It's Valentine's Day, no better day to enter a haunted house.
|Locks are used to keep things out, but they are also used to keep things in. The burning question is . . . what lies behind the door?
Keys open such locks, if someone is fortunate, or, as the case may be, unfortunate enough to find them. Someone like little Shyla Stone, on her way home from school, who wasn’t even thinking about doors with locks, or even the keys that opened them, until she saw a glint of gold beneath the undergrowth of a neglected old hedge that wrapped around the infamous Hanson House.
Bitten by the worm of curiosity, she quickly bent down and snatched it up.
It was a skeleton key, just like the one her grandmother had shown her once: long and heavy, with a circle at one end and a flat, square-shaped tooth at the other. “In the olden days,” her grandmother had said, “keys like this could open and lock every door in the house.”
Shyla rubbed at the worn and tarnished key, and then using her thumbnail, chipped away at the encrusted dirt and grime.
There were some numbers engraved on it.
“2-1-4,” she read aloud, and then her gaze slowly lifted from the key toward the deserted two-story house that hunched behind the hedge.
The Hanson House returned an indifferent glare as it sagged upon its foundation like a decrepit old geezer. The eaves of the long forgotten wood-shingled roof drooped down heavily over the dark brooding eyes of the upper-most story. Even in the light of day, the dusty, hollow windows of the lower floor seemed to gape open like hungry black mouths waiting to be fed. Leading up to the house were two white-washed pillars that framed a set of large double-doors. Upon one of the pillars was the number, '214'.
She looked down at the chunk of metal that rested in her hand. “Oh, my god," she whispered, "it's the key to the house."
The Hanson House had been the talk of the town for many years. It was a landmark really, one of the original homes built in the town back in the early 1920’s. The place had always mesmerized Shyla for as long as she could remember. Even her mother acted strangely whenever she drove by: slowing the car and craning her neck to look up at it, and then speeding off again as though something unwanted might approach the car.
From what Shyla could piece together, the Hanson family had been murdered in their beds by their son, Valentino. Valentino had been named after the famous actor of silent films, and was the youngest of three boys. The story goes that he came home from school on Valentine’s Day with a bag full of heart-shaped treats. His two older brothers, teasing him as usual, took the bag in a playful game of 'keep-away'.
Valentino had always been a distant child, moody, and easy to anger. He became so upset at the theft of his candy that he ran downstairs, grabbed a kitchen knife, and then went after his older siblings.
His parents, hearing the screams of the children, hurried upstairs. They were stunned to see Valentino, by far the smallest of the three boys, waving a knife at his older brothers and backing them into the corner of the room. The father quickly relieved him of the knife, and then trying to do what was best for the boy, severely beat Valentino and sent him to his room. The bag of candy was then taken and locked away.
As the story goes, late that same night, Valentino searched for his bag of treats, but all the closet doors were locked and he couldn’t find the key.
They say he must have gone crazy then, because he took a small hand-ax from the fireplace, where kindling was chopped for the fire, and then quietly crept upstairs.
He entered each bedroom, one-by-one, and hacked his family to death while they slept. But he wasn’t satisfied with just killing them; the rumor was that he returned to each of the victims and mutilated their bodies as if he were trying to chop their hearts into tiny little pieces.
The next morning, the police found him sitting outside on the porch drenched in ghastly red gore. They said he sat there as though in a trance drawing bloody Valentine hearts on the steps with his finger.
He was fourteen then, the same age as Shyla.
The girl hesitated, her heart drumming in her ears as she fingered at the key.
I could solve the mystery, she thought. Find out what happened to Valentino and prove all those stories were true.
She knew she had to go inside and discover what lay behind the door.
Bolstering her courage, she stepped forward.
The walkway was narrow and lined with overgrown rose bushes that threatened to scratch her eyes out as she passed. The concrete steps leading up to the door were cracked and worn. Shyla noticed faint markings drawn upon the third perch. She bent down and smoothed away some of the dirt that covered them.
"A heart!" she gasped. "At least that part of the story is true."
The fear of continuing on almost made her turn around and leave, but the key grew heavy in her hand just as a rush of wind shook the doors and made them rattle.
She climbed to the porch and faced them. Two ornate brass handles were set horizontally into each, and Shyla grabbed hold of them and pushed down, but nothing happened.
Just below the right handle, she saw the key-slot. Looking around to check if she was being observed, she stuck the key into the lock and turned it. There was a discernible click.
