©2019 by Cailyn Lloyd

One

July 1972

     A flash of light—sunlight glancing off a windshield, perhaps—disturbed his pensive mood.
     Tom Wolff, sitting astride a grumbling Case tractor, had been admiring his land, a hundred acres of rough and tumble farmland rising from the shore of Lost Arrow Lake. The lake formed a perfect circle, a deep blue gem in a sea of green trees. His ramshackle farm, with its white two-story American Foursquare and a weathered-grey barn, sat atop the hill, sheltered by tall pines and great oaks. A beautiful view, tranquil.
     Tom looked around for the source of the light but saw nothing. He shrugged, adjusting a greasy Purina Feeds cap over his thick tangle of hair. Shifting gear, he rumbled across the field, dragging a hay rake in the hot Wisconsin sun. The smell of fresh cut hay filled the air, fragrant, like clean linen.
     Another flash, quick and bright like a laser beam, startled him.
     He saw glass falling behind the MacKenzie house, sparkling in the sunlight as it fell. From here, he could see a broken window on the top floor, a jagged black hole in the shiny pane. Alan and Elizabeth MacKenzie had been his neighbors and friends until Alan died and Elizabeth moved away with her two young boys. Sadly, the vacant house had become the target of vandals and thrill-seeking teens.
     Tom downshifted with an irritated jerk. “Little bastards.”
     He shut down the wheezing tractor and vaulted to the ground, reached up, and grabbed the pitchfork—an antiquated but effective weapon—mounted on the tractor frame. A little insurance.
     In a huff, he charged fifty yards across the fence line to the back of the house.
     The MacKenzie house, built on a slope, stood three stories tall in the rear. The basement was exposed, an imposing stone foundation supporting the timbered framing and stucco finish. A fine example of Tudor architecture, someone once told him, whatever that meant. Above, several panes in the leaded-glass windows were broken. Around the side of the house, the thick oak door stood ajar, confirming his suspicions.
     Tom eased it open, smelt a faint whiff of mold and decay in the air. Condensation covered the stone walls of the basement. The house was silent. Perhaps the little shits had seen him coming. Were they hiding? Had they fled out the front door?
     Wary, he crept up the plank stairs to the first floor, remembering last fall when he had driven over after seeing flickering lights in the house. A fork-wielding druggie, ranting about ghouls and voices, had attacked and stabbed him in the arm. Tom dropped the guy with a roundhouse punch and called the sheriff. Hence the pitchfork.
     That incident added to a growing list of strange stories about the MacKenzie place that included apparitions, odd noises, accidents, and strange deaths in or near the property. People from town were convinced it was haunted. Couldn’t drag any of them within a mile of the place, except for the teenagers drawn here by the rumors and legends. Tom didn’t believe the superstitions himself but understood how they had arisen.
     A creepy old house and the natural tendency of small-town people to gossip and embellish the truth? Yep, the place must be haunted. From those roots, the rumors and stories had grown and spread.
     That hunter killed by the tree was weird though.
     A tree dropped on the guy on a clear fall day a few years back and crushed the poor bastard fifty feet from the house. Tom had seen the guy, crushed and impaled by a branch. Ugh. Probably not ghostly but certainly spooky.
     He stopped, setting the pitchfork against the wall of the foyer. The house inside looked much like the exterior: a frame of heavy timbers and beams, plaster walls—a grand house really, not like any other farmhouse he’d ever seen. To his surprise, other than dust and cobwebs, the house had suffered little since Elizabeth and the boys left.
     A lone oil painting, a portrait of an older woman dressed in vintage clothing, hung on the back wall. Her face was narrow, pale and homely, framed by grey hair, lips drawn tight and grim. She wore a black gown drew up to a white pleated collar. Tom knew Elizabeth hated it though she’d never said why.
     Elizabeth was the only ghost who haunted him here. She had left a year ago, but Tom still loved her, a one-sided affair that began as a childhood crush and lingered after she married his best friend, Alan MacKenzie. Elizabeth was the only reason he looked after the house. She’d never put it on the market, keeping alive a glimmer of hope that she might someday return.
