A couple fond of exploring small towns and out of the way places find a surreal adventure.
Tragedy Strikes at the Huntley Mansion
Callie and Cole Ware depart the city most weekends to ride into the lesser populated areas of their state. Now it is October, the colors are splendid shades of crimson, copper, burnt orange, and rust. Callie, an amateur painter, often takes photos of local people and unusual places that spark her interest. She has a dark room at home and has been published in several online magazines.
The couple find themselves in a small town called Winston. It has a lovely town Square currently decorated for a Fall Festival with pumpkins and Halloween decorations. There are a mixture of locals and visitors wandering through stores and sitting on benches. It seems like a friendly town as adults speak comfortably with children parking bikes in racks. Older men sit in the drugstore at a lunch counter circa 1950's. Drinking coffee, you can imagine the fish tales, local politics, and marriage plus car troubles being discussed. The Festival signs are for the next weekend so the couple slowly ride around the square, people watching.
Then they continue driving over winding country roads as civilization becomes almost nonexistent.
Once in a while, an old gas station or occasional Dollar Store is seen. Callie has to stop so they pull into an old Citgo. It has a torn screen door and rusted Coca-cola chest on the sagging porch. A mixed breed dog lays outside looking very much at home. Two fellows, heavily wrinkled with scant gray hair, sit in worn lawn chairs chewing tobacco, loudly discussing the theft of a neighbor's prize cow. They take turns spitting into a community metallic can.
Inside the store, boiled eggs, pickles and pigs feet reside in jars of greenish gray liquid on the counter. The Confederate flag is proudly displayed. The lady behind the counter smokes a cigarette as she restocks candy bars. She seems pleasant enough, smiling as she points Callie toward a restroom in the garage area. Callie is fascinated by places that pull you back to the 1950 photos she has seen in magazines. She has her camera and takes a couple of shots. The lady grimaces when the camera is turned on her. She has a feral look about her. Callie didn't notice her yellow eyes before. This will make a great photo, she thinks.
Callie, "Thanks and have a great Halloween!"
Groves of apple and pecan trees grow along scenic roads. The air is scented with burning leaves and spices. Occasionally there is a fruit stand with various seasonal apples and vegetables, boiled peanuts and sometimes, cider. Riding through this quiet serene area is a treat compared to the busy metropolitan area where they live.
Continuing to drive country roads, they are sightseeing but also going in the direction of a main highway according to the GPS. There is hardly a house in sight, all farm land and an occasional cow.
Suddenly, both see flickering lights, like fairy lanterns, a surreal rainbow of colors off the road.
A semi paved, partial dirt road seems to go in that direction. There are no signs.
Looking at each other, “Should we?”
The SUV has 4 wheel drive, Cole turns and drives over rough areas. The road starts to disappear. Finally they come to a dead end for the vehicle.
Both jump out and start down a trail, the lights are getting closer and brighter. Mesmerizing, the lights draw them, like a prize awaiting.
Walking through the woods is difficult to follow a path. Obviously, it has been awhile since anyone has been this way.
The path takes them through a cluster of trees. Out here in the middle of nowhere, is a carnival. Complete with an old fashioned carousel, Ferris wheel, refreshment stand, even a "House of Amazing Freaks". There is calliope music and people with grins, carrying balloons and popcorn. Families with small children, dropping ice cream cones and hot dogs, parents scolding and cleaning up messes. Couples are holding hands and kissing.
Cole pulls Callie towards him, "Hey, babe, doesn't this seem kinda weird? I don't remember seeing a parking lot, other cars or people walking this way?"
"I think you just wanta go home! There's probably another entrance. We probably came through the back."
"No, really, I'm getting a weird vibe about this whole place. There weren't signs about any carnival, even in the town. Babe, I'm tired and we've done the whole amusement park thing before. Costs lots plus I'm never sure those rides are safe! They usually bring them in on semi trucks. Who knows when they're ever maintained?"
He looks down at his cell phone, "We are out of Wifi service now, I can't get a signal. C'mon let's head home, please?"
Callie recognizes this stubbornness, knows she's pushing. "All right, just be that way! Wait until it's a car show!"
They turn around and start back, almost missing the treasure, set far back, in the whispering pines.
"It's my dream home, honey, please can we go and look?"
"It's not for sale, babe. Do you see a sign?"
The house is a huge weathered Victorian that has seen better days. The yellow paint spoke of its former beauty. The wrap-around porch has exquisite beaded woodwork that appears very fragile now.
It didn't look like anyone was living there. Callie considers herself a pro at this kind of adventure.
Cole knows one day their luck will run out and cops will arrest them for trespassing, tossing their butts in jail. Then a deputy with too much time on his hands will torture them with a pistol, making them dance. That day will end the excursions and he can watch football in peace on fall weekends.
Callie has been on a quest to find the perfect house. She takes photos, develops and prints them to put them under her pillow. Just like the tooth fairy, money might magically materialize in their life.
This whimsical side of his wife is one reason he adores her. She gets so excited, like a small child, and he would give her anything he could.
