The evening was beautiful. The brilliant sun perfectly framed between ponderosa pine trees was at its usual magnificence as it beamed the last rays of the day. It slowly disappeared beyond the distant blue mountains, making way for the night. Victor was in the portico admiring the view before him. He was startled when a blood-curdling shriek of no less than his wife in fear and terror ripped through the quiet dusk. He dropped his mug of coffee and rushed instantly to where the scream came from. He almost tripped and fell as he climbed the stairs. When he opened the door to the masters’ bedroom, he found her standing in front of a full-length mirror, laughing.
He was still out of breath when Megan turned and faced him. “Was that convincing enough?”
“What? I nearly broke my ankle, babe!” Victor grumbled, still puffing his chest out. His wife, obviously, was not sympathetic to the ordeal her husband had just endured as a result of her mischievous prank.
Laughing further, she stood with arms akimbo and asked, “What else will happen to you once we are in that house? Faint on me?”
“With my long legs and ankles functional? You wanna bet?” Now Victor was also laughing.
Megan rolled her eyes; a smile still painted on her face.
The Collins had just moved into the neighbourhood of Area 153 a week ago. They had yet to settle but they had already heard countless rumours about a house that was haunted. It was rumoured that, between midnight and three o’clock in the morning, inexplicable sounds would be heard from the old bungalow three blocks away from where they lived. Noises like jangling chains and banging on the walls would awaken the whole neighbourhood, even the ones that slept deeply. The pandemonium of noises, especially the wheeze that sounded like suffocation and the death rattles that followed would keep people awake in terror through the night. Neither earmuffs nor loud music was found to be of help in masking the commotion at the old bungalow. This nerve-racking experience would culminate at dawn, with painful screeches and yelping cries followed by something getting dragged.
According to the neighbours, these sounds started a month ago after the occupant of the house, Mr Brutus, a fifty-six-year-old forest ranger who lived alone, disappeared. Nobody knew where he went or what had happened to him. For five consecutive nights until dawn, two police officers stayed in front of the house. The only sound they could hear was the loud snoring of the sleeping neighbours. Further police investigations revealed that nothing was amiss. They also interviewed two colleagues of Mr Brutus and all they could reveal was that he preferred things to be done his way…alone. The colleagues suggested not to bother about his disappearance for he had the habit of staying in the woods for days at a stretch, and he would come back home soon. Convinced, or perhaps, tired of doing their job, they dropped the case as closed.
“The host is on a sabbatical leave,” one officer joked.
“He’s a forest ranger! He’d find the company of the wild more exciting than you people,” another officer remarked, chuckling.
From then onwards, any further complaint was dismissed as nothing but made-up stories to scare the children from entering abandoned and uninhabited properties.
The ranger’s closest neighbour persisted and tried to convince the police that such strange events did indeed happen every night at the bungalow. Mr Brutus’s disappearance and the haunting that followed left his mind in shambles. He left Area 153 one week later as the police repeatedly ignored him. Soon, three more families left the area and surrendered the fate of their properties to the manipulations of real-estate agents. But before they left, they reported demonic shadows, black outlines, and menacing silhouettes, sometimes in human shapes, other times in animal forms. Some of them strongly believed that Mr Brutus must have had a hidden basement and he had died there, probably from a heart attack, for he was a voracious glutton of unhealthy grub. They proclaimed that it was his imprisoned spirit that created all the noises that disturbed their peace at night. But not one of them was ready to lead an investigation to prove the veracity of their claims. Those who remained in their houses were left more scared than enlightened and knew not what to believe or whom to trust.
But Victor and Megan Collins didn’t regard such stories to be true. Both being professors of microbiology, their minds were trained to believe something to be real only when backed by evidence. But in order to discredit these rumours, and justify their decision to stay in the area, they decided to investigate the matter. Two nights from now, they planned to enter the house before midnight and stay there until dawn, taking all the necessary precautions to keep themselves unharmed…and alive in one piece. They decided, if needed, multiple vigils would be kept until peace and harmony reigned in the neighbourhood once again.
That was the plan.
