It was Kev who dared me to go inside.
“Wouldn’t have asked you to hang out if I knew you were such a pussy,” he teased, exhaling thick plumes of smoke.
Tommy and Pete sniggered, weed giving them the giggles. Maybe I’d have been laughing too, if the hairs on my neck hadn’t been standing bolt upright. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the rickety, decaying building in front of us.
It must have been nice, when it was first built; however many hundreds of years ago that was. Now it was just some rotten cabin that time had forgotten. The surrounding woods had claimed it as their own, trees growing alongside both walls, their reaching branches scratching against fusty timber. Half the outside was blackened with old fire-damage, or smothered in graffiti and vandalism. Flimsy mesh fencing ran around the perimeter of the house; some failed attempt from the council to block it off, if I had to guess. Part of it had been cut open by past delinquents, the metal curling back to grant access, but we didn’t even need it. Pete had pushed one over of the loose panels, tipping it onto the ground. You could drive a car through it now.
Cripple Jack Shack. That was what they called it. I always thought it was a myth; some story our dad’s had cooked up to scare us, and stop us getting lost in the woods. Supposedly, decades ago some boy called Jack had gone exploring inside the abandoned house, and fell through the floorboards whilst upstairs. He’d broken both legs, or his arms, or his spine - the details changed depending on who told the story - but the end result was the same. He’d been crippled for life, and ended things himself soon after. I’m not sure ‘Cripple Jack’ would fly in the modern age, but that was what my dad’s generation called him. They even named the old house after him. The house that was, apparently, real.
The joint passed to Tommy, who stepped next to me, surveying the house as he took a deep, considering drag.
“I bet the door’s locked anyway,” he said, voice croaking as he held the smoke in his lungs. He twisted his mouth to one side to avoid blowing smoke in my face.
“Only one way to find out…” said Pete, eyes twinkling with sadistic joy. It always felt like Pete wanted to see me screw something up. Sometimes I wished the others weren’t friends with him. With Kev and Tommy, I knew it was just banter, but Pete had some venom in him.
Tommy took another heroic drag before offering me the joint. I’d already had enough, but I took it anyway, and gave it a half-hearted toke. Warm tingles were beginning to wrap around my head like an overly tight headband, and my thoughts began to loop a little, each repetition blurring into the next. I began to feel like the others were watching me.
“Fine,” I said, “I’ll try the door.”
I’d barely taken three steps forward before Pete shouted, stopping me in my tracks.
My eyes shot up to the house, sweeping over the black, empty windows, expecting to see someone inside. Out of all of them, if Pete was telling me to wait, something must have been seriously wrong. But I couldn’t see anything. I turned around as Pete stomped over to me.
“Give me that,” he said, snatching the joint from my fingers.
“Oh,” I muttered, sheepishly continuing my walk to the shack. Behind me, laughter oozed out of my three friends.
Dead leaves and twigs crunched under my trainers. As I drew closer to the wooden cabin, I wished my friends would laugh again. Or shout something. Anything to drown out the swaying skeletal trees around me, their barren branches scraping together in the winter wind. That same wind crept into the open holes of my clothes, and I tried my best not to shiver as the cabin loomed over me. I was regretting those last hits of weed now - my feet felt heavy and I was convinced I wasn’t walking properly. Swaying more than the trees.
Each step made the cabin look more imposing. Some extra detail came into focus, or some grimy aspect gained new, disgusting clarity. Paranoia drew shapes in the dark openings where windows should have been. They made me think of empty eye sockets on a skull. Like the house was watching me.
As though I were on a conveyor belt, I kept moving. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I could smell the rot now. Damp wood, old ash and piss. My hand hovered over the door handle. With the smell being so strong, I was willing to bet serious money that people had pissed all over it, or worse. Pulling down my sleeve, I used my hoodie to avoid touching the door with my skin.
As I pressed down, I prayed that the door wouldn’t open.
If any gods had listened to my prayer, they ignored it. The door began to swing outward, on hinges so rusty it sounded like they were screaming. Without even thinking about it, I let go and stumbled back. The door kept swinging though, gaining momentum and catching the wind. It clattered into the side of the cabin and I flinched like a rabbit in a snare.
Laughter from the trees let me know my friends had seen. I turned back to them, hoping maybe this was enough. Maybe I’d done enough.
