NOTE: Each October I write a ghost story or weird tale for Hallowe'en and post it here. The following piece is 2021's "Ghost Story for Hallowe'en":
Following his mother’s death, a cynical self-love author, long estranged from his family, learns that he has inherited his deceased grandparents’ country homestead. Their Victorian farmhouse has been boarded up and lain empty for years – and he wants nothing to do with it. However, he decides to renovate and flip it with the help of an old mentor and friend, while sleeping upstairs in his childhood bedroom. The isolated homestead is filled with slumbering memories and lurking emotions, however, and the renovation rapidly descends from a simple real estate venture into a reality-shredding, metaphysical crucible – especially when his recurring childhood nightmare, of waking to a strange, feral man slithering into bed with him, returns with a shocking vengeance.
FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T TURN ON THE LIGHT
The drive from Nashville, Tennessee to Alexandria, Indiana was neither terribly long nor terribly boring, but it was terribly quiet. Passing through the steamy Appalachian foothills, he had no lack of scenery – the blue mountains’ heavy shoulders lay to the east, with rolling farmland on either side, teeming with loping horses and ambling cattle – but it was all so quiet and still. The interstate was unusually desolate, even when he drove through Louisville, with the golden sun melting in the western sky, followed by the orange glow of the city lights, and the muddy shadows of the dim, urban twilight.
He wanted to push through without stopping, and the smothering, quiet calm of the road that was taking him home piqued his determination to stay in motion until he had finished the journey. Truthfully, it was his own fault for starting out as late as he did – seven in the evening, just in time to hit the hideous Nashville after-work traffic – but now his focus was on pulling into Alexandria as soon as he possibly could. It wasn’t that he wanted to be there – he didn’t – or that he was expected by anyone – he wasn’t – but he simply couldn’t stand this heavy fog of silence. It seemed to bleed into his car through the air vents, and pool heavily at his feet. It was watchful and intelligent and it was waiting to see what he would do, and how he would atone.
Grace had immediately understood that he would need to go. Not only had the house been his grandparents’ house for half a century, and not only had it been built by his great-great-grandparents 130-some years ago, but he himself had lived there for three critical years in his life. When he was four years old the economy took a massive dive and his dad’s company tanked. His family had moved in with his mom’s parents and they had lived in the upstairs suite for a year. Two decades later, after he was accepted to Ball State University’s doctoral program in social psychology, he lived in those same rooms for two years. It wasn’t long after he moved out and began writing books that his grandparents passed – both suddenly and unexpectedly in the same year – that the house had gone to his mother. Grace knew this and she also realized that she couldn’t go with him: he made enough money off of book royalties that he could afford to pass on teaching summer classes, but she didn’t, and she would be teaching psych classes at Vanderbilt through the next four weeks. So he would have to go alone.
Grace also knew that it would be a hard trip to make. He had loved his family. His grandparents were good to their neighbors, showed up to his school events, and let him live rent free for those two years. But there had always seemed to be issues between them: his distaste for the small-town rural lifestyle, his revulsion at the way they seemed to draw the past into any conversation, and of course there was the way he made his living: his books sported titles like Fugitives of Faith: How to Decode the Psychological Lies of Religion; Seeing the Glory: A Psychologist’s Deconstruction of Religious Mania Past and Present; and Born Again: Restoring Western Democracy to its Secular Roots. Although he had only published one of these before his grandparents’ deaths – a little book called Pearls Before Swine: How World Religions Limit the Pursuit of True Self-Love – it was enough to become a wall between them. His professional focus on deconstructing the wish fulfilments and defense mechanisms of religious fundamentalism seriously chafed his devout, Nazarene family members. His grandma still told him she loved him and still sent him cards and letters, but when she finally passed, no one else in the family seemed to want him at the funeral. Other than his mother, he hadn’t heard from any members of his extended family in seven years. He doubted if that would change.
Pushing on into Southern Indiana he found the quiet even more pregnant with anticipation. The landscape leveled out as he came nearer to Indianapolis, replacing the swelling hills and wooded hollows with wide stretches of fields, black with recent rain and bristling with alert spears of corn. In the darkness the orange windows of distant farmhouses watched his passage like calm but vigilant eyes. He drove by two trucks on the side of the road – one giving the other a jumpstart – and the two men stood in silence with their arms crossed and watched him pass by. He was still one of only a few cars on the interstate that night. To his left he saw the brown glow of a sleeping suburb; to his right he saw a sign that told him he was fifty-seven miles away from his exit. What would his reaction be to seeing it for the first time in seven years? Would there be nostalgia or boredom? Would it be a significant reunion with a cherished memorial or a meaningless homage to a dead idol?
Seven years since he had been home. Seven years. And now he was the last one who could possibly decide what to do with his grandparents’ house. He had no siblings; his mom’s only brother was declining in a nursing home, and his ex-wife lived in Virginia with her second husband; of the three cousins, one had O.D.’d on pills in 2016, one lived off the grid with his husband in New Hampshire and was even less likely to come home again, and one had committed suicide in his garage after losing his custody battle. There were no other relatives left: the great-aunts and great-uncles had all died in the past decade, he barely knew their children or grandchildren, and since his own mother’s death he didn’t know a single person who would so much as be interested in accompanying him to the old farmhouse.
The farmstead had been in his mom’s name since grandma died, but it had been unoccupied for at least four years. Prior to that, his mother had used it as a rental (always to large families – foster families, homeschoolers, blended families – but the last two had done incredible damage to it, and after the last one, she had decided to board it up and save up for the repairs before renting it out again. The last family had attempted a series of unapproved modifications – turning the attic into a spare bedroom, blowing out the wall of grandma’s bedroom to make an “open concept” downstairs, and pulling down the plaster in the dining room to make way for shiplap – and none of them had been seen through to completion. Now the old windows were boarded up and the mutilated rooms had been sleeping in four years of darkness, with only the faint, red crack of sunlight piercing through the creases between the plywood slabs.
He passed the exits to Muncie and Anderson and continued on down a particularly dark and quiet stretch of Interstate 69 that would terminate for him at Exit 245. He would get off there, turn left, continue down SR-28 for a quarter of a mile, turn right – at the site of a burned-out house – on County Road 500 E, take that north for half a mile – driving parallel with the interstate, which would be glowing and humming a quarter mile off to his right – and then make that final left turn onto CR 700 N, which he would follow between two cornfields for less than 500 yards. And there it would be: a white, Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch, half-hidden from the road by an enormous, old oak tree, and sitting just on the edge of four acres of thick woods.
Before he knew it, he saw the sign for Exit 245, back-lit by the somber glow of the Petro truck stop that crouched in watchful stillness at the intersection between I-69 and SR-28. His grey eyes narrowed into cold, dark slits, and he rubbed the first two knuckles of his left hand rhythmically along his smooth jawline.
There was one last brick in this particular wall that he had fought to forget and roll out of his mind. That was the dream. Only Grace knew about this. He had never mentioned it to his mother, and had cunningly hid it from each of his therapists (and knew full well that he was hiding it). It was a dream that he had first experienced when he was five years old. A dream that he had again when he was thirteen, and again when he was eighteen – and twenty-one and twenty-five. It came so rarely that it hadn’t truly ever bothered him until the night that his mother died. This was for two reasons: firstly, because he had had it minutes before he got the phone call about her car accident, and secondly, because he had noticed, for the first time, a change in its predictable script. But this was the last place he wanted to think about the dream: just as he was flipping on his turn signal to leave the orange glow of the interstate for the purple-black gloom of the countryside.
He took the exit, made the left turn, and saw the blackened chimney of the burned-out house on his right. It was here that he would need to turn right. He imagined the house as it must be right now, gathered up in the deep purple gloom of the trees pressing against it, with its two, large upper-story windows. In a micro-second he had a vision of driving down CR 700 N in December, seeing the ranks of milk-jug luminarias that his grandpa would put out at Christmas, glowing down either side of the driveway like a landing strip. When the corn was harvested and the fields were laid low, you could see their soft glow from two miles off. He wondered what he would do if he turned the corner and saw the distant pinkish glow waiting for him. Without hesitation he maintained his speed and drove on down SR 28, towards Alexandria proper. He would find a room for the night at the Budget Inn. He did this without trouble: before twenty minutes had passed he had taken his rucksack and suitcase into the lobby, was given a key-card, had collapsed on the bed, and was swallowed in sleep. It was deep and long and dreamless.
SUNDAY, JULY 23.
By the time he awoke, it was well after nine in the morning, and he wasted no time in showering and hurrying off to find some breakfast. He realized that he hadn’t texted or called Grace to let her know that he’d arrived safely. It was very unlike him to forget to text her when he was travelling – her parents had died in a highway accident while on vacation, and he knew that this formality was one of her strictest pet peeves. As he rushed outside to his car, he balanced his cell phone between his ear and shoulder and tried to reach her, but she was unquestionably in the middle of a class by now, so he left an apologetic voicemail and headed off to Rachel’s Hi-Way Café for a plate of eggs and sausage. For some reason he felt incredibly hungry, and even though his usual breakfast consisted of a pair of cold, s’mores-flavored Pop-Tarts washed down with almond milk, he felt as though he couldn’t do anything else before he had eaten a large, hot breakfast, and he knew that Rachel’s would give it to him.
He ordered the largest breakfast plate and a whole carafe of coffee, and before the waitress had even left the table, and began plunging into it. His stomach was icy with hunger, and relief radiated down his spine as the eggs, bacon, and sausage warmed it. His education kept telling him that this freakish hunger was a psychosomatic defense mechanism – regarding the devil-knows-what exactly – but it didn’t stop him from eating everything on his plate and draining the carafe. He knew that he had to examine his choices, but he also knew that – in his mind anyway – there wasn’t any choice. Had his mom been there, this would have been more balanced and complicated, but he knew in his heart that he wanted nothing more than to be rid of the old house and everything – living, dead, or in between – that came with it.
The options were simple, and they both began the same way: open it back up and pay for some basic repairs. After this he could either sell it or rent it out. He was massively in favor of selling. Either way he needed to survey the damage – to see whether he could manage it by himself or whether he needed to hire out a contractor – and this was his first task. He finished the last of the coffee, paid his bill (the hostess wished him a “blessed day,” to which he grinned back weakly), and hopped back into his car. Pulling out onto the highway, he drove east – back into the country – with the mid-morning sun shining warmly on his face and chest.
Looking back on the long weekends they had spent there while he was growing up, it was surprising to realize – as an adult – how much it had been like slipping back into a different century, although he hadn’t known any better at the time. Of course, the house had running water and lights, but it had no air conditioning, no cable, and no furnace. In the winter, the downstairs was heated by an iron, woodburning stove and the upstairs was heated by a pair of radiators. In the summer it was cooled by opening all of the windows, and most of the evenings were spent on the south-facing porch. Even with the electricity, there were many nights when the dining room was illuminated by a pair of hurricane lamps, which sent the acrid tang of kerosene curling through the air.
If he had been a romantic he may have been charmed by the memories of spending those steamy, summer nights on the porch, with the curtains bowing and reaching in the open windows with every slight breeze. He may have seen it as a rare gift – to have been a child growing up in the neon-colored commercialism of the ‘90s, and yet to have spent long winter evenings sitting beside a wood-burning stove while his family members shared stories from the olden-time. But he wasn’t a romantic and he hadn’t enjoyed it. He had resented the sweaty, outside summers and stuffy, indoor winters. His only pleasures there had been time spent alone: reading books of adventure and heroics – like Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and Robin Hood – or spending hours upon hours prowling his grandparents woods, or killing time at the campsite he had made in a clearing at its center, where he could play out his fantasies with his favorite family member – himself. Otherwise it had always felt stifling and forced. But now he had to come back to it all and bring it to some sort of final conclusion. A real adventure in which he would either play the hero or the villain.
He wasn’t interested in improving the amenities: none of the families who had lived there since 2006 had complained about the lack of heat or air conditioning. The six acres of land that the farmhouse sat on had apparently been sufficient to attract them, and four of those acres were, as I have mentioned, made up of dense woodland, which meant free heating, as long as you were willing to cut it. Window A/C units had come with the house since it was first rented out, and were still stored in the attic. All he needed to worry about was making sure that it was weather-tight and clean, and he was hoping that he could manage this by himself.
