The Sealed Building

May 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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When I was a child, the school which I attended was peculiar yet wonderfully interesting. Whether it was the fact that it was surrounded in places by overgrown bushes and opposite a strangely crooked wood which ignited my imagination, or perhaps the funny, eccentric, and sometimes fearsome teachers and kids which populated it, I do not know. I’m not sure of when it was built, but it certainly stood out from the houses and quiet streets which surrounded it, covered as it was in a bright fiery red paint which drew your eyes to it immediately. There I went from the age of five up until I was eleven or twelve, and like most children, I have both fond and cruel memories of it.

Each day with a rucksack on my back, I would wander past the crooked wood and wave to the ‘lollipop lady’ Mrs Collins – a kind old woman who’s job it was to stop traffic with her bright yellow sign, letting us cross in safety – and after meeting my friends, walk through the rusted brown gates into one of two playgrounds.

It was rumoured that in the past the two grounds existed to separate boys from girls – both an understandable and utterly outdated concept. By the time I had went to the school, the first playground had been assigned for those aged five to eight, the second for those aged eight and up. In the older kids’ playground there lay a small red brick building which stood on its own, disconnected from the main school complex. It had long since fallen into disuse, and in fact had been sealed from prying eyes, its doors and windows walled up with stone and mortar making it impossible to see what was inside.

Its purpose seemed a bit of a mystery as most of the teachers seemed to skirt around the topic entirely, but of course stories spread amongst the wild imaginations of children, and in my school this fondness for outlandish tales of tragedy and forbidden places often led to bizarre rumours and whispers, particularly pertaining to the sealed building – obscurity is a fertile ground for the fantastical ruminations of youth.

When me and my and friends were in the younger playground, we would sometimes sneak down a narrow passageway which would lead to the other and peek around the corner. There we would see the older kids playing football or just hanging around – it is amusing how younger children look to their older peers – thinking that they seemed to be having so much more fun than us. But before we would be chased away by the janitor or a passing teacher, my eyes would always lead to that sealed building. There was something lonely about it, isolated, and while it was surrounded by the yells and vibrancy of a school yard, its appearance suggested a grave silence to me.

Some of the older kids liked to scare themselves and us, and told us dramatically that it had been used as a science department and that there had been a hideous accident there, one which had produced strange and gruesome things which had to be kept from the world – even as a child of eight I knew made up nonsense when I heard it. Then there was the account that it had been a previous and rather brutal head teacher’s office decades earlier, and that he had died there in a fire. His ghost obviously still haunted the place and it was better that the vengeful old sod be contained there, fuming at his desk as children enjoyed themselves and played nearby – again, utter garbage.

There was, however, one account of why the place had been abandoned which seemed more plausible to me. The building was in fact, a toilet. Yes, a normal toilet. No frills, no secret laboratories, no dead spirits of an overbearing head teacher. It had simply been sealed up when new facilities were installed in the school to stop the children from climbing inside and getting up to mischief. But yet, despite this mundane explanation, there were still in fact tales to be told about the red bricked, disconnected building in the older kids’ playground.

Although I had heard the stories, it wasn’t until I was in my fourth year at the school that I became intimately and, at the time, uncomfortably involved with it. The older kids’ playground was flanked on three sides by a rectangular section of the school itself, with the fourth side separated from neighbouring houses by a mouldy and dark red wall. It was isolated from the other playground – other than the aforementioned passageway – and, to further the feeling of imprisonment, was characterised by tall metal fencing which rose up in places where a brave classmate might have attempted their great escape. Yet, there was one old gate which did allow access of sorts, but like prison guards, the teachers tended to check on it regularly.

There, in the corner of the grounds, lay the old building. Its windows were indeed enclosed in brick, as were its two doors, but the roof seemed unusual to me, being flat in places and surely gathering puddles of rainwater during the wetter seasons. I was, at that age – and embarrassingly still to this day – terrified by heights and it was much to my horror when I discovered that climbing up onto the roof of the old toilets was seen as a rites of passage of some sort. Don’t misunderstand me, we weren’t forced to go up there, but children can be cruel and when someone new to that playground showed weakness, or fear, this would often result in them being picked on.

Over the coming weeks I watched as each of my friends climbed up onto the roof when the opportunity presented itself, dangling their legs over the sides nonchalantly once up there; one by one claiming their right to be in the older playground, while I succumbed to ever increasing taunts about my fear and cowardice. Don’t disbelieve me when I say, I did try. Several times a ball would be kicked accidentally onto the roof and my classmates would turn to me to retrieve it. I even made it up the side of an old drainpipe on a few occasions, far enough to reach my hand up and over to touch the roof’s surface. Yet, each time, I would fail. Fear would grip me and with each admission of defeat, the name calling and embarrassment intensified.

I can trace back a curious, and probably detrimental, aspect of my personality to that time. You see, failure in front of strangers to this day does not bother me, but friends, family, even acquaintances? The very idea makes me break out in a cold sweat. Later in life I followed the stereotypical path of chasing fame as a teenager and I would have no problem playing in bands in front of those I did not know, but put a familiar face in the audience and my nerves would take hold. The stakes of failure would be raised that much higher, in my mind at least.

For this reason I chose an odd time to truly face my fear. One day after school, I waited outside the gates, watching as the other children slowly syphoned out of the two playgrounds, kicking their feet through the autumn leaves. Parents escorted the youngest of my fellow students, while those of an older age walked with their classmates – some eagerly, others not so – making their way down the hill, passed the woods, to their homes in the surrounding area.

As the school became ever emptier, and the teachers themselves began to leave, I walked down the street, entering the gardens at the back of the building. I always found the rear of my school to be an interesting place. It consisted of shrubs, bushes, and an old ash football pitch. Our teachers never seemed to use the area for anything, and we were actively encouraged to keep clear of it. Again, there were stories amongst the students that a child had been abducted while playing there years previously, whether that was true or not, I do not know.

Once I was as certain as I could be that everyone was gone, I sneaked through the bushes up a small incline to the rear of the playground. There, embedded in the wall was the narrow brown gate which the teachers kept a watchful eye on, but as far as I knew was never used. I assumed that it had served a legitimate purpose years previously, but for me and my friends, it was the place where we would climb over to run around the school grounds at the weekend when no one was there – it was an exceptional place to play one man hunt with so many nooks and crannies to hide in.

As cautious as I was, I wanted to truly attempt to get up onto the roof of the old toilets. In my eight year old head, I had visions of sneaking up there in the morning and surprising my friends, or running up there to heroically retrieve a girl’s ball – in childhood we think that those around us really care about our actions, but in truth they are of little consequence to anyone other than ourselves. Yes, I had been bullied a little for not being as strong or as fearless as those around me, and that sense of public failure, of insecurity, while a potent sensation at a young age while in hindsight completely exaggerated, was enough to give me the courage to at least attempt the climb.

I had considered asking one of my friends to join me as I was nervous that a teacher might still be there, that I would get into trouble, and so needed a lookout, but this would only have given me someone to fail in front of. I decided to attempt it on my own. After waiting for what seemed an age, I slowly climbed over the gate, which rattled unnervingly under my movements, echoing out around the playground. Then, after hesitantly observing the hundreds of windows which dotted the school for movement, and happy enough with the absence of light emanating from them, I stepped silently to the sealed building.

Even though I knew as little as an audience of one could effect my confidence, I partly wished that I had not been alone, as the building and its deserted surroundings left me feeling uneasy. I knew, however, that if I just got up there once, that I would have conquered my fear and would be able to climb up onto the roof with ease in future. Hopefully putting any name-calling to rest.

I stood staring at the drain pipe which would be my avenue to success, clinging as it did through rusted fittings to the side of the building. My mind back then was often clouded with the worst possibilities, focusing on the most negative outcome, and as I began to climb slowly, I imagined that the drainpipe would wrench away from the wall throwing me against the concrete ground at any moment.

The truth is that it did not move, no matter how much I believed that it did. Without a witness, I was now as far as I had ever reached, able to stick my hand up above me and touch the edge of the roof. My heart raced with excitement as I began to believe that I really could do it, that success was in sight.

I then made the mistake of looking down to check my progress. The experience of height is something difficult to convey to someone who has no problem with it. While in reality I was probably no more than seven or eight feet off the ground, I perceived this as a monumental distance. I felt my stomach churn, my heart beat erratically, and the world below begin to spin and distort. Worse still, a loss of nerve permeated my body leaving me feeling weak and I could feel my grip begin to loosen.

It is strange how the mind works, for just as I was ready to admit defeat once more and retreat, the insults and jeers of my classmates rang throughout my awareness as if they were present, down there, taunting me. With what was for me a huge effort, I found myself continuing to climb upwards, my hands reaching out to the damp roof and then before I knew it, there I was.

Letting out a laugh of excitement, a sensation of relief washed over me. I could not wait for the next day. To be up there on the roof, proving those who had been cruel to me, wrong. Peeking over the edge I still felt trepidation at the height, but nowhere near as much as I had done before, my triumph quelling my anxiety.

Still, I was not too keen to remain there for long, so I decided to investigate my surroundings briefly, then climb back down to the safety of the playground and head home, ecstatic. The roof was painted in a similar fiery red colour to the main school building, but it had long since peeled and cracked suggesting that it had been a long time since someone had been up there to give it a new coat.