All three of them motioned for me to go inside, Pete most insistent of all. Like I belonged there. Like this horrible place was my home. I felt my face twisting up in anger and turned away from them.
The open doorway was wrapped up tight in shadow. Despite the daylight trickling through the leafless canopy above, it was as black as dead coals beyond that door frame. A hungry, gaping jaw, waiting to swallow me.
In and out. That was all I needed to do.
Getting my feet to move was difficult, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. With sleeve still pulled over my hand, I steadied myself on the door frame as I passed over the threshold, from light to darkness. It took my eyes a moment to adjust, and for a few horrifying seconds all I could see was vague black lines of what I assumed was a hallway, obscured by spots dancing in my vision.
The coward in me realised I didn’t need to go any further. My friends couldn’t see me any more, I could just wait here, then go back outside. They’d never know the difference. It was a little warmer inside, with the rotten walls offering basic shelter, but the wind howled through the gaps in the house, almost whistling. The faint scratching of tree branches outside sounded like sharpening knives. In the darkness, each creak of wood or unexplained tap drew my full attention, like my ears were making up for my struggling vision. I could at least make out the outline of the room I stood in now, as well as guess at some of the shapes inside. An old cabinet, and a wooden chair. A broken coat rack. A bookcase,with all its shelves missing. I was surprised there was anything left inside at all. Usually these abandoned places are barren, just empty beer bottles, rubbish and some remnants of a fire.
Emboldened by my improved eyesights, I decided to look inside one room. The nearest one. Floorboards creaked under my feet, and I was reminded of the story of Cripple Jack. Hoping there wasn’t a basement under these thin strips of old wood, I kept close to the walls, thinking that would probably be the safest place to tread.
The wind outside picked up as I got closer to the open doorway I’d chosen to investigate. I couldn’t feel any breeze, but the whole shack trembled with it, like some big bad wolf was trying to blow it down. I’d just placed my hand on the door frame, and was moving to peak around the corner when the wind died down, and I was left alone with another sound that made me freeze.
A distant, throaty hum, drifting from one of the open doorways ahead. I couldn’t tell which one. It might have been the one I had my hand on. It might have been the one opposite, that I now had my back to. With teeth clenched together, I fought the urge to swallow, or cough. My dry mouth desperately wanted to do both.
Someone was in the house with me. The humming wasn’t loud enough to say for sure if it was a man or a woman, if they were young or old. But that quiet, vaguely melodic noise rooted me to the spot. I was too scared to even think.
Then it grew louder. Like whoever was making the sound had turned towards me. Was moving towards me.
With wide eyes, I watched my hand unpeel itself from the door frame, and felt my feet step backwards, instinct carrying me towards the light outside. Floorboards creaked underfoot, threatening to rat me out, but the humming never stopped. It had a sickly sweetness to it, and made me think of fresh baked pies, sitting on a window sill.
Just as I neared the exit, my shoulder clattered into the cabinet and it rattled on its timber feet, rocking back and forth but mercifully staying upright. I ran then. Too close to the exit to risk staying. Too frightened to stop and listen if the humming was still there.
Outside, the light almost blinded me, but I still saw the black shape leap out at me.
“Boo!” it shouted. I slipped, scrambling to get away from it, falling backwards and landing on the muddy forest floor with a painful thud. I kicked and yelled, frantically and desperately trying to get away from it when a hand gripped my arm.
“Zac…” someone said above me. “Jesus Christ, Zac, calm down.”
The animal part of me vanished, and I was back in control of my body, panting fast and heavy, staring at my friends. Tommy had me by the arms and was trying to pull me up.
Pete was hunched over, laughing so hard he almost fell on his arse. “What a fuckin’ pussy!”
“You OK, man?” asked Tommy.
“Someone’s inside,” I wheezed, eyes darting towards the open doorway, shrouded in shadows. “I heard someone inside.”
It didn’t stop Pete laughing, but Tommy and Kev both glanced at the door before finally getting me to my feet. They shared a look before Kev’s mouth spread into a toothy grin.
“You had me for a second,” Kev said, wagging a finger at me. “That’s good.”
“No, I think he’s serious,” said Tommy, not taking his eyes off mine, as though the truth could be found if he stared hard enough. Eventually, he gave up, and glanced at the open doorway, “it’s probably a tramp or something.”
“Someone... humming…” I managed. My head was spinning, and my racing thoughts seemed so much louder than my voice. Tommy braced against me, and I tried to blink spots out of my vision.