As he grew closer, he remembered the dream again. It came as suddenly as if someone sitting beside him had begun humming a love song that he associated with a particularly savage break-up: the reaction was instant and visceral. It probably the thought of the A/C units in the attic. The attic…
Like most true dreams, its details were muddled up in a vague mist, but their rudiments were always the same: he is sleeping alone in the upstairs bedroom that shares the attic door. The house is shaded by tall trees, and at night the room is so dark that if you were to wake up in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t immediately be sure of which way you were facing, or where the door was. It must take place in the fall: there were no sounds – no frogs or cicadas or crickets – but it is still warm. Somewhere in the blackness he hears the thick, raspy clack of a handle turning, and the tired creak of a door opening. It is either the bedroom door to the large, upstairs sitting room where his parents are sleeping, or the closet door to his right, or the attic door to his left. He knows instinctively that it is the attic door opening. A low, narrow door to a low, narrow room – or pair of rooms – that remained unfinished and haggard-looking, with heavy, grey beams studded by rusty nails, and the bare floor joists stuffed with pale yellow insulation, made navigable only by a series of boards nailed onto the joists to act as a stepping path. He had always been so terrified of stepping off the boards and falling into the insulation: he wasn’t sure where he would go, but he knew that he would be lost. And what was even in this attic? Bookshelves, tables, chests, bureaus, and trunks. All heavy and dark and closed up. All hiding things that he couldn’t understand, things connected to dead people he had never met, with stories that he couldn’t relate to, but which somehow were more a part of him than his own two hands.
And from this dark, chilly cell, something is deciding to exit and join the world of the living – his world. What it is he can never say, but he hears its feet creak on the floor as it comes over to his bed. He feels the bed sag to the left as it slithers in with him. He feels the covers rustle as it slides between them. With his left hand he touches cold skin with light hair on it, but no clothes. In spite of his deepest, most convicting misapprehensions, he slides it up what appears to be a shriveled human stomach, across a set of bony ribs, along a throat and jaw bristling with what his grandma called “whiskers,” and finally onto a face. It is the face of someone who is awake. Their expression concerns him. He feels clenched teeth, though he can’t tell if they are clenched in pain, or a frown, or a smile. He touches a gelatinous, unblinking eye.
He doesn’t dare turn the light on – he knows that this would be the worst thing: to see it and know what it is – so instead he bolts for the bedroom door handle that he instinctively knows is two feet from the right side of his bed and four quick strides to make it there. He rushes for it. Something rustles on the left side of the bed, and the sound is coming towards him. He gains the door and rushes towards the break-neck stairs. Miraculously he makes it down them and around the hairpin turn at the bottom without tripping, since he is bounding as quickly as possible – two steps at a time – and all in pitch black darkness. He has passed his parents in their bed. He doesn’t even consider going to them. He enters the dining room below, which is dimly illuminated by two oil lamps. He runs past the door to his grandparents’ bedroom. He doesn’t think to knock on their door. A cheerful song is being wrung from the dry lungs of the old organ behind him, but he doesn’t dare turn around to see who is playing it anymore than he would have reached over to turn on the light switch.
In the living room he sees sleeping forms bundled up on the couches and slumped in the chairs. His cousins must be spending the night. He jumps over two of them in pursuit of the front door: he must get out. He has heard the steps crashing behind him – thin, naked feet slapping on the hardwood floors – and knows that his only hope is to make it to the center of the wood on his grandparents’ property.
His little campsite hemmed in by soaring ash trees and fat beeches. He must make it there if he is to find protection – far from his family, far from their past-obsessed lives and their stories of dead great-aunts and great-grandparents, of people his own mother never met: of his mother’s 13 year old cousin Jerry who was messing with a cow in a way that was wrong and shameful, and of how he got its halter tangled around his throat, how he was strangled by the cow who dragged him for a mile into a neighbor’s field, and how the newspapers had said that he died falling from a treehouse (but his mother told him the shameful truth). He must run far from the frozen world of dying relatives and their dead gods. He knew that if he found the heart of the wood, he would be safe – he would live – and as he leapt from the porch, felt his feet crunch into the leaf-covered grass, and raised his eyes to the black mound of trees silhouetted against a purple sky flecked with flickering stars, he awoke.
And this has been his dream – at five, the week after they moved from the house to a place of their own, at thirteen, the age that Jerry was when he was strangled on the cow halter, at eighteen, when he first left for college, at twenty-one, when he decided on his career, and at twenty-five, the week before his grandmother passed away. And then there was the most recent one, now that he was thirty-three and his mother had died. But that time it was different; he thinks this to himself slowly, as he glances at a derelict barn in an overgrown field, with one great, black rent in its splintered, grey face – like the dead socket of a once all-seeing eye.
Looking ahead he saw the old ruin’s blackened chimney jutting like a signpost just ahead of him, with the wide, morning sun hovering directly over it – as if it had been speared on its jagged masonry. Obediently he turned left and found himself engulfed on either side by cornfields. It was already late July, and the season – so he had heard – had been a very wet and warm one. The cornstalks were already over six feet tall, and obscured what might otherwise has been an instant view of his destination. As it was, he had to wait to make the turn on CR 700 N before he could catch a glimpse of it.
He continued down the green corridor, hemmed in by barbed-wire fences and bordered by ditches half-filled with brown water which was slowly steaming off as the sun climbed higher and burned hotter. Here was a turn, then, and with a sigh of relief, and caught his first glimpse of the house where it watched him from beneath the shade of the massive oak tree. Here, he smiled to himself, in all of this white heat, under the glaring watchfulness of a July sun, he saw that the illusion was shattered.
This was no ancient family manor or grim country seat isolated in a rain-flogged moor: it was a simple, eight-room farmhouse dozing comfortably in the season of its retirement. It came with no curses, no dangers, and no appetites.
Best of all, it came with no occupants. Just the basic responsibility – in the memory of his mother who loved it and grandparents who had lived and died there – of doing it justice and selling it for a decent price. With the money from his last royalty check he would easily be able to cash flow up to $18,000 in repairs without putting a dent in his August living expenses, and – if need be – he could easily finance a further $50,000 or so. Now, as he grew near enough to see the individual slats of the siding, he would just need to make an assessment, plot out the repairs, and hope to have it all wrapped up and on the market by September.
The farmhouse was, as I have said, a Victorian. It had been built in 1893 and had the conventions of the era: from overhead you will think it looks like a Swiss cross: it is a squarish building composed of two intersecting wings; there were gables on all four sides – each steeply-pitched – and girded around the front-facing cross-arm by a wrap-around porch, done up in what is called “gingerbread” detail. In the front, of course, you see an immense oak tree – which was a good twenty feet taller than the house itself, with a trunk a bit wider than ten feet. Behind it, as you as the garage and walk around its side, you can see three shabby outbuildings: a grey barn with great, black gashes torn in the dry wood, a rusted storage shed tucked away amongst a protective grove of hickory trees, and a long, sagging chicken coop, studded with small, black windows. At the far corner of the property, just beyond these, you will find a shaggy cluster of apple and pear trees, whose low-hanging branches are already heavy with swelling fruit. It will be understandable if you eye one of these and – although they are sweetest in September – decide to pluck one and eat it as you make your way back towards the road.
Nothing is to the left of the house (the direction from which he approached it) other than a tangle of grape vines and a long strip of overgrown yard which had once been his grandma’s vegetable garden, which you will walk through to regain the front yard. As you cross this and move towards the far side of the property, you will see a heavy clump of woodland that you will feel a disinclination from exploring. If you do want to examine it, however, you will find that it is transfixed by one long trail which bulges in the middle, in a wide clearing – the grandchildren’s old campsite – which is at the woods’ geometric center. You will also find that it is darkened by the restless canopies of beeches and ash trees, and that its ground is treacherously tangled by wild vines and brier patches. You will be unlikely to spend much time in it.
Pulling into the driveway, he didn’t waste any time looking at the scenery, but went directly to the front porch and began examining the boards on the windows. These were now bowed and weather stained, but all of them seemed to be in place, and removing them would be his first task. The porch was in good order, at any rate, without any signs of rot, and although the front yard was wildly overgrown, he saw nothing out of place or worthy of concern. Walking around the sides was equally relieving, and other than some damage to the chimney piece (presumably from lightning, based on a white scar that scored the pink bricks) and the sight of an uprooted old paw-paw tree (which could be conveniently translated into firewood), the back was also perfectly in good order.
But now he had to steel himself for the interior. Whatever awaited him there would be infinitely more complicated. He remembered the conversation with his mother as she tearfully described the damage done by the last tenants, and mentally opened up a calculator for the damage assessment. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the brass key that had been in his mother’s safety deposit box and climbed back onto the porch. Without hesitation he inserted it in the storm door and felt it roll snuggly through the pin-tumblers. For a moment he pictured the dark interior and wondered if he was being fool-hardy in rushing into it without someone else there to accompany him. But, strangely perhaps, he didn’t feel alone at all.
He had a spontaneous vision of noticing something low and hunched waddle across the floor and defensively scurry into a corner to watch him from. A wild animal? A coyote? He shook his head and looked back to the aquamarine sky, where the sparrows flitted over the rustling cornfields. No, no animals would be inside. How would they have gotten in? But what if they had never left? What if he was letting them out? He clenched his face. An odd, stupid thought. He wrenched the key home, gripped the knob, and – with a bitter shove – forced the door open.
He was immediately hit by the thick, earthy stench of dust, and perhaps something else, but was more overcome by the taste that it left in his mouth: sour, seemingly, and moldy. But as to his eyes, he could see nothing. He took a ginger step forward and found his footing. There was the carpet, and it felt as though the floor was solid. Another step. Now his eyes were conditioning to the thick shadows around him, and he began to see the room come together in dense, brown shapes. Other than the front door, which had allowed in a sheet of sunlight, he began to detect – as he had earlier imagined – the amber slits of light coming through the taller windows between the creases between the plywood. These glinted wakefully at him from the far side of the dining room and all along the walls of the living room which he now stood in. The feeble sunlight which they emitted could now be seen glowing in thin shafts through the dust that hovered in the air around him like sugar crystals stirred up in a glass of sweet tea – rising in wispy flurries and floating carelessly back down, as though returning to an interrupted dream.
Before he took a single step forward, he determined, he would have these boards taken down and these windows thrown open. This dust must be cleared out and the air cleaned before anything else could be done. Without glancing to either side he slammed the door behind him and rushed outside to his car where he had a cordless screw gun and a prybar. The muggy air seemed cool and delicious to his lungs, and he was surprised to involuntarily gulp it up in a few raspy gasps. No, no, he couldn’t get a single thing accomplished until those boards were down and the windows had been left open to air the place out.
One hour’s work was all it took to draw the screws from the thirteen windows on the lower story, and once the slabs of plywood were all leaned up neatly against the garage, he felt comfortable going back inside to open the sashes. This time, as he moved from window to window, he once again felt the relief that had flooded him when he rounded the corner for the first time – the shattering of an illusion. It reminded him of the time as a child that he had run screaming to his mother in terror of a monster – like the monster from his dream – the monster that he had finally uncovered in the attic, the monster that had turned out to be nothing more than a dress form covered with an old fur coat. He had found “it” in this very house, up in the attic with its unfinished beams and flickering lights. They had journeyed back upstairs together to corner the huge, furry thing, only for his face to burn with embarrassment when she pulled back the coat and spun the dress form around with a laugh. How much like that same five year old child he had just been!
And yet, the removal of the plywood had truly made a difference: clean, warm light gushed into each room, burning away the damp and eating up the shadows. This did not fix the smell or the palpable taste of silent years, though. For this he still needed to open each window – using the crowbar when necessary – to let out the sour atmosphere. Muggy and still as the outside air was, it still stirred about the rooms, bringing with it the clean odors of warm grass and cornstalks.
With these changes, he felt capable of assessing the downstairs, at least. The carpet, he warranted, was spoiled. Encrusted and discolored with animal waste (from the last family’s dogs, he supposed, although he had heard that they were outdoor dogs), they needed to be replaced at once. The damage done to the walls was indeed serious and infuriating, but it would be quick work to repair with one or two other workers. The windows were all in good shape, the stove seemed fine (although he would burn a chimney sweeper log in it that very night, to burn out whatever might be living in it), and the plumbing was in surprisingly good condition. Everything needed reconnected, though, and he had already scheduled appointments for the power company and plumber to come by the next day. As for the repairs, he would definitely need to contract out at least one other person to help with the repairs – ideally a professional contractor.
He was repeating all of these findings to Grace when she called him during her lunchbreak.
