Tristan has been itching for a new mystery to solve, and he has poked and prodded me for two months to find one. He said he can’t go alone, since I am the brave one, but I have been busy with finals and job applications. Tristan graduated a year ago and has a job freelance writing and editing for an online magazine. I am a junior, though, so I still have school to worry about. That doesn’t stop him from trying to persuade me to abandon my schoolwork and go on an adventure with him. My parents died in a car accident two years ago, and his parents got divorced and moved to opposite sides of the Eastern Hemisphere when he graduated high school, so we’re all each other has. It’s a good thing I am typically on board with his shenanigans.
“It’s winter break, Lexi. It’s time.”
He is right, I guess. Now is as good a time as any, and besides Halloween, December is the best time to go ghost hunting. I use that term loosely. Tristan and I grew up on scary movies, Stephen King, and all the folklore of things that go bump in the night. Ever since he could drive, Tristan has been dragging me all over upstate New York to supposedly haunted houses he finds in the library archives—since that’s where all the best mysteries are. We explore until one of us hears one-too-many unexplainable creaks in the floorboards, and then we jump ship. So far, nothing has ever come from our travels other than a good story to tell our friends.
Tristan says its our thing. Some couples go on exciting dates as much as possible, others stay in every weekend watching Netflix. But Tristan and I? We search for something worthy to be in the next Goosebumps novel.
“What death trap are we investigating this time?” I ask.
“I don’t know yet. Let’s just drive.”
I snatch the keys off the coffee table before he can. “Then I am the navigator today.”
He doesn’t protest, he just follows me into my dad’s old, black Cadillac. I pop in one of the Zeppelin cassette tapes I keep in the glove box, and the mood is set. Before we get anywhere, Tristan makes me stop at Charlie’s, the diner at the edge of town, for our classic pre-adventure meal: cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes.
I ease through the highway’s back roads in search of some sort of turn off that hasn’t been touched in a long time, at least by anyone sane. We encounter a few run-down estates, but they’re not good enough for Tristan.
We grew up in Manhattan together, and there was plenty going on there to keep us busy, but it wasn’t the right kind of adventure. So when Tristan picked the furthest SUNY from Long Island—so far away it might as well be in Canada—I couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps. Outside of the city, we could roam pretty much anywhere, and the easily forgettable, unpopulated part of New York begged for us to explore it. For the last few years, it’s been our favorite hobby. We haven’t found much of interest in our last few expeditions, and I know Tristan is looking for something extra-exciting.
We have been driving around long enough that the sun is nearing the horizon. I don’t want to tell Tristan that I think we should turn back and try again tomorrow, but my stomach is growling. I tell myself that if we don’t find anything in the next ten minutes, I will speak up, but the end of one long and twisting gravel road, there it is. It’s a grand, colonial mansion—or at least, it used to be. The pillars framing the door are overgrown with ivy, and the brick is crumbling. The windows are all boarded up from the inside. I can tell that in its heyday the red bricks were perfectly paved, and the trim and pillars around the entryway glowed in the daylight. That the windows dotting the exterior glittered, flowers bloomed in the window boxes, and the stones that made up the walkway were beautifully and strategically placed. The grass in the clearing was green and the mower lines could have been drawn with a ruler. Now it looks sad and unloved.
“It’s perfect,” Tristan says. “Let’s explore.”
Weeds make the walkway almost invisible, and my feet get tangled in them. On the off chance that the front door is open, Tristan tries the knob. Of course, it doesn’t budge. We walk around the side of the house, looking for a way to see the interior, but all the windows are well covered. It’s a race against the sun to find something we can work with.
I tell Tristan we are going to stay in the clearing the house is settled on. The forest surrounding the property already looks dark and full of secrets. I don’t want to know what’s hiding in there yet. Tristan agrees and focuses on the house.
“Wait, look at this!” I point to a window near the ground that isn’t covered by wood.
Tristan pries it open and points his flashlight into the dark space. It is a basement, flooded with grimy water. Neither of us can tell how deep it goes, so we give up on that option. It is getting dark, and we are not finding any way inside. I tell Tristan we can come back earlier another day so we can have more time.
“Just a few more minutes,” he insists.
“Tristan, please. I think it’s going to rain,” I say, but I let him have the extra time.
Back at the front of the house, he decides to chance the stability of the trellis near the door. The boards aren’t as thick there, so there is a chance he can see inside. I stand at the foot of it, ready to catch him if he falls—or at least, break his fall. He peers onto the balcony, and fear flashes across his face. When he climbs down, he is ready to go.