When I looked back up, Kev was moving cautiously through the doorway. I barely managed to open my mouth to object, before he slipped through, joining the shadows. Pete followed him, still chuckling to himself and shaking his head.
Tommy gave me an insistent nudge. “C’mon mate.”
“No…” I tried, but it was so weak, so quiet.
“You’re with us now,” Tommy said, supporting me with his arm as he walked us both towards the doorway. “You’ll be alright.”
I tried to say ‘no’ again, as we trudged towards the door. My mouth wasn’t working properly. Neither were my knees. Or my neck. They’d gone all floppy. My head rolled on my shoulders as Tommy pulled me through the gaping jaw of Cripple Jack Shack.
“Guys,” hissed Tommy, as darkness swallowed us. “I think Zac’s whiteying.”
A chill passed through me. I could feel Tommy’s hands clutching me through my hoodie, a little too tight. Like he was worried I was going to collapse.
“I’m not…” I managed, draping an arm across Tommy, head lolling like I was a scarecrow taken from its pole. We were moving too fast. Too fast.
Up ahead, blinding lights turned on us. I scrunched up my face, too weak to put my hands up and block the glaring light. One moved closer, the other turned away. Through squinted eyes, I watched the bright light approach, wondering what it was.
“Yeah, he’s ghosting,” said Kev, turning around and hissing urgently into the hallway. “Pete…”
The light was Kev! I tried telling this to Tommy, but no words came out. I couldn’t lift up my head very well, it was too heavy, but I could see now that Kev must have turned the torchlight of his phone on. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“Dammit, where’s he going?” Kev asked, still looking down the hall. He hissed again. “Pete!”
The other light drifted into one of the rooms down the hall, and disappeared. I nodded and pointed. That one must be Pete.
“I don’t like Pete…” I mumbled to Tommy.
“I know, buddy,” said Tommy, comforting me like a child.
Kev bit off a snarl and stomped down the hallway. He turned into the same room Pete had gone inside, taking the light with him. Tommy fumbled in his pocket, darkness and keeping me standing making things difficult for him. After a moment, light bloomed into the room. Tommy had his phone out, camera flash illuminating our surroundings.
“Why didn’t I think of that…” I muttered to the floorboards. Then, after a bit of reflection, I added “I don’t feel very good.”
Tommy adjusted his grip on me, struggling with his phone. “You’re gonna be OK mate, it’ll pass.”
Icy chills passed along my face, taking the warmth out of all the tingles the weed had given me before. I realised what Tommy had been saying before. I was whiteying. White Death. When you have too much weed and go all faint, and pale, and weak. I certainly felt like death. Strange little mumbled escaped me, and my head swayed around, spinning along with this rotten room.
“What the fu…” I heard Tommy whisper, and then I heard it. That humming, from before. I’d almost forgotten about it. Now it almost felt comforting.
Hmm-mmm-mmm, hmm-mm-mm-mmmmh... It was a soothing sort of melody. Like a mother might coo to her baby.
Tommy’s grip got pincer-tight, pinching and twisting my skin through my hoodie. He lifted his phone to illuminate the hallway ahead. Although it was blinding when shone directly in my eyes, the light did little to reveal the contents of the empty corridor. But we both saw the thing that was humming.
It swept from one unexplored doorway to another, following Kev and Pete into the room I’d almost walked inside. We only got the barest glimpse before Tommy fumbled his phone and it clattered to the floor. Whatever it was, it was skeleton-thin, with ghostly white hair trailing past its shoulders. By the time Tommy managed to scoop us his phone and shine the light back down the hall, it was gone. With no noise coming from the others, Tommy did something very brave and very foolish. He followed it.
Sometimes I wonder if I could have done things differently. Pulled Tommy back, or just ran away. But that wasn’t what I did. Left alone in the darkness, world still spinning, I shambled after my friend. I wasn’t being brave. I was just too scared to stay on my own.
By the time I caught up, Tommy stood in the doorway, shining his light into the room. I poked my head around the frame, getting my first good look inside the room. It was hard to see anything but the person humming, cast in harsh spotlights by three camera phones. Kev, Pete and Tommy, all dumbstruck, all speechless, each of us just watching in horror as a gaunt, decrepit old woman stood with her back to us, stirring a pot of rotten food on a rusty stove. Still humming. Somehow acting completely oblivious to us. Although most of her was covered in damp and dingy rags, it was clear she was malnourished to the point of near-starvation.
