Ghost hunting would save their relationship. It would bring back that old spark, that old tickle of anticipation Jeff and Mary had when they first met. They found an old house in the woods off Highway 2, widely assumed to be involved somehow in a string of disappearances. Jeff didn’t speak as he drove, his hands followed the road.
Their backpack jiggled in the backseat, stuffed with books, flashlights, night vision cameras, and the latest sound collecting equipment. Mary nearly hit Jeff with a vase when she found out he bought new equipment. “Baby, we need to find something,” he explained, and he was right. That night Mary dropped her bathrobe amongst the ruins of the vase to end the argument, her knuckles turned white as she gripped Jeff’s shoulders. They needed a ripple on the cameras. A whisper.
Jeff turned off the highway and followed a one lane road that wound through a cluster of houses and summer cabins.
The house molted alone in the foothills of a high wooded ridge. The crooked railing rusted in patches. It ruled its dead lawn like a tyrant. Yard long weeds grew out of the wasteland; their roots choked the thinning grass. A dying tree cowered next to the house, clinging to the exterior. Its limbs blackened and twisted like deformed tentacles clinging to dominance. Moss grew on the roof, rain water dripped from exposed brown nails; mist fell from the sky in the gray light. The house made Mary shiver. She smiled. It was perfect. She could almost feel the murdered souls murmuring life back into their relationship.
Jeff padded up the front stairs in three steps. Mary almost chided him for his lack of caution but Jeff would notice her over-criticism. His right eye would flinch and he’d squint at something imaginary in the distance. The house loomed over them, an angry wounded relic. Mary caught a glimpse of how Jeff used to be.
Jeff swung the squealing door open and disappeared into the house. A centipede scattered from the steps as Mary approached. Jeff clomped up the rickety stairs as she walked in. The relationship had been full of these moments lately—Jeff disappearing just before their shadows touched.
Stillness entered the house alongside Mary, like she had walked in on a conversation about her. Dust settled. The walls scratched. The river roared unseen beyond some saplings in the back yard. She stepped around exposed nails and soft patches of rot. A cockroach scuttled from underneath a molding easy chair. Mary stomped it with her heel. The cockroach snapped. The house winced.
The house smelled like dirt. Mouse droppings lay in piles in the corners. Holes from rats burrowing in. Mold flourished. Chips in the wall where pictures had hung. Her feet crunched exoskeletons as she ascended the stairs.
“Seems haunted, huh?” Jeff said. The smile Mary fell in love with mocked her. Now he smiled at a joke she wasn’t in on.
A pause. Mary pressed herself to say something, to defibrillate the conversation, but nothing came. She glanced in Jeff’s eyes, then past him.
“Who’s that?” He squinted out of the smudged window at the street.
An old woman shuffled by, hunched over her footsteps. She moved achingly slow, and paused now and then to look at the house. A large man walked beside her arm in arm, six ten and filled out, wearing large round glasses. He glanced at the house and back to the woman.
“Must be a local,” Mary said, and shivered.
The woman shot a glare at Mary and muttered something, her lips pursing and spitting.
For a moment Jeff just stared, then he shivered like Mary did.
“What kinda fucked up town is this? Where’re they going?”
Jeff stood with his hands on his hips. The road crossed a bridge over the river and turned into gravel before the forest swallowed it.
“Looks like they’re headed into the woods. Must have a cabin up there,” Mary said.
But Jeff wasn’t listening. He put a hand on her side, a pinkie resting on the curve between her hip and her midsection. His other arm encircled her stomach. This was his sex signal. She didn’t dare stop him, not with the house’s whispers closing in around them. Not when they were this close. She pushed him against a worn wall. They peeled off layers—sweaters, undershirts, bra—Jeff whirled Mary’s back against the wall and she moaned and wrapped her legs around his back. The tired wooden wall creaked and clung to her skin. Mary had a brief thought of the old woman glaring at her while she gasped into Jeff’s neck. Then more layers—pants, underwear.
When they got back to the car, the man and the woman were gone.
That night a cabin burned down. A bright blaze on the hill overlooking the valley. Jeff and Mary watched from the bathroom. Gnats and crane flies drifted in like snowflakes from the cool, burning night. The house seemed to mourn one of its own. Mary felt an edge of resentment coming through the peeling exterior. The house shifted with every slight touch of the breeze.
The sirens stopped screaming and the cabin smoldered on the hill, bracketed by lights from the fire trucks. Jeff washed his face with handfuls of bottled water and lay next to Mary.
