I think it is the nostalgia that brings me back now that my brother has died, to that crumbling shack in the woods.
Now that he is gone I have nobody left. I feel drawn back to that place to shed the grief that cloaks me like a second skin; I want to lay my sorrow there to rot with the rest of our happy memories, now long dead.
This shack was our secret. We used to play inside. The game was “murder mystery.” We would accuse the toys.
“Who has committed this murder, most foul?” Sampson paced before the suspects. He’d spun, glaring at the teddy bear and scrutinizing it suspiciously. He stared into the bear’s eyes to see if it would react nervously. He poked it hard with his index finger, right into the plastic iris.
“Well, he said, “are you gonna talk or am I gonna have to rip your eyes out of your face?
“I think it was this one!” I called out in confidence, holding up one of Sara’s dolls.
“Is that true Barbara Mattel?” he said sizing her up next. He pointed a finger into her walnut sized face, like they did on the television cop dramas, “was it you who done it? Talk!”
Sara had joined in next, with her smaller pointer. Her hair, a tangled blonde mess of flyaway strands; her words spat with that wild zeal only found in seven year olds, “Doctor! CEO! Lawyer! Chef! And now, murderer!”
“Do you really think she’s the one that did it?” I’d asked her, stifling a giggle.
“Of course Scott! Of course!” Sara shouted, “just look at her feet! Look at them!” The feet were gnarled and shredded down to the wire skeleton inside. They looked as if they had been removed by a meat grinder.
I really laughed then, “but you did that. I saw you do it a couple of days ago watching cartoons.”
“Of course I did that. She’s a murderer. I chewed them off so she couldn’t run.”
Sampson discovered the shack. He said Sardoonie showed it to him. Sardoonie wasn’t real. We knew he wasn’t real because Sampson said he used to live on the Moon. Sampson also said Sardoonie had a flying horse named Rokia and that Rokia could talk; 10 years old and he still had imaginary friends.
So he brought me and Sara out there to Sardoonie’s shack. I thought that certainly it wouldn’t be where Sampson had said. I thought it would be imaginary as well. It shouldn’t have stood in that clearing where it did.
I had been in that clearing before–I felt sure of it. This is where Mikey Baker and I used to play with matches. Mikey and I were out here two years ago, before he moved away. This happened in the week right before school started back up again in August and we were out here lighting things on fire. The fire caught hold of the parched grass and began to spread and we ran so nobody would know and we wouldn’t get in trouble. By luck or divine intervention, I can’t say which, the fire didn’t get far…a downpour happened that day and it wasn’t very large so it may have died out on it’s own before the rain had even come. I recognized this path by the trails of black char, the memories of that fire still held by the trees, left disfigured by it on either side as we passed.
Sampson led the way. I’d been out this far before, further even, and there definitely shouldn’t have been anything out here.
Yet, there before us, just past the brambles it loomed, small and falling in all of it’s faded glory like it had stood there for years: the paneling hung rotted, infested with insects and crumbling away. To go inside was to agree to tempt fate, exposing yourself to ancient jagged edges, rusty nails and tetanus infection. I felt a wave of shock ripple over me: a dilapidated structure standing as if it had been there, plagued by neglect for years, in what had been less than two years past an empty clearing. I decided that maybe I’d been mistaken and kept this to myself.
That was the summer that I turned 13. That was the summer that we spent every day playing in that shack. Everytime we went there it stood there still as though it always had been out here. That place was our secret. Our mysterious clubhouse. It certainly held something otherworldly as that summer is the only time I can recall the three of us getting along so well.
Things changed towards the end of that July. We still went to the shack but it wasn’t fun anymore. The secret of the rotting place was just for the three of us. We knew that by instinct. We were never meant to share it with outsiders, so we never told a soul. It seemed like the rickety place had a hold on us, urging us to keep its location and status guarded; hidden from the rest of the world, and so we did. Things changed though, as they always do, and one balmy summer day the fun departed. Someone else had found our secret. That’s why Casey Thompson had to die. He would be the first of many.
