A friend of my linked to this contest, and I thought…what the heck. Maybe someone will enjoy it.
An original work by Amy Irvin. Copyright 2012.
For a full year, Cooper Hillard avoided exploring the run-down farmhouses outside the city. The temptation irresistible and the boredom of his last days of high school weighing on him like a rock on his chest, most days he sat on the back porch of his parents’ house and stared at the open fields, dotted with the farmhouses. He lit matches and threw them into a small tin garbage can. He never took his eyes off the fields, and dreamed about the mysteries that lay beyond the back porch. His parents had recently forbade him from exploring. Throughout much of his teenage years, he found comfort exploring abandoned houses in dying neighborhoods, empty shells of shops lining streets that were once major roads into the heart of small towns. Being alone, discovering things no one had seen in years, smelling the dust and traces of animal droppings left in the dark, lonely rooms. It soothed him, to enjoy these moments by himself, with no one around to tease or scold him.
In the past, his parents tolerated his adventures, so long as he stayed out of trouble. Frequent moves to a myriad of towns in the Northeast prevented Cooper from forming long-term friendships, so his parents reasoned that, as long as he took care of himself, this explorations should not pose a problem. Until his last excursion accidentally set off a fire inside an ancient, hollowed-out textile factory. Flammable chemicals, left untouched for years, combined with a dry summer and an innocent rustling of dusty fabric bolts created a blaze that nearly burned down the whole structure. Cooper swore he didn’t set the fire, that he didn’t know the chemicals were there, that he was just looking around and not touching anything. The police, staring at his scrawny frame, faded, baggy clothing, and dark, ragged hair, silently judged him for arson and told his parents he should be sent to an alternative school.
Promises were made to keep him out of trouble, send him to a quality private school, and curb his “violent” tendencies. The Hillards picked up and moved to a small town in Massachusetts right before Cooper’s last year of high school. A prestigious private school was selected, and after some bargaining and monetary pledges Cooper found himself idly passing time in school next to wealthy, sociable teenagers with blank expressions and no desire to befriend Cooper. Just as well for him; Cooper would rather spend time by himself, dreaming of exploring the farmhouses.
The autumn night hung heavily with moisture, signaling rain. Damp breezes brushed past Cooper’s face and rustled his hair. He continued to strike the matches and drop them into the garbage can. He never had this habit before, but since his parents were convinced, after one isolated incident, that Cooper was a pyromaniac, then he might as well keep up appearances. He sensed his mother peeking around the porch door and make a little sigh when she saw him drop the matches. He struck one, held it for a few seconds for effect, letting the flame lick down the wooden stick and closer to his fingers. His mother called his name, and he dropped the match. A smile crept onto his lips as she told him dinner would be ready soon, and he should come inside and find useful entertainment.
The rain began during dinner and continued on as Cooper lay down in his bed for the night. He rolled onto his side and looked out the window. The darkness enveloped the fields and nothing could be seen. Suddenly a white flash lit up the sky and a deep crack followed, so close the house shivered. For an instant Cooper could see a few of the farmhouses, the closest ones, sitting idly in the rain. He sighed, and a feeling of anticipation pooled in his stomach and rose up into this throat. He shuddered slightly, and grimaced; he so desperately wanted to explore those farmhouses, as if they were reaching out to him, begging him to come forward and enter, unearth their secrets. He could almost feel hands pulling him towards the outside, wrapping soft, lanky fingers around his arms and legs and pressing into him, drawing him.
Cooper opened his eyes and the sky was dark again, the rain pattering on the windows. Resolve settled on his mind and he decided to explore the farmhouses the next day. He could slip away from his parents easily, feeding them a lie about schoolwork or some such thing; he couldn’t say he was meeting friends, for they all knew he didn’t have any. But with his parents both working late hours in the city, he had little fear of discovery. Guilt lingered over him for a second, but he easily pushed it away and thought of the farmhouses.
Mist hung in the air the next morning, blanketing the fields with a hazy gray, cut only by tall trees and the farmhouses. As Cooper prepared for school, he looked out his window with longing. He crossed over to the window and placed a thin, pale hand on the glass. He released a long sigh and his warm breath fogged up the window. He heard his door creak and turned slowly, his mother standing in the doorway, wearing her same exasperated expression. She informed him that temperatures were cold, that it might rain again, take a jacket, wear a sweater. Cooper nodded in agreement and stared at her. She pulled in her lips and her eyes became sad, but she chose not to say anything. Just as well, Cooper thought. Her brief glimpse of sadness teased out a bit of guilt in him. She closed the door so he could continue his dressing. Cooper looked out the window one last time and the sight of the mist rolling on the fields swept away the guilt.