Another gust of February wind boomed into the doors and whisked across the porch stirring up leaves in a diabolical dance. Shyla held her breath, grabbed the handles again, and pushed down. The doors creaked opened.
Upon first inspection, she didn’t think too much of the house. A deep layer of dust covered the floor and threatened to bury several tattered old rugs strewn about. There were dusty-gray sheets draped over the lumpy furniture, giving it the appearance of a group of sleeping giants. Cobwebs hung thick in every corner as if generations of spiders had made their homes here, one upon the other, until the webs extended out toward the center of the room like delicate lace sheets that blew gently in the breeze.
The stairway lay just before her, curving up and around toward the second floor; some parts of the banister lay broken along its steps as though someone had chopped them into crude, irregular pieces.
Shyla didn't feel brave enough to venture upstairs. Perhaps another day, she mused. Cautiously then, she stepped inside the house, propping her foot in front of the door to make sure it wouldn't close. The air here smelt musty and stale.
From this vantage point she could see another door just beneath the stairs and only a few short yards away from where she stood. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she stepped forward. Her feet disturbed the dust as she went, and the wooden floor creaked like the deck of an old ship.
Her courage suddenly gave out, and she turned to leave, but then from behind the closet door, she heard what sounded like a button fall and rattle around on the floor.
Again she became curious, reached out to try the door, but found that it was locked. She looked around, assurring herself that the front door still hung open.and then inserted the skelton key into the lock and turned it. The door opened.
Within the small room beneath the stairs, old clothes hung down in heaps from broken hangers like unraveled wrappings of an ancient mummy. On the floor in front of her was one of those pink, heart-shaped candies you get on Valentine’s Day. That must have been what she heard fall and rattle. Without thinking, she stepped inside the closet and picked it up. Turning it over in her hand, she read, “Be My Valentine."
The door slammed shut behind her with such force she nearly jumped out of her shoes. In a panic, she spun around and attacked it with all her might. Even as she pounded on the door heart-shaped candies rained down upon her from the shelf above and clattered around on the wooden floor. Terrified of the dark, she screamed as loud as she could. In her frenzy, her hand brushed against the doorknob and she clasped onto it like life itself and forced the door open. Then she bolted out of the closet, ran through the main entrance and into the light of day.
She stood there out of breath, panting, as though she had run a great distance. But immediately the outside air began to clear her mind, and she convinced herself that what had happened was nothing more than the wind.
Just then she heard the clatter of a candied-heart as it rolled across the floor and out the front door where it finally came to rest at the toe of her shoe. In the daylight, it was easy enough for her to read it. “Be Mine,” it said.
Her heart beat like a drum as she immediately decided that she didn’t care about the Hanson House anymore or the key that opened it. She ran down the steps and nearly all the way home before she realized she had left the door open and forgotten to retrieve the key. She vowed never to go there again.
Once she was home, she climbed the stairs to her room and quietly shut the door behind her before anyone could ask what the matter was. She fell upon her bed and hugged her pillow until the familiar smells of home began to calm her nerves.
In the mirror she noticed that dust covered her dark hair and clothing like a heavy sprinkling of dirty powdered sugar. She decided to take a shower before someone asked where she had been. Hurriedly, she stripped down. As she gathered up her clothes, a candy heart fell out.
Her blood froze and her bones turned to ice. Biting her lower lip she read, “Mine Forever.” It was at that point she felt an overwhelming presence was in the room with her.
She hurried to the bathroom and locked the door. Starting the shower, she took some deep breaths, tried to relax, and then stepped inside.
The water was hot and soothing, just what she needed to calm herself. She felt she had let her imagination run away with her, and now it was time to just forget about the whole thing.
Whether it was just the hissing of the showerhead or her vivid imagination, Shyla couldn’t be sure, but she heard a soft, hoarse whisper say, "Be Mine...."
The voice echoed through her head like the resonance of a bell until the sound itself seemed to disturb the cloud of hot steam that enveloped the shower stall.
She quickly shut the water off and grabbed her towel. On the fogged glass of the shower door she saw a familiar heart drawn with a finger with the words, “Key to Your Heart" below it.
A silhouette passed in front of the door, and she let out a short, terrified gasp.
Somebody was in the bathroom with her, and she now realized something had followed her home to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
As she stood naked and shivering inside the shower stall, the shadow passed by again, and Shyla saw the outline of a small boy holding an axe.