“Didn’t you say that your thesis advisor became a contractor when he retired?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Dr. Demian was a residential carpenter before he went into academia. His brother is the one with the contracting business, but I do think that he became his brother’s partner after he left Ball State.”
“So you’ll reach out to him today?”
“No doubt, yeah, I’ll message him as soon as we wrap up.”
He did, and – as it turned out – Dr. Virgil Demian was indeed a partner in his brother’s Muncie contracting business. He wrote back to his former student within an hour and agreed to come over in the morning with one of his young assistants.
In the meantime, he drove over to the Petro truck stop where there was an Iron Skillet restaurant, had a heavy lunch of mashed-potatoes, turkey gravy, and fried chicken, and washed it all down with two glasses of lemonade. He savored the second one as he sat by a window and watched the cars passing over the nearby overpass. They seemed to drive at frantic speeds, rushing up and plunging down the other side of this hump in the road like desperadoes leaping over stone walls with their horses, barely glancing behind to gauge how long it would be before the posse finally caught up to them.
He finished the lemonade and paid his bill before heading back out to the summer heat. The sun was in its peak of power now: the air over the highway smoldered and curled with heat, and the humid air was so thick that the ratcheting chants of nearby cicadas seemed to come to him from a distant room. He slid back in his car and drove the mile or so back to his house (his grandparents’ house: he had to correct himself). Once again, as it rose into sight, he felt the psychological defenses melt away in the heat: it was just a building that he could profit from – a property to be tidied and sold.
Having inspected the downstairs, he now knew that he must explore the upstairs. This would have an even stranger feeling, he knew, because it was this suite of rooms that he had lived in as a child and as a grad student. During those two, frantic years he would slip down the stairs in the morning, say goodbye to his grandma – without pausing to share the breakfast that she always offered him – speed off to Muncie, and spend between nine and twelve hours on campus before returning, usually well after dark, in time to re-heat the meal that his grandma had made him. After supper, though, he was quick to slip back upstairs and spend his evenings poring over textbooks and homework.
The door to the stairs was in the large, high ceilinged dining room, just on the other side of the antique, Victorian organ that had been left in the house after his grandparents’ deaths because it was too big to move. It opened to a stairway that almost immediately made a sharp turn around a corner and ran steeply up to the upstairs suite: a large sitting room and landing, with a comfortable, old bedroom off of it to the right and a narrow, children’s bedroom straight ahead. He had used these rooms as an office, bedroom, and storage space, respectively. The bedroom had one closet and a door which opened to the vast, drafty attic where his mother had helped him uncover the fur-draped monster.
He wondered what damage had been done here, and without a pause he opened the door and started up the stairs. He immediately turned the sharp corner and gripped the stair rail, which he noticed was dangerously loose. Up ahead he could dimly make out the dark brown shapes of the sitting room, and by the time he came to the top of the landing he could recognize the open door – straight ahead – to the children’s bedroom, and the closed door – just off to the right – of his old bedroom. The light was even darker here, because the only window in the landing looked straight into the foliage of the great oak tree, and any sunlight coming through it was heavily filtered by the shaggy leaves and twisted branches.
Relying on the silver gleam of his cellphone camera, he confirmed that while the rooms were not in excellent shape, there was nothing that a cleaning detail and some basic carpentry couldn’t fix. Then he moved on to the bedroom. He turned the handle and opened the door to the room where his mother had grown up… where he and his parents had recovered… where he had slept and studied by himself... He tried to shine the flashlight around it, but it seemed even darker than the rooms facing the oak tree: the shaggy blackness appeared to leech power from the white beam, and although he could recognize individual parts – the bookshelves where he had kept his novels and DVDs, the bed where he had slept and studied, the closet where he had quietly hidden his gin bottles, the back wall where he had hung a Caspar David Friedrich print – they struggled to coalesce into a manageable whole. And there was the open door to the attic, small and dark like a weather-stained tombstone. The smell was different up here, too. Damper, moldier, sourer. He passed the light over the back corner and dropped the phone. For a ludicrous moment – just the flash of a moment – he thought he had seen the figure of a person, perhaps wearing some pale-colored, sitting on the edge of the bed and facing the wall, slumped over in heavy grief – or was it in repressed laughter? He knew that it was impossible, so he didn’t rush to pick the phone back up out of fear, so he told himself, quite as much as he did to make sure that he didn’t become disoriented in the dark and accidentally fall down those break-neck stairs.
He recovered the phone, and – much to his shame – he immediately shined its light into the far back corner. There was a large, white body pillow sloping over the side. This answered the question that his brain had been screaming, and he quickly turned and clamored down the stairs and into the light. He must air the upstairs out, too. But tomorrow. He would wait for tomorrow.
MONDAY, JULY 24.
The morning saw him rise with the sun, eager to get back to the work he had started the day before. Before he returned to his hotel for supper, he had unlocked the garage and gassed up his grandpa’s old Cub Cadet riding mower. It took him just two hours to hew away four years’ worth of overgrown grass in the front and side yards. He spent another hour mowing paths through the backyard and towards the woods and chicken coop before calling it quits, with the wet shanks of green and yellow grass laying steaming in heaps on the ground. He had left the windows open to air overnight – if any thieves wanted to try their luck in the derelict, they were welcome to it – and by the time he opened the front door, the house was flooded with the sharp, clean fragrance of new-mown grass.
The first thing to tackle, he decided, was the carpet, and he immediately got to it. He was half finished with prying up the molding and peeling back slabs of stained carpet when Dr. Demian and his assistant pulled up in a rusted, silver truck. The old man had changed very little since the last time he had seen him seven years ago. He was a rough-cut, broad-shouldered man with a sharply defined silver beard and cropped, iron-colored hair. His eyes were a shadowless blue, and his cheeks and nose were browned from the sun. In his flannel shirt and denim he cut a slightly different figure than he had in Dockers and a tweed jacket, but it was still Dr. Demian. He swung out of the driver’s seat like a thirty-five year old and smiled crookedly at his old student.
“Good to see you, Haller!”
“Even better to see you, Dr. Demian. Thanks so much for coming on such short notice,” and they shook hands warmly. “Like I said over the phone, you were the first person I thought of,” he lied with a tight mouth.
“Well that’s just fine. And you can call me Virgil from now on. Let’s take a look at the place. Oh, and this is my best guy, Pablo Osorio. Pablo, this is Haller. Like I said, he was a student of mine once and is now something of a celebrity in his field.”
Pablo had quiet, dark eyes and a serious, watchful face. Or at least he did at the moment, for as soon as he exited the truck he seemed clenched and nervous. He smiled professionally and turned to the truck bed where he pulled out two plastic buckets filled with tools.
“Celebrity is a bit much, but I’m certainly loving my work, and it pays off.”
“I’ve read all of your books, you know. You’ve done a good job all in all, and I’m not surprised that your readership rewards you.”
His forehead puckered at these words, but he nodded appreciatively and showed them inside. It is certainly not important to detail everything which they saw or said, least of all what Demian decided needed to be changed and how it would be done. In short, they agreed to an up front fee of a few thousand dollars, and Demian estimated that the critical work would take less than four weeks between the three of them, with two apprentices and a joiner needing to make occasional appearances. Pablo’s expertise was in foundations and structural integrity, so he left them after the initial assessment to explore more of the house by himself. Meanwhile, Demian and his former student walked to the back of the house and waited for a carry-out breakfast to be delivered from Rachel’s Hi-Way Café.
They caught up on each other’s personal lives – Demian had married off two of his three daughters, had welcomed three grandchildren into the world, was writing a spy novel, and was tasked with organizing fishing trips with his retired colleagues each summer – and discussed national politics, baseball, and Netflix series. He had forgotten how much he loved the old man, and how releasing it was to have these sorts of rollicking conversations. Most of his friends in Nashville were focused on their careers and the literature, culture, and fashions that were directly tied to their areas of expertise. But Demian was flexible and open-chested, easily yawing between favorite BBQ restaurants, most underrated Classical composers, and laughably obvious solutions to the country’s social problems.
The car from Rachel’s pulled up and the two men came up to the driveway and brought the food back to the porch. Pablo quietly appeared in time to grab a quick coffee, but his wife had already made him a hot breakfast, and he returned to his study of the house. Demian leaned back and drank deeply from the iced coffee before looking out over the field across the road from them where a stately hawk was making smooth, ascending circles between the glinting green of the cornstalks and the searing blue sky.
“It’s a good view. It must have been soothing to kick back here and let your mind breathe when you weren’t stuck in my classes.”
“I would have rather been with you. I didn’t spend much time out here, on the porch, when I lived here. Mostly I was upstairs. Sometimes I would go for walks in the woods, though.”
“It’s a decent little wood by the look of it. Ash and beech, it seems.”
“And some white oak and paw-paws. Hickories, too. But yes, mostly ashes and beech. It’s quiet there. I used to spend most of my days there when my parents would bring me up this way. A great place to be a little boy.”
Demian’s eyebrows pinched and he looked intently at the dark green mass. He nodded his head three times, slowly, as if he was deeply considering that last comment.
“What do you think of this place now? Selling it for sure?”
“No question about it. My life is in Nashville.”
“My work is there.”
“You can write anywhere. I thought you said that you were going to give up teaching once you felt comfortable with it. Why not now?”
He swirled the ice in his coffee and looked down at the porch floor.
“I’m not quite there yet. Besides, I enjoy teaching. Or at least the faculty culture: I like the conferences and the symposiums and senate meetings. I’d rather spend an afternoon in a faculty longue working on next year’s curriculum than out here on a porch in corn country… But that’s just me.”
“Yes,” Demian smiled, patting him on the back, “that’s you. You have always put work before pleasure. The results are undeniable: I heard you on Joe Rogan last year and I saw your last two books made the New York Times’ Bestseller List. Someone told me that you were going to debate Tim Keller in November.”
“Yeah, in Philadelphia. I’m trying to get a debate set up with Ben Shapiro, but that might all be a waste of time; I don’t know if I want to feed into that bullshit. But I am definitely filling out a panel with Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Daniel Dennett for the Secular Student Alliance next February. I’ll let you know when you can get tickets if you’re interested in coming. I think it’s supposed to be in Evanston.”
Demian smiled and nodded and looked back up at wood. It was creased with shadows which moved restlessly with the wind, but the trunks of the trees stood firm and inflexible like iron posts submerged in a frozen lake.
“I would appreciate that. You’re busy as ever, Haller.”
“I know you don’t exactly share all of my beliefs,” he said quietly, sincerely, “You are perhaps a bit less closed off to those ideas than I am, but – “
“You don’t have to share beliefs to listen. And I enjoy listening to you. It’s important to you that things been seen objectively. It seems to me that you study what you study and write what you write because you don’t want to see people be given false hope.”
“You don’t think it’s always false hope though, do you?”
“Yes. The – the existence of something immortal. After death, that is.”
“I have lots of thoughts on that and, better yet, I’ve heard and listened to lots of thoughts on that. My conclusion is that hope is powerful.”
“So is delusion. My family was deluded. They believed in all of that kind of stuff, but where are they now? Rotting in coffins. Filling up urns. It’s ridiculous what kind of a life some people will let themselves lead if they are that deluded.”
“What kinds of lives did they lead?”
He wrenched his mouth to one side and his eyes swam wetly around in their sockets.
“Quiet lives. Small lives. Never leaving this town. Never wanting anything else. Never asking for more.”
“You think they wanted more?”
“How could you not? How could you not look around at this sort of puny, wilting life and not wonder if there’s something more out there for you?”
“Based on what you’ve said about them, I think they did just that. I think they hoped for more. And I think you have more in common with them than you thought. Good things, too.”
He stared out into the grass at the base of the wood. In the shadow of the trees he watched something pale-colored – well, he didn’t know exactly what he watched, or what it was doing, but it was gone now. Demian looked over at him sadly. He slapped a hand on his knee.
“Well, break’s over. Let’s get the rest of that carpet up and get the scrapers out of the truck.”
Five hours later, the floors were bare and clean, soaking in mineral spirits and picked clean of staples. Pablo had helped with most of it. He was largely quiet, but no longer seemed to care for going off by himself. He stayed close to Demian, or else spent his time outside, close to the road and always in the sun. From time to time Demian noticed his glance straying watchfully to certain areas: the seat in front of the old pipe organ, the doorway leading to the staircase, the bathroom off of the kitchen. Once he stared mutely at the kitchen sink while his chest rose and fell perceptibly. He wouldn’t stop or slow what he was doing, but he would look up at these things slowly without turning his head, and then look deliberately and painfully back at his work. Demian decided not to bring this up today. If there was something that Pablo didn’t like, he would tell him.