The only thing stopping Cooper from falling asleep during his classes was the anticipation of his adventure. He barely listened to his teachers, their words muffled and monotonous. The gentle roar of his classmates in the halls, random taunts from some of the bullies, the smell of cheap perfume and hairspray from the girls sitting next to him; they faded away when he thought of the adventure that awaited him. The minutes ticked away and Cooper’s excitement grew. His classmates noticed a hint of animation in his movements.
Finally he was released. Cooper raced to the parking lot and jumped into his car. The fog still hung in the air and made his clothes feel damp. The anticipation fluttered in his stomach. He started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, driving away from the school faster than necessary. He had told his parents that he wanted to do some homework in town at a coffee shop – a plausible lie, as he had often done so before. They hurridly agreed as they rushed out the door, eager to make it to the train station that would take them into the city.
It was a partial lie, as Cooper did stop at the coffee shop to get a drink. The air chilled him, and the dampness made it worse. Though layered in a long sleeve shirt and a hoodie, he still felt cold in his bones. The barista greeted him kindly as he entered; this coffee shop was the one place where Cooper was treated with some kindness and respect. He ordered his regular drink and tossed a few bills into the tip jar. The barista, one of the regular employees with whom he was familiar, readied his drink and carefully set it down on the counter, her eyes lingering on him as he checked the maps on his phone. He thanked her and grabbed his drink, then quickly walked out to his car.
The further away from the town, the worse the roads became. Cooper’s car, a secondhand family sedan given to him by his uncle, struggled along the muddy roads. He pushed it forward, the drive to explore the farmhouses increasing with every mile. The fog had cleared slightly, but still warranted caution; deer roamed the fields and surrounding woods, and Cooper knew what hitting a deer with a car meant.
Finally he reached the first farmhouse. He turned off the engine and sat in the car, sipping his coffee. He stared at the house. It was smaller than he expected, a two-story structure with barely a few rooms on the second floor. A small barn stood next to it, half of the roof collapsed. Tall grass surrounded the house and the barn. The house had been brightly colored once, a cheery yellow; now the paint was faded and moldy, more the color of pus than of sunshine. Bits of it were stripped off and the wood underneath exposed. Much of the wood was rotting. Several windows on the front of the house were broken, where local kids had thrown rocks at them. A porch swing with several slats missing gently swayed with each breeze.
Cooper finished the last sips of his coffee and put the cup back in the cupholder. He breathed in deeply, held the breath, then let it out. His excitement had turned into nervousness. No need to worry, he told himself. He had explored places like this dozens of time. His phone was fully charged, and he brought a flashlight and a crowbar with him – for a tool and a weapon. He pulled a woolen beanie over his wild hair and then stepped out of the car. The cold, wet air immediately embraced him and started seeping through his hoodie. He shivered. The car had been warm, and the coffee as well. He steadied himself, adjusted his beanie, and took his first steps towards the house.
A rush of icy air swept in and around Cooper as he walked to the front porch, shocking him for an instant. The chill stung his face and his eyes. The grass stood nearly head-high and brushed Cooper’s shoulders as he waded through it to the porch. Suddenly he felt something soft underfoot, and heard a squeak. A small rabbit screamed and wriggled free from under Cooper’s shoe, startling him. He jumped backwards, his heart pounding. He steadied himself. Silly things, he thought as he continued his walk up to the house. It was much more imposing this close. He ground his teeth for a second and then took a step onto the porch. The old wood felt spongy under his feet. He slowly walked up the steps, laid a chilled hand onto the screen door handle, and pulled it towards him.
The front door was already open. Dust greeted him, as well as the smell of rotting wood and upholstry. A corridor stretched into darkness. Cooper flicked on his flashlight and pointed the beam down the hall. Small wooden frames containing faded pictures lined the walls. A couple of doorways opened into side rooms, and a few feet down, a stairway sat, with a ruined carpet trailing down the steps, the edges frayed. Wherever Cooper aimed the flashlight, the darkness seemed to rush back into place it just left and press on the weak, yellow beam, threatening to engulf it. Nervousness flickered once again in Cooper’s chest. It’s just been a while, he thought. It’s the anticipation of something new. He took a step inside, but did not shut the door behind him.
The screen door slammed back into place, but the heavy front door remained where it was. Cooper started to move down the corridor, but then paused. He grabbed a chair and propped it against the door. He wanted to know it was open; something about the door being open made him feel safer. More silly things, he thought. His eyes paused on the battered chair for a moment, and then he proceeded down the hallway. The dust was thick in the air, making him sneeze and cough several times. He took his time, shining the light on the old photographs. Dour-faced men and women, solemnly posed in rustic garb, peered at him with blank eyes. Not a single smile among them, he mused.
