The view from the back porch was always unsettling, yet strangely captivating.
The large trees in that patch of woods were like no others.
Their trunks were thick and grand, rising into imposing branches that splayed out.
They clawed vertically into the sky.
They seemed to have life.
They radiated a restlessness.
The trees loomed over a slight clearing, where rested a circular wall of stones, not very high.
It encircled what appeared to be an old well.
Just 12 years old, Clayton imagined Old West settlers hauling up buckets of water from the deep, deep earth.
But for the longest time, his parents wouldn’t let him go into the woods that rose up about 50 yards from their home’s rear fence.
He could never peer down the well, though he was dying to.
Mom and Dad would tell him the forest was not safe.
Clayton became wary himself on one cold and overcast December day.
He was looking out his bedroom window, which was next to the back porch.
Dusk was setting in.
The sky seemed angry. Billowy dark gray clouds hung low.
Then, young Clayton glimpsed what other local folks had reported seeing over the years.
A figure approached the well.
It walked slightly hunched over.
It looked down into the well.
Then, the head raised up.
Clayton saw what he thought was the flicker of a tongue -- a long, slender serpent’s tongue.
The tongue flicked in and out, again.
It seemed forked … split.
Clayton alternately thought it was cool -- and frightening.
The figure disappeared back in the woods.
Clayton closed his eyes and then reopened them, trying to refocus to make sure he had seen what he thought he’d seen.
There was nothing there -- just the dim and quiet among stark and bare wooden limbs.
Clayton believed that the strange thing had weird arms, but couldn’t be sure in his flustered state.
Did he imagine the contorted arms after the fact? … after losing sight of the entity?
He didn’t know.
Clayton dutifully drew away from the window, gently easing the thin lace curtains back into place.
Clayton never told his parents about the odd thing he had seen.
He realized they already knew about a mysterious being that supposedly moved about back there.
Mr. and Mrs. Crisswell had informed their boy several times that “something creepy” was regularly seen in the woods, around the well.
“There are gonna be strange things on this earth, you just have to accept that,” Mom would tell her boy.
“It’s not hurting us; it’ll leave us alone as long as we don’t bother it,” Dad would say.
Clayton accepted his parents’ words of wisdom.
Others might have been perplexed.
But not Clayton.
It was merely the way things were; it was the way his family lived.
Not all things could be explained; just move on with your life -- it all made sense to Clayton.
The jolting memory of the unexplained visage slowly faded.
He was, after all, a free-spirited kid with enticing discoveries that lay ahead.
During warm weather, he would play in the backyard … and almost nothing seemed threatening.
Some summers would include a visit from his cousin, Ada, who would stay at his house for a couple of weeks or so.
She was 10 years old the first time she came, two years older than him.
The time with her was fun.
Ada did what boys liked to do; play catch with a baseball and mitt, climb the swing set and talk about big bugs.
Clayton came to view her as a friend, rather than a relative.
He could talk to her about sports and horror movies.
Her days at his house flew by, just like the darting finches in the heated, sunny sky.
The summer after Clayton’s odd sighting, Ada was at the back of the house when she saw it … that thing in the woods.
Night was falling when Ada poked her head through the horizontal fence beams to get a closer look.
Standing upright in the distance was some sort of living creature with long arms that were each folded over in two -- much like a bent leg at the knee.
The arms were positioned high, right under the head.
Ada watched with open-mouth fascination.
Whatever she was seeing turned its attention to the ground.
It was scouring the thick forest floor.
Ada could make out the silhouette of a head, but it did not resemble a normal human head.
It was flatter, tapered -- with a tongue that flicked.
The weather was heavy and muggy.
She was looking at the so intently -- and for so long -- that her forehead began to sweat.
She was apprehensive, but not scared.
Ada took a break by gazing up at the sky.
It helped her put on an air of nonchalance.
Stars were embedded in the rich, far-off blue.
Returning her attention to the woods, the mysterious entity could be seen lurching forward, still riveting its attention to the ground.
Ada wondered if it was looking for food.
Without warning, the folded arms slowly extended to reveal rows of small spikes that lined their interior.
The gasp surprised even her, and made her jerk.
Now, she was frightened.
Ada pulled her head from in between the fence beams and backed away.
She wore bib overalls.
Her hair was pageboy style.
And she sported black, high-top gym shoes.
She was a tomboy in the truest sense.