“What…” Tommy whispered after what felt like a lifetime.
Even this simple word seemed to rouse the others. I couldn’t make out their expressions from behind their beams of light, but from the way they bobbed and moved, I could tell silent escape plans were being formed. Even in my own, sorry state, questions bubbled in my mind, almost overwhelming me.
Who was this woman? What was she doing here? Did she know we were in the room? Had she been here all this time, just cooking rotten food in the pitch darkness?
It was too much. With the darkness, with the fear, with my thoughts reverberating against the walls of my skull. Everything swirled around me, like a flushed toilet, and I threw my guts up. At least I had enough wits to avoid Tommy’s shoes.
The others didn’t seem to notice.
“Hey!” snapped Pete, waving dramatically at the old woman. She just kept humming and stirring.
I heard Kev hiss at Pete to shut up, and there was a scuffle as he tried to drag him back.
“Pete, shut the fuck up!”
“Hey, crackhead! I’m talking to you!”
With bleary eyes and a slack jaw, I watched Pete walk into the spotlight made by the other’s phones. He tapped the old woman on the shoulder. Not hard, just enough to get her attention. She didn’t react, but Kev did, jumping in and pulling Pete away. I expected them to argue, but they both fell silent, their arms slumping to their sides, light cast downwards so only their legs and the floorboards were illuminated.
Tommy took an uncertain step forwards. I reached out for him, not wanting to leave the light of his phone. Anything but the darkness. He motioned at the others to come outside, hissed their names, but they didn’t move.
Biting off a curse, he marched forwards, keeping well away from the humming old woman. Once more, I stumbled after him like a lost puppy. I was outside his cone of light now, and could almost feel the shadows on my skin. He snatched Kev’s arm, and tried to drag him out, but the moment he touched him, his own arms sagged to his side too, the phone tumbling from his hands to the dirty floor.
Light splashed around the room, giving me front row seats as the old woman turned and took my hand. I flailed like a fish in a net. Her fingers slithered between mine. It was cold and dirty and…
As though somebody had drawn the curtains, daylight spilled into the room. It was a kitchen, I could see that now. Radiant light bloomed all around, taking all the dirt and grime away. The cookpot crackled with the sweet smell of stew and spices. Now that she had turned around, now that I could see her face in the daylight, I could see this woman wasn’t old at all. Perhaps in her forties. Her fingers were still wrapped around mine. She was warm, and clean.
She looked into my eyes with motherly concern, tangles of blonde hair framing her slender cheekbones. I gazed back at her, blinking slow and stupid. Her lips pouted for the briefest moment before she spoke, her accent foreign and unfamiliar.
“This von is sick, ja?”
Her voice would make honey taste bitter. Each word made my brain tingle.
Three boys muttered agreement, all at once. My friends. I had forgotten they were in the room too.
“He’s whiteying…” said Tommy.
“Too much weed,” agreed Pete.
“We all had some,” admitted Kev.
She cupped my chin, and shook her head. “You boys,” she tutted, before motioning to the table. “Sit, sit.”
Three chairs scraped along glimmering oak floorboards as my friends abruptly seated themselves. The woman released my chin and returned to her cooking, slowly stirring the pot. It smelt wonderful.
“Mein name ist Grendval,” she said, bringing the wooden spoon to her lips and tasting her food. “Was ist yours?”
Voices swirled together as we all tried to answer at once. Even tangled up as I was, I still murmured my own name, hoping for Grendval to place her hand on my chin again. She opened a cupboard at her side and pulled out some bowls. Her humming resumed as she ladelled out the food, and as we waited for our meal, I cast my eyes around the kitchen. It was hard to believe I’d been scared before. This cottage - or wherever it was - was immaculate. Bathed in sunlight. As I swayed in place and looked at my friends, broad smiles painted across their faces, Tommy with his eyes blissfully closed, I tried to remember what had been so frightening.
The clatter of bowls being placed on the table snapped me out of my daydream, and I marvelled at Grendval’s grace. Her clothes were very strange, I realised. Perhaps I’d been so mesmerised by her pretty face that I’d not noticed them, but I did find myself frowning at those rags she draped herself in. They did nothing to compliment her toned figure. Perhaps she was younger than forty.
“Eat,” she said to the others, “vhilst ist hot.”
