Tyler and Rachel Cunningham were two years apart in age and a decade in temperament. Never had this been more apparent to Tyler than the afternoon they drove the two plus hours it took to get from Penn State to the family farm just south and east of Dunbar. They pulled up the long, hickory-lined drive sometime after noon. Tyler quickly noted how many creeping vines had encroached along the red brick walls of the old gothic revival home. Grandpa would say they were no good for the mortar, but Tyler liked the way they made the house look like it grew straight out of the hills.
“The smart move is to sell this place, trust me,” Rachel said, parking off to the side of the house, but Tyler knew that what she really meant was “I know better than you.”
Tyler didn’t bother to respond. It was an old argument. Amazing, given the fact that their grandfather’d only passed a month ago. But Rachel couldn’t sell without him. That was the vicious curse James Cunningham had passed down to his grandchildren. He’d clarified, in a hand-written note, that the land and the house were to be kept in the family and to that end, had made Tyler and Rachel co-owners. The lawyer they’d hired to execute the will had read this part with a wry grin and a knowing look at Rachel. Clearly, they’d expected the desires of their grandfather to be easily overturned.
Tyler had surprised all three of them.
“With all the interest in this region from corporations and miners, we’d have to be retar-”
“Rach,” Tyler interrupted. “Really?”
“All I’m saying is, you and I can walk away from this with a pretty penny in our pockets. And wouldn’t you like to finish that architecture degree without owing half of your first ten thousand paychecks to pay off those loans? This house is going to do us exactly no good.”
“Do we really have to do this right now? I just want to get this over with,” Tyler said, exasperated and launching himself from the passenger seat.
“Yes!” Rachel slammed the door behind her, rocking the little Subaru. Today, her Penn State shirt was grey with blue lettering. “Yes, Tyler, we do. When else are we going to do it? Selling makes sense. It is just good business and you’re being selfish by not even considering it.”
Tyler took a small step back. He’d learned that engaging Rachel on the level of business sense never went well. Not only did his age work against him, but he couldn’t contend with two years of coursework focused on business practice and statistics.
“Selfish? C’mon, Rach, can we please just clean out his stuff? I don’t want to fight today.”
Tyler tried not to hold the remark against her. Words were easy weapons for Rachel. They didn’t always mean the same thing to her as they did to him, but it was hard to let a heavy word like ‘selfish’ roll off his back.
“I’m not fighting. Who’s fighting? I’m just trying to have a conversation with my brother about making good decisions for our future.” The pause she took was more of a hesitation. “And I just think it’s selfish for one of us to make a decision that will affect the other detrimentally.”
“God,” Tyler breathed, digging into his pocket and tossing the keys at his sister, a little harder than necessary. “You know what? You start. I need some air.”
Autumn was crisp beneath his feet as he walked briskly into the woods. According to the lawyer, the Cunningham land consisted of one hundred and fifty-two acres, two small lakes, and a few tributaries of the Youghioghfny River. The numbers had been shocking, but not surprising. Tyler had spent the better part of his early years at the farm running through the hills and creating his own trails. Still, part of the allure of this place was knowing there was still so much he didn’t know.
Grandpa Cunningham had known, though. Tyler as sure of that as he was of anything. Before he died, he’d called Tyler to his side and asked him to please remember to and set out the suet in the winter months, the dishes of water in the summer months, and to always, always listen carefully to the land.
“It speaks, and when you don’t listen, it speaks again,” he’d said. “Louder.”
This place meant something to grandpa. It meant something to Tyler, and that wasn’t the sort of thing you signed over for a pretty penny.
Tyler left the trails he knew and struck out in a new direction, letting the hills guide his steps. It was cooler beneath the trees and he zipped his windbreaker when he’d begun to slow his pace enough that the air actually felt cold. Somewhere a woodpecker tap-tap-tapped against a tree trunk. It sounded close and Tyler followed the sound.
Grandpa loved birds. He had a collection of binoculars set out along a low shelf in the den at the back of the house. It had the biggest windows and the best view. They’d be packing most of those away, selling what they could and donating the rest. Tyler hated to think of his grandpa’s beloved binoculars gathering dust on someone else’s shelf, but one battle with his sister was enough.
Again, the woodpecker rapped against the tree trunk and Tyler looked up. He was close enough, he thought, to be able to spot it, but his search revealed no woodpecker.
