The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Sixteen: The Ghost in the Attic
Getting to Wildwood Farm had never really been a problem for members of the Wildwood Gang. Drew's house was in walking distance, so he could come and go as he pleased. Ethan lived less than three miles from the farm, while Sofie resided two miles further in Spencer Ridge. But the families were quite friendly with one another and carpooling was always an option, and the chance to unload their children at Ron and Sasha's doorstep for hours on end was too good an opportunity to pass up.
But this neighborly goodwill had its drawbacks, especially if you were part of a covert mission requiring absolute stealth, resulting in the blatant defiance of the farm's proprietor and misdemeanor breaking-and-entering on a premises (e.g. a haunted house) at the outer rim of said proprietor's land.
Translated into middle grade English: Sofie, Ethan, and Ben needed to get to Wildwood Farm without being seen by Jeff's parents. And it was likely that neither Sofie's parents nor Ethan's parents, or even Ben's parents, would be willing to just drop the kids at the end of the road without asking all sorts of questions that might jeopardize the mission.
So the plan called for Ben and Sofie to get a ride to Ethan's house on Saturday, sometime around late afternoon, and from Ethan's house the three would ride their bikes to the deli where they would supposedly meet Jeff and Drew for dinner, followed by dessert at the ice cream parlor and game time at the arcade. This scheme would hopefully keep their parents at bay long enough for them to complete their work at Kent Cottage.
The real plan would entail them riding to the deli for sandwiches and continuing on to Wildwood Farm where they would stash their bikes at the clubhouse before heading on to Kent Cottage. It was the best they could come up with, and although it had all the earmarks for disaster, one could argue that every cockamamie thing the Wildwood Gang did had the earmarks for disaster. That's what made them so exciting. That's what made them the Wildwood Gang.
So with sandwiches in hand, Sofie, Ethan, and Ben raced from the deli to the clubhouse at Wildwood Farm, navigating the darkened woods with flashlights, and seeking shelter from prying eyes within the sanctuary of their tree house.
Jeff had been tasked with providing two items of necessity: a sledgehammer and bolt cutters. But when the kids climbed into the tree house, they only found the sledgehammer, accompanied by a note.
Use the back door, it read. Greg never chained it. Just confirmed. --- Jeff.
Ben nodded and smiled. "That makes life a little easier. We can walk right in."
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea," Sofie said nervously. "I don't feel right about smashing up their fireplace."
"You won't be smashing up anything," Ben said. "It'll be me and Ethan. Besides, we may not have to use the sledgehammer. There might be some loose bricks or something."
Sofie didn't say anything. She didn't exactly jump for joy, but she didn't voice any further objections. She sat down on the floor and ate her sandwich, as did Ben and Ethan, and when they had finished, went over the plan one more time.
At 7:15 PM, they grabbed their backpacks and descended the ladder and began their journey through the woods to Kent Cottage. All seemed quiet on Wildwood Farm as a light rain began to fall. The kids had not prepared for bad weather, having neglected to check the forecast, and could only pray that it would not get any worse.
With Ben in the lead, they successfully traversed the woods without any mishaps, although Ethan complained about the sledgehammer, noting several times that his arms were getting tired. Fortunately it was the ten-pounder and not the twenty-pounder, otherwise it might not have made the trip.
When they had left the woods, Ben offered to carry it the rest of the way, and Ethan was relieved, shaking out his right arm as if he had just done too many push-ups. Sofie stepped up to light their path, making sure to keep her flashlight low. They did not want to trigger any alarms back at the main house, or the barn for that matter. They knew that Mr. Heard was at the Flower and Garden Festival with his mother, and Jeff was working diligently to occupy his father. But the kids couldn't afford to be sloppy, and they executed their mission with the utmost precision. Well, as precise as fifth-graders could be, I guess.
The rain continued to fall, and the thin cloud cover did its best to block out the stars. But an unusually radiant moon found a way to penetrate the hazy sky and wash the open field in a yellow glow. The light pounded Kent Cottage from the far side, sending a tidal wave of shadow over our heroes as they emerged into the clearing.