My friends didn’t need telling twice. They scooped up their spoons and set to work, eyes fixed on Grendval as she swept towards me. She took my head in both hands.
“None for you. Not yet. You vill only sick it up.”
She drew a finger down my nose then tapped it playfully, making me smile like a fool. She leaned in closer, then closer still. Her breath smelt like flowers, warm against my skin. She leaned closer still, gazing into my eyes, until I thought she was going to kiss me.
“You are vondering vhy I vear these clothes,” she said quietly after a moment. “Perhaps I should change…”
Kev’s spoon clattered to the table, and I turned to see all three of them gawping at her. Soup dripped from their open mouths, all golden and chunky. She turned away from me, and her lips curled into a secretive smile. For a second, I found myself hating them all. That had been my moment with Grendval, and they were stealing it. With a heavy scowl plastered over my face, I met Tommy’s eye, and his goofy smile slipped. Some deep, distant part of me knew it wasn’t his fault, and I felt my own expression soften.
“Who vill help me change?” Grendval asked, sauntering past me and out of the kitchen door.
“I will!” said Kev, throwing his bowl down and jumping out of his seat.
“Me!” shouted Pete, standing up so quickly his chair toppled backwards.
My head was too blurry to let me form any words, and Tommy was still staring at me with a puzzled look. Like he’d been given a maths problem that was too complicated to solve. The other two raced each other out of the room, scrambling past me.
Silence loomed over me and Tommy, and I missed Grendval. Clutching his head, Tommy stared around the room, still with that same baffled look on his face. What was he so worried about? We had both been worried before, I remembered. But that was because it was so dark. And dirty. And…
I looked around the room. At the cast iron stove, fire still gently crackling. It had been rusty, hadn’t it? A herbal smell still played around my nose, the sweet lingering stench of soup, but hadn’t the food been rotten? And the humming woman, hadn’t she been… old?
My stomach plunged into nothingness, and I shivered. For a second, a cloud must have covered the sun, because the room dimmed slightly. But then it was gone. Warm tingles returned across my entire body.
My eyes fell on Tommy again, and he wrinkled up his face, blinking slow and heavy, like he was trying to clean dirt from his eyes.
“Whu... “ Tommy began, his word slurring, “where are we?”
I licked my lips, not knowing the answer. Wobbling in place, I gazed up at the rafters, then tried to look out of the window, but the light was too bright.
“Kitchen,” I shrugged. “Grendval’s kitchen.”
I smiled then, thinking of her soft touch and pleasing voice. Tommy smiled too. Then we both laughed. My eyes darted to the doorway, hoping to see her, but there was nobody there. My feet had been rooted to the spot for what felt like forever, but now I stumbled over to the table, using both hands to steady myself as I sat opposite Tommy. The leftover soup in front of me looked too inviting to resist, but as I clutched the spoon, Tommy grabbed my hand.
“Don’t eat that…” he mumbled. Tommy didn’t look very good. Sweat dripped from his forehead and he kept twitching.
“This isn’t…” he muttered, puffing out his cheeks, gripping the table with both hands. “We aren’t…”
I looked down at my soup. For a split second, it looked black, like dead leaves and old mud. But… it was just soup. I could see it. Smell it. Just soup.
“Somevon is feeling better…” a voice cooed playfully from the doorway. Smile stretching across my lips, I turned over to see Grendval, completely naked. Her skin was deeply tanned, her body sleek and smooth. I had thought her beautiful before, but this was something else entirely. She had no belly button, or nipples, but none of that seemed to matter. I leaned so far forwards I almost fell out of my chair.
“We picked her clothes!” said Pete with more pride than I’d ever thought possible. Both him and Kev lingered behind her, jostling with nervous excitement.
“Now...” Grendval said, scooping up a kettle and gliding towards the table. “Who vants tea?”
All of us except for Tommy said we did. He still had his head in his hands. As Grendval placed kettle atop the gentle flame of the stove, she cast a disapproving eye over him. “Thomas... You haffent eaten your soup.”
With fingers spread wide, frozen in the act of pushing himself away from the table, Tommy looked like he would rather eat anything else in the world. His chin kept tilting towards Grendval before snapping back, as though he were wrestling with himself. I began to get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach again, like something was very, very wrong. But as my eyes drifted away from Tommy and back to Grendval’s toned, naked body, I wondered what on earth could be wrong.
