Graham knew when he found the house. He knew. He just knew.
Actually, he’d found some sort of house. Some sort of dwelling.
It was a tiny, brick building built into the hillside. He’d practically run into it after struggling out of the ravine.
It was empty. Of inhabitants, anyway. There was a table and stool, some ratty shirts hanging in the open closet, odds and ends and cobwebs everywhere else. He couldn’t see much through the rain-stained, dusty window.
He tried the door. It wasn’t much of a door. It was thick plywood with a lock. No lintel. And no budging it.
There was a garage door. Strange, he thought. That wouldn’t budge either.
He could break it down; he could break it all down. It was a pile of rubbish.
He looked through the window again. This time, he saw one of the shirts rustling in the closet. There must be a breeze coming through the other side.
Graham squinted as he remembered there was no other side. He worried his bottom lip and pushed back from the window. Narrowly missing the railroad tie behind him, he walked up the grass by the side of the house.
He couldn’t quite tell, but nestled among the trees, there appeared to be a large, dark metal shed.
Another locked door and another locked garage door. No windows to peer through this time.
Beside the shed was a gravel road lined with trees. Perhaps he’d found the driveway.
The gravel road led directly to another shed. White. Wooden. The door wedged closed with a log.
The log was easy enough to twist and roll off of the door. It slipped against the worn timber and clunked to the ground.
Graham instinctually looked around, but knew he wouldn’t have roused anyone in the vicinity. There was no one in the vicinity.
He fed his fingers through the opening of the door and pulled it open. After only a few inches, it got caught up on some rocks, the rocks acting like a foyer runner, hindering the door’s ability.
Kicking the rocks away, he was able to incrementally shove the door further and further open.
He coughed on the God-knows-how-many-year’s-worth-of dust and waved his hand in front of his face.
Until now, he’d made his way by what little sight he had and by feel. Now, inside this shed, he fished his mobile out of his pocket.
Graham flicked on the phone’s flashlight with his thumb. He swept the light back and forth slowly, waiting for a reflection of something, anything.
He raised the phone over his head to see into the rafters. Only planks of wood. A few belts, maybe for an old tractor.
He heard the door scrape across the rocks behind him. Fight or flight kicked in immediately, but as soon as he made to face either certain death or certain arrest, the door had stopped moving and remained propped mostly open.
With his heart rate sped up, he decided the shed wasn’t haunted, nor was it worth a heart attack. He gingerly pressed his fingertips to the door, expecting some sort of resistance. It required little at all, in fact, as he exited the old shed.
He looked down at the rocks and noticed that they seemed less rucked up like a rug and more smoothed away. Well, he did that, right? When he had to get the door open in the first place. Yeah. That’s right.
Graham took a deep breath and looked up at the giant Christmas trees that met him. His mobile flashlight was still in use, so he shined it at the tall pines.
It looked like a balcony had been built out of the top of one of them. Clearly not right.
That’s when there was a glint off of some glass.
Lots of glass.
Holy shit, there’s an actual house on this property.
He walked around to the wooden deck behind the trees. It was attached to a two-story house.
He couldn’t see a door, so he walked to his right, following the edge of the concrete foundation.
In the darkness, he could make out the length of an exterior wall that met another wall perpendicularly.
A few steps further revealed another jut of a wing and another deck. The house seemed to wrap around him as he got closer.
Graham turned off his flashlight and followed the line of the house, nearly running straight into an air conditioning unit and then even more nearly off of a retaining wall.
Below the retaining wall was a landing and a door. It was a double-wide door with no window.
This couldn’t be a house. Maybe a business. But the sheds… no, this had to be a house.
Past the door, he came up against the other wing of the house and felt his way along until he reached a corner.
He was under the other deck now, and on yet another landing, there was yet another door. This door was mostly glass, but had the blinds drawn tight.
He dumbly tried the handle. Locked, of course.
To his right, he followed the concrete landing with his eyes and made out the ridge of a step. He peered around the corner to find a winding trail of concrete stairs and an overgrown sidewalk.
He got out his flashlight again and trained it on his path.
It was a low-grade staircase, but fighting the long-dead hostas was treacherous, even with light.
About halfway up, the concrete disappeared altogether. It was completely littered with fallen branches and twigs.
Graham crouched to hold his phone closer to the ground. He walked with flat feet over the limbs, correcting here and there to maintain balance.
Finally out of the thicket, he began to straighten back up. He stretched his back and rolled his shoulders. How long had he been hunched over?
He twisted round and shone the flashlight down the path, seeing only a few steps and then the corner of the house.
It couldn’t be. It looked only about ten meters away.
“Bullshit,” he said aloud to no one, and looked down at the ground in preparation to head back. He had to check again, this time without being so careful.
He was about to take his first step toward verification when he felt a whoosh in front of his face.
He jumped back just as the branch hit the ground loudly.
He looked up, like there was someone up there to yell at about it.
