I’m sitting in my favorite place in the entire world, under the massive branches of the ancient Magnolia tree in my back yard, on my laptop, writing my latest story. This has been my favorite spot since childhood. I loved to swing on the tire swing that has been here since my mom was a child, although she made Dad replace the old rope with a new one before I was even allowed to go near it. When I was ten, and Mom finally approved, Dad built a giant tree house way up in the huge branches, with a ladder all the way to the ground. I thought I was queen of the world when I climbed that ladder up into the thickness of those branches. I would climb up there in the spring and summer months, and sit for hours, writing, drawing, reading, or even just daydreaming. Dad gave me his battery operated camping lantern, so I could go out at night.
From the outside looking in, you would never know there was such a peaceful haven waiting beneath those branches. They reach all the way to the ground at their tips, but from the inside, the lowest limbs are at least 8 feet off the ground. Dad keeps a few of the outer ones trimmed back, and built a beautiful arch to make a doorway to the inside. This doorway is strategically placed in back of the tree, to protect the location of my favorite spot from outsiders. The branches let in plenty of sunlight, but none of the summer heat, and insulate from the sounds of the outside world, making it the perfect place to concentrate.
The fallen leaves and giant blooms make a soft bed on the grass, and the fragrance of the beautiful, nearly dinner plate sized white flowers is enough to carry you away on its own. I was sitting at the base of the tree, where I always do, working on a new story, when a sudden sense of dread washed over me. There is no reason for this feeling. At least none that I can think of. Everything in my life is going great. I just celebrated the end of my first year as assistant editor at the local paper. Just bought the car I have always wanted. I do not have a boyfriend, by my choice. I want to focus on my job, and my writing, and a man is just not what I need right now. Mom and Dad, my only known living relatives, are both healthy. So what is it? Why this sudden sense that everything is about to come crashing down around me? I try to let it go, and continue writing, but the feeling won’t leave me now. I save my draft, and set my laptop beside me on the ground. I reach for a cigarette, and light it up.
As I draw the smoke deep into my lungs, I lean my head back against the tree, and close my eyes. After a few moments of this, I thought maybe I could go back to writing. I open my eyes, and instead of sitting under my favorite tree, laptop by my side, I am standing in front of a very large, very old house that I am quite sure I have never seen before.
I can hear screaming coming from inside. “TYLER NOOOOOOO!!!!” is the only two words I am able to make out. I walk slowly toward the house. Chills rack my body as if to say “Don’t go in there. It’s not safe.” But the desperate sounding voices from inside lead me on. I cross the lawn tentatively. As I approach the front steps, and ascend them to the porch, the screaming suddenly stops. I reach the door, and try the knob. Nothing happens. Then, someone lets out a blood-curdling scream from inside the house. I try the door again. Still nothing. The porch beneath me begins to shake, and there is more yelling from inside, now too distant to make out at all. The door shakes as if it will splinter to a million pieces at any second. A growl emits from somewhere deep within the house, unlike anything I have ever heard. I turn and run, as fast as I can, down the long, overgrown driveway. I trip over a rock hidden in the tall grass, and hit the ground with a thump.
I awake with a start, my gown and sheets soaked with sweat. I am breathing heavy, my heart racing, as if I have been running for my life, rather than sleeping. I roll my head slowly to the side, still groggy from sleep, and check the clock. Perfect. 3:38 am. I won’t sleep another wink. Not now. Thank God it’s Saturday. No work. With the remnants of that dream looming in my mind, I will be useless for the whole day. It had been the most lucid, vivid dream I could ever remember. Normally, I only remember bits and pieces of my dreams, just small details. Not even enough to make sense of them. Not this time. It seemed to me as if someone in my dream had been calling out for help, so clearly that I could still hear the woman’s voice ringing in my ears. Is someone trying to reach out to me? My mother has told me of the psychic and occasionally telepathic abilities which have run in our family for generations. She told me that before her sister, my beautiful Aunt Tina, had mysteriously disappeared so many years ago, they were sometimes able to communicate without ever speaking a single syllable. I have never experienced anything such as this, but Mom says I’m still young at twenty one. It could happen. As I lay there in the darkness of the still, quiet morning, I wonder if that is what has happened. Someone could be reaching out to me through my dream, so I replay the entire thing in my head. I now remember a sign in front of the house. It was as old and decrepit as the house itself. Most of the words were faded, but I could make out that once, long ago, it said The Bird Sanctuary. This is really all I have to go on, but I feel like I can’t let it go, so I sit up in bed, turn on the bedside lamp, and open my laptop.
