As a code enforcement officer, I’m not well-liked by the citizens of Winter Garden, Florida. Most of the time people tend to get upset when you tell them something about their property violates the standards of the City. I’ve only been doing this job about six months now, while most of the citizens have lived here longer than I’ve been alive. Naturally, they defend their land and I always play the sympathetic role. After all, the city’s goal is to get voluntary compliance and no one wants to comply with someone yelling demands at them, so I always “kill them with kindness,” as I say.
We tread especially lightly on the east side of town. This is where most of the lower-income families live, and there are still a handful of properties that haven’t been annexed into the city. We let most violations slide, only addressing extreme cases like unsafe buildings, and responding to citizen complaints.
A few weeks ago I was driving down Lincoln Terrace, on the east side of town, when I noticed a house. I’d never noticed this particular house before, but there it was. A pale yellow paint that had been faded away from years of sun exposure and rain. It had probably seen a few hurricanes, too. The twin windows that face the road we broken and the frames, falling from the rotted wood opening.
How have I never noticed this before? I thought, looking intently at the house. I have been in just about every neighborhood in the city and observed what I thought was every dilapidated house in the city, but I could be wrong. I do have a tendency to focus on one side of the road when I’m driving through neighborhoods, and I tend to shy away from the east side of town since we’re letting most things slide. This was one thing that I was sure needed to be addressed quickly. This house could collapse at any minute.
I flipped on the yellow strobe lights in my city vehicle and put the car in park. I pulled the small memo pad out of the center console, then the tape measure from my glove box. I jumped out of the car in a quick swift motion and made my way towards the front door. I measured the grass as I went up to the front door. “Twenty-four inches…” I said to myself as I scribbled it down in my notepad. I also took note of the address. “Ten-Eighty Lincoln Terrace…” I said again as I jotted the note in my pad.
I pulled out my phone and took a picture of the house. The chain-link fence that surrounded the yard was rusted and falling down in some spots. I could see through the opening, where the twin window once was, and the roof had caved in. There was now a large, gaping hole in the roof with shingles and insulation sprawled throughout the inside.
I gave three good knocks to the front door, knowing no one would answer. Our official policy was to get the owner’s consent before entering any property. The city didn’t want to be accused of trespassing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to open the front door.
“I have to see the inside…” I said to myself. I reached for the small, brass doorknob and slowly turned it. As I did, I felt an unshakeable feeling of dread creep over me. I knew what I was doing was against policy, but something was telling me I needed to keep going.
I pushed the door inward and was immediately met with a terrible stench. Something like urine and metal shavings coated the inside of my nostrils and my eyes started to water. I gagged and swallowed hard, trying to keep the bile from working it’s way up my esophagus. I pulled my white cotton undershirt up over my nose and mouth in an attempt to keep the stench away and stepped through the doorway.
Suddenly, I heard a loud slamming noise, like a door closing, followed by what sounded like wood falling onto a hard surface.
“Hello?” I yelled, trying to sound like my usual, friendly self. “My name is Jon. I’m with the city…” still trying to project a non-threatening tone. It felt nearly impossible with this horrific odor choking me. There was no response. “Hmm, must be some other part of the house caving in” I said to myself as I stepped further into decaying structure. “I better make this quick.”
Old furniture lay, deteriorated and destroyed, scattered throughout what used to be the living room. Remnants of the collapsed roof covering what was left of the small living room. Every surface was coated in a thin layer of mildew, from exposure to the elements, and gave off a pale, greenish-yellow glow.
Then, I heard something. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was coming from, and it was so faint that I could barely make out what it was, but I knew it was a voice. It was almost like a whisper, but it was growing louder. Now I could make out what it was saying.
“Isabella…” the voice whispered. It sounded distant, but close at the same time and came from all directions. For a second it felt like someone was whispering into my ear from behind. I turned with a jolt, scanning my surroundings. There was no one, but the voice persisted.
“Isabella…” It sounded like a woman’s voice, an old woman with a raspy, smokers voice. It repeated over and over again, longingly, as if it was calling for someone.