Tyler circled another hill, his eyes on the tall trunks of white oaks and hickory trees. The tapping was louder here and he paused.
It was lower than he’d expected. Tyler turned in a slow circle and was surprised to find that the hill he’d just circled had a small trench dug into its side.
Tyler moved closer to the trench, pushing at the vines that hung down in front.
Behind the vines was a blue, iron-barred door with no lock that he could see. Beyond the door was a narrow, dark cave and from within the cave, came the noise again.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Tyler’s fingers wrapped around the bars, the iron cold in his fist. He pushed his face against the door and watched his breath snake out of his mouth and into the darkness beyond.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The noise echoed inside the cave and now that he had discovered the location, it seemed silly that he’d though it was a bird. Chills crept up his legs. If it wasn’t a bird, what was it?
“Hello?” His voice was barely a whisper but it bounced off the stone walls and came back to him with a hiss. Only his voice. His cheeks warmed realizing he’d expected an answer. Rachel would have a new arsenal to use against him if she’d heard him talking to an empty cave.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
But this cave wasn’t empty.
“Hello,” he said louder. Tyler leaned his body into the iron-barred door and it gave way just an inch, scraping along the dirt floor at the mouth of the cave. He gave another push and the door inched again. His tongue was chalky and thick and his hands slipped on the bars. He squared his shoulder, and braced himself for a good hard shove.
Tyler spun around and lost his footing. He fell into the door, forcing it inward.
“Jesus, Rach!” He picked himself up and brushed the wet, cold earth from his jeans and elbows.
“What are you doing way out here?” She peered beyond her brother into the darkness of the cave. “And what is this?”
“It’s…” Tyler stared at the open door. He strained, listening for the tapping, but nothing came. “I don’t know. Probably for wine, or canned stuff.”
“This far from the house?”
Tyler shrugged. “Let’s just go clean out that back room.” He ignored Rachel’s sarcastic remarks as he pushed past her down the hill. He didn’t want to clean out his grandpa’s things anymore than he had before, but for some reason he wanted his sister away from that door.
“He had way too many bricks of whatever this stuff is,” Rachel said as she tossed something into a box marked, burn.
Tyler pulled out what she’d discarded. “You can’t throw this out!” He hadn’t meant to shout, but Rachel was tossing out bricks and bricks of the suet that their grandfather had instructed Tyler to set out during the winter months. The suet was shaped into squares and wrapped in clear plastic.
“What are we going to do with that?”
“It’s suet. For the birds, I guess.” Tyler moved the bricks into an empty box alongside the three pairs of binoculars he’d decided to keep. He stared out the big bay window, trying to spot a finch or a cardinal among the thick oaks, and imagining his grandfather doing the same. “Suet in the winter,” he could hear him say. “Water in the summer.”
With the two lakes and the tributaries, Tyler wondered why the birds would need fresh water in the summer, but James Cunningham wasn’t the sort of man one questioned.
The woods seemed colder in the evening air than they had that morning. The ground was still damp and Tyler kicked up leaves in hues of red and gold as he trudged up the hill to the blue iron-barred door. The binoculars hanging from his neck were heavy and comforting. A piece of his grandpa he could carry with him.
He listened for the tapping but the woods were silent, save for his own heavy footfalls. Rachel had left the house to find more boxes in town, and something about that door called to Tyler. He’d left a note for his sister, but didn’t tell her where he was going. For a walk, was all she needed to know.
As he approached the cave, Tyler noticed the door was once again closed. Had Rachel shut it before they’d left this morning? He didn’t waste time calling out to the darkness. Tyler pushed open the door and stepped inside. He reached into the pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out half a brick of his grandpa’s suet. A peace offering, in case there was a bird trapped inside. Tyler crumbled pieces of the melted fat and dropped them like breadcrumbs along the dirt floor as he ventured into the dark. He tapped a stone along the wall, the same way he’d heard it before.
Tap, tap, tap.
He walked in farther.
Tap, tap, tap.
Shadows melted into each other.
Tyler’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he wondered just how deep this cave went, and why it was here if not for storage. Up ahead a dim light danced in the wall. Another exit? A hole above? Tyler stuffed the remaining suet back in his pocket and headed for the light.
It wasn’t another exit, and it wasn’t a hole. It was a fire, in the center of the cave in front of a flat stone wall. And next to the fire, Tyler didn’t find a bird.