Standing up cautiously, I felt my legs waver slightly as my stomach churned again at the thought of how high up I was – laughable really as the height of the roof was probably no more than ten feet. Yet, no matter how nervous I was, the sense of triumph which I felt coursing through my body was truly wonderful.

I walked slowly from one side of the roof to the other, careful not to trip as I did so. The short walk from the drainpipe to the opposite ledge and back filled me with a feeling of conquest, as of someone patrolling their territory, for those brief moments that roof, that building was mine.

Just as I turned to finally make my way back to ground, I noticed that in middle of the roof there was a hole. I’m not sure how I hadn’t noticed it before, although it was quite small, big enough for me to fit my hand through and little else. Curious, I took a few careful steps and then knelt for a closer look.

Yes, there was a hole, and the light from the evening sky passed straight through it, illuminating what lay inside. I put my eye as close as possible to the opening without blocking the light and was surprised by what I saw. Down there in the darkness like a perfectly preserved tomb, the old fashioned white tiling remained intact. I could see the sinks where students years ago once washed there hands or flicked water at one another for amusement, and three stalls – cubicles with strong dark brown doors – lying there as if still used. The air inside was tinged with dust and age, yet if someone had told me that the building had been sealed only the day before, I would have believed them. All but for one thing, a layer of stagnant water which covered the floor; no doubt accumulating there from rain dripping in through the opening in the roof.

Then I became aware of a strong smell. One which left my eyes stinging slightly and my mood apprehensive. Yes, there was no doubting it, someone was smoking a cigarette nearby. My heart sank as I lay there motionless, cursing myself for taking too much time on the roof to celebrate my victory. A teacher or perhaps the janitor must have stayed behind to work late and was probably standing in the playground below. I thought that they must have been close as the smoke smelled thick and oppressive.

I lay curled up on the cold wet concrete waiting for whoever was there to leave. The now almost caustic smoke seemed to be increasing in strength and several times I had to hold my breath, frightened that I would cough and be caught. I do not believe I exaggerate when I say that I lay motionless for half an hour, yet it took me all that time to make a simple, yet unsettling observation. While I could smell the smoke – indeed feeling as if I was inhaling just as much as the unseen smoker themselves – I couldn’t see it. I would have expected to have seen the smoke rise up and over the roof top, but not even the slightest wisp was evident.

The autumn sky was now dimming and I grew frustrated as the cold damp stone below me sent chills through my body. Wishing that I had never went up there in the first place, I felt hunger approaching and knew that by now my parents would be worried about me. I persuaded myself that I could at least dip my head over the edge of the roof and quickly take a look to see who was there. Maybe if they were on the other side of the yard I could climb down unseen. I slid across the roof as quietly as I could and slowly peered downward, sure to not make any sudden movements to attract attention.

There was no one there. The playground was empty and the darkened windows of the main school building seemed as vacant as they had done before. Yet the smell and taste of cigarette smoke still filled my lunges and stung my eyes. Then, I witnessed something which rooted me to the spot. A single curling strand of smoke slid upward through the hole in the roof – someone was down there. Someone was inside that room beneath me.

This seemed impossible. As far as I was aware there was no way inside. The building had been sealed off perfectly from the outside world, yet there it was: A puff of cigarette smoke which escaped first from the mouth of someone unseen below, and then through the hole in the roof to where I had been lying.

My triumph of finally facing my fear of heights seemed a distant memory, and now all I could think of was getting off of that roof to safety down below. But the hole lay between myself and the drainpipe, and curiosity being as gripping a mindset as any, I decided to take a quick look inside before quietly making my escape and leaving the building behind.

As I approached the opening, the smell of smoke grew stronger still, and as I peered inward the thought of ‘don’t look’ filtered through my mind. But it was too late. I had looked. At first, there was nothing. The room below seemed darker than had done before, but this could be explained by the dimming sky and my eyes adapting to the change. What could not be explained was the noise I heard coming from inside.

It seemed distant at first, indistinct and uncertain. Then it gradually took form, to me sounding like someone choking. I smiled to myself thinking that it was probably the cigarette smoke and that maybe some local kids had a den down there, but then suddenly, in the gloom, my eyes were drawn to one of the cubicles. Its door was closed and yet I was not convinced that it had been before. I tilted my head closer to the hole, but my angle of view shrouded the inside from inspection.

As the choking sound increased in volume, so to did the smell of smoke. Then sound and smell were joined by something which chilled my very soul. I panicked, and let out a cry as the door quivered with impact as of someone violently kicking it from the other side. Smoke now filled my lungs and as my eyes watered I could barely see anything both inside the building and out.

Then, it stopped. The choking sound had disappeared, and the smell of smoke had simply vanished. For a moment I started to think that I had imagined it all. I gasped for air, drawing deep into my lungs, only for terror to take me once more. In the dark silence; in the cold, damp, and forgotten room below. The sound of footsteps in water filled the air. Then, the cubicle door slowly began to creak open.

I can’t say entirely what took place after that. I believe I’ve blocked much of it from my memory. Apparently the head master – an intimidating yet kind man by the name of Mr McKay – had been in his office working late on the other side of the building. When he was disturbed by the sound of my screams, he rushed outside and found me on the roof curled up into a ball, paralysed with fear, sobbing. After some reassuring words, he helped me down and took me to his office where he once again guaranteed that I was safe, and then phoned for my parents to come and pick me up.

I trusted Mr McKay implicitly and as I fought the tears back I described everything which had happened. The roof, the smoke, the cubicle. As I told him my story, the blood drained from my head master’s face. I have long thought about what he told me in that office after hearing my account. Perhaps he wished to frighten me so that I and others would never venture up there again, and looking back it does seem to be a strange thing to share with an already frightened child otherwise. But he seemed genuinely disturbed by the events I had conveyed to him.

He told me that years before I had went to the school there had been a tragedy there involving a twelve year old girl, one who he refused to name. She had a reputation for being difficult. The teachers tried their best, sympathising with her as she came from an abusive background, but they found her almost impossible to control, as she often threatened violence and had been suspended several times for fighting with other students.

One day she decided to skip a class and had managed to persuade two other girls to join her by promising them a cigarette each. So, as the story went, the girls sneaked away when the bell for class rang, and hid in the toilets. The details of what occurred afterwards were less than forthcoming, but what was clear was that the poor girl had a seizure of some kind and died there and then. The other girls claimed that they had already left before this happened, but there were rumours and accusations of which most only whispered, but many believed. It was suggested that the girl had been with her friends when the seizure took place, and out of fear of getting caught smoking and skipping class, they lifted their friend into the stall, closed the door over and then left her there. Whether they believed that she would perhaps recover or not was the subject of much speculation. The scratches and bashes on the inside of the cubicle suggested most definitely that she had continued to convulse while there, perhaps even in an uncoordinated attempt to escape and call out for help.

In the aftermath the building was closed off and the school and community attempted as best they could to put the tragedy behind them. Perhaps Mr McKay made the whole thing up just to terrify me, taking what I had thought I’d experienced and using it to concoct a story designed to scare me away from ever going back to that place.

Unfortunately, a few unwelcome things transpired after that. I did indeed avoid the roof of that sealed building at all costs. My fear of heights was nothing compared to the dread which that building then held for me. My schoolmates of course did not believe my version of things, accusing me of lying about the entire story just to avoid being made fun of. As far as they were concerned, I never got up there. Lastly, I did have a recurring dream throughout my childhood, one which I would wake from in a cold sweat, curled up in my bed, screaming. I know that in it I would be lying on that roof, peering down through the hole into that abandoned place, but the memory always seems vague somehow. All that is left is an impression, of a cubicle door creaking open, and something staring up at me from within.

Credit To – Michael Whitehouse

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Takakanonuma Greenland

April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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In Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, there is an abandoned amusement park known as Takakanonuma Greenland. It sits in the outskirts of Hobara, a section of the Japanese city of Date. Very little is known about this park, and its exact location is largely unknown. You can’t find it on any Japanese map, as it simply isn’t there. Supposedly, its coordinates are 37°49’02.16″N 140°33’05.78″E, but if they are put into Google Maps, the search will be directed to the center of Hobara. This is inaccurate, since the park is hidden in a mountainous, rural area.

The only major information known about Takakanonuma Greenland is that it opened in 1973, and closed two years later. Some claim that this was due to poor ticket sales and needed renovations, but locals say that it was because of a significant amount of deaths on the rides. Miraculously, the park reopened in 1986, but struggled to remain open due to increased competition from bigger parks such as Tokyo Disneyland, as well as financial trouble. Finally, in 1999, Takakanonuma Greenland closed for good.

Following its closure, the amusement park was left to rot. Photographs from urban explorers who have infiltrated the area show a massive amount of decay. The ferris wheel and the roller coaster are covered in rust, the entrance is covered in graffiti, and the premises are being reclaimed by plants. The most notable feature of the park is the dense fog that always looms over it, giving off a Silent Hill feel. Like the information about the area, there is very little photography and video of it.

Allegedly, Takakanonuma Greenland was demolished in 2006, and now sits as an empty lot. However, in 2007, a citizen of the United Kingdom named Bill Edwards claimed to have visited an untouched, completely intact park. Supposedly, he took numerous pictures that were identical to those taken before the park’s supposed demolition, showing the same rusty, forgotten rides. However, according rumor, when uploading these photos, only one appeared on his computer. This picture shows the entrance to the park on a foggy night, illuminated by the flash from the camera. In the center of this picture, you can barely make out the figure of what looks like a six year old girl in a white dress. She appears to be staring at the photographer with a serious, indifferent face.

