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Monday, August 17, 2009

Sneak Peek

The following is a new chapter recently added to Crawl. I feel it adds a bit more flavor to the Fairweather Estate and gives a nice picture of how it is viewed in the neighborhood. See if you've come across this house (or something like it) in your own hometown!



Dead End

It loomed before them at the end of the lane, the forbidden manor, a dark test of their manhood. Many had tried to cross over the cursed threshold, to enter the dusty gloom of the vacant murder house. Few made it passed the thick, head-high tangle of wild weeds that grew in place of a well-trimmed lawn. The crumbling walkway leading to the front door was over-arched by the waving stalks, their shadows harboring some dark thing.

Eddie Becker once made it as far as the rotten and rickety porch planks. They say he even stopped a moment to stare into the dusty windows, into the soulless eyes of Fairweather Manor. They must have stared back through him. An instant later Eddie was tearing back up the weedy walk, tripping on the concrete slabs and glancing hurriedly into the savage jungle closing in around him. When his feet finally hit the safe and familiar asphalt at the end of Oak Lane, Eddie calmed himself enough to breathe again, though he didn’t speak. Didn’t speak a word for nearly a full day.

Those who saw him that day confirmed his courage, corroborated his story that he really did make it all the way onto Fairweather’s porch. They say that when he ran from the house, his feet moved twice as fast as they’d ever seen, faster even than his winning thirty-yard dash in the state championship years later. After he made his stand on that cursed porch, no boy in Oakdale ever doubted Eddie Becker’s courage again.

That was nearly five years ago and the people of Oakdale still talked about it today. They talk about Eddie Becker being the one to go the farthest, run the fastest and go on to win at just about everything. And it all started with his one-man mission into Fairweather Manor. Though they just as frequently talk about Eddie turning as white as a sheet after running from the house, how he never said a word about exactly what it was he saw that day.

Beau Davis and Reed Walker were only seven years old when Eddie made his famous assault on the Fairweather House, but they knew the story by heart. Five years of embellishment fogged some of the facts, but the end result was the same. If they wanted to follow in Eddie Becker’s famous footsteps, they would have to go further than he did. They would have to enter Fairweather Manor and they would have to do it today.

“My brother was on Eddie’s football team. He said one day after a practice, Eddie talked about what he saw in there,” said Beau, never taking his eyes off the mansion.

“Yeah. And?” asked Reed. The two boys stood at the beginning of Oak Lane, their bikes resting gently against their legs as they looked down the road at their distant gloomy goal. Here at the crossroads, the summer sunlight shone through the waving green-leafed branches of the oaks. In the open, it baked the pavement, the humid air rising in viscous waves.

“He said he saw Old Man Fairweather walking around, all bony and pale. Said he was dragging a long chain behind him. Said he turned and looked right at Eddie and then walked right through a wall and disappeared, chain and all. That’s what sent Eddie runnin’,” Beau said. A chill crept up his spine as he visualized the Old Ghost, making the boy shiver despite the August heat.

“Your brother’s full of shit,” said Reed. He straddled his bike and pedaled slowly down the lane. Beau picked up his own bike and followed Reed, dodging the patches of sunlight that danced in the shade of ever-clustering oak trees.

“Okay, so what do you think Eddie saw?” asked Beau as he pulled up parallel to Reed. They pedaled closer to the end of the lane, the shade growing denser and the temperature dropping by degrees the further along they went.

“I heard he saw piles of bodies, all long dead and rotten. They were stacked there, arranged like furniture in the front room, as neat as you please. Old Man Fairweather had made himself a throne of skulls and used their bodies to feed his pets. Flies swarmed over the corpse piles and rats gnawed at their flesh, eating whatever was left on the bones,” offered Reed. His words came out pompous and practiced, as if he’d been waiting to add his own two cents to the legend of Eddie Becker before replacing him with his own success story. Beau merely laughed at him.

“Talk about full of shit,” he said. Both boys stopped their bikes at the end of the driveway. It was barely recognizable beneath the overgrown lawn of the Fairweather Estate.

The air seemed thicker here, made it hard to get a healthy breath in. For the coolness of it, it was not refreshing. It seemed to stick to their skin and cling to their throats. The oaks that lined the dead end road were few and far between, but here they stood shoulder to shoulder on either side of the Manor, like thick ranks of wild, unkempt soldier sentinels. Their branches reached out towards the house on both sides, some long enough to scrape the chipped siding with their sharpened nails.

“How many people died in there?” asked Beau. He and Reed stared up at the hulking mansion with terrified awe.

“Officially? Two people and a dog I think. One of them was Fairweather himself. But who knows what’s been covered up since then. I mean, why is this place still standing?” Reed had been following the Fairweather legend for as long as he could remember. Today would be the day that he’d finally add his own page to its history. Many times before, he’d gotten up the courage to make an attempt only to give in to his nerves at the last second. Today, Reed vowed, that would not happen, it could not happen.

