The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Nine: Fright Night
Drew and the others stood at the back door shining their flashlights at the ground. Tucked against the doorjamb beneath the rusted handle lay the padlock and chain, neatly coiled like a king cobra waiting to strike. Drew bent down and picked up the padlock and examined it for any visible damage.
"Is this how you found it?" he asked Sofie.
"Yes," she replied. "It was just lying there. I didn't touch it. But when I tried the door, it opened."
"That doesn't make any sense," Jeff said. "Mr. Heard wouldn't leave it like that. He doesn't make careless mistakes. If he locked this place up, then he did it right."
"Then someone else must have unlocked it," Drew said. "Who else has the key?"
Jeff shrugged. "My Dad maybe? Greg or Cody?"
"Or maybe the headless ghost of Charles Nichols," Ethan said, slightly above a whisper.
"Spare me the ghost stories," Drew grumbled. "A real live flesh and blood human being unlocked this door."
"For what purpose?" Ethan said. "No one's supposed to be in here. And besides, who takes the time to coil a chain like that? Wouldn't you just hang it off the handle or drop it on the ground? This isn't one of those cooking competitions. Presentation doesn't matter."
"He has a point," Jeff said. "Why take the time to make it neat?"
"Only a ghost would do that," Ethan said. "To mess with us."
Drew shook his head and chuckled to himself. "Well, when we get inside, you can go say hello to your ghost. Me, I'm gonna find the treasure." He tossed the padlock on the ground next to the chain and pushed the door open. In true haunted house fashion, the door made a loud creaking noise as it swung in, and a rush of cold air escaped the house and smothered our heroes. Drew turned to Sofie and curtsied. "Ladies first."
"No thank you," she said quickly as she took a step back.
Drew smirked. "I didn't think so." Then he shined his light into the empty blackness of Kent Cottage and stepped inside. Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan stood outside the doorway and watched as Drew was swallowed by thick shadows. The glow of his flashlight was all they could see, but within seconds it had faded as he moved further into the cottage. The three bystanders looked at one another and realized they had a better chance of survival in the company of Drew, so they rushed through the door to join him.
All four flashlights burned brilliantly in the darkness, sweeping the walls like searchlights. They canvased the first room, which was void of any furniture or appliances, and noticed two entryways to opposite sides of the house. To the left was a larger space, also void of furniture, which they assumed to be a sitting room or family room. To the right, a narrow kitchen pantry with cupboards still intact and a sink and countertop along the outside wall. Drew opened all the cupboards and cabinets, but the only thing he found was decades worth of dust. Sofie turned on the faucet but it produced no water.
"No surprise there," Drew said. He moved to the far end of the pantry and came upon a paneled door, but he paused, making no attempt to open it. He put his light against the top right panel and traced the contour from top to bottom.
"What's wrong?" Ethan asked. "Is it locked?"
"It's the panel," Drew said. "It's split along the side." He slid his fingers through the crack and ran them beneath the panel, gently pulling it away from the door. He attempted to shine the light between the panel and the door, in what he perceived to be a hidden compartment, but the stress he had placed on the aged panel caused it to separate from the door completely. It startled him as he inadvertently tore it off and sent it falling to the floor with a crash.
The others jumped back into each other, as tensions were already running high. For starters, they were trespassing. Second, they were rummaging around in the dark in a house that may or may not have been haunted; and C…
Well, never mind C. Those first two were enough to throw the nerves out of whack. But nobody ran away, so that was good.
Jeff took a deep breath and joked: "That's why we can't have nice things."
"Sue me," Drew retorted, then he took hold of the doorknob and turned it. The bolt gave way and Drew slowly pushed it open. He shined his light inside and took an inventory, and after identifying the space, pushed the door open wider and stood back. "Anyone have to go to the bathroom?"
Jeff and Sofie entered the room first, followed by Drew and Ethan. It was tight quarters, and the gang had to squeeze in behind the door. To the right was a pedestal sink, and opposite that was a bathtub. Behind the door was the toilet, and if I described the state of that bowl to you, I fear you might skip ahead to the next chapter. So I'll be discreet and state simply that when Ethan shined his flashlight into the bowl, they all dry heaved.