Normally, she would have climbed the backyard fence to venture closer to the woods.
But not this time. Those unnatural arms scared her.
She peered through the beams of the six-foot fence.
Ada was able to see the thing lift its two spindly legs to mount the well wall, and then step over it.
It disappeared into the well.
It was holding something in its arms as it descended.
Whatever was in those clutches might have been wriggling, but Ada wasn’t sure.
She ran back inside the house.
There, she told Clayton what she had seen.
“You got a good look?” he asked.
“Not really, it was pretty far away and kinda dark,” she said, breathing heavily.
“It was holding something?” her confidant asked.
“Yeah, seemed like it … maybe it was a little kid.”
Ada’s eyes misted up after finishing her answer.
“Are you sure it was a kid?”
“No, I’m not sure.”
Clayton told her not to worry, reminding her the dark plays tricks on people’s eyes.
Ada was feeling better.
She was only superficially aware that, for many years, there had been sightings by local people of a macabre being going into -- and out of -- the well.
Ada was just the latest to bear witness.
That night at dinner, she decided to tell Clayton’s parents about the eerie episode she had just encountered.
As meatloaf and green beans were eaten, Ada worked up the nerve.
She spoke fast about the sighting in the woods, but left off the part about the creature carrying something into the well.
“Well, honey, there are all kinds of living things roaming the forests and roaming this world,” Mom said as she salted her beans. “There’s no sense in trying to account for everything.”
Ada was disappointed by the indifferent response.
A few seconds of silence lapsed before Dad spoke.
“If you leave it alone, it will leave you alone,” he said while scanning the newspaper next to his plate.
He didn’t look up at Ada when issuing his advice in a low-key manner.
Ada turned her head toward Clayton to gauge his reaction to the adults’ comments.
Clayton shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “That’s how we’ve always lived.”
The boy was used to a laid-back, anxiety-free way of life.
His family lived in a rural area. They were not farmers, but had some acreage on which they grew vegetables -- mainly for themselves.
At different times, in various years, they had chickens.
Clayton worked the land.
Compared to most other preteens, his hands were more rough and calloused.
He was somewhat chubby, but his face was graced by cherubic cheeks. A thick shock of tousled red hair lent an air of vitality.
Clayton sometimes buzzed with so much energy that he had trouble falling asleep.
This was one of those nights.
Shortly after supper, he was told by his parents to go to sleep.
After all, it had been a long day.
He stared at the ceiling in his second-floor bedroom -- bored and antsy all at the same time.
Without warning, the ceiling seemed to come alive.
It sounded as if someone was scurrying across the roof.
The noise would go away for a few seconds, then return.
Sitting up in bed, Clayton wondered if it was a raccoon.
No, he reconsidered, the sound was heavier. It had to be something bigger.
His cousin was rustling in the twin bed that was next to his.
“Did you hear that?” Clayton said in a loud whisper.
Ada was gradually waking up and trying to gather herself.
“I thought I heard, like, pounding footsteps, but I’m not sure if I was dreaming that,” she said, looking to the ceiling.
Clayton again heard commotion on the roof.
This time, the motion was producing dull thuds.
“I’m getting scared,” Clayton said.
“Me too,” Ada responded.
Clayton went to his parents’ bedroom.
By that time, the sounds had ceased.
“Must have been a raccoon or a big hawk on the roof,” Mom said. “Everything’s all right. Go to bed now.”
Clayton did, but not before looking out the bedroom window.
He thought he saw movement at the corner of the house -- something big, on the ground.
It was too dark to know what it was. A huge shadow glided away from the house.
It appeared to walk on two legs.
The next day, Clayton and his cousin couldn’t resist the temptation to go into the woods and investigate near the abandoned well.
Clayton surmised that whatever was making the noise on the roof during the night was, in fact, the same being he had seen among the trees.
The two children strode with a sense of mission through the high grass toward the woodland.
The day was humid, with a diffused brightness.
Clayton had only been to the area of the well once before.
He was so worried his parents would catch him, he left quickly, before looking into the well.
As he neared the destination with Ada, he came to the realization that this would be his cousin’s first visit to the forbidden land.
The two explorers finally arrived.
Around the well, small pieces of light-colored debris were strewn about.
Upon further inspection, Clayton and Ada decided they were bones -- the bones of small animals.