A strong breeze kicked up from behind the house. It stirred the branches in the oak grove army, sending whispers rushing forward on the heavy air. Shrieks and groans sounded from the house’s siding being scraped away. Or was the sound from inside the very house itself? Reed and Beau clearly shared this thought as they looked at each other for reassurance.

The wind hissed all around the boys, bending the wild stalks of weedy grass towards them. It was to be their last warning. They didn’t listen.

“You sure you want to do this?” asked Beau. Something in the wind stole the last reserves of courage he had, chilled his nerves frozen, useless. Reed, however, seemed strengthened by the sudden elemental surge. He took it as a taunting double-dare from the house itself. Reed Walker accepted the challenge.

“No time like the present,” Reed said as he gave Beau a quick salute. He stepped off of the hot summer asphalt of the cul de sac and onto the cracked concrete of a weed-plagued sidewalk. As he edged slowly down the central walk, the high grass closed in around him. Choke-weed and thistle. It clutched at his clothes and tugged his hair like infinite tiny talons.

Reed felt that instant grip of fear that Eddie Becker must have felt. Rather than slow him down, it spurred him on. Eddie made it further than this and so would Reed. Besides, the eyes of Beau and probably the whole neighborhood were on his back, watching his progress. How would it look if he turned back now? No. He would push on.

Something rustled in the grass to his left. Reed was startled by the sound, but kept moving forward. His calm exterior belied the pounding heart within.

‘Just mice,’ he told himself as he pushed more pricker bushes aside. The rotten-planked porch was only a stone’s throw away. He had reached the half-way point, the point of no return.

The manor loomed large this close up, larger than he’d ever seen it. It peered down upon him, surveying the intruder like a spider awaiting the approaching fly. The house had waited for years to claim another life. It could wait a few more moments.

Reed hesitated as he cleared himself from the tangled lawn and approached the bottom-most step leading up to the wide front porch. Something pushed at his nerves, warned him to go no further.

“Eddie made it this far. Farther,” thought Reed. He turned back to look at Beau, still safe and sound at the end of the walk, but probably as nervous as Reed himself. He gave Reed the go-ahead nod. Reed turned back towards the house and put a foot down lightly on the next step. It creaked low and long, the splitting timber veins echoing louder than the rustling wind building around him. He took another step. Then another. His heart rate quickened with each step.

Before he knew it, Reed Walker was just a few feet from Eddie Becker’s famous high-water mark. Even if some wild beast were to break out of the high grass and tear Reed to pieces, even if the house itself swallowed him whole, Reed Walker’s story would continue on. He would share a place in the legend with Eddie Becker, no matter what happened next. He could turn and run right now, could claim to do what only one other kid in Oakdale had ever done, and rightly so. But Reed didn’t want to share the limelight. He wanted it all for himself.

Reed Walker stepped up to a dusty window, cleared a swath with the sweaty palm of his hand and peered inside. Reed expected blood and guts and body parts or at the least, a wandering specter of the house’s former master. What he saw surprised even his active imagination.

Nothing. Nothing but dust motes floating through slants of sunlight. Nothing but the inch-deep drift of dust covering the floorboards, the mantle, the handrail. Not even a stray cobweb or dangling spider or frenetic fly could be seen. This last fact struck Reed as odd, but not particularly dangerous. It was clear from the state of the room that nothing had trod upon the decaying floorboards for quite some years. The virgin surface welcomed Reed, invited him to be the first to add his footprints to the forbidden floor, to mark his achievements like the first men on the moon. Here stood Reed Walker, the bravest kid ever to live in Oakdale.

Reed smiled broadly at this thought. He stepped away from the window and reached for the doorknob. He heard Beau’s sharp intake of breath as Reed turned the knob with a click. The houses of the living didn’t even lock their doors in Oakdale, so why would a house of the dead? Besides, there was nothing left to steal besides dust.

Reed pushed one half of the heavy double doors open. It scraped a small ridge of dust out of the way, piling it up on the floor along the trim. He stepped over the threshold, dust spiraling away from him in the freshly disturbed air. He noticed the house had a particular smell, not musty or even that peculiar old people smell that apartments and nursing homes took on. Rather it was the woodsy scent of hardwood and paint long decayed and neglected. There was a hint of familiarity in the smell, as most of the houses in Oakdale had been built around the same time as the Fairweather Estate.

But there was something different. Something Reed couldn’t quite put his finger on. He was reminded of the slight tang that always greeted his nostrils at the local animal shelter. It was a strange comparison in his mind, but it was the closest thing he could think of to describe it. But Reed wasn’t worried. If there had been some animal living in the house, he would have seen signs of its tracks in the dust. Undeterred, he stepped further into the room, disappearing from the protective and anxious view of Beau outside.

Reed regretted not bringing a flashlight. Not that the spacious front rooms of the manor were too dark, but a light would have put him a little more at ease. Then again, all of that dust floating around might have made shining a light about more or less useless.

Reed worked his way through the small foyer and into the first of the large rooms at the front of Fairweather Manor. At one point it may have been a lavish dining room, with a hand-carved table and matching chairs, a delicate chandelier hanging brightly above the dinner guests. But now, it was just an empty, dusty room. Nothing the least bit interesting or frightening. Reed thought for a moment about waving Beau to come inside, but then he thought better of it.