"I hope there's no treasure in there," Ethan said, wrestling with some sort of reflux problem.
"We'll leave that for last," Drew assured him, then he turned around and found a second door.
"Two bathroom doors?" Ethan said. "What, is it like one-way or something?"
"I don't think they were that sophisticated," Jeff said. "Let's see where it goes."
"I got this," Ethan said, and then he turned the knob and pushed. The door didn't budge, so he pushed harder. Then he threw all his weight into it, but the door would not open. "It must be locked."
"Actually," Sofie said, "I think you need to pull."
Ethan turned the knob again and pulled, and the door opened. "Maybe you should be in charge of doors from now on, Sofie."
"I was doing just fine," Drew said.
Ethan laughed. "Yeah right. You broke the other one."
"It was already broken," Drew growled, then he walked out of the bathroom into a short hallway. The others hurried after him and nearly knocked him over, which prompted a few choice words that I probably shouldn't mention here. They backed off a bit giving Drew some space, and then the flashlights went to work mapping the layout of the hall.
To the left were stairs that led to the second floor, and to the right was a small alcove. Drew shined his light up the stairs and studied the steep incline of the steps. The stairwell was cramped, almost claustrophobic, as if it were an afterthought. Imagine the builder telling the architect, "Hey buddy, how do you get to the second floor? You forgot to include stairs." And the architect would reply, "Oh, you're right. We'll just squeeze them in over here."
"Are we going up?" Ethan asked Drew, curious why his gaze was locked on the top of the stairs.
"Not yet," Drew replied, then he walked out of the hall into the next room. This space had been cleared of everything except the chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling. The chandelier was woven with a thick veil of cobwebs that I doubt Betsy Ross could have stitched finer drapery.
This room, most likely used as a dining room, fused nicely with the family room in maintaining that open floor plan concept (a surefire way to boost resale value these days). Drew peered down at the far end of the family room and identified a large brick fireplace. It was the lone ornament in this otherwise gutted room, fully enveloped by a backdrop of exposed wall studs and ceiling joists.
Drew found the fireplace worthy of investigation and was about to pay a visit when Sofie summoned him back to the hallway.
"What's up?" Drew asked, poking his head back into the hall.
Sofie shined her light on the floor, spotlighting an unusual feature. At the threshold to the alcove was a large circular handle attached to the wood floor. Drew moved closer and knelt down, inspecting the floor surrounding the iron handle. He grasped it with his fingers and lifted carefully, opening a trap door. Jeff leaned over and shined his light into the hole, revealing a crudely built set of stairs.
"What is it?" Ethan asked.
"Basement, maybe?" Jeff said.
"Or a storm cellar," Sofie added.
"Well, whatever it is," Drew said, "it's worth a look, don't ya think?"
"I'm not going down there," Ethan said, shaking his head. "No way."
"Then stay here," Drew said. "Nobody's twisting your arm. You can keep Sofie company."
"Oh, so I'm not invited?" Sofie said, a tad agitated.
Drew shrugged. "I just assumed, that's all. You can come if you'd like."
"No," Sofie said, folding her arms. "I don't think I will."
"Suit yourself," Drew said. "C'mon, Jeff. Let's have a look."
"Do you want my infer-red goggles?" Ethan asked.
"It's in-fra-red," Sofie corrected him again.
Ethan nodded. "Yeah, that's what I said. Do you want them, Drew?"
"I'm good," Drew answered, then he descended the rickety stairs into the cellar, and Jeff reluctantly followed. At the bottom of the stairs they walked onto a dirt floor and could see that this was not a full basement. The cellar was maybe half the size of the first floor footprint, and the ceiling clearance was low. While Drew and Jeff had enough headroom to stand upright, Ethan most definitely would have not.
They looked around the cellar and noticed it was empty. No boxes. No storage bins. No decrepit pieces of furniture. Nothing. Although Drew noticed the floor was strangely uneven, and in the far corner there appeared to be a bit of a hump. Drew walked over to it and tapped the spot with his foot, then reached into his backpack and took out his hammer.
"Point the light here," he told Jeff, pointing at the hump in the earth, and then he knelt down on the ground and began digging with the hammer's claw. He dug for a few minutes and cleared out a small hole about six inches deep before his excavation was cut short by the pitter-patter of feet on the stairs behind them. Jeff spun around, pointing his flashlight, and spied Sofie at the bottom of the steps, a look of panic on her face.
