The stick flies from the man’s hand, careering into the gathering of sparse leafless trees, each one dripping lazily with dew, by the side of the path. His dog, a young border collie, bounds breathlessly from the man’s side in search of the object. It splashes through a sizeable puddle, spraying his owner’s jeans and his own coat, in the process. Spattered with dirt the dog returns triumphantly, stick firmly wedged between his teeth, looking up at the man in expectation. The cycle repeats.
As they edge further along the single track path the man pulls his coat tighter, electing to fasten the top button, as the winter chill begins to nip. Slight flecks of darkness seem to burrow their way into the air; a signal that evening shall soon be announcing its presence. He looks at his phone, checking the time. I’ll give him ten more minutes, he decides. He looks up. The desolate winter scene stares back at him. Bleak. Unforgiving. And dog-less.
The man presses two fingers to his lips and whistles – the effectiveness of which is hampered somewhat by the gloves adorning his hands. ‘Charlie?’ he shouts. ‘Charlie!’ He sighs and trudges forward, following the barely-visible collection of paw prints scattered across the sodden ground ahead of him. ‘Stupid mutt!’ he curses to himself quietly. The prints take him to a clearing carved between two drooping trees. The trees are arched like two geriatrics holding onto one another for support. It creates a welcoming archway. He notices the remnants of a wire fence nestled against both trees. Disparate, cut, strands of wire stick out from rotting fence posts.
He steps through the clearing, branches jagging slightly at his skull. ‘Cha…’ he begins in a booming shout before cutting himself off as he catches sight of his dog sitting quietly only thirty yards or so along the path. ‘C’mere boy, c’mon, time to turn back.’ The dog remains still. Refusing to budge. ‘Come on boy, let’s go!’ reiterates the man, irritation starting to creep into his voice. Still the dog sits rigidly. Unmoving. What’s wrong with him, the man wonders. He notices the lack of stick in Charlie’s mouth. And a silence. Definitely a silence. For a dog as vibrant and as full of (seemingly endless supplies of) energy as this one the silence was, he had to admit, unnerving. As the man steps forward, simultaneously pulling the dog lead out of his jacket pocket, Charlie gently straightens himself up and begins to trot quietly to the left.
‘Where are you off to now!? Here Charlie, come…’
Again his speech is halted. Once again prompted by the vision before him.
‘How the hell did I not notice that!?’ he announces in confusion as the sight of a colossal ruined mansion house towers above him. Roofless, its crooked outline cuts into the encroaching dusk like the serrated edge of an uneven saw. Through the vacant, glassless windows lie piles of rubble. Faded plastic signs affixed to various sections of the building warn of the fragile structural danger the building possesses. No longer a home, no longer a house. Now nothing more than a shell. A tattered frame. Derelict. Desolate. Ruined. And yet it evokes an eeriness. The man feels it as his mind whirls into gear. He’s heard about this house, he thinks. Yes, he’s sure of it. ‘Charlie, come here boy…’ Stories. About this house. He’s certain. ‘Charlie, here!!’. He whistles again but as he looks up he sees his dog burrowing his snout purposefully into the base of a wooden door towards the side of the house. A small growl seems to escape from him as his burrowing gathers pace. The door won’t budge. The growling increases.
‘Charlie!! What is it boy!? Don’t be so stupid, come here!’
He steps forward with the lead, metal clip open and ready to latch onto his pet’s collar, when he hesitates, his brain finally achieving finality in its frantic join-the-memory-dots exercise. ‘That’s it!’ he declares. This is the house, he thinks almost too cheerfully, this is the one. His mood drops, the eeriness slithering malevolently back into the equation. ‘Yeah, that’s it…’ he mutters again, all confidence now drained from the tone. ‘The stories…’ he mumbles, ‘…stories…’
Every house has its stories to tell of course but this one? This one has far more than most. And as a fraught expression inches its way across his face, the stories, the rumours, the tales all start to collide into one another in the man’s mind.
