The railroad track was as rusty as a ’58 Ford. I stood up on it, outstretching my arms and trying to keep my balance as I walked forwards. It wasn’t easy, and I often fell. But it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. Although it was July, there were a lot of clouds in the Tennessee sky. The day had been overcast and windy. Being the height of the summer, though, it was still warm.
I walked around a bend in the tracks, and forward on a straightaway for a mile. My dad told me that I shouldn’t go any further than the next bend I could see far ahead of me. I told him that since I was in high school, I should explore the world more.
To my side, I saw some young forest. The color of it was a light moss green. Every other day I’d explored the area, it was in that young forest close to the house. It wasn’t the most interesting place, though. There had been a forest fire in the area twenty years ago, so there wasn’t much to see around there.
On the right side, there were the ruins of an old church house from the eighteen-hundreds. It had been burned down from a fire. The rubble was a blackened char. When I had looked through it before, I hadn’t seen much in it. Only one object was really interesting- a trapdoor to the basement, which was still in one piece. It was right outside the rubble, still partially covered-up. I still wanted to go down there, but something was stopping me. A hesitancy, and there wasn’t really a good reason for it. What could there be in there but a few old books or church pews? Not much.
Just thinking about the building got me a bit of an adrenaline rush. My eyes widened. I took a step off the old railroad steel. I made the decision to walk over to it. Maybe not to go in the basement, but just look around the other parts of the ruins.
I pushed aside the overgrown wheat and thistle plants and walked onto the thick field where the church had burned down. Bushes and trees were starting to engulf the remains of the building. Being in the area made me feel like I was trespassing. Not that anyone owned the land to get me in trouble. It just felt like a bad place to hang around. A heavy atmosphere pervaded the whole area.
Being close to the charred ruins, I searched for the small black iron handle that I knew would lead underground. I carefully walked along the precarious planks and shifting ash piles, trying my best to find the trapdoor.
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a quick movement in the trees bordering the field. I dismissed the sight as my imagination, but it made me more uneasy. After a minute, I didn’t feel inclined to look anymore.
When I was about to stop and walk over to somewhere else, a sight caught my eye. As if a magician had revealed it, I saw the trapdoor right in front of my face. It was in a spot which I suspected had a pile of ash on it a minute before.
Taking a deep breath, I went on my knees and pulled the handle towards me. It moved a half-inch, and then suddenly stopped. There was a plank of wood obstructing the edge of the trap. I grunted and moved it aside, freeing the door. For a minute, I pondered whether it was really a good idea to explore something I obviously shouldn’t. My curiosity held out, though.
I opened the trapdoor slowly, looking inside rather reluctantly. The sunlight illuminated a ten-foot descent into the basement of the old Baptist church. A rickety, ancient ladder went down to the floor. I turned backwards and put my feet on it, feeling a little bit of give. I hoped the wood would hold out.
The insides of the basement were dark, compared to the entrance where the ladder was. The passageway was not wide, but it stretched on as far as I could see. Through the shadows, I could vaguely make out some bookshelves and rubble on the floor. The only thing that distressed me was the lack of any sort of flooring. Under my feet was nothing but rooty, dry dirt.
I pulled a Zippo out of my pocket. Maybe my parents didn’t want me to carry one around, but it was a lifesaver at times. The flickering light illuminated the dirty, white walls of the basement. The paint peeled off here and there, exposing the wood underneath.
As I walked foot by foot through the basement passageway, I saw the light flickering off the far wall. I could see the end of the passage. I closed the lighter for a second, so it wouldn’t burn out. There were two steps right before the end of the basement, and on top of them was an old desk with all manner of books haphazardly piled on it.
I relit my Zippo and walked over to the desk. It was in perfect condition, unlike the floor and walls of the basement. My stomach turned over as I looked through some of the old books. The newest ones were from the 1940’s. I flipped through the aromatic pages, looking over the paragraphs quickly. The older books were from the 1920’s or even the 1800’s.
One thing stuck out, which was a newer-looking journal. It looked like it was from the around the same time as the church had burned down. The book had been unceremoniously dumped beside the desk. The name written on it was Wendy Vernoff. I opened it and found the last few entries.
March 27, 1947:
Discussed the Monday study group idea with Preacher Jacobs. I recommended reading Psalms, but he insisted on Revelations. Looking forward to heading the group. Mrs. Watkins will be a handful, but hopefully she won’t try anything too crazy. I would hate to dismiss her from the group.
March 28, 1947:
Heard the unfortunate news that Mr. Walker disappeared. His wife says that he’s been gone ever since March 24. The whole neighborhood’s out looking for him, and I suppose I should join the search teams, too. I have a bad feeling in my gut about this. Mr. Walker never was particularly sane. I remember him shouting some gibberish at the top of his lungs during Mass more than once. Lord, please bring him back safe.