I don’t know if Casey followed us out there or if happenstance led him into the clearing. Maybe the shack did it. Maybe it called out to him and pulled him to it with the preternatural magnetism of its soft whispers. I do know that he had a look of satisfaction on his face when he opened the door, like he’d just won a game of hide and seek.
We felt him coming and had hidden ourselves in the shadows on either side of the entrance. The tension was thick and our breathing was labored, like we were huffing it down in gulps. When the door swung open, it was as though time had stopped. As though it had hidden with us in the shadows. As though I were watching these events happen through someone else’s eyes. That moment stretches on for hours when I recall it. It all happened in slow motion. Sampson leapt out at him first. Somewhere in the back of our minds, something dormant had awoken in the three of us. It howled with territorial ferocity. Sampson pounced from his shadow onto Casey’s shoulders and went straight for his eyes, a hand for each, gouging them with his fingers until they were gone. I could hear a horse then, braying with laughter. I could hear its voice urging us onward in some forgotten, dark language that I didn’t know but could understand–the words primal and ancient. Sara took to his lower half, biting through his Achilles tendon like a dog until it snapped and he toppled to the floor.
A disembodied voice whispered to me then, the words were inches from my ear. A hollow urgent command in muffled echo, like they reverberated invisibly behind the glass of a helmet that I could not see. They repeated metronomically to the sound of my thudding heart: “Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.”
I finished the job with a broken piece of window pane, yawning open a second mouth with it; one grinning and wet with red across his neck. We hid the body beneath the floorboards and cleaned ourselves off in the creek on our way home. The animal parts of our brains didn’t go quiet until we had been home for a few hours, slowly fading from howls to whispers. I made sure all of our bloody clothes were buried within a bag that held a discarded feast of rotting leftovers in the bottom of the trashcan in the garage.
We tried to stop going there after that. Our happy memories of childhood died there on the day Casey did. We discarded them there with his body to rot; trading them for memories much darker instead. I don’t know who we would have become if we’d never found that place.
I left home at 17, and set out for Alaska vowing to get as far away from that place as I could.
Sara became a mostly catatonic shell of herself for a long time. A sullen quiet ghost who rarely left her room until the day she disappeared. We never heard from her again.
Sampson lived on the streets, an addict until his passing just a few days ago. He was 27.
I don’t think we realized it as it happened when the shack still held some hidden fun; when ‘murder mystery’ was still a game. When Sardoonie showed Sampson the shack, the shack called him inside then but Sampson didn’t mind. His curiosity had rendered him a willing participant. It compelled him to bring me and Sara to it. After Casey found it, after the others found it, we didn’t want to play there anymore and we stopped going unless it called out to us. Somewhere in the lonely dark of our primitive lizard brains we would hear it calling and the three of us would return. I still hear it sometimes, but it’s gotten easier to ignore. To return here is a choice of my own making. It seems appropriate now that Sampson is dead to come, visit the ghosts of who the three of us were not allowed to become; the people we would have been had we never found it at all. It seemed appropriate to contemplate that summer. I don’t think that it has called me here but I can never be sure.
I can feel its presence in the clearing, just past the brambly bushes and the trees.
We were the shack’s secret. It used to play with us inside. The game was “murder mystery.” We were it’s accursed toys.
As I pry up the loose boards with my dirty fingers, I know then for sure. I did not come here on my own. It has begged my return again. I know this because it looses its hold on me now and I see the large bundle of burlap that I have carried out here with me. I cry out in the dark to please stop the game: to the shack, to Sardoonie, to Rokia, to the roof above, to the walls, to anyone who will listen.
“Please! I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to play anymore. Make it stop! For the love of God, make it stop!”
The shack says nothing but the sound of wind in return. It howls through the broken windows and the shadows as I lay the bundle that contains my brother’s remains beneath the floorboards with our sister. With our parents. With the undisclosed others. I am hopeful now, since I alone hold the secret of the crumbling shack that shouldn’t be, that his body will be the last.
Sardoonie and Rokia laugh.