It was the 1920s. It was, he was sure of it. That was when the financial magnate lived here. Him and his family. What was his name? Ahh, what was his name? They called him the ‘Next Andrew Carnegie’ he knew that much. The house was famed for the parties they threw here. The elite would travel from all over the country to attend the events. Champagne, caviar, dancing, hunting, singing, course after course after course, servants, butlers, opulence, ostentatiousness; the lot. The wealth that used to inhabit this place must have been enormous. The convergence of both ‘new’ and ‘old’ money. His ‘country dwelling’, that’s what it was. A palace of wealth, a paradise of the upper class, an ultimate display of decadence. And then one day it ended. Just like that. In 1929. The Wall Street Crash. He lost everything. Most of them did. Stocks, bonds, capital; all decimated in the course of one single day. There was a party in full swing that day apparently and then, suddenly at the drop of a hat, the place just fell silent. Dead. Gone. Names and faces never seen or heard from again. Cars abandoned in the driveway. Food, drinks, all left untouched in the dining room. Like the Mary Celeste. People said they fled the country, escaping debtors, escaping clients. Too afraid to face their respective realities. It was hushed up. The authorities, the elites; they never spoke of it, never referred to it.
But then there was the boy…the young boy. Only a few years later. He was playing with his friend. Scoping out the, at that point, still fairly-intact but deserted house. It was never on the market you see, just boarded up. His friend spoke of there being a latch that, seemingly, led down to a lower level – presumably the kitchens or cellars. It was solid steel. Impenetrable. Unlike the rest of the house which was understandably starting to decay under the strain of neglect. The roof and walls starting to reveal the extent of the punishment wreaked on it by seasons of unmitigated weather. But the boy, the boy…he fell. Through the floor. He’d been jumping up and down. Or running. Or playing. Or something. And went straight through a weak, rotting, section of the floor and fell straight into the lower level. His leg broken. Unable to move. Stranded. His friend couldn’t get down, there was no way. He’d be stranded too. He ran for help; it was at least two miles to the nearest village. And when he arrived back with a couple of the local villagers they found the boy sprawled out, unconscious, on the wildly overgrown front lawn. How had he managed to clamber out of that cellar? How had he managed to summon the strength? His leg was mangled, surely throbbing with pain. An explanation was needed. But not forthcoming. The boy never spoke again. That once sprightly, adventurous, mischievous boy never spoke again. He drew. Oh he drew. Pictures. Horrifying sketches and pictures, it was said. The same ones again and again. Pictures of skeletons, a dozen or more, hanging from ropes. Gaunt hollow sockets where their eyes should have been. Fragments of charred, rotting flesh dripping from their bones, bloated rats nibbling at their feet. They grew darker, more detailed, intricate. But still the same scene again and again. The bodies, the skeletons, hanging. Death. He uttered not a word. He simply drew. Even when he was carted off to the local asylum he continued to draw. Day after day. Many wondered, more speculated; was this the vision that he greeted him in the cellar? Had this horrifying scene been nestling in the lower reaches of the mansion house all this time? Or had the fall simply triggered an already troubled mind? Again however, just as before, secrecy and conspiracy became the order of the day. The site was closed off for a time, the hole in the floor allegedly boarded up and the affair never once spoken of publicly or officially.
At least that’s the how the stories went anyway. Stories that had no doubt grown arms, legs, paragraphs, twists, sequels and prequels throughout the near century between then and now. But, thought the man, but…the stories, the rumours, they never really stopped. You heard tales of kids, adults even, clambering into the ruin as the years progressed. Eager to seek adventure, to prove their courage, to discover the truth; whatever they nominated the reason to be. And the stories never turned out well. Stories of broken legs, of macabre unexplained sightings, of mysterious scratches appearing on arms, legs, torsos. There was the homeless vagrant that was discovered dead in the grounds of the ruin, dead not from the cold as reported but from a massive heart attack. There was the story of the girl who apparently ventured through a window into the house, many decades back, to retrieve a poorly-thrown Frisbee and who was never seen or heard from again. There were others. Too numerous or vague to list or really believe in. Nothing more than urban myths probably. But the job was done, you knew to steer clear of this house. This ruin. It became ingrained within you. It was a fact. Hard and true. Avoid. Ignore. Forget. To the point where many seemingly had forgotten. God, thinks the man, there was even the story of the dog that ran in there one day and was found the next, butchered, its innards splayed across the site. I mean a dog, who the hell would…Charlie!
