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For a brief moment as the attic floor gave way—the brittle wood noisily succumbing to the force of his falling weight—Paul feared that he might continue dropping through the air for an eternity. As it was, his short trip ended on a threadbare settee positioned in the southwest corner of the darkened second-story master bedroom. Amidst a cascade of plaster dust and splintered boards, he caught the bottom two-thirds of the antique chair squarely on his right shoulder, bounced once, then promptly landed on the floorboards with a breathless wheeze. The trusty aluminum flashlight, prized from his grip upon impact, spun in dizzying circles as it skipped across the floor until coming to rest against the baseboard.
Paul’s first thought as he lie there hungrily gulping in the stagnant air was gratitude that he hadn’t been more seriously injured. Then, rubbing his shoulder where it had impacted the floor, he thought of the old woman he’d seen in the attic, picturing her colorless face frozen in the grimace of a painful death. Even before he had tripped and fallen he’d known that it was the orphanage’s matron that Maria had tearfully described seeing in the downstairs parlor earlier that night. Have two people ever gone so crazy that they see the same delusions? he nervously wondered.
At one point, amidst the settling dust and his ragged breaths, Paul heard what might have been his name being called out from somewhere beyond the quiet bedroom. The muffled lone-syllable didn’t sound like Maria’s voice however, and it was soon engulfed by the passing thunder like a small fish that had strayed too far from the safety of the reeds. Placating himself with the notion that it had only been the wind, he decided not to start shouting back yet—just in case.
Groaning as he slowly worked his way to his knees, Paul sought out the little flashlight from across the room. As he got to his feet, he brushed the remaining debris from his messy brown hair and shoulders while stealing furtive glances back up at the hole he’d created in the ceiling. Seeing only impenetrable darkness, he walked around the foot of the bed and made his way through the bedroom over to the absconded light. After retrieving it—and from the safety of the added distance—he pointed the light up into the attic. As he’d expected though, all that could be discerned were several of the ubiquitous cardboard box towers comprising the dusty labyrinth above.
Thinking he should return to Maria in the parlor, Paul was just starting to leave when his light glassed over the papers that he had found hidden away inside the mattress earlier that evening—now messily strewn about the dirty bed-top where he’d tossed them. Beneath a few sheets of the neatly-typed, bureaucratic child transfer documents, he saw the edges of what looked like a handwritten letter.
Curious, he reached down and brushed the impersonal paperwork aside as he withdrew the lined sheet of paper. It was folded into thirds—clearly intended to be stuffed into the smallest of envelopes—and Paul gingerly opened the brittle top flap. Holding the flashlight between his neck and shoulder like a telephone receiver, he had to squint in order to make out the narrow-set cursive handwriting:
Dearest Ms. C. LeClerant,
I’m afraid your most recent letter has left me thoroughly concerned. I know there’s no need to remind you not only of the very serious nature of our work, but also it’s vital importance. I’ve always admired your prudent disciplinarian methods in the past, and so I have no reason to doubt that you will soon nip this current problem in the bud.
On a personal note, like me, you may find it easier never to picture the boys as anything other than what they are: civilized society’s cast-offs. You and I are bestowing upon them a purpose to their lives that fate originally deemed them unworthy to receive. Any program would be a privilege for such a lowly lot, but the KM program is a true blessing.
As for the boy, (Danny I believe you called him), do with him as you wish. If, as you say, you find him to be useful, then by all means keep him there with you to aide in your endeavors. One less specimen won’t slow progress a bit at this point. Only, please ensure the others arrive at the railyard on schedule.
I’ll close with a word of caution. Our project must remain secret—at all costs. The fate of mankind may very well depend upon it, and on that you will simply have to trust me. Be strong Ms. LeClerant, if only for a little while longer.
Dr. W. Oberth
Upon finishing the letter, the corners of Paul’s lips sagged into a frown. At the window beside him, the early summer storm continued to throw itself against the glass, filling the room with its electric-blue light. Clearly the missive had been saved for a reason, though he couldn’t imagine why. Additionally, while it seemed the matron running the orphanage was up to some nefarious dealings with this Doctor Oberth, there simply wasn’t enough information to say whatexactlythose dealings were.
And what did he mean about ‘the fate of mankind,’ Paul thought to himself.
Thinking to show the letter to Maria, he re-folded the fragile paper into thirds and slid it into the back pocket of his trousers.
Caught indecisively between Paul’s yell from upstairs and the last place she’d seen the little boy sobbing in the parlor, Maria didn’t notice the heat from the oil lamp in her hands until her thumbs began to burn where they contacted the globe. Startled, she gasped and then adjusted her grip on the lamp before walking over to the foot of the stairs, turning back occasionally to inspect the discarded teddy bear lying before the fireplace.
