The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Eight: Mission: Improbable
Jeff quietly slipped out the front door of his home and crept onto the porch. He gently closed the door and then checked his watch. The digital numbers read seven fifty-two p.m. He had eight minutes to rendezvous with the rest of the Wildwood Gang at their tree house, and with his backpack strapped to his… uh, back, he descended the stairs like a specter in the night and slithered along the walkway toward the barn.
Drew's grand plan called for Sofie and Ethan to be dropped off at his house, and then the three of them would cross the river onto Wildwood Farm and head straight for the tree house, where they would meet Jeff at eight o'clock sharp. It was Jeff's responsibility to determine the whereabouts of Mr. Heard. If Heard had left the property, their mission was a go. If not, they would have to delay.
As Jeff approached the barn, he noticed the lights in the office glowing bright, and he caught a glimpse of his mother at the front desk chatting with a woman of similar age. A young girl, perhaps six or seven, stood next to the woman tugging at her coat, and Jeff assumed they were checking in. His suspicions were confirmed when he spied a man walking across the parking lot with two suitcases. Two other girls trailed him, one slightly older than the girl in the office, and one slightly younger.
Instinctively, the Markham family code of courtesy and hospitality (aka the MFCCH) kicked in and Jeff darted to the office door and propped it open for the oncoming guests. While the noble thing to do, no good deed goes unpunished as they say, and Jeff's mission was about to be detoured.
The man with the suitcases smiled at Jeff and offered a gracious 'thank you,' as did his extremely well-mannered daughters. But as Jeff was about to bolt for the barn, his mother caught sight of him and stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Oh Jeff," she called to him. "Be a good boy and show the Griffins to the inn. They're staying in the Bartlett suite."
Jeff's heart skipped a quarter note and then his knees weakened. He was on a tight schedule, and this would most certainly delay him. For a brief moment he had contemplated trying to talk his way out of this, but that would be in strict violation of the MFCCH. And since he was already planning to violate his father's rule of law (aka, Kent Cottage was a no-fly zone), he knew he could not exceed one violation in a single evening.
Begrudgingly he agreed to the request. He tried to muster at least a half-smile, but even that was challenging. However, his sense of urgency masked any resentment toward the Griffins for railroading him, and when they had finished their paperwork, he escorted them along the walkway to the inn.
The Griffins commented favorably on the multitude of little white lights that illuminated much of the farm, including the main house and the inn, and the gingerbread-like exterior of their temporary residence mesmerized the Griffin girls. There was no doubt the inn had curb appeal, not that it was anywhere near a curb, mind you, and since most kids loved making gingerbread houses, the chance to sleep in one was a rare opportunity.
Jeff led them through the front door into the inn, past the common room, and down a secluded hallway to the Bartlett suite on the first floor. Then he said his goodbyes and speed walked out of the inn and off the porch. When his feet hit the ground, he hurried back along the walkway to the office, and seeing the lights still aglow, ducked down and scooted beneath the large bay window. Once he had cleared the office, he ran to the barn and stealthily crept in through a side door.
It was so dark inside the barn that Jeff could barely see his hand in front of his face. That was a good thing, he thought to himself, because it likely meant that no one was there, including Mr. Heard. But Jeff wanted to be certain. At least as certain as he could be, and when his eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to make out familiar shapes.
Regardless, he didn't want to maim himself on the equipment, so he removed the flashlight from his backpack and ignited it as he navigated toward the staircase in the back. He cupped his hand around the lens of the flashlight to dampen the brightness, and when he found himself at the base of the stairs, he looked up to the mezzanine to see if there were any signs of life.
He shut off his flashlight and stood there silently in the dark. Again he waited for his eyes to adjust, then took another peek up to the mezzanine. He noticed a soft glow emanating from the upstairs, but it was so faint he assumed it to be nothing significant. Perhaps it was a computer monitor or a night-light or something of that nature. He decided to climb the wooden staircase for a better look, but the plank stairs creaked loudly after the second step and he froze in place.
Jeff held his breath and waited for Mr. Heard or Greg or Cody or someone to appear at the top of the stairs, but no movement was detected. He carefully stepped down to the floor of the barn and slowly made his way back to the side door. Content that the barn was empty and the others had gone home, Jeff stepped through the doorway and into the night and proceeded on to the rendezvous point.
As he entered the woods, Jeff's flashlight sprung to life, lighting the path to the tree house. In short time he had reached his destination, and climbed up the ladder into their secret fortress. He found Drew, Sofie, and Ethan huddled around a single flashlight in the center of the room.
"Cutting it a little close," Drew noted. "What's the word on Heard?"
"No sign of him," Jeff said. "The barn was dark. He must've gone home."
"Okay then," Drew said. "It's go time. We maintain radio silence until I give the all clear."
"But we don't have radios," Ethan said.