Cooper paused on a portrait of a young woman. She sat alone on a plain stool, in a black frock, her dark hair hanging limply on her small shoulders. Her face was whiter than any of the others. The slightest smile curved her lips. She seemed to have a bit of life in her eyes. She reminded him of the girl in the coffee shop, her face suddenly flashing in his mind. He moved closer to the photograph to read something scrawled in cursive near the bottom. He shined the flashlight on the photograph, and promptly dropped it as a dull scraping sound erupted from his right.
Cooper pressed himself against the wall and held his breath. The sound had been brief but very distinct. The flashlight rolled on the floor, shining towards the front door. He slid down the wall and reached out to it, clutching at the handle. It’s nothing, it’s raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, whatever, he told himself. After he thought about the sound for a few seconds, he realized it must have been another heavy door, like the front door, moving roughly along the wooden floor. An animal must have knocked into it, scared by Cooper’s flashlight and intrusion into its home.
He strained to hear the soft pattering of animal feet. No such sound came. They’re quick, Cooper reminded himself. He listened again. Just silence, hanging as heavy and thick as the dust. He let out his breath and stood back up. He looked towards the front door; it was still open, the old chair still in its place. Cooper chided himself and forcefully turned his flashlight towards the direction of the sound.
Nothing at all except a door. It was slightly ajar. That must have been it, Cooper thought. Probably a raccoon. He inched down the hallway towards the door, debating whether or not to go into the next room. He stopped, something holding him back, almost clinging to him. He swallowed. There was probably only a dining room in there, most likely an old table and chairs, and if he was lucky, forgotten place settings to inspect. He inched again. The clinging feeling grew stronger around his stomach and his legs.
The air started to smell foul, like a dead animal. The stench invaded Cooper’s nose, stinging inside his nostrils and burning his eyes. He shook his head, rubbing his eyes with his fingers until they teared up. He started to rethink the plan to investigate the house. Don’t want to walk in on a dead animal, he thought. Most likely some of the other animals were eating it…that’s what it had to be, something dead and the other animals were moving through the house to get to their meal. He knew he didn’t want to disturb scavengers at their mealtime. Cooper turned the flashlight away from the door and back towards the front of the house. He gagged a little, as the smell began to grow stronger, tickling his throat. He turned and walked resolutely back to the front door, his loud footsteps echoing through the hallway.
And then again – the scraping sound. Like something moving back into place. Cooper’s pulse quickened. No sound of animal feet or scurrying came after it. Just the sound – dull, dry, dead. It sounded more like bone the second time. Cooper forced himself to put one foot in front of the other and walk towards the front door.
Cooper’s speed increased as he neared the entrance and finally pushed through the screen door and back out onto the porch. The clinging feeling slowly dissapated, as did the stench. He released his breath, unaware that he had been holding it. He rubbed his eyes again and noticed that his face was moist with sweat. Really? he thought. Frightened by some animals? He looked down the hallway towards the door at the end. He felt the nervousness in his throat again.
Cooper scratched his head and started to walk towards the barn. Some of the mist and clouds had cleared and let a little bit of the sun through. A few timid rays stuck through the ragged roof of the barn. Cooper turned off his flashlight. He strode into the barn more confidently that he had going into the house. The small patches of sunlight comforted him, and the openness of the barn didn’t seem as ominous as the corridor in the house. Cooper began to pick his way through rusty farm equipment, turning over the tools and pots that littered the structure. A whirlwind of moths fluttered upwards as he lifted a dusty sackcloth, and he paused to watch their beautiful dance, swirling towards a loft overhead. He looked at the hay resting on the loft, and then a ladder next to it. Might as well, he thought.
The first rung on the ladder creaked loudly as Cooper put his foot on it, and along with the creak, came a yelp, and some of the hay puffed over the edge of the loft. Cooper jolted and stumbled backwards. He clutched his crowbar to him. The yelp didn’t sound like an animal. It was more of a human cry, but altered in some way. The sweat started to bead again on Cooper’s brow. He stood up and timidly called out.
“Is…is someone up there?”
He was taken aback at the alien sound of his name. Cooper forced himself to climb the ladder, and as his came up, he saw the frightened face of the barista from the coffee shop. She was bundled in an old parka and knit hat, her thin brown hair hanging down from underneath it. A coffee cup and book sat next to her on the hay. Her brown eyes were wide, and her cheeks flushed, but she relaxed when she saw Cooper.
“I’m sorry, I thought this place was empty…and…?”
“No, it’s alright…I’m sorry to have startled you,” she said meekly, her voice soft and high-pitched. She pulled herself into a cross-legged position. Cooper stepped up a few more rungs so his face was more even with hers, yet he didn’t get onto the loft. The clinging feeling seized his legs again.
“What’s your name?”
“Do you…come out here a lot?”