I have no idea if this Bird Sanctuary is even in my area. It was only a dream. It could be anywhere in the world. Or it may not exist at all. I pull up Google, and type The Bird Sanctuary in the search bar. BINGO!!! The very first listing has a picture of the house from my dream. Although in this picture, the house looks much newer. The sign is out front, the same one from my dream, only here it says Milladgeville Sanitarium. I read further into the article, and learn that the Sanitarium was closed down; ‘due to questionable practices by the staff’ was all it said. Many years later, a young couple bought the house, moved in, and turned it into a sanctuary for sick and homeless animals. According to the article, the family, along with all the animals, had suddenly vanished. No one knew what happened to them. I closed my laptop, and sat back to think. Being a writer, my mind is turning in a thousand different directions. And as it turns out, The Bird Sanctuary is only about five blocks from here. This is the same thing that happened with my Aunt Tina all those years ago. She and her boyfriend just vanished. Could this be the answer? Could it be a story? An article for the paper I work for? All three? I climb out of bed, and make my way to the shower, thinking a billion thoughts. Should I go there? Check it out? Or should I just forget it? It WAS only a dream after all. As I stand under the steaming hot water of the shower, I close my eyes. The instant I do, the house flashes before me again. And I hear that scream. That does it. My mind is made up. I’m going. I have to know. I turn off the water, jump out of the shower, and head back to my room. I dress in jeans and my favorite t shirt, grab a jelly biscuit and my keys, and out the door I go.
I drive the five blocks from my house to the Bird Sanctuary, all the while, thoughts flitting back and forth through my mind. Is someone trapped there? Is someone hurt? I remember hearing “TYLER NOOOOO!” in my dream, and suddenly it occurs to me, Tyler was the name of the boyfriend who disappeared along with my Aunt Tina all those years ago. No way! Could it really be her? She’s been gone thirty years. And then another thought. Thirty years today. I can’t help but think of the possibility. It even makes me smile a little. My mom has told me so much about her; I wish more than anything I could’ve met her. I make the final turn of my drive, and see the house looming larger than life at the end of the street. The sign out front looks exactly as it did in my dream. The words Bird Sanctuary are the only thing still remotely legible after all this time. I pull in, and make my way slowly up the long, gravel drive.
The grass is so overgrown on each side that it towers above my little car. The house seems even larger, more intimidating, than it did in my dream, if that’s even possible. I park in front of the house, grab my smokes, and get out of the car. It is summer, and everything is in full bloom, except here. There are no leaves on the giant old trees, or even the bushes along the front of the house. The grass up the sides of the driveway, I now notice as I look back, even has a dead look. It also seems cooler here than it was at home. I turn to examine the house itself. Very few shutters remain; most no doubt blown away in some long ago storm. The paint is so weathered and peeled it’s impossible to tell what color the house actually was. The windows have long since been busted. No glass remains in them. Yet there are curtains hanging in every one.
There is a slight breeze, enough so that those curtains should be moving. They are not. I take a step back, and look up at the upstairs windows. No movement there either. Except. Wait. Did that curtain just flutter?
I wait, but it doesn’t happen again. Okay. That’s enough sweetheart, get your ass inside. I take a deep breath, and get moving. I anticipate screaming as I climb the steps to the porch, but hear nothing, other than the sounds of nature and the drone of cars on the interstate just across the woods. I reach the door, take a second to collect myself, and try the knob. I expect nothing, as in my dream. To my surprise, the knob turns. I shove the door, and it swings open with a loud creak.
As I enter the old house, the musty aroma of a long forgotten era overwhelms my senses. There is dust everywhere, and cobwebs the likes of which I have never seen. I close the heavy door behind me, and look around, deciding where to go first. I wander into what appears to be a large living area, though there is nothing in the room, save the curtains on the busted windows. There is a huge fireplace in the back corner of the room, and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling so covered in dust it’s hard to believe it ever put off light.
I turn and cross the hall, into what appears to be the dining area, also void of any furniture, or any hint that the place had ever been inhabited. I cross the room into the kitchen. It’s long, stretching toward the back of the house, lined with cabinets and counters down both sides. There is a door to my left. I open it. The pantry, lined with empty shelves. I close the door. Everything is white, from the tile on the floor all the way to the ceiling. Sterile, like a hospital kitchen would be I think to myself.