The girl has never been identified, and the whereabouts of Bill Edwards are currently unknown…

****

The above was a recently submitted pasta, but it’s about a very real place. Takakanonuma Greenland did, in fact, exist. You can Google image search the name and come across a host of creepy photos of the misty, decaying amusement park. Some people claim that it’s the basis for the creepy amusement park/portal to the spirit world in Spirited Away, though I cannot find any confirmation of that particular theory. The park has even been tied to the mysterious rusty clown head that I use as my avatar – though it seems that almost every single abandoned amusement park has been named as the source of the image (most popular theory is that it’s from a park in Chernobyl, but I’ve seen many people saying that’s not true at all).

If you’re interested in reading more about Takakanonuma Greenland, here are some links:

Late At Night: Location #1: The Abandoned Takakanonuma Greenland Park, Japan
Takakanonuma Greenland @ Tumblr’s abandonedplaces
Tofugu: Japan’s Abandoned Amusement Parks
Takakanonuma Greenland @ AtlasObscura
Dark Roasted Blend: Abandoned Amusement Parks in Asia

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Tales of the City, Part Six: Burnt Offerings

April 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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“It’s last call.”

“Hey, like in that poem you know? ‘Hurry up please, it’s time!’ …sorry, I’ve had a lot to drink.”

“We all have. And I, for one, don’t really feel safe going home after everything we’ve heard tonight.”

“But all those stories can’t be true. Even if you believe in that kind of thing, there can’t be one city with so many secrets.”

“Maybe it’s not the city that’s really the problem. Listen closely: What do you hear?”

“My pounding head.”

“The bartender throwing us out.”

“My boyfriend leaving impatient text messages wondering where I am.”

“Underneath all of that, I mean. Do you hear it? The ocean.”

“But that’s miles away?”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ve got the ocean on one side, the bay on the other, and the straits connecting them. We’re surrounded by the sea; you can’t get away.”

“So what?”

“Maybe the ocean is the reason so many strange things happen here. Maybe there’s something in the water. Here, we have a little more time before this place is really closed; let me tell you about it…”

***

“My mother told me he went off to become a frogman.”

The stringer stopped writing, certain that she had misheard the old woman. They sat in a small, pretty house just a few blocks from the Ruins, a house that smelled persistently of cat despite no cat being evident. The old woman (her name was Marie Wayland; she was in her sixties but looked much, much older) had a voice only slightly more pronounced than silence and the stringer could never be completely sure that what she had written down was anything close to what the old woman had actually said.

“A frogman?” the stringer asked.

“That’s what they used to call a deep-sea diver in the old days, on account of the flippers and the wetsuit. And the goggles.” She mimed goggles over her eyes. “He always said that’s what he’d wanted to be when he grew up, so when he ran off that’s what mother told me he was doing.”

The stringer nodded and continued writing, without comment. The conversation was going on forty-five minutes and the frogman thing was the most coherent comment she’d gotten so far. She checked the time and found that the light would waning outside. She would have to hurry if she wanted to shoot the Ruins today. She skipped to her last question:

“I understand that he was an artist, but no one ever exhibited his work?”

“That’s right,” Marie said. “In fact, here.” The old woman stood; she was not a little old woman, despite her tiny voice. She was tall and thick-limbed. She reminded the stringer of a huge bird, a crane or a stork. The old woman brought out a flat package a little over a foot on each side, wrapped in brown paper.

“You mentioned that on the phone and I thought your magazine might like to use this in the article. It’s a charcoal sketch he did. Go ahead and keep it, I’ve got plenty more just like it. Hundreds, maybe. Mother kept them all, after he left.”

The stringer accepted the package, feeling as if she were receiving an unwanted Christmas gift from a relative she barely knew. She left with the package under her arm and her camera around her neck, glad to be free of that clinging cat odor. Forty plus minutes of conversation had yielded less than a page of notes, but with the sun at just the right angle on the horizon it was not too late to get some good shots of the Ruins; the day needn’t be completely wasted.

The smell of the salt breeze coming from the beach stung her nostrils. The stringer had never particularly liked the ocean. She’d rather have lived anywhere but a coastal city, but the city was where the work was. She’d had a regular position as a staff photographer at a decent magazine for a while, but now she was back to being a stringer, living off of freelance work and making it by job to job. The assignment about the Ruins had been a lucky break, but breaks were fewer and further between all the time. She crested the hill and started down the hiking trail, toward her destination.

The beach that served as the fringe to the city’s westernmost side terminated on the north in a series of rocky pools particularly hazardous to anyone traversing the coast, by land or by sea. But the spectacular views of the waves crashing against the shore had always encouraged developers to build on the bluffs overlooking the area, which is why, a hundred years ago, the old mayor built his theater palace here. People in the city would come all the way out to the beach complex for circus acts and dancing shows and the indoor pool and whatever else the wizards who owned the place cooked up. They’d even had a museum of ancient Egyptian artifacts. But in the ’50s it fell on hard times and the family sold it to an outsider, George Wayland, who closed it ten years later and then skipped town. No sooner was he gone than the whole thing burnt to the ground.

Wayland himself disappeared, apparently never disembarking from the ship that carried him away from the city. He left behind a wife, a daughter (now an old woman who lived just a few blocks away in her cat-smelling ho use), and a legacy of unanswered questions. And the place where the pool and circus and the museum once was sat untouched for decades, slowly falling apart, filling in with water and silt and wild plants until it resembled an ancient ruin. And that was what people called it: the Ruins. It was never fully torn down; folks decided they liked the look of it. The crumbling stone walls and enormous, water-filled pits alongside the beach and the coastline looked more like the remains of a Roman village than anything a turn of the century showman built. The city decided they were beautiful. Although, the stringer reflected, as she set her tripod on a hill, to her the place had always looked creepy as hell. Even when she and Randy played down here as kids, she’d never liked it.

But she couldn’t afford to only take the jobs she liked. It was fifty years since the fire and since George Wayland disappeared, and his legend had only grown, so the magazine editors decided to run a big piece: “George Wayland, Man and Myth.” It didn’t matter that there was nothing new to write about it or that the stringer’s photos would be just like any others that anyone had taken in five decades; people liked the mystery, and the mystery would sell magazines, which meant the stringer could sell photos.

She spent an hour shooting. She caught the Ruins at sunset and the Ruins at twilight and even the Ruins at night, when it was really too dark to still be shooting but she kept shooting anyway. By the time she put her camera away the only light, besides the moon, came from the hotel on the cliffs to the south. It was just enough light to see Seal Rock by, although the stringer decided that at this time of night it didn’t really look like a rock at all. It looked like some giant whale just offshore was sticking its head up to get a good look at the city. A whale, or something else.

She went home. There was a note on the door; Sam had stopped by. She’d forgotten they had plans. That explained the flashing voice mail indicator on her phone as well. She ignored both, going inside and uploading the new photos. She missed the days of her old film camera; digital just wasn’t the same, but it was cheaper and faster. Another compromise she’d made with the world. She studied the twilight photos most closely, scanning every square inch of the image. Nothing unusual was there, but she kept looking anyway. After two hours, she gave up. Another wasted day. She flopped onto the couch, picking up the magazine off the table. She turned to the most well-worn page, and there was a smiling picture of George Wayland and the headline: “George Wayland, Man or Myth?”

The magazine had gone to stands two weeks ago. She’d turned in the photos for it a week before that. The money from it had already been spent. She should have been chasing other leads, should have been getting after editors for more assignments, should have been paying her bills, but instead she kept going back to the Ruins day after day, taking more worthless photos. Hitting up the old woman had been a desperation move, and she’d felt bad about lying and saying she was there on assignment (the old bat was so senile she didn’t even remember reading the finished article when it came out), but it was the only lead she’d had. Now it was a dud too. She should give up on it. But she couldn’t. There was something about the Ruins only she knew. Something she couldn’t let go of.

Thinking about the old woman reminded her of the sketch. She’d left it by the door, still wrapped in brown paper. She retrieved it. When the package was open she flinched; it was, as promised, a charcoal sketch. It depicted a mirror-flat expanse of ocean disturbed by an anomalous sea creature breaching the surface, foam spraying from its jaws and water streaming down its huge body. It was impossible to tell what the animal was actually supposed to be, but it made her think of some kind of dragon, bristling with flippers and fins. It was impossibly ugly. A few human swimmers were added for scale; they were tiny next to the monster, so small they were practically stick figures.

The stringer frowned; why the hell would Marie Wayland give her this? Then she chided herself; the old bird was nuts, what did she expect? And what had she said? That her father had done hundreds like this? She suddenly wished she’d had it before the story went to print. The editor probably would have loved it. It would have gone great with that one ‘graph toward the end, how did it go? She picked the magazine up and read:

“Urban legend persists that Wayland himself set the fire that destroyed the pool complex. Not as an insurance scam, but to destroy the evidence of the secret, ritual murders he supposedly committed there. No serious historical evidence suggests any truth to these rumors, but local kids still sneak down to the Ruins late at night in hopes of hearing the ghostly screams of those said to have died there.”

The stringer snorted. All bullshit, of course. But people in this city loved their ghost stories. Randy had, too.

