Chapter 6: Exploration

Alexander crouched against one of Hallowdale’s crumbling foundations. He’d chosen his seat specifically so he couldn’t see the mansion looming over the village. He hated its windows.

But why? There’s nothing in there.

He’d been so sure. But if a couple of newlyweds could spend the night and not have anything strange to report, that meant the place was empty, right?

How to explain this village, though?

Alexander had never encountered anything like it. The population was strangled, lifeless. Anywhere else in the country, the village would’ve been completely abandoned long ago. No one wanted to live in a place like this, surrounded by quiet ruins where the only birds were crows, and even they didn’t dare raise their voices against the heavy air. Alexander looked up as a man shambled by. The expression on his face matched the state of the building Alexander leaned against: hollow, hopeless. They’re not happy here. Why do they stay? He knew one very good reason why, but that theory had just been disproved by his conversation at the mansion.

Or had it? After all, how long had he been with that thing before realizing what it was? Subtlety. Don’t want to scare off your dinner before you’ve had time to savor it.

This has to be the place. All the clues pointed here. Alexander rose from his spot and faced the mansion. I have to warn them. But how? The man seemed irritable; the last thing he’d put up with was some stranger telling him he was in danger from—

Up on the hill, the mansion door swung open and the man himself came out, followed by a second figure who could only have been his wife.

I need proof first, Alexander decided. Besides, they won’t be in any danger until tonight.

John went to the first occupied house he found and knocked on the door. Anna stayed back, her head and shoulders shrouded against the cold wind. The door opened slowly, and a woman peeked at him.

“What do you want?” she whispered.

“Sorry to bother you,” John began, “but we’ve found ourselves stuck here until the supply truck comes tomorrow. Do you have any food to spare? I can pay for it.” John reached for his wallet, but the woman waved the gesture aside.

“Don’t want your money. No use here. But wait just a bit, I’ll get you somethin’.” She disappeared for a few minutes then returned with a basket overflowing with vegetables and loaves of bread.

John took the gift with surprise. “This is too much.”

“We have more than we could ever eat,” the woman answered. “She keeps us fed.” Her mouth clamped shut suddenly, and without another word she slammed the door.

“I’m not sure I like it when these people try to be nice,” John commented. “It makes me feel wrong inside.”

“Well, we have our breakfast,” Anna said, “and lunch and dinner too. Let’s eat then look around a bit.”

When they’d finished eating, John and Anna packed the leftovers and ventured through the village. They discovered an old market square, where crooked, unreadable signs decorated hollow shops. The October wind danced around, kicking up a colorful storm of dead leaves in its wake—a mockery of the hustle and bustle from so many years ago.

“This must have been a charming little place back then,” Anna dreamed aloud. “I wonder what made everyone leave.”

They wanted to live in the city,” John answered, “where it was more convenient.” Where they had electricity and phones and gas stations…

They wandered aimlessly out of the market, down a weed-choked path between rows of small houses, all empty.

“It’s so eerie,” John continued as a crow fled before them, beating the air with its black pinions.

“I’d call it peaceful,” Anna returned.

John glanced up into of the dark windows of the abandoned homes and shuddered. “It’s like they’re watching us.”

Anna walked up to one of the aged wooden doors and knocked loudly. “Anybody home?” She giggled, but John stayed quiet. He didn’t like how loudly she’d spoken. He didn’t like the way the autumn breeze devoured the echo of her voice, reprimanding them for breaking the silence.

The door resisted Anna’s attempts to open it at first, hampered by rusty hinges and small piles of debris. When it finally gave, they found themselves in a barren room illuminated by a hole in the ceiling, formed ages ago when the stone chimney had collapsed.

“It’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find buried treasure,” Anna said softly, “or evidence of a dark secret best forgotten.” She turned to John with a childish grin spreading across her face. “You see, this place isn’t so bad. I know its not the resort, but what would we have done there? Hiked along marked trails? Stayed in our room? This place is far more exciting.”