“Help him, Peter,” she said, still with her eyes watching Tommy. Without needing further encouragement, Pete stomped over and snatched up a spoonful of soup, trying to force it into Tommy’s mouth. Tommy grabbed his hand, and tried to wrestle him off. Wordlessly, they grunted and struggled. The kettle began to whistle, rising and piercing.
“Vat is wrong, Thomas?” Grendval asked. “Aren’t you hungry?”
Pete wrenched him from his seat, throwing him to the ground and placing a knee on his chest. He jabbed the food at Tommy’s mouth, but Tommy kept his lips clamped shut, shaking his head furiously. For some reason, I started crying.
Grendval was at my side then, hand on my shoulder. My hands drifted around her, her skin was so warm and smooth. It made me think of leather, but somehow that felt so right. I stood up, lost in the intensity of her gaze. The commotion on the floor seemed so very far away. She appeared to approve of my hands on her, and encouraged further exploration. She moved my fingers down each protruding rib, along her waist, settling on her pelvis, which jutted out underneath taut skin. Her smile made it all seem perfect.
My fingers found a piece of bone that had broken past the skin, and now I gave it closer attention, there were more dotted across her body. Black bones, all knobbly and wet. I prodded one, and it squelched back inside, oozing with grimy pus.
A hand seized my throat, and I tripped over my chair, toppling backwards onto the floorboards. Kev was on top of me, and pain erupted across my face as he punched me square in the nose.
“She’s mine!” he screamed through clenched teeth. His fist rained down on me in hammer blows, smashing my head back against the floorboards, but I kicked him off out of sheer instinct. He collided with the table, sending the bowls leaping into the air, one shattering on the ground.
As I lay on my back, gulping for air, Kev picked himself up and aimed a kick at my head. I barely managed to get out of the way, and grabbed hold of his other leg, tugging it as hard as I could. Kev toppled over, and we desperately grappled, punching and rolling on the floor. Tommy and Pete were still fighting too, descending to punches, the spoonful of soup long forgotten. Above us all, Grendval hummed that same tune, the kettle screeching as it reached boiling point.
“You can’t have her!” Kev spat, battering an elbow into my teeth. I managed to hook my leg around his neck and wrench him backwards. All my blurriness and weakness was gone now. Beaten out of me. I wanted to win. I wanted to claim my prize.
The kettle whined itself to silence, and Grendval took it off the flame, pouring hot liquid into cups. My fingers were in Kev’s eyes, and we rolled across the oak floorboards, grunting in frustration at the other’s refusal to die. Continual wet, crunching splats from the other side of the room declared there was a unanimous victor of the other fight.
“That is qvite enough,” said Grendval, once she had poured the last cup of tea.
Me and Kev released each other, collapsing on our backs, chests heaving. Pete stopped punching Tommy, and got to his feet, panting like a hungry wolf. Blood dripped from his knuckles.
Gracefully drifting across the room, Grendval handed Pete a cup, and embraced him. His free hand slithered down her spine, fingers bobbing on each bony bump. On the floor, my face twisted into bitter hatred, and I could feel Kev seething next to me. With Pete still clinging onto her, Grendval scooped up two more cups, and placed them next to us on the floor.
Ignoring my tea, I pushed myself onto my feet. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t finished touching her. Barely able to stand, I tried to reach for her, but she intercepted my wandering hand. The look she gave me didn’t need any words. Pete had won.
Snatching my hand back, I stared down at Tommy. Blood pooled around his head, which had split in places it shouldn’t have. Scatterings of teeth ruined the glimmer of the oak beneath him. His chest wasn’t rising and falling like it should have been.
I stared down at his limp body and tried to remember. There was a time before all this, wasn’t there? Where Tommy was my friend. Possibly my only friend. He was brave, and foolish, and…
“Ve are going to read now,” a sweet voice tickled my ear.
I turned and saw a flicker of truth. The cabin. Three upturned phone lights barely fighting off the shadows. Bowls, filled with half-eaten black grime. Kev, on the floor, still struggling to breath, sludge smeared across his lips. Pete, being led away, hand in hand with a gaunt, skeletal old woman, her pale flesh pierced with rotten bits of wood. In that moment, I knew. Somehow, I knew. That’s all she was. No bones. No muscles. No nerves. Just a jumble of rotten wood, black decaying sticks, with skin stretched around them.
