Splintered

The dead October leaves crunched beneath my feet as Tom and I made our way through the woods. We could see our destination peeking through the bare branches a few yards ahead of us. It wasn’t much more than a large black outline in the dark, but I could still see its sharp features. The Richardson house had been abandoned for decades but the odd stories surrounding the house always drew daring teenagers to the place. Tom and I had heard different stories about ghosts and satanic rituals performed. We knew there was nothing to most of the tales except one. We had researched this particular story enough to have found newspaper articles in the town library that supported it. I’d heard the story told several different ways from many different people over the years but every version I’ve heard always included the same lesson at the end: don’t go in that house, but if you do, never take anything from it.

The story goes, that in the late 1930’s a family moved into a farmhouse in town, Robert and Edith Richardson and their infant son, Bobby, and lived there happily for a few years until 1943, when Mr. Richardson was drafted, like so many in our small town at the time. She was working as a librarian in the neighboring village of Julius. In 1944, Mrs. Richardson received news that her husband had been killed in action. This devastated the little family and they say that’s when her obsession began. She began collecting every newspaper that mentioned the War. They say she subscribed to almost every newspaper or magazine in the Midwest and half on the east coast. Her collection grew and grew and in 1950, Bobby, now twelve, began to spend as much time outside the Richardson house as he could. Bobby would explore the woods behind his house for hours. He would come home late and Mrs. Richardson would clean him up, feed him, and send him to bed. Until one night he didn’t come home. When he still didn’t return the following morning, a search party was formed. They searched for two days before they found his body in the woods just outside of Julius. He must have been playing in the creek when he slipped and hit his head. The fall knocked him unconscious and he drowned in the little stream. This tragedy is what sent Mrs. Richardson over the edge and that’s when her obsessive collecting changed. In February 1951, a month later, the first child went missing. By October, there would be four. The sheriff reported that he hadn’t noticed the pattern until the fourth child, his niece, had been reported missing, but the town had noticed. The last place each child had been seen was the library. There were no trick ‘r treating children that Halloween, but masks were donned.

The masked men and women silently made their way down Hill Crest Lane, to the Richardson house at the far end. As they passed the houses on the lane, most already dark, other masked men and women joined the group. When they reached the metal gate that blocked the entrance to the front yard, a man in a snarling lion mask walked to the front of the group carrying a crowbar. He smashed the gate and held it open like a doorman. He even nodded to a few members of the group as if recognizing them, despite the masks they wore. A man wearing a red devil mask and another in a black hood, walked up the front steps of the Richardson house and kicked in the door. They entered the house and a few minutes later, dragged out a woman. She didn’t struggle, nor did she scream. Instead, she kept muttering the same sentence under her breath. Even as another woman, wearing a clown mask and the man with the snarling lion mask hung a noose from the large oak tree in the yard and anchored it to the metal fence running around the house. She was muttering, “I kept them all. I kept them all.”

Her death was officially labeled a suicide. When the sheriff deputies investigated the house they found mountains of newspapers and trash stacked floor to ceiling. Narrow lanes had presumably been left by Mrs. Richardson so she could navigate through the stacks. No bodies were ever found. In fact the place was so full of junk that the investigators were unable to sift through it all. The state eventually took possession of the house and immediately condemned it. Some of the stories claim that Mrs. Richardson wasn’t responsible for the disappearances, but they did stop after her death. For a while. There have been a few attempts to clean the place up over the years, but according to the stories, accidents always befell the cleaners. So much so that according to legend, if you remove even one thing from her house, Mrs. Richardson will come for it and add you to her collection.

Tom and I have been obsessed with the legend since we were kids. The two of us collected every story about the place, but were never brave or stupid enough to actually enter the house. Until tonight. We’ve researched urban exploring and gathered a few supplies for our excursion. I don’t think either of us really believed the ghost stories, but I thought if there was anything to the legend then we’d have the best chance of experiencing it on Halloween, the anniversary of Mrs. Richardson’s death.

The six foot high fence running around the house had rusted to a dull brown, but it still looked difficult to climb. So we made our way to the front, being as quiet as possible. The nearest house was about three hundred yards away and a row of tall evergreen trees lay between the two buildings, as if the homeowner wanted to block the Richardson house from view. Even with this extra cover, we wanted to be sure no one caught us sneaking around the property. A No Trespassing sign hung from the front gate, along with a large chain and padlock, emphasizing our intrusion. Tom went to one knee and unslung the backpack containing our exploring gear from his back. He rummaged around for about thirty seconds while I scanned the front lawn through the gate. The sun had gone down about three hours ago and the cloudy sky distorted my view of the Richardson house. I could see a cracked concrete path leading toward the house. Knee high dead grass bent along its edges. As my eyes made their way along the walkway to the paint peeling porch, Tom tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to him and he held a small crowbar in one hand and a flashlight in the other. He handed the flashlight to me and went to work. The chain holding the gate closed was old and rusted. It took little effort for Tom to break it. When he did, the chain rattled loudly as it fell to the sidewalk on the other side of the fence. We both sucked in our breath audibly and held it, waiting for a cry as a neighbor discovered us or for a the beam of a flashlight to hone in and trap us in its glare. When nothing happened we looked at each other and let out our held breaths. Tom grinned and put his finger to lips as if to tell me to quiet down. I grinned back as I slowly opened the gate. At the time we were sending up a silent prayer of thanks that we hadn’t been caught yet. Now I wish we had.

