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The Gate


The moonlight illuminated the dirt road in a bluish hue, offering a stark contrast against the blackness of the surrounding landscape. Dense trees lined the roadway, giving way only to an occasional field … the extent of which could not be clearly seen. Crickets chirped in a haunting harmony, and the only other audible sound was the pebbles and stones being crushed under the tires of the sedan as it rolled to a silent stop on the shoulder.

Greg nervously pounded his foot down on the gas pedal repeatedly and twisted the key, but there were no signs of life … not even a single light on the dashboard. He exited the car and hurried to the front, unlatching and opening the hood. He saw it immediately … at some point (who knows when) the alternator belt had broken and was now nowhere to be found. Running on the power of the battery alone, it had given every last volt it had in it just to get them to this point.

He slammed the hood down in anger and gazed up to the heavens … taking in a deep, labored breath and exhaling long and loud. His eyes struggled to adjust as he peered into the darkness, still unable to correctly discern the foreground from the vastness of the skies above. He walked towards the rear of the car, reaching in through the open window and grabbing his keys from the ignition as he went past. Opening the trunk, he started to condense supplies into one duffel, angrily stuffing objects into an already overstuffed bag.

Closing the trunk lid, he paused to take one last look back, and then ahead, trying to get the lay of the landscape in the pitch black. He started walking forward …

“Let’s go” he muttered as he walked past the passenger door.

“Where?” a concerned voice from inside the car questioned.

“I think it’s about a mile up”

“Are you sure?” John asked as he exited the car.

“No … “ Greg answered defiantly, and continued his march.

The two walked down the shoulder in nervous anxiety for what seemed like an eternity. No longer shrouded by the sound of the car engine, the crickets’ mesmerizing chant grew loud and indignant. Occasionally the breeze would gently rustle the tree branches, but all other signs of life were oddly silenced on this night. The roadway stretched on for as far as they could see, with only slight bends highlighted by the moonlight … but not a soul could be seen sharing this path with them.

“You know this is crazy, right? We … we shouldn’t be here … “ John almost shrieked as he stumbled to get the words out. But Greg continued his pace without a reply.

“Hey! We should just leave this alone … “ John barely got the words out as Greg threw the bag to the ground and spun around quickly, glaring at John …

“You KNOW we have no choice! You KNOW this is the ONLY WAY!” Greg yelled in anger and frustration. John could feel Greg’s breath as he spoke, and although the darkness hid his eyes, he knew they had a hint of madness behind them. He had seen it too many times before …

The two marched onward as the cool night air chilled their faces … neither man willing to admit to the uncertainty and fear they felt inside. They sought answers, and had no idea if this would set things right … or possibly make them terribly worse. But neither could continue the way things were.

They came upon an area to their right where the tree line was oddly set back from the shoulder approximately 100 feet further than the rest of the adjoining landscape. Greg stopped for a brief moment, looked around momentarily and then began moving forward again, but at a slightly quicker pace. Moments later a decrepit looking gate suddenly came into view. No fence, no signs ... just two vertical wooden posts and a short, antiquated half-door hanging partially open between them … it’s lower corner dug into the dirt due to a broken upper hinge.

“This is it” Greg muttered.

“Are you sure? How can you tell?” John demanded. No reply.

Greg angled himself and walked carefully through the seemingly ancient structure and started off towards the tree line. John, standing a few paces back, watched him for a few moments and then started after him through the brush that lined the roadway shoulder.

Greg stopped, turned around and pointed …

“No … through the gate … “

John stopped and with head down and the defiant stomp of an angry child walked back towards the shoulder and around through the half-open entry.

As they approached the seemingly impenetrable backdrop, they began to recognize that although thick, passage was possible between the trees. The woven canopy allowed only patches of moonlight to touch ground, and visibility was at a bare minimum now. Carefully navigating exposed roots and fallen limbs, they pressed onward at a much slower pace.

With the crunch of dead leaves beneath their feet the only audible sound now, they quickly came to realize … the crickets had stopped.


II

Sheriff Ellis patrolled these roads every night for the last 15 years. With an egg salad sandwich and a diet cola by his side, he navigated the countryside in search of wayward cattle or maybe a lost dog … but in this rural area there was never much else. He knew everyone by name, and they knew him … and sometimes if he saw a light on in a barn late at night he would stop to chat and offer assistance. But this night the only light was the moon and the only chatter were the native species in the trees and fields.