Ben, Sofie, and Ethan stared up at the monstrous structure, and anyone having second thoughts suddenly had thirds and fourths. But Ben shined his light at the base of the cottage and led Sofie and Ethan around to the back door as Jeff had instructed. To their delight, they found the chain on the ground and the door unlocked, and Ben carefully pushed it open. It made the same loud creaking sound as last time, and the same rush of cold air shot through the open doorway, attacking the kids.
Ben turned to Sofie and Ethan with a reassuring look before stepping over the threshold into the cottage, and when all three of them had moved into the kitchen, they shined their lights around the room, checking for any unwanted visitors.
"Where's the fireplace?" Ben asked.
"This way," Sofie said, taking the lead. She let her flashlight guide the way across the kitchen to the family room, and there on the left wall lay the brick fireplace. It was constructed primarily out of red brick, with a hearth layered four bricks high, and an oak mantelpiece covering a firebox wide enough for Santa Claus to fit through. The pit was caked with so much soot it would've taken the chimney sweep a week to clean it.
Ben placed his backpack on the floor, unzipped it, and removed two battery-powered lanterns, positioning one at each end of the hearth. He turned them on, showering the space in light, and then he, Sofie, and Ethan got to work inspecting the mantelpiece.
"What exactly are we looking for?" Ethan asked as he shined his flashlight along the underside of the mantel.
"Anything loose," Ben said, taking hold of the mantel with both hands and wiggling it. "Bricks, wood, anything." But despite his efforts, the oak mantel was secure and offered no give.
Collectively they examined every last brick, not only in the hearth, but also inside the firebox. The results were the same. Not a single loose brick among the lot. The masonry work was superb, and after more than a hundred years, it was clear that Kent Cottage had shielded it well.
Of course, the kids had no idea how many renovations had been done to the fireplace over the years, if any at all, but even the best craftsmanship needs a touch-up every once in a while, so who knows?
Ben took his flashlight and climbed inside the firebox and shined the light up the flue, making one last ditch effort before rolling out the heavy artillery.
"What are you doing?" Sofie asked.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" Ben said, getting a tad snippy.
"Charles said it was in the mantel, not the chimney," she reminded him.
"You're right," Ben said as he climbed out of the firebox and off the hearth. "And the mantel won't budge, so we go to Plan B."
"The hammer?" Ethan said with a wince.
Ben nodded and lifted the sledgehammer off the floor. "Stand back," he said, then he positioned himself in the middle of the hearth, planted his feet securely, and swung the hammer upward into the mantelpiece. It was not a hard swing, and it only rattled the mantel briefly, but the reverb echoed throughout the room, making it sound louder than it actually was.
"I think you have to hit it harder," Ethan suggested.
"I know," Ben said. "I'm getting there." Then he swung a little harder the second time, and a little harder the third time. On the fourth swing, he swung a little too hard and dislodged the entire mantelpiece, causing it to burst from its resting place. It flipped in midair, successfully executing a double axel that would've made Dorothy Hamill proud, and then came crashing down on the hearth with a deafening sound that sent all three kids running for cover.
The falling oak destroyed one of the lanterns and launched the other across the room, but the light remained on, reflecting off the side wall and leaving the far side of the room in shadow. When the literal dust had settled, they moved closer to inspect their handiwork, and Ben shined his flashlight along the brick overhang that, only a few moments ago, had supported the mantel.
"See anything?" Ethan asked.
"Nothing unusual," Ben said, running his fingers along the bricks. "I don't even know what I'm supposed to be looking for."
"Jewels? Money? Gold Doubloons?" Ethan said.
"Probably a hidden compartment," Sofie said, adding her flashlight to the mix. Together with Ben, they scoured the area for any signs of a secret compartment or tiny alcove that could be used to house the treasure.
"I don't get it," Ben said after another minute of searching. "There's nothing here. Looks like your boy Charles sent us on a wild goose chase."
The three of them stood there in silence, wondering what to do next. They wondered and thought and pondered, but none of them knew where to look. If it wasn't in the mantel, then where was it? Had Charles been wrong? Had someone already claimed the treasure years ago? The room had grown eerily quiet as these thoughts raced through their brains, but the stillness was nerve-rackingly shattered by a horrifying wail that shot out from the kitchen.
Ben jumped a mile, nearly losing his shoes and his pants, while Ethan and Sofie went rigid, their faces losing so much color they were almost translucent. Ben quickly gathered his wits and spun around to face their assailant, but the only terror to confront was a cackling laugh that taunted them from the shadows. Seconds later, a figure appeared before them, taking the form of someone they did not expect.
