The house on Brookside Lane was two stories tall.
Everyone– man, woman, and child– had heard the legends. A little old gardener called Old Man Logan had lived in the place his whole life and kept it looking tame. Then he disappeared one day in February. No one had ever seen him since, and there were rumours that his ghost hung around the house, protecting it from intruders. Calvin didn’t believe the stories, of course, but he didn’t think it was a particularly good idea to put them to the test.
Despite the fact that no one had set foot inside the building for more than five minutes in twenty years, it stood as tall and proud as the day it had been abandoned. A cracking, overgrown cobbled path surrounded by waist-high, yellowish-brown weeds and grass lead to the front door, which was closed as tightly as the top of a can of pop. Calvin stood outside the rusted-out gate, which hung open forlornly, staring up into the dark windows of the building framed by moth-eaten curtains, a hole growing in the pit of his stomach. The peaked roof was framed against the cloud-strewn night sky, glaring down at Calvin as he averted his eyes to the faint glow of the moon behind the clouds.
“C’mon, Cal,” said Harper, walking backwards up to the gate and twirling the flashlights he carried around so violently that Calvin was almost afraid he’d drop them. “Are you a chicken or what?”
“I’m not a chicken,” snapped Calvin. “I just don’t much wanna die.”
“Aw, he’s scared, bless his little heart,” said Harper in a ridiculous falsetto. “Should I call his momma or what?”
“I hate you, Harper,” Calvin grumbled, following his friend up the worn-out old path and towards the house.
“I know you do,” said Harper with a laugh. “That’s what makes doing this so fun!”
Harper grumbled unintelligibly and grabbed the door handle. It squeaked loudly as he turned it, and Calvin jumped, his heart leaping into his throat.
Harper laughed. “You are a chicken.”
Harper opened the door. It creaked softly as the hinges that hadn’t moved in years were forced to swing, and cold air wafted out, carrying a faint, sour smell.
“Harper–” breathed Calvin.
“C’mon,” said Harper. “I dare you.”
“Midnight. That’s it. Promise.”
Calvin took a deep breath and looked back up at the sky. Night had fallen hours ago. It had to be… what, nine p.m. by now? That made three hours until midnight. He could make it three hours. Three hours in this cold, smelly, rotten, haunted old house.
Letting his breath his out between his teeth, Calvin stepped across the threshold. Harper grinned and followed, closing the door behind with another soft creak. The inside of the house was nearly pitch-black, and Harper passed Calvin one of the flashlights, turning the one he still carried on and shining it around the room. Those white furniture-protecting tarps were draped over everything, and the carpet crumbled beneath Harper’s feet as he padded softly across it, Calvin at his heels. The first room looked like it had used to be a sitting room of some sort; there was a mantlepiece with a dust-coated bust of some famous old man resting on it that seemed to glare at Calvin. He shuddered and looked away towards the sofa, chairs, and coffee table that were stacked in a corner, covered in tarps and layers of dust. A single closed door stood in every wall. There were a couple of blankets and chip packets strewn across the floor from other ill-fated attempts to spend the night.
“Harper, look,” said Calvin, tapping his friend on the shoulder and pointing to the blankets. “I’m not sure–”
The floor creaked to Calvin’s right. Calvin jumped nearly a foot in the air as he turned towards the source of the noise, a soft squeal escaping him. Harper clapped a hand to Calvin’s mouth, whispering, “Shut up, scaredy-cat.” Then he let go of Calvin and walked towards the source of the noise.
“What was that?” Calvin hissed.
“I dunno,” said Harper. “It sounded like it came from there.” He pointed to the door in the direction the sound had come from, then started walking towards that door.
“Are you sure we should go towards the creepy noises?” asked Calvin.
“I’m going,” said Harper. “You can either stay here alone or come with. It’s up to you.” And he walked up to the door, pulled it open, and stepped through, leaving Calvin alone with the bust and his thoughts. Calvin looked over towards the stone figure, and it glared back. A stone settled firmly into the hole that had been carved in Calvin’s stomach.
“Fine,” he breathed, hurrying after Harper. The room behind the door was a small kitchen that would have been cozy if it weren’t for the dust and cobwebs. Calvin followed Harper’s trail of footprints in the dust to see his friend standing in the open pantry, his arms folded and his brow furrowed.
