Just behind the sprawling plantation where Lewellen and Lucas lived, laid a grave of overgrown trees. The woods surrounding the children’s house was home to dripping moss, Weeping Willows, Elders, and Ashes. To escape the southern heat and their mother’s intolerable migraines and alcoholic tantrums, the siblings fled their home in favor of the solace the woods provided. They built fortresses with grass and stones and climbed bending limbs and headless statues. The children never ventured past the woods because that’s where Old Man Loki’s house stood. As to whether Old Man Loki or any living creature lived in the dilapidated structure remained an unanswered question. During their frequent trips into the forest Lewellen studied the unbalanced building, anticipating the moment it would finally collapse.
Old Man Loki’s house resembled the bony outline of a skeleton; all that remained of it was a linear framework. Poorly patched shingles hung loosely from the walls. Georgia’s humid air fostered mucus colored mold to grow on the house’s surfaces. Seven of the ten windows were unhinged; three windows were missing entirely and an unwelcoming darkness emitted from their rectangular absence. Chipped yellow paint exposed salt and pepper sheetrock and a forest of moss smothered the roof, or what little was left of it. The bruised, rusted body of a bullet-ridden vehicle sat on Old Man Loki’s property and was hidden partially by a web of entangled weeds. The car sat there like a watchdog, waiting patiently for something or someone to provoke it; although they were shattered, its headlights were always alert for subtle movement.
Lewellen found the house fascinating; she was intrigued by its ability to decay naturally. She remembered vividly her first experience with Old Man Loki’s house two years ago; she was ten years old at the time, and Lucas had turned seven that very day. Lucas refused to cross the stone divide separating Old Man Loki’s lot from the woods because he feared someone lurked among its copious shadows. Had Lucas not been with her that day, she would have explored the ghostly labyrinth herself.
“Mom will find out, Lew, and I won’t get my presents . . . or my chocolate birthday cake! I’m not going over there and you can’t make me,” he yelled at his older sister.
“You’re such a baby, Lucas. You’re a scared chicken if you ask me,” she shouted back at him. That memory played in her mind like a film stuck on the repeat button.
The humid heat of that July morning simmered the algae covered swamp, creating a stewing layer of bubbles. Lewellen and Lucas were gathering dry leaves to bury the carcass of a dead squirrel when they heard a sound resembling an animal crying. Lucas ignored it, as he did with everything in his young life; however, Lewellen’s eyes darted toward the sound’s source faster than her hands dropped the pile of leaves she carried.
“Did you hear that . . . it came from over there,” she said, pointing her muddy fingers. The children were covered in dirt; their white linen outfits, blonde hair, and pale bodies needed to be washed every time they returned from the woods.
“It was nothing, Lew, probably just some bird.” Lucas already knew Lewellen’s thoughts because she possessed them for two years. She responded to any chance that would allow her to cross into Old Man Loki’s land.
“What if that was a bird . . . it was crying, it needs our help. Are you going to let that poor animal suffer? Mom didn’t raise you that way . . . you’re supposed to help those in need, right?”
As much as he was afraid to enter Old Man Loki’s land and face the hollow house that haunted his mind sleepless nights, he loved animals, all animals, and he could not walk away from one, especially if it was suffering. “Lewellen,” he cried as she began striding away, “wait for me . . . I said wait for me . . . you know I can’t walk fast.”
“Here, take this,” Lewellen said, handing her brother an oversized twig.
“For what? No, Lewellen. I’m going back . . . I’m telling Mom!”
“Lucas, quit it. And no, you won’t tell Mom anything because you’ll get in trouble and then you won’t be allowed to play with Buddy and Sid tomorrow. Now c’mon, we’re wasting time.” Lucas followed sheepishly behind his sister, gripping the twig in his right hand so tightly that it cut through his perspired palm.