Each time the voice grew louder. “Isabella… Isabella…” the voice was so loud at this point that it began to disorient me. “Isabella!” The thunderous voice shouted with anger, then all fell silent. Suddenly, the walls began shaking violently. Drywall and insulation fell around me and I knew at that point that I had to leave. The house was about to collapse.
I got my bearings, as best I could, and ran out the front door as fast as my legs could move. I jumped in my car and slammed the door. I let out a sigh of relief. From the outside, the house appeared the same as it was when I stopped. The shaking had stopped and there was no evidence that the house was on the verge of collapsing, other than its obvious, dilapidated state.
“What the hell was that? ” I said to myself, still trying to catch my breath. “Who is Isabella? Where was that voice coming from? And the shaking…” I had so many questions, but I couldn’t ask anyone. No one could know I was there, otherwise, I’d lose my job and possibly have legal action taken against me.
Better keep this to myself. I don’t want anyone finding out that I went against city policy or, better yet, thinking I’m some sort of lunatic. I thought as I put the car in drive and slowly pulled away from the house.
I tried to go about the rest of my day like normal, patrolling neighborhoods and looking for any code violations, but that experience played over and over again in my mind. And that smell, that horrible smell of blood and piss. What could cause such a thing? I tried to put the whole thing in the back of my mind. I knew I just needed to wait for our weekly meeting and I’d show my boss, Steve, the photo and he would have me start with the condemnation process.
I pulled my cell phone from my breast pocket and opened the photos app, hoping to see something in the photo I took just before entering the home. To my surprise, the photo showed a perfectly normal home, with stucco exterior and shiny, glistening windows. The fence that had fallen stood tall, free of any rust or apparent decay. The yard was beautifully mowed and there was no evidence of any violations.
“What?” I said, questioning my sanity. “No, that’s not right. There’s no way… I saw the house with my own eyes. It was falling down, overgrown…” I couldn’t fathom what could possibly cause such a phenomenon, but I knew I needed to go back the next day to investigate.
That night, my dreams were invaded by a headless silhouette of a woman, pointing long, bony fingers at me and saying in that raspy voice that was so familiar “Isabella…”
I awoke to my wife, Catherine, shaking me violently trying to wake me up. She said I was shaking and saying something under my breath. I told her it was a just nightmare and apologized for waking her. I still didn’t quite understand what I was dealing with, and I didn’t want to get her involved and risk her safety if I didn’t have to. She told me it was okay and rolled back over and went to bed. I tossed and turned for what felt like hours before finally falling back to sleep.
I woke up the next morning and after sluggishly getting ready, I pulled the thirty-three caliber revolver from the safe under my bed and secured it in a small, concealed ankle holster on my right leg. I also grabbed the painter’s mask from my storage closet, hoping it might mask that horrendous odor when I inevitably return to the horrific house.
I arrived at work, gave my usual “good mornings” and set out, telling my boss I was going on patrol. I pulled in front of the house. Just the sight of it sent chills down my spine. I sat in my car, staring at the house. I was trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do. Then, a thought hit me. Take another picture, I thought.
I pulled out my cell phone from its usual perch in my breast pocket and opened the camera. Looking through the camera on my cell phone screen, the house looked as it was in real life. The dilapidated structure stood, appearing ready to fall at any moment. I snapped a quick photo and immediately checked it. The house was perfect in the photo, not a scratch in sight. The picture looked like it would be on a real estate website.
I lowered the phone and brought my eyes to the house, staring directly at the fallen window. I noticed a shadow move across the window. That was enough to tell me I needed to go in. I pulled the painter’s mask from my center console and parted from my car, flipping my yellow strobe lights on as I exited the vehicle.
When I arrived at the front door I gave three, hard knocks. So hard that I could feel the door move with each hit. There was no answer. I slipped the painter’s mask on my face, making sure all the edges were sealed and slowly opened the front door. As I stepped in, I felt a warm, humid wind blow across my face, but there was no smell. The mask was successfully keeping the scent at bay.
Not knowing how much time I had until I am struck with another “Isabella” episode, I began sifting through piles of rubble, trying to find a clear path. I noticed a clear area that moved around the living room and forked at the end. Left went towards the back of the house, down a hallway that I couldn’t quite see down and the right went into an open kitchen, where I could see something in a black, cast iron pot bubbling on the stove.
