T-14 is a country blacktop that winds its way north out of my hometown. Sliding out past the vet clinic, Andrew and I were on a mission. It was the height of the Myspace.com craze, Facebook still a social media network only open to those with college based email addresses, and we were hell bent on creating a memorable album of photographs.
It was early fall, sometime within those perfect two weeks at the beginning of the season where the leaves have been set ablaze without yet falling from the trees. We had carefully selected the right sweatshirts, checked to make sure our hair was adequately messy, and plucked a couple of extra AA batteries to ensure the point-and-shoot camera wouldn’t die.
As we descended a hilly curve into the flat bottom of long-plowed under prairie that held the North Skunk River we kept out a keen eye for locations that might be ideal for pictures. The bridge over the river looked prime, and I banked the Jeep onto the gravel shoulder of the road. We disembarked, our canvas tennis shoes crunching on top of the crushed limestone shoulder of the highway. The water beneath the bridge was slowly gurgling by, and we snapped a couple of images a piece before a tractor-trailer came barreling down the hill to force us off the bridge.
Back in the car, I queued up some tunes on the violet jog-proof diskman before pulling back out on to the highway. We drove a while without any new spots jumping out as locations that would help to improve our stash of profile pictures in order to catapult us into the top eight of some nonexistent female admirers.
Eventually we arrived at the Sully Blacktop, veering right from T-14 without slowing down. About a quarter mile down the road there was a steep gravel driveway leading behind what appeared to be an abandoned farmstead. We blew by, but it stuck out as as good of a spot as any so we turned around. Up the steep grade the tires climbed, overgrown weeds pushing against the bottom of the Jeep.
I pulled well into the yard, parking the Jeep in front of the barn, headlights illuminating a well worn door partially covered by iconic red paint. I turned off the headlights, pulled the keys from the ignition, and pocketed them after manually locking the door. As I walked around toward the front of the house I turned, checking to make sure that the Jeep wasn’t clearly visible from the road in the rapidly fading twilight.
“Don’t worry about it, man,” implored Andrew as we snapped a few initial shots of the outside of the house, the barn, the weathervane.
“Alright, I just don’t want to run into any trouble out here,” I replied.
“Stop being so paranoid,” he said. “We aren’t really doing anything wrong anyway.”
We came around the front of the little white two story house, ambling up rickety half-sunk stairs and through the front door frame. The door itself was in the middle of the living room, clearly knocked in by some other kids who had left the remnants of a case of Busch Light scattered around the room. We each took a few more shots, and I took the lead moving over the creaky floors and into the dining room.
Looking up I noticed that a substantial portion of the ceiling was gone, leaving an opening to the second level. Most of the debris had been pushed to the side, another indicator that we weren’t the only people who frequented this place. Suddenly, we both froze at the sound of a rustling in the weeds outside of the jagged shards which composed the dining room window.
“Probably just a stray cat or something,” I said as I strode into the kitchen.
“Or a ghost,” mused Andrew softly.
In the kitchen, I opened the ancient iron oven, noticing that there was a healthy reserve of leaves accumulated on the inside. The refrigerator door hung on one hinge, askew in a way that begged to be photographed. After snapping the shot, I turned, internally debating if I wanted to venture to an upstairs that had already partially caved in.
“Might as well,” I whispered, largely to myself, beginning the climb up the windowless staircase.
“Why did you leave your lights on,” asked Andrew, “It would suck to get stuck way out here, especially at a place that is probably haunted.”
I felt for keys in my pocket as I put some weight on my left foot to test the landing halfway up the stairs, hearing Andrew’s camera zoom and flash in the kitchen below.
“I didn’t leave my lights on,” I mumbled, not loud enough to garner a response from below.
“Those stairs any good?” asked Andrew as he bounded up the first few steps before thinking better and gingerly climbing the rest of the way to meet me at the top.
At the top of the stairs were two doorways: one to the right that served as the dining room skylight, one to the left with an intact floor. Cautiously, we stepped into the room to the left. There was debris and graffiti throughout the room. Eerily painted in brush strokes on the south wall were giant block letters urging us to “GET OUT NOW!” A few drips had run down the bottom of each letter, adding to the chilling effect.
“Maybe we should,” said Andrew, smirking as he pointed out the scrawling on the wall.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, straining to listen for the remnants of a whooshing sound I had heard outside.
“It was probably just a truck out on the road,” replied Andrew. “Quit letting this place creep you out, get my picture over by this writing.”
Stepping over a pile of debris, I moved to the west window, briefly illuminating the room with the flash from the small, black square of a digital camera I had purchased with my birthday money that summer. Turning to the window, I looked outside to make sure that I had in fact turned the lights of the Jeep off. There she sat, nose pointing due west away from the house, headlamps dark in that inky early night right after sundown.
Another rustling noise from below, and we both stopped, turned, chills rippling up and down our spines. Goosebumps stood out on my hands, and I suddenly had that empty, haunted feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember being told once about how a chilled feeling will come over you when you inadvertently walk into a ghost, their invisible form temporarily draining the warmth from one’s earthly body and soul.
“That sounded too big to be a cat,” said Andrew, clearly no longer carefree.
“Yeah, I think we should get the hell out of here,” I whispered back.
Gingerly, we picked our way through the debris and down the stairs, moving into a full sprint as soon as we hit the kitchen floor, ambling through cobwebs and down the rickety front steps. Around the house we flew as I fumbled for my keys, inserting them clumsily in the door lock, diving in across the seat to pull the pin to unlock the passenger door. We slammed the doors, I turned over the ignition, and we were back down the hill and headed toward town.
“We scared ourselves pretty good back there,” I mused after a few minutes had gotten us off the Sully Blacktop and back toward the safety of town.
“Speak for yourself,” Andrew replied.
“You were pretty eager for me to get that door unlocked, it looked like to me,” I said, laughing.
“Yeah, I wonder if any of the pictures will turn out,” he said.
We slipped back out of conversation as Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the ‘E”, Cut from the Team,” streamed out of the stereo speakers, both of us getting lost in thought as to what had made those noises back at the house.
“Probabley just a coyote,” I thought as I turned into Andrew’s driveway.
We ambled down to the basement, making a beeline for that old Compaq Presario desktop, hoping we had some quality pics in the cameras that would make all the internet ladies swoon. As Andrew began the slow process of uploding the pictures from the camera I flipped on the television, sinking into the well worn couch, still not convinced that what had chilled us out there was just our imaginations.
“Holy hell,” whispered Andrew in a tone that refreshed the chill in my spinal cord.
I stood, wandering over to lean over his shoulder.
On the screen were two pictures side by side: the first taken in the kitchen by Andrew while I climbed the stairs, the second of the upstairs bedroom. Both images were facing west, but in the first the Jeep was facing the house, headlights ablaze. In the second it was where I parked it, headlights off, facing away from the house.
“Holy hell is right,” I stammered.