He laughed at them, more than pleased with the results of his frightful assault.
"What are you doing here?" Sofie growled, her fear quickly turning to anger.
"Oh relax there, Stacey," he mocked. "I'm just checking up on your progress." He turned to Ben and nonchalantly asked: "Find anything yet?"
"Nothing," Ben said with a demeanor that lacked any sense of surprise.
"I thought the old man said it was in the mantel?" Damien said.
"He did," Ben replied. "But there's nothing here. We checked all over."
The casual nature of this exchange between Damien and Ben did not go unnoticed by Sofie. She stared at Ben with interrogating eyes, and when he met her gaze, he was forced to look away.
"Ben, what's going on?" she said.
He shrugged. "Just business."
Sofie paused and looked at Damien, observing the devious grin on his face. Then she turned back to Ben, who could still not make eye contact with her. "What are you talking about?" she said.
"Allow me to explain," Damien said, stepping forward with an arrogance so pungent he could've marketed it as a deodorant. "Y'see, Ben here is my cousin. And you guys got played."
Ethan and Sofie looked at one another, mouths agape, each feeling as if they just got sucker-punched. Sofie shook her head in disbelief, and looked at Ben again, this time her eyes pleading with him to say otherwise.
"Sorry," he said, with barely a hint of remorse.
Sofie's eyes filled with tears as the pain of her splintering heart began to overwhelm her. "How could you?" she said, her voice trembling.
"I had to," was his response. "You were my ticket in. Don't feel bad about it. Lots of girls fall for me."
"You used me!" she yelled, as all the electrically charged ions in her body joined hands to lash out at him in unison.
"Oh cry me a river!" he fired back. "You liked it."
Sofie's blood boiled to the level of nuclear, and though I'm reminded of an old saying, something about fury and a woman scorned, what was about to take place simply wouldn't do it justice. For the internal mechanism buried deep within Sofie's soul took the initiative to disable her dampening receptors, and in yet another un-Sofie-like maneuver, she turned on the afterburners and charged at Ben.
If it hadn't been for Ethan, somebody would've gotten seriously hurt. But the man-boy used his cat-like reflexes (yes, I'm being generous here) and snagged her in midflight, wrapping her up in his large arms like a giant python. Sofie struggled to break free, but Ethan was much too strong, and her erratic wrenching drew a hearty laugh from both Damien and Ben.
"Look," Damien said. "We came to find the treasure and get rich. And while we appreciate your help in getting us in, we're done with you now. So get lost!"
"Wait a second," Ben interjected. "We can't let them go. They'll run and tell Jeff."
"So what do we do with them?" Damien said.
Ben thought about it for a moment. "Ethan has a rope in his backpack. We can tie them up for now."
"That's unlawful imprisonment!" Sofie informed him in the nastiest tone she could muster. "It's against the law!"
"It's only temporary," Ben assured her. "We'll let you go when we're done."
As Ben reached for the backpack, Sofie turned to Ethan and whispered. "Why did you bring a rope?"
Ethan shrugged. "Drew always says, you never know when you're gonna need a rope."
Ben took hold of Ethan's backpack, reached inside, and removed a long rope that had been coiled quite neatly. But before he could take any further action, there came a loud crash from the other side of the house, and the four of them froze instantly.
Nary a muscle was so much as flexed, and the only movement came from their eyeballs, which darted back and forth at their fellow treasure hunters. It didn't take long to realize that none of them was responsible for the aforementioned commotion.
The noise was reminiscent of something inorganic bouncing down a wooden staircase. Neither Damien nor Ben had been inside Kent Cottage before, so they had no mental map to work from. But Sofie and Ethan knew exactly where the nearest staircase was located, and both glanced in that direction, wondering if they might be getting a visit from something unnatural.
"What was that?" Damien said.
Ben gestured to the dining room area. "Sounded like it came from over there."
Damien paused, then he looked at Ben. "Let's have a look."
Ethan shook his head. "Uh-uh. I'm not going over there."
Damien reached into his pocket and took out a pair of brass knuckles and slid them over his fingers. "You do what I tell you, or I'll pound you."
"Brass knucks?" Ben smirked. "Where did you get those?"