At the end of the entry, there was a small scribble. I wondered what it was from, and put the book back down on the desk. I felt nervous. It wasn’t easy to tell why. All that stuff had happened such a long time ago. It didn’t have anything to do with me.
Back at the other end of the room, the ladder was still there. I decided I’d had enough of the rubble, so I put my hands on the ladder and tried to climb up it. It groaned unhappily. Hopefully, it would hold out. I took a step upwards, trying to put my weight as close to the edge of the ladder as possible. Slowly but surely, I got to the top.
As I stood above the church, the afternoon light blinded me. I walked away from the ruins, not sure where to go next. As I went across the field, I felt anxious about what I’d found in the basement. Had the mystery ever been solved? Why had the church burned down in the first place? Nobody had ever told me. I wondered if anybody in the area even knew.
Something drew me towards the forest further down the railroad tracks. I had never gone back there before. Over there, the woods were old and virgin, unlike the new growth I was used to exploring.
I went back on the railroad tracks and tried to balance on them while walking quickly. To me, it was the best way to travel. Except for maybe a railroad handcar. That would be quicker. I kept going until the track curved towards the right. In this area of the forest, I was far from civilization.
I kept thinking of the journal, and hoped the man who’d disappeared didn’t cause the fire. The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. If all the people in the church were looking for the man, then why would it burn down? I considered that maybe someone had started it on fire while it was unattended.
A rather steep drop headed into the right bank of the forest. I ran down it quickly, almost tripping and falling headfirst into the ground. There was an ancient sense of stillness in the air as I started to wander around in the grove of trees. I walked over a mossy hill, finding several shotgun shells lying on the ground. I put one in my pocket. For some reason, I found myself stepping quietly and trying not to make any noise. Faintly, I could hear the sound of running water.
In front of me was a small stream. I had never seen it before. There were all sorts of snails, crayfish, minnows, and frogs in it. I watched the little animals for a while. The minnows swam away speedily, but the crayfish didn’t seem to notice me. I wondered if there were any bass further down the stream.
“Maybe it’ll join up with some more water and there could be a little lake I could fish in,” I mumbled. However, I didn’t have my fishing rod. I took off my shoes and let my feet dangle down into the water. The rushing stream licked my toes.
I realized I had to go to the bathroom, so I got up and made sure no-one was around. After that, I stood in the middle of a small clearing and wondered what to do next. The small saplings swayed melodically in the breeze. Creepers grew under them, making me appreciate the fact that I was wearing jeans.
Something interrupted my sense of ease. I didn’t feel like I should be where I was. A voice in my head told me to go back to the railroad track and head home. I didn’t listen to it.
I walked forwards, deeper into the forest. The trees became taller and older, and my path became darker. Lichens, mosses, and conks grew all over the ancient trees. I wondered if the forest was older than the first settlers in the country. Maybe I was the first white person who had ever seen it, in the first place. After a few more minutes, I was having a hard time even remembering where I was. My stomach began to turn as I saw some strange rusty objects in front of me. They were partially buried by leaves. It was impossible to tell what they were. I saw a bleached bone sticking out of the ground at an unnatural angle.
“What is that?” I thought to myself. “That’s unusual.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small yellow shape sticking out of the pile. I walked towards it and picked it up with my shaking hand. On it was faded ink, long worn out from the rain and sun. Some of the letters had completely disappeared. As I read, my stomach churned like I was about to puke. I felt an increasing sense of alarm and dread.
M rch 2~ 194 :
I’ve h d eno h of ev-ryone treati g me like I m some sort of mut nt freak! Mayb- I d d scream at chu ch. May\e I did k ll the neig\bor s dog. But th is all I’m tak ng! I’m perfo ming the Txaltian Ritu l, and t ey can tell me I’m a ba t rd to my face! Ev n if t takes a hun red years. I h pe t ey find me!
G odbye, Vinc nt Walker
That was the same man who the woman had written about in her journal. I closed my eyes and tried to resist falling on the ground. I couldn’t place my finger on why I felt so horrible, but I did. When I opened my eyes again, I saw the end of a thick brown rope dangling off a big oak in front of me. I squinted and tried to take my eyes off it. Curiosity got the best of me, though. Hesitantly, I looked up higher in the branches. There was a dark, hum-shaped shape directly above my head. I gasped.
Right in front of my nose was a decaying, bloody face. A gruesome, toothy smile stretched across his grey, cracked face. His red eye sockets stared at me emotionlessly. Around his broken neck was an old manila rope. He was dressed in faded, wartime clothes. I fell backwards, unable to take my eyes off the hanged man. I felt like about to have a heart attack. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? Was his mouth really moving? Did he actually say something? I heard a raspy, ancient voice.
Make them come.
His black tongue flopped around in his mouth, trying to make words.
His hand started to twitch violently. It began to shake furiously. I was paralyzed with fear. I heard a bloodcurdling scream. The man’s mouth opened hellishly wide. The air was shattered like glass by the sound. I closed my eyes tightly, never intending to open them again.