“What did you see?”
He doesn’t speak until we are both in the car and driving away. “I think it was blood.”
I want him to elaborate, but he won’t say anything more. Usually, this is just the kind of thing that makes Tristan more curious, but now he is just scared. I almost want to turn around and investigate myself, but I won’t since he is so shaken.
“If there was blood, shouldn’t we do something about it?” I ask. “That’s a much bigger discovery than those scratched out eyes in portraits at the Hansen Estate last summer. We’ve never seen blood before.”
“It was kind of brown, actually. Might have just been dirt or mud or something.”
It’s not like Tristan to lie to me. I know him too well, and there is definitely more than he is saying. I drive through town and park in front of the little police station.
“Are you going to say anything, or am I? Because I can overlook a lot of things in this little hobby of ours, but not this,” I tell him.
“But what if it’s nothing?”
“What if it’s not?”
He sighs. We both know I’m right, and after a staring match, he says he will leave an anonymous tip. It’s a good enough compromise for me, and I wait while he makes the call.
He is silent the whole drive home and refuses to speak about it for days after. I know he saw something else he isn’t telling me about, but I can’t get it out of him. He voices no desire to go back or to explore elsewhere.
Christmas morning, he wakes up more frazzled than usual. “Lexi, I have to tell you something.”
I stop spreading frosting on the cinnamon rolls we always eat for breakfast on this day. “What is it?”
“I’ve been having these dreams about that house,” he tells me. “Every night, the same one. The house is beautiful and pristine, and I am standing at the end of the walkway. Then this girl comes out of the front door, she’s maybe sixteen. Beautiful, skin like the ‘after’ photos in those acne commercials, and white blonde hair. She’s wearing this white dress. She walks towards me, and as she does, she starts deteriorating. The house, too. I’ve been waking up before she can completely disintegrate, but last night, she fell into my arms and asked me to help her before she turned to dust.”
I lean against the counter. “I don’t like the sound of that, Tristan.”
“We have to go back.”
I stop him right there. “How are you so sure it means something?”
He is finally ready to let me in on his little secret. “There was a picture of her. I could kind of see it through the boards on the window. I mean, it wasn’t clear or anything, but I know it was her. Please, can we go back?”
Part of me says it’s a bad idea. If he is getting these weird vibes, then we should stay far away from the peculiar mansion. Only I have never seen him more invested in something.
“Okay, we can go tomorrow morning.”
Relief washes over his face, but I’m still unsure about this. But as skeptical as I am, curiosity plants itself in my brain. There is something more to that house than we originally thought, a reason it has gone untouched for so long.
We open presents and watch Christmas movies. A couple of our friends who couldn’t go home for the holidays come over for dinner, and Tristan and I pretend like we don’t want to be anywhere else. Like we’re not only thinking about the house and the mystery surrounding it.
It’s late by the time everyone goes home, but I stay up and start searching for some answers on the internet. I spend hours clicking through the library’s digitized files, Google, and old newspaper scans. I wish I had time to dig through the actual library. I work there during the school year, and the woman who runs the place loves me. If only I had taken her up on her offer to hold onto the spare key over the break.
Tristan finds me in the kitchen a little after dawn, and I am on my second cup of coffee and my gazillionth Google search. I had expanded my search to the town where we found the police station, and that is where my research took a turn I could I work with. Apparently, the town had been founded by refugees who escaped the witch hunts in the seventeenth century. It was built upon this cult’s ideals and had a long history of strange happenings. Of course, that stuff was history by now.
While I didn’t find anything about the house, I did find a family tree that dated back two centuries. The last of the founding families had died off almost a hundred years ago, but one picture catches my attention. It’s a scan of a portrait of a mother, father, and their daughter. The mother is a Marilyn, blonde and beautiful, and the father has a full mustache and gold-framed glasses. He’s not particularly handsome, but he does look intimidating. Between them sits a young girl, blonde like her mother, with pale skin and eyes like a gloomy sky, sad and gray.
“This is her, isn’t it?” The girl from your dream.”
He nods. “Good to know I wasn’t just imagining her. I was starting to doubt I’d seen anything in the window at all.”
“I wish I knew what it meant,” I say, and I give him a quick summary of what I had discovered about the town.
“That’s crazy. Did you happen to find any news from the tip we gave?”
I tell him I haven’t. Based on the history of the place, maybe whoever took the call just assumed it was a prank. If anything had come from it, I would have found a story.
“We’re still going back today, right?” I ask.