While traveling down Route 4, the moonlight suddenly gleamed off something off to the side of the road. The Sheriff squinted his eyes for a moment, thinking at first it was just a piece of farm equipment left at the edge of someone’s property. But as he rolled closer, he could see it was in fact a car stopped on the shoulder of the roadway. He pulled up behind and cut his engine, leaving his headlights on so he could better assess the situation. He did not recognize this vehicle … definitely not one he knew to belong to one of the residents here. No passengers visible inside, so he shined his spotlight up and down both sides of the roadway … no one. He grabbed his flashlight and exited his vehicle, making his way towards the sedan.

Shining his flashlight inside he found no one “sleeping one off” inside … just a few empty water bottles and an empty bag of chips. Examining the outside of the car he observed that the two front windows were rolled halfway down, none of the tires looked flat and there was no outward appearance of distress. Slightly bewildered, the Sheriff went back to his patrol car and powered up his in-car computer.

He ran the license tag and it came up immediately … a 1972 Pontiac Catalina with no wants or warrants. But, oddly, the registration was listed as overdue … in fact, it had gone unpaid for the last 3 years.

He then went on to look at the registered owner’s info … Aaron Goldberg. Punching his name into another program quickly brought up his record … clean … except for one small detail. Aaron Goldberg is listed as deceased. In fact, he had passed away 3 years ago.

The Sheriff sat for a moment and went through a myriad of scenarios in his head, but more questions arose than answers. So he exited his patrol car once again to survey the area to see if there was something he had missed. Laying his hand on the hood revealed a tad of warmth, so it had been sitting here for at least an hour or two. No other tire marks were found, so no possibility of another car to take the occupants of the Pontiac away, nor a tow truck to offer assistance. Looking at the ground around the car he saw no signs of a struggle … but he did notice two distinct sets of footprints in the soft dirt of the shoulder next to the car. He knelt down and shined his flashlight at the ground and saw that they led up the road.

Sheriff Ellis went back to his patrol car and started up the road. Bright lights on and his spotlight scanning both shoulders, he searched for any signs of life on the roadway. But he observed nothing but the illuminated tree line and the empty fields of tall grass slowly pass by as he rolled gently down the roadway. His slow pace allowed a gentle breeze to enter through the open window, and the sound of small rocks pressed under his tires sang back-up to the choir of noisy crickets.

Then something caught his eye. Along the right shoulder he saw it … the decrepit wooden frame and dilapidated gate.

“Why does this not seem familiar … ?” he thought to himself. As many times over his career as he had driven down this road, he could not recall seeing this relic ever before. Baffled, he pulled to the shoulder and turned off the car, but left his lights on. He exited the vehicle and scanned the soft shoulder with his flashlight, instantly recognizing the same set of footprints that he viewed next to the abandoned Pontiac. The prints stopped at the gate, and appeared to enter into the field.

He reached inside the patrol car and aimed his spotlight into the darkness along the right side of the road. A thick tree line set back from the shoulder revealed nothing but a maze of tall trees, fallen branches and overgrown vegetation. He stopped for a moment to think about who owned this parcel, but at the moment he was a little unsure of how far he had traveled up the road and nothing he was seeing looked familiar to him.

He knew there was only one way to find out ... so he started to walk from the shoulder into the tall grass and towards the tree line, being careful to walk around the gate and wooden frame.

III

Greg and John continued their trek, walking through the obstacle course of woods for over 30 minutes. John stayed a few paces back from Greg, but would not let him out of his sight despite the blackness. The eerie silence was interrupted only by the sound of their own breathing, which grew heavier as their journey progressed.

“We have to go back, we’re obviously los …” John was interrupted mid-sentence by lifting his head and viewing a clearing that suddenly appeared directly ahead of them. The moonlight revealed an almost circular formation seemingly carved out of the otherwise heavily wooded area, with a small badly-worn farm house and large oak tree positioned in the center.

