A fight broke out. A fight older than time itself, if time truly existed. A fight not fought on land, sea, or air. A fight not fought between men or nations. Inside you, inside me, an intimate conflict is waged on the battleground of the human soul. An eternal war fought between fear and faith.
“Hey, slow down. You’re gonna miss the turn.” I applied gentle pressure to the brake, but my rusty ‘88 Century came to an abrupt halt. “Good lord, Will!” Justin jolted forward before slamming back to his seat.
I gripped hard on the steering wheel. "Sorry man, brakes are a bit touchy."
“Boy I’ll say, you'd better check those out. And seriously, get rid of that stupid CD player.” Justin's hand ran through his shaggy blonde bangs before reverting his attention out the passenger window. “Just listen to the radio, or better yet nothing.”
A portable CD player rested on the console between us. It had been broken for three months; the cassette adapter jammed into the tape deck. You couldn’t pry it out with a crowbar. I never bothered or wanted to fix it. Some things you can’t fix. The brokenness reminded me of myself, and my fight.
“Don’t worry. This car has never let me down before.” I laughed, playing it cool, wearing a mask to hide the truth.
“I’m not worried about the car.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dude, no chick's gonna think it's cool listening to the same song over and over on a device that was popular around the time of your birth. Let’s go. The house is down this road."
The Brownings moved into town about a year and a half ago due to the low cost of living. I guess that's why my family stayed. Without a flinch, Justin came up to me on his first day of school and began talking like he had known me his whole life. It was nice. I needed a friend. I didn't have many. Justin had his faults, he was arrogant and cocky, but I admired his confidence and swagger. The girls loved his surfer blonde locks, broad shoulders, and sun kissed skin. He bragged he was some semipro wakeboarding champion on the west coast before he moved. I have yet to see a trophy or newspaper clipping. A lot changed in a year, yet so many things remained the same. I was learning to cope. I could even leave the house without nausea from time to time. I had Justin to thank. Friendship is powerful, healing. The problem, I still couldn't look in the mirror and like what looked back. The thought of others looking at me made it worse. Suffocating anxiety ruled each time the circle of death surrounded me, each time I was the center of attention.
"Alright everyone, get in your discussion groups and go over the results from the acceleration lab." Mr. Noell instructed the class.
Groups are a hair pin trigger for someone like me. People staring at you, judging you, thinking about what a freak you are. I sat in the chair next to Justin, pretending to study my lab notes which allowed me to keep my face hidden.
The idea manifested itself during 2nd hour Physics class. I wasn't the igniter, far from it. I was an escapist.
"You guys heard the rumors about the house on Gale road that's supposedly haunted? Totally freaky, I'm gonna check it out. Anyone interested?" Justin’s voice forced me to look up into the eyes of the group.
"That sounds dumb." Violet said.
"Not really, Justin." Lucy responded.
Justin doesn't think. Violet Harrington and Lucy Gilman, really? Like they're going to take a night off from their boyfriends to go to a haunted house. He's such an idiot.
"How about you, Will?"
"I have to check the chart, see if these results match up." I stood up and walked toward the wall.
"What about the house?" Justin called out.
"Oh, um, sure." I said, my back turned towards the group. If you run away you can’t get hurt. I needed a polite escape, one that would go unnoticed. I agreed because my stomach twisted and the tension in my neck rose to my face. If I said no, Justin would've just badgered me for a reason which would've drawn the attention of not just the group, but the whole class. I couldn't stand the way my classmates looked at me, seeing my face turn deep red each time I tried to speak. I stood off to the side of the room, faking like I was studying a chart on time vs. distance. Nobody bothered me. My eyes darted across the room. Five, four, three, two, one, I repeated in my head until my jaw relaxed and my body stopped shaking.
There seems to be a tradition among kids growing up in small towns across America. You get bored and you tell ghost stories. We were no exception. In fact, it was quite common for the kids in our town to outdo each other with fanciful and exceptional tales. I’d always semi believed in haunted houses but I can’t say I have any reason to. I’ve never been witness to anything supernatural. Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania surrounded by the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains was enough for me. I didn’t need to go chasing phantoms.