They struggled through a thorny patch of yellow weeds that carpeted the other side of the stone divide. Lucas cried out when a loose torn pricked his ankle, but Lewellen grabbed his shoulder and continued walking, not allowing anything to hinder her mission. The children walked through broken branches and dried feces, their small bodies diminished by the grass cutting across their waistlines.
“I don’t see any animals, Lew. Let’s go before the sun goes down . . . Mom doesn’t want us in the woods when it gets dark,” Lucas said, pulling on the back hem of Lewellen’s floral blouse.
“Would you quit it? That cry might have come from the house, let’s just go inside and see if anything’s there. If not, we’ll go home, alright?”
Lucas held onto his older sister’s blouse as she led the way towards the unhinged front door. The wooden steps of the front porch creaked beneath their weight.
“I’m scared, Lew,” Lucas whispered, crossing his mud-stained arms across his chest.
“Nothing is going to happen,” Lewellen replied, mustering as much of a soothing tone as possible.
Lewellen pushed the splintered doors open causing a blanket of dust to cloud the air. Lucas coughed while flagging thick spider webs from his face. Rusted orange paper was torn from the walls unveiling weathered wood, perforated with holes gnawed by termites. Lewellen scratched her fingers gently along the hallway; she etched her nails along faint lines of dry blood decorating the walls. She remembered when Lucas was five and he used a red crayon to draw animals on his bedroom walls. Afraid of her mother’s reaction and knowing that she would be blamed for Lucas’s bad behavior, Lewellen scrubbed the walls with soap and water until her hands were wrinkled. Lewellen found the house’s utter silence calming. She wanted to explore vacant rooms, sweep dust balls with bare feet, and trace her fingers along all the house’s walls. She closed her eyes and inhaled a musty scent that resembled the smell animals emit on humid days.
The house was dark except for the few rays of light penetrating jagged cracks and missing windows. The children remained alert for any sudden movements as they continued cautiously through the main hallway. A dismantled green sofa turned upside down and a broken television was all that laid on the gray floor of the small room to their right.
“Lew, what . . . what is that? I think it’s moving,” Lucas whispered, pointing to a rather large brown lump lying on the floor of the empty room to their left. Lewellen’s eyes studied the object, only to realize it was a dog; she could not tell whether it was alive or dying.
“See, silly, I told you there was an animal,” she said walking over to the dog.
Lewellen stopped her feet from moving forward when she saw a pool of blood surrounding the dog. She heard Lucas cry hysterically before she could muster a single thought about the sight before her. The dog’s abdomen was severed, exposing bloody insides; bones were visible, their stark whiteness contrasted with a sea of red. The slightest sight of blood could send Lucas into a frenzied panic. The dog let out a whimpering cry, barely audible above the grief bellowing from Lucas’s wet lips. As much as she wanted to cover his mouth with her hands, so she could drown his howling yell, she could not stop herself from staring at the open gash across the dog’s body. She was fascinated by the amount of blood pouring from the wound. Lewellen averted her eyes when they met those of the suffering animal.
“Lew . . . please, let’s go . . . I want to go home.”
“I just want to touch it,” Lewellen whispered calmly. Lucas turned his body and began walking towards the front door as his sister inched closer towards the dog. He allowed the door to slam behind him as he made his way towards the woods.
“Hey there, buddy. Who did this to you? You poor thing. Who did this to you, buddy?” Lewellen questioned, expecting the dog to reply. The moment she said these words, the dog’s glistening eyes reflected a large, hunched male figure. As Lewellen turned hesitantly to face the statue standing behind her, her palm slid on the puddle of blood causing her to fall into the dog’s limp arms.
Lucas was climbing the stonewall when he heard Lewellen scream. Although it sounded frantic, the scream was quick and followed by silence. Lucas wiped his dirty hands across his eyes, erasing any trace of wet tears. He assumed Lewellen’s scream was yet another ploy to get him back into the house. Lucas walked slowly through the forest, sniffling every several feet and kicking each rock that stood in his path.