“What–” asked Calvin, walking around the door to stand beside his friend. Then he saw the writing scribbled in tiny black letters that covered each of the empty shelves of the pantry: RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN on and on and on until it stopped looking like a word and started to look like an insane beast.
“Um,” said Calvin. “Harper. Maybe we should, um–”
“We’re not leaving,” said Harper. “I don’t care how scared you are, Cal, we’re staying here. Got it?”
“Here as in right in front of the pantry, or here as in the whole house?” asked Calvin. He cleared his throat slightly. “Because, um, if you don’t mind, I think it might be a good idea to, um, to go back to, um, to– to the living room?”
“I’m gonna go explore more,” said Harper.
“Listen, I feel like Old Man Logan–”
“Old Man Logan? Really? You believe that stupid story?” asked Harper loudly, turning to stare with wide eyes at Calvin. His voice echoed around the deserted kitchen.
“No, of course not,” said Calvin, “but I’m just saying that it might not be a good idea to test our luck.”
“Nothing bad’s happened to us so far,” said Harper, shrugging. “Just some creepy writing and weird noises. C’mon, let’s go. I wanna see where the hall leads.”
“Harper–” Calvin began. But Harper had already started off down the hall that lead out of the kitchen. The rock in his stomach getting heavier by the second, Calvin followed.
He was blinking while it happened. Calvin had been trying so hard not to blink, but it hurt to keep his eyes open for so long, and they were beginning to burn and water and blur his vision, so he blinked just as Harper squealed in his ear.
“What the hell, man?” hissed Calvin, jumping a foot in the air and rubbing his eyes.
“I just… I just… something… ran across… end of the hall… I…” Harper took a deep breath and smoothed his hair back. “Nothing. It’s fine. Just got a bit–”
“Scared?” asked Calvin, smirking and shining his flashlight in his friend’s face.
“Surprised,” Harper corrected, swatting Calvin’s flashlight away and squinting.
“You were scared.”
“You’re a chicken, too.”
“Shut your pie-hole, Cal, if you know what’s good for ya.”
Calvin had just opened his mouth to respond when there was a soft groan from the end of the hall. He froze, his heart hammering in his ears. The faint, sour smell wafted towards the pair on a cold breeze.
“What–” breathed Calvin.
“Run.” The faint, whispery, hoarse voice echoed through the dead silence of the house. “Run. Run. Run. Run. Run. Run. R–”
“Shut up!” shouted Harper suddenly. “Shut up, you stupid old creep! We’re not leaving!”
There was absolute silence, a silence so full that Calvin held his breath and wish that the frantic heartbeat pounding in his ears would silence itself for just a couple of seconds. Then the soft sound of a breeze whistled through the air, and Calvin felt a cold wind passing over him– through him. The dust lying thick on the floor in front of Calvin and Harper began to swirl, coalescing into the pale, transparent shape of a small, wizened old man, bent over with the age, carrying a trowel in one hand. He looked up at the pair, and his eyes narrowed.
“In that case,” he breathed in the same voice that had just told the children to run, “let me explain.”
“Old Man Logan,” Calvin breathed.
The man rolled his eyes. “I hate that name.”
“Well, too bad,” said Harper. “C’mon, Cal. We ain’t listening to this jerk.” He stalked off, walking through the dusty shape of the old man. Calvin followed hesitantly, shivering as he passed through the ghost and gagging slightly on the sour stench.
Old Man Logan re-coalesced in front of the pair. “Listen to me.”
“Lord, no,” snapped Harper, walking through the ghost again.
“Do not go in the basement,” breathed the ghost’s voice, “whatever you do.”
“Y’know what?” said Harper. “That’s exactly what we’ll do.” He stalked down the rest of the hall and into the next room, shining his flashlight around. A massive, cobweb-coated chandelier hung from the ceiling, the diamonds inlaid in it glittering in the light of Calvin’s flashlight. A dining table with chairs stacked on top of it sat pushed to the side of the room, and a long staircase ascended up to the second floor. Beside it stood a plain, unmarked wooden door with a brass handle that glittered when Calvin shone his flashlight on it as he followed Harper into the room.
“Harper,” said Calvin, “maybe we oughta…”
“You’re not gonna listen to that bully, are ya?” asked Harper with a snort. “Let’s go, Cal. C’mon.”
“Harper–” said Calvin, following his friend up to the door. But it was too late. He had already grabbed the handle and yanked the door open.