“Paul?” she timidly called up the steps, still not wanting the attention that undoubtedly came with a raised voice in a darkened house. Her right foot hovered threateningly over the first step, only gently coming to rest upon the wooden tread when she was certain no other recourse would present itself. There was a mousey creak of protest beneath her heel, but one-by-one she continued to climb towards the second floor landing.
At the top of the stairs, the antique lamp oozed its orange glow up and along the floral wallpaper, softly expelling the darkness before it like a shepherd urging his sleepy flock of ewes forward. To the left, at the far end of the hallway and hardly visible at such a distance in the murky light, Maria could see an ornamentally engraved wooden door. Just the sight of the door—standing like a gladiatorial challenger at the end of the long, shadow-laden hallway—made her uncomfortable. If she was to be honest with herself however, it had sounded like Paul’s cry had come from that direction. Of course it did, she thought ruefully.
Wrestling a moment of near-panic, she briefly considered commencing her search with the less ominous-looking rooms first, gazing down the long row of doors to her right that surely concealed innocuous storage closets and bathrooms. With the possibility that Paul might be injured however, she knew there was no time for her to gradually acclimate to her fear. Gathering her courage with a deep, nasally breath, Maria slowly started for the carved tree effigy at the end of the left hallway.
The only trustworthy light came from her lamp, casting its amber bubble of protection around her as it obliterated sinister pockets of darkness. Underneath her trembling footsteps, the old floorboards cried out in alarm, forewarning their inanimate neighbors of the approaching interloper.
When she was just twenty or so feet from the door—the finer details of the bass-relief Magnolia carved into its face nearly visible—the sound of a child crying once again unexpectedly arose from the dark recesses of the house, seeping into the night like a slow leak through a boat hull. Freezing mid-breath and mid-step—her left shoe poised expectantly on the ball of her foot—Maria stared straight ahead, too terrified to even consider turning around.
Paul was quickly sifting through the remaining papers on the bed, looking for any additional letters that may shed more light on the strange history of the orphanage, when he heard a queer noise. At first he thought maybe an animal was trapped in the house, wailing pathetically on its quest for escape. Or perhaps the heavy winds outside were tormenting a loose shutter, pushing it back and forth in a noisy confrontation. As he listened a little while longer though—and with the noise continuing to grow in volume—he was almost positive that what he was hearing was the sound of a child crying.
The cries didn’t emanate from any specific area though, coming instead from every corner of the stately room, gradually filling the air like an insidious fog.
Paul hurriedly waved the flashlight around the floor—kicking bits of broken plaster and shattered boards with the toe of his shoe—until he found the fire poker lying beneath the little pile of rubble created by his fall. Snatching it up, he simultaneously stood upright as he spun in a circle, intent on confronting the owner of the ethereal sobbing. His breath still bated however, he found no source at which to strike—only the monkish expressions of the forgotten furniture positioned around the room.
Growing increasingly louder, the wailing began to close in around him on all sides as it crowded into the master bedroom like unruly patrons at border-town bar. Not knowing what else to do, he crossed the room with apprehensive but determined strides towards the heavy door leading out into the hallway.
Maria knew that she wouldn’t last very much longer—couldn’t last much longer. The crying was so loud that it was as if the little boy were only inches away, unabashedly wailing through the rotted features of what remained of his young face. Sobbing quietly to herself in desperation, she very badly wanted to cover her ears and squeeze shut her eyes, as though such acts alone would cease the deafening wails.
Why is this happening, what did we do so wrong? she plead internally to no avail.
Then, with a wave of bold indignation surging through her veins, she thought, No more. We have to get out of here. I don’t care about the storm, or the swamp—or what Paul says.
Trying her best to ignore the haunting sobs, Maria was determined to find Paul and escape before it was too late. Forcing the disembodied cries to the harmless reaches of the back of her mind, she again started forward.
Paul stood poised to strike, his muscles tensed like an ornery rattlesnake sheltering beneath a palmetto bush, as he waited for the source of the loud sobbing to suddenly crash through the heavy wooden door. He knew that he might only get one chance to fight off whatever was coming for him and he had every intention on making it count. As the wailing rose to a full-blown cacophony, he felt a tiny trickle of fluid escape his right ear, spill over the top lip of the canal, then run down to form a fat drop that hung from the lobe.
The source of the crying was incredibly close now, seemingly just on the other side of the bedroom door. Then, as he watched with a newfound sense of horror, the brass handle in front of him began to twist. It jiggled and twitched slowly at first, almost bashfully, but then with quick, halting jerks that never quite managed to rotate enough to unlatch the door. Overcome with a bout of violent courage, Paul inhaled deeply, grasped the handle himself, and yanked the door open.