She went back to the sketch. Something about it was bothering her. On a hunch, she opened the back of the frame and removed the delicate paper. In the lower right hand corner something was written. She thought at first it was Wayland’s name or initials, but now she saw it was a word she didn’t recognize. The closest she could decipher it was:

“Aspidochelone.”

Curious, she went the computer to look it up:

“Aspidochelone is a fabled sea monster, variously described as a large whale or vast sea turtle. It was supposedly so large as to be mistaken for an island, its great shell appearing like a rocky outcropping. In some traditions, Aspidochelone is believed to be the Bible’s ‘great fish’ that swallowed the prophet Jonah. Other myth cycles persist that it was an avatar of the devil.”

The stringer frowned. She held the sketch up to one of her photos of seal rock by night: the sea monster’s humped back was in the exact shape of the stony island. Then she looked more closely at the swimming figures Wayland drew; at first she’d thought they must be fleeing the creature, but now it seemed they were actually swimming toward it. And they did not appear entirely human; they were bulky and shapeless things, though the tiny scale made it hard to determine their exact form. Even so, a little thrill went through her. She turned to the computer and clicked the file right in the middle of her desktop. A picture of the Ruins popped up; not any of the pictures she’d taken today and not any of the pictures she’d sold to the magazine. This was a picture only she had seen, a picture taken three weeks ago, just at dusk.

Everything was there as it should be: the crumbling walls, the deep pools, the shore, the surf, the rocks. Nothing seemed out of place at first glance; she’d almost missed it herself the when she’d uploaded the photos. But there, in the deepest pool right in the center of the Ruins, just beneath the surface, there was a shape. The water was dark and the light was poor, so it was hard to tell, but it looked remarkably like a person swimming to the surface. No, not a person; not quite. Just something a little like a person. Something that might live in the water and stay out of sight of normal people, until night came, when it could come to the surface without anyone seeing…

This picture was the reason she kept coming to the Ruins. This picture was the reason she’d interviewed the old woman, and the reason she kept reading and researching about George Wayland. This was the reason she hadn’t worked or seen Sam or any of her friends in weeks. This picture, and the memory of something splashing in the water behind her as she folded up her tripod and left that day, and an older memory, one of Randy, and his frightened voice in the dark.

She held the Wayland sketch next to her monitor. The shape in the photo was ill-defined, and the figures in the sketch were tiny, but they looked alike. Didn’t they? She flipped back and forth between her photos: The rock, and the back of Aspidochelone; the swimmers, and the shape in the pool. Yes, they all matched. And that meant…

What did it mean? The stringer wasn’t sure. She rubbed her forehead; it was late, and she hadn’t slept enough all week. She turned the computer off and flopped into bed, not even bothering to take off her shoes. Outside, the wind was blowing. The branches of the trees scraped her windows. Her water bill was due tomorrow. Her rent was due a week later. She didn’t know where the money would come from. She told herself she should not spend tomorrow afternoon at the Ruins again and should not spend tomorrow morning at the library or the historical society, looking for any new information about George Wayland. She should look for work instead. But she knew that she wouldn’t. She couldn’t let this thing go. She felt like she owed it to Randy. Poor Randy. After all these years…

As she slept, she thought she heard rain splashing on her window. But she couldn’t be sure.

***

In her dream, she was six years old again. In her dream, her older brother was waking her up in the middle of the night. In her dream, she rolled over and said, “What is it, Randy?” And her brother sounded frightened as he said:

“It’s the man. The man from the beach.”

She sat up under the covers. She could not see Randy in the dark, but she knew he was right by her bedside. “What man?”

“The one from last night, when we snuck down to the Ruins. Remember, I told you I saw him in the water?”

In her dream she was frightened, but she didn’t show it. She knew Randy was only trying to scare her. “I remember calling you a liar. You didn’t see any man in the water.”

“I did. But he wasn’t really a man; he was all scaly, like a fish, and he had a horrible face.”

“You didn’t see any man,” she said. But her voice cracked. “Go back to bed.”

Randy was quiet for a second. She said again, a little louder:

“Randy? What’s the matter?”

In the dark, Randy shivered.

“What’s the matter is…he’s outside our window…”

The stringer was screaming. No, someone else was screaming. No, that wasn’t a scream, it was…the phone?

She sat up in bed (her feet ached; really should have taken off her shoes before she fell asleep…) and groped for her cell phone on the bedside table. The tiny, shrieking ring cut off as she pushed the button. “Hello?” she said.

“He came and talked to me,” said a tiny voice on the other end.

The stringer blinked and sat up. She checked the clock: four in the morning. Then she looked at the call number: it was Marie, George Wayland’s crazy old daughter. Never should have given the old bat my phone number, the stringer thought. “Who talked to you?” she said.

“My father.”

The stringer jolted awake. She almost dropped the phone, but stopped herself. After swallowing the lump in her throat she said: “Your father?”

“Yes,” said Marie. Her voice was even softer than usual, but it was brimming with enthusiasm. “We had such a nice talk. And he gave me a message for you. He told me to call you right away.”

“Marie, your father would be…” She did the math. “A hundred and four years old, and missing since 1966?”

“I know. He looked really good for his age.”

The stringer laughed; she couldn’t help it. Kicking her shoes off, she rubbed her sore feet. “So what did he tell you that couldn’t wait until morning?”

“He said to tell you that the fire was the important thing.”

“What does that mean?”

Marie sounded confused. “He said you would know.”

“Not a clue.” Now that she was fully awake and the residue of her dream was fading the conversation seemed a bit more real. She wondered if Marie had been dreaming too; or maybe there wasn’t much difference between waking and dreaming once you went that nuts?

Then Marie said: “Randy was here too.”

The stringer almost dropped the phone.

“Oh, he had a message for you also,” Marie said. “He said for you to remember what he told you about Obie.”

This time the stringer did drop the phone. When she picked it up again Marie was saying goodbye. “Wait!” the stringer said, but the call ended.

She considered calling back, but instead she set the phone aside and stared at the window, stunned. “Remember what he told you about Obie?” Impossible. The old woman couldn’t possibly know about that. The stringer racked her brain trying to remember if she had ever mentioned her brother’s name during the interview. Of course, she hadn’t; why the hell would she? She wanted to call back right that second and demand an explanation. It took her a moment to realize why she wasn’t: She was afraid.

She went to her computer. The fire was the important thing, huh? She pulled up all the notes she’d gathered about the fire at the Ruins. She read it all again. She even watched the old newsreel footage of it the fire as it happened. She gathered no particular insights from it. She sat at her desk for another hour, lost in thought. When it was late enough in the morning, she picked up the phone and dialed a number she knew by heart by now. A voice on the other end said: “Western Neighborhoods Project.” She asked for the director by name. They were one of the oldest and busybodiest historical groups in the city. If they couldn’t tell her what she wanted to know, nobody could.

She was afraid she might go to voicemail, but eventually the woman she wanted answered. “Hello Dr. Olmstead,” the stringer said. “I had another research question for you.”

“About the Ruins?” Olmstead said. “I thought your magazine already ran that story?”

“They did, but I’m doing a little follow up.” She paged through her email as she talked; no paying offers, although there were plenty of blogs who wanted permission to run her photos. None were offering any money. “I was just wondering, about the fire…” She hesitated.

“Yes?” Olmstead said.

Not entirely sure why she was asking, the stringer said, “I was wondering…is there any truth to the rumors that human remains were found in the wreckage?”

“None at all,” Olmstead said. But she said it too fast. As if she’d been expecting it and had that answer prepared.

“I see,” the stringer said. “I thought that…well, it’s just, I have a lead that there was something unusual or…important about the fire itself, and I was just wondering if there was anything that wasn’t already common knowledge?”

“I don’t think so. I’m afraid I really have to go, Miss—”

“What about the name Aspidochelone, do you know anything about that?” It was a shot in the dark, but as soon as she said it the stringer knew she’d hit the mark: Olmstead gasped. She covered the phone so that the stringer wouldn’t hear, but she was too slow. The stringer’s scalp tingled with the excitement of a new lead. “Doctor?” she said. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, but I…let me call you back.” Before the stringer could say anything the line went dead. She set the phone down, deciding to give it twenty minutes before she called back. After eighteen, the phone rang.

“I’m going to give you a name and a phone number, and then that’s the last thing I want to hear about this,” Olmstead said. The stringer didn’t argue, grabbing her notepad and a pencil. “The man you want is named Allen. I’ve already spoken with him and he has time for an appointment today. He lives here in the city.” The stringer wrote down the name and the number when Olmstead gave it.

“Thank you, Dr. Olmstead,” the stringer said. “I really appreciate—” But by then Olmstead had hung up again.

The stringer stopped to lock the door on her way out. As she did, her eyes fell across something on the floor, a wet spot on the hallway carpet. She frowned; the stain hadn’t been there the night before. Whatever someone has spilled, it smelled back, gray and briny. It reminded her of the ocean. If she turned her head, it almost looked like a footprint, although not a print that would be left by any normal foot…

She hurried down to the elevator and out into the street. Her appointment was in an hour. She could just barely make it.

