HOWLERS

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the witch-lady's house...

Sheriff Whaley’s SUV made easy work of the poor excuse for a road that lead into the higher country of Cranton Ridge, but that didn’t make the ride any smootheruts and exposed tree roots that jostled them around like rag dolls. Gail held a firm grip on her backpack so none of her electronic equipment inside ended up bumping together, while Olivia braced her feet against the floorboard and held onto her seat belt, feeling as though she were riding a bull in a rodeo. This, along with what Gail and Olivia considered the sheriff’s horrible taste in music, made the trip seems twice as long as the half an hour it actually took. The road began to smooth out a little bit for the last half mile or so, and the pine trees became more and more dense, exposing less sky the farther they traveled.

“Do you know much about Elsie Gryder?” Gail asked the sheriff, raising her voice over the scrubbing of tires on rocks and roots and the squeaking protest of shocks and springs.

“Some, yeah. Hard t’ tell legend from truth from outright bullshit sometimes. I do know folks that lived ’round here were pretty damned scared of her for a long, long time. Hell, nobody talks about her much ’cuz they’re still scared of her, dead or not. Whole damn fam’ly had somethin’ wrong with ’em, all the way back to the first Gryders that came here.”

“So I imagine this is the kind of place where one family lived for generations, keeping to themselves and keeping strangers out, right?”

“Yes ma’am, absolutely. Hardly anybody ever come up here that wasn’t family.”

The sheriff’s scruffy face looked pensive, as if he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure how to say it.

“That....may not be entirely true, Ms. Stevens,” he said hesitantly, turning the radio down, “Elsie was the last Gryder to live up here, and she was....promiscuous, to say the least. She was homely as a knotted tater, but that didn’t seem to slow her down any. Had a pretty long line o’ men come up here, ’til they found out who she was, then they’d never go back. There used to be this bar down in Derby Cross, long, long time ago, The Red Ox. Pretty rough place, too; that’s why the church eventually got ’er shut down. She was in there a lot, hangin’ on some feller or ‘nother, and she slept with damn near ever’ drunk that stumbled into that place. ‘Course, y’ do stuff like that, n’ it’ll catch up to ya one way or ‘nother. She got pregnant several times over the years, but never had any kids with her when she showed up in town. Story is, she’d become so wicked that her body was sour, infertile. All her babies were premature n’ stillborn, and she’d bury ‘em out behind the house n’ go on like nothin’ ever happened. Didn’t seem to make a damn to her. No tellin’ how many infants buried on that land. Some folks say they can hear ‘em cryin’ when the moon’s right. That’s just another reason folks don’t go jackassin’ around up here.”

Sheriff Whaley sniffled a little, then exhaled heavily, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Gail could tell he was a little out of sorts after telling that story, so she decided a subject change would give him a good out.

“We’re almost there, right? I don’t mean to question your knowledge of the area, but like you said, people almost never come up here.”

“I’m fairly sure this is the way,” the sheriff said, “we oughtta be there shortly.”

“Fairly sure?” asked Olivia, looking at Sheriff Whaley as if to say, ‘Could you be that fucking stupid?’

She grunted and flopped back against her seat, crossing her arms. Visions of being lost in the woods with no cell phone signal or the slightest clue how to get back began to form in her mind.

He just laughed weakly and said, “Sorry, ma’am. Not funny, I know. I just meant t’ say it’s been a long while since I been up this way. We ain’t far away at all. Look yonder.” He pointed ahead, and the women saw that the trees began to open up and reveal the clearing where four young people lost their lives only two weeks ago. At the edge of the clearing sat Dylan Harper’s car. Sheriff Whaley eased around it and continued toward the house.

“We tried to move that car after the bodies were cleared out. Wouldn’t run a lick. Still won’t start, far as I know,” said the sheriff, “Passenger seat’s all burnt up, like someone poured acid on it or somethin’.”

The little gray house stood ominously at the farthest edge of the clearing, just against the dead trees. It seemed hostile, foreboding, as though it were demanding they leave, and this was lost on none of the passengers in the slowly approaching vehicle coming out of the pines. Suddenly the sun seemed a little dimmer, the shadows a little darker and longer, the air thicker and more tense.

