by Ruth Davis Hays
Our intrepid heroines are determined that something strange is going on in their quiet town. They just are not sure what it could possibly be. After overcoming childhood fears of The Haunted House of Maple Street, the girls take a break.
The sun was cresting towards noon when Cat and Roxi finished their search of the house. With all its dust, cobwebs, and creaking floors, it had turned out to be just an old house. Holding no secrets, hiding no ghostly tenants. Nothing that one would not expect to find in an abandoned house. Save for one object that seemed out of place.
A lower floor had been carpeted with dust and pitted with jagged holes that were both accidents of age and intentional abuse of vandals. The windows, broken and cracked, were shaded by layers of grime. A few of them had obscenities rubbed into them by juvenile fingers. The wood was dark, warped, and scarred by bugs and the occasional knife cut. Mark LS Tina, Metallica Rules, Gary wuz here, the messages went on and on. They adorned the rooms like oddly patterned wallpaper.
The structure itself was, for the most part, wooden. No paint had ever touched the inside of the house. A small, stone fireplace stood forlornly in the front room to the right and there was evidence of a recent fire. That room was not entirely empty. There were bottles, mostly broken, and smashed cigarette butts covering the sturdier sections of the floor. A few blankets lay rumpled in one corner near the back. Badly stained blankets.
Near the blankets was a doorway, sans door, that led to a little hall that ran perpendicular to the main hall. The main hall, leading from the front door to the kitchen, intersected with the second at a very dangerous looking hole. The hole in the floor was not there originally, and it was evident that someone had made a major effort to put it there.
To reach the back rooms, one had to go through the side rooms and intermediary doors they possessed. Exciting and convenient for the average, curious adventurer, but almost as hazardous.
Roxi nearly twisted her ankle navigating around the very hole that she herself had put in the front room fifteen years ago.
Investigation of the large hole seemed to suggest that it was made by very industrious young boys. It contained a medium sized compartment, that possibly had given room for any number of secretive acts. The kind of which would stamp Hoodlum upon anyone initiating them. Beneath the floorboards, to either side of the dusty half-wall, there was an ample crawl space.
The sounds of skittering feet had cut their investigation short on that. Neither of them were ready for a confrontation with irritated raccoons or opossums.
They had moved on to the back rooms. The cross hall opened to a small area that was possibly meant for a bedroom; a primitive kitchen that was only accessed by the door on the porch; and another small room that was also only available by the porch doors that opened onto it. All the side tracking around the house was because of the crater in the front hall.
The most disappointing thing about the house was that there was no spooky aura inside. They had wanted to feel the thrill that can be generated by frightened children hunting for ghosts. But, the more they walked in the house, the more ordinary it became to them. It was falling apart at its seams, with a roof that had deposited pieces of itself onto the floor throughout the years; but, Cat, especially, felt cheated.
All the horror and fear of it, in her childhood, had been her own imagination; not something oozing from the house itself. It was damp, chill, and dusty. The boards creaked and groaned absurdly, and the morning light made shafts of gaily dancing dust specks. But, no boogeymen.
Their trek was beginning to seem for naught, until they entered that last room. The back left room had a trunk in it. At first, this did not strike an odd chord, until they realized that the mass vandalism and decay in the rest of the house had missed this one object.
It was a long, black steamer trunk, the kind they had seen in old movies. It could have been a hundred years old, yet it was intact with not a mark on it. A thin layer of dust coated its textured top and dulled the brass striping on the corners. A large medallion of a lock set indignantly on the front of the lid. They tried it. It was locked. Securely. Its peculiar cleanliness attracted them to it for almost an hour, but after trying to shove it and open it unsuccessfully, they gave up. At least, until they could find something with which to break it open.
They headed outside to rest and to find a rock or a strong stick. They wanted that trunk open. It held its secrets too dearly to be ordinary old luggage in an abandoned house. It must be opened. It drew them, with an odd magnetism.
It was their only lead, so far.
They both sat outside on the back steps of the little house. Only one of the three steps remained. Cat was flicking despondently at a bull ant which was trying to use her thigh as a highway. Roxi was simply sitting quietly and staring out at the back woods.