Cole knows, even if the owner wanted to sell, they didn't have any cash. They could barely afford the rent on a one- bedroom apartment.
Callie isn't in denial. She is a struggling painter/photographer and Cole, a DJ for a start up top forty radio station. The dream house is a harmless game.
"Babe, something special is drawing me to this place," Callie sounds thrilled.
They knock, the door swings open. There is life here already. It's inhabited by bats, rats and spiders. Looking past all of that, you can tell it had been a beauty at one time with exquisite crown molding and silk wallpaper. Unfortunately, the smell was horrendous.
The living room ceiling has faded cherubs painted on four corners. Some of the furniture, period pieces, were still here covered by dusty sheets. Unfortunately, the rats had eaten away at the upholstery.
Callie giggles, "The rats have good taste".
She makes a serious face, deep in thought.
"I can restore it all, then sit on the front porch with a Mint Julep in my hand. I'll wear a white embroidered cotton dress, a straw hat with lavender ribbons. We can discuss neighborhood news, serve cucumber tea sandwiches".
Cole mimics throwing up then grabs her well rounded behind.
He bursts the fantasy bubble,"'Babe, imagine the cost to fix this place up? Even if we did most of the work?"
"I know, but I can dream, can't I?"
They began to walk around, going from room to room. Callie wanders off by herself.
Suddenly, he hears an ear splitting scream.
"What the hell?" Cole bolts toward the sound.
There is a yellow drawing of a body on the floor.
"Oh my God, someone was murdered here!" Callie's frightened voice echos off the walls.
Cole grabs her. "Lets just get the hell outta here!"
They go back to the front door. The fragile weathered door, that had swung open easily, is shut and won't budge. A sense of panic is beginning to overtake Callie as dampness collects under her arms and on her neck.
Checking each of the windows on the first floor finds them locked or painted shut . Everything that had appeared to be falling apart and fragile seems to be fighting them. They try a fireplace poker and a brick doorstop but nothing will break windows or glass. This was crazy!
Suddenly, an idea! They pull out their cell phones. Both are black screens, nothing!
It is becoming hard not to panic. Callie feels tears slipping down her cheeks and chills all over her body. She tells herself she is being silly, panicking for nothing.
The two of them clasp hands tightly and carefully attempt to climb up a staircase that is falling down.
Cole breaks the silence, "I'll get us out, I promise!"
On the top floor, they see a stained-glass window that looks down on the foyer.
It is a glass coffin with a beautiful woman in it surrounded by dark red roses.
What kind of person would want such a morbid piece of art?
Callie begins to take shallow breaths, feeling a panic attack coming on. Cole tries to calm her down by doing some deep breathing exercises together.
Now anxiety feels like ants crawling under her skin. She wants to run away now. Her mouth is bone dry, "We're trapped. It's my fault!"
The once lovely place, made of wood and masonry, sounded like it was breathing now. Harsh shuddering breaths, like something otherworldly. They search the top floor. All the windows are sealed. They try to break them with anything laying around feeling desperate. They check for an attic, but can't get the trap door to open.
Cole says, "Maybe there's a cellar'.
The two carefully maneuver down the steps. The old wood suddenly caves in, Callie's foot is caught.
Cole manages to pull her loose but the ankle quickly swells. Now she is in extreme pain and can't put weight on it. Cole has to carry her. He puts her on the dusty couch and kisses her.
Looking around, Cole notices a small door behind the stairway. It opens easily.
Callie's whimpering shifts to optimism, "We're going to get out, sell the story to People and make tons of money".
"Callie, just hold the door! Put money sugarplums out of your head, okay?"
Cole feels his way down the slippery steps, they keep talking to each other. It is pitch dark and scurrying of little feet is heard. He doesn't want to think about why the steps are wet, one step at a time. Keep thinking, there is a way out!
"Hey, babe! There's a small window. I'm pushing it open. I think we can get through it. We are going to be free! Be careful, babe. Just feel your way down here," Cole instructs.
Then Callie hears a loud bang.
Cole shouts, "Window closed, an ax is here. I'm coming back to get you."
That is the last time she'd ever hear her husband's voice.
Suddenly, a strong force rips the cellar door handles from her hands. She pulls and pulls but can't open it again.
Callie, in full panic, screams Coles name over and over.
There is dead silence on the other side of the door.
Callie sinks to the floor in tears. She hardly feels pain in her foot now. She screams as loud as she can,
"HELP! Somebody please, help me!"
The sound of her voice seems to ricochet off the walls, laughing at her.
The house is breathing harder and now it has a strong thundering heartbeat. She feels like she is inside a body. She and Cole watched a movie once where scientists were shrunk and sent into a human body in a spaceship. Same noises.
Ok, take deep breaths and think positively!
But she is suffocating, her chest has a large weight on it. Something evil surrounds her, a growing dark presence. The house wants her. It needs her, that much she is sure of and she is so tired. She closes her eyes tightly, waits for whatever comes next.
By Kathie Stehr
Won 1st place for October Senior Forum Contest 2021
"Life asked death, 'Why do people love me but hate you? ‘Death responded 'Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth."
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