The old brick house at the end of Bogle Street used to be owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Creed, but a year after Mr. Creed took a fatal tumble down the basement stairs at the age of seventy-two, Mrs. Creed’s children admitted her to an assisted living center, and the house fell to disrepair.
Vines latched onto the brick walls and coiled around the wooden posts that supported the sagging veranda overhang. Dark patches of rot splotched the brown-shingled roof. Two windows were cracked. Paint had chipped off the door. The wicker porch furniture was sickly gray from weather and age, and the fabric husks of cotton-stuffed cushions were torn open, nearly empty, and stained from the sun.
My best friend Eric insisted the house was haunted, and when I tried to pass that bit of gossip onto my parents, they replied with a dismissive frustration at our “antics” and educated me on the real reasons the Creed house was so dilapidated. The building was old. The Creeds had left no will. No one wanted to buy the property.
Relentless, Eric continued to try to persuade me for weeks, always nodding so emphatically that his messy tan hair flopped up and down. He pursed his round freckled face whenever I expressed disbelief. Earlier today he claimed, “I’m telling you, Cory. I heard noises coming from inside of it at night, and there are these eerie green lights on the first floor sometimes.”
The more Eric tried to convince me, the more frustrated I became, until finally I declared we’d investigate the old house this weekend just so I could prove him wrong and shut him up.
The time approached eight P.M., and each of us had told our parents we were sleeping over at the other’s house. With our bikes stashed in the overgrown bushes, we stood on the uneven panels of concrete that comprised the cracked and wobbling path from the sidewalk to the Creed’s front door. We each carried a flashlight.
“What now?” I asked.
“We go inside, dumbass.” Eric and I were twelve, and his newfound love of profanity was beginning to irk me almost as much as this recent assertiveness in his personality. He marched down the path towards the door. He climbed the creaking steps, and I followed. I glanced over my shoulder in case any neighbors were watching. It was still rather early despite the spring darkness surrounding the house. Its crooked silhouette loomed overhead, blotting out the stars once I stepped onto the porch.
Eric jiggled the old brass doorknob. Locked.
“How do we get in?”
Eric shushed me and started towards the side of the porch. He waved his arm for me to follow, and I did, albeit hesitantly. Eric launched himself over the railing, touching down in the thick dead grass. The Creed house overlooked the yawning blackness of the country, barely clinging to the edge of the town. Eric crouched low and rustled through the overgrown foliage, around the side of the house, and towards the backyard. I clambered over the rail barely able to keep up.
An enclosed patio stemmed off the rear wall. The busted screen door that led into the dirty glass-enclosed sitting area was unlocked. The back door across the broken-furniture-cluttered patio hung at an angle; the top hinge had long since split from the doorframe. Eric tiptoed around overturned patio furniture. When he reached the lopsided door, he tried to lift it back into place to open it properly, but the whole thing clattered down to the ground. The remaining contorted hinge ripped off the wall exposing fresh white wood underneath. Eric and I both winced. I glanced around, wondering if anyone would be roused by the clamor.
I held my breath and waited. The sound that followed didn’t come from the neighboring house, but from within the Creed home. It was a high-pitched moan, so faint and distant we wouldn’t have heard it had we not been silent.
“What was that?” I asked. I could barely catch my breath.
Eric gulped then flicked on his flashlight. “Told you there was something wrong with this place.”
“No. Okay. You win. I wanna go home,” I implored.
Eric didn’t listen. He stepped over the fallen door and into a dingy hallway. The conical beam of his flashlight whizzed about. I chewed on my lip and crept in behind him.
The halls were narrow. The rooms were small. The furniture was dusty and toppled over. I flicked on my flashlight and looked at the portraits hanging from the wall between peeling ribbons of wallpaper. Black and white photos of the Creeds in their younger years dominated most of the foyer. A thin staircase punctuated with broken banister railings hugged the wall. Eric investigated the kitchen while I took in the details of the married couple through the fog of dusty glass.
They seemed like a happy enough pair based on their smiles. And it was no wonder that after Mr. Creed’s death, the Mrs. could no longer be alone. I heard my parents say once that it wasn’t her age that forced her out of the home, but her mind. The “poor thing,” as all the adults who remembered her labeled her, insisted her beloved Walter was still alive in the house with her for that whole year since his death. I did not think that in itself was worrisome. After my own grandpa died, my grandma used to say she would still hear his voice sometimes. Then I learned that when she thought he was still in the house with her, no one else knew he was already long dead. The Creeds’ children never visited them, and the couple was always reclusive. Somehow Mrs. Creed went almost a year convinced her husband was still walking around the house with her. It wasn’t until a plumber came to fix a busted water pipe that the body was discovered in the basement, nothing but bones, and Mrs. Creed, who’d insisted she’d just seen her husband that morning suffered a psychotic break and was hauled away. I didn’t understand how someone could be in denial that severely, and thinking of Mrs. Creed always made me extra worried for my own widowed grandmother who was fast approaching eighty.