We went through the gate and I glanced to my right, looking for the oak tree in which Mrs. Richardson had been hanged. Only a rotted stump remained, poking up from the dry grass like the half severed finger of a giant. Tom re-slung his backpack as we walked, still holding the crowbar in his hand. I hadn’t turned on the flashlight he had given me for fear that the light might give us away. The house remained a mostly dark shape as we hurried along the path and up the porch steps. The boards under our feet creaked and groaned. I reached out and grabbed the door knob, almost sure it would be locked, but it turned in my hand and the door swung open.

Stepping quickly inside the dark house, we closed the door behind us. Suddenly the front hall was bathed in light as Tom produced a second flashlight and turned it on.

“Hey!” I exclaimed in a whisper. “Someone might see the light through the window.”

“Doubt it,” Tom replied as he shone the light to a window next to the door, revealing the blackout curtains that hung there. I switched my flashlight on and pointed it ahead, illuminating a wall of newspapers and junk in front of us stacked to ceiling. I was mesmerized by how precarious it looked at first sight, but upon further inspection, I could see that it was stacked in a way that would prevent even a mighty push from knocking it over. The genius and madness that must’ve gone into creating this wall was unfathomable.

I walked around the side of the junk wall and peered down a corridor that looked as if it had been cut through the stacks of junk. The place was like a labyrinth. We wove our way through its corridors, marveling its design, when we came upon a shelf of ceramic statuettes and figurines. On one of the shelves I saw a snow globe, which must’ve been custom made. Inside the globe was a model of the house we were in. I reached up and plucked it from the shelves.

“Look at this!” I exclaimed to Tom.

“That’s kinda cool and kinda creepy. Better put it back. You wouldn’t want to be added to the collection,” he replied jokingly.

I gave him a little laugh and he slipped by me to continue exploring. I slipped the snow globe into my pocket. It was too perfect a souvenir to leave behind.

We made our way deeper into the house, moving our flashlights along the walls, when we entered a living room of sorts. The walls opened up and a small sofa and coffee table sat scrunched into the space. I stepped towards the sofa and as I did so, felt the wooden floor give slightly beneath me. I could smell mildew and rot as I put my full weight down and quickly lifted my other leg in an attempt to step off the soft spot in the floor, when suddenly it gave way beneath me and I fell. I landed sharply on my left foot and cried out in pain as I felt the ankle pop and my legs gave out under me. My flashlight went out and bounced out of sight. I felt my pants soaking with something wet and thought it was my own blood for one panicked moment, before I realized I was lying in a puddle. The smell of rot and decay flooded my nostrils and I cried up to Tom to watch his step. The beam of his flashlight shone down on me and I could hear the fear in his voice as he asked, “Are you okay, Mike?” Please tell me you’re not dying, dude.”

“I think I might have broken my ankle, man. It fuckin’ hurts and I think I heard it pop.”

“Shit. Can you stand?”

I propped myself up on my knees and put my weight on my right foot, slowly raising myself up, and being careful not to bump the left one. The pain was already starting to recede slightly, but it throbbed and I could hear the blood pumping through my ears as my heart beat louder. There was a sharp pain in my right hand. I looked at it and blood was running from a small gash on my palm.

“I think I can hobble around if I need to. I hope it’s not broken. Might just be sprained and I cut my hand, and I can’t find my flashlight. It’s dark as shit down here.”

I pulled out my cellphone and shone the light on the floor. I was standing in a small puddle about two inches deep. Pieces of the floor boards lay beneath me.

“What’s down there?” Tom asked.

“I don’t know, some water,” I replied slightly irritated.

“I’m looking at the ceiling up here, Mike, and there’s a ton of wet plaster. The roof must have been leaking for a long time.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a fuckin’ ladder in that backpack of yours?” I asked with a bit more anger than I had intended.

“No,” he said and I could tell he was a little annoyed at my tone, “but I’ll look around for a door to basement.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll probably have more luck from down here. You look around for something to pull me up just in case this place is as much of a maze as the main floor,” I said.

“Good plan,” Tom replied and his flashlight receded from the hole and his footsteps creaked away.