Towards the end of the day, before they headed out, and while his former student was dragging a load of the old carpet up to the dumpster he had rented, Demian asked for a report on the foundation.
“You haven’t mentioned anything about it, so I’m assuming it’s in good shape. Nothing to worry about?”
Pablo didn’t meet his glance. His eyes were calmly fixed on something in the stairwell. But the lights were off in the house and with the sun beginning to set, Demian could only see a bank of dark blue shadow.
“Nothing expensive. There are some minor concerns. Some strange things... Some very strange things.”
“With the foundation?”
“This too, yes. With the foundation, too.”
Pablo looked away from the stairwell and looked out towards the porch.
“Tunnels. There are tunnels dug under the porch in the crawlspace.”
“By moles? Woodchucks?”
Pablo shook his head mournfully.
“The size of a man. The size of a man who is burrowing under the ground. I do not know why he burrows or where he is now. But they need filled in. If he is not able to burrow under the house though, I think he comes out and goes up.”
Demian also looked out at the porch and after a moment’s pause, he moved toward the door. Pablo was close behind. He knelt on the ground and crawled under the porch with a flashlight in his mouth. There, in the dense murk, he saw what Pablo meant. He also smelled something loathsome and sour. It was coming from the tunnels – a series of round holes, each approximately 2.5 feet wide, which seemed to have been bored into wet mud over the course of years. It looked as if they had been patiently dug by hand, and by shining his light down them, he saw that they sloped downwards and seemed to bend under the house’s foundation. What in God’s name had made them or why was an impossible mystery, but he wouldn’t need to deal with that concern today. A time would come, however, when he would need to.
“We’ll fill it in. Have Luke and Matt come out here tomorrow. They can help you fill these in. No one goes under here by themselves, though, you understand?”
Pablo nodded weakly.
“We’ll bring gravel. The gravel will allow for water flow but will bring stability. Sound good?”
Pablo glanced at him warily.
“I don’t think so, boss. It ain’t a right kind of thing. I don’t like this nest. I think we use the cement on this one. Stop it up and keep El Nahual – it… whatever it is – keep it out.”
Demian’s expression did not change. He nodded back and twisted his mouth.
He looked up and over to the east where the woods were growing darker and – or so it seemed – taller.
“Let’s wrap this up for today and head out. Are you doing okay there, bud?”
Pablo looked Demian in the eyes.
“It’ll be good to be done with this day, but I’ll be fine once we pull out of here. So let’s go now if you’re ready.”
Demian looked back at the house one more time. The strange, sour odor was still in his nostrils.
“Let’s split. I’ll debrief Haller and you can load up the power tools. I didn’t realize it had gotten so dark so soon.”
After some parting words and handshakes, Demian and Pablo climbed into the truck and backed out of the driveway before disappearing around the bend with the red gleam of the setting sun flashing on its silver skin. Now that they were gone he was left with the distant shushing hum of the interstate and the throbbing purr of cicadas. It was quiet again. He focused determinedly on the ambient noises – coming from cars he couldn’t see and insects knit invisibly into the very fabric of the landscape – and decided to return to mowing.
So far he had cut paths to the out-buildings, and now he wanted to cut one from the western side yard to the woods. He climbed onto the Cub Cadet, turned its engine, and rumbled from the garage, across the front lawn, and around the side of the house, aiming its prow at the silent sheaves of grass guarding the way to the path to the campsite. How many times, how many hundreds of times, had he stolen away from family gatherings to tramp through those woods and embalm himself in the ever-changing adventures of his restless mind. Was it Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forrest or Tom Sawyer’s Jackson Island? The Battle of Chancellorsville or the Battle of Argonne Forest? Was he Leatherstocking escorting the Munro sisters to Fort William Henry or Ichabod Crane walking carefully through the Sleepy Hollow woods?
And the campsite, what was it today? The Greenwood where the Merry Men practiced their archery or the clearing where Rip Van Winkle rolled ninepins with Henry Hudson and his ghostly crew? Was it a fur trader’s base or the cemetery where Tom and Huck saw Injun Joe drive his Bowie knife through Doc Robinson’s heart? He realized that his best memories of his family never took place with them at all. They were here – here in the quiet core of this wooded escape, these four acres of Neverland. Rounding the corner of the house, he was eager to see it rise before his eyes.
The sun was setting, as it always did, behind the wood. Flaming orange and red burned around its edges and pierced through gaps in the upper foliage. But from the tops of the trees to the roots he was surprised to see a solid, black wall glowering witholdingly in the gloomy twilight. He hadn’t realized that it got quite so dark, and he immediately knew that he wouldn’t be able to mow his way through the path to the campsite, but still thought he could carve a course up to the front door. He turned the headlights on the Cub Cadet and proceeded into the swishing waves of grass. With each second he came closer to the most opaque part of the wood where he recognized the opening to the path: a wedge- or pyramid-shape of deep black, some ten feet wide and twelve feet tall. The actual opening was hidden by what he supposed were large shoots of grass saplings, but maybe he would power through and see how far he could get.
As he thought this, however, his shirt was snagged on something sharp – a tall thistle, maybe – and his face was slashed by a low-hanging branch from a small tree, he thought. Something cut his right elbow. Brambles must have caught onto the cuff of his jeans – or maybe it was snagged on a log – because something was holding it back. At this last difficulty, he cut the gas: whatever had caught him was pulling him off the seat. He twisted his ankle back and forth to free it, but nothing was holding it now, and he brought it back up to rest on the gas. Looking back up, though, he felt the shadows deepen and the red light darken around the edges of the trees. He felt strangely cold and uncomfortable being surrounded by all of this tall grass. What, after all, might be in it? Logs that weren’t as easy to see in the day, for one thing, and then other, moving things. He looked back at the house. He had left the dining room light on. It glowed cozily through the purple twilight, and he turned the wheel and headed back after one final glance back at the wood, which he turned his face from like a nervous suitor who leaves just before he had gathered the courage to knock on the door.
It was late, now, and he was too tired to go back into Alexandria. After all, he was eventually going to need to start staying at the house unless he wanted to spend all of his spare cash on motel rooms and bad continental breakfasts. The very thought made his stomach growl. He was hungry again, but he was even more exhausted. Without much thought to his actions, he turned the living room light off and headed upstairs. He left a small night-light on – his grandparents had always used one, even when children weren’t spending the night, because the country got so extremely dark – and it burned behind him, a soft, pinkish orange. Ascending into the darkness of the upstairs, he instinctively headed to his old bedroom, pulled his pants and shirt off, and collapsed into his old bed. The sheets smelled of dust and stale air, but he fell asleep almost immediately…
He wasn’t sure how long he had been asleep before he was awoken by another smell. Kerosene. A sweet, acrid incense – strangely funereal, like smoldering myrrh curling up from a censer. He recognized it intimately from the hurricane lamps his grandparents had burned while he was growing up. And that’s what it was – not the violent, oily stench of a kerosene fire or the passive, metallic whiff of an unignited spill – but the warm, assertive odor of a controlled burn. Something intentional and unintrusive. It was as if someone had lit one or two hurricane lamps downstairs – and not recently either: it had the stable sweetness of a lamp that had been steadily flickering and sending up its oily wisps of smoke for an hour or more. But the hurricane lamps were in the cabinets in the mudroom, unused since his grandparents’ deaths, and there was no kerosene in the house that he knew of. And yet – and he sniffed again, and then again – there was no question that the odor was coming from downstairs.
He grabbed a claw hammer from a bucket of tools in the hallway and turned the corner to look down the stairwell. What he saw wasn’t the pink glow of the night-light blushing through the door, but the dim, pulsing, yellow glow of lamplight. He clutched the hammer tightly and gripped the handrail for support as he tried to ease his way downstairs without making noise. He would surprise whoever was there. He looked back upstairs, behind him in the dark, and thought – just for a moment – that something pale moved on the landing. He looked back at the bottom of the stairs. It was gently brushed in cool, pink light. Confused and emboldened, he worked his way down the stairs and turned the corner slowly. Everything was in place. No lamps were out, no tools moved, no chairs so much as adjusted from where he left them. He felt the impulse to turn on a light, but immediately and instinctively suppressed it. Instead, he rushed into the kitchen and around the corner into the mudroom.
With a strange fury, he threw open the cupboard where he knew they were, and stared at them: the glass was fogged by dust, the bowls were dry, and they had no wicks. He picked one up by the grip under the bowl. Looking down, he saw a dark circle where the dust of years hadn’t reached. He looked closely at it. Definitely dry. He set it back down and stared at it. Then he reached out to wipe a cautious finger through the grey dust on the glass chimney. He jumped back in horror; the glass was searing hot, and his finger throbbed from what certainly felt like a burn. He looked up: he saw the dark smudge where his finger had rested. Very, very carefully, he tried it one more time: it felt no warmer than any glass that he had ever pulled from a cupboard in the middle of a summer evening. He watched it carefully. Enough; he slammed the door and rushed through the kitchen, waving away her attempts to coax him into the bathroom (yes his finger hurt, but he didn’t need any of her ointments or to have cold water run on his finger; it was all psychosomatic, anyway). Aggravated and weary, he crossed into the dining room, and back up the stairs.
He fell asleep without much difficulty, but all the time his nostrils were puckering at the oily scent that still hovered in the room like a silent, shuffling crowd…
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 28.
He did not tell Grace about these experiences. In fact, he easily explained them away with three or four simple theories, although the translucent blister that he found on his right forefinger continued to trouble him. But as far as he knew, this dream – or whatever he might call it – was a singular moment during renovation. As the days rolled on, his nights were uneventful and his days were bright and warm. The renovations continued without incident or delay: the floorboards were cleaned and new carpet laid down, the damaged walls were patched and repainted, and the cosmetic damage to the exterior was repaired. The only thing that seemed to concern him was his mounting appetite: before he came home – a word that sometimes came up unexpectedly in his thoughts – he had smoked more than he ate, with a light snack for breakfast, a modest snack for lunch, and a large snack for supper. But ever since he woke up in Alexandria that first morning, he found that he invariably ate heavy meals three times a day. Breakfast and dinner were usually delivered from Rachel’s or the Iron Skillet (he always seemed to be too hungry and impatient to cook it himself) and he grazed off and on in between. He didn’t like to put it into words, but in a phrase, he was always famished – desperate to eat and desperate to be satisfied. His hygiene had slipped some too: although his look had always been lean, clean, and boyish, he was now sporting a haggard, unshaven look emphasized by his swelling skin and shaggy hair. Five weeks passed effortlessly by, and he increasingly found himself feeling drunk on the pleasures of solitude and the lack of commitments that his hiatus from work afforded him. It was with a sly, secretive energy that he rose each morning to find himself comfortably alone, slipped into the kitchen to make a full pot of coffee, ordered a hefty breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast, and pancakes, and reclined quietly in the only easy chair in the house, savoring a third cup of coffee while he waited for Dr. Demian and Pablo Osorio.
He saturated himself in the stillness: here everything was unobstructed by the complaints of students or the requests of colleagues. He hadn’t heard from his agent in two full weeks – after he had shouted her down during their last call, demanding that she respect his vacation time – and he was shocked at how wonderful it was not to be needed. He had even asked Demian not to show up until eleven o’clock. At first this has surprised his mentor: it would mean that the work would take longer, and that the cost would be higher. But he assured the old man that his income was more than enough to cover the extra expense of a few additional weeks, and as to the time, he was increasingly wondering if he might need to reassess his career goals. At least for this year. He had been rushing through life to avoid… something… something he had been sure that he could name, but which now slipped through his fingers and avoided definition. But whatever it was, he had been wrong about coming back home: whatever he feared didn’t live here at all. It lived elsewhere, and for the moment, perhaps, it didn’t seem to live at all. Up until this point in his life he had been drowning himself in work: running away from complicated things that couldn’t be tidily catalogued and locked away between the covers of one of his books. But now if he could drown in anything it would be peace and solitude. Here there was no running, no escaping, no evading. Just the creamy consistency of a day spent in whatever fashion he chose. He leaned back in the easy chair and stared at the iron stove across from him and the mantlepiece above it which his grandparents had once overpopulated with family photos, cheap mementos, and tacky keepsakes. Now it was bare and dry and dustless. It was perfect. In the blushed glow of dawn he relished the first sip of his third coffee and stroked the young beard sprouting along his jaw.
