Remember that time, brother, when we were young? When we took off before I was even though high school in your beat-up old whatever-it-was without so much as a goodbye note, dreamed of travelling the country?
There was a place we stayed at, the night before we finally gave up and turned around. It think it may be my last clear memory of you.
It was called the Beaumont Farm.
The petrol gauge has been sitting below empty for the last hour, and Carl Levine doesn't bother trying the key again when the engine splutters one last time before falling silent. He shivers in the cool air as he opens the door, pulling out his phone and cursing when he sees the reception bar empty. The last station he saw was before he turned off the highway two towns back, the last car before that.
The letter from Alicia lies folded in his inner pocket, as it had come in that innocuous envelope. There had been no return address, postmark almost illegible under a dark smudge that covered half the front. It was the first he'd heard from his sister in years.
Carl takes it out now, not reading, just letting himself look over Ali's familiar handwritingelegant, loopy, forever with a tint of childishness. He slips the thin paper into the outside of his coat as he stands and begins to walk.
It's not far, just a few turns down the unsealed dirt road before the dead cornfields open up before him. It's mid-afternoon by his watch, but with the thick grey clouds hovering above and the sun hidden behind the crest of the next hill it looks close to dusk. There's a lone bare tree off to the side, spidery fingers reaching up from the gnarled trunk as if in prayer, framing the farmhouse in front.
It's not like he remembers.
It has a legend, you know. They say that Lureen Beaumont hung herself in the cowshed after her lover's death, already insane as her neck snapped, screaming how she couldn't stand the world any longer, couldn't live without him.
Only thing was, he had been dead for over ten years.
And now the farm sits empty, the fields lifeless. For that earth lies home to the dead, to the souls that still cling to this world, that won't let go. Or aren't let go of.
Nothing but local nonsense, of course.
The front door is missing, and Carl realises with a jolt as walks down the overgrown path that the dark shape in the doorway is more than a shadow.
The figure doesn't move. Then he takes another step and it's turning away, disappearing into the building. He rushes forward, inside, and stumbles over the mess on the floor.
At least that's what you'd say.
The cracked flagstones are littered with junk. There's a music box, on its side, a rusted-through bucket in the corner. In the pale light from a single broken window he can make out a woman's bracelet, a torn hair ribbon, a man's cane, and countless more things that once had meaning.
The only thing there isn't, is dust. Not a single speck.
It's nothing like he remembers.
"Hello? Who's there?" he calls again. No answer. Not even a sound. Carl kicks a path in the strewn objects, slowly making his way toward the door on the opposite wall which is hanging by a thread on its hinges.
The next room is a kitchen, and there's someone by the stove.
You do know what I'm talking about, don't you? I think about it so often.
I'm there now.
He draws back violently as the person whirls around.
She's not the one he saw earlier, he can tell. Her face is caked in make-up, hair dyed with something dark and red that makes it clump at the grey roots that betray the truth behind the youth she's clinging so desperately onto.
"No," he breathes, already turning when she raises her bony arms and wraps him in a iron embrace. He tries to scream, but his breath is forced back by the scent of her clothing. Foul, decaying.
"Tell me something, won't you, my boy?" she says, voice dripping, sickly sweet. "Was I beautiful?"
"What?" he croaks.
"In the coffin," she croons. "Tell me how beautiful I looked."
"II don't know," he rasps. "They said the fire had done too much damage. It was a closed-casket ceremony."
She growls. "That's not true. That's not true!"
Carl throws himself back as the horrid shriek pieces the air, but the limbs around him tighten, crushing. The fetid odour is stifling now, smothering his senses. He just manages to wrench his left arm free as darkness creeps from the edges of his vision, groping back, out, for anything.
There's a crunch as his hand hits the counter, a sharp stab of pain. Blindly, he feels his fingers close around something cold and hard, and swings.
It's a cleaver. He hardly sees the flash of dull silver before it's replaced by scarlet. He squeezes his eyes shut, knife clattering to the floor as the body around him falls away. He hears gurgling, and doesn't wait to see her die before he's running.
The silence is deafening now as he tears back out into the weak sunshine. Carl doesn't even make it to the end of the path before he's falling to his knees and retching bile onto the weed-spattered dirt. He's gasping, that smell still so heavy on his tongue he can taste it, when there's a flash out the corner of his eye.
It's the shadow from the doorway, standing stock-still, like a scarecrow in the middle of the brown field. It's not so much dressed in black as it is that blackness appears to hang off it, draping in seamless waves.
"Hey, you," he says. But then once again, it's off.
Carl pulls himself to his feet, forcing his heavy legs to follow. The form before him is graceful, and absolutely soundless. It dances through the limp stalks, twisting in its path, always just in front. It takes him a moment to notice that they're weaving behind the farmhouse.