***

The door said: “Z. Allen,” nothing else. It was the kind of nameplate you usually saw on a college professor’s door, but it was fixed to the front of an ugly little house on Laguna Street. It was so out of place that it made the stringer hesitate before knocking, and before she could work her nerve up again the door opened on its own. She was greeted by a bald, pop-eyed man, probably the same age as Marie Wayland. He smiled and greeted her by name. “Dr. Olmstead said you’d be stopping by. Let’s talk in the library.”

The library turned out to be a spare bedroom converted into ad hoc office, though there were a great many shelves full of aged books. There were two pictures on the wall, one of a young woman holding a baby and one that seemed to be a much younger Z. Allen, surprisingly wearing a fireman’s uniform. The stringer sat in the spare chair, notebook at the ready, and then she realized she actually had no idea what she wanted to ask. Allen came to her rescue:

“I suppose you want to know about the Dagonites?”

“I do? I mean, yes, I do.”

“Old Olmstead sounded annoyed when she called. She hates people pestering her about the Dagon thing, but I love to talk turkey about it. Or tuna, as the case may be.” The stringer could tell she was supposed to laugh at this, so she did.

“Are you on the board of the Western Neighborhoods Project?”

“No, I’m just someone they keep on call. Amateur historian. With my own peculiar specialties. In this case, the Esoteric Order of Dagon. What do you know about it so far?”

“Um, not much.” She scribbled the words “Esoteric order dgn” on her pad, the unfamiliar “Esoteric” spelled in full so she would not mistake it later.

” I guess you’re too young to remember the Summer of Love?”

“I’m more of a winter person.”

“Yes, there’s not too many of us original flower children left. What people don’t realize is that the counterculture wasn’t just free love and walking barefoot down Haight Street. There were all sorts of…well, I hesitate to call them cults, but let’s say, new and alternate religions and belief systems that were popping up around that time. Especially here in the city. Krishnas, the People’s Temple, Scientologists, hell, even the Church of Satan.” He made a vague gesture.

“And the Order of Dagon?”

“Indeed, the Order of Dagon. Although according to them, they weren’t exactly new. They said they were thousands of years old, maybe tens of thousands. The Dagonites were something else. A special case even in a time of special cases.”

“What did they believe?”

“Hard to say. They were very secretive. And there weren’t very many of them, maybe a dozen in the city altogether. The came from back east somewhere.”

“Why’d they come here?”

“Religious pilgrimage. They said this was a sacred site. They worshiped the ocean, you see. No, not the ocean exactly; an ocean god. They called it Dagon, but sometimes other names: Cetus or Tiamat or—”

“Aspidochelone?”

“Yes, that was one.” He looked at her strangely for a moment. “They said that it was an ancient sea creature older than the world and they took just about any myth about a sea monster to be a story about their ‘god’ by some name or another. They were all completely nuts, of course; even back then we could tell.”

The stringer pondered for a moment. “What does this have to do with the Ruins?”

“Haven’t you guessed? Before he disappeared, George Wayland was rumored to be a convert to the Esoteric Order of Dagon.”

“So the urban legends about human sacrifice…?”

“Related. The Dagonites didn’t practice human sacrifice, of course. But they did have a peculiar ritual that made people ask lots of questions after Wayland disappeared.”

The words scribbled in her notebook jumped out at the stringer: “The fire is the important thing.” She bit her lip.

“They gave burnt offerings to their god, didn’t they?”

“That they did. Sea creatures were best, but apparently anything would do: a dog, a chicken. The bigger the better, as long as it was dead already. You could burn objects, too, if they were important enough to you.”

“The bigger the better? Say, an entire building?”

“Now you’re getting it. And with Wayland believed to be associating with Dagonites, and all of them disappearing around the same time he did, and then his complex burns down…well, you can guess what people thought.”

The stringer was writing faster than she could keep up with. “And this was an important ritual for them?”

“The most important of all. A burnt offering at the right holy site was supposed to awaken Dagon, or Aspidochelone, or whatever you want to call it. And then…”

The stringer sat forward. “Then what?”

“Well, no one else ever really could figure that part out.” Allen sat sideways in his chair a bit, looking at her in his peripheral vision. “All they would ever say is that after that you became ‘One with Dagon.’ But they’d never say exactly what that meant.”

The stringer put her notes down. “And they all disappeared?”

“In 1966, virtually the same day as the fire.” Allen folded his hands and arched his eyebrows, seemingly inviting her to draw her own conclusions.

“‘One with Dagon,’” the stringer repeated. “Is there anything else?”

“Not much. Here,” He handed her a thumb drive. “I have a special file on it, for when people come asking.”

The stringer blinked. “Do people ask about this a lot?”

“Not a lot. But often enough.”

“I’ve never heard anything about it.”

“Well, they don’t usually share what they learn.”

“Why not?”

“You’d have to ask them. Although truth be known I understand that most of them usually leave town for one reason or another. I’ve never talked to the same person twice about it, except for Dr. Olmstead.”

“But why—?”

Now Allen’s face told her she shouldn’t ask anything else. Taking the thumb drive, she thanked him and left.

***

Sam had left another note on the door: “We have to talk.” The stringer ignored it. She stepped over a pile of bills overflowing the mail slot, going straight to her computer, plugging in the thumb drive and not even bothering to check her email for the job offers that wouldn’t be there. This was more important. She poured over Allen’s notes, but in truth she didn’t really need them. She’d figured it all out. They’d given her all the answers that morning: “The fire was the important thing,” and “Remember what he said about Obie.”

In her mind, the stringer was six again, and her brother was waking her up, scared, in the middle of the night, and pointing to the window. “It’s the man in the water,” he said. “He says I have to go with him.”

She looked at the window for a split second, but then looked away. Was there really something there? She didn’t want to know. Instead she hugged the covers tighter and said, “You’re fibbing. If there’s really someone there then go get Dad.”

Randy shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t’ want him to know…” His voice faltered for a second. “I did a bad thing,” he said. “I…I dug up Obie.”

“What?” she’d sat all the way up then, too angry to still be afraid.

“I’m sorry!” Randy said. She could tell he was crying.

“He was my cat, mine!”

“I know, I know! But I’d heard, I mean, they say that if you take something, you know, something dead, and you burn it at the right spot—:”

“Burn it? You mean you…?”

“I’m sorry! I just wanted to see what would happen. I wanted to have something to show you when we snuck out. And now…now he says I have to go with him.” And Randy pointed to the window again. And she had looked. And as much as she’d tried to, she never really forgot the face she saw there…

She’d run then, screaming, into Dad’s room, and he said that it was just a nightmare. But when they got back to the bedroom, Randy was gone. The window was open, and there was water on the floor. And nothing was ever the same again.

She never told anyone what Randy said about Obie. And she never told about the face at the window, though for a long time she’d only ever remembered it in dreams. The photo made her really remember again. That shape in the water, just a little too familiar, just a little too human…

Her phone beeped; she started. Hours had passed, and it was dark out now. She assumed the message was from Sam and she was about to turn the phone off, but then she saw that it was an unfamiliar number. The message said:

COME 2 MARIES. HURRY.

And beneath that:

RMBR OB

That was all she needed. She was out the door in a flash. She barely had the presence of mind to bring her camera. She ran two red lights crossing town. What would the tickets matter? They could pile up, unopened, with the rest of the bills. She came to Marie Wayland’s house. The door was open, so she let herself in. That strange cat odor was gone. It had been replaced by something else.

She found Marie at the foot of the stairs. She must have taken a nasty fall. Or perhaps, the stringer couldn’t help but think as she observed the wet and misshapen footprints still visible on the carpet, a nasty push? It didn’t matter. The stringer wrapped the body in a blanket and then lifted the ungainly, long-limbed corpse and hauled it outside. Dear God, she thought, what if the neighbors see me? She hastened to get the body in her backseat as fast as she could. She searched the garage and came up with a gas can that had a slosh of liquid in the bottom, and she took that too. And then she was driving to the Ruins.

There were no tourists, no joggers, and no kids around this time. That was lucky. The trail leading down was steep and she had a hard time with her arms full of the old woman’s body, and dragging the gas can along too. She wondered, briefly, if she really had to go this far with it, but the text message had made it perfectly clear for her George Wayland had needed to burn this whole place down to do the trick for himself and a dozen other Dagonites. Randy had only needed a cat, but he’d been eight years old. The bigger the better, Allen had said, so the stringer wasn’t going to take any chances. She suspected you only got one shot at this.

The ocean wind was particularly cold that night. There was no moon, but she could see the great rock off the coast anyway. Was this the right spot? It had to be. Where else was there? She set the corpse down in the rolled up blanket and doused it with gas. She hoped no one from the hotel was watching. She only needed a minute without anyone interrupting to do this right. The box of matches rattled in her trembling fingers; it took four tries to get a match that stayed lit even with the wind. She held her breath, looking at the bundle on the wet sand. Was she really going through with this? But then the match dropped from her fingers and a WHUMP! of heat and black acrid smoke hit her square in the face, and the decision was out of her hands.