"Drew!" she said, her voice quivering. "Someone's upstairs!"
Drew grabbed his backpack and ran up the stairs behind Sofie with Jeff right on his heels. The trio stumbled back into the hallway and found Ethan standing at the foot of the staircase. He was wearing his father's infrared goggles and scanned the stairwell for any signs of the paranormal.
"What happened?" Drew asked, still grasping his hammer.
"We heard something," Sofie answered. "It sounded like footsteps. Coming from upstairs."
"Are you sure?" Drew said, attempting to verify her account. He had made it pretty clear to the others he didn't believe in ghosts.
"Yes I'm sure," Sofie replied. "I know what footsteps sound like."
"Obviously," Drew said. "Were they walking on the floor, or the stairs, or what?"
"Well they certainly weren't walking on the ceiling!" she retorted.
"We don't know that," Ethan added, still scanning the stairwell.
"Look," Sofie continued, "it sounded like someone was walking across the floor. That's the best I can describe it."
Drew paused for a moment, then he stepped up next to Ethan and leaned closer. "See anything up there, SEAL Team?"
"Nothing," Ethan said. "Should we go up and take a look?"
Drew smirked. "My thinking exact. Let's go."
The Wildwood Gang cautiously moved forward and ascended the staircase one creaky step at a time. If they were trying to maintain the element of surprise, they lost it right from the get-go. Each wooden stair board cried out to the mysterious entity above, don't worry, we're coming, or perhaps they said: have patience, we'll be there in a minute. Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I don't speak creaky-stairs.
Ethan and his goggles led the way, followed by Drew, then Sofie, then Jeff. About halfway up the stairs they heard another noise and came to a screeching halt. It sounded like a loud thud, as if something had fallen over and slammed hard against the floor. But it was muffled just enough to deduce that its origin was the attic, the same attic that was supposedly haunted by the headless ghost of Charles Nichols.
"Maybe we should leave," Jeff suggested, hoping the others were in agreement.
"There's no such thing as ghosts," Drew repeated for the umpteenth time, although now there was the faintest hint of uncertainty in his voice, leading one to believe that he had made the comment not only to assure his friends but himself as well.
There was a weird energy that permeated the stairwell, gripping our heroes by the throat and taking the air right out of them. It was unsettling, to say the least, a type of disorientation, if you will. And it was unclear if this energy was a result of the spirits of the dead occupying the space, or if it was the kids' own fear manifesting into something a little chewier.
Ethan turned back over his shoulder and whispered to Drew. "What should we do?"
Drew hesitated, sensing a foreign agent enter his body. That agent was anxiety, and a wave of it swelled within, leading one to assume that his emotion chip was malfunctioning. Fortunately that chip went into self-repair mode, and within seconds his callous demeanor returned, snatching anxiety by the nape of the neck and beating it to a pulp.
"Keep going," was his response to Ethan, and he rallied his friends onward. Stuck firmly together like Velcro, they inched up the stairs until they reached the top, and were immediately presented with two doors: one on the left and one on the right, each slightly ajar.
"Which one?" Ethan asked.
Drew thought for a moment and formulated a plan. "Let's split up."
"Absolutely not!" Sofie said, her lips barely moving. "That never ends well. We stay together."
Drew relented, and together the Wildwood Gang mapped out the second floor. There were four bedrooms, all interconnected in a U shape. Entering through the door on the left, they passed through two rooms of equal size. Like most rooms in the cottage, the furniture had been cleared out, leaving only a massive amount of dust and cobwebs behind.
A short passageway connected the second bedroom with a third bedroom on the opposite side of the house. This room was the smallest of the four, with barely enough room for a twin bed and a dresser. It too was lacking in decor. And closet space.
Lastly, the small room connected to the master bedroom, by far the largest of the four. There were two items of interest here, the first being the lone piece of furniture, a narrow chair-side table with a round top. The flashlights had discovered it situated near the wall between the two windows. Why it was there, I have no idea. Whether it had any special significance, I still have no idea. It was just there.