Mary folded herself around him and felt his chest rising. She kept him from sliding away on their uneven mattress.
She listened to the house settle. Each tap brought a pang of fear and excitement. Her eyes closed while she smiled and listened for whispers. The house stirred fitfully as she tried to sleep.
Footsteps creaked up the stairs just when dream images started to form. Something entered the room and mixed with the thin sheet of smoke. Two figures whispered. The only light came from the cabin’s weakening orange glow. The larger figure lifted Jeff silently from his bed. Mary thought she was asleep. Something about the whispers told her it was a dream.
The next morning Jeff was gone.
At first Mary didn’t panic. She sat hunched on the mattress and waited. He went to get breakfast, he’ll be right back. Mice squeaked from the walls. The house didn’t breathe.
A cloud of ash from the cabin hung in the air, rising softly. She smelled a hint of the burnt wood when the breeze shifted. Whispers rushed in her ears.
They had slept under a boarded up window in a cold shadow. Gray light punctured a shotgun wound in the wall. Mary pulled on her socks and boots. The shadow of the tree outside crept through a window. In the kitchen, the termite-eaten cabinets grew mold designs. A crow flapped and cawed outside. The house tensed. The river trickled in the back yard.
Mary tapped her fingers on the counter and the house held its breath. Seconds flitted by. Mary picked up Jeff’s boot and flipped it over. There were spots of dried blood on the leather. She gasped—a high-pitched hiccup—and the boot clunked on the soft floor. She followed a trail of red droplets to the front door with numb feet. It rested open a crack, leaking a line of daylight. The house watched, and dreaded Mary’s reaction—but its curiosity kept it eager. A gutted raccoon lay on the mossy porch. Jagged white ribs poked out of the skin, its tongue lolled, and its eyeballs were scooped out and piled with the internal organs a few feet away. It seemed to belong on the porch with the dead insects and the rot.
Beside the carcass a note soaked up blood along its edges. Mary swallowed some bile and picked it up.
WE TOOK HIM. MY GRANDSON NEEDED HIS BLOOD. THE POLICE WON’T HELP YOU. PLEASE FORGIVE ME.
The house tried to scream, but scar tissue had grown over its mouth. Mary went inside and closed the door. She slid down, scraping flakes of paint from the wall as she sunk, until she sat with her knees at her chest. She held her face, hot tears soaked her hands. Then she got up and looked out of the window.
A leaf scuttled down the sidewalk, a drop of sound in a vat of silence. The house had seen this before, it settled where she sat, relaxing listlessly into its comfortable decrepit state. Mary became aware of every moment, like she was watching herself on TV. She grabbed the blood-stained boot in a fury, wrenched the door open and flung it into the street. It bounced and spun over the opposite curb. She shrieked, an animal sound, and then slammed the door.
Mary rifled through the drawers in the kitchen for cutlery. Her thoughts red and nearsighted. Get Jeff. Leave and never come back. She found a Swiss Army knife rattling in the drawer. She moved with instinct while the house spoke to her in dead languages.
What could she do? She knew what she would decide but she dreaded it, put it off. The old woman and her grandson—up in the forest somewhere, bleeding Jeff alive.
Mary followed the path the old woman took past the house. The cloud cover masked the sun. The knife pressed against her thigh.
Her mind flashed forward and backward. Back to before Jeff fucked her quick and business-like, pounding until he gasped and rolled away. Back to when they fucked slow.
Mary’s jaw clenched as she marched over the bridge. She smelled the rain before it came.
The road turned into a trail switchbacking up the ridge. As she climbed, and cold sweat clung to her forehead, she remembered something Jeff whispered to her after they fucked for the first time and they sat on her porch and smoked and watched the rain come down. “You and me, we’ll just burn. We’ll burn through the field, then burn some more.”
Mary slipped on the mud. She fell forward and caught herself with the heel of her hand. Pain shot up the tendons in her arm. She gasped as large raindrops plastered her hair to her face. She cursed and pulled herself up. Her feet made slapping sounds against the mush. She reached into her pocket and squeezed the knife again.
She turned around a switchback and almost stepped on a dying deer. Its nostrils flared and its eyes were almost glazed over. The rain splattered on a fresh wound on its leg. Blood and water ran in a diluted stream down the trail. Part of the deer’s bone was exposed and broken in several places. Mary knelt down next to its face.
