The morning sun hung bright over Pickford Bay, betraying not a hint of the eldritch, otherworldly horrors that lurked deeper inland, as well as downshore on the peninsula.
The small town of Pickford huddled along the coast, sequestered behind a palisade picket wall built from the very Woods it was designed to protect the townsfolk from. In spite of this, life went on much as it did before that fateful night all those years ago. Or at least as close as it could after years of population drift, as well as being cut off from the lumber industry that was once one of the cornerstones of its economy.
While the fishing boats were out, plying their trade as far up the coast as the competing fishers of Hawthorne would allow, the few remaining children took the opportunity to play before an afternoon of chores. For it was the perfect sort of day to play, say, toss-ball, some deputy having run them off from their attempts to get a closer look at that strange flying machine those outlanders brought back with them from Camp Stilton the day before. As if to make up for that, it was a particularly spirited game, boys and girls tossing the ball to their chosen teammates while trying to keep their rivals from intercepting it.
A very free-flowing game, folding up the entire neighborhood into its bounds. Mostly among the abandoned houses near the edge of the town proper, where no one would care if they accidentally broke what was left of any of the windows or anything. Most of what anyone wanted— what hadn’t already been packed up in their often hasty departure from town— had been carted off by their more entrenched neighbors years ago. Though their parents always cautioned them not to play inside the houses themselves, pointing to some of the longest-abandoned, most dilapidated specimens, with their sagging roofs, leaning walls, or crumbling stairways, as examples of the sorts of hazards the others surely contained.
Yet no errant ball strayed into any windows, nor even any weed-choked yards, thus far, as the game drifted farther out, albeit away from the Wall, through the abandoned neighborhood along the peninsula side of town, toward the coast. In fact, it wasn’t until one of them tripped on a rock exposed by that last rainstorm a few days ago, causing him to fumble the ball in mid throw, that any of them realized just how close they had strayed toward the Castle instead. All eyes on the ball, following it as it rolled across the dirt, only to come to rest just a few feet from the front gate.
From there, their gaze turned to the ominous estate beyond.
Set behind sprawling, largely overgrown grounds, the former abode of the infamous Rigby family loomed large and imposing, all dark wood, stone and mortar. Steep picket-crested gambrel roofs, flanked on both sides by the massive squarish stone parapet turrets at the end of each wing that gave the place its ominous nickname. Vineholdt stood aloof at the downshore end of town, the only part of its own curse not fenced-out by the Wall. Instead enclosed by a perimeter of stonework and wrought-iron bars topped by ornate, though sharp, points, much of it crawling with the same tangle of creepy-looking vines that scaled both towers and parts of the mansion walls, as well.
Much to their dismay, that forbidding gate hung open, a stray breeze rolling the ball a couple feet closer to the cobblestone drive leading up to the place.
Eight kids— three girls, five boys— looked amongst themselves, the unspoken question ill-at-ease on the tips of their tongues. Realizing that they now stood closer than any of them had ever chanced to before, even on a dare.
After a long, awkward silence, one of them stepped forward, a girl in bib overalls— hand-me-downs from her older brother— red ponytail and freckles, sharp green eyes on the prize, already reaching out as she put one foot in front of the other—
“Hey! Where do you think you’re goin’?”
All of them jumped in understandable alarm, even as they placed that voice.
A pale imitation of the Groundskeeper’s bark, but loud enough, and perhaps even worse in its own way.
All heads turned to the boy who strode up from the road they just drifted down in the course of their game. Short for his age, yet still head-and-shoulders above any of these younger children, with wide shoulders and a lumbering gate that was the spirit and image of his father. An oily mop of black hair topping a wide, sallow face, and a scowling expression that also resembled his old man’s, though it wouldn’t look properly menacing for at least another decade.
Menacing enough, though, in the face of children half his own size.
“Travis…” one of them mumbled.
“You know you’re not supposed to play out here,” Travis Tully reminded them, waving one arm in their general direction as he made his way to the gate. The locks and chains on the front gate had an eerie tendency to come undone no matter how many times they were locked up again, for all that they had been bound tight against most locals back in the day. Even going near the gate to periodically relock it was an unpleasant task, one even his father never sent him to do alone. “What would your folks say if they knew you were foolin’ around at the Castle?”
“You wouldn’t!” one of them gasped.
“Better to face them, boy,” Travis warned them, “than what’s in there. ’Course, my old man’d skin your hide if he caught you in there.”
Of course, according to local lore, the house just might skin you alive if it caught you in there.
“Ha!” the little redhead shot back. “Your old man wouldn’t dare set foot past the gate!”