Sebastian Tippet had only been working with his four-man road crew for less than a fortnight and already he hated it. The hours were long, the days usually scorching hot, and the back-breaking work seemingly endless. In just that morning alone, his spartan team had cleared nearly five miles of fallen trees and limbs along the desolate route through the Okefenokee swamp following last night’s storm.
His fellow crew members—all local men that Sebastian had met just weeks ago—were already calling it the worst storm in a century. That’s why that morning when Mr. Paget read off the team assignments, his heart had sunk when his was selected to work such a hot and humid stretch of remote dirt road. To Sebastian, it seemed like an incredible amount of time to waste on a disused old state road when there was plenty of work to be done in town.
Now, currently standing on the covered front porch of the abandoned house and drinking tepid water from his canteen, he held his hands up to his face in order to shield his eyes from the bright sun while he attempted to peer through the gaps in the boards covering the windows. The sweat from his dirty-blonde bangs soaked into the parched wood of the barrier, releasing the faint odor of age and rot.
Craning and twisting his neck for the best possible view, Sebastian stole tiny peeks of the gloomy interior of the house. Even though most of what he could see was in an advanced state of decay, he still couldn’t understand just leaving it all behind when the previous owners had left or died. He was just sizing up a small entryway table through the cracks—thinking it might serve as a passable eating table for his rented, one-room hut behind the post office—when Butch Tisdale hollered at him from their work truck down on the muddy state road.
“Tippet! Get your ass back down here, boy! If lounging around shady porches cleared roads, the whole damn county would be paved in gold!” he thundered, his barrel-chest and beer-soaked belly heaving as they threatened to rupture the faded red suspenders holding his trousers aloft.
Stealing one last gulp of warm water, Sebastian screwed the cap back onto his canteen and trotted down the porch’s rotten steps.
“Sorry Butch, I just thought I might score some free stuff to help me get settled.”
Butch just laughed loudly and rolled his intense brown eyes. The other two men on the road crew, Rory and Elias, dropped their heads and chuckled quietly as they busied themselves kicking wet clumps of red-dirt and chasing ants with the toe of their boots.
“Look Tippet, I know you’re new to these parts so let me give you some free advice: stay the hell away from that place. There ain’t nothin’ good ever gone into there, and there ain’t nothin’ good never come out neither. Now get your ass in the back of the truck and maybe we can get another five miles done before supper.”
As Sebastian climbed into the back of the pick-up with Elias—the second most junior crew mate—he stole one last glance at the large abandoned house set back from the road. “Hey,” said Elias in a low, conspiratorial voice, “you see anything good in there?”
Sebastian just shrugged as, inside the cab of the truck, Butch jammed the shifter into gear and let off the clutch with a lurch. A cloud of pungent black smoke belched from the tail pipe and drifted up into the lush green canopy overhead.
“Nah, I couldn’t see much. A nice little table right inside, but I couldn’t get through the boards covering the damn door. Other than that, it just looked like a bunch of old crap. Oh—hey, I saw a teddy bear in there that Butch might like,” and the two laughed at their ornery boss’ expense. They had only driven a short distance before the leafy embrace of the swamp again enveloped the house, gently cradling it in their timeless limbs as it disappeared from view.
Inside the foreboding orphanage, just over from the one-eyed teddy bear and concealed from the front porch, Paul’s feet twirled in slow, lazy circles high above the parlor. The thick hemp rope, creaking dryly in the steamy air, was tied off to the railing of the second floor balcony with the same girth-hitch knot that he’d used to secure countless peanut crates as a youth. On the floor below the knot, a trio of cigarette butts sat crumpled beside piles of their own ash, the little gray heaps twitching in the current of a renegade draft.
Also hidden away from casual observation was the dusty beige sofa upon which Maria reclined, its tall upholstered back shielding her from view. The quilt had been tenderly replaced over top of her motionless body and pulled all the way up to cover her raven-black hair. Just below the hem of the blanket, deep scarlet blood had soaked through the fabric above her left eye where the fire poker had fatally struck.
From the Author: Well, there’s “State Road.” I truly hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I had a classic-feeling ghost story itch that demanded to be scratched and now I’m satisfied. Besides, KM 426 had to come from somewhere, right? Now, no more Sigbee. No more KM project. (If you want to pick up “The Sigbee Depot” at Part: I, just click here).
Up next, I invite you to join Sam Sullivan on his journey from metropolitan Atlanta into the rural foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Set during the waning days of the Great Depression, Sam hopes to curry favor with his crotchety new boss and solidify his position within the prestigious Bennet & Associates Real Estate Agency. In a world full of chance encounters however, he soon begins to wonder if the deal of a lifetime might also end up costing him everything. Stick around.
Lastly, a plea. If each of my readers told just one person about my page and stories, then I could reach a global audience in mere months. All I ask is that if you enjoyed this or any other tale, please, tell a friend. Sending love from Sweetgum Hill.
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