Some slight movement on the other side of the window caught his attention. Whatever it was had been moving jerkily on the border of the wood, and by the time he made his way to the window, it was gone, but his eyes were drawn to the way that the rising sun had glazed the trees in living gold. They waved invitingly to him from across the side yard, and as he sipped the coffee, he made the decision to finish mowing the path to the campsite.
After three long drinks, he quickly gassed up the Cub Cadet and had it aimed at the gleaming wall of leaves. This time he felt none of the earlier resistance: the blades slashed effortlessly through the grass and he rumbled towards the dark pyramid where the trail began, crunching over downed limbs, which were chewed up by the mower’s teeth and blown out in a spray of splinters. It only took a moment for him to hew his way through the yard before he crossed into the yawning mouth, where he was swallowed up in the sepia dusk of the wood.
The path was cleaner than he expected: although it bristled with weeds and saplings, they had been stunted by the darkness, and he easily rolled over the branches on the ground, or ducked under the fallen trees leaning across the path. As he followed the well-known curves, rolling up and down the slight swells of land, he felt years melt away from his shoulders. The deep brown dusk was peppered with red flakes of sunlight, lending a subtle definition to the trees and briers on either side of him; he sensed the shape of the land, but it was too dark yet to see anything clearly. He was surprised at how much denser the canopy seemed to have grown in six years – or perhaps it wasn’t just the foliage that made it seem so dark – and as clear as the path below him was, he was surprised by how often (almost constantly) branches brushed against his arms and hair like reaching, beckoning fingertips. They pulled and plucked at him, and while they were hardly as vicious as the brambles on the first night, they were no less insistent, almost as if they were trying to arrest his attention, like the soft prods of that try to wake an exhausted man when he has overslept.
He thought passively of Grace. He knew that she was growing tired of their routine and was hoping that they could uproot and move to a new place. Maybe even get married one day. He mulled the idea of bringing her here. It was a strange, unexpected idea, and it immediately tasted sour to him, like a rapid gulp of spoiled milk. But which part repelled him? He was surprised that it wasn’t the idea of having a future in this place where he had never in all his life imagined a future. It was the idea of sharing it. This, somehow, was the point of friction. In fact, he realized that he had never really hated the homestead at all. Perhaps he had even loved it – especially the lonesome woods. He had associated it with a backwards way of living, and a smothering culture of lazy interdependence: in the way his family insisted on doing everything together, failed to appreciate his desire to see and understand the wider world, and felt content in the unchanging, unevolving company. He had felt the grim, tired ghosts of three previous generations sleeping in its bedrooms and lazing on its porch his whole life. But now he felt nothing. Almost nothing. And almost nothing was almost exhilarating. As he buzzed his way down the path he even resented the looming arrival of the workmen, and as the darkness deepened around him, he smiled at the idea of never speaking to or seeing Grace again. What a guiltless thrill to be utterly alone…
As he rounded the curve that lead into the campsite clearing, the groping branches became more insistent and furious, and just before he could straighten out of the turn, he thought he saw something massive and black reaching out to him in the gloom, and something lean and pale squatting on top of it. Confused, he squinted at the crouching shape, but as he grew closer, it scrambled evasively back into the shadows. The clearing ahead was pierced by rose-colored light, and as he rode out the bend, the flushed glow clearly silhouetted something that filled the path ahead of him, and before he knew it, he was crashing into the embrace of an enormous fallen beech. Its gnarled limbs swept around him, and the dead leaves tangled in his hair and clothes, rattling victoriously as he tried to twist himself free. Wrenching back and forth and swinging his hands, he finally pushed one gigantic, shattered limb off of his shoulder, and kicked the mower into reverse, ripping away from the great, black carcass and flipping on the headlights to better see what he was facing. In the ghostly, electric glow he saw that the tree completely blocked the way to the campsite – it was at least sixty feet long – and that its splintered branches radiated all around it like rolls of barbed wire. On the other side the rosy light whispered tauntingly to him, but he was too stunned to keep exploring. There was no room to turn around, so he would keep it in reverse and slowly back his way out. He slung his arm around the seat and turned to look over his shoulder. Not two feet from his nose was a man’s chest, and just above it he found himself looking up into a man’s bearded face, with his features blacked out with shadow.
He tried to prevent a gasp from bursting from his lungs, but evidently he failed, because Demian reached out an assuring hand and squeezed his arm.
“Easy there, old boy. I meant no harm. I just came out to find you. We heard the mower out here. I sent Pablo to start filling in the tunnels under the porch. I just wanted to let you know that we’re here.”
He looked closely at Demian. His face was still obscured in the shadow. For some reason – something about the bearded man in his dreams, perhaps – he was eager to continue this discussion in the open morning air, and he said so. They left the mower there with the understanding that Demian would bring an axe and a machete to cut out a space for the mower to back into and turn around later that morning, and they walked towards the distant, shining pyramid of light that now represented the way out of the wood.
“I wanted to ask you something, Virgil,” he said as they worked their way up a slope. “When we were talking earlier – the first day you came – you had mentioned something to me. You said something about my readership rewarding me; that it didn’t surprise you. What did you mean by that?”
In the brown light, he saw Demian’s face crease in thoughtfulness, almost as if a shadow had washed over it.
“I did say that, yes. I say that because you provide a service and you provide it well.”
“What service is that?”
“You provide answers and hope and a matrix for understanding the universe.”
“I debunk delusions. I deconstruct the psychology of religious extremism. I don’t provide answers, and I certainly don’t provide hope. I want people to think for themselves. My readers think for themselves. And as far as offering up some sort of cosmic code, I do the opposite: I want people to accept the fact that life has no other meaning than the meaning you invest into it; no other future or state than the future you are lucky enough to experience and the state in which you have always experienced it. There is no God out there loving them; they only need love from the most important person in their lives: themselves. Unbridled self-love and unconditional self-acceptance. That’s the only gospel I’m preaching. I don’t sell them anything; I pry them away from the salesmen and charlatans – the Bible thumpers and terrorists. What does any of that have to do with providing answers or hope or a cosmic vision?”
Demian looked ahead towards the widening yellow wedge. His face was now freckled with the light dripping through the canopy as it thinned out overhead.
“It’s still an answer. And oblivion is a kind of hope – a precious hope to many. Meaninglessness can be reassuring. In some ways a meaningless life that is only as significant as you choose it to be is far less frightening than a meaningful one wasted away or misused. Psychology itself is the study of the cosmos and the reactions of the individual consciousness to its situation within them: our anxieties and aspirations all have an existential terminus in infinity. ‘Who am I, where am I destined, and what am I worth’ are just as significant questions for the devout mystic as it is for the skeptical materialist. In many ways you serve as a priest of a very real and pious faith – a faith in the sacraments of self-definition and self-rule; a faith in the infallibility of human perception and observation.”
This troubled him, and he quietly thought back to the light-colored shape that he had seen – that he thought he had seen – squatting territorially on the fallen beech. He glanced backward in spite of himself and was relieved to see everything behind him swallowed up and dark brown twilight.
“Ultimately,” Demian continued, “what would you say is the service you provide?”
He frowned at this and looked coolly at the ground ahead of them.
“I encourage my readers to choose reality over delusion.”
“Then the question,” Demian said softly, “that you must ask yourself, if you truly want to be at peace with yourself, is what is reality and what is delusion.”
“That’s a damn-fool question to ask and you know it.”
“Then answer me: what is reality?”
Without a thought he fired back: “Reality is what can be measured and touched and sensed.”
“Measured and touched and sensed with what?”
“With intellect and reason.”
“But how do you know what you are measuring?”
“You see it, goddam it. You see it with your eyes. You feel it with your flesh. That’s reality. That’s truth.”
Suddenly he felt a searing pain in his right forefinger; while making an exasperated gesture he had brushed his blistered finger against the bark of an ash tree. The pounding blood drained from his ears and he immediately felt small and dizzy. The blister pulsed authoritatively. His eyes dropped and his face darkened like that of a desperate man caught in an extravagant lie.
“Quid est veritas?” Demian muttered dryly.
“I take your point, I think. It has actually been a sensitive topic for me recently… Can… can I ask you something,” he said calmly, “—something in your professional capacity?”
Demian looked over with a crooked brow and nodded, “Of course!”
“I have been having… dreams. Dreams since I was five. Of this place. And of something that lives here. And it worries me sometimes. I suppose,” he said slowly “that if you view me as a priest, and my readers as members of a faith in – I don’t know… rationality—”
“—I might term it faith in the comforting ability of science to measure and limit the number of possibilities of an inherently chaotic existence. But continue.”
“Fair enough. But if you view me as a priest to a religion, even a religion grounded in material truth could have… demons that come with it. And I – I don’t know what it is, but I think I have one of these in my dreams. Or maybe my dreams are the demons themselves. But they disrupt my peace of mind, and yet I don’t mind being here. I’m not afraid of it here. But nonetheless…”
“Tell me about these dreams.”
He stared ahead. The sky could be seen through the triangular aperture. It was deepening from blush to a ripe blue.
“When I was five I dreamed that a man – a Thing – came from the attic door while I was sleeping. It was a nude man. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it. But it slid under the covers and I felt it. Cold skin. Hideously thin. Emaciated. It had a beard… It’s teeth were clenched… It’s eyes were open wide and didn’t blink. In the dream I couldn’t and wouldn’t turn on the light, but I slipped out of bed and ran down the stairs. My family is all around me – my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins – sleeping on matts and in chairs and on blow-up mattresses. It’s just as it was when we would get together for Christmas. I even think I can see the lights outside. My grandfather would always surround the house with a string a of luminaria – the lines of candles in paper bags, but he made them with old milk jugs and Christmas lights. Anyway, the dream ends with him coming down the stairs close behind me. I run for the door because I know that I have to make it to the woods. The center of the woods – far from everyone else – is the only safe place for me. And today, for the second time, I feel like someone – something – is trying to keep me out. I have had this dream at, I would say, significant points in my life: puberty, leaving for college, getting accepted into grad-school, my grandmother’s death… It’s always the same. Every detail since I was five.”
“I see,” Demian said thoughtfully. “And there’s been a sequel, I suppose?”
He looked surprised, but nodded consentingly.
“Yes. Yes there has. I – I am outside now. The air is chilly but not cold, and there are leaves under my feet – this is the point where the dream usually ends – and I take off towards the woods. Somehow I now know that there is someone waiting for me in the clearing, the campsite, and I know that they are there to protect me. I can hear him from behind, and he is gaining. The moon is full and is rising above the woods. It is cooper colored and warm, and I want to run towards it. The edges of the trees are touched with cooper colored light, too, and as I lunge for the entry way, the moon is so strangely bright that I can see it glinting up ahead in the clearing. It must be shining directly overhead into it. I keep running down the trail. My feet are bare and by now they’re bleeding. I don’t care; I keep running and go faster. Branches cut me and I don’t care. I keep running and running. But there’s something in the road as I get closer to the campsite, and suddenly I don’t hear the steps behind me; suddenly something is coming towards me – running in my direction from up ahead, cutting me off from safety. I can see the campsite now. It is glowing in the orange moonlight, but before I get there… He is there. He has me. He drags me to the ground. All the light goes out…”
They were walking out of the wood as he said those final words, and the morning sun finally warmed their faces. He could see Demian clearly now. The old man’s face was contorted by thoughtful creases and wrinkles. His eyes burned thoughtfully.
“What caused this dream? What was the event?”
“That’s part of my concern. I didn’t know what had happened before my dream. For all the rest of them, I more or less was aware of the change: I had already started noticing girls when I had the second dream, and I knew that I was preparing for changes for the others – I even knew that my grandma would die soon when I had that dream. But this I didn’t know. It was when my mom died. Before they had called me. It was her death that made me come here. That’s why I came back.”
Demian didn’t like to hear this and made no attempt to disguise his discomfort.
“I’m going to think about this today. I’ll let you know what I come up with before we leave.”
They walked up to the house with the sun pouring over them and greeted Pablo as he quietly looked over their shoulders with vigilant eyes.