The second item was a three-quarter-scale set of stairs at the far end of the room that climbed right up to the ceiling. It was unusual to see stairs dissolve into a ceiling like that, but upon further study, the gang determined this to be an access point. Or more importantly, the access point…
To the attic.
The place where Charles Nichols was killed.
"Is that where the ghost is?" Ethan whispered to the others.
"I bet it's where our treasure is," Drew said, working hard to contain his excitement. "Let's take a peek."
But before Drew could lift his foot from the floor, a second crash thundered directly above them. The four friends ducked in unison, bracing for impact as if the ceiling might cave in. They stood as still as statues, wondering what could have caused such a racket. Was it the ghost? Was it another group of treasure hunters?
The Wildwood Gang remained silent, like little mice without vocal chords (do mice even have vocal chords?), and just when they were about to breathe again, they heard footsteps overhead, moving across the attic toward the hatch in the ceiling.
"We should get out of here," Jeff said, barely above a whisper. Fear had stolen his voice, and he strained to get the words out.
Despite his fascination with the ghost, Ethan agreed, as did Sofie. But Drew wouldn't have it. He wanted the treasure, and he believed the key to unlocking this mystery lay in the attic above. But there was something, or someone, standing in their way. And as they waited for that something or someone to make its next move, the attic hatch slowly began to open.
All four flashlights homed in on the opening in the ceiling, and all four sets of eyes were locked on that very same spot. Every fiber of their being told them to run, to get out of there as fast as humanly possible. But they were spellbound, and simply could not move.
Without warning, a booted foot burst from the shadows of the open hatch and stomped down ferociously on the top step. The leather of the old boot was worn beyond wear, and the pant leg was torn and ragged to the knee. It was as if the leg had been zombified, and that was more than enough for the Wildwood Gang to call it a night.
They all broke for the exit at the same time, and with flashlights shining in all directions, Ethan and his infrared goggles got a face full of white hot sunshine. He staggered back a few steps, blinded by the light (literally, not figuratively), as the others shot past him and bolted for the stairs.
Even in the darkness Ethan saw spots, but he found his bearings just enough to stagger out of the bedroom and pursue his friends down the stairs. The thought of Charles Nichols's reanimated corpse breathing down his neck prompted him to take three steps at a time, and how he managed not to fall and break his neck is a mystery.
But Ethan's sheer will to survive kept him upright, and then a huge surge of adrenaline launched him from the fourth step to the floor. It was an impressive jump, especially in the dark, and he might've scored a perfect ten had he stuck the landing. Well, technically speaking, he did stick the landing. As a matter of fact, he stuck his foot right through the floorboards. Yes, I kid you not.
Although in hindsight, you have to admit it's not much of a surprise. I mean, here's a kid of immense size, jumping from three feet up, straight down to weary floorboards as old as Methuselah. What did you expect?
Not to mention, karma was bound to kick in at some point. They weren't supposed to be here. They were told to stay away. Yet here they were, making it highly unlikely the four of them would escape without at least a couple of scrapes. And speaking of scrapes, Ethan had a nasty one on his right shin.
Y'see, there was a hole in the subfloor, allowing Ethan's foot to break through the planks and splinter the wood. Jagged pieces of board tore his pant leg and scraped up his shin pretty badly.
But Ethan wasn't too concerned with the health of his leg. He was more concerned with being stuck in the floor and unable to escape from the headless ghost of Charles Nichols.
He struggled frantically to break free from the clutches of the busted floor, but it was no use. It was as if his leg were caught in an industrial-strength bear trap, and he cried out to his friends for help. They had put some distance between themselves and Ethan, but all three heard his plea for help, and all three slammed on the brakes as they passed the brick fireplace. Together they ran back for their fallen friend, knowing they had little time to spare.
"I'm stuck!" Ethan hollered. "Help me get loose! He's coming for me!"
Sofie tried to calm him down as Drew went to work on his leg.
"I need more light," Drew barked, and Jeff accommodated.
They could faintly hear the sound of footsteps slowly descending the attic stairs, and panic made it difficult to accomplish the objective. Even Drew was frazzled, upset with himself that he could not free Ethan.
"Hurry, Drew!" Sofie pleaded, the footsteps echoing in her head like a ticking time bomb.