When he pushes through the back-door, it's gone again.
He's in the bedrooms this time. There's a splintered double bed frame in the centre of the room, mattress missing, moulded scraps of what used to be clothing plastered to the floor, and a spotless mirror on the wall.
There are two doors leading out. The larger one which presumably joins the corridor is blocked by a wardrobe, tipped over on its back and so thick it reaches half-way to the ceiling. The other is slimmer, to the right, and through it Carl can see a hint of faded wallpaper.
It's a child's room, he realises as he approaches. There's a doll on the floor, half the hair seared off, along with a crimson-smeared pair of shoes. There's a cot too. And a man beside it.
"Jesse, Jesse Munroe."
"Recognise me, Carly-boy?"
He doesn't. He doesn't know where the name came from, not when the face before him holds no traces of the seven-year-old boy that Jesse Munroe had been the last time Carl had seen him.
"Remember me, then?"
He nods, once. "We used to tease you," he says quietly. "Me and my friends. Because your"
"daddy was in prison." The man steps through the doorway toward him, advancing. "Then one day you chased me to the closet where the teachers kept their coats, and what did you do then?"
"We were little kids being stupid," Carl forces out. "I'm sorry. I said I was sorry." Hadn't he?
There was a laugh, cold, but eerily high-pitched like a child's. "I would have suffocated if Miss Sandra hadn't forgotten something in her pocket and gone back for it. Nearly did anyway."
"I'm sorry," he says again. It's all he can say.
"Well, maybe you should know what it's like?" He's being backed up, herded like prey against that monstrous wooden box by the door, and he recognises his own words that he'd sneered so long ago. "Maybe you should know what it's like too, to be locked up."
Then Carl is gagging again, but it's not the same stench as last time. This one is dank, musty, like wool left out too long in the damp. A hand reaches out to pin his arms by his sides, or at least what perhaps once was a hand, mangled flesh blackened with gangrene and slick with gore. Before he could try to run, before his eyes could even widen in horror, the crackle of fire erupts through the room.
The cot is burning, flickering orange tongues licking up the once-bright walls. The grip of the ruined fingers loosen at the blast of heat and Carl flings his weight forward, hurling the other man back through the doorway and into the flames.
By the time the screams start he's already sprinting, out, away. He runs and runs and when he stops, fighting for breath, he's still in the field, next to the same barren tree that he saw when he first set foot on this godforsaken land.
And the figure is back.
This time it doesn't wait for him to react, already slipping off and from his sight behind the twisting trunk. He peers around, and his eyes fall on the cowshed that rises like a dark creature against the bleak sky, walls standing strong as if still waiting for their farmer to return.
The doors don't creak as Carl pulls them open in a single smooth slide. The insides are bare, blanketed with shadow. The only thing he can make out is a thin length of rope that hangs from the centre rafters, and the motionless waiting form below it.
Suddenly, even before it turns, he knows who it is.
"Hello, Carl." Ali says softly.
Don't come, Carl. Don't follow me.
"Why are you here?" he asks, near-voiceless. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't you know?" she replies, gliding forward. "Don't you remember?"
"This place is nothing like I remember."
She smiles, but there's something off. "Isn't it?" Something very, very wrong. "But it is, brother, it's exactly as you remember."
"No." The first is a mutter, then he's screaming, frantic, mad. "No, no, no. No!"
"Do you understand, now?"
"What's happening? Tell me, Ali. Tell me!"
"I don't have to!" She's holding something, a note, her own letter. Carl's hand flies to his pocket, and feels nothing but cloth. "Because you did come, Carl." And she looks almost sad. "You came after me, and now you're here too."
He shoves her away, roughly, almost brutally. He spins, bursting outside, and only makes it three steps before he's engulfed.
There's a white, filmy mist in the air, so thick he can't even see the doors he came from. Then there's a sound, cutting through, and it takes a second to recognise it as his ringtone.
"Who's there? Is there anybody there?" he pants, not giving himself time to check the signal before pressing his phone painfully to his ear.
"Hello? It's Liam." His boss's familiar voice draws a harsh exhale from his lungs. "Hey, I just got your voice-mail, I was wondering if I heard right. You said you're away with your sister?"
"Yeah," Carl breathes, "that's right."
"Well, uh, sorry I have to ask but, what sister?"
And the fog is pressing closer, solid, unbreakable. In the distance he can hear a voice, not quite a woman's, more like a teenage girl's, beckoning.
"Never mind," he whispers, as the phone slips through his fingers.
His last idle thought is 'since when was there fog?' before the world whites out.