“This looks like the head of a coyote; we get them around here, you know,” Clayton told Ada as he gingerly kicked the small skull out of curiosity.
Nearby, was a carcass. There was no mystery with this animal -- it was a house cat. Some bones were exposed, but the fur and skin were still basically intact.
The plaintive call of a killdeer added to the unsettling atmosphere.
Clayton often heard the bird’s piercing cry from his home. He knew it well, but still didn’t like it.
“It looks like that thing has been eating,” Clayton said.
Ada walked a little farther from the well and saw more bones.
“Are those dog bones?” she asked.
“Could be,” answered Clayton.
He turned his attention to the well.
He was going to look down into it for the first time.
He did, and was stunned to see that there was no hole.
There was solid ground -- just grass, splotches of dirt and scattered leaves and twigs.
Ada took a peek, too.
The area Clayton was exploring in the woods was indeed a revelation.
The animal bones he found were surprising, but other than that, there was a serenity to the area as the canopy of sturdy oak leaves swayed in the slight breeze.
The bones couldn’t sully the pastoral sweep of the woodland being explored.
Back at home, Clayton asked his dad about the well, without letting on that he had just been to it.
“The well really isn’t a well anymore; someone must have filled it in a long while ago,” Father said.
A warning was added: “You stay away from that area. Understand?”
“I will,” Clayton vowed.
It was the first time his father had told him it really wasn’t a well -- at least not anymore.
All the other times, it was just referred to as “the well.”
While tossing a football around in the backyard a couple of days later, Ada and Clayton discussed matters beyond their comprehension.
“I don’t understand where that creature was going when I saw him go into the well,” Ada said. “If the well is covered up, where’s he going?”
Clayton held the football under his arm as he pondered the query, then replied.
“Maybe it burrows into the ground. Don’t know.”
The next morning, an ominous occurrence took place.
It was August, and a county police officer was in the woods that were off limits to Clayton.
The officer was returning some stones to the wall of the well.
The flat pieces of stones had been displaced.
Looking around to make sure his parents weren’t watching, Clayton climbed the back fence and ran to meet the patrolman.
“What’s up son?” Officer Daniel Milton asked.
“What are you doing?” Clayton wondered.
“Someone knocked down some of these stones from the well wall -- well, it’s not really a well, but everybody calls it that,” Milton explained. “I’m just putting the stones back. They’re called Cotswold stone, you know. There used to be some mortar holding them in place, but the mortar has worn out over the years.”
Clayton wasn’t too interested in the history of the well.
“Is there a strange animal in these woods?” the boy blurted.
The police officer smiled at Clayton’s bluntness.
Sliding a stick of gum into his mouth, Milton gave the kid an answer.
“Just between me and you, kid -- I think there is a real ghoul -- a ghoul that does the bidding of the Devil.”
Milton grinned at the reaction on Clayton’s face: Just like the cliché, the boy’s eyes got as wide as saucers.
The patrolman was spinning no yarn.
He knew there was plenty of folklore surrounding the figure in the woods, but after logging many eyewitness statements, he no longer felt the sightings warranted such frivolous categorization.
He told Clayton what he knew of the tale passed down over the generations.
The story involved a hybrid creature with thin, long legs -- legs that were insect-like, and that bore talons.
The middle of the body was that of a praying mantis, with folded wings and spiny arms meant for clasping and holding.
The head was the head of a snake. Some accounts maintained it was the head of a Gaboon viper.
“What’s a Gaboon viper?” Clayton asked.
“A poisonous, mean-looking snake with a frightful glare. It has two projections at the front of its head … they look like horns.”
Clayton tried to digest the influx of information from the cop.
“Two horns?” he asked.
“Yeah, they look like horns.”
Clayton wanted to know why the thing was here.
Milton said there was no explanation.
“Nobody can explain ghosts; but I believe they exist,” the officer said.
Milton brushed off his hands after handling the stones he had put back.
He walked back to his squad car, parked outside the woods in a pasture where there was no constructed road.
“The creature goes in and out of that well, doesn’t he?” Clayton asked as Milton was getting into the squad car.
“That’s the legend, son.”
Milton also added that it may never have been a well; perhaps the stone wall encircled a garden decades ago.
Waving bye, he drove off.
The officer didn’t tell Clayton his true belief.
Milton always felt that the so-called well was merely a portal to the underground netherworld.