“Jesus Christ!” Eric exclaimed from the other room.
I ran towards his voice. The kitchen was no different from other rooms at first glance. Dust layered every inch of everything like volcanic ash. Spider webs crisscrossed the ceiling, forcing me to dip my head low in my shoulders. Then I followed Eric’s flashlight beam towards a small table set against the wall. It was covered in strange tools I didn’t recognize. One looked like an electric screwdriver with a fine point. Another resembled a coping saw without a blade. Two little spikes protruded out of each end of the bow. Large needles and spools of thick black thread occupied a corner. Glass cylinders the size of batteries were set off to the side between coils of electrical wire. A huge sack of cotton sat on the floor. Sheets of itchy burlap were folded and stacked on the chairs, and on top of that were parts of human-sized rag dolls sewn from the same fabric and stuffed with cotton. The hands were like mittens. The feet were stout and bulbous. Legs and arms were cylindrical, and the torsos were genderless. None of the parts were assembled, and after looking them over I noticed two rather odd things. First, there were no heads present. Second, there was no dust on any of these peculiar items.
“Did Mrs. Creed used to make dolls?” Eric asked. He picked up one of the arms and turned it over in his hands. He set it down and reeled with revulsion.
“If she did” – I ran my finger against the back of a chair and looked at the thick dust that wiped off – “she wasn’t working on them that long ago.” I gulped. We both knew it had been years since anyone lived in this house, and when we looked at each other I quickly said, “There’s a logical explanation to all this, but I’ll just admit the house is haunted if we can leave right now before whoever owns this stuff comes back.”
Eric nodded, but when we turned to leave, we heard the moan again. Distant, weak, pitiful, like the yowl of an injured cat. It was coming from the basement door set into the side of the staircase.
“Do you think that’s whoever’s stuff that is?” Eric asked. He hid behind me. His courage had suddenly vanished.
I walked out of the kitchen slowly, leading the way with the beam of my flashlight. The circle of luminance settled on the basement door once I stepped into the hallway. The whimpering cry resounded again. With trembling fingers, I turned the brass knob and opened the door. The rickety stairs led down into near-pitch darkness. Only a faint green glow hovered against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I couldn’t make it out from here, but it looked like a glow stick.
“Hello?” I called. “Who’s down there?” I tensed my body. If I heard rapid movement or shuffling footsteps I would run for my life out the back door and never come back, but the only sound was another anguished moan. A drawstring dangled over the first step. I pulled it, but nothing happened. The power must have been shut off a long time ago. Instead I angled my light to the floor.
I started to descend. Each step creaked and groaned under my weight, and I hoped the Creed house didn’t have termites in addition to spiders. I swiveled the light around, keen for movement. Cobwebs stretched from pillar to pillar. A large furnace collected dust in the corner. Boxes of clutter were all piled against one wall. As the beam zipped around in all directions I spied smears of dried blood and bones. My heart leapt to my throat, but I pressed on.
At the base of the stairs, a series of iron bars stretched from floor to ceiling. Next to the large cage, a metal orb slightly bigger than a basketball was propped on a claw-footed pedestal. The sphere hummed like a refrigerator. Cables sprung out from the top and wove through the bars towards the source of the green glow.
A humanoid shape was propped against the brick wall. When I shown my light on its feet, I saw it to be an assembled burlap doll as large as I was. One of the glass cylinders like what I saw upstairs in the kitchen was fixed to the center of the chest. Green light emanated from it. A bronze cap on each end of the glowing glass tube was attached to the black wires. One end snaked through the bars and fed into the thrumming metal orb outside the cage. The other cable inched up the doll’s torso and towards its head.
I raised the beam, curious to see what the doll’s head was shaped like, and I uttered a scream. It was Eric’s head. His eyes blinked at the intense light from my flashlight and he moaned weakly. I checked the cage door; it had a latch on this side. I opened it and swung the squeaking metal door open and rushed inside. At first I thought that Eric was wearing a burlap suit, but as soon as I got close, I saw thick black thread stitching the collar of the burlap torso into his neck. Above that, the black cord slipped into his jugular. It didn’t make sense. Eric had been behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, and there Eric stood at the top of the stairs. His flashlight was off. He closed basement door behind him, blocking his silhouette from view. Only the slow clacks and creaks of his feet descending the stairs told me this other Eric approached.