He looks up, a surge of revulsion swilling through his mind at the possibilities, the potential, the horrible morbid horrendous possibilities…and he sighs. Relief. Love. Fear. All condensing into one long, heaving sigh. Charlie continues scrapping and burrowing at the door in front of him. ‘Jesus’ the man poured scorn on his fears, his nerves. Get a grip of yourself, he thinks. Get a bloody grip.
‘Come on Charlie, I mean it this time, time to go’ he nods to the darkening canvas filling the scene around them as he steps towards his dog. He grabs hold of the collar, steadying himself, as he lowers the lead towards the clip. Charlie snaps. At the man. At his owner. At his hand. His head turned towards him for only a split-second. A hideous snarl suffocating a face ordinarily so benevolent and loving. Lips receded, baring every single tooth, every segment of gum. Eyes populated with violent, vicious hate. The man balks, stepping back instinctively. Fear clutching at his throat. His mouth hangs open, clamped apart by the shock of the incident.
‘Woah boy!’ he manages to utter, desperately trying to claim back any control of the standard pet owner-pet relationship balance. ‘What the hell is it!? Come on, come on now…’
Still the dog scrapes, burrows, bites. Paying no heed to his owner. All to no avail. The door steadfast. Immovable. The man feels a shiver tip toe up and down his skin. His head darts from side to side. Suddenly acutely aware of the dense, dark silence weighing upon the exposed grounds. BARK! ‘Jesus…’ Charlie’s angry, snarling bark rifles through the man’s nerves. BARK! And again. The man looks down at his pet. Any hint of placidity, of vitality gone, replaced by a snarling, angry, feral obsession. For whatever or whomever lies beyond or beneath the door. The area around his nose shines red raw, the manic actions drawing the slightest drops of blood. BARK!
‘Right!’ shouts the man through a haze of fear and anger, ‘come…ON!’ He yanks roughly at his dog’s collar, violently pulling Charlie away from the door. The latter snaps, snarls, barks. It pulls, using all it’s strength and more, in order to try and burst back to the door. The pull jerks the man’s arm. He lets out a wild scream, sure that his arm has dislocated. Fire rips down his arm. Red hot fiery pain. But he holds firm. His own strength straining at bursting point as he roughly yanks Charlie step by staggered step away from the ruin. The snarls subside gradually. The snapping peters out. ‘Come ON!’ Each pull of the collar sends a burst of agony shuddering through the man’s bones. He manages to clip the lead on to the collar. Pulling with all he has. The snarls now completely morphed into yelps, the tug of war now a one-sided display of strength and power. Eventually the yelps pierce the man’s train of thought. His anger subsides as they reach the arched clearing he negotiated earlier. He leans down and gently caresses his dog’s head. He pulls him close to him. ‘I’m sorry boy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ Charlie licks his owners face gently. Whether in apology or through thanks or submission is not clear. The man is grateful either way. He looks back at the ruin. The house. The house in the woods, he thinks. Yeah, the house in the woods. I’ll be sure to steer well bloody clear in future, don’t you bloody worry about that! Pain pulses through his veins. His arm feeling like a bag of loose unconnected bones rattling into one another.
‘Come one Charlie boy’ he whispers through the pain, cupping his dog’s face in his hands, ‘let’s get back to the car and get your Dad some help for this arm…’
The words are met by the slightest of growls in response. Charlie’s ears propping up in alert as he continues to stare into his owner’s eyes. ‘What is it now…’ for the final time the man’s words are cut short as he hears the hinges of a door creak open slowly, agonisingly. He glances above Charlie’s head. The door. The door. The one Charlie was obsessed with. Slowly, patiently it starts to open. The hinges creaking louder. Louder. A cold gust of wind careers past the two of them, almost knocking the man to the ground. BARK! BARK! BARK BARK BARK!!!
Scrambling, slipping, snarling, the man and his dog bundle through the opening and disappear frantically into the darkness. The reverberating, echoing sound of a heavy, creaking door belligerently slamming shut follows them tauntingly into the night.