     What if she did? He didn’t have a chance with her. Never had. He could still picture her, felt a resonant longing whenever he thought of her—
     A spasm of guilt twisted in his stomach when, as an afterthought, he remembered Sally.
     Sally was his girl and things were serious, but Tom suspected Sally knew she was his second choice. Sally was like that. She just knew things. Always had. In some ways, she was spookier than the house.
     Elizabeth had never been back, never called. Tom thought they were friends but felt abandoned now, though Alan’s death had been hard on her. In all fairness, maybe she couldn’t face the house yet.
     The place felt deserted, yet he now heard a low steady beat like the muffled bass of a boom box. The sound seemed to be coming from upstairs, toward the back of the house. No voices, no footsteps, just that steady low-frequency pulse. Given the attack last fall, apprehension tingled in his belly. He didn’t need this aggravation and was behind on his fieldwork. Better to walk away, but he couldn’t. Curiosity and a sense of responsibility pushed him forward.
     As he crossed the foyer and started up the stairs, the clomp of his work boots on the maple floor echoed from the ceiling above. The pulsing noise continued, steady, deep—a heartbeat, he mused. What the hell was that sound? Must be a boom box, but where? It grew louder, seemed to emanate from everywhere, and sounded uncannily like a Pink Floyd song.
     Goosebumps rippled up his arm to his neck, the tickle of cold fingers playing over his skin, a creepy invisible touch of fear and anxiety. Tom hated this disquiet. He was no longer a child and these were childish feelings.
     “Dummy,” he mumbled under his breath.
     Trying to relax, Tom pushed his feet forward, up the remaining stairs, creeping to the right along the hallway, glancing in each open door, seeing nothing. His senses seemed amplified—the musty odor of the old house, the surreal light filtered by dirty windows. The creaks and scrapes of his boots on the plank floor were hollow, resonating about the house in sync with the undulating bass tone.
     The house itself stirred. The floorboards seemed alive with the subtle beat. Was he imagining that? Though unsure, his pulse quickened, his neck ran cold with sweat. His insides churned in a tightening knot. The anxiety grew stronger and more intense, a full-blown panic. Tom felt compelled to leave, to run away, feeling foolish but unable to control his spiraling fear. Deep down, his inner child sensed ghosts and bogeymen in every dark corner of the hallway. Eyes, teeth, claws—cold, cold creatures lurking behind the doors, waiting to pounce.
     As he closed the door behind him, another down the hall banged shut, plunging the hallway into darkness.
     He froze.
     The broad oak floorboards undulated, a low rumbling sound, the same sound he had heard earlier, but louder, more pressing. The house shook and trembled as if the ground beneath the foundation were in the grip of an earthquake. It all happened in seconds. Tom stood, gripped by morbid fascination and fear. A dizzy, nauseous feeling swept through him. He bent over, thinking he would throw up.
     Another slamming door jolted Tom from his trance. He had to get the hell out of here! Jesus! The floorboards were clattering like a mad drum brigade. He turned and ran down the hall, toward the stairs. Ahead, a door at the end of the long hallway pushed ajar—just an inch or two. Bright sunlight spilled through that crack and the keyhole, down the dark hallway, a surreal contrast between the sudden calamity indoors and the serene July afternoon outside. Cheerful birdsong, from beyond that door perhaps, completed the insanity.
     Drawn to the doorway like a moth to a lamp, he felt powerless to resist the attraction of whatever lay beyond the threshold. Light emanating from the room grew brighter and warmer. He drifted down the hallway, clenching his fists for a moment, trying to shake the anxiety, trying to regain his composure. The floorboards rattled beneath his feet, the ominous rumbling continued, danger lurked around him—but not beyond the door. He just knew it.
     He took a deep breath.
     Reached for the knob. Hesitated.
     Pulled the door open—