The towering and everlasting presence of the Hershey house was looming over the town of Linden, Minnesota like a shadow. From the place, the kids were playing at only the outline of the structure was visible in the distance. It was among the oldest houses in town, along with the ramshackle tool shed they used as a hiding place. Much of the house’s history was still unknown, and none of them knew the dark secrets it held.
Andy Perkins, now thirteen years old, the biggest and oldest of the five kids, held up an empty champagne bottle. They were sitting on the wooden floor in a circle.
‘Are we sure we want to do this?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, there are no such things as ghosts anyway,’ his younger brother, Chris replied. He was eleven.
Andy looked at Jess Brooks, his classmate, but when his eyes met hers, he quickly turned his head towards Danny, the fastest runner in town. ‘Fast’ Danny Anderson, also thirteen and in the same class as Andy and Jess, threw a quick gaze towards the house through the broken window, then agreed. He was tall and slim, had protruding cheekbones and sunken eyes. Now, as almost always, he had a sullen disposition.
With a sullen and distant voice, he agreed: ‘Let’s do it!’
Nate Whayman, the bespectacled and usually frightened boy, hesitated. He was afraid of the dark. It was not a phobia, but he avoided dark places as much as he could. He was the youngest of them all, ten years of age.
‘Ok, I... I’m in,’ he whispered after a few seconds.
Andy looked again at Jess and for a moment got mesmerized by her beautiful blonde hair. Her dress was light blue, and a little faded. Andy loved this dress because she looked so pretty in it. She just nodded and smiled.
The sun was close to the horizon now, and the light outside was fading. It was the middle of July 1983, their favorite part of the year besides Christmas. They sought adventure with the innocent curiosity of children gleaming in their eyes. Little did they know that this summer they will get the adventure of their lives, changing them forever.
‘All right! Here we go then. Just remember, whoever gets selected has to go into the basement and get something out. This way none of us can lie.’
They all nodded, so Andy put the bottle on its side in the middle of the circle and spun it as hard as he could. It whirled around and around. He wished it wouldn’t stop. Maybe all of them did, but the thrill of going alone inside the town’s infamous haunted house excited them.
The bottle slowed down and then stopped. It pointed towards Andy. The others sighed in relief. He didn’t say a word because he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of Jess. Even Chris felt a little easier. He was the geek of the group, with an unusually high IQ for his age and a premature intolerance for superstition. He also had a huge weakness for cookies and sweet stuff. But the idea of going inside the Hershey house frightened him. Of course, he didn’t show it. No matter how rational you are, the dark can grip you with its icy fingers and pull you down and you’ll be lost forever.
‘All right, guess that’s me…’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Jess, you’ll have a flashlight and we’ll be close by, outside.
‘It will be fuuun, guys,’ Chris said and raised his hands up. ‘Can’t wait to see big brother shit his pants.’
Now everybody laughed. ‘Smart-ass’ Chris Perkins always had something funny to say.
‘Why don’t you go, wise-ass?’ Danny said. ′At least you can put your strange theories to the test.′
‘What theories?’ asked Nate, looking around dumbfounded.
‘It’s physics, retard. People who see ghosts say they are going through walls, right? Now, if you see something, it means that it reflects light, which means they are material things. If they are material, then they can’t go through walls. It’s impossible. Got it?’
‘I don’t really understand’ said Nate, scratching his head.
‘Of course, you don’t! Your Bible doesn’t teach you physics.’
‘Shut up!’ Nate shouted with obvious indignation. His family was very religious and so was he. Offending the Scripture was not something he would leave alone.
‘Guys! Chill out!’ ordered Jess and pointed towards the window. ‘We should go. Some of us need to be home for dinner.’
‘I don’t,’ said Danny with a sad tone, ‘my parents are working as usual, so it really doesn’t matter when I get home.’
Jess looked at him with sad eyes. Danny didn’t really have a family. She knew that the only family he had were right there in the shed. They all stood up, Andy gave a kick to the bottle that was still lying on the floor.
‘Hey, it was your idea,’ said Nate in an accusatory voice.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll do it.’
‘Big brother is afraaaid,’ Chris teased Andy as they moved towards the door, but Jess slapped him on the back of his head.
‘Shut up, moron!’
They went outside and barred the door with a piece of broken board. It was a miracle that the shed didn’t collapse years ago. It was in such a terrible condition that it wasn’t safe even for a rat to stay inside, but somehow it was still standing. The old wooden building, or shall we say ruin, stood at the edge of the forest. Small trees and bushes partially hid it from anybody passing nearby. The once red shingle roof had long lost its color. Many years ago there was a farmhouse here somewhere, but it burned to the ground. Only the tool shed remained. It was the best hiding place for the Gang. This was how they called themselves.