Millersville was a tourist attraction for the wrong reasons. It attracted people who lived on the fringes of society. Their beliefs did not mesh with mainstream America. Local history states that a philanthropist doctor, Sunny Miller, built a treatment facility nestled into the Appalachian foothills in the early 1900's which housed and treated people whom society had shut out. The media praised Miller for his humanitarian and rehabilitative work. The locals held a different perspective. They believed the doctor was mad. People said he had delusions and visions of opening the gates of hell and conducted experiments on the patients he served as part of this process. Sunny later died, consumed by paranoia, as a patient in the very facility he built. His fate was hidden from the public. Only his most trusted staff members knew of his condition. They wanted to preserve his good name and keep the integrity of the facility intact. It wasn’t long before rumors leaked and the townspeople put their own spins and interpretations on them. Some say he fell victim to Old Smokey; aka the electric chair in the state of Pennsylvania. However, no official record has ever been released.
The tales were local lore and I believed none of it to be true. No evidence of inhumane experiments was ever found. The story and our town gathered attention after a cable channel’s documentary feature about the mysteries of the paranormal some fifteen years ago. Now, we attract gawkers and thrill seekers looking for a scare. At best, the stories and legends helped to drive down housing costs. At worst, they attracted every fire and brimstone preacher within the tri-state area.
The local kids joke that our town is the Devil’s Rendition of Sedona Arizona. Once a month like clockwork a new shop opens up claiming to be the only one in town selling real cursed objects and magical trinkets. Millersville brings in the weekend warriors with its vibrant restaurant scene and bustling ghost tour industry. For the right price you can take a trolly all over town and invade the popular haunts; all while enjoying a tasty pint with friends. Paranormal investigators come by the handfuls in hopes of capturing footage to post to their YouTube channels and become the next thing trending.
There's a local legend of a girl who died while waiting for her date to take her to the prom. She had been planning every minute detail for three straight months. Like so many other young women on prom night she wanted everything to be perfect. As fate would have it her date was running late. With anticipation growing, she walked to the end of her long driveway, the crisp spring created the antidote to calm her nervous stomach. Gazing into the distance, she entertained dreams of an enchanted evening with all her friends, becoming lost in the majestic beauty of the night that lay ahead, she never saw the out-of-control pickup truck barreling towards her. The vehicle struck with astonishing force, slamming into a sturdy oak that stood for years, pinning the girl and knocking the life from her fragile body … her beautiful pink dress torn with speckled crimson. Such was an act of terrible coincidence since the road in which the girl lived was hardly traveled. In fact, it was her date for the evening that put an end to her short life.
The driver was a local boy. He worked at the treatment facility as an evening janitor. People say the devil entered him that night. The experiments conducted by the doctor were said to have produced enough dark energy to create a crack in the wall that separated our world from theirs. The dark energy attracted the attention of the devils. They would slip through the crack and prey on weak willed humans, manipulating and controlling their behavior, causing them to do horrific things. Such was said to be the fate of the boy and his date.
As sad as this story is, I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was the truth or just the collective imaginations of the town’s people that passed it around. The human mind can have trouble distinguishing between what's real and what isn’t.
Logic and emotion waged their timeless war, choosing my brain as their battlefield. Bloody images of the stories Justin told during class started to crack the wall I raised in my mind to keep them out. As always, he was our group leader but more into telling tall tales than working on assignments. I shouldn't have allowed him to convince me, but I never learned to say no. Instead, I'm trapped in a car, counting the panels of the dashboard air vent, praying I don't get sick. I'm not afraid for the reasons you might think. Who wouldn't be a little afraid going to a house that’s supposedly haunted? My angst runs deeper. If you've ever experienced mental illness, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, pray you never do. Feeling trapped is like being on death row when you have anxiety. I said yes so Justin would leave me alone and the attention of the group would be drawn away. The problem, I avoided one disorder and traded it for another.
The moisture of my palms and shallowness of my breath indicated the floodgates of panic were ready to burst. My eyes focused straight ahead as I made the left hand turn to venture down the road haunted by the crimson ghost.
The road narrowed, changing from fresh pavement to loose gravel. Thick trees and falling leaves surrounded us. Crooked bare branches hung over head. Fall had set in. We left the safety and familiarity of our world and drove into another. “I really hope we don’t meet another car. There’s not even room to pull over.” I interrupted Justin who’d been speaking the entire trip of the stories he'd heard about the girl.
