop’s radar.  No reason to think anyone would come out here to catch them in the act.  No reason to think anyone would find them at all. And that’s what she found truly frightening.

“I don’t see any signs.” Jeff reached across the dash and opened the glove box, removing a neon yellow flashlight.  “Besides, the house has been empty for what, fifty years?  Who’s gonna care?  It’s not like there’s anything in there worth stealing.”

“Probably not, but it could be dangerous.”

He laughed, held the light under his chin and switched it on, casting odd shadows across his face.  “It’s got a death curse!”

She slapped his arm.  “I’m serious!  What if the floor’s rotten, or the ceiling collapses, or there’s a nest of poisonous snakes or spiders or—”

“Look, if you’re too scared, you can stay out here with the doors locked and your cell phone ready.”  He aimed his flashlight at the windshield.  “I’m just going to go have a quick look around.  If I don’t come back, call somebody.”

“Come on, Jeff, you’ve already proved your point. Let’s go back to my—”

“I just want to see it,” he told her.  “Just give me fifteen minutes.”

Sheri sighed.  She knew she couldn’t talk him out of it, not when he had his mind set, but she also knew there was no way she was getting out of this car.  “Fifteen minutes?”

“Fifteen.  Tops.”

She hauled her purse off the floor and dug through it until she found her cell phone.  It would be just her luck to find no service out here.  When she flipped it open, however, she found two signal bars and the faint ghost of a third.  She held it up and shook it at him.  “One second more and I swear I’m calling the cops.”

Jeff smiled, his hand already on the door handle.  “Fair enough.”

He opened the door, let in the humid summer air, and climbed out into the night.

Sheri leaned across the seat after him. “You know, this is the part of the horror movie where everyone yells at the screen and calls the character a complete idiot.”

“Yeah, but I’m your idiot.”  He stuck his head back inside, kissed her lightly on the lips, then withdrew and closed the door behind him.

Sheri watched him step around to the front of the car.  He stood there a moment in the headlights, casting a huge shadow across the house’s crumbling façade, then he moved through the tall grass and carefully mounted the steps.  He paused a moment, studying something at his feet, then he crossed the threshold, the shadows swallowing him whole, and Sheri glanced back down at her phone, at the time displayed there in the corner of her lighted screen.  Fifteen minutes suddenly seemed like a very long time.

“Okay, mister,” she said aloud, “clock starts now.”

•••

That’s odd.

The wooden steps should’ve been warped, cracked and pitted with rot, instead they were smooth and sturdy and bore Jeff’s weight with ease.  They didn’t even creak.  He shone his flashlight down at his feet and saw light-colored planks marbled with woodgrain, the screw heads so new they glowed like tiny mirrors in his beam.

New steps?  Why would somebody put new steps up to an old house?

He lifted his eyes and his light to the vacant doorway and stepped through into darkness, his confusion deepening.  The scent of fresh-cut pine hung thick in the humid air.  Plywood?  Yes.  Someone had cut up sheets of plywood and fastened them to the hallway floor.

Jeff peered into the empty room to his left, shined his flashlight on neon yellow saw horses and scattered boxes of decking screws.

They’re fixing the place up?  This place?

And the way they were going about it…

Fresh wood on the hallway floor, but the rooms on either side still had their original flooring, frosted with years of dust.  There were footprints, like tracks in new-fallen snow, various sizes and treads. A flurry of recent activity.  The walls, however, showed no sign of being touched.  The original floral wallpaper was still there; yellowed, dingy, torn in spots—hanging strips exposing a landscape of scarred and cratered plasterwork, wooden ribs showing through scattered holes—but there was no rhyme or reason to it.  And attached to all this corrosion was a bright white smoke detector, fresh out of the box, its sensor light blinking red like a warning beacon in the dark.

What the hell?

Jeff continued down the hall, illuminating one mysterious anachronism after another.  More new smoke detectors on more crumbling, barely touched walls.  Shiny fire extinguishers in otherwise neglected rooms.  Electrical outlets mounted on the outsides of walls, sometimes just above the old-fashioned, existing outlets; external wiring sealed in metal pipes that ran along the rotting baseboards to points unknown.  It was as if the remodeling crew wanted to preserve all this decay.