“That’s...that’s the house?” asked Gail, hoping against all hope that it wasn’t, but knowing full well it was. Now that they were pulling up into the front yard, she couldn’t seem to stop staring into those filthy windows, struggling to keep her imagination from conjuring all sorts of horrid things they may have hidden from the world over the years.

“Oh, good. For a minute there, I thought it might be a house that looked like inbred cannibals murdered and ate people there,” came Olivia’s voice from the back seat, tinted with the semi-serious sarcasm that had become her trademark brand.

“Yer friend’s a hoot,” Sheriff Whaley said to Gail with a much drier sort of tone as he rolled into the yard and parked. Nobody made a move to get out immediately.

Should’ve doubled my meds. Ow, ow, fucking OW!!” Gail thought to herself as she reached for the door handle. That familiar dull ache was pulsing all over her body now, especially in her shoulders, back and hips, almost as if she’d never taken any medicine at all. The sound of her door opening cued Sheriff Whaley and Olivia to exit the SUV themselves, all three gathering at the front porch. Gail sat her backpack down by the steps, took out Olivia’s camera case and opened it.

“Take this, just in case.” Gail handed Olivia her small 10 mp camera.

“Sure, yeah,” said Olivia absently, holding out her hand. She was, at present, preoccupied with the house, the clearing, the trees, all the elements that seemed hostile and overbearing. One didn’t need to be a psychic to know that terrible, unspeakable things had happened in that house, in this yard and in those trees, those dead-still trees that seemed to consume any sunlight that tried to slip its way between the branches to the forest floor. She didn’t know it, but she was staring at the exact spot where the ghost-wolves had come out of the darkness that night. It made her heartbeat quicken just the same, as if she sensed it somehow, staring deeper and deeper...deeper into the dark....deeper between the trees....

“Liv?”

No response.

“Liiiv?”

Nothing still.

“OLIVIA SCOTT!!”

The last one was a little louder than Gail meant, but it worked. Olivia snapped back and inhaled heavily. She blinked at Gail and the sheriff in turn, feeling the small beads of perspiration just above her brow. Sheriff Whaley regarded her a moment, looked around the clearing himself, then back at Olivia.

“Yeah. I know, Ms. Scott. I feel the same way m’self. If you two’ll follow me, right over here’s where we found Dylan Harper. Lacy Bell was right over there, other side o’ them bushes.”

The ground where Dylan’s body had been found was covered in dried blood. It had soaked into the dirt, fused blades of grass together, and even been splattered onto a couple of nearby saplings. Gail looked over at Olivia to see her face twisted up in disgust. No gagging this time, but still thoroughly put off as she snapped several pictures. Where Lacy Bell had fallen, a large splatter of blood, then several others leading out to the place where her body had finally landed. Then they made their way around to the place where Jude Gunter’s remains were found.

“Looks uh...like you guys might’ve..missed a bit, Sheriff,” said Gail, one eyebrow raised. Sure enough, here and there in the grass were tiny bits of sun-dried skin and muscle stuck to grass blades with dried blood.

“Yyyyeah, looks like it,” said the sheriff dismissively, “Got all y’need here, ladies? Next site’s inside th’ house.” Gail made her last audio notes as Olivia clicked off one more close-up shot before falling in behind the sheriff and walking toward the house.

“Gail...hey...” Olivia whispered, “you notice something familiar about those sites? Like the farms we’ve been checking out. No fur, no paw or footprints, nothing like that at all.”

“Yeah, I saw that. Well, didn’t see it, I guess. I’d say this is getting weird, but it’s been weird for a couple days now.”

All that remained was where Delia Bell had met her untimely end, and that was approaching all too quickly. They stood in front of the porch, each of them trying to hide the fact that their hearts were racing fit to burst. The afternoon sun had dipped just a little bit, and now the house cast a shadow over them that seemed like viscous, black liquid fear. It was terrifying to even think of how it felt to stand here at night, all alone, nobody to hear you call for help. At that moment, it occurred to the three that they were letting their imaginations run a little wild. Sheriff Whaley was the first to break the tense silence.