The fire burned out fast, but the heat was intense. Sickening fumes from the blanket’s synthetic fibers mingled with even less pleasant odors. She held her breath as long as she could, and retched when she couldn’t. Nearby, the waves crashed against the rocks over and over again. She watched as the body burnt down to bones and the bones burnt down to ashes. She expected at any moment for someone to come along, for her to see flashing lights and hear sirens, but it didn’t happen. Nothing else happened either. When the embers were out, there was just a black spot on the sand and a lingering stench. The stringer wiped at her eyes; was that it? Had she not done it right? Or was it that she’d been wrong? That there was nothing to the stories? That she was going—

Movement. Out there, somewhere? It was dark, but she could still swear that the huge rock, the small island just offshore, was moving? But that’s impossible, she told herself, the water here isn’t deep enough for anything that big. Unless most of it is buried? Buried in the ocean floor for thousands, maybe even millions of years, only stirring when someone made the offerings, when someone was ready to become One with Dagon? And that’s when she saw the lumbering shape coming toward the shore. The man in the water. And not just one. Lots of them were coming. Lots and lots, drawn by her signal fire. They paddled toward her, scaly flesh dripping with brine. She was glad it was dark; she still remembered that childhood face at the window. She did not want to see faces like that again.

But she knew that one of those faces would be the one she was looking for. And then she’d finally be able to say that she was sorry. That she missed him. That she loved him. That she’d done all this just to see him again, one last time, no matter how.

And then? The great rock (not a rock at all, of course) was still moving out in the surf. And those things coming to shore would not just leave when she wanted them to. She had made the offering; she had signaled that she was ready to become One with Dagon. She suspected that Dagon was not the type to take no for an answer.

At her feet, in the tide, something splashed and slithered and slid through the muck on its belly. She saw something like a hand reaching up for her. If not for the wind and the surf, she would hear a roaring and crashing just off shore. It was time. It was time.

Oh God—!

***

“…wait a minute, where did everybody else go?”

“They left in the middle of my story. It’s just been you and me here for a while.”

“Wow, geez, the place is closed. Chairs up and everything. Weird that I didn’t even notice…”

“You were paying a lot of attention to me.”

“I guess I was. So, is it true? I mean, did you really, you know, with the old woman’s body, and everything?”

“Does that frighten you?”

“Not really. I guess it should; it’s pretty awful. But for some reason it doesn’t. So what happened then?”

“Oh, lots of things. Do you remember what I said, that some people think Aspidochelone is the fish that swallowed Jonah in the Bible? Well, everyone knows Jonah was in there for three days, but when he came out again he might not have been quite the same anymore.”

“Isn’t that the point?”

“I mean, he might have changed more than you think. That’s what happens when you become One with Dagon.”

“But you look perfectly normal?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once. My friends can tell you more about it.”

“What was that? It sounds like something splashing…”

“Those are my friends. They’re coming here now. They want to meet you.”

“But the bar is closed?”

“That doesn’t matter to people like us. Can you hear them on the stairs?”

“Yes…”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. But don’t worry; they’ll all like you. And they have lots more stories to tell. They’ve been around for a long time.”

“I guess it’ll be okay then. …it will be okay, won’t it?”

“…no.”

Burnt Offerings 1

Burnt Offerings 2

Burnt Offerings 3

Credit To – Tam Lin

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Tales of the City, Part One: Neighborhood Watch

April 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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“It’s a simple question: Do you believe in ghost?”

“I—”

“Hold on; I’m not in the mood for ghost stories tonight.”

“Me neither.”

“I didn’t ask for stories, I just asked—hold on, where’s that waitress? Has anyone seen the waitress? Like I said, I didn’t ask for stories, I just asked if our new friend here believes. So do you?”

“I don’t know about ghosts exactly. But I believe there are strange things in this city.”

“That’s hardly news.”

“Yeah, I’m looking at a strange thing in the city right now.”

“I don’t mean strange like that. What I mean is…it’s hard to explain.”

“Well I’ll say one thing—waitress!—I’ll say one thing right now, I do believe. So I’ll make you a deal: This next pitcher is on me provided you’re willing to tell us what you know about it.”

“Don’t force him to talk if he doesn’t want to.”

“No, I’ll talk. It’s not usually a story I like to tell, but now that you’ve brought it up I won’t be able to get it off my mind. You ask me what I believe in? I believe in the city. I’ve always believed in the city. But it wasn’t until recently that I learned what that really means.

“It all started with my morning commute…”

***

The man had lived in the city all his life, and yet he knew nothing about the Neighborhood, and that frightened him.

He was a worker. In the morning he took a bus to his first job and in the afternoon he took another bus to his other job and then he took a third bus home. He knew every neighborhood those busses passed through: the Marina, the Mission, North Beach, Noe Valley, the Tenderloin, SOMA. They each had a personality of their own. Old neighborhoods sometimes died, but new neighborhoods were born all the time. The worker knew them all.

Except for one. His morning bus took a shortcut down a narrow, shady avenue with a decorative fountain (empty of water except on a few days of the year) every day. Here was a neighborhood of only a few blocks filled with large, furtive-looking houses and drooping willow trees and silence. Like all of the city’s neighborhoods it had a name, but people rarely spoke it. In the worker’s mind it was just the Neighborhood. He would give it no name more definite than that. He was afraid to.

He wondered why the bus passed through these few blocks; no one who lived around here would ever need to take a bus. Nobody ever got on at the stops in the Neighborhood, and no one ever got off. And he noticed that people never talked about the Neighborhood, even when he asked them about it. It was as if they knew not to. Who lives here, he wondered? Rich people, obviously; workers like him couldn’t afford such houses. They were not mansions (there were few real mansions in this part of the world and none in the city), but they were still big, and expensive. But most rich people in the city lived in penthouses or sometimes in the painted Victorians on the avenues. Who lived in these secretive homes hidden on these tiny streets in this hilly hollow?

This question became even more pressing the day he noticed there were no people there. He’d never once seen anyone on the streets of the Neighborhood, or anyone standing in a doorway, or anyone moving behind a window of any of the houses. It seemed to the worker that whoever lived in the Neighborhood did not deign to leave their homes, or maybe it was just that (and he could not shake this thought no matter how irrational it seemed) they simply never left their homes during the day. Since he took a different bus home, the worker never passed through the Neighborhood at night. He became glad of that. It seemed whoever lived here didn’t want to be seen by outsiders.

One day a woman at the worker’s night job took a vacation. His boss asked the worker if he wanted to fill in for her during the morning. Tips were supposed to be better in the morning, so the worker agreed to switch his day and night shifts at both jobs. This meant, of course, that his bus route would be reversed, but that did not occur to him until it was too late. That first day he took his night bus in the morning (the streets looked so different with the sun up, so alive), worked his night job during the day, took his afternoon bus the opposite direction (he could not shake the feeling he was traveling backwards in time, somehow), and, finally, caught his morning bus at night. The dark streets of the Neighborhood, with all the long, clinging willow vines fluttering in the evening breeze, lurked ahead of him, and the worker realized that he had been dreading this all day.

He chided himself; there was nothing to be afraid of. It was just a street. But look at the faces of the other people on the bus: Yes, they were all afraid, though none of them would admit it. One woman, he saw, was even holding her breath. They crossed Sloat Boulevard and the first of the quiet houses. The worker avoided looking out the windows. He realized his heart was pounding and he had to force himself to breathe. The steady hum of the bus tires comforted him a little; it took less than a minute to cut through the Neighborhood. They’d be safe soon.

He found himself turning toward the window. He did not want to, but it was like an itch; the harder he tried not to scratch, the worse it got. He could not help but turn. Was it his imagination, or was the woman sitting across the aisle trying to warn him with sideways glances and half-hidden gestures not to look? He could not be sure. Heart pounding, he turned all the way and he looked into the darkness. He saw…

Nothing. Nothing except the same streets and the same houses as always, the same leaning trees and the same showy fountain. There was nothing strange or sinister about it after all, and he laughed at himself. How childish his fears had been. It was just a neighborhood for rich snobs who liked their privacy and were probably annoyed by the loud, smelly city bus that drove down their private little avenue a hundred times a day both ways.

In fact, now that he was not so afraid, he realized that it was really a pleasant looking little neighborhood. It was inviting. Only half aware of what he was doing, the worker rang the bell. Several people in nearby seats jumped; no one ever, ever rang the bell for a stop in the Neighborhood. But the worker just had. The driver glanced at him and then looked away. The woman across the aisle was now, very clearly, looking at the worker, and he saw her shake her head a fraction of a degree, but he ignored her. His feet seemed to move of their own accord, one in front of the other, down the short aisle and into the stairwell where the automatic door hissed open, and then he was outside the protective shell of the vehicle and setting foot, for the first time in his life, on the streets of the Neighborhood.

The woman who’d tried to warn him stared down from a window, her face bleached and her eyes wide, but then the snap of the automatic door and the hum of the tires whisked her away, and the worker was alone. It was a warm night. There was no moon. A small breeze was, as always, coming from the direction of the ocean. The stirring of the willows was the only noise. The worker looked around; something was strange. The streets were deserted, as usual, but there was something about the houses. He realized there were no lights on in any of them. Every window was dark. The breeze turned cold and the worker rubbed his bare arms. He now felt foolish for getting off the bus and making himself late. He did not understand why he’d done it. And the old fear was creeping up in him again now as all those dark windows, like the empty eye sockets in a pile of skulls, stared at him.

He did not want to wait here for the next bus, so he started to walk. The top of the hill would be better, he reasoned. Safer. He tried to keep his eyes on his feet, but again he found he couldn’t help glancing from side to side. He prayed for a sign of life anywhere, something to reassure him, but it was all darkness and silence. Nothing here looks lived-in, he thought, realizing that had been the disquieting quality of the Neighborhood all along. It was less like a real neighborhood as much like a museum display of how a neighborhood might look. No one who saw these streets for even a second would mistake them for the habitat of any living thing. This he had always known, deep down, even if he only just now knew how to articulate it.