He turned a corner into the kitchen.  It didn’t appear that the workmen had come this far.  He found a floor that was a fresco of small tiles, some cracked, some missing; cabinets without doors, some of which had fallen from their roosts, leaving more pits and holes in the plasterwork; and a sink basin full of debris.  The window above was boarded, allowing fingers of moonlight to reach in along the far wall.

Jeff turned his light and found a closed wooden door, the only one he’d seen in the house so far.  The hinges were original, rusted and tarnished, the knob covered in a Celtic pattern both intricate and ornate.  He paused, then reached out and opened it, wincing at the scream of metal against metal.  The tiny spotlight found wooden steps descending into absolute darkness.

The cellar.

Probably a dirt floor.  That’s the way they did it back then, wasn’t it?  Dirt floors and wooden shelves full of canning jars.  Would there still be fruit after so many years?—rotten and mummified, mutated into all variety of science experiments?  Part of him was dying to find out.

And if those stairs give way and you fall?  What then?  Maybe it’s not dirt.  Maybe it’s concrete.  Maybe you’ll bust your head wide open and that’ll be it.    

Jeff nodded.  He was just about to walk away and head back out to the car, when he saw something.

A light.

He froze, thinking he’d only imagined it, but no, there it was again.

A soft, yellow-green glow, fading in and then fading out.

What the—?

He paused, thinking it over, then his curiosity got the better of him.  He held his watch up to the light, knowing Sheri would follow through with her threat to call the police if he wasn’t out there on schedule.  He still had seven minutes, however.

Plenty of time for a quick look. 

Jeff started down the stairs with caution, testing each step before applying his full weight.  Cobwebs dangled in his path.  He brushed them aside, then wiped his hand on his jeans in disgust.  It looked as if no one had been down here in forever, and yet that light…

It came again, illuminating red brick walls and a latticework of old copper pipes that hung from the rafters.

But what the hell is it?  A television screen left on?  Maybe it’s part of a new security system to go along with the new smoke detectors and fire extinguishers?  None of this makes any sense.   

Jeff reached the basement floor (dirt, just as he’d imagined) and flashed his light around.  Bricks and support posts had turned the cellar into a maze of storerooms.  Water-damaged boxes and wooden pallets sat stacked in corners, filling the confined space with the stench of their gradual corruption.  And at the end of a very long, very narrow hall, an archway glowed with that mysterious yellow-green aura.

He stepped through the arch and a sharp odor assaulted his nostrils almost immediately, overpowering everything else.  Chlorine.  He coughed against it, and covered his mouth and nose with his hand to block it out.

Still the smell persisted.

Jeff looked around for the source and his eyes filled with tears.  He could still see, however.  He just couldn’t believe what he saw.

The brick on the opposite side of the room was cracked, a single fracture that snaked its way up the entire length of the wall; nearly three feet wide at the floor, tapering down to a paper-thin line near the rafters.  It glowed.  The crack actually glowed, filling the room with wavy, spectral light…and something else.  A thick, yellow-green fog, heavier than the surrounding air; it poured from the break, hiding dirt beneath a churning blanket of mist.

Jeff took a step toward the crack and was immediately seized by a coughing fit, that chlorine stench burning the lining of his nose.  A chemical spill?  Did the workmen breach some underground tank?  Oh God…what have I just exposed myself to?

He heard an animal snarl behind him and spun around, aiming his light in the direction of the sound, seeing nothing but brick and molder in all directions.  Then, in the darkness beyond the arch, something moved; he heard the whisk and patter of feet, the crash of falling debris.  Whatever it was, it was between him and the stairs.

Oh shit!  Jeff coughed, his nose and throat blazing, his eyes fogging with fresh tears.  What the hell is that?  What have I—

A scream made him jump, then he heard a guitar riff start in.  His ring tone: Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”  He shoved his hand into his pocket and yanked out his cell phone, silencing the Prince of Darkness, seeing a familiar smiling face on the touch screen. “Sheri?”

“Time’s up. Get your ass out here and let’s go.”

He glanced into the dark hallway.  Had the thing out there heard the music?  Was it coming for him now?  He hunkered down, trying to keep his voice low.  “Sheri, listen to me…There’s something down here, and it—”

“Yeah, right.”

I’m serious! ” Jeff was rocked by another coughing fit, and tasted blood in his mouth.  He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and saw red streaks across his knuckles in the flashlight.

