BY SPENCER RHYS HUGHES
What you do is: you take the 295 up through Portland until you reach US-1 and you follow US-1 up through all the empty woods of Maine until you’re sure there’s nothing around you but the trees and whatever lives in the trees; you take it up through places where everyone lives in trailer parks and the bones of dead towns, up through the veins of shoreline poverty, where the route curves east toward Bar Harbor; you take it up until you’re riding along the seaside and only abandonment and nature exist west of you and only the endless Atlantic exists east of you, and you coast along the asphalt until a pocket-city appears on the far southeast of a peninsula and you take that exit and you pray.
You could also take the train, but I don’t recommend it. There are two trains in either direction every other day. That’s one AM train and one PM train going both ways on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They add weekend trains during tourist season for all the Bed-and-Breakfast types. But the problem with the trains is that the departure/arrival times make it hard to change your mind at the last minute. They make it hard to turn around and head back home where you belong.
The first thing you should know is: Oceanrest is a place that used to be. It’s a place that used to matter. Like about a thousand other places that got fiscally gut-punched in the last twenty or thirty years. Slate towns, coal towns, mill towns, factory towns, steel towns, canal towns, etc. Oceanrest has been pinching pennies for so long that it hardly even noticed “the Great Recession.” Like: we’ve been here for twenty years, where were the rest of you? The con of that is that there isn’t exactly a plethora of jobs waiting for you if you stay very long. The pro is that the rent is cheaper than bread and there are plenty of places to squat if you can’t even afford that.
The second thing you should know is: Oceanrest is haunted. I don’t mean “haunted by the ghost of the city it used to be,” either. I mean haunted. I mean it in the way people talk about the deep Louisiana bayou and old derelict plantations and the dark woods of Romania and the unlit catacombs of Paris. I mean there are things here that ought not to be anywhere at all.
Nobody ever believes that, though, do they? Every time you hear the word you kind of roll your eyes, right? Someone tells you that the old Asher farmstead is haunted and you think to yourself “sure, buddy, sounds real fuckin’ scary” and you shake your head and chuckle over your drink and wonder how people can still believe in something like that, this day and age. Someone says there’s an abandoned house in the forest somewhere with all its wood charred black from when it got set on fire and you think that’s nonsense. They say it burned for a whole day and didn’t come down. They say nobody made it out of the blaze alive. They say the land around it is fallow and nothing grows there. They say these things and you roll your eyes. They say these things and you think it’s bullshit.
But they keep saying them and eventually the things they say crawl inside your head. Eventually they start to squirm into an idea.
So what you do is: you pack a bag of snacks and water bottles and get a camera and make sure your phone is fully charged and you head out in the woods. Maybe you decide to do it because you want to prove your courage. Maybe it’s because you want to debunk the superstition. Maybe it’s just because you can. But, for whatever reason, one night, that’s what you do.
And what you do is: you pass the treeline and head north. You go up past Black Watch Hill, where the town boundary was when Oceanrest reached its peak population, and once you’re past Black Watch Hill (once called Hanged Witch Hillock) you look for this ruined old street that used to curve northeast of there. It’s hard to find because it hasn’t been used in more than fifty years and the county hasn’t bothered with maintenance since the only place it goes to is the Black House. The asphalt is all broken up and grass and weeds have grown over most of it.
You notice the old street because, from the clearing on top of Black Watch Hill, the entrance looks like it’s framed by an arch of tree branches. Of course, by the time you get to that point, the sun is starting to set and a mist has started to rise up around the tree trunks. But you know what to do, by then, because someone half your age told you. What you do is: you follow the ramshackle old street to where it vanishes in the undergrowth and keep your eyes out for a marker stone, which should be just a little bit northeast of the street; once you find the marker stone, where moss grows on the south side (because that’s probably the shadiest side of the rock, you tell yourself), you turn directly east and walk about half an hour.
Fog permeates the forest. Slivers of light worm through the boughs overhead and writhe in the mist. Shadows dance in the glow of the drooping sun. It’s colder than you expected. Even in the remaining dim of sunset it’s hard to see. That’s when the first pangs of doubt hit you and you take a deep breath to push them aside. A history of dead leaves, wet from the mist, squishes under your feet. Who knew the woods could be so dense? Anyone could tell you: Maine is the only state with a growing tree population. 90% of Maine is forested. There is so much forestation in Aroostook and Hancock counties that you could get lost and never find your way back out again. It happens every year.
But you trust in your cellphone GPS and your direction sense. You tell yourself the hair prickling along the back of your neck is from the chill. You push forward because you aren’t like these superstitious hicks. You don’t believe in nonsense.
After a little over half an hour walking due east, you find the Black House. It glowers over a clearing in the trees. Most of the roof is gone, but all four walls still stand. It’s black as coal. Black as ash. So black that you’re lucky you got to it before the end of twilight because you wouldn’t have seen it in the later dark. It’s black enough to eat the light.
Nothing grows in the clearing. Fifteen feet out in any direction: just dirt. No grass, no weeds, no trees, just stiff soil and tiny stones. Cell service cuts out as you cross the barrier–but it wasn’t that good to begin with, was it? No. Not out here in the woods. It’s probably an unserviced area. You head toward the rotted porch fronting the house. No moist leaves mar the ground, here. Even tree branches seem to bend away, warping and wefting to keep their distance.
How did it get so black? You touch one of the slants of wood jutting up from the ground and soot comes off on your fingertips. People like to touch things they don’t understand. They’re always touching, all the time. You touch: brittle and dry, chipped and blackened, but not breakable. You kick one of the walls to no noticeable effect. You shrug it off. But the house remembers. The house remembers everything.