The moment I thought it, she snapped her head to look at me. Twisting so quickly it would have broken her spine. I was plunged back into daylight, and everything was forgotten.
“Drink your tea,” said Grendval, swaying her hips as she led Pete from the room. I watched her sultry movements and felt my cheeks burn with jealousy.
Kev did as she said, but as I raised the cup to my lips, my eyes fell once more on Tommy’s corpse. I lifted my cup, but kept my mouth clamped shut in a vice grip. The hot liquid pooled against my upper lip, and I pretended to drink. With his cup empty, Kev left the kitchen and I followed him.
It was just as bright and elegant in the rest of the house. The corridor branched off into other rooms, with lacquered floors and jade green walls. Hanging upon the wall was a little wicker man that caught my eye. The twigs were knobbly, black, and looked like they were bleeding. Before I could think too much about it, I saw the shape of Grendval, leading Pete towards a bedchamber. The door between us closed of its own accord. Her voice still floated around us, giving us further instructions.
“Upstairs,” she said. “Qvickly now.”
Before I had even processed her words, Kev had pushed me out of the way and started running. At the end of the corridor was a mahogany staircase, spiralling upward to the top floor. I placed my hand on the banister rail, polished to a sheen. It felt rough beneath my fingers, all gritty and moss-covered. It was jarring to run my hand down the smooth, glimmering wood, whilst splinters and dirt scratched against my palm. My eyes and hands didn’t agree.
Still, I could hear Kev’s excited footsteps as he reached the top, stomping on the floorboards above. Something was wrong about this place, but I couldn’t remember what. Climbing the stairs, I was unable to take my curious fingers off the banister. My dizziness had gone now, but there was a vague rancid taste on my tongue, like you get after you’ve been sick. Had I been sick? I couldn’t remember.
The upper floor was just as bright and lovely as the lower. There was a bedroom up here too, but my eyes were drawn to the library, and its occupant.
We had a library at school, but it was dusty and boring. This place gleamed, each colourful spine of a book calling out to me, pleading to be read. They ascended higher and higher, up into the rafters, piled atop one another. I doubted it would be possible to fit a single extra book on those shelves. Kev was already inside, but his eyes didn’t wander the shelves. They were fixed on a woman who - I could only assume - was the librarian.
She was a large woman, more than double the width of Grenval, and yet she possessed that same feminine grace. She had a hungry sort of smile, with plump, rosy-red cheeks. But there was no doubt what had truly captured mine and Kev’s attention was her colossal bosom. Each breast was larger than her head. As she stepped closer, her entire dress swayed from side to side with the sheer weight of them, leaving little to the imagination and making my throat dry.
“So it vas you boys making all dat commotion,” she said, humour tickling the edges of her voice, and making goofy smiles spread onto both our faces. We both nodded.
“Und now Grendval hass sent you to me,” she said, stepping closer and running a hand across our chests. Kev seemed to enjoy every moment, but once again I found my sense of sight and touch disagreeing.
I saw plump but delicate fingers, teasing and enticing. A woman who knew exactly what she was doing, all full of promises. What I felt was something heavy and crude slam into my chest. Most of it touched my clothes, but one stray finger caught the skin of my neck. It was rougher than the bannister had been, but also damp. It dragged down my body, and I felt bile rise in my throat. That was when the smell hit. I’d once found three-week old pork mince in my brother’s fridge, all grey and rotten, with fust growing on it - that was my closest comparison for the stench that played in my nostrils now.
The flicker came all at once. My entire brain, desperately clawing for the truth. We were in the shack. The room was almost pitch black, but some remnants of daylight broke through the gaps in the boarded up windows. The place was barren, all empty shelves. There were two shapes in front of me, silhouetted in the darkness. One was Kev, looking no different in this vision or the other. But there was another shape, shambling around the room. Bloated. Hairless. It was too dark to make out any features. Just the vague shape of it - big enough to fit both me and Kev inside three times over. The floorboards creaked painfully beneath its slow, steady footsteps. As it waddled into a small ray of dim light, I could see its deathly white skin, glistening and wet. The only colour was in its swollen bluish green veins. The stench was so overpowering I could taste it, clogging my throat. But I think the worst thing was the noise it made. Somewhere between a rasp and a gargle, wheezing and grunting, like the mere act of being alive was painful.
It spoke then. Not in English. Not in any language I recognised at all. It sounded like it was choking on its own tongue. Or chewing it.