The two men stopped simultaneously in their tracks, and just stood for a moment and stared at the structure. Rotten wood, broken windows and holes in the roof told a story of abandonment and decay … but Greg murmured “it looks the same …”

They walked past the gnarled oak, its barren branches pointing like fingers to guide the way. A frayed rope swung gently from one of the lower branches ... like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, almost hypnotic in its rhythm. The two carefully navigated the decrepit steps onto the porch, the sound of creaking and popping wood beneath their feet marking their progress. The screen door hung wide open, tilted and hanging by seemingly one or two threads of an old screw. The front door was slightly ajar, so Greg pushed it open … and then waited.

The smell of mildew and decay rushed over them, as swirling clouds of dust escaped the interior of the home. Greg stepped inside, looking at the antique staircase that lie ahead and to the right. He walked with purpose, glancing into the front room to his left as he continued on past the stairs. John reluctantly entered after a moment or two. He looked into the front room to his left where now only the remnant fibers of an old area rug remained. Plaster hung in strips from the walls and there were patches that were torn open down to the studs. He turned around and went to the right, passing through the dining room where one lone wooden chair now lies on its side. He entered the kitchen where again weathered walls and barren dilapidated cupboards told a haunting story. Shreds of fabric danced on the window sill as the remaining shards of broken glass held back little of the night air.

“Greg?” John called out. No reply.

He stood for a moment, the whispers of the wind speaking to him. And then, he heard a low thump from the rear of the house.

John walked back to the front of the house, and proceeded to continue past the stairs. At the end of the narrow hallway was a door, slightly ajar, with a flicker of light shining through the opening.

“Greg?”

He approached the door and put out his hand … his fingertips touched the wood and he stopped, weighing the consequences of his next actions. After a moment he very methodically pushed the door open. Immediately the smell of burning wax filled the air. The tattered bedroom revealed a desk to the right, under a broken window allowing thin beams of moonlight into the room. As the door slowly opened wider, the rays of moonlight fell upon a lit candle on the floor. Adjacent to the candle was Greg’s duffel bag, what appeared to be remnants of clothing, a wallet, books and a pair of old tennis shoes … all laid in a circle on the floor in the middle of the room.

As the door opened fully, a figure came into focus in the darkened left rear corner of the room. It was standing there, facing the wall, head hung downward with its arms stretched straight out above its head, palms against the wall.

“Greg? What the … “

The figure began murmuring. John could not make out what was being said, or even the language it was being spoken in. It sounded almost like long sentences that all ran together … not a prayer, but almost a speech of sorts. The voice was monotone, with no feeling or expression, and at a range that made it nearly impossible to interpret. John stood and listened, intent on deciphering the message. But after a few fleeting moments he became frustrated and cried out “Greg! Knock this **** off!”

The figure stopped speaking. And then, in a voice John did not recognize, it said quite clearly “ … YOU … “

John’s hands began to fidget and his eyes squinted in the darkness. He nervously looked around him and then back at the figure.

“I am getting out of here right now …”

The figure spoke again “ … YOU … KILLED … “

John became excited and spoke out “Oh no … I didn’t even want to be here that night. You guys made me come. I was drunk … and I can’t even remember what the hell even happened …”

John noticed the fingers of the figure begin to curl and almost embed into the soft decaying plaster of the walls. And it slowly raised its head ....

“ … YOU … KILLED …... ME!”

Suddenly, the flickering light of the candle revealed a mere glimpse of the black figure springing from the wall towards John. Before he had time to react or even open his mouth to scream, it pounced on him, and the two landed on the floor.

IV

Sheriff Ellis navigated the desolation of the woods while his mind raced. Who was he searching for … a victim or a villain? Was he there to help or to apprehend? Entranced by the thoughts spinning inside his head, he had completely lost track of how long he had been walking or how far he had traveled. The thickness of the woods in this area left him disoriented, and it puzzled him that he could not remember ever being in this section of the township. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath, and he gazed up into the trees. Taking in deeper breaths, he closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts.

He opened his eyes and squinting slightly he noticed the moonlight seemed a bit brighter in the area just a few yards ahead of him. Moving forward with a new purpose, he quickly came upon the clearing with the worn farmhouse and large oak tree. He struggled to recognize this seemingly long-abandoned residence, and just how this entire parcel could seem so alien to him.