In that instant they made eye contact and the deer appealed to Mary’s mercy. The deer’s eyes clouded with pain. It was beyond fear, beyond life, ready to die. She dug through the mud for a rock to smash the deer’s head in. The stone crunched through the skull after a few blows. Blood sprayed on her face, arms and chest. Mary stepped over the deer’s body. She held the bloody stone, the rain mixing with the blood, dripping down in a long red lines. She felt like she had crossed into some other world. She looked back down the trail and saw nothing but the grey rain slanting through the canopy, the trail underneath a lake of water, slipping away into the woods. At that point Jeff wasn’t part of her mind; she was elsewhere, somewhere comfortless and deep.
Then Mary saw the shack. The grey, worn A-frame blended in with the tree trunks ahead. A light burned in the window. The shack hovered between the trees and rain like a ghost.
The screaming started after all the grey light died away from the cloud cover. Long, painful bellows. Mary’s heart beat in her ears. She reached into her pocket for the knife. She squeezed the handle. She wanted to run but something held her in place on that muddy hill. Deer’s blood streaked her face, forming a grim red mask that soaked her hair and made it stringy and drip diluted drops onto her shoulders.
Mary took the knife out and pried the longest blade from the red handle with her fingernails. It clicked into place. She stalked to the side door. She put her shaking hand on the knob and waited.
Mary threw the door open. The grandson turned to face her in a dripping raincoat. Blood speckled his big round glasses. Jeff lay stretched on a work bench, roped by the wrists and ankles to four metal loops in the floor. One leg had been sawed at the ankle, the grandson had just broken the skin and started to grind into the bone. Mary didn’t hesitate, instinct pumped through her. By the time the man could react, Mary’s blade had penetrated his groin. The saw fell from his hand into a puddle of dark gore. He howled and collapsed, writhing on the floor, his feet kicking and slipping in blood. Mary punched him hard in the nose three times, shrieking with effort. The man passed out, his groin and face ground meat. She jerked her knife from the man’s pelvic bone and stood. Decapitated limbs and heads of about a dozen people were displayed on shelves around the room, dated with Sharpies on off-white masking tape. Labeled jars of blood stood next to them.
Jeff gasped for air and moaned. Mary took her knife to the ropes. The bloody blade slipped off.
“Shit!” she snarled. She was surprised at her voice, a kind of grunt as if from the darkening wet woods outside.
Jeff hissed and strained against the ropes.
“It’s okay baby I’m here,” she said, struggling to sound human and loving.
Mary pried the man’s curled fingers from the handle of his saw. His hand thudded on the wet wood. Jeff cried and sniffed. Mary sawed through the ropes and helped him down, his arm around her shoulder.
The old woman appeared from the back room, her bulging red eyes on her grandson.
“What have you done?” Spit flew from her wrinkled lips.
Mary leaned Jeff against the table and took two slimy steps towards the woman and punched her in the jaw. The woman yelled and fell on her back, her head bounced against the floor. Her nose crunched under Mary’s boot.
Mary and Jeff hobbled like a three-legged monster to the door.
“Wait,” Jeff said through his swollen face. He managed to stagger a few feet to a bench covered with torture equipment. He picked up a large can of gasoline and some matches next to the pliers and a pair of rusty scissors.
He handed the can to Mary, who hesitated.
The huge man wasn’t dead yet—he pulled himself through his blood with one hand, crying and muttering for his grandmother.
“C’mon!” Jeff spat. His head bloody, one eye swollen shut, the other red. He leaned against the wall, his leg exposing brilliant white bone. Black blood still oozed out of the ripped skin.
Jeff unscrewed the cap while Mary held it; the clear liquid spilled everywhere and mixed with the blood on the floor. The fumes choked them and they sputtered.
Jeff tried to light a match and dropped it.
Mary looked at all the severed heads and jars of blood on the ledges. She snatched the matches from Jeff. She opened the door and helped Jeff down the stairs. Then she lit a match, held it to the matchbook till it caught, and tossed it in the pool of gasoline. Instantly the floor went up. Heat scorched Jeff and Mary’s skin.
They hobbled down the switchbacks and passed the dead deer. They listened to the screams and the cracks and the pops, warmth on their backs as they limped together. The moon cold and bright. The air full of smoke and boiled blood.
Jeff lay on a stretcher in the ambulance. Mary sat next to him, murmuring things into his ear about the first time they made love. Jeff nodded and cried.
The house waited for them to return.
Ben Renner is from Seattle, Washington. He graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University in 2010. He lives in Portland, Oregon. See his other work at http://benrenner.blogspot.com/.