Chapter 2: Arrival
Anna saved John’s life. As a child, John was prone to bouts of extreme depression. Throughout high school, and afterward in college, he dipped into that dark place more and more often, but he managed to hide it from everyone else. After graduation, he stepped into the world of business, and found he was good at it; that was his curse. Overworked by those above him and sabotaged by those who competed with him for promotions, John soldiered through it for six years before breaking. He came close to quitting his job, drank himself into oblivion, and put a gun to his head more times than he could count. One afternoon, John’s boss ordered him to take a vacation. John saw it as an exile. He was being banished so the rest of humanity could go unbothered while he destroyed himself. Obediently, he removed himself from the world, and that was where he met Anna.
It was a starless night. John stood on a bridge, leaning against the railing as he stared into the thundering current. He wondered if it would hurt when the water flooded his lungs.
“You don’t want to do that.”
The voice, accompanied by a cool touch on his shoulder, startled John out of his morbid thoughts. He spun to face a woman with dark wavy hair and a keen glimmer in her eyes.
“It’s all rusted away here,” the woman added, pointing to the corroded metal of the railing as it swayed under John’s weight. “If it collapsed…that wouldn’t be a pleasant way to go.”
They became friends after that—John’s first true friend, one who didn’t obsess over his depressive inclinations or tread cautiously for fear of triggering a suicidal episode. For the first time he could remember, here was a person who John found genuinely fascinating. No detail was too mundane to capture his interest. She loved moonlit walks, hated Italian food, and was fearless in the face of things that would’ve made other women squeamish. What had the most profound impact on John, however, was her fascination with even the most ordinary facets of life. This trait, more than any other, turned John’s life around, gave him a new perspective. For the first time in years, he was happy. There could never be another person more perfect for him than Anna, so they were married.
They chose a remote location for their honeymoon. Anna picked it out: a country resort renowned for its autumn foliage. They were rigorous in their research of the place, seeking out customer reviews wherever they could find them. In all their searching, the only negative remarks to be said about the place were that it was “difficult to get to” , and that the directions on its website “could be clearer” .
Two hours after they should’ve been there, John realized how true those statements were.
They found themselves on a narrow, ill-maintained road that weaved its way through a seemingly infinite forest, up steep slopes and down again into shaded ravines. Although the drive was treacherous with its undulating hills and sudden hairpin turns, it was the car’s gas meter that troubled John most; the needle hovered precariously over “E” .
Anna sat muttering beside him, poring over a wrinkled map as she tried to find someplace to fill up. “It’s no use,” she said at last. “There’s nothing on here for miles, and I’m not even sure where here is.”
The road dipped suddenly, and John hit the brakes to control their descent as they crested the steepest hill yet. The car plunged down, the shadows deepening with each second. Once John thought it couldn’t get any darker, they burst from the woods onto a narrow stretch of farmland. Immediately ahead rose a strange shamble of a village.
Small homes, their roofs caved in from decades of rot, struggled to remain upright. Crooked streets, overgrown with weeds, ran between rows of boarded up shops. All color had been drained from the place, leeched away perhaps by the encroaching forest that wore fiery shades of scarlet and gold. Occasionally, the crisp wind would snatch a few leaves and scatter them in the empty streets, and there they’d quiver under the accusing gaze of the buildings whose color they’d stolen. They’d dart back and forth, trying to escape the shuttered windows until they were trampled under John’s tires or blown back to the safety of the trees.
Against this backdrop of utter abandonment, John picked out signs of life. A few buildings were lit from the inside, and silhouettes occupied sagging porches. John could hardly voice his relief at stumbling across civilization, as primitive as it was. There had to be a gas station here—the needle now pointed stubbornly at “E” —and after he filled the tank, he could ask one of the villagers for directions.
John slowed to a stop in front of one of the homes—little more than a shack, really—where an older woman rocked herself and stared into the sunset.
“Excuse me,” John called, “could you tell us where we are?”
The woman, who until then had seemed deliberate in her attempt to ignore the grumbling car, now stared at it like it was a unicorn—only the unicorn was smelly, noisy, ugly, and not at all something that belonged in the real world. After a moment she answered, “Hallowdale.”
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Anna look at her map, muttering, “There’s no Hallowdale here…”
To the old woman, John asked, “Could you direct us to the nearest gas station?”
The woman shook her head. “No gas station here.”
John’s heart sank into a cold pit. “We need to fill up,” he explained, hoping maybe she knew of a station further down the road. “We’ve been running on empty for a while now.”
“No gas station for miles. Don’t need ’em ’round here.”
None at all? Then it struck John that he hadn’t seen a single vehicle aside from his own. “What about a phone?” he tried.
Somehow, the woman’s reply didn’t surprise him. “No phone either.”
“What should we do?” whispered Anna. John didn’t answer, but sat behind the steering wheel, wracking his brain for a solution that refused to come.
“You’re in a bad spot, aren’t you?” said the hag—by this time in the conversation, John decided that was a more fitting noun. “Once a week, there’s a truck comes by bringin’ stuff like medicine and such as we can’t grow here. Could probably give you a lift wherever you need to get.”
John’s spirits lifted at this. “When does it come?”