“Two flashlights, fully charged. A baseball bat, and…two garlic garlands-”
“Garlic garlands?” asked Victor who was right behind Megan, loading his pistol.
“Do we really need to take that?”Victor just stared at his wife hard.
“Okay, okay! Better to have, and not need, than to need, and not have.”
“Precisely, Kafka!” Both laughed.
“These?” Megan asked lifting the two garlic garlands in front of Victor.
Megan shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows? We might as well get a first-hand experience!”
Victor chuckled. “Not if we want to see ghosts, babe!”
“Hmm. Right! They have better use in the kitchen.”
In Victor’s backpack were a light but warm blanket, a bottle of water and all other things they thought they might need. Both wore grey shirts and camouflage cargo pants. The couple were ready to become Holmes and Watson of Area 153.
Apart from the sounds of an owl hooting and a faraway patrol siren, the place was extremely quiet. It was only 11:30 in the night but they had decided to be inside earlier to find a proper location for observation. If indeed, any haunting began at midnight, they had better be already positioned there.
They removed the latch to Mr Brutus’s wooden gate and opened it wide in case they needed to make a run to escape. They tried the door and found it obviously locked. They went around the house looking for a way in.
“This is ridiculous. We are burgling the house to disprove some outrageous claims of supernatural activities,” Megan started.
“You’re a believer now?”
“Well, I do hope I live long enough to answer that, babe!”
“You’re being morbid!”
“We both are. Come on!”
By this time, they had reached the left rear side of the house. They tried all the windows that could be reached but found them closed…except the one above the ground floor awning where the window was a few inches open. They looked around for a ladder or something that can be used to reach the window but couldn’t find anything useful. They headed towards the back; dry and withered leaves rustled as they paced along.
Megan stopped and said, “We can use this bat to break a window.”
“Since it is likely that we’d go to prison for illegal entry we might as well try that. But as a last resort, babe. We’ll check the back door first.”
Holding the bat in its knob; the end cap touching the ground, Megan followed Victor closely. She was about to keep up with him when the bat was caught in a trap. Scared stiff, Megan dropped the bat altogether. Both were surprised, and bewildered at the same time, at the unexpected presence of an unusual object in a forest ranger’s home. If it wasn’t the bat, Megan’s leg would have been probably caught instead.
“That’s very uncharacteristic of a forest ranger!” Megan snapped. Victor agreed.
They tried to release the bat from the clasp of the trap but couldn’t. The trap had taken a good hold of the barrel. They decided to leave it and do something about it the next morning.
Victor tried the door. It was locked. Looking at the crumbling condition of the door jamb, he shook the doorknob repeatedly until the lock gave in. A wide grin was drawn on his face. The door creaked when he pushed it open. Soon he was easing himself past it. Megan followed, closing the door behind her, then both tiptoed in; their torches guiding their path.
“Is it a good idea to check the rooms separately?” Megan asked whisperingly.
“No way, babe! Strength in numbers,” Victor replied softly.
“Shall we turn on the lights?”
“And spook the neighbourhood further?”
“Flashlights haven’t succeeded in doing that yet?”
Both chuckled silently.
Still, Megan tried. No lights. They didn’t bother to check the main plug.
It was already ten after 12 and so far, all they could hear were their own breath and the occasional creaking of the wooden floor as their weight put pressure on it. The entire house looked dusty but apart from that everything seemed to be in order. If things were being dragged, any scratch-marks would have been visible on the floor. But there were none to be seen. Even the wallpaper on the walls looked intact, except for one area where two or three were torn and taped back together.
“His walls are full of heads!” Megan blurted but lowered her tone immediately at the realization of staying as quiet as possible. “Is he a ranger or a hunter?” she continued in a hushed tone.