“No way dude. Nobody comes out here anymore.”
It's the first thing I was consciously aware of Justin saying even though he had been talking for twenty minutes. This was his third trip down the superstitious road in hopes of catching a glimpse of the famed girl. He hadn’t personally seen anything unusual and appeared to carry himself with an outward confidence. However, I have a knack for feeling what others are experiencing. His experience of the road was no different from mine.
We rounded the curve as a squirrel darted out into the road. I jerked the steering wheel to avoid hitting the creature. “Dang that was close.” How nice it would feel to be that squirrel, to have never heard the ghostly tales. In his world, everything was in its place and as it should be.
“Ok, the house is right after this hill on the left.” I slowed as we came to the top. “There it is, there’s the driveway. Look, there’s the tree that was half knocked down when the girl was pinned against it.” Justin spoke in a soft whisper. A tingling chill ran down my spine. Were the stories true? Or at least partly based on the truth? I pulled into the driveway and stopped the car.
“It’s fenced off and there are no trespassing signs everywhere. Do you think we should even be here?” My hands shook.
“Don't worry man, the cops just put those up to scare kids from coming out here and setting traps for people.” Justin scanned the environment.
“Why? Aren’t we the only ones out here?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Justin playfully nudged my arm.
“What the hell is up with these so-called traps then?”
“Some kids like to come out here and leave bloody dolls in trees and stuff, it adds to the whole haunted effect, I guess. They sit out here in the woods with night vision cameras and make videos of shaken tourists to post on YouTube. You should see some of them. They're hilarious.” Justin laughed. His enthusiasm triggered a wave of nausea. “We’ll let’s get out and have a look. Don’t sweat it, the cops did a good job scaring people off.”
“Sure thing man.” I made a weak attempt to duplicate Justin’s excitement. Knowing others had been here before gave me a slight confidence. If we saw something, it was probably just someone's idea of a sick joke. I turned off the car and stepped outside.
The night air owned a chilling bite that nibbled my erratic nerves. We stood by the car methodically taking in the scenery, neither one of us eager to make the first move. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of the night. The moon was bright and gave an odd greenish glow to the surrounding woods; reminding me of seeing the Northern Lights while visiting my grandparents in Minnesota a few years back. It lit our path, inviting us to descend into the unknown. Out of the eerie forest glow came a high-pitched shriek. A jolt of electricity shot through my body as instinct swung my arms up in defense.
“Settle down Will! It was just an owl or something.” Adrenaline pounded through my veins. “Man you’re jumpy. Take some breaths, dude. Calm down.” My muscles tightened harder the more I pretended to relax.
“You’re right Justin. I guess I've been a little tense tonight.” I fought to distract myself from the fearful thoughts that pillaged my mind. It was no use. My mind looped worse than my broken CD player.
We hopped the short metal gate and within fifty feet the forest opened up. A long gravel driveway separated a small pond lined with white lilies. Given an alternative scenario, it would have been quite beautiful under the light of the moon. Being in the open space had a calming influence. It would be hard for anything to sneak up and surprise us. A wave of tranquility flowed through me providing mild comfort. Betrayal came seconds later. Fear tightened its clasp on my lungs the moment I let my guard down. I fought with desperation to cling to the tranquil thoughts, but was asking the impossible of myself. I struggled to hang on, fear becoming more powerful with each hopeless slip. One after another, distressed thoughts rose to my unruly mind, each one more intense than its predecessor, begging me to panic. I jabbed my hand into the pocket of my jeans and rubbed the smooth cool steel between my fingers. The dip separating the two halves calmed me. I’d been carrying the heart for almost ten years now. The charm’s texture grounded me to reality, giving me comfort, hope, strength. It was meant for someone else, not for me. I wasn’t a hero. I never had the courage to part with it. Doing so would make me vulnerable, in more ways than one.
Justin and I took our time moving down the driveway, being careful not to make a lot of noise. We’d pause often to listen for any unusual sounds. We heard nothing except for the slight breeze that swirled around us. In the distance stood a small barn whose white paint glowed against the moonlit background of the darkened forest. There was an opening on the second floor where a door used to be. We could see inside the barn, but it was too dark to make sense of anything.