"They belong to my Old Man," Damien said. "Stole 'em from the shed."
Sofie leaned over to Ethan. "No surprise there," she whispered.
"What was that?" Damien spat, assuming she had said something derogatory about him.
"I told him to do what you say," she fibbed. "Nobody needs to get hurt."
Damien turned the heat to low and nodded in agreement. "Okay. Right on. Lead the way." He held up his fist at Ethan, flashing the brass knuckles as a reminder of the pain that awaited him if he tried to get cute.
Ethan frowned at him, but that was the extent of his opposition. He followed Sofie through the dining room to the staircase that led to the second floor. When all four of them had crowded around the base of the stairs (avoiding the hole in the floor), they shined their flashlights into the alcove and found a small piece of furniture lying on the floor. Sofie recognized it as the narrow chair-side table from the master bedroom.
"How did that get down here?" Ethan asked rhetorically.
"It must have fallen down the stairs somehow," Ben said. "Maybe it was too close to the edge."
"That's impossible," Sofie said. "That table was near the window in the bedroom. It couldn't walk itself over here."
"So what are you saying?" Damien questioned. "Somebody threw it down here?"
"I don't know how it got here," Sofie said, defending her position. "I'm just telling you where it was. And now it's here."
"Maybe it's Charles Nichols's mother," Ethan said with a slight shiver. "Maybe we woke her up, and she's trying to get rid of us."
"Who is Charles Nichols's mother?" Damien inquired.
"She's the ghost that haunts this place," Ben chuckled. He started to make spooky little ghost noises mocking the idea, but Damien quickly shushed him.
"Do you hear that?" Damien said, diverting their attention to a soft noise coming from the upstairs. The four of them pushed closer to the stairwell and listened intently, and as their eyes widened and hearts raced, it became clear that they all heard something that didn't quite fit.
"It sounds like crying," Ben noted.
"I hear that too," Sofie said. "It sounds like a little girl."
They were right on both counts. Somewhere upstairs they could hear the muffled sobs of a young girl. Not the lioness-like threats from Charles Nichols's mother, or the muted nothings from Charles Nichols's headless corpse. These were the tearful cries of a young girl not more than eight years old, and what she was doing and where she was doing it from, could not be determined from their present coordinates.
"Let's have a look," Damien told Ben. But even Ben seemed a little hesitant.
"Maybe that's not a good idea," Ben said.
"Maybe we should get out of here," Ethan suggested.
Again, Damien threatened him with the brass knuckles. "Clearly there's somebody up there. Maybe she knows about the treasure."
"If it's coming from the attic," Sofie said, "it might be something much worse."
"You mean a ghost?" Damien laughed. "There's no such thing as ghosts. But there is such thing as treasure, and whoever is up there knows we're getting close." He signaled to Ethan to lead the way, and after a reassuring nod from Sofie, Ethan reluctantly climbed the stairs.
Sofie clung tightly to him while Ben and Damien followed, and as they neared the top, the sounds of sobbing grew louder. Ethan's feet felt like cinder blocks, and he was forced to pull himself skyward via the handrail.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Ethan turned right into the master bedroom, and as he crossed the threshold, gave the space a once-over with his flashlight. The room was empty, but the sobbing persisted, and it became obvious that those muffled cries could only be coming from one place.
Damien and Ben acknowledged as much, and with a quick wave of his brass-laced fingers, Damien instructed Ethan to go first. But Ethan shook his head and backed away.
"You can punch me in the face a hundred times with those things," he said. "There's no way I'm going up there."
It's unclear whether Damien actually considered punching Ethan a hundred times, because Ben tapped his cousin on the shoulder and suggested they go up to the attic themselves. Damien did not answer right away. He did not like to be defied by his victims, and though he did not believe in ghosts, it was the safe play for Ethan to go first and test that theory. But Ethan offered no give.
With the clock ticking, Damien had no choice but to relent. He gnashed his teeth at Ethan and then followed Ben up the stairs to the attic. But the wooden steps shrieked in agony, as if being stood upon brought such unbearable pain. Their banshee-like wails obliterated the concept of stealth, alerting any attic dwellers to the presence of trespassers.