They walked into town, which was not far away. Just before entering Linden, they could see the cemetery on their left, along with the church. The reason the church was more towards the edge of town was that the soil behind it was not suitable for construction by modern standards. The new houses have been built on the good ground, away from the church. Of course, the first settlers didn’t know this, so they built it wherever they wanted to. In the past there have been many houses on the poor soil, one could still see their remains, like the old tool shed.
The old folks claim that there was once a marsh between the forest and where the church was, and the soil is still unstable. The marsh is long gone now, along with all traces of ground-water in the area. Many of the older people complained that they couldn’t find water in the ground in certain areas that were relatively close to the Hershey house or the church. There even were old wells on the grounds where the old houses have been, but they were dry and nobody knew why.
On the other side of the cemetery was the infamous house, standing there in all its menacing glory. The dirt road they walked on soon intersected with one of the major roads going into town. They could have also gone through the cemetery, but it would have taken longer.
‘So we meet at the Hershey house around midnight. Right, boys?’
‘Of course, my lady,’ said Chris and winked at his brother, ‘can’t wait to see the knight in shining armor tremble.’
Jess departed from the group, she lived at the edge of Linden, in a farmhouse. Soon Danny departed too, Andy, Chris and Nate walked on. They lived close to each other, but much closer to the center than the others.
The kids sometimes waited until their parents fell asleep and then went out through their windows to meet under the cover of darkness. At night nobody bothered them, no one told them what they should do or what they shouldn’t. The night was freedom and exploration and thrills; it was the abolishment of rules and order only the grown-ups could live by. This was one of those nights when they defied the adults and searched for adventure.
The boys reached the Hershey house a few minutes before midnight and waited for Jess. They stopped on the other side of the street between some trees. There were no houses around here, people didn’t like the proximity of the Hershey house and stopped building about half a mile from it. Further down the road was Cold Hill Cemetery, just a few hundred yards from the house. It seemed like only the dead could stand being near it.
The house was at least two hundred years old, maybe more, and it had been derelict for over sixty years after the last Hershey died. No one came to claim the house, and probably no one will ever come.
It was huge, more like a mansion. The forged-iron gates faced Coldhill street like silent guardians to a forbidden domain. The walls were made of stone and were mainly covered by moss and ivy. A paved path led from the gates towards the porch. The yard was covered with all kinds of bushes and weeds, they even grew between the stones and made the path almost invisible. The only tree in the yard was a huge Ash tree, but it was dead. It spread its bare branches in all directions, reaching even beyond the wall and onto the street.
‘Where is she?’ asked Chris with some impatience.
‘She’ll come, don’t worry,’ replied Danny, ‘Why don’t you check out your new house until she arrives, you might find some invisible guests inside?’ he continued and nodded towards the building.
‘No thanks, I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘But they believe in youuuhuu,’ said Andy, and with a sudden jerk he moved towards his brother with his hands raised to scare him, Chris recoiled a little but then gathered himself.
‘See, you’re scared too,’ followed Andy with a satisfied grin.
‘No, I’m not!’
‘Guys, what’s the matter? Can’t you behave yourselves even for a few minutes?’
It was Jess; she arrived in a hurry. Her chest was heaving a little because she ran to be here on time.
‘Sorry, my mom and stepdad were arguing and I just couldn’t leave. I wanted to make sure my mom will be ok.’
‘Did he hurt her?’ asked Andy in a worried voice.
‘No, not at all. They were just arguing about something. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, he left to meet his stupid friends.’
‘Ok, let’s get to the fun part,’ exclaimed Chris and signaled towards the house.
‘Do we have a flashlight?’ asked Nate.
‘Yeah, I brought one. I definitely won’t go in without a flashlight.’
‘Thank God,’ Nate replied and wiped at his forehead as if wiping the sweat from it.
He couldn’t have been sweating because the night was fairly cold and windy.
‘I brought one too,’ said Danny, ‘just in case...you know, if something happens.’
‘Fantastic, shall we proceed?’ asked Chris with his usual impatience.
‘All right, we have to get inside the yard first.’
‘No shit, Sherlock. Any ideas?’
‘We could climb up that tree there,’ said Andy, and pointed towards a shadow at the side of the road.
They couldn’t see much because the streetlights didn’t work here. They worked when they were first installed but after the light bulbs burned out nobody replaced them since nobody lived in this area. They were visible in the distance, but not here.
The kids crossed to the other side, took a careful look around, and then examined the tree. Their eyes adapted well to the darkness. The moon was not yet full, but the light it reflected was enough to help them see.