He walked faster. It seemed to the worker that the hill was steeper than usual (all rich neighborhoods in the city were built on hills). Was the grade becoming more severe so as to slow him down? Absurd, he thought. Then the wind changed direction, blowing in his face hard enough to make him take a half step backward, like a hand trying to hold him in one place. The houses crouched on their lots, waiting for him. The windows were dark, the doors were closed, the—

He stopped. One door was open, on the little cream-colored house with the tile roof. It was wide open, in fact, revealing a dark hallway beyond. The worker looked around; still no one in sight. Why should this door be open in the middle of the night, he wondered? It did not look like anyone was home. A house like this should be locked at night; perhaps there’d been a robbery? Perhaps someone was hurt? Perhaps…

He was walking toward the door. He did not want to and he had not thought about doing it, just as he hadn’t really thought about getting off the bus, but still, he was walking toward the door. The toe of his work boots tapped the stone porch steps on his way up. Why am I doing this, he thought? But it was already too late; the door was open and he was inside. The house closed up around him.

The worker stood in the foyer. Though dark, there seemed to be nothing strange about the house. It was clean and furnished. There was a faint, underlying scent of mustiness but there was also a perceptible effort to cover it up. Everything was neatly in its place. Yes, it looked normal enough, he thought.

But it didn’t look lived-in…

A flicker of movement caught the worker’s eye. He saw that the front door had closed. Not all the way, just halfway, gliding on hinges so quiet it would seem they scarcely moved at all. It was enough to jolt the worker out of his reverie; I should not be here, he thought, and he went for the door, but something moved again. Not the door but something just outside it. There was a flicker and a shudder and the worker swore he saw something pale flop against the door frame. Surely that was not an arm? Surely flesh could not be such a color? Surely it was the dark and the worker’s imagination that made it appear that a barely glimpsed, quasi-human figure with flesh like an earthworm crouched on the porch, shuddering and gibbering?

But then it was gone.

The worker backed away. He wanted to get out, but not that way. He noticed, now, that there was light in this house after all, the bare illumination of a candle flame in a nearby doorway. Instinctively he went toward it, wanting to huddle around the light for protection against whatever was in the dark. He pushed on the half-closed door and there was indeed a single candle flickering on a table. Four figures sat around it, four people in claw-footed chairs, four men and women whose heads turned in unison toward the worker and smiled as their yellowing eyes met his. But the worker was not looking at the people around the table. No, he was looking at what was on the table, next to the candle. He was, he realized, trying to scream. No sound came out.

“We have a guest,” said one of the men. His voice was neither high nor low, neither young nor old; it was a blank voice. “We were not expecting you. I’m afraid you’ve already missed dinner.”

The worker could not move. He tried to run, but his legs were frozen. He continued to stare at the table. The man who had spoken balled up a red napkin and tossed it onto the tablecloth. “At least we can offer you the hospitality of our company. Why don’t you sit and tell us a little about yourself. What’s your name?” The man still smiled. His face was the color of chalk. The worker realized they expected him to speak but his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.

“What’s the matter with you? Can’t you talk? Or are you one of those…unfortunates?” The man’s bloodless lips sneered.

“Look at his clothes,” said one of the women “He looks like some common rabble off the streets. Probably came off of that bus.”

“Do you think so?” The man peered at him. The two silent figures nodded in agreement with the woman. “Well, then since we’ve already eaten and since he cannot speak and since he is not the right sort of person, I suppose we have no choice but to throw him out.”

The worker felt a hand on his shoulder. No, he realized, not a hand, just something cold and clammy that might be called a hand if you knew no better word for it. He felt something at his back, a shape that shuddered and shook. The man with the pale face smiled at whatever was behind the worker. “Just in time. Please show this person to the door.”

The clammy hand squeezed the worker’s shoulder. He did not want to turn around. Awful as what he was seeing was, he was sure that whatever was behind him would be worse. But whatever irresistible force first compelled him to get off the bus and then compelled him to enter this house (the same force, he was now certain, that lured any number of people into these homes each year, never to be seen again), was now telling him to turn around and look at his escort. So he did.

And then, mercifully, came unconsciousness.

***

In a way, nothing changed for the worker after that. He still got up at the same time each day, still went to his same jobs, still took the same busses and, yes, still passed through the Neighborhood each morning. He thought he would be afraid to, but he soon realized that the Neighborhood was not the same creature during the day as it was during the night. There was really nothing to fear in the Neighborhood by day.

Yes, in one sense nothing changed, but in a more important sense things were never quite the same again. The worker always thought he knew the city the way like he would have known a brother if he’d ever had one. But now the city seemed dark and alien, and he began to suspect he did not know it at all. Worse, he began to think he did not even want to.

It was not the people at the table who haunted his dreams, not their bloodless faces, or their long fangs behind sneering gray lips. Nor was it the shapeless, gibbering thing they called a servant. No, what haunted the worker was the memory of that bloodstained napkin on the table, and the remains of the nightly meal spread out on the red-dappled tablecloth. “We’ve already eaten,” the pale man had said. Whenever the worker closed his eyes he glimpsed what lay on that table, and he remembered what was left of its face. And the worker knew that if he had come to that house an hour or perhaps even fifteen minutes earlier they would never have simply thrown him out, never have just laughed at him and let him go.

And now he understood why the Neighborhood was empty by daylight, and why it never looked lived-in. Because certainly the things that inhabited those houses could not be called alive, and they could not abide the light of the sun. But the city belonged to them, and they were its true inhabitants in a way that the worker never could be. In all likelihood, they had been here since it was founded. And would stay here forever.

***

“…and that’s how it happened. I don’t expect any of you to believe me, but that’s all right. I’d almost rather not be believed.”

“Where is this neighborhood? What route is that?”

“Let’s not pester our new friend with a lot of questions.”

“You were the one who was interrogating him in the first place. I just want to know—”

“Well I don’t want to know what route it was. Even if his story wasn’t true…can we just talk about something else?”

“Yes, we can and we should. My story’s done and there’s nothing else to say.”

“Now wait a minute, friend. I appreciate you breaking the ice for me, as it were, with that story, because I have a story of my own.”

“Oh, here he goes.”

“I’d say it’s even stranger than yours, and since you were honest with me I think it’s only fair that I be honest back.”

“If he’s going to do this we need more beer.”

“I needed more anyway. Does anyone really want to hear this?”

“I do.”

“I do too. I believed every word of that first story and in fact I have one a lot like it. And if anyone else has one too, I want to hear it.

“And I’ll buy the next round.”

 

Neighborhood Watch - 1

Neighborhood Watch - 2

Neighborhood Watch - 3

Neighborhood Watch - 4

 

 

Credit To – Tam Lin

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Devil’s Hole Cave

April 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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Nathaniel  H. Jackson’s Journal
November 11, 1911

I had never intended on venturing into that cave. That cave where no one ever dared to go near. I remember when I was a child how my friends and I would play around the property border. Back then, the cave was on a plot of land that belonged to my uncle. He did not let anyone trespass, not even his own family. He hated his brother (my father) and didn’t do anything with the 200 acres until he died. Naturally, all of the land was an untamed wilderness.

When my uncle died, my parents had already been gone a long time. Being that I was the eldest in my bloodline, the property went to me. Whether my uncle wanted me to have it or not I will never know.

With the inheritance from my father, I had a lovely estate built on the property and am in the midst of cleaning up the land. Considering I don’t need too much space, I am also in the process of selling parts of the land.  I have had no trouble doing so. The property, as it turns out, is quite pleasant with a bit of grooming. The cave is the only exception.

I cannot determine whether they are wolves or coyotes but they do pose a threat. There is also the reason I began to investigate the cave in the first place. There is some sort of creature living in the cave. While there is probably a very logical explanation for what is in there, the legend behind it goes back several decades.

During the war, a group of Confederate soldiers marched through the territory which I own today. They found the cave and decided to camp there for the night. One man, who suffered from somnambulism, walked deep into the cavern while still asleep. He walked right up to a drop-off in the cave and fell about 200 feet. When the other men woke the next morning, they did not find their friend and went looking for him in the cave. When they came to the drop-off, they heard what they believed to be the voice of Satan himself.

I have heard and told this scary story many times. It has never affected me the way it does now. While the wild dogs are a problem, the legend also scares off potential buyers. I thought it in my best interest to find out what is in that cave and drive it out.

I have gathered some rope (a little more than 200 feet), some flares, an oil lamp, and my pack to carry it all in. Finally, I shall bring my father’s rifle, which I have only ever used on quails, and hope that it will be enough to protect me against any wild hounds. I will discover what exactly lurks in the cave first thing tomorrow morning.

November 12, 1911

It is difficult to write, for my hand is still shaking and my heart has not stopped racing. I did in fact encounter a malevolent being in the cave. I cannot say what I saw for in reality I saw nothing, but I fear I will never again be truly at peace after today’s venture.

I had left the house this morning at around five O’ clock and had taken the automobile as close as I could get it to where the cave was. The vehicle could not drive over the brush, so I set out on foot. From there, I was only about a mile away from the cave. As I was on my way, I realized what an effort it would take to make this land attractive to buyers. Several tall, dead trees are scattered across the land and refuse to fall. Their grotesque branches cast a grim feel over the land. The grass is up to my midriff and the insects are really quite terrible. I told myself that if I did not find anything remarkable about the cave that day then I would forget about the land around it entirely.

