“Just start at the beginning and tell us what you can remember,” Detective Baxter said, placing a cup of water in front of me. “I know you’ve been through a lot, Liberty, but we need to know.”
“I’ll try,” I said, my hand shaking as I took a sip and took a deep breath.
Graham and Keagan walked ahead of me down the gravel path that led to the back gate of Watler Manor. The maple and birch trees caught the sun and filtered it to leave us in the pleasant shade on such a hot summer day. I can remember the birds flitting between them, chirping and singing. It seemed like a great day to be out there, to be honest.
“Hurry up, Liberty!” Graham called back. He was wearing his favorite basketball shorts and a tank top.
Keagan turned and walked backward. “Quit being such a slowpoke,” he teased.
“Sorry, guys,” I replied as I jogged to catch up.
We reached the gate about ten minutes later. It was wrought-iron. The chain on the gate had rusted out completely, leaving the spike-topped fence open to us. It took a fair amount of pushing and pulling to free the hinges, but it opened enough for us to get through.
We continued down the path for another few minutes, and couldn’t see the house until we came around the bend by the old fountain. I remember it looking disgusting. It was covered in vines, and the water in it was a sickly green color with some kind of green algae growing in it.
“Check it out!” Keagan said, pointing down the path. “This place is insane!”
The manor sat in a sad state of repair. Many of the windows had been broken, and rose vines had grown in between the brick, stretching into some of the windows. The only part of the building that showed any sign that someone had been there more recently than fifty years ago was the plywood mounted over the front door with the ‘no trespassing’ sign nailed to it.
“Wanna go in, Graham?” Keagan asked, running up to one of the windows next to the door that hadn’t been broken. “I bet it’s awesome inside.”
“I don’t know, man,” Graham replied. “It’s creepy enough out here. I don’t think it’s a great idea to go inside. At least not with Liberty.”
“Why not with me?” I protested. “Is it because I’m a girl? I can’t handle an old house or something? Do you think I’ll get scared because the house was abandoned?”
“No, it’s not that-”
“Let’s go,” I said, picking up a rock. I threw it at the window.
I remember the glass breaking. It shattered as you’d expect, but there was something weird about it. It was like the house had been pressurized. The glass didn’t fall inward. The rock went inside, but the glass all fell outward. I didn’t really think about it at the moment. I was too angry.
“Shit, Graham, you’re in trouble now,” Keagan teased as he grabbed a stick and knocked out the rest of the glass. He took off his shirt and put it over the sill. “After you, buddy.”
Graham shook his head and took a step back.
“Are you too scared now?” I teased. I shouldn’t have pushed him. We should have left. Instead, I walked forward and crawled through.
“Liberty, we shouldn’t-” Graham had called after me.
Keagan was right behind me through the window. He stood up and looked outside. “Come on, Graham! You’ll regret it if you don’t, I swear it!” he said.
“Fine,” Graham grumbled as he came through.
We were standing in the atrium now. The marble tiles of the floor made a beautiful mosaic under the leaves and weeds that were beginning to reclaim the space. The walls were water damaged, peeling, and cracking. There was an odd smell in the air, almost sulfurous. I had assumed it was the plaster rotting.
“Do you want to take a break?” Detective Baxter asked.
“Not yet,” I said, taking another sip of water. “I can keep going.”
“Alright,” he said with a nod. “Let me know if you do.”
We explored the first and second floor over the next couple of hours. We found all sorts of cool things in there. One of the bedrooms still had old makeup on the vanity. The office on the first floor had a huge desk sitting in the middle of it, and books on all the shelves.
“It looks like it was abandoned,” Keagan said. “Why would they leave all their stuff behind?”
“Maybe they went someplace else, and something happened to them?” I suggested.
“Something did happen to them,” Keagan said, a wicked smile spreading on his face, “but it wasn’t anywhere else. It was here. You guys haven’t heard the legends about this place? Seriously?”
“No,” Graham said as I shook my head.
“They say that Lord Watler made deals with the devil. All the local stories say that he was here with his wife and their seven kids-”
“Seven? Holy shit,” Graham said.
“They used to have more back in the day,” Keagan said, “but yeah. So the nine of them were here, and one night Lord Watler sent all the servants away. They said that he didn’t look right in the eyes. Like he had gone crazy or something. When no one heard from him in two weeks, their butler came back to check on them, and the house was totally empty. Everyone had vanished.”
“Stop,” Graham said, “that’s not what happened. Tell the truth.”
“Seriously, man. I’m not lying. You can look it up at the library. The crazy part, though, isn’t the missing family. It’s the butler. He said that when he was looking through the house, he heard scratching in the walls and a scream from the cellar. When he went down to the cellar, one of the walls just wasn’t there, and instead, a fiery vortex spun where it had been.”
“Bullshit,” I said.
“You wanna go check out the basement?” Keagan said, motioning toward the kitchen.
“Someone would have found a swirling ‘fiery vortex,'” I said, making air quotes.
“I know! He went to get help, and when the cops got here, they searched everywhere and didn’t find anything. The butler lost his mind after that and spent the rest of his life in an asylum,” Keagan said.
“Let’s go look in the cellar,” I said, feeling my heart beginning to race from the excitement.
Keagan led the way, and I followed. Graham followed close behind. He kept whispering something. I can’t remember what it was, but it started over every now and then. I think it was one of those religious rites or something from his church.
When we opened the cellar door in the kitchen, there wasn’t much for light downstairs, but Keagan pulled out his phone and used it for a flashlight. We stayed in the same order down the stairs into the cold damp of the cellar.
“There’s nothing down here,” Keagan said after making a loop around the stairs.
The room wasn’t very big—maybe fifteen by twenty. There were empty wine racks on the wall to the left, and there was a little water on the floor that had clearly been making its way inside for awhile.
“It feels so nice down here!” I said, putting out my arms to soak up the cold air.
“Which wall do you think it was?” Keagan asked. “Graham, you’re awfully quiet. You okay, bud?”
“I just don’t want to be here,” he replied, crossing his arms as he shivered. “I think we should go.”
“We’ll go soon, okay? Let’s just check out a couple more rooms,” I said, grabbing Graham’s arm. His skin was like ice, which surprised me. He was pale and sweating. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t feel so good,” Graham replied.
“Guys, what’s this?” I heard Keagan say behind me. I didn’t see what he was talking about, but I saw Graham’s reaction. His eyes went wide, and his mouth opened in a silent scream. I’ve never seen that face on anyone before.
“Maybe we should take a break for a bit,” Detective Baxter said, pressing pause on the tape recorder. “You look exhausted. How about getting some food, and we can pick up in an hour or so?”
I nodded. “Yeah, thanks.”
Detective Baxter got up and left the office, closing the door behind him. I turned and watched him walk through the police station. He stopped at one of the other desks and talked to a woman for a minute. She nodded, he said something else, then left.
The woman turned to look at me, and I spun around in my seat, wrapping the blanket over my shoulders tighter around me. I still felt cold. Though it had been nearly six hours since I had left. Images of the inside of the house filled my mind, and I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.