“Oh, I like to read out here…just be by myself…” Her voice trailed off. She stared at Cooper with glassy eyes. He lowered his gaze, uncomfortable under her stare. Her eyes seemed fervent. He had never really talked to her at the coffee shop, and it felt awkward speaking to her now. Her steady gaze made him feel queasy in his stomach. He suddenly became aware of the same stench from the house, tingling his noise again. He glanced at Amanda and noticed her tilting her head and smiling gently. The curve of her neck was odd. He started to back down the ladder.
“Where are you going?” Amanda asked, her voice rising in pitch as she scrambled towards Cooper. She knocked over her coffee in the process and it spilled onto her leg. Cooper could see the steam rise up from it, but Amanda didn’t seem to notice. He stepped off the ladder and onto the dirt floor. She stopped at the edge of the loft and leaned over, cocking her head like a curious dog.
“Oh…oh nothing…I just…I’m not really supposed to be out here. I got in trouble last time…and my parents, they don’t know I’m here.”
“Will you get in trouble if they find out?”
“Yeah…yeah, pretty big trouble. So…I should be going.”
“Going?” Amanda tilted her head again, at such a sharp angle that Cooper thought it would snap off. She rolled onto her back and giggled. The stench increased.
“Do you smell that?”
“Like…something died. Maybe a raccoon or something? I’m sure they get in here all the time. I smelled something like that inside the house.”
“You went…inside the house?” She rolled back onto her stomach and sat up. Bits of hay clung to her parka. It seemed somehow fuller, the parka bulging slightly. Her eyes were hard now, fixated on Cooper.
“Well, yeah, I thought it might be interesting. I just went into the front hallway. I heard this…weird noise…and smelled something, so I decided to come out here. The smell was so bad…” The stench inside the barn increased and made Cooper gag. He coughed, dry-heaving in an effort to rid his body of the horrible smell. Glancing at Amanda, Cooper noticed she hadn’t budged an inch and continued to stare at him, almost hungrily. Had her face changed? he thought. Her eyes seemed further apart than before. He coughed a few times more and started backing towards the entrance of the barn.
Suddenly he heard the scraping sound again. It was unmistakeable, like bone dragged across itself. He looked up at Amanda. The sound had come from her, he realized. Her lower jaw jutted unnaturally to the right, sticking out the side of her face. Her eyes bulged. Cooper gasped, backed up, and stumbled. His crowbar flew from his hand and skittered across the dirt floor.
Amanda moved her jaw back into place with another grating scrape. She lifted her body, the chest leading the motion and pulling her torso upwards, as if she were a marionette. Cooper’s eyes grew wide and his teeth chattered with fear. Suddenly the patches of sunlight vanished as a cloud moved into place, shrouding Amanda.
Cooper fumbled for his flashlight, gasping for breath. He heard rustling noises, hay shifting and crunching. The barn was not completely dark, but shadows emerged in odd places that should not have been so dark. Cooper tried to keep Amanda’s location in mind, as the rustling sounds moved around the barn. He stood up and ran to the entrance of the barn, and tripped on his crowbar. He sprawled onto the ground, dirt and bits of hay flying up into his eyes and mouth. Cooper sputtered and tried to stand, but his legs felt heavy, tingling and prickling. He scrambled to his knees, then felt a cold hand slide under his pant leg and grab ahold of his calf.
The skin didn’t feel human. It was clammy, and rough, like scales. The fingers didn’t add up correctly. Thick nails dug into his skin. Cooper grimaced and struggled forward. “What is it you want…” said a voice, slithering out of the darkness. For a moment Cooper lay paralyzed. The stench of sulphur and rotting flesh engulfed him, burning in his throat. Dark images flashed in his mind. He saw the hallway in the farmhouse again, the end of it in darkness. He could feel it, the darkness pulsating and pushing towards him, just before his eyes. The image of the girl in the photograph flared briefly, her eerie smile, except her jaw stuck out to the right. She reached out of the photograph and closed a scaly hand around his throat. “What is it you want…”
Cooper yelled and kicked backwards. He heard an inhuman shriek and felt the hand let go of his leg. He wrenched his leg forward and jumped up, scrambling towards the entrance. Cooper ran out of the barn, rushing through the grass, trying to find his way. Disoriented, he forgot where his car was for an instant, and panicked. He heard her…it…moving in the grass around him.
Cooper had to move. He didn’t know what direction his car was, but he started forward anyway, his hands out in front of him. He jumped to get a view over the grass. Finally he spotted his car, and dashed towards it, slamming into the side. He fumbled in his pockets and found his keys, pouring all of his strength into steadying his hand long enough to open the car door. He glanced back and saw the grass shift as it moved towards him. He jumped inside, started the car, threw the gear and slammed the gas pedal. Cooper sped away from the farmhouse without bothering to look back, gasping for breath, his heart thudding rapidly inside his chest. When he was off the dirt road leading to the house, it was then that he slowed the car and looked back. The barn was shrouded in a dirty shadow, and he couldn’t see any trace of Amanda.