I turned my attention back to the Eric in burlap. Blood was caked around his neck where the thread wove in and out of his skin. His face was filthy. His hair was a crusty mess. His eyes were unfocused. It was clear he had been down here a long time.
“Eric?” I asked.
He didn’t even move his head, but his eyes swiveled towards me. “Cory? Is that you?” he mumbled. “Is that really you this time?”
“This time? What do you mean?”
Clunk creak clunk creak, came the footsteps of the other Eric.
“It looked like you,” he mumbled. “I thought it was you.”
I shook my head. “Eric, you gotta get up. You gotta get up!” I grabbed his hand hoping to feel solid flesh under the rough tan fabric, but the material squished in my grip. In that moment, I knew it was only cotton inside that mitten-shaped hand. I poked Eric’s arm, his leg, and his chest. Solid cotton all the way through. Only his head was real. I looked at the thrumming globe outside the cage and ran my fingers along the cables that fed into the glowing tube on his chest.
I spun around rising to a crouch, a snarl on my lips. I wanted to strike at the other Eric. But the other Eric was gone. In his place stood a huge hulking thing. Before I could shine my flashlight on its massive form, a slimy leathery hand swatted my wrist. The flashlight smacked onto the concrete floor so hard that the bulb shattered. The only light in the basement now was the dim green glow from Eric’s chest. It was only enough to glimpse a vague amorphous shape of the monster looming over me, and I only was able to look at it for a second before claws seized around my neck.
My head throbbed when I finally woke up. I shook my head, trying to clear the fog of unconsciousness. I rubbed my skull and felt a small welt swell under my hair. There was a dull pain in the side of my neck and an itch around my elbow. As I continued to investigate the lump on my skull, I heard a clinking of chains and quickly became aware of a shackle around my right wrist. The other end was bolted to the brick wall behind me. In a panic I pulled against the restraint. It didn’t budge. I tried to scream and became aware of a tight rope stretched between my teeth, gagging me. Tears welled in my eyes. I raised my other arm. I didn’t feel a shackle around that wrist. Actually I couldn’t feel my wrist at all. I willed my left-hand fingers into a fist, but detected no response. I raised my arm in front of my face, and nausea swept through me.
Everything below my left elbow was gone, replaced by a burlap limb. I squeezed it with my other hand. It was filled with cotton. Only cotton. I threw up in my mouth and the vomit spilled down my shirt. I noticed I too had a green glowing cylinder fixed to my chest. The cable on the top fed into my neck as Eric’s had.
I couldn’t stand; the shackle was too short, but I was able to rise up on my knees. I turned to face where my iron restraints were bolted into the brick. I pulled with all my might, but I accomplished nothing with only one functioning hand. Still I yanked. I yanked and yanked and yanked until the skin around my wrist grew raw. I sobbed. Tears streamed down my face. I had to get out of there.
I paused, trying to catch my breath. I wiped my eyes on my plush left arm and tried to think clearly. The faint glow of the tube shone on the wall, and I noticed some words etched into the brick with what must have been a chipped piece of rock. “It pushed me. She thinks it’s me. God help us. –W.C.” Walter Creed. My mouth went dry. I thought I might be sick again.
Then I heard a sound of chomping, and I turned back around. Beyond the bars of my prison, across the basement chamber, a huge thing crouched in the shadows. It was hunched over. The shape of its muscular body writhed back and forth as it ripped something apart with its teeth. I gasped, and it turned towards me. I saw a gleam of fangs before it returned its focus to whatever it was huddled over. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, listening to the creature chomp and chew, I was unable to get a good look at its demonic black shape, but the dimness of the green glow at my chest eventually allowed me spy a bloody skull on the floor behind the beast’s haunches.
Feeling a clench in my stomach, I glanced around the room for signs of Eric, but there were none. To my right, though, there lay a headless body of burlap and cotton.
David M. Sula is a first-year graduate student in the Columbia College Chicago fiction creative writing MFA program. He is currently published in the fields of fiction, poetry, and photography in The Lighter literary journal, and he was a semi-finalist with his poem “The Mobius Strip” at the 2016 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards. He currently teaches for the undergraduate writing and rhetoric courses at Columbia College Chicago. Beyond writing, he enjoys drawing and creating visual effects for short films.