Mr Brutus’s living room had little furniture; a flat screen TV hanged in front of a long sofa; a pelt rug was kept on its arm. On the side wall stood a tall cabinet that housed two hunting rifles and a bow; a photo frame of the host in his usual ranger suit cuddling two bear cubs stood neatly between these weapons. The walls were filled with animal heads -deer trophies, mostly, mounted on almost every partition and room divider; specimens of wild animals -a bobcat, a mountain lion, and a wolf occupied the corners of the room. Whether they were poached or found naturally dead, only the host knew, for he was never that loquacious. When invited for a gathering, a birthday or an anniversary, he would politely decline. All the neighbours got from him were quick hand-waves and occasional nods. Often times he was found seated alone at a diner nearby for breakfast or dinner, which he would partake in silence. Ms Samuels, the tenant next to the couple’s bungalow, wasn’t fond of Mr Brutus. He was friendly enough, for sure, but she felt that there was something sinister about the man, like something malevolent that lurked underneath. Never having seen a relative visit him, she was also convinced that he had not gone on vacation, but died somewhere; probably among his precious protected wildlife.
Thinking the house had a basement, they searched for its entrance; tried all mattresses and rugs for any secret door and concluded that the house didn’t have one. Theory of death in the basement was discredited. But if the host were dead within the perimeter of his home, a revolting smell would have emanated for some time and it would be impossible for the neighbouring residents not to notice. The couple deduced that Mr Brutus wasn’t dead. At least, not in his own home, for they couldn’t find any signs of his death inside the house.
Not finding anything interesting on the ground floor, they went up and tried the nearest room from the stairs. Nothing was amiss. The bed was neatly kept and had the appearance of not having been used for a long time. The closet didn’t give them much information either. If Mr Brutus had gone away, for a vacation or into the woods, he surely liked to travel light.
The other room was painted pale blue, and, besides for a small table and a chair in one corner and a bookshelf in the other, it was featureless. They took a final glance across the room and were about to leave when a strong cool breeze suddenly made its way in through the window that was open. A smell of pine cones circulated around the room. A few pieces of paper fell from the table. Megan picked up one that had settled beneath her. It was a mortgage notice. Victor checked the table. There were three books about wildlife piled on top of it. He opened the top drawer and went through the things inside. Most of them were unpaid utility bills. At the bottom was a thick log book. He removed it and started skimming through it. Entries of various wildlife and the dates they were spotted occupied half of the book. The last entry was written on 16th February.
“Strange!” Victor muttered.
“There are no more entries after February.”
“Maybe there’s another book,” Megan answered.
“Still lots of pages left to write on.”
“Hmm. Strange indeed.”
Victor opened the other two drawers and found them empty. He closed them. His attention was caught by one of the three books on the table. The bottom one was extraordinarily thick, unlike anything he had seen before. The title on the side read “Flora and Fauna of Indiana”. He removed the two books above it, slid the book to the edge of the table, picked it up and was astonished to find it lighter than expected.
“Well, well, well!” he remarked. “Take a look at this!”
Megan came closer. “Oh My God!”
“Shhh,” Victor whispered. The light from their torches illuminated bundles of hundred dollar notes. Twelve bundles in total. Worth thousands, all hidden in a vault-like box disguised as a book.
“Clever! No one would suspect.”
“That’s a lot of money!” Megan commented.
“A forest protector engaged in pillaging the wild?”
“And become a racketeer? Possible!” Megan replied. Deep inside her, she was convinced that Mr Brutus was involved in something illegal. “What shall we do with it?”
“Nothing!” Victor answered.
“What? It can feed thousands of hungry mouths, babe. We can put it to good use!”
“In exchange for our freedom?”
“Nobody will know.”
“Tell it to the bat, with your name on it, caught in the trap outside.”
“Well, that is certainly illegal money. And the guy’s probably a skeleton by now.”
“I’m serious, Meg. I’m not growing old in prison.”
“We can axe the bat free–”
At that moment, Victor covered Megan’s mouth quickly with his palm. Someone was home. Whoever it was, they were certainly angry for they slammed the door as they entered. The door bore the brunt of their anger and displeasure. Jangling chains followed, accompanied by horrifying screams. It appeared from the clamour of thrashing limbs that someone was trying to break loose. There was a loud thud and a muffled groan was audible. Victor swore under his breath, for he expected something altogether different. Megan cursed in her mind as well. The scream that she had mastered for such situations was stuck in her throat.
