“The festival started an hour ago. Without a ride and no money to pay for one, there’s no point of even going,” Vincent said, after swallowing a bite of meat lover’s pizza.
“But it’s still early,” Manny said, trying to convince his friend. “It’s only a forty-minute walk if we take Vinewood straight to Porter. We both know you just don’t want to go because Janice will be there. Don’t worry, you two will get back together like you did last time. Besides, this episode sucks and there’s nothing else to do. It’ll be worth the walk.”
Senior high schoolers Vincent and Manny sat on an old, piece-of-crap, sunken couch in the basement of Vincent’s parents’ home while watching reruns of South Park and munching on Big Tony’s delivery pizza. The evening couldn’t get any worse, especially for Vincent. He’d had a second break up with Janice and knew she’d be at the Ravensgate Pumpkin Festival. Vincent wanted to see her and make amends, but didn’t want to admit it.
“Hey Vince,” Manny continued, “Max is going to be there. You know he’s got a thing for her. Who knows what he might try if you’re not around. Better go just to check things out. It’s not going to look like you’re spying on her; it’s a festival. Plus, I’ll be with you and so will half the town.”
The thought of Max making a move on Janice bounced around in Vincent’s head. It didn’t take long for him to make a decision. The two zipped up their fall jackets and headed for the festival.
Ravensgate was a small town in Michigan. It had one post office, a police station, a small fire station, and a hospital. Elderwood, a large cemetery (overly large cemetery for the town it seemed), bordered the town’s southern limits. A plethora of shops were located downtown on Main Street and plenty of wooded areas surrounded the town.
Both Vincent and Manny’s families had moved there from Detroit five years ago; they were in business together, suppliers to the auto industry, and had moved to Ravensgate after landing a big contract with a company there. But in the last two years, as the economy started slowing, there had been layoffs and both families had fallen on hard times. Suddenly everything was uncertain. For Vincent and Manny, it made simple things like the Pumpkin Festival even more important, as something to look forward to.
The Ravensgate Pumpkin Festival was celebrated the night before Halloween as soon as it got dark. The town’s folk called the thirtieth of October Devil’s Night, as did other places in Michigan. It got started in Detroit, when the fires and vandalism took place on that night every year in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Vince and Manny had heard about it when they were kids growing up, but they came to think of it as a Detroit urban legend, just people using the night as an excuse to go a little nuts.
The festival was held near the northeast end of town, which was adorned with carved pumpkins, dried corn stalks, scarecrows, and Halloween decorations. One could enjoy bonfires, various games, food, and drink. The apple cider and donuts were always the best. There was even a cornfield labyrinth, and if you could make it through, you’d win a prize.
The pair walked down Vinewood Street in the crisp chill of the night air. Since Manny’s car had been stolen in September, he and Vincent had been reduced to bumming rides, paying for ride services, and catching the bus to get around.
“I don’t feel like walking for forty minutes. Let’s take a quick cut through Zephyr Woods to speed things up,” Vincent said, eager to spy on his ex-girlfriend.
“Zephyr is dark as a dungeon,” Manny responded. We might lose our way and end up lost for hours if we cut through there.”
“Do you really want to walk straight down Vinewood? If we go through the woods, we could cut our time in half at least. Let’s take the short cut or I’m going home. I don’t care about Max and Janice,” said Vincent, bluffing. “Come on, it won’t take long.”
“Whatever,” Manny said. “Let’s make it quick.”
Vinewood kept straight but the boys didn’t. They veered off the sidewalk onto a clearing of grass, heading for the solid wall of trees in the distance, which was a good couple of city blocks away. As they got nearer to the edge of Zephyr Woods, the dark, closely spaced trees came into view.
The lights and sounds of the town almost disappeared immediately upon entering the woods, as if they had entered some type of extra-dimensional warp. It took a few minutes, but their eyes finally adjusted to the darkness surrounding them. The forest appeared an obscure and gloomy grey with trees scattered in all directions. The breeze was strong and the hair on the boys’ heads fluttered as the wind made a slight whistling sound.
After a brisk walk, through dried leaves and twigs, a scarcely used trail began to take form through the grass. It was thin and littered with small pebbles and sticks.
“This should take us through to the other side of the woods,” said Vincent. “From there we head to Baymont Road, then get right back on Vinewood and head straight to the festival.”