I moved closer to the bubbling stew on the stove, kicking through old pieces of broken drywall and rotted two-by-fours. I passed a half-wall when I came across a dining room table that was still intact. On the table were notes and pages scattered, all with shapes and symbols similar to old runic letters. What is this? I thought. Witchcraft? From what little I knew about witchcraft, I knew that it was not something I wanted to get involved with.
The path came to a dead end after the kitchen, so I turned around and headed back into the living room. I followed the path through the back hall, debris lining the hallway like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. I peeked my head through a doorway on my left. Nothing but remnants of the ceiling and insulation scattered throughout a small, nineteen-seventies era bathroom. I continued down the hall and came to a door. It was cracked open, and I could see movement inside. What I saw when I opened the door, I will never forget.
A black figure stood in front of me. It appeared to be a woman, but she was missing her head and a thick, black tarry substance was pouring from her severed neck! She quickly turned to reveal a grotesque figure of a short, frail woman with pale grey skin stretched tightly over her bones. Inhumanly long, bony fingers with jagged, black fingernails, held something tightly in her right arm. It was her head, cradled like a football! Its lips were moving and it was saying an all too familiar word… “Isabella…” Her thick, raspy voice echoing in my ears.
I nearly collapsed from fear, but I couldn’t move, like I was being held in place by some invisible force. Paralyzed, I stood there as she pointed her inhumanly long finger at me and began hobbling slowly towards me saying, “Isabella… Isabella… Isabella…” Suddenly, she put her finger down and grasped her chest with her free hand, as if she was having a heart attack.
She gasped and coughed violently, falling to her knees, but still managing to grasp her head in her right arm. I felt the hold on me release and I stumbled for a second before regaining my balance.
Pure fear and adrenaline fueling me, I remembered the gun I had on my ankle. I quickly reached down and grabbed it. Swiftly pointing the gun at the undead witch, I felt the hold come over me again. She was standing again, and pointing at me continuously saying that name. The hold felt different this time though, not as tight.
I concentrated hard, thinking about squeezing the trigger on the gun and trying so hard to regain control of my body. Sharp pains rippled through my body and I felt a strong headache come on. She continued slowly hobbling towards me, pointing and saying “Isabella…” She must have been inches from me when I felt my index finger fall against the trigger and heard a loud crack.
The witch stopped, appearing shocked she lowered her hand. A hole in her chest began spewing the black substance as she fell to her knees. She let out an inhuman squeal and I felt the hold release. Not wasting any time, I quickly fired another shot and she collapsed. Her head rolled from her arms and revealed a clean shot directly over her right eye.
Unsure of what just happened, I turned and ran as quickly as I possibly could. Did I just kill that woman? I thought as I exited the house. Was she even human or was she some kind of zombie-witch? I quickly opened the door to my car and jumped in. I waited, catching my breath and regaining my bearings. I looked around to see if anyone was outside who may have heard what transpired, but I saw no one. I watched the house for what felt like an eternity, waiting for any sign of the horrific witch but there was no movement.
I still felt uneasy, the uncertainty weighing on me. Was this whole thing over, or was that horrific witch going to come back? Then I thought of it. The picture, maybe it was some sort of spell or something. I quickly pulled the phone from my pocket and snapped a photo. There it stood, the dilapidated, decaying structure just as decrepit as it was in person. I felt a wave of relief flow over me and lowered my phone.
It’s been three weeks now, since that incident. After telling my wife about it, we both took a vacation and went to Key West for two weeks. We figured it would do us some good to get away and reset. I’m finally back to work and for the first couple of days, I stayed off the east side of town, but duty calls and I couldn’t stay away from that side of town forever.
I drove by that hellish house yesterday and noticed a construction crew consisting of a few good ol’ boys who rented an excavator. They were demolishing the house. The carport had already been torn down and metal fragments lay, scattered throughout the overgrown front yard. I opened my laptop and logged into our permit software. Demolitions require a permit with our city, but I didn’t see one on file. I sat there, contemplating what to do.
I put the car in drive and slowly pulled away from the jobsite.
Credit: Jon Thomas
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