"It's a figure of speech," Sofie explained. "We don't talk until we're a safe distance from the farmhouse. Just in case Heard's still here. Or Greg and Cody."
"Right," Drew said. "If we get caught, Jeff's in big trouble. Follow me."
Drew was through the trap door and down the ladder before Jeff had a chance to say what do you mean I'm in trouble? We'll all be in trouble. Those words remained thoughts as Ethan and Sofie went down the ladder as well, leaving Jeff without an audience to voice his frustration over Drew's remark. Following their lead, Jeff hurried out of the clubhouse and down the ladder to join his friends.
Drew turned on his flashlight and shined it ahead, then motioned for the others to stay close. The plan called for a lone flashlight to light the way to reduce the risk of being spotted by the enemy, and since it was Drew's plan, he led the way.
He took them north along the trail that snaked its way toward the motocross track they had blazed years ago. They had ridden their bikes here so many times they could do the course blindfolded, which proved invaluable as they trekked through the woods in the dark. Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan stayed close to Drew, practically in his back pocket, as he skirted between moguls, and when they reached the top of the track, they turned left down a much narrower path.
The kids were like train cars in the night, slithering along the underbrush while the engine's light cut through the darkness. Drew followed the path as far as it would take them, but within minutes it had dissolved into the rest of the forest, and they were forced to wrestle with the land in its natural state.
Suddenly bushes and saplings sprung up out of nowhere, and Drew slowed his progress, ducking beneath one tangled mass after the next. Branches slingshotted past him, their tiny tips raking the faces of his comrades. They looked like a pack of prizefighters protecting their pretty mugs from twelve rounds of abuse. They dodged and weaved and winced and groaned, but complaining was not an option since they swore an oath of silence.
To further complicate things, they encountered a slew of rotted stumps, fallen trees, and gaping pits left behind by those same fallen trees. It was a minefield of epic proportions. An emergency-room-visit waiting to happen. The place was such a disaster it reminded me of the family room at my own house. In fact, if there had been dirty clothes all over the ground and near-empty bags of tortilla chips stuffed between the couch cushions, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.
Drew pressed forward. He checked his watch and then picked up the pace. He wanted ample time to search Kent Cottage, and he wouldn't let a few prickly branches, stumps, or fallen trees stop him. However, that didn't mean the forest and its arsenal of booby-traps wouldn't try to stop his friends.
Sofie, being closest to Drew in their makeshift conga line, avoided most of these pitfalls. Jeff, on the other hand, tripped on a stump or two. Or three. On the third one he fell, taking Sofie down with him, the judges awarding him a six-point-five for level of difficulty. Ethan slammed on the breaks, narrowly avoiding the stump that took down his friends. It was an impressive display of agility for Ethan, considering his size, for had he taken a spill and followed his friends to the ground, he would've pancaked them.
Drew stopped and looked back and shined the light in Sofie's eyes. She squinted and turned away, then softly growled his name, violating their code of silence. Drew shushed her, then extended his hand and helped her up. Jeff hopped to his feet, but his face contorted in all sorts of weird shapes, a result of the excruciating pain in his big toe. He was able to walk it off, and their mission resumed.
They traveled deeper into the forest, maintaining a northwesterly course, and were able to gain almost a hundred yards before encountering their next mishap. This time it was Ethan, and had Drew been narrating this story, he might've said well that's no surprise. But it really wasn't Ethan's fault, at least in the carelessness department. Remember those gaping pits I mentioned? Well, there was one lying in wait, ready to bushwhack them, and it claimed Ethan's foot as its next victim. He stepped into the hole and turned his ankle, throwing him off balance, and the gentle giant went toppling to the ground with a thud.
The others spun around quickly, and Drew shined the light to give them a better look. For a moment Ethan just lay there motionless, face down on the forest floor. Jeff and Sofie rushed to his side but didn't dare touch him in case he had broken something. Drew brought the light closer, examining the body for any signs of damage. He shined the light into the pit, half-expecting a gruesome leg injury. Drew feared that if Ethan's leg had done its best Joe Theismann, it meant game over. End of story. End of mission.
But Ethan surprised them. He pushed himself up and out of the hole, then brushed himself off and readjusted his backpack. The others breathed a collective sigh of relief, especially Drew, and then continued onward.
A few minutes later they had reached the edge of the forest. They had run the gauntlet and survived, and as they rambled past the last of the trees, the Wildwood Gang stepped out of the woods into a small clearing, not far from the spot where they had observed their runaway cow dancing a jig in the field.
In the distance stood Kent Cottage. Haunting and evil and reeking of death, its dark mass was visible in the moonlight, compliments of a crystal clear sky. It was eerily bright, and this was not lost on the Wildwood Gang. Sofie looked up at the stars and easily identified the constellations. Then she looked back at the old stone house and shuddered. It beckoned them closer as if it were alive. Living. Breathing. Being. Its walls running thick with blood. It wanted them, and called to them, as if saying, come hither, my pretties, and unlock the mysteries within! Oh, and p.s., you'll never get out alive.