The forest was silent except for each step they took, which caused twigs to snap along the path. Not even the sound of small scurrying animals could be heard. At times, Manny thought his eyes were playing tricks. He was sure he saw what seemed to be black, dwarf-like figures, silently running from behind tree to tree with near lightning speed. Or maybe this was all in his head—his eyes probably hadn’t completely adjusted to the dark.
Further on about thirty yards, off to the right of the trail, Manny saw what seemed to be the silhouette of a large, two-story edifice.
“Is that a house?” said Vincent, his index finger pointing at the dark shape ahead. Maybe Manny’s eyes weren’t fooling. . . It made him think twice about the dwarf-like figures he had seen before.
“I never knew anyone lived in these woods. Do you think the stories are true?” asked Manny.
“You mean the witch in the house? No way. That’s just an urban legend to scare kids so they won’t wander off into the woods alone.”
There were old tales in Ravensgate about a house in Zephyr woods that would sometimes mysteriously appear from nowhere on Halloween night. The old witch who lived there, might invite you inside and tell scary stories. If you could guess which one was true, you’d be sent home with a huge sum of pure gold. But if you guessed wrong? Well, we won’t talk about that. It was all just a fairytale anyway.
The pair slowed their pace and stopped to view the Victorian-style house, which was set back from the trail by a good hundred feet. The old wooden house was falling apart, and its dark grey paint was flaking off. It could have been painted dark green or blue, but in the shadows it was hard to tell. The windows, absent of light, showed no signs of life and the porch stretched alongside the front of the residence.
To the right side of the house a small tool shed could be seen, its wood splintered and decayed. The door hung open just a crack on its rusty hinges.
“Let’s have a quick look,” said Vincent with great zeal.
“I can see it just fine from here on the trail.”
“No, let’s see if we can look inside. Maybe the door’s open.”
“Showing up uninvited at someone’s house at night in the woods ain’t smart. Let’s just keep moving,” Manny said unconvincingly.
“Looks like nobody even lives there. Come on.”
Vincent walked steadfastly toward the old house while Manny followed with unease. The wind became stronger and gusts of air brushed their faces.
The boys stopped to peek inside the old toolshed. It was odd that the shed was next to the house and not out back. It was empty except for an old wooden table on top which sat a worn-out toolbox. One of its drawers was pulled open. The drawer kept rusty old wrenches and pliers that hadn’t been used in a long while. An old girly pinup calendar hung against the back wall next to a broken plane glass window.
Uninterested, Vincent headed to the Victorian as Manny walked in tow. They paused as Vincent reached the first step of the deteriorating porch. He looked up at the closed front door of the old house, which was just as weathered as the porch.
“Let’s see if it’s unlocked,” Vincent said.
“You go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
Vincent proceeded up the inwardly bent, rotted steps. Greyish-looking paint chips flaked from each one. As he ascended, he held onto the railing, fearing one of the steps might break under his weight. Manny silently observed.
Vincent made it to the top, creaking all the way up. He walked to the door, inspected it, turned the doorknob, and the mechanism inside it clicked. The door was unlocked, and he opened it just a crack. All he could see was pitch darkness through the thin slit.
“It’s not locked,” Vincent said, just above a whisper, as he looked back at Manny.
“What’s inside?” asked Manny, his voice equally hushed.
Vincent pushed the door wide open with a steady hand as it swung slowly inward without so much as a creak. A damp, musty, odor was released, and Vincent covered his nose. Not a shred of light was within the house. Nothing could be seen but blackness, as if Vincent had gone blind.
“What do you see?” Manny inquired.
“Nothing. It’s pitch dark. I can’t see anything.”
“Do you still have the book of matches you got from Blackstone’s Grill?” Manny asked.
“I think so.”
Vincent dipped his hand into the front pocket of his jeans and felt his way through a myriad of small objects—rubber bands, a Taco Bell hot sauce packet, and loose change. The matches were there. He pulled out the book and struck a match. Just as fast as the glimmer of light appeared, it was snuffed out by a breeze.
“Damn,” Vincent said under his breath.
Vincent looked down at his book and ripped away another. He struck the match, but no light came from it at all. A dud. Vincent took a third match and struck it. This time, the glow illuminated his fingers as he looked back toward Manny.