‘It looks climbable and we can use the branches to go on the top of the wall,’ said Danny and jumped up with a monkey’s agility.
‘Wait! How do we get back?’
‘Jess is right, how do we come out?’ asked Nate, hoping that there is no way back out so they might abort their mission.
‘Wait a minute, let me climb up on the wall and look around.’
Danny climbed from the tree to the top of the wall and switched on his flashlight. A creepy sight lay before him, he could see the broken or partially broken windows and the heavy front door. It was shut, and something in his mind told him it is better if it remained shut. But the mind is always curious...
‘There’s a crate or something like that near the house,’ he whispered to the others, ‘we can use it to climb back up, we just have to move it closer to the wall.’
‘All right then... let’s go!’ said Andy, but hesitated. He looked around at the others to see if somebody takes the initiative.
‘Oh, come ooon,’ sighed Jess, then grabbed the nearest branch and started climbing.
Andy felt ashamed, he just showed her he’s a coward. Danny was on the other side when Jess got on the top of the wall. Soon the others followed. Andy had a harder time getting up since he was a little overweight. In a few minutes, everybody was in the yard. They stood face to face with the monster.
‘Man, it’s huge,’ said Andy and tried hard to control his fear.
He had to keep it together; he needed all the courage he could muster now. For a few seconds, he thought about how to get out of this situation. He wanted to come up with a motive to abort the mission, but soon realized that there is no turning back. If he turned back now, he risked becoming a coward in Jess’s eyes forever.
‘Yeah, and scary,’ replied Nate in a trembling voice. He was shaking like leaves in the wind.
‘I better get on with it, we haven’t got all night,’ said Andy, trying hard to fake some courage.
He started towards the porch, each step being harder than the last. After walking up some wooden steps, he reached the front door. Even the door appeared huge and robust. He tried it, but it was locked. He pushed hard again, but it wouldn’t move an inch. The others were close behind and they saw his struggles.
‘It’s locked,’ he said.
‘Try the window,’ his brother encouraged him.
The window on the right was broken, and it was at a manageable height. Andy shined his light inside and looked around. He saw the hall; it was dark and frightening. The old cobwebbed furniture was broken in many places, the rats made them their home a long time ago. Thick layer of dust and rat droppings covered the floor. The walls were musty; the plaster had fallen off in many places.
Andy climbed onto the windowsill and put one leg inside. He stood there for a moment on the divide between darkness and light shone in his flashlight once again and then jumped. An icy shiver went down his spine. He felt the darkness in his bones. There was an enormous staircase which led to the upper floor. He pondered for a moment to what horrible places it was leading to.
He looked for the basement door but didn’t see it. Maybe I’ll find it in the kitchen, he thought, so he headed right. He searched with his light and found a door with its upper hinge broken. Andy nuzzled it. The lower hinge uttered a rusty metallic cry. Luck was on his side because the door was indeed leading to the kitchen. He looked back for a moment as if fearing that something from the shadows could have heard the sound and now it’s coming for him.
Nothing was hiding in the shadows, at least nothing visible. He continued inwards and saw that the kitchen was a mess. Pieces of glass and furniture lay everywhere. On the big table in the middle, there were cutlery and broken plates. He walked past all the debris and found a door with a broken latch. He opened it and looked inside, hoping that nothing will jump out at him in the process. Some scared rats squeaked and ran in whichever direction they could. Unfortunately, the door lead to the pantry. Only crates eaten by bark-beetles, empty shelves, and more debris were all around.
He turned and headed back to the door while accidentally kicking something on the floor. It made a clinking noise, which almost gave him a heart attack. He looked down and saw that it was a piece of porcelain. After taking a few deep breaths, he went back to the hall. There was a hallway to the left with windows to the outside. Moonlight crept in through them, but it looked like even the light didn’t want to enter this edifice of darkness. After traveling millions of kilometers from the Sun to the Moon and then to Earth, just to be afraid to enter this godforsaken place seemed strange to Andy. At least it was more illuminated than the rest of the place.
He followed the hallway, careful not to kick anything in the process. After almost reaching the corner, he saw the hallway widening. There was a door to the right. This has to be the basement, he thought, and then tried the latch. It gave easily, and the door opened with just a minor gritting. The stairs ran parallel to the hallway and led into a thick darkness. A damp and musty smell struck Andy’s nostrils. And some other foul smell which he couldn’t recognize. He drew back a little and started reconsidering the dangerous descent which lay before him. No way I’m going down there, he thought and almost turned around when Jess’s beautiful face flashed in his mind. With the flashlight in his right hand and his left hand clenched in a fist, he started down the stairs.