I made it to the cave unscathed but still annoyed at the swarm of bugs I had met on my journey. There were less bugs around the cave, which I was thankful for. It was still early in the morning but I wanted to get home as soon as possible. With relative precaution, I entered the cave.

The mouth of the cave was a bit of a squeeze, but I am somewhat slim and was able to maneuver my way through. As I went deeper into the cave, the ground slowly changed from rough soil to hard stone and the walls grew further apart. I did not need my lamp at first, for the light of the rising sun reached deep into the cave. There were no stalactites to worry about and the roof of the cavern was about eight feet up. I was beginning to feel a little disappointed. This legendary cave did not seem to have any significance at all. There was no light in the area ahead, so I picked up a small rock and threw it. To my surprise, I did not hear it land as soon as I thought it would. Instead, I heard it impact very far away.

My heart began to thump with excitement. I lit the oil lamp with a match and walked forward. Sure enough, just like in the old story, a steep cliff lied before me. I am not afraid of heights, but I did not want to fall into the abyss where no one would ever find me. I placed the lamp on the floor and lay myself flat on my stomach. I inched forward to get a better look at what was down there. I peeked my head over the edge to look down. It was pitch black. I would need to climb down.

With the tools I had brought, I hammered cleats into the stone floor and fastened my rope to them. I began to descend. I held my lamp in one hand and gripped the strong chord with the other. My pack held the flares and the rifle. For about five minutes I steadily lowered myself down into the darkness. I listened for any noise from below, but there was nothing. As I delved deeper, I began to wonder how facile it would be to return to the surface.

When the bottom of my boot touched the ground, I let out a sigh of relief. My lamp was still lit and the rope was still tethered to the surface. I looked around a good bit and walked forward. It was as though I was walking through an empty field at night. The air around me felt almost open and I could’ve sworn I felt a faint breeze. However, the ground was barren as a tile floor and the silence was quite ominous.

My brief amazement had distracted me. I really should have used some sort of marking system. When I was finally struck with reality, I found myself lost in the nothingness. A slight panic overcame me as I looked around, unable to determine which direction I had come from. I wandered in the vacuum and the silence, feeling like a helpless toddler. It was then that I stumbled upon the notebook.

I had felt something under my shoe and retraced my steps to find a small, leather journal. I picked it up and held it close to my lamp. The cover read one name: DANIEL RODRICK. I thumbed through a couple of pages and read one of the entries near the middle.

June 17, 1862
I had to see the doc today. He told me I got some namalism. I dont know what he meaned at first but he told me its just a fancy word for sleep walking. I dont need a doc to tell me I been sleep walking. I been doing it sinse I was a kid. Anywho the doc wants me to take these special pills to stay asleep. I gotta pack a whole bunch befor I leave tomorow.

I froze after reading that entry and closed the notebook. I had just found the journal of a man who sleep walks in a cave where a similar man is said to have died. As I stood there, in the midst of the nothingness, I heard the noise that will haunt me for as long as I live.

At that very moment, there came a low hissing sound. I have never been to the Arctic Circle, yet I felt my blood turn as cold as the ocean water that runs through it. A shiver ran down my spine and I nearly dropped the lamp from my trembling hand. Clutching the notebook and my oil lamp, I ran.

I ran as far as I could from the noise, but it did not cease. The hissing only grew louder and louder. I was looking straight ahead as I sprinted, not daring to look behind me. I was so blinded by genuine terror that I did not see the rough stone wall as I barreled into it. The force of the impact was so great that I shattered my lamp into a thousand tiny pieces and shards of glass.

I hit my head rather hard on the wall, but stood up immediately. Complete darkness. I put my hands to the wall and frantically walked parallel to it, moving to the right. I thought my heart would give out when I finally felt the familiar, coarse feel of my rope. I took a moment to steady myself, for I was breathing heavier than I ever had before.

When my breathing calmed, I realized that it was completely silent once more. I let out a small laugh, unsure if it was a laugh of relief or hysteria. Still clutching the rope with my right hand, I turned and put my back against the wall. My eyes might have been just as useful closed. There was only black. I stared into the darkness, my breathing now having gone almost silent. I could’ve turned around at any moment and ascend back into sanity. However, an unknown force kept me staring into the nothingness, expecting something more…

Something right in front of me began to hiss.

This hissing was the most horrifyingly vile sound to ever enter my mind. Whatever was before me was large and could strike fear into death itself. How I got out of that treacherous cavern is beyond my understanding. My memory of escape is smeared by the sound of that demon. That monstrous entity should have finished me off right then and there in that cave with my back against the wall. However, I came home today knowing that that beast wanted me to live in fear for trying to exploit it.

In the end, letting me live was the greatest torment that the monster could have bestowed upon me. It is now my curse to live with the memory of what the devil itself sounds like.

Credit To – Nicolas MF Morton

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The House

March 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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When I was four years old, and playing around in my new neighborhood, I had an experience that I would never forget for the rest of my life.
While walking down my street, I couldn’t help but notice a strange-looking house. It was made of mottled black and white bricks, with tall sharp spires reaching into the sky. Gray curtains were pressed against the windows, and the yard was filled with untended, dying trees. As I was walking past the house, I felt an inexplicable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can’t explain it, even now, but it felt like a dark aura was pushing against the very soul of my body, dragging me to the house like a monster would toward its lair.
As I slowly began walking, I started to notice doves flying into the dead trees. The birds were driving themselves beak first into the trunks, and I could hear a snapping sound come from the doves’ necks as they fell to the ground. I started panicking, but my body didn’t respond. I tried shouting out, but my mouth wouldn’t move. I was moving ever so slowly toward the house. Finally, what seemed like eternity, I edged close enough to the door, and rang the doorbell. The sound that issued was like a scream from a ghost, so loud and terrible it pierced my eardrums, and put me in a state of terror unknown since I was born. I thought about all the wonderful moments I had in my life, the moments shared with my sister and brother. I thought about the joyful experiences I shared with my parents and grandparents. I thought about my ungratefulness toward my family, how I got myself into this terrible mess, and what I would do to get out of it. I started sobbing inside, and before I knew it, the door slowly creaked open. By this time I thought whatever inside was some sort of demon, ready to tear my insides out with its jagged teeth and roast them in the fireplace to eat. But in the house, most surprisingly, was a nice-looking old woman, dressed in white. She had a kindly old face, full of wrinkles, and pure white hair. Her face was glowing, and amiable smile gave me such warmness that the feeling in my stomach dissipated, and I was left in control of my own body again.

“Why hello there, dear,” the old woman crooned, “Do you live in this neighborhood? Why don’t you come on in? You look as though you’ve been scared out your wits!”
Without further ado, she gently took my shoulders and pushed me inside the house. The interior looked like something from a fairytale wonderland: The walls were painted with drawings of deer and horses that seemed to come to life before your very eyes. Candles scattered around lit the place with a cozy feeling. The entire house, it seems from where I stood, was filled with evergreen trees, and dark-green grass was growing beneath my shoes. I took a step forward, gaping with my mouth open at the sudden change of scenery.
“Yes, yes. I get that look from almost every child that passes through my house…” she mused as she hobbled into the kitchen. “Wait in the living room, my dear. I’ll be back with some freshly baked cookies!”
Although I was prone to listening to instructions, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to explore the house. And that decision saved my life.
Prowling around, I noticed a staircase that went upstairs. Quietly, I tiptoed to the second floor. Here, I noticed a long corridor that stretched to the other side of the house. Along it lay countless doors. I tried the first one, which was firmly locked shut. After walking a few steps, I somehow tripped, and that’s where I saw it. A door to my left, that was open with an infinitely small crack. A strong, unusual smell came from the room. I got up from my knees and pushed the door wide open. Inside were dead bodies of children. Each holding a half-eaten cookie.
I felt as though my gasp could be heard all across the house. With a beating heartbeat, I ran as quietly as I could along the corridor, and down the stairs. Just as I reached the door, a hand pressed firmly on my shoulder. I turned around to see the old woman, with large, blue eyes staring right into me.
“Why sweetie,” said the old lady, “Your cookies are done! You can’t leave until you’ve had a bite.”
I stammered, “N-no thanks. I have to g-go back home.” I shook off the woman’s hand and opened the door.
Suddenly, with the speed of a cheetah, she slammed the door shut with her left hand. The house darkened for a split second. “Take a cookie,” smiled the lady, holding a platter of them.
Left with no choice, I took one.
“Now eat it,” said the lady.
As I raised the cookie up to my mouth, I ran various scenarios through my head. Only one idea stuck. When you do brave things, that’s when it really matters.
With as much power as a four-old could muster, I threw my cookie right into the lady’s face. As she shrieked, I quickly opened the door, and ran like I never ran across the yard with the dead doves, until I reached the street of my neighborhood. From there, I sprinted back home, where I collapsed onto our front porch and started to weep.

When I told my parents what happened, they didn’t believe me. They insisted it was a daydream, and that I imagined the whole thing. They took me across to the street, much to my protest, to prove their point. And I could not prove them wrong, because that strange-looking house was not there anymore.

Credit To – narkuga

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