“You not James Cunningham,” the creature said, without looking up from its task of crumbling dried leaves over the fire. Tyler stood frozen, staring down at what looked like a girl, but wasn’t. It was small, the size of a child, but its ears were large and misshapen, folded over and pointed. Its nose was like a beak, shining gray in the firelight, and its hair was greenish and dry, matted with twigs and leaves.
“Where is James?” it asked.
Tyler wet his lips before he could speak. “He died.”
“He—I’m sorry. Who are you?”
The creature turned toward him and stood, reaching a height of just three feet. Its eyes, steely and sharp, were a glossy silver gray. Tattered strips of linen served as a dress and its large feet were naked and scabbed.
“James called me Cobalt,” she said. “What you bring for me?” She gestured toward his pocket. Tyler’s fingers found the suet wrapped in plastic.
“Suet. I thought there might be a bird—”
“No, no,” she said. “That suey not for birds, silly boy. That suey made by James Cunningham. That suey belong to me. Give, give.” She hooked a crooked finger in the air.
Tyler handed her the suet and back away as she devoured it. He wanted to press the creature about her origins and how she knew his grandpa, but something told him to keep quiet.
“James gone,” she said. “Good, good.” The creature, Cobalt, smiled. Its teeth were straight and clean, though not at all human. A horse, Tyler thought. Or a cow. Teeth made for grinding, not tearing flesh. The thought was oddly comforting. “James just listen to hills. You, you do more. Much more. James trust you.” She snickered.
James trusted Tyler to listen to the land, to love it and care for it the way he had. There was no way Tyler could ever sell, not now. But could he tell Rachel about Cobalt? Rachel wasn’t like Tyler. She wasn’t like their grandpa. Tyler wrapped his fingers around his grandfather’s binoculars, feeling a surge of pride and courage.
“Yes,” Tyler said. “He did trust me. But he never said he brought the suet to you, he said to—”
Cobalt laughed. The sound echoing through the cave made Tyler wonder if there were more creatures in the shadows. “No, no, silly boy. James not bring me suey.” The temperature in the cave seemed to drop as the fire dimmed. Cobalt stepped toward him, her feet dragging and making trails in the dirt as she moved.
“No, no. James too smart for that.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
A slow chill trickled through Tyler’s veins. The sound that had seemed so close moments before now came from somewhere deeper into the dark. Despite the voice in the back of his mind telling him to run, Tyler’s curiosity got the better of him. “What is that?”
Cobalt smiled and held out her small, surprisingly childlike hand. “Come. I show you.”
Tyler hesitated. He didn’t want to touch Cobalt. He didn’t want to go with her either. Not really. Rachel had always been the one to go first; he followed after. But Grandpa must’ve wanted him to see this. There was a reason he didn’t want the land sold.
Cobalt wiggled the fingers of her outstretched hand, her silvery eyes on his.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound seemed to be retreating. This might be his only chance. An image of Grandpa, frail and tired except for his eyes, which were alive with urgency, flashed into Tyler’s mind and the decision was made.
He took a deep breath and grasped Cobalt’s hand.
Rachel shoved the last of the boxes into the backseat and slammed the door. She’d lucked into a huge cache at the grocery store where the stock boy was setting them out for recycling. All she wanted was to pack up the last of Grandpa’s things and get the hell out of town.
Once the farmhouse was just an empty shell and no longer looked like the source of all their childhood memories she was sure Tyler would agree to sell. He was so sentimental. He couldn’t see the place for what it really was – a rundown house smack in the middle of a whole mess of evil.
He’d almost given her a heart attack this afternoon when he found the door. If she hadn’t gone looking for him… She didn’t even want to think about that. But then, maybe if he saw those things, he’d understand why they needed to sell.
She shivered as she remembered the day she first found the door. She was eight and frustrated with the way Tyler always copied everything she did, and even more frustrated with Grandpa who never told him to stop no matter how much she complained. He loves his big sister, he would say. One day he won’t want to be like you anymore and you’ll miss it. So she ran off, into the shadows of what she liked to call The Hundred Acre Wood. She would never admit it to anyone, but part of her always secretly hoped she’d run into a talking bear like Pooh.
