Anna saved my life. As a child, I was prone to bouts of extreme depression. Throughout high school, and afterwards in college, I dipped down into that dark place more and more often, but I managed to hide it from everyone else. After graduation, I stepped into the world of business, and found that I was good at it; that was my curse. Overworked by those above me and sabotaged by those who competed with me for promotions, I soldiered through it for six years before finally breaking. I came close to quitting my job, drank myself into oblivion, and put a gun to my head more times than I could count. One afternoon, my boss ordered me to take a vacation. I saw it as an exile. I was being banished so the rest of humanity could go unbothered while I destroyed myself. I obediently removed myself from the world, and that is where I met Anna.
It was a starless night, and I stood on a bridge, leaning against the railing as I stared down into the thundering darkness of the rushing current, wondering if it would hurt when the water flooded my lungs.
“You don’t want to do that.”
The voice, accompanied by a cool touch on my shoulder, startled me out of my morbid musings. I spun to face a woman with dark wavy hair and a keen glimmer in her eyes that shone in spite of the lightless evening.
“It’s all rusted away here,” she added, pointing to the corroded metal of the railing as it swayed precariously under my weight. “It could collapse. That wouldn’t be a nice way to go.”
We became friends after that—my first true friend, one who did not obsess over my depressive inclinations or tread cautiously around me for fear of triggering a suicidal episode. For the first time, here was a person that genuinely fascinated me; no detail was too mundane to capture my interest. She loved moonlit walks, hated Italian food, and was fearless in the face of things that would have made other women squeamish. But most of all, she took a great fascination in even the most ordinary facets of life. It was this trait above all others that turned me around, gave me a new perspective, and cast some light into the dark cave my mind had devolved into. For the first time in years, I was happy. From that point on, I knew there could never be another person more perfect for me than Anna, and so we were married.
We had chosen a remote location for our honeymoon destination, a country resort renowned for is autumn foliage. I had been rigorous in my research of the place, seeking out customer reviews wherever I could find them. In all my searching, the only negative remarks to be said about the place were that it was “difficult to get to”, and that the directions on its website “could be clearer”.
Two hours after we should have been there, I realized how true those statements were.
We found ourselves on a narrow, ill-maintained road that weaved its way through a vast tract of forest, up steep slopes and down again into shaded ravines. Although the drive was treacherous with its undulating hills and sudden hairpin turns, it was my gas meter that troubled me the most; the needle hovered precariously over “E”.
Anna sat muttering beside me, poring over a wrinkled map as she tried to find someplace where we might fill up. “It’s no use,” she said at last. “There’s nothing on here for miles.”
The car dipped suddenly, and I put on the brakes to control our descent as we crested the steepest hill yet. We plunged down, the shadows deepening with each passing second. Once I thought it could not get any darker, and that I would have to switch on the headlights, we burst suddenly from the woods onto a narrow stretch of farmland, and immediately before us rose a strange shamble of a town.
Small homes, their roofs caved in from decades of rot, struggled to remain upright. Crooked streets, overgrown with weeds, ran between rows of boarded up shops. All color had been drained from the place, leeched away perhaps by the encroaching forest that wore fiery shades of scarlet and gold. Occasionally, the crisp wind would snatch a few leaves and scatter them in the empty streets, and there they would quiver under the dark accusing gaze of the buildings whose color they had stolen, darting back and forth through the village, trying to escape the looming stares of the shuttered windows until they were at last trampled under our tires or blown back to the safety of the trees.
Against this backdrop of utter abandonment, a small handful of men worked in the surrounding fields, and I could only surmise that they actually lived in this dreary place. In spite of my surprise, it was a relief to finally stumble across civilization, as primitive as it may have been. There had to be a gas station here—the needle on our dashboard now pointed stubbornly at “E”—and after I had filled the tank, I could ask one of the town’s residents for directions.
Our plan thus decided, I slowed to a stop in front of one of the homes—little more than a shack, really—where an older woman sat, rocking herself slowly as she stared into the sunset.
“Excuse me,” I called, “could you tell me where we are?”
The woman, who until then had almost seemed deliberate in her attempts to ignore our car now stared at us with the most curious expression, and after an awkward moment answered “Hallowdale.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Anna look back to her map muttering, “There’s no ‘Hallowdale’ here…”
To the old woman, I asked “And could you tell us where the gas station is?”
The woman shook her head. “‘Sno gas station here.”
My heart sank into a cold pit at the bottom of my stomach. “We need to fill up,” I explained, hoping maybe she knew of a station further down the road. “We’ve been running on empty for a while, now.”
“‘Sno gas station for miles. Don’ need ‘em ‘round here.”
None at all? It then struck me that I had not seen a single car aside from our own, and that the men who still toiled in the fields were all using hand tools. “What about a phone?” I asked. “Could we use yours?”
Her answer, somehow, did not surprise me. “No phones, neither.”
“What should we do?” whispered Anna. I did not answer, but sat there behind the wheel, wracking my brain for a solution that refused to come.
“You’re in a right pickle, aren’t you?” said the woman on the porch. “Once a week, there’s a truck comes through town bringin’ stuff like medicine and such as we can’t grow here. Could probably give you a lift wherever you need to get.”
At this my spirits lifted. “When does it come?”
“Came yesterday.” My hopes fell again, and the woman went on, “You want, you could stay here till it comes again. Got a spare room, e’er since my daughter…well, never mind that. Point is, it’s one of the few places left in town suitable enough. Most everywhere else’s left to rot.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Anna piped up suddenly. “We wouldn’t want to trouble you.” She waved goodbye to the woman and urged me to drive away.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
“It’s our honeymoon,” Anna replied. I don’t care if we have to sleep in an abandoned barn, I’m not spending my wedding night with a stranger.”