“Day after tomorrow. You want, you could stay here till then. Got a spare room, ever since my daughter…well, never mind that. Point is, it’s one of the few places left suitable enough. Most everywhere else’s left to rot.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Anna piped up suddenly. “We wouldn’t want to trouble you.” She waved goodbye and urged John to drive away.
“Why’d you do that?” John asked once they were gone.
“It’s our honeymoon,” Anna replied. “I don’t care if we have to sleep in a barn; I’m not spending my wedding night with a stranger.”
It was easy to tell which buildings were still used as homes, marked as they were by a better state of care than the surrounding ruins. As John drove further into the village, the signs grew rarer.
Anna suddenly cried out, “Look there!”
At the end of a crooked path, set apart from the rest of Hallowdale by a grassy slope, sat a dilapidated mansion. The grand estate had taken the brunt of the elements, exposed as it was on its elevated perch. Shutters hung at odd angles, shingles lay in the uncut grass, porch railings were snapped. In spite of its advanced decay, the structure still managed to rear itself with a sense of grandeur, and it watched over the abandoned village like a weathered sentinel.
“That’s where we’ll stay,” Anna declared.
John steered the car up the bumpy path and parked it in front of the veranda. The engine coughed for want of fuel. “Are you sure?” he asked. “What if someone lives there?”
“Nonsense,” laughed Anna. “Can’t you tell just by looking at it?”
Indeed, it bore the marks of neglect, but even more than that—
Anna leapt from the car before John could stop her. She ran to the mansion’s front door and, finding it unlocked, disappeared inside. John got out and stood on the unkempt lawn, shifting his weight back and forth, unsure if he should follow his wife. He finally decided with a shiver that he didn’t want to wait out in the cold.
“This place is perfect,” Anna announced when John entered. “Dirty, and a bit run down, but I think we can make it livable for two days.”
The room they stood in—a parlor, by the looks of it—was heavy with dust, pungent with the smell of rotting wood, and dark save for the small light allowed by the moth-eaten drapery. A lonely crimson sunbeam flitted across the dim expanse to illuminate a blackened fireplace that, judging by the gossamer network of ash-coated cobwebs, hadn’t seen the glow of a flame in years. Even as John watched, that feeble light faded and died; the sun had buried itself behind the hills.
“It must’ve been quite a place, years ago,” Anna went on. “There’s a library down the hall and a little ballroom in the back. The chandelier in the dining room must’ve been gorgeous back in the day, all lit with candles. I must say, given how long it’s been abandoned, everything’s in much better condition than I expected. The doors shut nicely and the floors seem stable enough.”
John found it hard to believe she’d been able to examine so much of the house already, but then again, she was Anna: never-tiring, fascinated, optimistic Anna. “What about the bedrooms?” John asked.
“I haven’t looked upstairs yet. Oh, but come see the hallway!”
“Not much to see in this dark,” he replied. “Maybe I should go get the flashlight from my suitcase.”
“Oh, that’s right. Yes, go get it.”
John returned to the car to retrieve the light, and as he did he noticed a shadow making its way up the hill toward him.
“What’re you doin’ here?” the shadow demanded when it was close enough. It turned out to be a man.
“My wife and I,” John answered, put off by the rough greeting, “we’re on our honeymoon and—”
“And you wanted to come here?”
“Well, no. Our car ran out of gas, and we need a place to stay until the…uh, until the truck comes.”
“Oh.” A troubled look passed over the man’s face.
“Is there a problem?” John asked. “This house doesn’t belong to anyone, does it?”
“…No, nobody lives in that place. But why not stay in town with one of us?”
Why not indeed. “It’s our honeymoon. We’d prefer some isolation.” Having found the flashlight, John made to go back inside, but the man called after him.
“Listen, I know we may seem a little rough to you city folks, but if you need anything, we all live down there—what’s left of us, anyway.” He pointed to the shadows of the village below.
“Thank you,” John replied before rejoining his wife.
She was waiting for him in the hall. “Who were you talking to?” she asked.
“A local. Unpleasant fellow.”
“Come look at this.”
The flashlight revealed a gauntlet of peeling wallpaper flanked with oil portraits. The first was a dark-haired man with bony features and a proud look, followed by a frail woman with blond curls and rosy cheeks. Next was a blank patch, faded at the edges to prove something once hung there. Finally, there was an infant, clearly her mother’s progeny.
“Let’s see what’s upstairs,” Anna beckoned.
John had to tear his gaze from the portrait of the man. Something about the eyes held his attention. “I’d rather not,” John said. “I’m not sure I trust the stairs in a place like this.”
Anna frowned at first, then sighed, “Alright. Let’s bring in our luggage. And after that…” She flashed him a mischievous grin.
“What?” John asked.
The grin vanished, replaced by a look of consternation. “You know what. Or did you forget you’re married now?”
John finally made the connection, but somehow the thought didn’t excite him. “This isn’t exactly a honeymoon suite.” He eyed the sofa in the parlor, which looked like it would collapse if he tried to sit on it. That should’ve been a bed. A huge, soft, warm bed in a heated hotel room—
“Don’t worry about that, darling,” Anna whispered. She stood inches from John, gazing into his eyes as she traced his jaw with her finger. She leaned in and placed a kiss on his lips. “We’re here now. Let’s make the most of it.”