“Hey, shine your flashlight up there.” Justin wanted to know what waited inside. I pointed the light towards the 2nd floor opening. A loud squawk rang out as an explosion of feathers burst into the air and floated to the ground. We both jumped back and looked at each other.
“Huh, just a bird,” I whispered.
“I heard a boy hung himself from the very ledge that bird was on.”
“What? Oh my God."
“Ha, I just made that one up.” A smile cracked from behind Justin’s stern face, his lame attempt at humor pulling a feeble grin across my mouth. I searched my brain for a witty comeback. Banter was never my strength but I could usually come up with something, especially when directed towards Justin. He was one of those guys that was easy to give crap too. I think because he dished so much of it out it became natural to return the favor. Tonight, was different. Fighting my anxiety disorder had a way of shutting me up, turning me inward, more than I normally am.
“Look up ahead!” Justin pointed.
“Shh, they might hear us. The kids, with the traps and cameras."
“Will, you can relax, it’s just us. Don’t you remember talking about it? The police put a stop to all that. Are you ok? You seem distracted tonight, like you aren’t with me.”
Justin didn’t know about my condition, how the anxiety made it difficult to focus on the present, and how the constant battle for peace left me exhausted. None of my friends knew. They could never know. The rejection would send me into a turmoil I couldn't pull out of.
"Never mind." I kicked the ground in front of me.
“Look, there it is.” We crept to a three story Victorian style house. Frightened and alone it called to us, begging us to enter and relieve it of it’s past. “Here, give me your flashlight,” I handed my light to Justin. “What the hell, Will. This thing is soaking wet!”
“I guess my hands must be sweaty. Here, let me wipe it off.” I grabbed the light from Justin’s hand and wiped it down with the sleeve of my jacket. I took a long glance upward toward the house. Its beauty was haunting. This was the type of place you’d work hard to keep up, not hide it a mile into the woods.
We approached the front steps, on both sides were two plain black posts that supported the overhang from the second floor. We walked up three steps to the front porch. Cobwebs concealed the pair of once black trimmed windows that stood on either side of the front door, yielding an old weathered appearance. For the house’s splendor, it was in dire need of restoration. The porch floor creaked no matter how light our steps. The screen on the front door had been half punched out and the white painted outside walls had accumulated dirt a half inch thick.
“We’ve come this far. Open the door,” Justin pointed to a dirty brass doorknob.
“You have the light. That means you lead.”
"Please be locked." I whispered, turning the knob slowly. I really need to learn how to say no. The door swung open as if someone on the other side were inviting us in. I turned toward Justin. “Great, it's open.”
“Let’s go.” Justin motioned for me to move forward.
I peeked my head in the doorway, scanning the entryway with my flashlight. It looked normal enough. To my left were five pegs to hang jackets and a large rectangular mirror to my right. Ten feet ahead was a door and the entrance to the living room. Our steps were slow and deliberate.
“This place is the marriage of a horror movie and a subsidized housing project. What a dump.”
“Wow, Will. That’s the most I’ve heard you say since we got in the car to come out here, agreed. I guess the last family that lived here got so freaked that they just took off and left everything behind.”
By the way they lived they obviously had no respect for such a beautiful home. Everything was out of place and chaotic. The air felt heavy and musty. The furniture was torn and there were two fist-sized holes in the wall. “They must have had cats,” I plugged my nose and pointed to a urine soaked stain on the couch and another in the corner next to it.
“No one has lived here for several years. Were you expecting the Playboy Mansion?”
“I know. I guess I just hate to see something this beautiful get treated so poor."
“Do you always talk like that?” Justin asked.
“What do you mean?”
Justin paused, gazing downward. “Like everything is alive, like it has feeling and is hurt by its mistreatment.”
“I guess I tend to think like that. I feel you should treat everything the way you would like to be treated.”
“These are just things, objects, they aren’t alive. They don’t have feelings.”
Maybe Justin was right, but it's not like I could change it. Objects have a life of their own. Each with its own history and story to tell. Everything has life. The earth, the trees, the rocks. When a rose died a part of me died with it. A tremendous burden to carry. That level of intensity can cause a person great pain when they are unable to turn it off.
We continued searching the living room. A television set with a cracked screen and a couple of the ugliest yellow recliners I’d ever seen consumed much of the room. A coffee table resting on its end against the wall was the only thing that seemed salvageable.