“We need to get a hammer and chisel,” Cat was saying, “Or maybe a screwdriver.”
“What’s that?” Roxi asked.
“I said, we may need a hammer and a …”
“No,” Roxi cut her off. “I mean, what’s that.”
Cat looked up from the ant to see Roxi pointing off into the yard. Cat followed the direction that she indicated. At first, she did not see anything but trees and underbrush. Then, she was able to make out a form of something about fifteen yards away. She studied its half visible outline, and her mind raced from one thing to another trying to identify it. Her mind was not all together functioning this early in the morning, plus she was tired and frustrated. But, the lulled brain finally hit on what it was…
“Looks like a well,” she stated.
Roxi glanced at her. “Shall we?” she said with a sweep of her hand towards the yard.
“Why not?!” Cat took a deep sigh. “Maybe we can get a good rock from it to bust that trunk open.”
Roxi agreed, and they pulled themselves back into action. As they stood, the step beneath them gave out in a crackle of splinters.
“Ow!” Cat exclaimed out of shock. “You okay?”
She nodded. Shaking off the bits of wood, they headed out into the yard.
Their goal was up a barely visible incline from the house, but it was enough to make their legs weary. It seemed convenient for those who would have had to walk back to the house with heavy buckets of water, though. The well itself was a low, stone structure with grass sprouting between each rock. Two wooden beams protruding up from the base held a cross pole with the rope attached to it. A crank handle hung awkwardly from the pole end that pointed to the house. A crude little machine. Still, if it served its purpose, who were they to criticize. The poor old rope hung limply from the pole and disappeared down into the well.
Cat leaned over the low wall. The sun lit the well’s inside west wall for maybe two yards, it was hard to judge. Then darkness ruled the rest of the way. She felt strange, looking down into this well. There was something wrong with it. She put out her hand and extended it slowly into the center of the well’s opening. It was cold. Frigid air was wafting up from the depths. The lower her hand went, the colder it seemed.
“Roxi? Does it feel cold in there to you?”
Roxi mimicked Cat’s actions. Looking up into her friend’s eyes, she nodded. They both stood up tall a moment and thought about that. It was September; humid and not particularly cold, closer to the warm side the year. Yet, this well had almost freezing air coming from it.
They looked at each other and got the same idea at once. Roxi reached for the crank, and Cat leaned out to catch the rope. If there was still a bucket attached to this rope, there better be some darn cold water in it.
A few hard pulls got the crank moving again and the rope coiled onto it politely, until it snapped out of Cat’s hands and stood taut in the center of the well. Roxi cranked harder. It would not budge. Cat joined her. The beams supporting the pole collapsed with a loud crack. Several of the stones in the base sprang loose and just missed crushing Cat’s ankle.
They hung onto the crank pole and heaved it out onto the grass. Snatching up the rope they began to yank vigorously. An excitement had come over them. They felt certain there was a mystery finally. As much as in the trunk. Cat was beginning to feel the titillating eeriness that comes from a good horror novel. There was something to be found here; some dark story to be uncovered.
One strong tug produced a high pitched crack from below, and the next pull tossed them both backwards. They hit hard, the rope still in their hands. Did it break? That was entirely possible. Cat was a little surprised that it was as strong as it was, considering its age.
But, hauling the rope out of the well entirely, it proved to be a tougher piece of material than she had given it credit for. The rope was intact, but the bucket on the other end was not. The crack they had heard was the boards of the little bucket breaking lose from each other and…
“Ice?” Roxi looked over at Cat, her brows furrowed, mystified.
The pail was evidently lodged in a few inches of ice. It had small white crystals clinging to it. Both rope and pail were freezing to the touch. Cat stared at it, fascinated.
“Ice, in September?” Cat mumbled, “What’s down there that would make it freeze?”
By that afternoon, the women had knocked over and pulled free most of the stones that comprised the little well’s base. The vertical tunnel of rocks buried in the earth was going to prove more difficult. They would need assistance. Gaining that assistance was going to require time and planning. And, lunch!