Someone had to be first over the rubble that had once been a protective stone wall, and Kerry didn’t know why Char designated herself. Kerry kept one step behind her, careful to watch Char’s footing in case she stumbled, smiling as she went. She definitely had the most amazing best friend, so she didn’t want to let Char get hurt.
The rocks shifted just slightly under Kerry’s feet, but it was easy enough to peal past the last bit of rubble to find solid ground again on the other side of the wall. Almost immediately, goosebumps prickled all over her skin. It was a sunny May day, which meant high sixties for Whatcom County, so she was wearing a light jacket. Even still, something in the air felt crisper, colder, than it had been just five steps ago. Next to her, Char pulled her own coat a little more tightly around her, and her messenger bag shifted.
“Weird,” Char whispered.
Cody came to stand next to them, arms crossed over his chest. “What? It’s just the shade. Come on. Let’s get this over with and get out of here.”
They’d come across the wall into an area of the grounds that might have once been an orderly grove of apple trees, based on the way that the trees were all evenly spaced to perfection, but the apple trees had grown wild and out of control over decades of neglect. The branches stretched out in all directions, thick and heavy with dense foliage that blocked out the sun above them.
Odd, though, because Kerry remembered walking in forests thick with trees plenty of times at midday, and she’d never found herself in a shade so dark and heavy. She’d been in places that gave her a sense that there was something wild and magic there, if only she knew how to reach out and brush through the veil between her and the charged energy. She’d been places where she could feel the weight of history on her shoulders, vast in the way they demanded introspection and reflection. But she’d never been anywhere that felt like it drew the heat out of her skin like the shadows between these trees–and they hadn’t even gotten inside the haunted house yet.
She realized that she’d hunched over, like her instincts naturally demanded that she make herself small and unnoticeable, so she forced herself to straighten up, setting her shoulders squarely. Next to her, Char looked deathly pale. She had fair skin, but somehow the shadows gave her a blue overtone that left her looking like one of the living dead. Char reached into her messenger bag and wrapped her fingers around something as yet unseen, but didn’t pull it out.
Cody was trailing behind, head on a swivel. When the crumbling wall was entirely out of sight, he stopped.
“Look,” he said. “We can just wait here a few minutes. No one can see us from here, so we… just go back, say we went in the same distance, both of us are even, and everything’s good. Yeah?”
“You can stay here and then go back,” Kerry replied. She pulled her smart phone out of her back pocket. “When I take pictures inside the house and prove I went inside, while you’re out here with no evidence, we’ll see who wins the dare.”
“That’s so third grade,” Cody said, rolling his eyes. “Come on. I just don’t want to get in trouble for trespassing and end up benched for the rest of the season, you know?”
“Oh, it’s the law you’re worried about, not the ghosts of Paxwood House?”
Cody stiffened, clenching his jaw. “Fine. Let’s go inside, then. Whatever.”
Now he took the lead.
Although the ground beneath the apple trees was thick with old leaves from past seasons, long left to rot and still damp from late spring rains, the ground itself was surprisingly even. The roots of the apple trees, it seemed, went deep into the soil rather than creeping upwards and making loops to trip unsuspecting feet. Still, Kerry took care with every step, even as Cody charged ahead–not quite running, but walking with a sense of haste that implied how little he really wanted to be there.
Kerry didn’t let him get out of sight, but the distance between them grew with each step. She’d read about this place, read the journal of one of its first residents, and now she was really here. She wanted to savor the moment–even if savoring it meant absorbing the way that with every step she felt the world get colder and darker. Even the strange sensation of deep loneliness, although her best friend stood right next to her, was part of this experience.
When the trees parted and the hose itself loomed into view, another chill ran through Kerry, and now she did reach for Char’s hand, for the reassurance that someone else was there with her. It was smaller than she would have thought–but most likely still massive for a house built in the 1890s. Many of the windows were boarded over, but it still stood tall, three stories plus an attic, and a tower at one corner that went up to five stories easily. The ground floor had a wrap-around porch with decorative pillars. The building was still, technically, maintained to some small degree, to keep it from entirely collapsing.
Was the latest coat of paint a dull grey, or was that just the way that the whole house seemed overcast in shadow, despite the utter lack of clouds in the sky?
Kerry and Char stepped out from the apple trees, into an area that had most likely been lovely cultivated flowerbeds once, but now all that rich soil provided fertile ground for an abundance of tangling murky green and brown weeds. They should have been stepping out into sunlight. There were no more tree branches heavy with leaves overhead. Maybe it was some kind of localized fog that kept things obscured? Fog could be strange sometimes.
There was no way they could have wandered between the apple trees for the entire afternoon and missed the sunset. And the sky overhead still looked more or less light, even if it was more light grey like an overcast day than the light blue it had been just outside.
Kerry squeezed Char’s hand a little more tightly, and Char squeezed back in return. Char, too, was looking around them with confusion etched in the furrow of her eyebrows.
“This is wrong. Maybe we should go back.”
But Kerry pointed ahead, at Cody, who was already three-quarters of the way through the overgrown flowerbeds and across the overgrown lawn, nearly to the porch. She bit her lip. This wasn’t about the dare any more.
“Especially if it’s wrong, I can’t just leave him here alone,” Kerry said. “Let’s hurry up. Take a couple of pictures. Get out.”
Char took a deep breath, and her shoulders settled. Kerry hadn’t even realized that Char had hunched in on herself. Char still had her left hand in her messenger bag, like she was ready to pull something out at a moment’s notice, if things went terribly south. Kerry squeezed the hand she held one more time, and then they instinctively dropped hands so that they could jog to catch up with Cody.
The fog or haze they moved through to get to the house had a strange weight to it, almost like moving against the wind, but there was no actual wind. They were still a good thirty feet back from the covered porch when Cody took to the three steps, then paused at the top.
He pivoted on his heel with an undignified yelp–not quite a scream–and tried to take to the steps and flee. But then a large black dog tackled him to the ground with a snarl, its jaws clenching into the meat of Cody’s shoulder.
The two best friends reacted on instinct. There was only a split-second to make the decision. Some would have made the instinctive decision to turn and flee the scene immediately. It wouldn’t have been a bad decision. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct, after all. But Kerry and Char glanced quickly at one another, and they knew they were in this together, and Cody was alone. They launched into a full-on sprint toward Cody and his terrifying attacker.
related 🧶 for ko-fi supporters – Kerry’s Notes for the Pixie-Bitten: Warning Signs of a Haunting