“We have to. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
I gulp the last bit of my coffee. “Then let’s get this show on the road.”
It takes us a little while to find the house again, as if it disappeared since we stumbled upon it the first time. I know we hadn’t been looking for it before, but we should have passed the turn-off by now. A road couldn’t have just disappeared. I know I don’t actually believe in magic or the supernatural, but this seemed fishy.
Tristan flips over the Led Zeppelin IV tape to the B side. “We’re in the right place, aren’t we?” he asks.
“We should be. I remember that road sign with the graffiti on it a few miles back.”
“Wait, it’s right up there!”
I weave up the drive, and it is wilder than I remember. I fill my tire tracks from our last visit. I don’t see any others, so I know the police didn’t take our tip seriously. I take my knife out from underneath my seat and give Tristan the one in the glove box. You know, just in case.
“As I’ll ever be,” Tristan says.
It is eerier than before, but I walk forward. Something tells me to try the front door one more time. The rusted over knob is freezing in my hand, but it turns easily this time. If there is ever a time to about-face and run for my life, it is now, but Tristan and I walk into the dark foyer anyway. The only light that comes in is that through the doorway. As a whole, the first floor is dark and musty. It smells like mold and dirt and death. Dust particles float in the open air down to the rotting wooden floors. To the left is a library and to right the kitchen.
Thump, thump, thump.
I think the sound is Tristan knocking on the walls. He likes secret passageways and is always looking for hollow spots. But he is standing under the archway in the library. Cobwebs droop from shelf to shelf of untouched books. An ornate desk sits in front of a marble-cased fireplace. Above the mantle hangs a family portrait. It’s the same one as I saw online with the girl. She looks even sadder. Tristan shutters and backs out of the room to explore elsewhere.
I glanced over the spines of the books at my eye level. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tolstoy, and other classics, encyclopedias that probably weighed more than I did, books I had never heard of, and…bingo, books on witchcraft. I picked one of them up and opened it to the middle. It was about the history of a coven in Germany. The next detailed various levels of witchcraft, from cults who believed to actual magical beings.
Thump, thump, thump.
The sound is far away, and I can’t tell which direction it is coming from. My focus is on the books. I follow the voice in my head that tells me to investigate the desk, completely ignoring the alarms in the back of my mind. A few dusty papers are messily spread on top. Some are blank, and some look like letters. They are so old I cannot read them, though, so I decide to pry open the drawers. There isn’t much except dust, but in the bottom drawer, shoved deep in the back, I find a small but thick leather bound book. It’s not as dirty as it should be, I think.
Thump, thump, thump.
The sound stops me for a moment, and I listen for it again. Nothing comes. It sounds like a warning, but I can’t stop yet. The book in my hands is full of incantations, recipes with strange ingredients, and ritual practices. My eyes are glued to the pages.
Tristan’s voice pulls me from my trance. “Find something good?”
“Something great! Come look at this.” I show him the page I am currently opened to.
“Wow, Lex. This is probably the most interesting and simultaneously creepiest place we’ve ever found.”
I agree and ask him if he’s found anything promising. He says that the kitchen is pretty empty, save for some herbs and spices. It smells like something died in there recently, but he couldn’t find what.
“Every other door I’ve tried is locked except for the one right next to the library. It leads to the basement, though,” he tells me.
“Should we check upstairs? That’s where you thought you saw the blood.”
Thump, thump, thump.
Tristan looks towards the ceiling. “It sounds like it’s coming from the second floor.”
We both walk out of the library to where the sweeping staircase leads to the daunting upper level. Neither of us make a move to climb it. It doesn’t look safe at all, and I start have a bad feeling about this. I can’t figure out what drew us here so strongly, but I suddenly don’t like it. Tristan looks nervous, too.
A panel of wood underneath the staircase doesn’t look like it is connected to the rest, and with closer inspection, I realize it’s a hidden cabinet. As soon as I pry it open, I wish I hadn’t. A pile of mutilated cats lay inside. The stench hits me like a bus and I gag. Tristan shuts the cabinet quickly and looks sick.
“Rats and squirrels I can deal with,” Tristan says with a disgusted look on his face. “But cats are a new one.”
“And those ones didn’t just die here. Someone put them there.”
“We should get out of here.”
I am on board with the idea. This really doesn’t feel right anymore. In fact, it feels so horribly wrong that I can’t imagine why we came here in the first place.
Thump, thump, thump.
Tristan and I look up again. It’s definitely coming from upstairs.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
It doesn’t stop now. The sound is closer and stronger and matches my heartbeat. Fear rises in my chest.
