I’d never been in these woods before. Dad said there were bad old boys in here, and they wouldn’t take kindly to snooping kids. Him saying that made me mad. I’m no snooping kid. I live here. These woods are as much mine as anybody else’s. Besides, I’m the fastest runner in the whole school. Even Dad can’t catch me when I mean for him not to. Still, maybe there is something to what folks say because every time I’ve neared this part of the woods I get a hackily feeling that sort of wards me off. So today I brought Sissy along for company.
Sissy’s almost three years older than me. She’s smart and don’t scare easy. True, sometimes she’s over-bossy, but I still generally like her company, leastways when my blood-brother Mooky ain’t available. And today was one of those days. Sissy said she’d go exploring the woods with me, but it wasn’t til late afternoon when the air was hot as blazes so’s that even the little critters that normally haunt the woods were quiet and laying low under some leaf or rock.
My dog Reeko, a little yellow mutt with short legs and a curly tail, whined, panted in the heat, and slunk under the house when I tried to roust her up to come with us. So it was just Sissy and me as the kitchen screen-door squeaked open and slammed behind us. I picked up my favorite walking stick where I left it at the edge of our legal property. Dad says I should always take a stout walking stick when I go exploring the woods. It’s a handy thing for climbing up and going down steep hills, and great for tapping copperheads out of the way.
I told Sissy I had something to show her and led the way. Where we were headed was a ways off, across one ridge and up another. I wanted to get there and back before dark. She tried chatting some, but the heat put the nix on that soon enough. We reached the edge of the woods and plunged in, hoping it would be cooler, but we were mistaken. It was just as stifling, but the air felt heavy and gloomy, and I wondered if maybe I should’ve picked a different day or got an earlier start. We stopped for a minute. Sissy plopped down on a fallen tree and said, “This better be good, Junior, because I am not enjoying this one bit. And my legs are getting all cut up.” And that part was true as turnips. Angry red scratches covered her legs.
I wanted to tell her it was her own darn fault for wearing such a flimsy sun-dress to go exploring in, but I was afraid that if I did she would turn around and stomp off in a huff. So instead I said, “It ain’t far now, and it sure is worth it. I never seen anything like it in all my born days.” And that part was true. I never seen it, only spotted something deep in the woods once from a distance, and needed her company to bolster me up.
I must’ve said the right thing. She gathered herself up, brushed herself off, and stood. “Well, let’s get on with it, brother. Day’s getting long.”
I pointed my walking stick like a sword and said, “Onward and upward,” like a knight in a book. Sissy smiled and off we went. Leastways in the thick woods there was a lot less underbrush, so it was easier walking. But man, it sure was quiet. I struggled to find the way, and after a bit I started recognizing the area, a small break in the woods, now all growed up with volunteer scrub oaks and such. Then followed some broke-down, wormy apple trees that had been planted ages ago, and straight ahead past them a ways was a broken down house all covered over with vines and ivies.
“Damn,” Sissy said low. She didn’t swear much so when she did, she meant it. I could tell by her squinty eyes and the way she hunched her shoulders, she was shook. “I never knew this was here.” We slowly snuck up on the place like there might be someone home. Of course there wasn’t. “This ain’t no old log cabin,” she said. “This’s got a second floor. Least it had one before that tree crushed it.” It must’ve been the heat that made the air so wavy. We stepped nearer. “Stop,” she ordered. “Junior, don’t you see the gate?”
The path we were on came around the side, but out front was sure enough a rusty old metal gate, nearly buried under green stuff that grew up and over it. To either side of the gate was a stretch of some staggered and broken pickets, just as dilapidated and grey as the house itself. Still, I didn’t see why the gate mattered so much.
“Why would anybody build such a place way out here, miles from anybody else?” she asked. “And what ever happened to them?” She stopped walking. I could see her brain was working overtime. “Let’s go through the gate,” she said and pointed. “It’s the right thing to do. There may be ghosts or haunts around and they need respect.”
Her saying that surely made sense, but it also made the hair on the back of my neck rise. I let her lead the way. She put her hand on the top of the old gate and tugged. The gate and the fence attached to it waggled. Sissy said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” I realized she wasn’t talking to me. She pushed on it. It squeaked uncommon loud, like it was complaining about being disturbed, but it opened, and we stepped onto the house’s property. If it was possible things quieted more, like my ears were plugged, or like everything was holding its breath. I felt like I was in a picture, but a picture with eyes looking at us. I glanced about to try to catch the spy, but everything stayed dead.
Two slow steps closer to the porch. Wavy old glass panes reflected us back on ourselves. I stopped and pointed over to the right side of the walk at a pile of rocks. “What’s that?” I asked. I didn’t really care. I was just stalling. Inside that old house was the last place on earth I wanted to be.
“Go check it out,” Sissy whispered, and I stepped towards it.
“It’s an old well, Sissy,” I said as I carefully leaned over the weed-covered rubble. “I read that sometimes folks would throw valuable things down them for safe-keeping if they had to leave in a rush.”
She joined me and we both peered into the shadowy depths. We saw nothing – at first. Then our eyes adjusted to the murk. “What’s that?” she asked. “Something moved.”
Then I saw movement at the bottom of the well. Not just something – somethings. Snakes, copperheads by the dozens slithered and slunk across the floor of the dry old well. They made a papery, scraping sound, like mean whispers as they shifted around. We both stood up, took a step backward, and froze. We both felt it. This whole place, and whoever still lived here, was telling us we were not welcome. Then the gate clicked shut behind us.
Maybe it was just out of balance and closed on its own. Or maybe the haunt what hung around here done it. I don’t know and I didn’t care. The sound of that gate slowly creaking shut was like a bullet fired at us. We jumped and completely forgot about the house. I was too scared to touch the danged gate so I lifted myself like a deer in flight right over a low stretch of fence. That gave me a head-start over Sissy, who did the respectable thing and stopped a moment to open and leave through the gate.
Like I said, I’m a fast runner, the fastest I know. But Sissy caught up to me within a hundred yards, and with cheeks puffing and elbows pumping, passed me by, her flimsy sun-dress and legs whipped by the brambles.
The weird gloom of the haunted forest gave way to the normal gloom of the woods as evening settled down, and we stopped to catch our breaths. “Junior,” she gasped, “that was so strange.” And then she did something strange herself. She laughed. “Do you think we can ever come back?”
I noticed then that in my panic I had dropped my walking stick by the snake-well. “Sissy,” I said, “I don’t think that place likes us, and I don’t figure to make it angry at me. It got my best walking stick,” I added as we started walking again – “and that’s all of me it’s getting.”