“Delia Bell’s body was found just inside the front door. Her head was layin’ beside it. Don’t think I’ll ever forget th’ look on her face, all wide-eyed, mouth open. God only knows what that poor girl saw right before she died that woulda....” He shuffled uneasily and looked at his feet, shifting his hat slightly back and forth over his head. “Come on, we’ll have a look. I’ll tell ya ahead o’ time, though, there’s this pale green door at the back o’ the livin’ room. That was Elsie’s bedroom, th’ room she died in. She’s still in there, what’s left of ’er. Might wanna stay outta there, y’know?” The women nodded agreement.

Once at the front door, the three looked at each other and nodded agreement. Sheriff Whaley swung the front door open, and with a long, angry creak, the house gushed that same musty, overbearing stench of old death over the visitors. This time, though, the old place also had fresher blood on its breath, and it was much more than Olivia could stand. She bolted back down the steps and threw up as her right foot hit the exposed red clay at the edge of the porch. Gail was right on her heels, coming up behind her to pull her long, curly red hair back away from her face while patting her gently on the back.

“You alright, Liv?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good, I think,” Olivia sputtered, “Fuck, that was embarrassing.”

“I wouldn’t sweat it,” said Gail, pointing toward the porch with a slight smile, “Look up there.”

Olivia looked up and saw Sheriff Whaley standing in the doorway, noticeably gagging and trying his best to hide it and keep his cool. Gail went to her backpack by the porch steps and found a bottle of water, handing it to Olivia. Once she had rinsed her mouth and composed herself, they went back to stand with the sheriff.

“You alright, Ms. Scott, ma’am?” asked the sheriff, trying to sound concerned while stemming the urge to vomit.

“Yeah, thanks.”

Olivia smiled weakly and turned her attention to readying her camera.

As they stepped inside the doorway, the place where Delia Bell met her end was grotesquely obvious. Again, there was no animal fur nor any trace of a paw print in the blood or on the floor. A chalk outline clearly marked where her body and head had parted ways and blood had been dumped from severed arteries onto the floorboards and slipped through the cracks, soaking into the dry, thirsty aged wood on the way. Somewhere under these blood-soaked planks lay the object Billy Randal had hidden from the world, something he feared and thought others should fear as well. Wherever it was, it felt close, emanating from underneath. What sort of unholy power did this board have if ordinary people could feel its presence pulsing and breathing from an unknown place where a terrified youth desperately shoved it out of sight? That was what they were here to discover, and hopefully soon.

“Where do we even start? I mean, do we just start ripping up the floor or is there some kind of clue where to look?” Gail inquired.

“Well, hmm..” the sheriff grunted, rubbing his chin in thought, “I got this halogen spotlight out in the truck. Maybe I could shine it into that place in the floor over there where th’ boards are busted up. Ain’t a big house, maybe the light’ll fall across it, ‘n’ then you’d be able to see it.”

“It’s worth a shot. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.” said Gail, peering down into the dark cracks between the bloodstained floorboards. The house felt more and more disturbing every minute, and she was ready to try anything just to get the hell out of that place.

In a few minutes, Sheriff Whaley was back inside with his spotlight, and after some considerable effort pulling up one of the broken floorboards, managed to finesse the large bulb and battery pack in at just the right angle to allow it to drop down into the hole in the floor. The bright white light easily pierced the blackness under the floor, illuminating most of the area under it. Gail and Olivia separated and walked slowly around the room, looking down through the cracks, holes and spaces. They had looked almost everywhere when Olivia just happened to catch something that wasn’t dirt or subfloor in her peripheral vision. It looked like letters and symbols carved into the wood of the subfloor, but the wood it was made of looked older than that...much older...and the edges of the carvings reflected the halogen light.

“Gail! Sheriff Whaley! Over here!” she called, never taking her eyes off of it. Gail and the sheriff came quickly and looked down at the place Olivia where was pointing. It was almost as if it wanted to be found, as if it was expressing a dark joy at having been discovered. There was a sudden trace of life coming from under that floor, and all three of them could feel it as they stood staring at it.

“Now what?” asked Gail, looking to Olivia and the sheriff in turn.

“Only one person I know of that knows anything about this kinda stuff,” Sheriff Whaley began, trying to keep his voice steady, as though he didn’t feel the board’s power, “and that’s ol’ Barnett James. Personally, I wouldn’t touch that damned thing ’til I talked to him.”

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