At the top of the staircase, black hooded cloaks file in. They are shadows in the darkness, and my flashlight does nothing to curb the fear that now bubbles inside me. My fight-or-flight instincts kick in, and I run for the back door. It is closer, and the cloaks stand stationary on the landing. The knob is stiff.
I take a deep breath and bolt for the front door. Tristan remains petrified, and slowly the figures start for the first floor. I grab his arm for him to follow me, but he won’t budge. The horror movie I am living in takes a new level when I go to yank the door open and the knob breaks off in my hands. My throat closes up. Tristan finally comes to, and his body slams into mine as he follows me to escape.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
The two of us back up against the door. The black mob moves in the shadows toward us at their hauntingly slow pace, like it doesn’t matter how quickly they go, they are going to get us.
Tristan grabs my hand. “Quick the basement!”
It is the only open window and our one chance to escape. The stairs down here a rickety and the wood is soft from the water. It’s not safe by any means, but it’s our last hope. We slosh through the chest-high water. I am pretty much doing the breaststroke. Tristan lifts me up so I can crawl out first. By the time I am safely on the dirt outside, the thumping stops, and the quiet rippling of water replaces the noise. I reach for my best friend’s hand, and he slips from my grasp. We are both soaking wet.
I plant my knees in the dirt and take his hands in both of mine. It’s not easy, but soon Tristan is almost halfway out of the window. I really think we are going to make it out of this when I start to lose him again. He screams. This time, though, it’s not him slipping. These mysterious people have him, and they are pulling him back. Tristan tries to leverage himself against the window frame. My knuckles are white and my heart is pounding. Both of us are crying.
If I believe hard enough, I can pull him out. I have an iron grip on his wrist, and he pushes against the side of the house. The adrenaline is enough to save us.
Until it isn’t.
It takes all of half a second, but he is gone. Tristan slips from my grip and disappears into the blackness. Everything is silent. There is no sound coming from the basement, no water rippling, no screams, no words. I want to hear him struggling or fighting—anything to know he is alive—but there is nothing.
I can’t move, and I can’t breathe. My best friend is gone. I throw up in the dirt and wait for some sign of life inside the basement.
Finally, I am tired of sitting there waiting. Waiting isn’t going to save Tristan. I gather up every ounce of strength I have and drive to town. I need help. When I get to the police station and frantically tell them what happened, no one quite believes me. I am wet, filthy, and out of breath. I look crazy.
Hell, I feel crazy.
Somehow I persuade a few officers to come back to the house with me. I don’t think any of them believe me, but they want to calm down a distressed girl. I lead them up the walk to where the door now hangs wide open. Flashlights and guns at the ready, the officers scour the house. I am too afraid to go inside again.
“Miss, nobody is here,” an officer tells me. He is careful with his words as to not upset me.
I blink at him, dumbfounded. “What do you mean nobody is here?”
“Exactly that, miss. There isn’t even evidence of anybody being in this house.”
I take a deep breath before asking the question I fear the most. “You didn’t find Tristan’s body weighted to the bottom of the basement?”
“I’m sorry, but no.”
“That can’t be possible.” I storm past him through the door. I am still terrified, but I need Tristan more than anything.
The portrait in the library glares at me, and I want to tear it off the wall. The girl in it was supposed to give me answers, but all I have are more questions. The cats are gone, like the officer said. The basement stairs look more menacing than ever, and I don’t dare chance them to investigate myself. I don’t go upstairs. I don’t need to to know that I will find nothing there.
The police had knocked down the back door, so I step outside. The clearing is barren. My heart aches, and I wonder if I dreamed up the whole thing. But Tristan is very real, and he has to be here.
Then I see it. At the edge of the clearing, right past where the dead grass turns to trees, I see something out of place. I break into a sprint toward it. My knees are weak, but somehow they carry me the whole way. A few officers call after me, but I don’t hear what they are saying.
I run into a stone alter hidden among the trees, where Tristan is bound and gagged and barely conscious. He has unreadable symbols and markings carved all over his arms and face. His feet and his hands are tied together so that his back arches in a painful and uncomfortable way. His lips are moving, but the sounds are inaudible.
“Tristan,” I say through tears. “Tristan, what happened to you?”
I know he won’t answer. It is more a question for myself. I am at a loss for other words, and violent sobs erupt from my chest. Everything is a blur. Someone pulls me away from my boyfriend’s body, and I don’t have the strength to fight back. I can do nothing more than crumble. All I can see are his dark and lifeless eyes.