‘Let him wait out there, all nervous and pacing while I’m safe and sound in here,’ Reed told himself with a grin.

A skittering sound like toenails on slate rattled off to Reed’s left. He spun towards the sound and looked up, swearing it had come from near the ceiling. He held his breath.


Reed tore his eyes away from the suspicious noise and continued inspecting the house. He moved through the old dining room and back towards what he assumed would be the kitchen. Another noise caught his attention, this time much nearer. It seemed to come from off to his right, just behind the wall itself. It was a sort of shuffling, scratching sound like a brush being passed through tangled hair. Rather than move away, Reed stepped closer, convinced it was some animal living in the house after all. He put his ear to the wall.

A claw shot out of the air vent near Reed’s foot and grabbed hold of his ankle. The sudden viciousness of it surprised him and he stumbled backwards, losing his footing. He crashed to the floor and had the air knocked out of him. A startled cry would have sent Beau rushing to his aid or running off for help, but Reed could scarcely draw a breath. His wide eyes locked onto the claw that still had his leg in its iron grip, even as his lungs seized for air.

The claw was bone white and criss-crossed with scars. Sleek muscles and tendons flexed under the paper-thin skin and tapered back to a slender wrist. For all its frailty, the thing’s grip was deadbolt firm. The creature’s hard black nails dug deeply into his flesh and Reed Walker found his voice. It came out straggly at first, a struggling cry for help crawling up and out of his throat. In response to his helpless call, the thing began to pull.

Reed’s foot was nearly pulled into the air vent before he thought to fight back. He brought his free heel down hard on the claw and hit it just below the wrist. It let go in an instant, leaving trailing scratches down his ankle. If it made a sound in pain or protest, Reed didn’t hear it. He was on his feet and moving, kicking up clouds of dust as he fled. He felt something thudding underneath the floorboards, moving faster than he could run and heading in the same direction.

He hit the open door with his shoulder and bounced off of it, ricocheting out onto the open porch. The wind had picked up and was howling softly now, spiraling around the house and drawing the trees inward. His face must have shown his panic, or his friend had seen something Reed didn’t, because Beau’s eyes were wide with fear, his face drained of color. Before Reed had even cleared the porch with three long strides, Beau had straddled his bike and began pedaling feverishly up the lane. Reed tried to call out for him, but his voice failed him, still too shocked to make itself heard.

Reed burst up the walkway, throwing the weeds aside as they tore at his skin making microscopic cuts with their unseen claws. He dared not look back up at the house for fear it would draw him back in, a vortex sucking him back into its unknown depths no matter how hard he ran. But the house was not his only concern. Reed heard something in the weeds keeping pace with him, something separate from the howling wind. Something wild. He was only steps from the sidewalk now. Only steps from safety.

As Reed Walker’s feet hit the lawn’s edge, a scarred and bony hand darted out and grabbed his shirt collar. It yanked him off his feet and pulled him back into the weeds. A shrill yelp went out from his weightless body, helpless enough to cause Beau to pause in his mad dash to escape. Beau hit the brakes and looked back. All he saw were Reed’s shoes disappearing into the weeds.

Here, Beau Davis had a choice: abandon his friend to the evils of the murder house or go back and rescue him. The first choice, he could claim, was an attempt to get help. The second choice could get him killed. As Beau Davis debated, only a few moments, Reed Walker came bursting out of the weeds, running as if the devil himself were behind him. He ran passed Beau and didn’t stop until he reached the intersection, the crossroads where Oak Lane ended in sunlit sanctuary.

When Beau caught up to Reed, he could see his face was scratched and bleeding. His clothes were tattered and dirty. His elbows and knees sported brush burns. He looked like a boy who had gotten into trouble. There stood Beau, clean clothed and untouched, but his face wore the same expression. Who would believe their story when they didn’t believe it themselves? Just two boys spinning tales. Two ordinary boys on an ordinary summer day.

As he and Beau rested at the end of Oak Lane, neither of them spoke a word. Beau never asked Reed what had happened to him or what he had seen. Reed never volunteered that information either. Beau silently promised himself not to mention the fact that Reed had pissed his pants as long as Reed never called Beau a coward. Reed would never do that. To call Beau a coward meant that Reed had needed help, meant that he had been attacked, meant that whatever was in that house was real. Reed would not, could not, ever admit that. The air had grown very still

“Let’s go home,” Reed said at last as the sun was beginning to set. He wheeled on Beau suddenly and stared directly into his eyes. His face was set in stone, his eyes devoid of humor.

“We were never here,” he said. Beau nodded a silent understanding. The two walked their bikes home, parting ways at the Davis’ family driveway.

They had spent the day playing in the creek, or building a fort, or skipping stones at the pond. Anything but being tied to that legend, that place of death, that Murder House. Eddie Becker could keep his limelight. Reed Walker and Beau Davis wanted no part of it.

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