I turn to leave the room, and hear a loud thump from upstairs somewhere. I jump a little, but I’ve never been afraid of the things that go bump in the night (or day), and don’t plan to start now. So I head for the stairs. Once upon a time, this must have been a beautiful place, with its high, ornate ceilings, huge fireplace, and this massive staircase.
Now, it is sad and worn, like an old man nearing the end of his days. I grasp the railing, and slowly make my way up, listening for any other sounds. When I reach the top, I am standing at the end of a long hallway, lined with doors on both sides. The first knob I try refuses to turn. I cross the hall, and try another. Success. I open the door, and walk into what appears to be an office, but from another time. Shelves of books line the walls. Dust and cobwebs hide the titles from view, and the glass in the picture frames is caked so thick in grime it’s impossible to see the treasures held within them. In the far corner is a rickety old table, barely holding up an old Gramophone, also covered in cobwebs. That thing will never work again, I think to myself. There is a desk in the center of the room, bare except for a sheath of bright white paper, and a pot of ink, quill lying next to it. The quill appears almost to quiver with life, as blood red ink drips from the tip and stains the paper beneath it.
I turn in a slow circle, examining the entire room. Something about this room feels different than the rest of the house. It feels more alive somehow, but looks much older. I return to the hallway, to try the other doors. All of them, locked. Suddenly, as I am heading back to the stairs, the air around me turns ice cold. I can see my breath, it’s so cold. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to stop the shivers, but the cold seems to radiate from within me, as well as from the house. I instantly decide its time to get the hell out of here. I don’t know what happened here, and don’t think I want to. I glance to my left as I pass by the still open door of the office, and stop dead in my tracks. I step inside to take another look, and notice that the chill is gone. It feels like the warm summer day it is. I look around in awe, and in fear. Just moments ago, everything in this room had been covered in dust and cobwebs. Now, I can read every title of every book. I can see the certificates in their frames. The table in the corner is solid as ever, and the Gramophone looks as if it just came off the assembly line.
The turntable is spinning, and classical music emits from the large speaker. “What the hell is going on here?” I ask aloud to the presumably empty room. I nearly jump out of my sneakers when a woman’s voice, very soft and sweet, speaks from behind me. “Don’t be afraid my love. I won’t hurt you.” I cannot believe my eyes when I turn and see my long lost Aunt Tina, thirty years gone, but still the exact image I remember from all of Mom’s photos. She is beautiful, her smile absolutely radiant. She comes toward me, seeming to float on air, and takes my hands. “My God. You look JUST like her. The last time I saw your mother, she was only twelve years old, but you are made in her image.” Just then, the whole place shook, as if there was suddenly a massive earthquake rocking the world outside, only it came from below us, within the house. A picture fell off the shelf, and the glass shattering made us both jump. The needle on the Gramophone scratched, skipped, and then stopped altogether. I look back at Aunt Tina, and do not like what I see, not one bit. Her face has gone ghost white. “Go,” she said. “Before it’s too late.” She begins shoving me out the door, back into the hallway, and down the stairs. I want to stay, to find out what really happened all those years ago, but I want to get the hell out of this house just as badly. She contacted me before; maybe she can do it again. I run like the hounds of hell are after me down that massive staircase, and turn the corner to flee out the front door. Only there IS no front door. Where the fuck? What? I came in RIGHT HERE. Where the door had been, there is now only a blank wall. As if there had never been a door at all. The paint just as faded as every other wall in the house.
I turn to yell back up the stairs, “Aunt T…oh.” She is standing behind me, a look of horror on her face. “This is exactly what happened thirty years ago. Come, back to the office. I will tell you.” As we climb the stairs once again, I ask her “Why the office?” “It is the only room in the house that changes, other than the front door, but it also seems to be the only room in which bad things don’t tend to happen.” I follow her back into the strange room, and she closes the door behind me. “Now, sit. And before things really get crazy around here, let me tell you what happened.” I sit in the chair behind the ancient desk, and listen.
“Holy shit….” is all I can muster. I am now afraid that I may never leave this house. I must find a way out. At this moment, I want nothing more than to wake up under my favorite tree, and realize that this was all just another vivid dream, Aunt Tina there beside me. The rumbling began again, deeper, and longer this time, and I jumped from the chair. “I have to get OUT of here. There HAS to be a way…” Before she can stop me, I bolt for the door. I call back to her as I flee down the stairs, “I love you Aunt Tina, but I have to find a….”