If it were me, I would've high-tailed it out of there. Smell ya later.
But kids are different. You tell them not to do something and they do it anyway. That's par for the course. It's how kids are wired. It's like the pin-out in their brain automatically inserts a double negative. Don't do this is then processed as Don't not do this which essentially means Do this, so if you want a kid to not do something, you have to apply a little reverse psychology.
For example, rather than telling Jeff and his friends to stay away from Kent Cottage, Ron should've said, Jeff, I want you to go to Kent Cottage. Go there and have a picnic and listen to music and stay out as late as you want.
But he didn't, so here we are.
Drew looked at his friends and whispered, effectively lifting the code of silence. "We stick with one flashlight till we get to the cottage. Keep the chatter to a minimum until we're inside. Let's go."
The Wildwood Gang was on the move again, this time hugging the border of the woods as they trampled their way through the tall grass. Someone needed to take a weed whacker to this mess, Jeff thought to himself. But he understood why nobody had. It was a deterrent to keep people out. Clearly it wasn't working.
It seemed to Jeff as if their second jaunt out to the cottage was taking longer, possibly because it was dark and he couldn't really see where he was going. He and Sofie and Ethan were at the mercy of Drew, and if Drew decided to make a detour to the Irish American Club, there was nothing they could do about it.
Fortunately Drew didn't make any detours. That was never an option for him, not with all that gold waiting for them at Kent Cottage. And when he poked his head above the tall grass, he could see the cottage looming over him. It was waiting for them, like a mousetrap with a big hunk o' cheese on it.
They made one final push before they spilled out into the clearing, and then the four of them stood there and gazed up at the terrifying structure. Ethan took out his flashlight and shined it at the attic window, wondering if he might catch a glimpse of the headless ghost of Charles Nichols, but it was boarded. Nonetheless, Jeff put his hand over top of Ethan's flashlight and lowered it.
"Let's not disturb him," Jeff said. "He might not know we're here."
Drew brushed by them and patted Jeff on the shoulder. "Don't worry. He knows we're here."
Jeff and Ethan looked at each other apprehensively. Was Drew suddenly a believer or was he just messing with them? They assumed the latter. But regardless, he was probably right. Charles Nichols knew they were there. He was a ghost, after all. Albeit a headless one.
Drew walked over to the front door and saw that it was chained shut. He gripped the padlock and pulled on it, but there was no give. He stepped back a bit and shined his light all over the exterior of the house exploring his options, then walked around to the side of the house and did the same. When he was convinced there was only one alternative, he called for Jeff to join him at the nearest window.
All the windows had been boarded shut, but the windows were their best chance to gain access to the house. Drew reached into his backpack and took out a hammer, and Jeff did the same.
"You take one end, I'll do the other," Drew told Jeff. "Ethan, we need your flashlight."
Ethan approached the house and shined his light on the boards, and then Drew and Jeff used their hammers to pry the boards from the window. After they successfully removed the first board, Ethan looked around the clearing and noticed someone missing.
"Hey guys. Where's Sofie?"
"She was over there a minute ago," Drew said, nodding to Ethan's right.
"Yeah, well she's not there anymore," Ethan said. "Where'd she go?"
Drew stopped and looked around. "No idea."
"We should go look for her," Jeff said.
"I'm sure she's here someplace," Drew said. "She can't have gone far. Keep prying."
"Maybe the ghost got her," Ethan whispered. "We could be next."
A look of terror fell across Jeff's face. "Drew, we have to go find her."
"Fine. Go. Ethan, put your light on the window."
"No," Jeff said. "We should go together."
Drew popped out another board, then looked at Jeff and sighed. "Whatever. Take Ethan. I got this."
"You need a light?" Ethan asked.
Drew shook his head. "Got one." Then he reached into his pocket and took out his own flashlight. He held the butt end between his teeth and shined it on the window, then resumed his work on the boards. In the meantime, Jeff and Ethan walked around the cottage looking for Sofie, and as they were about to turn the corner to the back of the house, Sofie exploded out of the darkness, scaring the dickens out of them. She parted them like the Red Sea and made a beeline for Drew.
"What the heck, Sofie!" Jeff barked, his heart racing a mile a minute. But she hadn't heard him.
"Drew!" she called, trying to grab his attention. But he did not respond, and continued tugging at the boards. She called his name again, this time with a little more urgency. He was forced to stop, and removed the flashlight from his mouth.
"What is it?" he said.
"It's the back door," she said, pointing behind the house.
"What about it?" he said, slightly agitated by the interruption.
Sofie stared at him with an expression of both excitement and fear.
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.