She reached down for the ball, but Travis lunged forward, and she flinched as he snatched the ball from her.
“And for damn good reason,” Travis told her. “That house is evil, just like the Woods, anyone what goes in there don’t come out.”
He shifted the ball from one hand to the other, turning it this way and that.
“Hey! Give that back!” one of the kids shouted.
“Why should I?” He tossed the ball into his other hand, holding it aloft, out of reach even as the redhead made a bold grab for it. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”
“It’s our ball!” Redhead’s face screwed up in a snarl of frustration and indignation.
“And your ma would take it away if she knew you were playing with it out here…” An ominous gleam lit up in his eyes as an idea popped into his head. A look all of them seemed to catch on to at the same time at that sadistic grin. “Fine. If you want it so bad…”
All of them jumped back in spite of themselves as Travis took a couple steps back, cocked his arm, and threw the ball at the mansion with all his might.
“Then go fetch!”
They all watched in wretched silence as the ball flew over the cobbles and across that weedy expanse, another gust of wind blowing it off to the right of the entrance, crashing through a windowpane along that wing of the manor.
“That’ll teach ya to play where ya don’t belong…” Travis, looking quite pleased with himself, turned to walk away, telling them, “Now go home.”
“Give us our ball back!”
Travis wheeled on them, and no one looked too keen on owning up to that last.
“No way in hell I’m goin’ in there!” Travis snorted. “If you want it so much, I dare you to go in there and get it yourself.”
A long moment of downcast hush followed, eyes gazing at shoes and pebbles, before a quavering voice finally spoke up.
“Then I’ll get it,” Redhead blurted, looking almost as surprised at her own words as anyone else on hand. “You… you don’t scare me!… and neither does… that house…”
What Travis didn’t count on was that kids would be kids. Afraid, of course, but also curious. Along with that quixotic, paradoxical need to prove that they’re not afraid.
“Ha!” Travis barked, “You’re shakin’ in your shoes!”
“Am not!” She stamped her foot, trying not to look as scared as she felt.
“Melissa!” one of her friends called out, “Don’t do it! You can’t go in there!”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Travis taunted her.
“Watch me!” Melissa shouted, taking one hesitant step toward that gate.
A brief flicker of panic crossed Travis’ face, then he sneered, “Then show us.”
Melissa, previously frozen at the gate in her own trepidation, stood her full, if diminutive, height, and put one foot across the property line, then the other.
The other children gasped, then stood in silence, all words of encouragement or dissuasion stuck in their throats as they watched her venture where none of them had dared to go before.
Her heart thudded in her throat with each step as she made her way up the drive toward the main entrance, where large, foreboding double doors awaited. Every step, she half expected Travis to yank her back by the straps of her coveralls, yet somehow she understood that he wasn’t going to take one step past that gate, that she had already gone farther than he likely ever had. The closer she came, the more her mind raced at the thought of what might spring forth from that palatial ruin to challenge her, and she wondered what possessed her to do this in the first place.
She had seen her share of weeds, for Pickford suffered no shortage of abandoned houses in her own short lifetime, yet the plants here all felt sickly and diseased, as if their edges or thorns could poison with a scratch. When she looked over her shoulder, she kept expecting the others to be gone, to have fled, and when she turned back to the house, it was equally hard not to expect something horrible to be standing right in front of her. Having somehow gotten there in the brief moment she wasn’t looking, and the fact that there wasn’t was no less reassuring.
The ball had entered a first-story bay window, though still high for a child. Not to mention the broken glass, which she carefully avoided as she grabbed the window sill and pulled herself up on tip-toes to see inside. Much as she feared, the ball was well inside the room, in the middle of the floor.
Too far out of reach without climbing through jagged, broken glass.
All, the same, she was almost surprised it was still there, that something hadn’t taken it, as she dropped back down and turned her attention to the front door. By the time she reached the entrance, the whole mansion seemed to loom over her, and she swallowed hard before taking the next step. Though she hesitated a couple times, she finally reached out and grabbed the doorknob. Screwing up her courage, she then tried to turn it, only to find that it wouldn’t budge.
Even as she turned to give up, feeling a certain relief at her inability to proceed any further with this madness, she realized that she could see that smug grin on Travis’ face, even from here. Instead, something snapped in her at that look, and she found that she didn’t want to give up on coming back with that ball and showing him. Looking around, she remembered seeing a gate in the inner fence on the left wing of the mansion.
With that, she waved to her friends, stuck her tongue out at Travis, and went around the side, telling herself if she could find another way in, she could still snag the ball quickly and hop back out the window from the inside.