If you were a supernatural beast like the snake-headed thing, you could slip through mere physical barriers, like the ground.
Milton believed in the legend. He’d always believed in another world of evil and things that go bump in the night.
Clayton stood still as the police car made its way through the pasture to the county road.
He noticed that Ada was now behind him.
And behind her, was the monster.
“Ada, look out!” Clayton screamed.
The beast took Ada in its arms, holding her like prey that a praying mantis had captured.
Clayton stood frozen. The beast approached, its head looming above him.
It merely stared down at the boy, its slit-like pupils fixed in a penetrating glare.
Its tongue flicked out; once, twice.
At one point, the tongue brushed Clayton’s face.
In lightning fashion, the creature bounded for the well, stepped up on its wall, and stepped down.
It -- and Ada -- were gone.
Clayton ran back to the house for his parents. Mom and Dad calmed him down the best they could before going into the woods to find Ada.
The adults found Ada curled up in a fetal position, lying inside the well, inside the circle of stones.
Ada didn’t seem hurt, but her face was scuffed with dirt and both arms were scratched.
“Let’s get you back inside and cleaned up,” Mom said.
Dad carried her inside the house.
He dismissed Clayton’s story about a monster carrying off Ada.
“You’re 12 years old, boy -- you gotta quit believing in monsters,” Dad chided. “You just got an overactive imagination. Ada probably just slipped off the top of the well and fell in.”
Clayton was too frazzled to argue with his father.
Regardless of what actually happened to Ada, one thing was certain: She was never the same.
Her visit to Clayton’s house was cut short that summer.
Ada’s parents sent her to a family therapist.
Most days she was listless and detached.
She did not care about her friends, did not care much about eating.
The weekly therapy sessions were in a sterile, functional office.
It took several sessions before she even began talking at length.
But at the fifth meeting with the therapist, Ada opened up.
She recounted being taken down into the earth by the monster.
The place below reeked of burning smells and slithering demons.
Those black-eyed devils pricked at her with long, jagged fingernails.
There was the wailing of lost, blistered souls, she said.
This terrible place was endlessly deep and torturously hot.
While she unfurled the litany of what had been experienced, the therapist looked at her with sympathetic eyes, but was believing none of it.
Ada methodically continued her story.
The one thing that terrified her most, she said, were those poor lost souls.
They were crying; they begged for help.
Ugly sores riddled their bodies.
As the monster took her deeper and deeper, the lost souls kept coming -- level after level.
Though not believing a word of what she was relating, the therapist was impressed by the wealth of detail being imparted by this 14-year-old girl.
She contended that the doomed were strewn about ledges and huge mountains and rocky, grating surfaces that tore into their skin.
In their eyes was a maniacal terror she had never seen. Yet, those same eyes ached with surrender, as if they realized there would be no escaping this asylum.
Ada spoke with a lifeless depression about all that lost hope.
She managed only a blank look while finishing her story.
She mindlessly rubbed the sleeve of her pretty -- and proper -- floral dress.
The therapist was told that just as suddenly as the creature had taken her below, it rose higher, higher and still higher with her, until breaking through the earth and leaving her inside the wall of stone.
That is where the journey to the damned had started -- and ended.
Following the session, Ada sat in the waiting room while her mother talked to the therapist.
Clayton had come to offer Ada support. Clayton sat next to her. The waiting room was empty, quiet.
An antiseptic air almost pricked at Clayton’s breathing.
To him, the surroundings had the clinical coldness of a hospital. Ada stared into space. She continued to rub and finger her sleeve.
After minutes of silence, Ada turned toward Clayton and began talking about the nightmare they shared.
It has to eat while it is above ground, she told her trusted buddy.
It will devour anything, she assured.
Clayton soaked in her words with increasing revulsion. There was an overwhelming urge to draw some sort of rational explanation from her.
“Why does it come above ground? I don’t understand,” he hurriedly asked.
Ada’s eyes lit up, as if eager to release the answer.
“It wants people to see Hell,” she said with firm conviction.
Clayton switched his attention to a potted plant in an effort to change the mood.
She was scary.
When he turned his head back to Ada, she was looking at him with an utter expression of pity.
Her eyes watered. Ada seemed to be breaking down.
Clayton dreaded what his cousin would say next.
He didn’t want her to talk anymore.
“It’s coming back for you,” she said in a quivering voice.