That animal snarled again, but it was not coming toward him.  It sounded distant, trailing off.  He heard the loud drumming of hurried feet on wood.

It was climbing up the stairs.

Before he could warn Sheri, however, something lashed out at him from behind and wrapped itself around his wrist, something pink and laced with purple veins, something covered in a thick coat of slime.  It was a tentacle.  Rows of suckers on the underside flexed and puckered like countless wanton mouths.  Jeff’s teary eyes bulged from their sockets as the tentacle tightened its grip, its pressure crushing in on the bones of his wrist.  He lost his grasp on the flashlight and it fell into the yellow-green fog that pooled around his feet.

Holy shit!

Another tentacle whipped at Jeff, wrapped itself around his waist.  It was larger than the first, thicker and more muscular; it flexed and constricted and yanked him back across the floor, the heels of his sneakers digging deep furrows in the dirt, gouges that quickly filled in with mist.  Jeff’s cell phone slipped through his fingers and joined the flashlight in the chlorine haze.  He could still hear Sheri’s voice, however; she sounded more angry than frightened.

“Stop it!  I mean it!  This isn’t funny!”

No, Jeff thought, this isn’t funny at all!

The back of his head slapped against the brick and birthed a fireworks display in his watery eyes.  More tentacles came from behind him; they curled around his chest, around his legs.  They were actually extending from the crack in the wall, trying to pull him through.

Jeff opened his mouth to scream, but the tentacles bulged and tightened and squeezed all the air from his lungs with a glut of blood.  He heard his ribs crack and break.  The splintered bone stabbed through his organs, flooding him with wave after wave of searing pain.  Warmth washed over his body—his blood defying gravity, flowing back into the light.  The insistent tentacles yanked and tugged, and his spine snapped in two, the jagged lips of the crack in the wall raking Jeff’s flesh like teeth as he was pulled through it.

Before he was wrenched completely into the break, however, before his skull finally imploded, before his brain was flattened to the thickness of a flapjack and scraped back into the yellow-green light beyond, Jeff’s final thought was of Sheri.

•••

The sudden silence on the other end of the line chilled her to the bone.

Sheri clutched the phone to her ear, her hand shaking.  She sat there in the passenger’s seat, staring through the windshield into the darkened doorway, and the Fuller house stared back at her with cold indifference.  She cried out again, “I’m going to call the cops, Jeff.”

No reply.

“I’m serious!”

Still nothing.

She lowered the phone and looked at the screen.  The call hadn’t dropped.  Jeff just wasn’t talking.

Shit.

Sheri glanced up just in time to glimpse a dark shape as it bolted from the mouth of the door and dove off the porch into the tall grass.  The blades rocked violently back and forth as whatever it was neared the Pontiac’s bumper.  She locked her door, then reached across Jeff’s seat and did the same.  She ran her fingers over the steering column, trying to see if Jeff had left her the keys; when her fingernail slipped into the empty ignition, she had her answer.

Shit! 

Her foot brushed against her purse on the floorboard.  Inside was a Monarch Stun Pen.  1.3 million volts.  She put the phone back against her ear and shrunk down in the seat, trying to reach it, trying not to be seen, her seatbelt digging into her chin.  “Jeff?” she whispered. “Jeff, something’s coming for the car.”

Coming for her.

The dark shape leapt up onto the hood, denting the metal, a jolting impact that rocked the car on its axles.  Sheri’s breath caught in her throat.  The thing was the size of a German shepherd, but this was no dog.  No.  This was unlike any animal she’d ever seen, a nightmare silhouette.  Its back was the serrated outline of a naked spine, and it stood on more than a dozen boney, spider-like legs that flexed and bent in odd, crazy angles, each step accompanied by the shrill scrape of claws on metal.  Its long, narrow head dipped down, peering in at her.

Does it know I’m in here?  Can it see me?  Smell me?

The shadowy creature snarled at her.  Its snout split open and the flesh peeled away from its jaws in flaps.  The obscene mouth lunged at the windshield, streaking the glass with slime and spittle, its fangs scraping and scratching like diamonds.

Sheri recoiled, pressed herself flat against her seat.  Her heart thumped so loud she could hear it; the beat mixed with the beast’s snarl and the scratch of metal and glass to form a hellish symphony.