"I'm trying!" Drew growled, as he tried one tactic after another. His frustration was evident, for each time he tried to lift the broken board, it dug deeper into Ethan's leg. But the adrenaline was numbing the pain, and all Ethan could visualize was the ghost standing behind him, ready to do whatever ghosts do to people whose legs are stuck in a floor.
Jeff kept his eyes focused on Ethan's leg, but his ears were tuned to the noises upstairs. He could hear more footsteps. In fact, it sounded like two sets of footsteps, which suddenly fell silent at the door to the master bedroom.
"Use your hammer!" Ethan demanded. "Smash the boards! I don't care. Just get me out of here!"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Drew said. "It could make it worse."
And at that very moment, something unexpected happened. A ray of light sprayed down upon them from the top of the stairs. Drew squinted and turned his head, while Jeff and Sofie shielded their eyes with their hands.
"Don't even think about using that hammer!" came a booming voice from above, bouncing between the walls of the stairwell like a game of Pong. Normally this type of start would've paralyzed them; maybe turned them white as a hospital sheet. But fortunately for the Wildwood Gang, they recognized the voice.
It was Greg.
Jeff pointed his flashlight at the stairs as Greg bounded down the steps with Cody behind him. The Wildwood Gang stood by dumbfounded as Greg and Cody immediately attended to Ethan.
"What were you doing up there?" Jeff said, surprised, yet relieved, to see corporeal bodies instead of the headless ghost of Charles Nichols. However, the mouths of those corporeal bodies did not give him the courtesy of a reply. They were preoccupied with extracting Ethan from the floor.
"Were you trying to scare us?" Sofie asked, plainly stating the obvious.
"Trying?" Greg said with a raised eyebrow. "I'd say we were successful there." He glanced at Drew and extended his hand. "Give me that hammer."
Drew reluctantly handed Greg the hammer and watched as he used the claw to pry the broken plank from the floor. That strategy made sense, Drew thought to himself. Removing the floorboard would allow the broken piece to be taken out with ease, and that's exactly what Greg did.
With the boards removed, they gently lifted Ethan's leg out of the hole and rested it comfortably on the floor. Greg slowly pulled Ethan's pant leg back to the knee and surveyed the damage to his shin.
"You'll survive," Greg assured him.
"Lucky for you guys," Drew said, nodding at Greg and Cody. "That little prank of yours could've killed him. What if he fell down the stairs and broke his neck?"
"Don't try to pin this on us!" Greg argued, jumping to his own defense. "You kids aren't supposed to be here. You've been told to stay away, but did you listen?" Greg turned to Jeff. "You're lucky I don't tell your dad. Or Mr. Heard." Then he turned back to Drew. "And you, mind who you're talking to."
"I was just making a point," Drew said.
"Go make it someplace else," Greg retorted. "Ethan, can you walk?"
Ethan answered in the affirmative, and then Greg and Cody helped him to his feet.
"How did you know that we'd be here?" Jeff asked, curious as to how the farmhands cracked their secret plan.
"We knew you couldn't resist," Greg said. "Not after hearing the story about the ghost. Or the treasure."
"Yeah, but how'd you know it would be tonight?" Jeff said.
"We didn't," Cody chuckled. "We've been here each night for the last week. It was only a matter of time before you showed."
"Did you see the real ghost?" Ethan inquired, hoping for validation of a true, honest-to-goodness haunting.
"No," Cody replied. "Just Greg and me."
"Nothing at all?" Ethan said.
Cody shook his head. "Sorry. Nothing. Maybe he's on vacation."
"What about the treasure?" Drew said. "I'm sure it's in the attic. Did you see anything?"
"Nothing in the attic but cobwebs," Greg confirmed. Then he helped Ethan along through the family room until he could walk on his own.
"Nothing but cobwebs, my butt," Drew whispered to Jeff. "I know there's something up there."
Jeff nodded, but it wasn't the treasure he was thinking about. There was something else on his mind, and had there been ample light in the room, Drew might've seen the distress on his face.
"Did you notice anything… strange in that room?" Jeff asked him.
"The one with the stairs."
Drew shook his head. "No. Why?"
"I thought I saw something."
"I didn't see anything," Drew said.