All I could do was try not to cry, but Kev actually replied, shouting out with boyish enthusiasm.
He scrambled away, disappearing into the darkness. There was a clatter as he fumbled around the shelves, reaching for books that didn’t exist. My legs almost collapsed as I remembered the fight. Tommy, downstairs in a pool of his own blood.
The tears I’d been holding back came then. The bloated shape of the librarian turned to me, shambling closer and speaking in that same, garbled language. It almost sounded like a question. The room was so dark I could only really see her when she moved. Stepping backwards, I bumped into the doorframe, trying to keep out of the librarian’s reach.
As the bulk of her shifted, I could see the knobbled, black shapes of dead twigs piercing her skin. The wounds weeped with glistening, black blood. With each step, there wasn’t the heavy flap of flesh and muscle, but the rustle of twigs and leaves.
She spoke again, twisting her head backwards to Kev. Almost like she was calling over her shoulder. The fumbling at the back of the room stopped. Then footsteps. Faster, louder. Running towards me. Kev was tangled in a lie, but he was in a world of daylight. I was blind. In sheer panic, I fled, not even knowing where I was going, or even where I was.
Almost instantly, I tripped on something in the darkness. I hit the floor hard, and there was a crunch of rotten wood. The world gave way, and I plunged, colliding with something hard. Pain shot up both legs, dust and debris swirling around me, still blind, coughing and spluttering, wind and sense completely knocked out of me.
Still in the grasp of primal fear, I tried to stand, but my knees wouldn’t work. Wiping my eyes, I looked up and realised I was in the hallway, where I’d first entered. The open door to the outside was right in front of me. Whimpering from the pain in my legs, I crawled, pulling myself inch by inch towards the exit.
I got closer, barely able to see anything but a white square through the tears in my eyes. I begged and prayed to get out. Just let me live. Please just let me live.
Blinking my eyes clear, I could see the trees outside.
Then something stepped between me and the door. Thin, skeletal legs, with pale dead skin, pockmarked with protruding twigs. Dry, black blood was smeared around each wound, but it weeped with dirty water.
“Grendval,” I whispered, “please…”
Above me, something spoke. It wasn’t the librarian. It wasn’t either of the sweet voices I’d heard in the daylight world. It rasped and spluttered, managing a painful sort of English. The hiss of the dead.
“Ve haff vhat ve need...”
It bent over and something stabbed into my side. Slow. Deep. Sharp pain that bled into my entire body. I tried to scream, but no sound escaped me. Grendval spoke again.
“Von year. You vill return.”
That was all I remember. I suppose I blacked out, but I must have managed to get outside, because they found me about a hundred meters away from the shack. There was a trail in the mud where I’d dragged myself, apparently. I was taken to hospital, with a laundry list of injuries. Fractured vertebrae, broken femur, snapped tibia and two broken ribs. They hope with physical therapy and time, I’ll be able to walk again some day. I’d fallen from the upper floor of Cripple Jack Shack, and had drugs in my system. The weed I obviously knew about, but the psychobilin and opiates were news to me.
They never found Tommy’s body. Kev and Pete are still missing. A full forensic sweep of the shack proved we’d been inside, but nothing more. It will probably go without saying that nobody believed my story. Just four teenagers, high as kites and exploring an abandoned cabin in the woods. It’s been sealed off again, properly this time, with new metal hoarding around apparently. I’ve got no desire to see for myself. The local kids have a new name for the place now.
Junkie Zac Shack.
I don’t think it’s got quite the same ring to it, but it’s not stopped it spreading around the whole town. Who knows, maybe it’ll scare some kids off drugs. Though, I doubt it.
I wish that was the end of the story. Very soon, it will be one year from that day we went inside the shack. With one week to go, I had a particular vivid dream. Cripple Jack Shack, the door slowly opening. Just before the threshold, before stepping into shadow, there was a wicker man upon the floor. The tiny figure was built from familiar, dead black twigs. But even that wasn't what awoke me in a cold sweat. No, that was the number underneath. Laid out in the same, rotten timber sticks.
Last night I had the same dream. Only this time, the number was one less. I have a feeling that tonight will be the same.
‘One year,’ Grendval had told me. ‘You will return.’
I think something similar happened to ‘Cripple Jack’, all those years ago. If it did, I know why ‘Cripple Jack’ took his own life. There is no way I am going back.