The air in the basement was warm and sticky and smelled almost sickly sweet. Calvin could see the first couple of curving steps leading downwards, but the rest of the stairwell was obscured by a thick, white fog. Calvin’s breath hissed in as tendrils of fog floated out of the room, almost… pulsing.
“What the…” he breathed.
Harper took a deep breath, then plunged into the fog, disappearing almost instantly. Calvin stumbled after him, shining his flashlight desperately through the fog, his feet repeatedly catching on the edges of steps that he hadn’t seen were there. Finally, he stumbled across flat ground, slamming into Harper in front of him.
“Watchit,” snapped Harper. Calvin squinted, and he could almost make out Harper’s silhouette through the fog.
“I’m trying,” said Calvin. “This fog–”
“Shhh,” Harper hissed, flapping his hand in the general direction of Calvin’s face. “The fog clears out over here.” He stepped forward and vanished. Calvin followed, squinting and wrinkling his nose at the sickly sweet smell. Underneath it, he thought he could smell something… metallic.
Suddenly, he emerged through the wall of fog and into a sort of clearing. In the center was a massive lump of pinkish-grayish… something, entirely smoothed over and pulsing and quivering, crossed by thick bluish veins. It looked almost wet in the light of the flashlights. It was criss-crossed by rusting, reddish-brown chains that were attached to the floor via large hooks that looked as though they’d been nailed into the stone floor. Underneath the chains, Calvin could see that the fleshy pinkish-gray substance was red and inflamed and in some places worn away. Tiny rivulets of a dark, glittering, scarlet liquid ran down over dried-up paths to spill onto the floor, joining strange slime the same colour as the fleshy lump in the places where the scarlet rivers hadn’t touched it that covered the floor in a layer about two inches thick, dully reflecting the flashlight beams so that they bounced around in the confines of the clearing in the fog, lighting the whole thing with a faint white light. The substance on the floor soaked slowly through the soles of Calvin’s shoes. It was just warmer than his feet and slightly gelatinous, so that Calvin had to fight both to push his feet through it onto the stone floor below and to pull them out for long enough to take another step.
Old Man Logan’s hoarse, whispery voice sounded, too close in the claustrophobic space created by the fog. “I told you to run.”
“The hell’d you do to this poor thing?” asked Harper. “Lookit. It’s bleeding.”
“Don’t–” Old Man Logan said. But it was too late; Harper had already reached out and pressed his hand against the thing. It shuddered and seemed to draw back, and Harper pulled his hand away and looked at it. His palm shone like the lump, and a small stripe of scarlet glittered in the center.
“Why are you torturing this poor thing?” asked Harper sharply. “What’d it ever do t’ you?” He walked over to one of the chains and began swinging at it with his flashlight. It shattered, fragments of rusty steel flying everywhere. Calvin drew away, and he felt something wet on his back– the fog was growing closer.
“No–” said Old Man Logan, “please–”
Harper swung at the next chain, and it shattered too. The fog drew closer, and Calvin ran up to Harper, saying, “Harper, listen, the fog– it’s getting closer–”
“You dumb kid,” said Old Man Logan’s voice. Calvin felt something yank him away from Harper, and he cried out, stumbling back towards the fog. Harper swung at the next chain once, twice, crack. His flashlight went flying out of his hand and spiraling through the air, and he dove after it, yelling hoarsely. “Give it back, you monster!”
“I told you to run,” said Old Man Logan. “I told you.”
Harper snatched his flashlight out of the air and tried to tug it away from some invisible opponent. He pulled on it with both hands, then stumbled back and sprinted back to the thing to hack away the last chain that held it down.
“No,” Old Man Logan said. Calvin thought he could almost hear desperation in the croaking tones. “Please. Don’t do this. Don’t.”
Calvin swung at the last chain, once, twice, three times, four, crack. The sound of the metal shattering was deafening, and it echoed around the room. The fog closed in, shrouding them in darkness. Calvin felt as though a hand grabbed him by the collar and dragged him up the stairs, his feet bouncing against the steps and his arms in front of his face to protect himself from Harper’s flailing limbs as the other boy shrieked and shouted and fought against an incorporeal opponent who couldn’t feel his blows. Finally, they were thrown through the door to the basement, landing with twin thuds on the dining room floor and sending up clouds of dust. As Harper scrambled to his feet, the door swung shut, leaving the boys in the cold and sour-scent desolation of the upstairs. In the distance, Calvin thought he could hear a furnace running.