Back then she’d loved the farm and the forest around it, and when she found the big blue door tucked into the hillside, the only thing she’d felt was hope. Maybe it was a door to magic place, like Never Never Land where she could play all night and never have to clean her room or go home. Or maybe there was someone in there. A new friend. Someone better than a stubborn baby brother who ruined everything.
She reached for the bars of the strange door. Strange because it had no handle. The metal was cold and thick in a way that felt very old and just a little bit dangerous. It made her think of jail cells for pirates and bad guys in olden days and for a moment she hesitated. Maybe the door was meant to keep something locked away.
Then she heard it.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
It called to her from the shadows, just outside the circle of light that reached through the spaces between the bars.
“Hello,” she called.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
This time she thought she heard a faint scraping sound mixed in with the tapping. She gave the door a soft shove. It creaked but didn’t move. “Is anybody in there?”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Somewhere inside, a girl laughed. The sound was close enough, Rachel thought, that she should be able to see who was making it. But all she saw was dark. Her fingers tingled with excitement. An adventure. That’s what this was. All she had to do was open the door.
She braced a hand against the doorframe and leaned into the door with all her weight. If that laughing girl could do it, so could she. Rachel didn’t like to lose. She gritted her teeth and pushed her shoulder against the door over and over until it popped open, sending her falling to the dirt floor. “Hello?”
A voice whispered from her right, “Follow me.”
As Rachel’s eyes adjusted to the dim, she could make out the shape of a girl with long wild hair skipping further into the cave. She ran to catch up, and just as she crossed out of the last of the outside light and into true dark, she tripped and fell to the ground.
She let out whimper at the pain in her scraped palms and knees, but refused to cry. She could be just as brave as the other girl.
Suddenly the room filled with light. Rachel gasped. The girl approached her holding a thick stick that was on fire, just like they used in the movies.
Rachel sat frozen, staring up at the thing she wasn’t sure she should call a girl afterall. Her outstretched hand looked normal, but nothing else did. Her hair was tangled and green and filthy. She had animal parts mixed in with people parts. Rachel could see bird and cow and maybe even lizard all squished together in the thing’s face. Her heart beat furiously in her chest, but she couldn’t move.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound came from behind the girl and Rachel looked up and around the cave, trying to find the source.
“Don’t be fraid,” said the girl-thing. In the back of her mind, Rachel thought its voice was too rough and too deep to be a girl.
But it wasn’t the girl with the monstrous face that scared her anymore. It was the eyes. So many eyes. They glowed from the surface of every rock, alive and hungry, and focused on her.
Rachel was dimly aware that the girl-thing had moved closer, was holding out her hand again to help her up.
A thousand whispers pushed against her from every side. Yes. Come join us. We’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. The whispers seemed to pull her forward, made her forget how monstrous the girl-thing had looked.
“Rachel!” Grandpa’s voice echoed off the rocks. The eyes squeezed shut as if in pain. The girl-thing opened her mouth wide and hissed like an angry cat. Rachel turned to look over her shoulder. Grandpa stood taller and stronger than she’d ever seen him, a flashlight in one big, gnarled hand. “Don’t touch her, Rachel!” Grandpa shouted.
Rachel had only a moment to comprehend his words before he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back towards the entrance.
The monster girl let out a hideous, piercing shriek, and the echoes made it sound like the rocks were joining her. “You can’t take her! She belongs to us now!”
“The hell she does,” Grandpa said, before scooping Rachel up and carrying her out of the cave.
When they were far enough away, and Grandpa had made sure the blue door was shut tight, he took Rachel by the shoulders and made her promise never to tell anyone about the cave or the monsters inside, and to never ever take Tyler there. “Now you know our family secret,” he’d said. “I trust you to keep it.”
Even all these years later, Rachel still felt a chill when she remembered the darkness in Grandpa’s eyes when he said “family secret”.
Grandpa thought the only way to keep people safe was to keep those things locked up and fed, but he was wrong. She’d known it the moment she heard the tap tap tap when they arrived today. Without anyone at the farm watching over them, they’d run rampant. The fact that Tyler almost fell into their trap this afternoon was all the proof she needed.
The land was evil. The only way to make it safe was to destroy the whole thing. Let some corporation level the hills and fill it with concrete.
Rachel started the car and headed for the farm. She would convince Tyler to sell even if she had to tell him the whole ridiculous story.
She would make him believe.
Photo by snady_ via Flckr Creative Commons.