Justin took a few steps ahead, drawn to something. I stepped in his path to grab him and keep him close. He looked right through me and nudged me to the side. He walked up to a closet door and swung it open. “Justin, you alright?” I felt the blood in my face drop to my feet. There was a faint giggle, and then joyous laughter. “Damn it Justin!”
“I was just seeing if you thought I was possessed.”
“Leave it to a comedian to play practical jokes at a time like this.”
Justin’s laughter turned to concern. “Hey look, it’s not a closet, it’s a staircase."
“Let’s check it out,” Justin looked inside.
“I don’t know, it’s dark and we don’t know what’s down there. What if there’s a family of diseased mice, or something worse.”
“You scared? That’s why you have your light.” Justin nudged me in the back as I shrugged my shoulders. Again, I found myself in the role of reluctant leader as we crept down the old wooden staircase.
The air grew heavier and damper. I prayed my flashlight wouldn’t fail. We reached the bottom stair and stepped onto the cold stone floor. I scanned the room with my light. The basement was odd looking and about ten times scarier than it should have been under normal circumstances. Strange symbols were painted on the walls. A huge stone well sat in the middle of the room. The walls were lined with wooden shelves and corrugated boxes that stored old files. I pulled out a file and shined my light on it. "Patient is experiencing auditory hallucinations and delusions of religious persecution. Patient is being treated with electric shock. Patient's response to treatment is uncertain. Patient is suicidal and needs 24-hour supervision.”
“That’s enough reading for now. You don’t need to fuel your imagination any further.” Justin called out.
“What’s with all these misshapen symbols on the wall?”
Justin bent down to inspect an empty drawer. “A group of Occultists squatted here about a year ago.”
“Are you kidding me. I got freaked out over a group of nut-job Occultists.”
We broke out in laughter. It was rather common, however, given our town’s history. Like I said, we attracted people on the fringes of society. They mostly came because of morbid curiosity. Some bought into the myth that the doctor actually did open a doorway to hell and that they could summon dark entities to invoke diabolical favors. No one took these people seriously, except the doomsday preachers who rode into town every Sunday afternoon, fulfilling their self-appointed duties to preach that the Rapture was Nigh, and that we're all on the short track to damnation.
Occultists were easy to spot in town. Most wore dark clothing and had hair that was dyed jet black. Some had tattoos of pentagrams and wore the symbol on jewelry or in some other form of self-expression. My friends and I referred to them as Outsiders in reference to the classic novel. Once, a group of them opened a flower shop in town. Odd, I know, but it was the only way the owner knew how to make a living. The shop stayed open for about two months. One of the Puritan preachers convinced a group of elderly women that they would go to hell if they didn't stop buying flowers from the shop. I mostly felt bad for the Outsiders. They wanted to fit in. Being normal, belonging, just wasn’t written in their DNA. I knew the feeling well.
Millersville was divided between two opposing forces, the Outsiders and the Doomsday Preachers whom were nicknamed Puritans. My family stayed out of the politics of the town. Dad said politics and religion divided people. When there's division people behave badly, blinded by whatever beliefs they think are absolute truth. Economics played its part as well. If you owned a business in town that catered to the tourists, you were living high on the hog, if not you were standing in line at the county health and human service office on the first of each month.
“Wow, now that’s messed up.” A door stood at the other end of the basement leading to a modern washing machine which Justin decided he had to open.
“What?” I asked, half expecting to see a severed head or something equally grotesque.
“There’s still clothes in the dryer, these folks must have been in a major hurry to get the hell out of here.”
“I’m wondering if we should do the same.” The thought of fleeing invited panic to invade me. A sharp pain twisted my stomach. God no, I'm having a panic attack in front of Justin. The air was freezing cold. Nerves bombarded my brain with a million stabbing thoughts, torment and suffering. My legs gave out and I tumbled to my knees.
“We have to go. I can’t be here. I’m gonna throw up.”
“Lay still and relax.”
My stomach turned over and released vomit on the floor, splattering up to my face. The palpitations of my pounding heart muted my hearing. “Help me get him to bed, and get him some Xanax, hurry.” I thought I heard Justin call out. A large figure rushed towards us, forcing a pill into my mouth and water down my throat. My vision blurred. Darkness consumed me.