He left the old man and went inside and upstairs to sand the new drywall in his old room, while Demian headed over to Pablo Osorio, who was stirring the portable cement mixer. They had removed the lattices around the crawlspace, and although it was still drenched in shadow, the ambient light on the grass and bushes lit it up just enough that the holes were visible from the driveway where Pablo was standing. Looking at them he was reminded of the tunnels that insects nibble through a piece of fallen fruit – he could almost picture a buzzing wasp drag itself out of one of those burrows as easily as it would climb out of a hole in a rotten apple. What concerned him most of all, however, were the marks in the clay: the spatulate impressions of human fingers that lined each opening, as if it had been dug out by hand. He knew that the burrows were empty in the morning. It was never in its nest during the day.
But he shuddered to think of what it would do or where it would go when it found its way barred by the cement. Would it become angry? He glanced over at the waving tree line that seemed so bucolic and peaceful with the wind playfully mussing its foliage. He saw nothing watching him from the shadowy trunks below, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t there. He had seen things like this before, when he was a boy in San Miguel Topilejo – once at the Callejón del Aguacate, and again at an ill-fated visit to the Isla de la Munecas – an experience that he had never shared, not even with his wife. His Peruvian mother had told him of El Pishtaco, the pale-skinned revenant who kills out of a ravenous thirst for human fat, and his Mexican grandmother had told him of El Nagual, the jealous soul-sharer who dwells in the hearts of men, who copies and corrupts their images to rampage at night. Whether it was one of these things or something unknown to human wisdom, it wasn’t a right thing that had made these holes. As he began to move the cement mixer into position, he kept sensing something quick and light-colored skulking behind the trees, out of the corner of his eye. For a moment he stood up and rubbed his arms; in spite of the August heat steaming around him, he was cold and his skin prickled. He had a job to do, though: he unfolded the steel ramp and rested its spout on the edge of the nearest hole. Slowly, he inclined the mixer’s bowl and watched the cement spill down the ramp and drain into the darkness below…
The day raced on and the activity around the house continued. Demian called in two apprentices who came and helped him with drywall on the main floor, while his former student occupied himself with sanding and painting the drywall upstairs, and Pablo continued to mix and pour cement into the tunnels below the crawl space. With each additional drum of chunky, grey slime, and could feel the eyes of something – something out there, beyond his sight – locking more intently on him, watching with seething outrage.
All told, he found six individual burrows in the ground, each of which seemed to communicate to a central hub or hive, the dimensions of which he estimated to be roughly six feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep, simply based on the spacing of the holes and the amount of cement he used. As he studied the marks and the pattern of the tunnels, he came to the conclusion that they must have been made out of boredom more than necessity – a means of occupying time or constructing a sense of structure. There was no other reason for six tunnels to lead to the same place when the area they covered was so small. Whatever had made this nest was restless, and the only thing more dangerous than a restless Nagual – if such it was – was a vengeful Nagual.
He was finishing off the sixth hole as the day came to a close. The doors were closed and the windows were just barely ajar to let the cool evening air slip in. The apprentices had packed up and left and Mr. Demian had gone on a walk with Mr. Haller to the far side of the house where the wild vines grew in the shade of a pear tree.
Pablo monitored the cement stirring in the drum, but kept an eye on the two friends. He couldn’t hear their words but the stabbing tones of a muffled disagreement came to him from the other side of the yard. Mr. Demian was gesturing to the house – to the upstairs, then to the porch – and then made a sweeping motion to the woods. His face was serious, and now he held his hands out in a kind of supplication. He turned and looked at the rusted, silver truck and then back at Mr. Haller, who glanced once at the truck and then immediately back at his old mentor. His eyes smoldered with indignation and his head shook forcefully while his lips moved rapidly and the sound of hushed words spoken in anger came to Pablo’s ears. Mr. Demian reached out to grab the young man’s forearm, but the latter stepped backward and looked defiantly up to the house’s upper story, where the curtains of his bedroom were swaying in the evening breeze. Demian took a step backward in defeat and nodded graciously, but he seemed to be looking the younger man directly in the eye as he lifted a hand to his heart and then bent his head and pointed gingerly to the truck one last time. Mr. Haller didn’t return his look, and his pinched eyes seemed both angry and frightened, but he nodded weakly before turning away – apparently to walk the grounds – heading towards the orchard at the other end of the property.
Overhead the sky was thick with somber purple clouds, coldly traced in pale, red light. Pablo glanced back at the house. He had heard something clattering on the far side of the wrap-around porch, succeeded by a strange thump from the inside of the house and a quick rustling away from the living room. He moved around to where he had heard the sound. The window, which had been raised just high enough to fit a grown man’s fist was now pushed flush to the top, along with the screen. A box of scrap trim pieces sitting just below it was tipped over, its contents spread on the floor. Looking up, across the room – on the far side of the dining room, half-hidden by the hefty organ – he watched the door to the stairwell close shut…
When Pablo finished cleaning the cement mixer, Demian came up to him and asked if they could start gathering the last of the tools around the house. They would need to take everything with them. He had had a very interesting conversation with Mr. Haller and he had made the decision that their contracting firm was not the ideal fit for what Mr. Haller required: he would pay their contract out that Friday, but after today they would not be returning to the Victorian farmhouse on County Road 700 N.
Pablo was relieved and eagerly collected the last of their tools, but as he walked away from the house and watched the violet twilight pool over it, where it was already darkened by the shadow of the gigantic oak tree, he felt a twinge of guilt.
“It has no place to sleep any longer,” he said to himself. “And now it is with him in the house…”
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 13. LATE AFTERNOON.
It had now been eight weeks. He had cancelled his fall line-up and committed himself to finishing the house in time to grad a few half-semester night classes in October. It would be done by October. Grace was calling him every day now, and they were talking for shorter periods – he always had something to wrap up before they could get too far into the conversation. He knew she was worried. She kept asking him about future things that he seemed to have forgotten, like childhood plans to be a paleontologist or an agreement between friends to become space pirates one day. Future things: moving to the West Coast together, engagement rings, house sizes, should the houses have nurseries? He was confused by the words and ideas, like a hellfire preacher being asked about the ethics of driving a hybrid car or composting human feces – what in God’s name did any of it matter in the grand scheme of things? He once asked her when she was coming home, but now she seemed confused. He rephrased the question into a comment – “I just mean that when you get home we can talk more about this, but I’m really bogged down here” – and she became oddly quiet.
Somehow he was able to change the subject to her liking, and somehow he managed to answer her questions in ways that seemed to engender an approving reaction. Yes, he couldn’t wait to get back. Maybe they should consider getting married next year instead of three years from now like they had said before he left. Sure, maybe they might reconsider the “kids” question, although he noted that she had once promised him that she would never bring this topic up until after they had married (by which time marriage would hopefully have whetted her increasingly un-feminist appetite for all of these bourgeois, domestic fantasies). But he nodded and hemmed and hawed, and eventually she sounded less concerned and after a pro-longed goodbye done in a strangely soft voice, she finally let him hang up.
It was a cool September afternoon and after their call, he decided to do some exterior work while the air was so delicious and still. He was standing on a ladder contentedly brushing paint onto the faded gingerbread trim around the porch, when he was surprised to noticed that he had run out of paint in the little plastic tray into which he had ladled it. Without a thought or even a change in the expression on his face, he handed it behind him, reaching it out to be refilled. A few seconds passed before he wondered what he was expecting. At first something imperceptibly brushed through his mind – “he’s been standing there watching me this whole time, and the paint is right there by his feet” – but it was a loose, floating thought which quietly blew on, unobserved. He wrenched his head back and forth, side to side, rolling it on the stump of his neck as if trying to pour grains of dust from his ears. Then, without further thought, he descended to the paint can, refilled his tray, and obediently returned once again to the place he had been before…
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29.
It was the last week of September and the last week that he could possibly justify staying before he admitted the truth to himself. In fact, his days had primarily consisted of eating several extravagant meals, vegetating on the porch, and doing a handful of odd jobs. The walls were repaired, the floors recarpeted, the roof patched, the fences mended, the porch painted, the crawlspace filled in, the windows all updated, the walls all painted afresh, the cabinets all replaced, and nearly two hundred perennials were successfully planted around the property. The chicken coop and out buildings were cleaned up and given fresh coats of stain, the orchard trees were pruned back, and his grandmother’s vegetable garden had been tilled up for next year’s planting. It was all ready for the new resident.
One day, the week before, Dr. Demian had rolled into his driveway in his rusted, silver truck. He didn’t have Pablo with him. Pablo had apparently asked him to make the visit, but had refused to come. In fact Pablo had specifically mentioned that he would never again set foot on the property while Mr. Haller was living there. “There is something there with him,” he had said. Demian repeated his advice that he had offered on his last day there, pointed out his concerns – both as a psychologist and as a man who trusted his intuition – and expressed a sincere wish that his former student would come home with him to a homecooked meal and a comfortable guest room with freshly laundered bedding and a no fewer than three large bookshelves stacked with excellent reading. Mrs. Demian, he added, was expressly happy to let him stay there for at least a week or two before he returned “to his lovely fiancée in Nashville,” and had agreed to let the two men have the run of the place if they ever needed to have a private conversation.
Even the offer of the homecooked meal disgusted him. He realized that what he savored about his full breakfasts, heavy lunches, and multi-course dinners was the solitude and the time that he was permitted to enjoy it. In Nashville he was always racing back and forth between commitments. He had thought he had tried to run away from the cozy quaintness of his family, and their intellectual laziness, but that wasn’t it at all: he had found the same demons in his career – obligations, networking, insincere gatherings filled with inane banter. No, what he had truly been running from – what he had truly always tried to avoid – was the idiocy and tedium of other people’s expectations. He could only be free if he was by himself. He had always preached about this in his books: the importance of self-love and of shaking of society’s puritanical expectations. The best love in the world, the purest most euphoric love he could imagine, came from within. And within himself, he thought, smiling contentedly, there were no surprises, no disappointments, and no demons.
Demian had left after arguing with him for over an hour, and he promised to try again in a few days. That had been almost a week ago, and he hoped that the old man had quietly taken the hint. He also had not spoken to his “lovely fiancée in Nashville” – a phrase that had given him anxious chills – since their last conversation. There had only been a handful of texts. They had been brief, terse, and ultimate. And he knew that there would be no more to follow. It was the beginning of a fresh, pure start for him.
As he sat there, thinking smugly about these things, he walked past the woman at the kitchen sink and looked uneasily out into the dining room. He thought he had heard something coming from the windows: banging, and shouts, as if something was fighting for his attention. It was especially worrisome because this was the second time he had heard things like that; the day before he kept hearing banging sounds on the porch – knocks and stomps, along with something like voices calling his name. The woman at the sink didn’t turn around. He knew he must be imagining it. Nonetheless it was concerning, and after walking around the house and checking to see where the sounds might be coming from for about half an hour, he finally felt them stop and a mellow silence rolled in over it all. This had been a tense summer, he admitted to himself, and he knew that his nerves were jittery from the changes that he had been making in his life, but he needed to wrap everything up and prepare for whatever the next step might be for his grandparents’ house. He would make a decision tonight.
He really only had one last task before he could say that the renovations were complete: he had to fix the latch on the attic door. It was a chore that he had oddly been avoiding. He knew the basic psychological premise of this aversion, but logically it was embarrassing to admit that he had put this off. The door had a tendency to open by itself – he had begun noticing this a few weeks ago – and needed its hinges tightened, or the latch reset to keep it shut.
Going up to the attic at the end of a lovely fall day, he pulled out a small toolbox and examined the frame and the iron fittings. It appeared fast enough, but this was probably due to a change in humidity or something of the kind. He touched the handle to test it and was surprised to find it wet – greasy with something oddly sour-smelling. He touched it again after rubbing his hand on his jeans. The smell still lingered in his nostrils like spoiled food, but the knob turned at his testing it, and the door came open – after a little wrestling. He looked inside the attic: a dark, lightless cave of a place that seemed to breath on him with a strange, damp-smelling draft. He frowned. Something was odd about this. The attic was always drafty, but as he looked out his bedroom window, he could see that the reddening leaves were absolutely still.
He looked back into the attic. Dark. It was so dark. His hand moved forward, slowly, to reach for the light switch. But it stopped – something stopped it – something inside of him stopped it from reaching into the darkness to turn on the light. Don’t do it. Don’t turn on the light. For God’s sake… And he didn’t. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t. He gingerly closed the door, and turned back to the latch. Yes, yes – here was the trouble. Too lose. Surely the latch needed tightening. He tested it. Yes – even though it still took some effort to open the door, he could see how the latch was somewhat loose. He oiled it, tightened the screws, adjusted the catch, and tested it several times. Finally, he closed it for good. The iron tongue dropped home into the catch with a louder, more confident sound – a thick, raspy clack…
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 30.