"When we ran out," Jeff said. "I thought I saw someone… standing in the corner."
"No," Jeff said. "It looked like… a woman."
"It's your imagination," Drew said, then he hurried after the others. Jeff did the same, and they followed Greg and Cody past the brick fireplace and out the back door by the kitchen.
Having vacated Kent Cottage, the kids felt as though they could breathe again. But as they turned the corner toward the front of the structure, Greg stopped abruptly and put his arm out to halt the advance.
"What's wrong?" Drew said, but Greg did not answer. He stood motionless at the front of the pack, his eyes staring directly ahead. It was clear he was privy to information that had yet to be disseminated to his charges, but that exclusivity was short-lived.
With the aid of the moonlight, they followed Greg's eye line across the clearing and identified a wraith-like shadow hovering at the edge of the field. Its body was fluid and shapeless, and after a moment's hesitation, it floated toward the trespassers like a fog rolling over the land.
"Hammer," Greg muttered to Drew, requesting the tool for a second time. But when Drew presented it to him, the shadow stopped, and the standoff commenced.
Greg choked the life out of that hammer, waiting for the entity to make a move, but the shadow held its position. Then Cody stepped up beside Greg and did the sensible thing, shining his flashlight at the specter.
Six pairs of healthy lungs were siphoned of oxygen as Cody's flashlight revealed the identity of their mysterious stalker. It was not the ghost of Charles Nichols. It was something much worse.
It was Mr. Heard.
The Wildwood Gang looked on in terror, knowing they were in deep doo-doo. They knew Heard was not to be trifled with. He stood over six feet tall, was slim yet toned, and he spoke in guttural sounds so fierce he might've been part jungle cat. Even his own facial muscles were afraid of him because they never smiled.
He wore brown dungarees, patched on one knee, a pair of tan work boots, a flannel shirt with a flannel overcoat, and a western-style fedora that had seen better days. Add in some dust, grime, and dirty fingernails, and the ensemble was complete. Essentially, he resembled a grizzled Clint Eastwood, minus the orangutan.
Mr. Heard reached into the pocket of his overcoat and took out a small flashlight, placed it under his chin, then turned it on, illuminating his face.
"Got my own, thanks," he grumbled. It was the polite way of telling Cody to get his flashlight out of his face before he ripped the lad's spine out and beat him with it. Cody acquiesced immediately and lowered his flashlight. Heard studied the lot of them with eyes sharper than Ginsu knives. "What are y'all doin' out here?"
That was the million-dollar question for which the Wildwood Gang only had a five-cent answer, and as those words sent a shiver down Jeff's spine, he realized that Drew's supply list was missing one critical item: a change of underwear.
No one responded to the question. Especially not the Wildwood Gang. They had had enough confrontations with Mr. Heard to know it was better to remain silent; and Cody, being the junior farmhand, generally let Greg do the talking. And normally Greg would've answered his boss directly, but he wasn't expecting to see him here, so he stumbled around inside his own brain trying to come up with an explanation that didn't sound ridiculous.
But since Greg's reply wasn't forthcoming, Heard said: "What, am I speaking Dutch?"
"W-we were just giving them a tour," Greg stammered, trying to spit out some sort of an answer. But he knew immediately that of all the possible answers he could've given, this was by far the lamest. And Heard thought the same, so Greg backtracked just a bit. "What I meant is, the kids have been talking up this treasure, and we knew they'd do something stupid like try to break into the place, so we figured we'd just nip it in the bud and bring them out here, supervised, of course, and show them that's there's no treasure."
Despite the crisp air of this lovely autumn evening, Greg was sweating like a lobster in a deli tank. He waited for some sort of response from Heard, but the foreman just stood there and groaned softly. Then he shined his light on the cottage for a few moments before turning it back on Greg and the others.
"Is that all?" Heard said. The tone of his voice was weary and unconvinced.
"Yessir," Greg replied, lacing his words with a touch of false confidence.
Heard groaned some more, then he said: "Fine. You and Cody take Sofie and Ethan back to the main house."
"What about Jeff and Drew?" Greg asked after a moment's hesitation.
"These two are gonna re-board that window," Heard said.
"Right now?" Drew said incredulously.
Heard nodded. "Start hammering."
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.