Weird, he thought. This place hasn’t had water or electricity in twenty years.
“What the hell?” shouted Harper. “What was that thing, and why were you keeping it chained up and torturing it?”
“Shut up and listen,” said Old Man Logan. “And then when I’m done explaining, get out. Do you understand?”
Calvin nodded frantically, sitting up, and Harper crossed his arms. “Fine. Go on, then.”
“That… that thing back there that you morons freed was the brain of the house. I was her caregiver, back when I was alive.”
“The house is a she?” asked Harper.
“Shut up and listen,” said Old Man Logan. “She was always hungry, but the caregivers– my family– would make sure that she was tame enough that she never ate no one. But as she and I both got older, she started gettin’ restless. Didn’t wanna settle for furniture and people. I had to chain her down to keep her from eatin’ up the whole neighborhood. But before I could finish, she killed me. There were s’pposed to be five chains holdin’ her down– I never got the fifth one into the ground. But I managed to scare off anyone who came near here, an’ she atrophied and got docile. But with what you did back there, I wouldn’t be surprised if she woke up. Y’all idiots need to git outta here.”
“Why should we believe this?” snorted Harper. “A sentient house that eats people? Come on. What idiot would listen to this?”
“You are talking to a ghost, Harper,” Calvin said.
“Shut it, Cal,” Harper snapped.
“I don’t care if y’all believe me or if ya think I’m crazy,” said Old Man Logan. “I just care if you git out.”
“Okay, okay,” said Harper. He turned and pulled Calvin to his feet. As he did so, a door slammed upstairs.
“We get it!” Harper snapped. “We’re getting out of here!”
Old Man Logan’s voice shook as he spoke. “That… that wasn’t me.”
Calvin grabbed Harper’s wrist. “Come on. Let’s go. Run. Now!” They ran to the door that led back to the living room, but it slammed in their faces as they drew closer. Harper slammed into it and grabbed on the handle, yanking it back.
“It won’t open,” he said. Calvin grabbed onto the handle as well, and they pulled together. It wouldn’t budge.
“Logan!” shouted Harper. “Help us!”
“I’m sorry,” said Old Man Logan. His voice was faint and distant. “I can’t. You’re on your own.”
Calvin turned just in time to see the tarp that had covered the dining room furniture flying off. The chairs floated off of the table and back into their proper places around the table as the whole ensemble slid across the floor and into their proper places in the center of the room, the dust clearing in a giant wave from the spot they landed in. The chandelier above them spun wildly, the cobwebs flying off of it and evaporating into thin air. As it spun, the lights on the chandelier flickered back to life, lighting the room in a soft yellowish glow. The water-stains on the floral wallpaper faded as the peeling edges of sheets resealed themselves to the walls. Calvin pressed his back up against the door.
“C’mon!” said Calvin. “Let’s go this way!” He grabbed Calvin’s wrist and dragged him down the hall and into the kitchen, the wave of light and cleanliness following them as they sprinted away from the awakening house. They sprinted through the kitchen door as it began to close and into the living room, where the carpet was straightening and fluffing itself up and growing brighter. The blankets and chip packages that had littered the floor seemed to be dragged under the edge of the carpet. When Calvin lifted the corner up to see where they had gone, he saw that they had vanished. There was a thump behind him, and he turned to see that Harper had slammed into the front door, which was sealed closed.
“C’mon,” shouted Harper. “Don’t just stand there. Help me!”
Calvin started to run over to his friend, but before he could, a rumble shook the entire house, making the floor shake and knocking Calvin off of his feet. A low, dark grumbling started, growing ever louder, as the shaking grew ever stronger, and as Calvin pushed himself up onto his hands and feet and began to crawl towards Harper, he heard the word hidden in the grumbling, heard it through his hands and his knees and in his chest and stomach and lungs as they shook in time with the house– Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.
“Calvin!” Harper’s voice shouted, but it was miles away through a long tunnel, and Calvin could only hear, could only care about the rumble, about the word– Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.
Calvin flattened himself against the ground, so that he was closer to the rumbling, to the word. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Something wrapped around his ankles, dragging him back. He let it pull him back, wrapping him up under the carpet, pulling him closer and closer to the rumbling, to the word. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. The carpet covered him up to the neck and up to the head and he was wrapped in the dark and the warmth and the sickly sweet smell and the gelatinous slime surrounded him and he was one with the house and the rumbling and the word.