They moved towards the door as silently as they could. The eerily unpleasant noise downstairs ceased. Their hearts pounded hard against their chests. Both tried to remain calm and focused. Victor slowly removed the pistol from his jacket, cocked it, and positioned himself next to the door that Megan had left ajar. His wife had managed to remove the pepper spray from the side pocket of the backpack. Holding it ready in her hands, she was right behind him.
They peered through the open door and saw a human shadow prancing to and fro. A few seconds later, the shadow had grown horns. A disguise to fool the neighbours, they thought. Then, something metallic clanged. It sounded like two machetes were being sharpened together to ensure a flawless slice. Of what, it was time to find out.
Through sign language, Victor told his wife to stay where she was and started to crawl out of the door and into the hall. He moved cautiously, his head slightly peeping out through two balustrades. He was careful not to make any noise that might give their presence away. Unable to see anything from where he was positioned, he got up and leaned on the wall, motioning Megan to follow him, carefully. Both tiptoed along the aisle towards another door. Bathroom, they surmised. That side of the house was very dark and with their outfit, no one below would suspect that somebody else was there.
Crouched on the floor, Megan gasped in shock at the sight below. She winced, horrified by the disturbing images that were slowly playing out before them. Victor tried to hold her together. But he himself was speechless. He had to blink his eyes thrice to ensure that he wasn’t hallucinating, for what they were witnessed defied all scientific beliefs that they’d held with strong conviction.
Lying naked was a man, whose face was overgrown with a beard; his eyes seemed familiar. They were the eyes of the man in the picture frame. Mr Brutus was alive. Barely. Gaunt and grey, he was dangerously thin. But what was happening to him was even more dangerous. His head was tilted and covered with a crown of antlers that pierced his skull. Two long blades supported his bleeding neck. All his emaciated limbs were parted as though there were invisible strings pulling them apart. Then the macabre show began. Minks appeared from the darkness and grabbed his hands; his legs were at the mercy of four wolves. As these wild animals started to pull him apart, Mr Brutus screamed in excruciating agony. His shoulders slowly came out from their joints and he fainted. He had succumbed to death, probably. Foxes and bobcats stripped his fleshless skin from his body. When they were done, a lioness pounced on his belly and ripped it open and began to devour his liver and spleen; while racoons, coyotes, and badgers settled for Mr Brutus’s atrophied flesh. Then, a large female black bear tore his neck apart. She took off with his head, and settled at the corner and proceeded to crack the skull open and gnaw at Mr Brutus’s brain.
For a few minutes, the entire house was filled with crushing of bones and gnawing of flesh, while tongues licked and slurped. Soon enough, the gruesome feast downstairs was over and the animals disappeared into the darkness of the night, leaving the living room empty. No evidence of the horrific events was left behind.
All this was too much for the Collins to endure. They did not realize how long they had held their breath. Their minds were numb, and thoughts were blank. The couple were in shock and were bereft of speech. Bursting with emotions that were built up the entire time they watched the most disturbing scene they had ever seen in their lives, they sat mute and terror-struck. Megan finally broke down and wept. All Victor could do was hug her tight, for he himself could not fathom the events that had just transpired before their very eyes.
Ever since that night, the haunted bungalow fell silent and the noises were never heard again. Only two people knew exactly why.
Though the noises were gone, Mr Brutus’s house remained haunted in the minds of the people. Mr Brutus could not be traced, and as his mortgages were still unpaid, the bank put his property for sale at a much lesser price than market value. Interested in the property, the Collins set up a GoFundMe campaign. Along with the money that they had found at the house, they were able to buy the entire property of Mr Brutus and that of his neighbour. They converted the land into an animal sanctuary. With the help of a few non-profit organizations, the couple was in the process of acquiring the other abandoned properties as well.
In a few months, the whereabouts of Mr Brutus were forgotten and the atmosphere at Area 153 was back to normal…except the lives of Mr and Mrs Collins, for their lives had been changed. And the lives of the animals of the forest. For the better.