Not wanting to test his luck, he turned around and continued up the path.
Rounding the corner, he ducked beneath the low branches of rotten fruit tree.
River rocks skittered across the sidewalk as he stepped free. He moved his phone to light his surroundings. He seemed to be standing in a yard now. A front yard. Yes, there was an actual driveway past a tree.
This was definitely a house.
Graham followed the rest of the sidewalk that ran in front of it.
It passed a bank of two windows jutting from the siding. Must be a windowseat.
The sidewalk curved around some overgrown landscaping and ended with two names written by finger in the wet cement, long-since dried.
Just past the names was a step to a porch.
Shining his light up at the front door, he noticed an official-looking piece of paper affixed behind the glass.
He stepped up onto the porch and reached for the door handle. Locked, naturally.
He held the light up above the paper and read: VACANT. PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING. LAST INSPECTION: 05/2012.
There was a list of previous inspection dates, like the ones you find in restaurant bathrooms.
It either hadn’t been inspected in over two years, or the inspectors have neglected to mark the sheet.
He expected the former.
Graham looked behind him at the driveway. It was a long driveway. Leading up to a bend in the road: a road that looked as abandoned as the house.
He walked the length of the porch and came to another bank of windows. Another windowseat.
He cupped his hands around his eyes and leant up to the glass.
There was hardly any visibility, of course. And nothing to see, anyway. Some bits of packing materials strewn about on the dark carpet, light tile in the entryway, French doors leading to another room.
He straightened up. There was a step down to the garage door.
He saw a keypad on the door frame. He punched a few buttons and hit the pound key. It beeped at him, but nothing else happened. He knew nothing would.
He turned around and looked at the flat expanse of the driveway before him. An almost-burnt-out streetlight hummed near the end. A lot of help that was providing.
He looked to his left and saw what looked like yet another sidewalk leading around the house.
Graham kept his flashlight in front of him as he went around the corner. He swept the light around and found, “Jesus Christ,” another shed.
He kept walking, ignoring the millionth shed, until he had to round another corner to, “fucking hell,” another deck.
Shaking his head, he took the first step up. The unused wood groaned under his foot.
He paused, one foot on the step and the other just with the toe of his shoe grazing the ground. Slowly, he straightened his leg and brought his other foot to the next step.
Testing it with two heavy presses, he determined that it was sound and hopped quickly up the next two to the top.
He let out a sigh of relief and found a sliding glass door ahead of him. He checked it.
He tried to get a good look through it, but there were thick blinds blocking his view.
He stepped back and walked to the end of the deck. There was a built-in bench that went all the way around. He knelt on it and looked out into the darkness.
He could see the large, metal shed he passed earlier. He thought about it; it seemed like ages ago.
He stood up and sighed. Maybe there’s something interesting in the new shed.
As he turned around, he moved his light to relocate the stairs. As the light passed the glass door, he spotted movement: the blinds were swaying gently.
Graham stared at the blinds moving on their own. Or what must be on their own, because, well, the house is vacant. Or should be.
He stayed frozen there on the deck, light fixed on the blinds, wondering again if he was facing certain death or certain arrest. Or certain insanity.
Finally, he decided that he should probably run. Just in case.
He kept his eyes on the blinds until he shifted the flashlight back toward the stairs for a quick getaway.
This is when he found yet. another. door.
He gaped at it. Just how many goddamn doors and decks and sheds does this property have.
He told himself that everything is locked. It doesn’t matter. He just needs to go. He’s been lucky so far and his luck won’t last forever. He should go.
After he tries this last door.
Graham decided not to take a last glance over at the blinds and just head straight for the door.
Which opened for him.
He stumbled into a pressing darkness. He saw the tiniest sliver of light ahead of him. He was in the garage.
He searched with his phone and found nothing but empty shelves.
And, expectedly, another door.
This one had to be open. Suddenly, his faith was in success and not failure.
He reached out and grasped the handle. He shone his light at the door and a compact, white box caught his eye.
It was a burglar alarm.
There was a little, green light that said, READY.
He lit the box directly and saw that there was a light over the word ARMED that was not glowing.
He worried his top lip, for variety’s sake. If the alarm is hooked up, he can just run right back out the door and back into the woods.
If it’s not, well.
Graham took a deep breath and twisted the doorknob.
It went willingly with his hand.
He hesitated before pushing it open.
Moment of truth.
He let out the held breath and took in another.
He gathered potential energy in his arm and mentally counted to three.
On three, he shoved the door open and jumped back off the step.
There was a momentary panic as he heard a loud, rapid beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.
And then it was silent.
Five beeps. That couldn’t have been the alarm.
He waited a full minute, straining his ears to hear God-knows-what.
And heard nothing.
He realized he’d been breathing incredibly shallowly and took a few relieving gulps of air.
He rolled his eyes at himself and stepped back to the door to the house.
He crossed the threshold and then froze.
It was pitch black.