As Ben's head grazed the ceiling, the sobbing stopped, and he looked back at Damien, curious if there would be any course-altering plans. The pores in Ben's face seeped apprehension, but Damien waved him onward, so he placed both hands on the access panel in the ceiling and slowly pushed it open.
Ben crept into the attic like a cat burglar, with his far more anxious cousin behind him. Damien was so obsessed with finding the treasure, as were the ants in his pants, that he nearly tripped up Ben when they entered the attic.
The cousins shined their flashlights all over the room, taking a mental inventory of all that they saw. For the most part, the attic was empty. No furniture, no headless corpses, not an inkling of habitation, with the exception of spiders, of course. These eight-legged squatters had carved out accommodations within the abundance of cobwebs that hung from the pitched ceiling like curtains at the theater.
The gaps in the dusty floorboards looked like they might have claimed a trinket or two over the years, and the vent grate above the baseboard was hanging on by a single screw. Though the window at the back of the room had been boarded up tightly, its infamous brother at the front of the house had suffered a different fate. Having been broken numerous times, the casing was partially dislodged on one side, preventing the plywood from resting flush against the wall, and allowing a draft to trickle into the attic.
Ethan watched with great interest from the room below, his eyes locked on the hole in the ceiling. Seeing an opportunity for escape, he leaned over and whispered his plan in Sofie's ear. She agreed wholeheartedly, and the two of them slowly inched themselves to the doorway.
Unaware of their captives' imminent departure, Damien and Ben moved deeper into the room, analyzing every square foot of real estate for clues. The attic floorboards were just as creaky as the stairs, and even the lightest of feet couldn't prevent the inevitable. It had become clear that another presence had infiltrated the attic, and the strange voice that welcomed the boys echoed not only throughout the room, but the floor below.
"Hello, hello," the voice called out to them. It was an older woman's voice, somewhat sad, somewhat hollow, and somewhat protective.
Sofie grabbed Ethan's sleeve and pulled him back.
"We should get out of here," he murmured through his teeth.
"Not yet," she said, tuning her ears to the frequency in the attic.
"Come in," the voice said to the boys. "Don't be afraid."
"Who's there?" Damien wheezed, the fear stealing the words before they could escape his lips.
"I know what you seek," the woman said. "The treasure is here. Come closer."
Damien nudged Ben, but Ben shook his head rapidly.
"Move closer to the window," the woman hissed. "There's something I want to show you."
"Let's get out of here!" Ben cried, pushing his way past his cousin.
"Where is my son???" the voice bellowed. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY SON???"
Like dogs escaping a bath, Damien shot out of the attic and chased Ben past Sofie and Ethan, and down the stairs to the first floor. Ethan tried to follow, but Sofie held him back.
"Are you crazy?" Ethan said.
"Wait a second," she answered. "Listen."
The only sound Ethan could hear was that of Damien and Ben departing Kent Cottage. But a few moments later he heard movement in the attic. It was a combination of shuffling and thumping, followed by footsteps that grew more pronounced as they approached the attic door. Sofie shined her flashlight on the attic stairs, revealing the presence of two very familiar faces.
"Hey guys!" Jeff said as he followed Drew down the stairs. Ethan's jaw fell open at the sight of his friends.
"I thought for sure you would've run off too," Drew smirked, rather content with the end result of his labor.
"I recognized Aunt Patty's voice," Sofie said. "How did you pull that off?"
"We recorded her with my Grandpa's tablet," Jeff said, holding up the device for all to see. "He never uses it so I borrowed it. We hid in the attic crawl space and cranked the volume and made it all freaky distorted and stuff."
"And the little girl?" Sofie inquired. "Was that Emily?"
Jeff nodded. "Yeah. I had to pay her five bucks, but she did a good job."
"How long have you been planning this?" Ethan asked, a little perturbed he hadn't been told about it.
"We started last night," Drew replied, "once we made the connection between Damien and Ben."
Sofie looked away, refusing to meet Drew's eyes. But despite his desire for vindication, he made sure not to emphasize that last point. Instead, he congratulated his friends for defeating Damien Cartwright once again.
Suddenly there came a loud cry for help, but this time it was not the ghost in the attic. It sounded like it had come from outside the cottage, but the precise location could not be determined. The cries persisted, and after the third or fourth plea, the kids were finally able to identify the source.
"That sounds like Ben," Sofie said. "I think he's in trouble."
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.