I returned to the search for my flashlight. The light of my cellphone only cast a feeble glow, but I saw the handle of my flashlight sticking out from under what looked to be a door set in the concrete foundation to my left. I bent down, keeping my left leg thrust out behind me to prevent it from hitting the ground. I grabbed the end of the flashlight and tried to pull it free, but it wouldn’t move. I tried to wiggling it loose, but the flashlight had somehow wedged itself tightly in the crack of the door. I grasped the brass handle of the door and was surprised to find it warm in my hand, as if someone had been cupping the knob moments before. Like the front door of the house, I figured the door would be locked, and like the front door, it opened to my hand and swung in, dislodging my flashlight in the process, and leaving a few smears of blood. I tried to shine my phone into the room, but all I could see was empty blackness. I limped forward and picked up the flashlight which had rolled a little deeper into the room. I clicked the power button. It didn’t turn on, so I instinctively hit the side of the flashlight and it lit up for a second and died. In that second I thought I had seen something in the room against the far wall. A chill ran down my back. I hit the flashlight again. This time it stayed on for only a couple of seconds, but what I saw made my heart start to race. I took an instinctive step back, hitting the partially open door and causing it to swing shut behind me. In the three seconds my light had turned on, it had showed what looked to be the small crumpled form of a body lying in the corner. I was ready to limp my way as fast as I could out of this place when I hit the flashlight for a third time and it shone brightly. I trained it on the corner of the room where I thought I had seen a body, but it illuminated a small bundle of rotting rags. I breathed a sigh of relief and limped over to it, laughing slightly at my initial panic. The laughter died when I saw something yellow sticking out from beneath the sodden fabric.

I rolled the rags over, using my flashlight so I wouldn’t have to touch them. My head swam slightly and I thought I might faint when I saw the small bones and the tiny skull, speckled with dried and rotted flesh. I limped backward and tripped over another pile of rags and felt the hard bone beneath. My ankle was screaming in pain as I got to my feet and moved the light around the room. It was larger than I had originally thought and along the walls were more rotted piles; dozens of them. Some looked much newer than others and in that moment I knew the legends were true. This was Mrs. Richardson’s collection and it hadn’t stopped growing when she was killed.

I limped to the door, certain it wouldn’t open; that I would be trapped here, the newest item in some monster’s collection. But once again the door opened. I slammed it shut behind me and franticly moved my flashlight around the basement. My light fell across shelves and shelves of glass jars, all preserving things that I was sure I didn’t want to see. Then my light finally showed me what I was looking for, a staircase at the other end of the basement. I began limping quickly along the rows of shelves, when I heard the sound of the door opening behind me. Tears of fear flooded my eyes as I limped faster towards the stairs. Heavy breathing filled my ears along with a whispered chant that I couldn’t make out. I didn’t stop or turn to face my pursuer. I reached the bottom of the stairs and started hopping up them. The stairs were unfinished and I could see a shadowy form moving towards me from the spaces between each step. I reached the top and found myself facing yet another door, when I heard the creak of the stairs behind me. I prayed that this door would open like the rest and I turned the door knob, but the door didn’t budge. I hammered on it and cried out as the stairs creaked louder, closer behind me. I threw myself against the door and heard a loud crash from the other side as it flew open. I fell into what appeared to be a small bedroom. A stack of books and furniture had been stacked in front of the door, but I didn’t take any time to examine the room further. I slammed the basement door shut and scrambled across the room. The place was completely filled with junk. I all but waded through it to a door on my left. I reached for it and heard another crash from beyond it, as the door opened before me and Tom stood there panting.

“We gotta fuckin’ go, Tommy!” I cried. He must’ve seen to look on my face because he didn’t say a word. He just grabbed me and helped support me as we wove our way through a maze of horded junk. We reached the front door, when more panic slammed me in the gut.

“Wait!” I screamed, reaching into my pocket for the snow globe and dropping it to the floor. It cracked but the liquid inside didn’t spill. “Did you take anything?” I asked Tom franticly. He shook his head. I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him close, “DID YOU?”

“NO!” he yelled back and grabbed me.

We left the house as fast as we could. We didn’t take the same route home. I didn’t pay any attention to where we were going. My mind was still back in that basement. After about ten minutes, we found ourselves outside Tom’s house and he helped me inside.

I sat down on his couch, sore, shaken, but very glad to be alive and in his house. Tom disappeared into the bathroom and came out with a roll of toilet paper.

“Sorry, but we don’t have any bandages big enough for that cut on your hand.”

“Thanks,” I said, reaching out with my good hand to take the paper and ripping off some to plug up my bleeding hand.

“Dude, what happened in that basement?” Tom asked with concern.

I looked at him, struggling to put it into words. Finally I said, “It’s all true, Tom. I saw the bodies.”

He looked at me with worry on his face and he opened his mouth to say something when I stopped him. I could hear a faint whispering coming from somewhere. My blood ran cold.

“What is it?” Tom asked.

“Do you heard that?” I asked in return.

“No. I don’t hear anything.”

The whispering grew louder and I could tell it was coming from outside.

“Tom, this is very important, did you take anything from that house?”

“No,” he replied getting annoyed. “I didn’t take shit.”

The whisper grew louder still and I heard the front door creak open slowly and footsteps in the front hall. My heart was beating fast and my hand began to throb as the whispering grew nearer. I could hear the words now, ragged and cold.

“Youuuuuuu toooooook iiiiiit.” Behind me now. “Youuu toooook iiiit.”

Tom’s lips were moving, but I ignored whatever he was saying to me. I knew as I took the makeshift bandage from my hand that he couldn’t hear the whispering because it was only for me. I felt an icy hand grip my shoulder as I looked into the cut on my palm from my fall through the floor and saw the small wood splinters imbedded deep beneath the skin.

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