“Jeff!” Sheri shrieked into her phone, knowing now why he didn’t answer, why he would never answer again, and the image sprang up behind her eyes with such suddenness that she literally jumped in her seat; Jeff lying on a rotting floor like the Raggedy Andy doll she’d had as a child, his head nearly ripped off and his stuffing spilling out, except it wasn’t stuffing at all.

It was blood.

Tears ran down her cheeks.  She hung up, her harried fingers dialed 922, then she hung up again and dialed the correct number.  As she listened to it ring, she undid her seatbelt, reached down and retrieved her purse, all the while keeping her eyes on the windshield, on the creature outside.

Those flaps around its jaws opened and closed again.  The creature hissed and snarled and bellowed its frustration.  It knew she was in the car, but it could not get at her.

“Go away!” she screamed, searching blindly through her purse with her free hand.  She felt her Kindle, her checkbook, a compact, her birth control pills, a small bottle of Excedrin, and folded pieces of paper that seemed so important but now meant nothing.  Where the hell is my stun pen? 

Ringing gave way to a distant female voice, “Harmony 911, where’s your emergency?”

“Oh God…Help!  Please help me!  The old Fuller place!”

The creature snarled, then scratched the glass once more with its teeth.

“What’s your emergency?”

“Send the police!  Hurry!”

“What’s your problem there?”

“It’s trying to get in!  I think it killed my boyfriend!”

“What happened to your boyfriend?”

The thing lunged at the windshield again, and this time the glass cracked in a spiderweb.

 Spider-dog! she thought incoherently.  The word just popped into her mind and then exploded from her lips.  “Spider-dog!”

“What happened to your boyfriend, ma’am?  I need to know.”

“It’s breaking in!  It’s gonna get me!”

The spider-dog screeched and growled, saliva tethering the folds of its mouth to the glass in long, back-lit strands.

“Someone’s breaking in right now?”

“Just send cops with guns!  Guns!  Hurry!”

“Who has the guns?”

“No!  Listen, you stupid bitch!”  Sheri held the phone up to the windshield so the woman could hear the spider-dog’s hungry, frustrated snarls.  “You hear that?  It’s gonna kill me!  Send some fucking cops out here to shoot it or I’m gonna die!”

The voice came again, but this time Sheri didn’t think the woman was talking to her.  “Route Six, the old Fuller Place.  Possible break-in.  They say someone has a gun and is trying to kill somebody else.”

Another lunge and she felt the sting of glass on her arms and her cheeks.  “Hurry,” she screamed into the phone.  “It’s getting in!”

“They’re on their way,” the dispatcher assured her.  “I need you to calm down.  I need you to talk to me.  You say someone’s breaking into the Fuller place?”

The spider-dog thrust its snout through the opening in the windshield, coming within inches of her nose.  It opened its mouth again.  Its hot breath stank of low tide.

Sheri continued to fish through her purse, and finally, her fingers closed around the Monarch’s rubber grip.  She yanked the pen free and thumbed off the cap.  She hit the wrong button, however, and turned on the high-powered LEDs instead of the stunner.

In the bright light, she saw the spider-dog clearly for the first time.  The insides of those folds were wrinkled and pink and lined with rings of teeth like a lamprey.  The rest of its skin was the blackish-gray color of rotting flesh.  It screeched and shook its head back and forth.  Its eyes were bulbous and black; there were dozens of them, various sizes and on both sides of its narrow head, but they didn’t seem to have any lids.

I’ve blinded it!  

It screeched again, and outside, those countless legs clawed and scratched and tried to pull itself free of the windshield.

Sheri glanced down at the Monarch, and this time, she armed it.  She thrust it up like a sword.  There was a bright flash of electricity, and the spider-dog let out a shrill cry of pain.  Its head jerked backward, withdrew from the car; it slid off the hood into the grass and was gone.

For a moment, she thought she heard more creatures coming up behind her, their screeching growing louder, closer.  When she saw the red and blue strobes in the Pontiac’s rearview mirror, however, she knew it was just the police.  Sheri fell back against her seat in tears, her cell phone in one hand and her stun pen in the other.  And when a police officer finally knocked on her window, his gun drawn, she was slow to open it.

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