“This is my last one, got a lighter?”
Again, the flame went out just as fast as it was lit. No answer from Manny. He was gone.
Vincent dropped the empty matchbook and walked to the edge of the porch. He spied down the side of the old house searching for Manny. He saw nothing but the old shed, grass, and gloomy trees not too far in the distance.
Everything was quiet except for the slight whistle of the wind and rustle of leaves. Vincent glanced over his shoulder at the open doorway and stared into the darkness of the entrance. He ran down the porch steps.
“Stop fooling around, man.”
No answer. With apprehension, Vincent walked along the right side of the old house hunting for his friend. He looked up at the windows; the dreary curtains were closed. One of the basement windows was broken leaving a web shaped crack in the glass.
Vincent reached the back of the house and peeked around the corner. All that was there was an old porch with a missing railing and broken steps. He scanned the area, looking for a place his friend would hide. He couldn’t find a single one. Anything further behind the house was brush and woods. Manny wouldn’t dare go in there alone to hide for sure.
When he passed the old tool shed, he checked inside. Manny wasn’t in there either.
“I’m not playing games, man! I’ll see you at the festival,” shouted Vincent.
He didn’t know whether to feel annoyed by a practical joke or disturbed that his friend may have really disappeared. Manny had better be playing a stunt—because if he went missing Vincent would have some explaining to do.
Heading back the way he had come, Vincent passed the front porch and peeked up at the open doorway. It was silent and dark, just like before.
Bang! The door of the house slammed shut. Vincent ran away from the house and dashed down the path that would lead him out of Zephyr Woods as fast as his legs would move.
As he sped along, Vincent realized that he shouldn’t have started smoking. His gasps for air slowed him down. His swift run turned into a jog and eventually a slow walk as he clutched his chest with one hand and his side with the other.
He looked behind him to see how far away he was from the house but could no longer see it. It still should have been visible at this distance, but it was no longer there. He had also hoped to make out Manny’s lone figure chasing after him, revealing the sick prank. But all he saw was the empty spot where the house once stood and dark trees.
Vincent picked up his stride again and resumed a sluggish trot. He finally approached the edge of the woods and could see the streetlights of civilization ahead through the clearing. The sounds of traffic comforted him.
Finally, outside the rim of the woods, Vincent sat down on the grass against the trunk of one of Zephyr’s trees to catch his breath. He soon heard the sound of strong panting other than his own. Vincent looked to his left and a few trees over he saw Manny lying with his back on the grass. He was just as winded as Vincent and his face was glowing red as a fire truck’s siren.
Still short of breath, Vincent got up, walked to Manny and looked down at him.
“What the hell did you do that for? Just take off like that!”
Manny looked up at Vincent from the ground.
“I figured you’d be right behind me,” he said. What took you so long?”
“What took me so long? Why did you leave me back there?”
“What do you mean?” Manny said, sitting up. He leaned back against a tree, running his fingers through his hair. “Didn’t you see it?”
“See what? What the hell are you talking about?”
“It was standing right in front of you. Inside the house.”
“In front of me?”
“Yeah, in the doorway when you were standing on the porch.”
“I didn’t see anything. What did you see?”
“I don’t know what it was. Some. . . thing. Its body was covered with reddish brown fur and had pointed ears. Two horns sat on its forehead and its face. . . it was horrible. . . indescribable. But it looked right at you with these huge eyes, and it grinned from ear to ear.”
“You’re lying, man. It was too dark to see anything in that doorway. Besides, when I lit the match, the wind blew it out.”
“That’s when I saw it. When you lit the match. Its face was visible from the light of the flame. I thought you saw it too, so I ran thinking you’d follow. Vince, it just stood there holding the door open, smiling at you.”
“But I didn’t see anything when I lit the match. The wind blew it out.”
“No. It wasn’t the wind that blew out the match. When you lit the match, that thing in the doorway puckered its lips and blew out the flame.”
Vincent and Manny still have not told a soul about their experience in Zephyr woods. Not yet anyway. Whatever it was that stood in the doorway of the old house, it wasn’t the witch who told scary stories to visitors. Then again, the urban legend says that the woman and her house might only appear in the woods on Halloween night. But that night had been Devil’s Night.