She went back outside, and John turned to follow. His foot caught on a broken chair leg protruding from a pile of stones and wood, and as he adjusted his course to avoid the obstacle, the balance of the pile was disturbed. With a soft clatter, little stones rolled down onto the filthy floor, and timbers slid over each other, releasing a puff of dirt into the air. The particles twinkled as they hovered in the sunlight, coiling around John like invisible fingers before dispersing. A sigh filled the ruined house. John’s skin prickled. It had happened again; the peace that lay so heavily over the sleepy village was upset.

The rest of the morning was spent in exploration, poking into every solitary nook and cranny. Anna was determined to see every quiet corner of Hallowdale. At noon, when their stomachs began to grumble, John and Anna settled down on the edge of a tired field. They enjoyed their lunch and watched a farmer and his son gather what remained of his crops.

“Farming seems a peaceful life,” Anna observed. “What do you think? You could get away from the busyness you hate so much.”

“It’s not as easy as you think,” John replied. There was a rustic charm to the thought, he admitted, but he couldn’t see himself as a farmer. Besides, despite Anna’s attempts to cheer him up, he was still bitter over their honeymoon debacle.

With lunch finished, Anna suggested they explore the forest next. John protested, claiming they’d get lost, but Anna promised they wouldn’t venture too far in. Soon they were under the trees. The afternoon sunlight had trouble penetrating the canopy of golden leaves and entwining branches, so they wandered through a realm of twilight. As they skirted the perimeter of the valley, John caught sight of a pale, rectangular shape through the trees. He pointed it out to Anna, and they turned their footsteps toward it.

The shape turned out to be an old church. The paint was peeling and the roof had caved in. A flock of crows flew in and out. John expected them to begin shrieking as they built their nests and scavenged for food, but as in the village, the forest air consumed all noise, and the birds remained silent.

John and Anna kept walking by the church, their passage marked by the glistening eyes of the sentinel crows. On the far side of the crumbling structure was a cemetery, forgotten and overgrown. The woods reached in with bare and grasping twigs, taking hold of the tombstones and pulling them apart. At the center of this somber garden, demanding attention like a spoiled child, stood the most arrogant memorial John had ever seen. It wasn’t excessive ornamentation or an exaggerated epithet that left John with this impression. Rather, it was the manner with which the tomb held itself, tall and straight amidst a field of crooked stones. The iron gate that had once barred entrance to the mausoleum was rusted from its hinges, and the doorway, framed in heavy marble, gaped with an empty blackness.

“We should look inside,” whispered Anna.

John glanced at his wife. She was staring into the void, her eyes wide and sparkling with excitement. He wanted to argue, but why? He could conjure no reason—at least, none that she wouldn’t laugh at. And besides, she was already walking toward the crypt, her steps slow but certain.

Realizing he wasn’t following her, Anna paused and looked back. “Aren’t you coming?”

John felt his feet moving, but he didn’t seem to move with them. He stayed behind while his body moved forward. Anna fixed him with her expectant smile. The murmur of the wind in the leaves became a muted roar, and the gravestones seemed suddenly very close and cold.

With a start John realized it was dark. His breath echoed off unseen walls, and the air smelled damp and moldy. He was in the mausoleum, and Anna was there beside him, holding his hand. Her skin was cold, her fingers tiny.

“I’m lonely.”

That wasn’t Anna’s voice.

Something began to rumble deep in John’s head, a sound so low it could hardly be called a sound. It grew until it felt like John’s ears would burst, and then it stopped. The silence was short lived, however. There was just enough time to catch a breath, then a high-pitched scream.

John was out of the tomb before he realized he was running. Something was chasing him; he could hear footsteps crunching through the leaves behind him.

“John, wait!” It was Anna. She caught him by the shoulder, bringing him to a halt. “What is it?”

John stared at her. Hadn’t she heard it? “Nothing. I…I don’t know.” He threw a final glance at the cemetery, at the black hole in its center. “Let’s get out of here.”

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