The others were waiting outside. They felt relieved that they didn’t have to go down into the darkness. Each of them envisioned distinct dangers lurking down there, even the skeptical Chris. The boy didn’t show this to the others, however. He rejected all superstition as fables invented by the mind to explain things that can’t be yet explained. The only thing he couldn’t get his head around right now was the fact that he felt uneasy too. He didn’t yet know that no matter how rational one is; the mind uses imagination to cope with the unknown.
The only one who seemed more thrilled than afraid was Danny. The idea of going down certainly wasn’t appealing to him now, but he liked adventure. Anything just to spend time away from home. His parents were working a lot and cared little about him. Being home alone all day was boring, so he wandered around town when he was not with the Gang.
‘Looks like he went down,’ said Danny after seeing the light from Andy’s flashlight disappear.
‘Yeah,’ replied Chris, ‘wonder when he’s gonna run out screaming?’
‘Shut up, you moron,’ Jess hushed him in a low but angry voice, ‘I’m worried, maybe we should have gone down with him.’
‘Don’t worry, he’s a big boy,’ said Nate, who was being silent until now.
‘I know, but I have a strange feeling.’
‘Maybe while you discuss your feelings and emotions, I’ll see to that cra...’ Danny couldn’t finish his sentence, they heard a pretty loud cracking sound from the crate’s direction.
They all flinched, Nate uttered a frightened cry and fell on his butt in the tall weed. Jess and Chris froze, Danny was the only one who could move. With a quick turn, he pointed his light where the sound was coming from. They held their breath and looked but saw nothing. Danny slowly inched his way towards the crate and saw that it was now broken. The frigid chill of fear rushed through him once again, he couldn’t make sense of what happened. A piece of rotten, but heavy wood plank fell on it from above.
Danny pointed his flashlight to the window above. Slight movement caught his eyes. The others saw it too. None of them were sure what it was, however. It could have been just a trick of light and shadow, or the product of their imagination.
‘What the hell?’ asked Chris, and now he felt real fear for the first time. This was truly an event his mind couldn’t explain, no matter how hard he tried.
‘I don’t know,’ said Danny and kept pointing his light in all directions.
‘Maybe...’ Nate tried to explain it but his voice was choking, ‘maybe there’s somebody in the house.’
‘No way,’ exclaimed Chris but had no better explanation, ‘nobody lives in this house, not even the hobos.’
‘Yeah,’ said Danny, ‘but now I’m not so sure.’
‘Guys, I think we should go after Andy and get the hell out of here,’ Jess urged them in a worried voice.
Andy was standing on the first stair of the old wooden staircase, which was leading into the basement when the incident with the crate happened. He was looking around. His heart was pounding faster and faster when he heard the sound. He also heard Nate’s muffled cry, but since no other sound was coming after it, he supposed it was something insignificant.
A few seconds later, when he began inspecting the place, he also saw something from the corner of his eye. Chills ran down his spine, but then he gathered himself. He couldn’t abandon this and risk Jess’s disapproval.
The basement was full of old furniture, boxes with discarded stuff in them, crates, an enormous table with chairs thrown haphazardly under it. On the table there was more stuff, small boxes, rags, pieces of clothing, jars and who knows what else.
Then he saw it, the thing that gave him his subsequent nightmares and much more. The foreshadowing apparition of things to come, the only thing that could erase the line between life and death.
To his left, in the corner he saw a dark human-like figure, it was like black smoke, ephemeral, whirling, but had two yellow eyes. Andy felt as if they could see his past, present and future at the same time. He felt nailed to the stairs, terrified beyond belief. The thing disintegrated, the black smoke dissipated, and Andy snapped back to reality. He ran as fast as he could, out of the basement and then out the window. The others saw Andy just when they wanted to go after him.
‘See, I told you he’s gonna run out scared shitless?’ said Chris, but soon smile on his face faded away.
‘Get out! Get out!’ he urged them while running towards the wall. The others followed in a hurry.
Jess got really worried. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked in a trembling voice.
‘Where’s the damn crate?’ Andy and searched frantically for it, but the crate lay in pieces on the ground.
‘It’s broken,’ Nate explained, ‘something...’ but there was no time for talking because something just unlocked the front door. They heard the heavy click of a turning key.
‘Shit’ said Chris and started panicking.
‘Fuck it, I’m leaving,’ said Danny and jumped. He grabbed the top of the wall with his hands.
With superhuman strength, he pulled himself up and then reached down to help the others. Nate and Chris followed, and then Jess. Andy came last because he was the heaviest. Before they pulled him up, he took a last glance at the front door. It was slowly opening; the hinges cried under the stress. He didn’t wait around to see what will come out. The others grabbed him by the hands and with a collective effort pulled him up. They jumped down the other side and started running towards the town.