Suddenly I feel a hand on my back, and before I know what is happening, a shove. I am falling. Fast. All the way to the bottom of the stairs. I think as I’m falling, SHIT, I’m as good as dead. When I hit the floor, I am left with only a bump on my head and a scrape on my arm. I am on my feet in a flash. I don’t know who just pushed me down the stairs, but I’m not hanging around to find out. THE WINDOWS!!!! There was no glass in the windows. I turn and run for the living room, and….there are no windows!!! The room is still as bright as ever, but there are no windows. The light is now coming from the chandelier that just a while ago had been caked in dust, now shiny and new.
The walls were just that, blank walls, same as the front door. I run from the room, and down the hallway. I check all the doors down here as well. All locked. I hear an inhuman, evil laugh coming from somewhere behind me. I stop. Okay. I need to pull myself together here…. A cold hand on my shoulder gets me moving again. Fast. I run down the long corridor, lined with doors, realizing with horror that the house HAS changed. It no longer looks so much like a house, but more like a hospital. The walls are a dull white, and the tile floor an awful shade of avocado green. And this hallway. It’s twice as long as it was. I hear footsteps behind me, coming fast. They sound no more human than the laugh I just heard. I consider turning to look, and decide against it. After all, isn’t that when the victim in the horror movie gets caught? Nope. Not me. At the end of the hall I find the only door without a lock. A swinging door, round window in the center, at eye level.
I don’t think about what’s on the other side, only what is behind me. I push open the door, and find myself in the kitchen again, only the opposite end this time. I run to the pantry, and hide inside. I hear the footsteps pass by the pantry door, along with an awful mix of sniff/growl/groan. And a wretched smell, like rotting meat. I have seen enough haunted house shows to know that the smell of rotting meat means a demonic presence. I am now more terrified than ever. Shaking from head to toe. Now what? I can’t just stay in this pantry forever. Just as I am gathering the nerve to open the door, I feel a draft from behind me. I turn to look for the source, nothing there but shelves. Empty shelves. Again, I feel it. I take a step toward the back of the pantry, and the floor seems to give way. No, not exactly. More like step down. But there are no stairs. Not that I can see. I take another step and down again. There ARE stairs. But. There’s nothing here. Curious, and without any other hope of a way out, I decide to continue. As I take another step, it seems I will hit my head on the front of the dusty shelf. Instead, the shelf seems to melt away, and I step into another place. Immediately, I don’t like it. I felt safer in the house. It’s dark here, in a way I have never experienced darkness. Cold dark. Damp dark. Deep dark.
I hear moaning from all around me. What seems to be thousands of human voices. A spine-tingling scream. I turn to flee back to the pantry, but it is gone. Nothing here but darkness. And these poor souls, left here by some evil entity to rot for eternity. The stench here is horrid. A thousand times worse than in the pantry. I turn back the way I came, not wanting to venture further. A few slow, shuffling steps and I stumble over something. The stairs!! I take them slowly, one by one, afraid the next one won’t be there. I can’t see them after all. Finally, the pantry comes back into view. I take the final step back inside, and let out a deep breath. I listen closely at the pantry door, hear nothing, and dare to take a peek. The kitchen is empty. I slowly make my way back through the house, trying not to draw attention to myself. The entire house has gone silent. Blessedly still and silent. Still no sign of the front door. Still no windows. I decide to go back to the office, and talk to Aunt Tina. Maybe between the two of us, we can come up with something. As I turn the corner back to the stairs, I hear music. Not the same classical stuff played on the Gramophone upstairs, but the kind you would hear if you turned on the radio in my car. Now that makes no sense. This place has been abandoned for years. I follow the sound down the hallway. As I pass the third door, the sound fades. I take a step back. There, behind that door. I tried that one earlier. It was locked. They all were. I reach out to try the knob again, and the door swings open on its own. I almost turn to run, but the music changes my mind. I step into the room, and the door slams shut behind me. The music stops. I look around the empty room. With the music now gone, it’s impossible to tell where it came from. There is also no way of knowing what this room had been used for.