It was easy to tell which buildings were still used as homes, marked as they were by a noticeably better state of care then the surrounding ruins. Here and there, we encountered a few scattered residents. As our car rumbled past them, bouncing along the uneven streets, they paused to regard us with emotionless expressions, some shaking their heads slowly before returning to their menial tasks.
Anna suddenly cried out, “There! Look there!”
At the end of a crooked dirt road, set apart from the rest of Hallowdale by a grassy slope, sat a dilapidated manor that watched over the abandoned village like a weathered sentinel. This grand estate seemed to have taken the brunt of the elements, exposed as it was on its elevated perch. Shutters hung at odd angles, flapping lethargically in the breeze; shingles lay on the unkempt grass, leaving bare spots on the roof; porch railings were snapped. Yet in spite of its advanced state of decay, the house still reared itself on the hilltop with a sense of grandeur.
“That’s where we’ll stay,” my wife declared.
I steered the car up the bumpy path and parked it in front of the sagging veranda. “Are you sure?” I asked skeptically. “What if someone lives there?”
“Nonsense,” laughed Anna. “Can’t you tell just by looking at it?”
Indeed, it bore the marks of neglect, but even more than that…
Before I could stop her, Anna had leapt from the car, tried the front door, and, finding it unlocked, disappeared inside. I got out and stood on the uncut lawn, shifting my weight back and forth, unsure if I should follow, and it was then that I noticed someone climbing the hill after us.
“Hello,” I said when the man was close enough.
He nodded curtly. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“My wife and I,” I explained, put off by his rough greeting, “we’re on our honeymoon—”
“And you wanted to come here?” he interrupted incredulously.
“Well, no,” I answered, not trying to hide my annoyance at his interruption. “Our car ran out of gas, and we need a place to stay until the…uh…the truck comes.”
“Oh…” said the man pensively, a troubled look crossing his face.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. “This house doesn’t belong to anyone, does it?”
“Naw, nobody owns that place, but why not stay back down with one of us?”
“It’s our honeymoon,” I replied. “We’d prefer some isolation.” I moved to follow Anna inside, hoping the man would take the hint.
“Well,” he answered, “you’ll find plenty of that here.”
Not enough, apparently, I thought as I turned my back on my unwanted companion.
“Listen,” he called after me. “I know we may seem a little gruff, but if you need anything—” He pointed down the hill towards the grayness of Hallowdale. “—We all live down there, all thirteen of us.”
“Thank you,” I replied without turning, and I went to join my wife.
“This place is perfectly run down,” she announced when I closed the door behind me. “Dirty, but I think we can make it livable for a week.”
The room we stood in—a parlor, by the looks of it—was heavy with dust, pungent with the smell of rotting wood, and dark save for the small light allowed by the moth-eaten drapery. A single lonely sunbeam flitted across the dim expanse to illuminate a blackened fireplace that, judging by the gossamer network of ash-coated cobwebs, could not have seen the glow of a flame in years.
“It must have been a mayor’s mansion, years ago,” Anna went on. “There’s a library down the hall and a small ballroom in the back. The chandelier in the dining room must have been gorgeous back in the day, all lit with candles. I must say, given how long it’s been abandoned, everything is in a much better condition than I expected. The doors shut nicely, none of the windows are broken, and the floors seem stable enough.”
“What are the bedrooms like?” I asked.
“I haven’t looked upstairs yet. Oh, but you should see in the hallway!” She led me out into a corridor lined with peeling wallpaper and a series of faded oil paintings. “These must have been the mayor and his family.”
A proud, dark-haired man with bony features led the parade of portraits, followed by a frail woman with blonde curls and rosy cheeks. Next was a blank patch, faded at the edges to prove that something had once hung there. Finally, there was an infant—clearly her mother’s progeny.
“I wonder what happened to the middle portrait,” I said as we climbed the groaning stairs to the second floor.
“Damaged, perhaps,” suggested Anna.
Most of the second story was sealed off by a door. “It’s locked,” Anna muttered as she tried the handle. “Strange.”
“Maybe I could break it down,” I offered. “It can’t be too strong in a house this old.” I went to place my hand on the wood to test it, but stopped myself mere inches away. What was that? I had a brief foreboding, like I would burst through that door and find…something—I could not come up with a name for it—waiting on the other side. The entire sensation manifested itself as an unsettling knot in my belly, and I slowly drew my hand away from the wood.
“No,” said Anna. “There’s another staircase here. Maybe there are more bedrooms up there.”
Leaving the locked door and its secrets, we kept climbing. The staircase to the third story was narrower, clearly only ever meant for servants, and the short hallway at the top was devoid of even a scrap of décor. “This should do,” Anna said, peeking into one of the rooms. She entered and sat down on the rickety-looking bed, bouncing slightly to test its strength. “Yes,” she confirmed, “this will do just fine. And we even have a perfect view of the town!”
A lonely window peered down the hill at the grey clustered buildings of Hallowdale. Our mansion stood between the village and the setting sun, casting the entire scene in dark shadow.
“At least we’ll wake to a gorgeous sunrise each morning,” Anna said.
While she began rummaging about the house, arranging things to be as comfortable as possible, I went outside to retrieve our luggage. With the imposing hills raising their forested heads all around, darkness fell over Hallowdale quicker than I would have expected, and with the dusk came a chill. I had experienced many nightfalls, and had felt the damp of the evening dew on my clothes many times, but this was different. I shivered as I watched the town being slowly consumed by the darkness, as I felt myself being swallowed up with it. Snap out of it! Tearing my gaze from the deepening shadows, I hurried back inside.