JUST BEFORE TWILIGHT.
The following evening the sky was rippling with cool flame: jets of silver and gold cloud sparking quietly across a curtain of searing scarlet that smoldered into crimson as rose into the heavens, but gradually became bruised and purple the higher it reached. There was no wind, but the atmosphere felt electric with activity, and he sensed it creeping around him from all sides, although he set his face and denied it. No, he was alone here, and at peace with his choices. He had chosen to be freed from the puritanism of his family and the materialism of society – freed to define himself by his own love and with his own senses. He owed his soul to no god and his heart to no woman. It was his to do with as he chose, and he chose to keep it to himself without regret or reservation.
He sat on the porch drinking his third sweet tea after a heavy meal of roasted chicken and mashed potatoes delivered from The Iron Skillet, and he watched the sky blaze and purl without interest or emotion. It wasn’t what was outside that interested him, but what was inside. The internal world, he had decided, was just as rich and worthy a landscape to settle in as any on earth – or in the Heavens. He thought back to his childhood and the nights when his family would fill the porch with their bodies and banter and how deprived he felt of his self-expression. Now he was here by himself. His parents and grandparents were in their graves; his cousins were also either dead or never to return; his uncle on his death bed – if he hadn’t died already. So many of them were dead – in a variety of ways – but here he was, the last man standing. He thought back to the story of his mother’s cousin who had died with his pants around his ankles and a cow halter twisted around his neck. The perfect metaphor for their hopeless, delusional worldview: a humiliating act of voluntary self-destruction in pursuit of a sacred cow. He pictured his dead relative now – a boy he had never met who was completely defined to him by the single most foolish, asinine thing he had ever been enough of a dumb-fuck to do. And now they were all in the same place that he was: cold and alone in the soundless, sightless infinity of the earth. Dead. And here he was. Alive. He had done everything his way in life, even rejecting Demian’s advice and standing up for his right to self-satisfy. And who cared for the old man anyway? Demian was far closer than he was to “the dying of the light.” Soon he, too, would be with them: cold and alone in the soundless, sightless infinity of the earth. He smiled to think on it, and his smile was not particularly pleasant to look at.
He could, if he chose, stand up with a stomp and begin knocking over the pots and kicking in the railings, ranting at the top of his lungs about the childish idiocy of religion, the small-mindedness of tradition, and the cold indifference of death: how it had swept away and muted his grandparents’ organ-fueled hymns forever, buried his mother’s grief like a stone tossed into the sea, and shattered his family with as little difficulty as a man might pulverize a china doll with a sledge hammer. He could do any of this now – he could run through the rooms screaming profanities, tear his grandparents’ bedroom to pieces in a drunken fury, or urinate on the kitchen table and hurl each dish and bowl to splinters on the floor. It sounded strangely delightful to him right now, and he grinned to think on it, but he did none of this. He sat and drank his tea and planned his midnight snack of bananas, peanut butter, and a tumbler of whole milk.
Overheard the flaming heavens deepened and darkened and died away until it was all draped in the heavy, blue pall of night. And a copper colored moon rose imperceptibly over the house like a watchful cyclopean eye…
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 30.
ONE HOUR BEFORE MIDNIGHT.
The night was unusually warm for the last day of September, and as he made his rounds before going to bed, he left one window open in each room before checking the doors and turning out all of the lights – except for the night light in the dining room, whose pale glow cast enormous shadows from the grim, old organ and the antique china cupboard. He heard the house settling overhead and thought back to his first morning here: how he had relaxed once the illusion of his anxious expectations was broken. Still, he would have left that exact moment if he would have known that nine weeks later he would be quitting his job, breaking up with Grace, and moving into the old place. Was that what he was doing? He hadn’t yet said that out loud to himself. It sounded extreme and unexpected, but by this point he supposed it was the truth. He had a paid for house and still received over three thousand dollars a month in royalty checks from his books, and that was more than enough to feed him and pay the utilities. “Moving into the old house,” he said out loud. “Is that really what I’m doing?” He still had time to put it up for sale. He could return to Vanderbilt for the spring semester. This could all just be a hiatus. He had lost his mother and had just finished two breakneck book tours, and anyone would understand his need for some time off away from home. But was he ever going to return there, or was this his home now? He stilled his racing mind for a moment and listened: there was nothing but cool silence – serene and filled with peace. He thought he understood why this was happening, and he decided to commit to it here and now: there was no new resident to prepare the house for. He was the new resident. And he said as much, boldly and out loud.
Climbing the stairs to his bed, he felt the change in temperature with each step. Warmer by ten degrees, probably. He opened his bedroom window and pulled the drapes back to let the fall breeze in. It was fresh and soothing, spiced with the amber aroma of fallen leaves and the distant scent of a wood-burning stove. Looking into the distance out his window, he wondered which farmhouse it was coming from. It was such a warm night. He scanned the violet landscape but could only see the lights of two or three windows in the distance. They all seemed weak and sleepy, and one of them blinked out while he was looking at it. In the west could hear the rushing hiss of the interstate, and the vague, red glow of its lights barely seemed to cut into the heavy dark that seemed to be drifting all around him like a great, silent oil spill being pulled ashore by the tide. He took his shirt and shorts off and lay in bed. The sounds of the interstate grew softer as the traffic died away with the hours. The smell of burning wood faded as the denizens of the unknown farmhouse went to bed. A deep silence rolled in over the house like a solemn bank of thunderheads, forever blotting out the sun from the sky…
His dreams that night were bizarre and shapeless. He felt himself running through a wilderness, seeking relief from some unseen enemy, but always hearing his racing footsteps just as he paused to catch his breath, and then he must rise back up and find new shelter. There was nothing to see – just the sounds and smells and impressions of a great, primordial forest where he was trapped with his pursuer. It seemed like it must be at night and he must be very sure of where not to go, but not at all sure of where he should go. His feet ached and bled, for they were bare, and his lungs burned with each gasping breath of air. It was not cool or fresh tasting, though: the atmosphere was thick and muggy, with a stagnant, moldy taste, like a basement in an old house whose walls are webbed with furry, black growths. Although he could not see, he knew that if he were to look up, he would see no stars or moon above – just the black and silent ceiling of impenetrable infinity. Now he knew that he was at a cliff’s edge and that his pursuer was near behind. What was to be done? He was turning to face and fight him off, but in the action of turning, he began to lose his balance. And now here was the Thing – impossible to see in the dark, but panting frantically – and as he heard the slap of his nearing footsteps, he suddenly felt it lunge on top of him, and now they were falling together, and its bony arms were wrapped tightly around him while its bearded face was pressed lovingly into his own. They crashed into the ground with a bone-splitting crack—
His eyes flew open and he stared at the ceiling above him. A few brassy blotches of moonlight dappled the wall across from him, but the room was otherwise swallowed in deep shadow and he could barely make out which direction he was facing. “Just a dream,” he thought to himself, “and maybe that’s the end of it. It’s all over. That’s how it ends. It’s all been about me confronting reality and admitting to myself that I need to make this change. I’m going through with it, and that’s what I needed to do to kill him off. Now I can go back to sleep and tomorrow will be the very first day of this new life of mine. A life of total honesty and self-love. Now I can live my life exactly the way I want to. There’s no one I am accountable to. No one I’m responsible to. I’m finally completely alone.”
His train of thought was cut off by a sound. A thick, raspy clack…
It came from the left side of the room – from the wall he shared with the attic. He could still see nothing in the darkness, but he could hear the tired creak of the attic door being carefully opened, as if by someone who was very used to opening it in a manner intended to avoid notice – someone who didn’t realize that he was awake. There was a step on the floor. His heart seemed to stop as he listened for the next step, hoping that it would cross in front of him and move towards the door, through it, around the corner, and down the stairs. Then he could think of a way to get out of this damned house through the window. He would make his way down the side of the roof and hang from the gutter over the flowerbed on the west— his thoughts were decapitated by the sound of a second step, and a third, gingerly making their way, not towards the door, but towards the bed where he was trying so hard to breathe quietly. Now his breaths came out it spluttering wheezes of terror as he felt the Thing’s weight as it sat on the opposite side of the bed – just as he might have done if he were staying the night at Grace’s apartment in Nashville, after getting up to use the bathroom, softly slipping back into bed so as not to wake her up.
Now it was pulling the covers back and easing snuggly into bed beside him. There was no question of whether he was awake or not now – it must know, because his breaths were now coming out in desperate sobs, and it was with a shiver of absolute disgust that he felt a bony hand slip over his chest and grip his arm cozily. It inched closer to him, burying its face into the angle of his left shoulder. He felt a straggly, oily beard bristling against his throat, and his elbow was now pressing into a row of emaciated ribs. It lurched up, as if trying to get a look at him, and his elbow now brushed against a shriveled stomach. The room was filled with a pungent, sour stench – the vulgar tang of human skin encrusted in sweat and filth and urine – and as he heard a giddy panting noise, his stomach lurched at the rancid odor of a mouth filled with rotting teeth and infected gums.
It seemed to watch him for a moment, then a cluster of soiled fingers – like the legs of a tarantula – gently brushed against his bare stomach. He clenched his teeth to stop his screams, and his eyes were fixed and bulging as the hand felt its way up his chest, along his throat, over his beard, where it lingered lovingly on his face: feeling the set teeth and poking curiously at his unblinking eye.
He told himself, it is some half-starved vagrant this was who had clearly found his way into the house, he doesn’t seem violent. I can speak carefully to him. I can tell him that I am turning on the light and that we can get him some food and then call the police to find him a safer place to live. I won’t frighten him. I will reason with him. I will explain what I am doing. He will appreciate the food and the empathy. I am a psychologist, after all, I will use my training to keep him calm. It’s all a misunderstanding. Very natural. There are homeless people in the country, too. Maybe he hitchhiked on I-69 and was dropped off at the Petro Lube Travel Center. He wandered down the road looking for a friendly face. He’s confused in the mind, so when he saw that the windows were open, he climbed in and came up here. I’ve been leaving them open all week. He probably has only been here for a day. Maybe two. Now I just need to calm him down. I need to turn on the light.
His fingers shook violently as he started to reach over to the nightstand, and his dry lips were going to form the words “If you don’t mind, sir, I’m just going to reach over here and turn on this light so that we can see each other,” but something dormant in his mind rebelled against his reason and seemed to explode at him with the knowing words For God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t turn on the light!!
His hand dropped and he began to sob as the stranger rolled over and began snuggling against him. He knew that it was not a vagrant. But he wouldn’t – he couldn’t turn on the light. He dared not look it in the face. No matter what he did, he could not do that. He would die before he invited the blaze of acknowledgment into this dark, stinking cell that he was now trapped in. What could be done now? But then his senses returned to him and he remembered the dream: he had to make it to the campsite. It was the only safe place – away from this hideous house with its ghoulish memories – and it was with a surprising burst of energy that he spontaneously rolled out of bed with this nighttime visitor, and hit the ground running at full speed in spite of the dark.
He crashed through the door and seemed not to be surprised by what he saw: the figures of his parents sleeping quietly in a bed that had not been in the sitting room for nearly twenty-five years now. He rushed down the stairs as if they had always been there, nonplussed by their sudden appearance. Nor was he surprised by the strong, resinous odor of lamp oil wafting up from the dining room, nor by the croaking strains of the organ as it brayed out his grandmother’s favorite hymn:
I walk in the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own…
As he thundered down the stairs and rounded the corner, his eyes were stung by the bright, blue blaze of two hurricane lamps burning as they so often had in the dining room. His grandmother – who had offered to dress his burnt finger – was sitting calmly at the organ, wringing the tune from its tired lungs, and his grandfather – who had failed to hand him the paint while he was up on the ladder – was swaying in time to it in a rocking chair overlooking the cherry trees in the side yard. He paid them no notice, but stumbled frantically into the living room as he heard the smacking rumble of naked feet coming down the stairs.