Inside, now. You look up at the ceiling, mostly missing, and see the first stars bloom from the garden of night. Large portions of the second floor have collapsed. There are holes in the first floor, too–ragged holes leading to a lightless basement. Not even starlight or moonlight dares to enter, there. You shake your head: how are there so many holes and almost no ceiling and yet all the walls still stand? The floorboards are silent underfoot. The house makes no noise as you move through it.
You make a joke: “If these walls could talk, huh?”
A breeze passes by, outside. Leaves rustle as if laughing. Surely a coincidence.
Looking around, you find nothing noteworthy. Black house, black walls, black night. Shadows retreat from the flashlight. You see nothing frightening. You don’t worry about the things you don’t see. People seldom do. You don’t worry that you don’t see any bugs. You don’t worry that you don’t see any cobwebs. You don’t worry that you don’t see any empty bottles left behind by high school or college kids. Why worry about what’s not there?
Oceanrest cools with night. Especially the woods. At night, the woods always seem cold. Even in summer time. Even during tourist season. You wish you’d worn something warmer. Here’s a secret: there’s nothing warm enough.
Do you want to spend the whole night? Half of it? Leave early? Do you want to sleep?
Please don’t sleep. Don’t go to sleep in the Black House.
You stay awake. Killing time, you take photos of the walls and the holes in the floors and stars you can see through the gaps in the ceiling. You pace. You navigate through the burnt bones of what used to be someone’s home. There’s no furniture to tell you what each room was used for and most of the second floor is inaccessible. You keep pacing, anyway, around and around the first floor, one barren room to the next. You don’t know why. The movement makes you feel more secure. You wonder: was this a kitchen, once? A pantry? A den? But all the rooms are all black and there’s no way to tell them apart.
Is this the room where the fire started? Is this the room where the family burned? Is this the room where their bodies were found charred black?
How did the fire burn so long, anyway? It couldn’t have burned a whole day, could it have?
At the top of the basement stairs, you take a photo. The flash goes off and reveals nothing. You point your flashlight down the stairwell and see nothing. How deep does it go? How far does a darkness have to descend before your flashlight can’t reveal it? In the middle of the day when the sun is boiling overhead, do you think the basement still stays dark?
You don’t go down the stairs. You approach the threshold and peer down, but you don’t follow through. An instinct crawling between the layers of your skin stops you.
You don’t really believe it’s haunted, do you?
Of course not. No. That would be absurd. Silly. Absurd.
(This is what you tell yourself.)
The skin of your scalp itches. The hair on the back of your neck. The bones at the base of your spine. You decide to leave. It’s cold and uncomfortable and empty buildings always have an air of something desolate to them. It’s not that it’s haunted, you think, it’s just the sense of decay that abandonment settles over a place. And maybe you didn’t stay until dawn, but you stayed until midnight, and isn’t that the witching hour? (No, it isn’t. The witching hour is 3AM-4AM, or 2AM in modern circles.)
In the front foyer, what might’ve once been an entry hall, your phone starts ringing. You pull it out of your pocket. The screen is all black except for the little green ‘Answer’ icon. Your heart pounds in your head and your thumb hesitates. Should you answer? You don’t answer. The call ends. Your phone instantly dies.
Another breeze comes through. For the first time all night, you hear the house settle. Old wood. A floorboard creaks somewhere behind you. Somewhere, maybe, near the basement stairwell.
Before you know it, you’re yanking on the crusted doorknob. Twisting it. But the door doesn’t budge—and it occurs to you that you can’t remember opening the door to come in. One moment you were walking up to the entrance and the next moment you were already inside. A trick of the memory? It has to be. There’s no other reasonable explanation. So you back away from the door and hurl yourself at it, crashing full-force into unyielding wood. You bounce back, reset your stance, and rush it again. You try a kick this time.
The leaves beyond the clearing rustle.
A sound comes through the holes in the floor. A long, quiet breath. An exhalation.
A word? A whisper?
Just the wind. Probably it’s just the wind.
(The wind coming up from the endless-dark basement?)
The door is jammed shut. Hot sweat coats your skin. The room is freezing. You charge the door and charge the door again. You see something out of the corner of your eye–a woman?–but when you turn to look it’s already gone. There’s nothing there to see and you don’t worry about the things you don’t see. You just touch things you know nothing about.
You slam into the door again and something gives in your shoulder. A lash of hot pain lights under your scapula. Your breath shudders out in ragged pants and turns to smoke on the air. The sound of the leaves reminds you of a campfire crackling. The room is as cold as a fire is hot.
90% of Maine is forested. There is so much forestation in Aroostook and Hancock counties that you could get lost and never find your way back out again.
“The Black House isn’t haunted,” someone says, much later. “[You] just got lost in the woods like any tourist might’ve done and never made it out. It’s a tragedy, but something like it happens every year.”
It’s so cold in the house and so very, very dark. Do you remember when you came in? They say it burned for a whole day and didn’t come down. They say nobody made it out of the blaze alive. How is it possible for something to burn for so long? It’s the part they don’t tell you about. Here’s a secret: nobody came to help. Nobody ever even picked up the phone. People forgot about that part. They didn’t like to talk about that part. Didn’t like to think about it. Do you remember that part, now?
The house remembers.
The house remembers everything.
Spencer Rhys Hughes writes dark contemporary fantasy and horror and lives in a cavern carved beneath Queens by an underground off-shoot of the East River. Most people who lay eyes upon him must fight the compulsion to claw out their jellies forever after. Luckily, he spends most of his time facing a computer screen. His previous short work "A Man Wakes Up Any Morning" was published in Sanitarium Magazine #38. He's released two novels, No Reflection and No Grave. He has discovered the secret to astral projection and dreamwalking and will tell you all about it for a nominal, non-refundable fee. Twitter @thesrhughes.