The floor, white. The walls, white. The ceiling, white. No doors, except the one I came through. I also notice the complete lack of dust and cobwebs, which is shocking, considering the abundance of them in the rest of the house. I turn to try the door, and nothing happens. Shit. What am I going to do now? From the far side of the room, there is an awful creaking sound. I turn to see a large crack now spreading out from the corner, and coming directly at me. From below, I can hear the same moans and screams that I heard earlier, when I inadvertently stumbled into whatever circle of hell that happened to be below the pantry. Come to think of it, the pantry is probably just about exactly parallel to the room I am currently in. I decide that is way too close, and turn again to try the door. Still nothing. I am now OFFICIALLY afraid of the things that go bump. Day AND night. Half of the room has now crumbled away, falling into the rancid pit of darkness below. I look around, for something to hold on to. In a room emptier than any so far, there is nothing. I am now standing on the rim of hell, with nothing to cling to but the cursed doorknob that still won’t turn. Not even as if it is merely locked. More like someone, or something, is holding it. It won’t even wiggle. A long, low growl emits from deep within the cavernous tomb below. I am now scrambling to find my footing, and failing. There is no floor left. I am now left hanging from the useless damn doorknob, and decide I have no other choice but to let go. I close my eyes, and knowing if I count to three, I will change my mind, let go. As my hand slips free, I feel the knob release, and turn. After falling for what seemed like an eternity, I land with a thump. I find myself on the cold, damp floor of what I assume is the demon’s lair. I look up, but the room is gone. Just darkness. Cold, damp darkness. The smell is much worse here than below the pantry, a mix of rotting meat, calcified shit, and the coppery scent of blood permeating my lungs. So thick I begin to believe I will choke on it. It is as dark here as it was in the other place, but much colder. I shiver, and wrap my arms around myself again, for warmth. As before, the chill seems to come as much from within me as from the air around me. I reach out slowly, feeling for a wall, or anything to guide me, to try to find my way through this somehow seemingly deeper level of hell. I think maybe if I can find my way back to where I was before, I can find the stairway back to the pantry. I find nothing but air. I dare to take one step forward, and just as the tips of my fingers find something, there is a growl from directly behind me, hot breath on the back of my neck. I try to run. The beast grabs me by the arm, its razor sharp claws tearing the flesh from the bone. I let out an ear-splitting scream. This only angers the beast more. He growls again, and with one quick swipe, removes my lower jaw. The pain is excruciating. Once he catches the scent of the blood now gushing from not only my arm, but what is left of my face, I have only enough time to think one word, Tina, as he sinks his enormous fangs into my throat…..
I stand in the window, looking out on the beautiful, lush green lawn. Passing time watching the squirrels play and the birds gather food for the tiny babies back in their nests. It’s a beautiful summer day. Not a cloud in the mesmerizing blue sky. There is just a hint of a breeze sighing through the trees. The sun glints off something in the distance. A taxi pulls up the long driveway, totally oblivious of the old sign, now not only completely faded, but hidden in the overgrowth, and stops in front of the house. A few seconds pass, enough time for the occupant to pay the fare, and the back door opens.
The passenger steps from the car, closes the door, and turns to survey the house, as I had done when I arrived, just one year ago this very day. I know that although I see a lush green lawn, our new visitor sees it exactly as I had then. No glass in the windows, no leaves on the trees, no signs of life anywhere. Except maybe a single flutter of the curtain in an upstairs window. I watch this new arrival ascend the steps, onto the porch and turn from the window. Classical music plays from the Gramophone in the corner. The various framed certificates and diplomas on the shelves along the far wall reflect the sun like daytime stars onto the ceiling. “Aunt Tina?” I say quietly. She looks up at me with her beautiful smile, “Yes my love?” and rises from the chair behind the desk at the center of the room. I smile back at her as I walk to her side, take her hand, and tell her, “It’s time. It worked.” We fade into the shadows, and wait. Downstairs, we hear the creak of the front door closing. Then silence, as our visitor wanders through the house, looking into rooms, trying doors, just as I had, and Tina and Tyler so many years before. Footsteps coming up the massive staircase. The rattling of doorknobs in the long corridor outside. All the way down one side, and back. A fierce rumbling comes from below, deep within the house. An awful growl, too evil to come from anything human, or even animal. The temperature in the house plummets, and once again it seems as if a major earthquake is shaking the entire world. Tina and I pass a single knowing, evil grin as a sudden stillness falls over the entire house.
Finally, the office door swings open, our newest arrival steps in, and turns to survey the room. I step forward into view, Aunt Tina at my side, smile politely, and say “Don’t be afraid, we won’t hurt you.”
“Rachel? TINA???? Is it really you? How? What?” Precisely the reaction I expected. “Come, sit. We’ll explain everything Mom…..”