All around him were sleeping bodies: his uncle and aunt were snoring on a blow-up mattress and his cousins wrapped up in blankets on the ground, in chairs, and couches. Somehow – he knew not how – he was aware of even more layers of sleepers: phantom beds and cots and bunks seemed to be layered on top of his cousins. He remembered hearing that the eastern half of the living room had once been a bedroom for his grandma and her siblings in the 1930s, and here he vaguely recognized the faces of these sleepers from old photographs. One of them belonged to a teenage boy with a 1960s crew-cut and a clenched expression, as though he was being troubled by nightmares; his throat was darkened by a heavy, purple welt. His eyes alone were open, and as his first cousin-once removed rushed past him, they made fleeting eye contact, and the boy flashed him a cryptic grin which the living man refused to decode.
Enough of this house of the dead, he thought as he gained the front door, and in a moment his bare feet were slapping on the porch floor. His eyes stung from the light all around him: his grandfather’s luminarias were strung up in two phalanxes, encircling the house and outlining the driveway like an airstrip. Red, green, blue, and gold bulbs burned softly inside the milk jugs, and as he heard the stomping feet behind him, he realized that he was terrified of this light, and ran as hard as he could for the trail to the woods.
Now every experience began to roll in disconnected flashes through his brain like the flickering visions of a kaleidoscope: time rushed backwards and forwards, he smelled things from twenty years ago, vividly saw sights that he could barely remember, and felt the warm fur of long-dead pets and heard the booming laughs of long-dead relatives. They tumbled spontaneously through his mind, bumping up against one another in no certain order, and moving from one to another as if he was randomly flipping through pages of a yellowed photo album. But he rejected it all; he rebuked it all. With each stride the visions grew less powerful and he came closer to the wood, which stood gigantic and towering against the sky like a great, black fortress or an enormous, obsidian tomb. The copper-colored moon rose over the trees, gilding the edges of the foliage with liquid orange, and as he plunged into the great shadowy pyramid where the trail began, he took one last warry look behind him. The house was blazing with cool, gentle light, radiating in ruddy pinks and somber golds from the windows and the porch. The luminarias burned quietly like the stable glow of a lighthouse, and he sensed that all who slept there slept soundly.
But he did not want to sleep. He would do anything to save himself from that. And here, now, he saw something dark pass in silhouette against the glow of the luminarias. It was his pursuer. And he deeply regretted the wasted seconds spent looking back at the wretched old house as he filled his lungs with aromatic fall air and resumed his sprint – pounding down the path with his hands extended, groping his way to the campsite by memory, for here it was truly lightless and truly overwhelmed by night.
His feet were gouged more than once on sticks and rocks, and he realized that leaves were sticking to them because of the blood, but he would not let up. Now, just ahead of him, he could finally see the honey-colored moonlight breaking through the trunks ahead of him. A few more steps and he would be at the carcass of the fallen beech tree. He cursed himself for not having brought in chainsaws to have it cut away, but he would make do; he would climb over it and make do. Rounding the curve, he could now hear the crunch of footfalls behind him, but he was also gratified by the sight of the moon hanging like a bronze idol over the throat of the clearing, and he could make out the familiar trees and rocks that made up his old getaway. There, in the warm, sepia tones of the moonlight he saw the hollow under the arms of a gnarled ash tree where he used to place his tents; and there was the stump that he would shoot cans off of with his BB gun; and there was the rock where he would stand on to feel tall and strong like a grown man; and there was the little fort he had made out of fallen branches and old logs, hardly changed in twenty years. It was all there, and there was where he could find safety.
He threw himself onto the beech and groped for places to pull himself up by. Almost immediately he was aware of a strange, dull pain and a coldness that seemed to invade him, but he grabbed at some branches within reach and dragged himself up and over. His boxers were snagged as he slid to the ground and he ripped free of them just in time to hear the crunching sounds pause at the roadblock.
How serene was it here? How peaceful? No, the house wasn’t the answer. It had been brimming with souls, and he was seeking solitude. The freedom to be and love himself exactly as he was, without agendas or responsibilities or expectations. He thought of the sleeping shades in the house, and of his grandmother – still playing that grisly, old organ – and his grandfather – still watching phantom birds while rocking in a phantom chair. What kind of existence could that be? So repetitive and small. Well they had what they wanted: they were together in that miserable farmhouse along with God knows how many layers upon layers of tired old ghosts from when it was first built in 1893 to his poor mother. She would be happy there, he supposed, but he had to leave. Where to now? Nashville was done for him. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Demian. No, he would stay here. Here, he was safe. Here, he was himself. He looked up at the copper moon and smiled. Then he stopped.
There was something standing in the center of the campsite. He hadn’t heard it moving, hadn’t seen it make its way over the beech, but here it was – calmly and confidently standing in front of him, just a few yards away. His back was to the moon, and he could see the hideous outline of his emaciated figure. Yes, it was a nude man with a beard, gaunt and emaciated to a repulsive extent – little more than a skeleton covered in filth and mud and waste. His shaggy hair hung over his forehead, and from the darkness, he almost thought he could see two points of orange light where the eyes should be. How had he gotten in? This was the safe spot, this was where the dream had promised that he could be alone with himself and—
He felt his stomach drop in stunned mortification. He understood it all; or at least as well as a stubborn soul like his would allow. He squirmed helplessly as his mind raced through the years and began to peel away his own great delusion. How perfect it had been. He was almost proud as he traced it through the years. But now he had no years left. Now he was facing it, and while it had been patient, they were both running out of time, and one or the other had to make its move.
As the gruesome thing took a weak step forward and reached its hands out in loving anticipation, he didn’t need a light to know that it was grinning with its putrid-smelling mouth, or to know what kind of a face it had – or whose face it had. The orange light behind it glowed through its hands – they were appallingly wasted away – and through the long, jagged nails. It looked weak, it looked famished, but he knew – so, so very well – that it was powerful hungry…
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 1.
The drive from Nashville, Tennessee to Alexandria, Indiana was neither terribly long nor terribly boring, but it was terribly quiet. Grace was holding no hopes for her relationship: she had moved on, and had even gone on a date that week. It was the email from Max Demian that brought her to Indiana. She had too much respect for Haller’s intelligence and potential as an academic to let him waste it like this, and she cared too much about him as a person to let him come to any harm. Demian had said that he was hoping that she would join him in an intervention to try to get him out of that house. It wasn’t the house itself, he said, that posed him a danger, but the man living in it. Any solitary place could offer the same dangers, and he was especially concerned about what would happen if he allowed himself to be cut off entirely from the outside world. As Haller had mentioned several times, it would be entirely possible: he could live off of book royalties and never have to leave the house except to gather supplies. Something was unquestionably wrong. She had heard it in his voice over the phone and sensed it in the growing silence between them. By the time she decided to break it off she had realized that his time in Alexandria was only pulling back the sheet on the corpse of their relationship: it had been dead for years, but proximity and their busy schedules had hidden it from view. Now, though, she felt that she owed it to him – to the man that he was – to find him and save him from himself.
Pablo was driving there with Demian as the first sunrise of October brushed the cornfields with rosy fire. He had been the one to goad Demian into reaching out to Grace. Demian had initially decided to leave Haller to his own devices, but the longer Pablo thought about it, the more he knew that he owed it to this man’s soul – a soul that was no less worthy of peace than his own – to save him from the clutches of his Nahual. He talked it over with Demian two days earlier and they had already visited the house twice. This would be their third trip, and now they would have Grace with them to hopefully appeal to parts of Haller’s spirit that they knew nothing about. During their first visit, Pablo had seen him walking around the house, ignoring their knocks and the chiming doorbell, gesturing oddly to himself and looking significantly at spaces in the air at or just below eye level. His lips were moving and he seemed to be having conversations. They left after trying to get his attention for half an hour, and the second day was no less effective: he sat in a chair, nodding and murmuring to something across from him. He certainly didn’t look well: unwashed, unshaved, and mostly unclothed as he strode deliriously from room to room, paying no attention to the pounding on the windows and doors.
Demian was already blaming himself before he knew what the toll had been on Haller. Whatever they found, it would be too late. But perhaps there was still a chance. As they drove down Highway 28, they saw the burnt-out house waiting for them – gaunt and black like a mummy – with the morning sun shining redly through the gaps in its shattered walls.
When they turned on County Road 700 N. they could see that a green Prius was parked in the driveway. As they came closer they could see a young woman peeking into the windows with her hands around her eyes. Demian was taken by surprised when Pablo sped the truck up and wrecklessly drove into the yard as close as he could get to the porch. He threw it into park and immediately lept from the cab and flagged his arms to get her attention.
“Hello, Miss! Please step back from there. Don’t touch the house. We’re here and we will go with you together. Together is more better.”
She seemed to understand somehow, even though she didn’t have the least idea of what Pablo suspected. Somehow, in the deep valley of her soul, she knew that they were confronting something dangerous.
They used the spare key to get into the house. All three immediately gagged on the pungent odor of kerosene oil. A greasy blue haze drifted listlessly in the dining room. Two hurricane lamps were sitting on the table; their wicks had burned out, but tendrils of dark smoke still curled from the smoldering nubs like incense wafting in a temple. Both had been filled with oil.
Demian immediately noticed that sheet music was opened on the organ; he hadn’t even been aware that there was any sheet music in the house, and certainly doubted that Haller would suffer it to be left out, especially because it appeared to be something from an old hymnal. Blankets were strewn all over the living room, and in the upstairs they found more in the sitting room. The door to the attic, Pablo noticed, was wide open. But the resident of the house was nowhere to be found.
Demian advised that they search the woods. Having eliminated the obvious places indoors, he said there was no other place he expected to find his missing student, and the three of them headed down the dark path into the heart of the wood where Haller had spent some of the happiest days of his life – playing by himself.
Where they found him is unnecessary to relate, and that he was dead is equally obvious. The coroner would state that he had accidentally impaled himself through the bowels on a four-inch long splintered branch sticking out from the side of the fallen beech. His blood was found on it, and a track of it led from that spot to the place where they found him. The rest of his blood, however, was curiously missing. It was also a medical curiosity as to how a man who, by all accounts, had gained up to fifty pounds of fat over nine weeks, should lose over eighty pounds in a single night: the body they found was severely emaciated to the point of starvation.
The coroner’s court judged that Pablo and Demian, who hadn’t seen him in over a month except through the window, or from a distance on the porch, had been mistaken in judging him to have gained even more weight since the day that he fired them. The coroner supposed that he had tried to starve himself to death and had wandered out to the woods in the night, deluded by hunger. They couldn’t explain what had happened to his blood or why he would order so much food, as the statements from Rachel’s Hi-Way Café and the Iron Skillet clearly demonstrated, if he was intentionally starving himself, or where he disposed of this food, but the ways of mentally compromised persons are mysterious and unaccountable.
The court further alleged that the blankets, sheet music, and oil lamps suggested an unsound mind: that he was living under the delusion that his family was still alive and together – a conclusion they largely fostered based on Grace’s testimony of what he had told her of his childhood – and suggested that the reason he was ordering such vast quantities of food, was feeding this imaginary family. Some mention was made of strange tunnels under the porch and sightings of a thin, pale man in the woods, but this was quickly explained away. The burrows were likely caused by extremely large rabbits, so they said, and probably widened by wild dogs or coyotes. And there was no man in the woods. Demian noticed that there were two clear sets of footprints leading from the porch to the campsite, and he suggested that they be tested for prints, but the coroner laughed this off as well: the prints – as you will have guessed – were entirely identical.
Demian blamed himself for what happened to his former student, and when the house was sold to a young family two years later, he and Pablo visited them on a breezy spring afternoon and spoke quietly with the parents in words that the children couldn’t hear or understand, making subtle gestures to the porch and the wood and the attic. The wife’s face was very serious and pale, and she was seen to point directly at the wood and say something along the lines of “yes, very thin” and “a beard.” Two months after the visit, Pablo was driving past the house at twilight and could immediately see that the wood had been grubbed up and turned into farmland. Only the enormous oak tree and the orchard in the backyard remained. He smiled sadly to see this. The house itself was dark and no vehicles sat in the driveway, so he imagined that the family must be out for the evening. He looked out over the fields where the shining windows of distant farmhouses glowed like embers. But when he looked up into his rearview mirror, he was surprised to see the whole yard radiant with soft, colored lights that seemed to come from a ring of small, glowing objects on the ground. He hit the brakes and looked closer. It had been entirely dark just a few seconds ago. But yes, there was a ring of light gleaming on the siding and sending dusky shadows along the porch. He turned around in his seat to look at it directly. No, he had been mistaken – it was dark and quiet. Just a delusion. He glanced at the rearview mirror and confirmed this again, then he put the truck into gear and continued home to his wife and children and never drove on that road again...