He walked past the oak, and approached one of the broken windows … peering inside. The interior looked more worn than the exterior, and the tattered walls echoed memories of lives long past. Shining his flashlight inside offered no hint of activity, nor any clue as to what or who led him there. He circled the perimeter of the dwelling and found nothing out of the ordinary, so he approached the porch and carefully navigated the weathered steps.

As the wood crackled beneath his feet, he reached the front door. The screen door hung lazily open, and the solid front door was unlatched and open just a crack. He gently pushed it open, stood there for a few moments, and just listened ….

“Hello?” he announced out loud … “it’s Sheriff Ellis …”

No reply.

Stepping inside, the stillness was off putting. His eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the darkness, and using his flashlight only seemed to make it worse. He gently shuffled inside just a few steps and struggled to focus. The front room to his left was barren and cold, with only wisps of moonlight peeking through the front window. Turning around, he shone his flashlight on the floor … no sign of footprints on the dusty floor other than his own. He walked past the stairs and entered the dining room and the kitchen, only to find more of the same remnants of a long forlorn residence. No one had been here in a very long time.

To complete his investigation, he headed for the stairs. He stood at the base and shined his light upwards, examining the integrity of the steps and landing. Although marginal at best, he knew that having come this far, he had to satisfy his curiosity. He gingerly traversed each plank individually, making sure they would not crumble under his weight. One hand on the bannister, the other holding his torch, he moved onward and upward.

Reaching about the sixth step, a low thud coming from a room below stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Hello?” he spun around and peered downward into the darkness below.

“It’s Sheriff Ellis … is someone there?”

No reply.

As his pupils dilated, he thought he caught a glimpse of a flicker of light. He shut off his flashlight and peered downward towards the room at the end of the hall next to the stairs that he had not inspected yet. The door was open just a sliver, but he stared at it long enough to again see small flecks of light … as if coming from a candle … from inside the room behind the door. He moved to the edge of the staircase and leaned on the handrail to peer over the side and attempt to take a closer look.

In the blink of an eye, the handrail gave way. Sheriff Ellis’ weight quickly sent him tumbling over the side. He frantically grasped at the railing as it merely fell along with him, and he dropped eight feet to the floor below.

V

Sheriff Ellis awoke to the sun shining and the birds singing. The bright light stung his eyes as he struggled to open his lids, and the pain in his head suddenly became very real. Once conscious again, he regained his composure and found himself sitting on the ground, leaning up against the outside wall of the house ... just beside the front porch and across from the oak tree. He winced as he began to look around, holding his head with one hand and feeling a large bump just above his temple. He pulled his legs in under him and tried to stand, but his equilibrium was still off and he rolled back onto the ground, arms and legs spread out in disgust.

“You might want to take it easy for a bit … that’s a pretty nasty bump you got there …” a voice stated.

The Sheriff struggled for a moment and managed to get to his knees. He looked up and saw a young man in his early 20’s standing on the porch.

“Yeah … thanks. How … how did I …”

“I found you on the floor when I got here this morning. Looks like the stairs collapsed and took you with them. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to get you outside … I figured the fresh air might do you some good …” the young man explained.

“Yeah … I kinda remember trying to go upstairs … and then … everything is kinda fuzzy …” Sheriff struggled to recall.

“Sorry, I don’t have any ice for that bump. Nothing in this place works … hasn’t for years I’m guessing. Everything is just … falling apart …”

Sheriff Ellis awkwardly rose to his feet and began to survey the man. Clean cut, well groomed, generically dressed … he looked like a college student.

“Thanks for the help …” he said as he held the side of his head, wincing from the pain. “Guess I’m lucky that you were here this morning. But … just why ARE you here this morning?”

“The new owners bought the property at auction. Didn’t even know there was a house on it until the surveyors came through. Since I’m familiar with it, they sent me out to take a look and see if any of it can be saved …” he turns and looks back inside the house “ … but I don’t think anything in this house can be saved. It’s too late for that …”

Sheriff Ellis nods his head and agrees “Yeah … I think you’re right. Well, I think I better get back to my car and go get myself checked out by the doctor. Thanks again for the assistance.”

“My pleasure” the young man says … “you take care now …”

The Sheriff turns to walk away, and stops and turns back around.

“By the way … I’m Sheriff Ellis”

“Nice to meet you Sheriff. I’m Aaron … Aaron Goldberg …”


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