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ElderwoodCradle

23 February, 1982 - Washington County, North Carolina

A cemetery was the first thing they saw in this place, but it was far from the thing that stuck in Mike’s head.

“This is… amazing,” Mandy uttered as they found it.

At the end of the road, lined on both sides by hulking apple trees, was one particular tree that overshadowed them all.

But unlike the others, this one’s apples were a dark red, almost purple.

“If something of me were not in your hands, ye had not fallen upon me,” Mandy said seductively, as Mike lost himself in her blissful scrutiny.

There is a secret holiness in friction.

It is in friction that all is born.

Hammering away at a typewriter or keyboard.

Striking a note to harvest music.

A mother passing new life into the world.

At first, there is a pleasure in the process.

Nine months later – agony.

But both times, Michael Reading was humbled.

When his daughter Natalie was conceived and born.

Born of friction, as all beings are.

And again when his son was born, he was humbled.

Brandon Reading was just as angelic as his daughter, an otherworldly holiness before now.

But despite all of the heartbreak, all of the crucible… and all of the friction – pleasure and pain alike – the worst was still yet to arrive.


27 December, 1993 - Virginia Beach, Virginia

Mike's eyes opened to see he'd slept up until approximately a minute before the alarm was set to go off. Without thinking, he sighed and reached over, turning off the alarm just as the clock read '7:00' on the counter. He rolled out of bed, shuffling downstairs to make the coffee, which he intended to wake his wife with in lieu of the howling alarm clock.

Once he got the filter and water ready, however, the neighbor's dog started barking raucously. "Mike," he heard Mandy shout from upstairs. He sighed, and decided to pour her a cup anyway, she was going to be upset he'd turned off the alarm either way - particularly after waking up to the howling canine next door.

An hour later, the Readings were scrambling to pack and collect the last of their things, at least the adult half was. Natalie picked and poked at her cold eggs, while Bran readied his to use in a makeshift slingshot. It was small, and only got so much tread on it, before Bran heard his name called. He accidentally let go and the food launched just over Natalie's head as she decided to finish her food in one bite.

When Natalie looked up, she was clearly anything but impressed.

"Try that again," she said, slamming her fork down and standing up. "I dare you."

When she was gone, Bran failed to contain his laughter any longer.

Once everyone was packed and out of the house, Mike ran through and locked everything. Mandy made one last call to remind the neighbors about the cat, opening the driver-side door to find Bran sitting behind the wheel.

"C'mon, into the back, when you're older kid."

Bran didn't protest, but stalled until she was prodded to pick him up with her free arm.

As Mike climbed into the passenger seat, before he could even look at the map a fight had broken out in the back seat over the CD player.

"You've been listening to it all day," protested Bran.

"This is literally only the second song I've heard," Nat rebutted.

"Hey, you all are not going to be fighting over that the entire way there," Mike countered, leaning over the armrest.

Mandy intervened, but Nat and Bran - as Mike had feared - indeed ended up fighting over the CD player a vast majority of the drive down to North Carolina.

Twelve years later, Natalie had begun to grow apart from her mother, even as Brandon had become a ‘mamma’s boy.’

Mike began to suspect this had to do with the growing infrequency of Mandy’s and his outings to Kill Devil Hills – from their home in Virginia Beach. It was one of the things that had held their marriage together for the past decade. Mike had thought having children, starting a family, would only strengthen that bond… but, now?

Now, he was beginning to think having kids was a mistake.


27 December, 1993 - Creswell, North Carolina

She didn’t notice it at first. It started slowly, and accelerated just as such – like a frog being boiled alive.

Natalie and Mom hadn’t been as close as Brandon had been with their mother, but there had always been a consistency. Every year, they would take a family trip down to see their grandmother, although their parents didn't always come with them.

Naturally, they took the road east, through Chesapeake... not hitting a major town until Barco, North Carolina. As always, they took their usual route through Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, their vacation spot between there and Nags Head. But, on this particular occasion, they passed the familiar condo, continuing on inland.

"We're not staying," Bran insinuated, heartbroken.

"We're staying, bud," said Mike.

From there, they would go stay with their grandmother; a soft-spoken yet hot-tempered traditionalist who followed a strange denomination of Christianity.

The beach climate faded as they passed through Manteo and Dare County into Hyde and then Tyrrell. Columbia remained virtually unchanged from even decades before. Each small bayou town they passed through, one after another, all seemed frozen in time. Finally, they reached the sign notifying them of their entry into Washington County, North Carolina.

As they progressed further inland, the roads almost seemed to thin in retreat of the thickening of the trees and foliage in general, as they and the houses that lined them became smaller and filthier. At one point, the roads became so worn that Natalie could've been fooled into thinking they'd taken a wrong turn.

"We're here," their mother announced, as they passed what looked like a mill and approached an intersection flanked by an old red shed hiding some mobile homes, an old church and a gas station. At the end of this next road they turned into a driveway owned by the familiar single-shutter off-white two-story house replete with its matching two-story half-wraparound front porch and balcony.

Mike tried the front door twice, and after waiting for what seemed like twenty minutes, they decided to try the side door. This effort, too, was met without success.

"Maybe she's taking one of her naps," suggested Mandy, her statement almost immediately followed by the front door opening.

The kids were the first to see Grandma, which Mandy and Mike rounded the corner to see practically tackling the poor old woman. "Oh, Kids," she said, happily exasperated. She looked up to see Mike.

"Hey, Mom."

She turned to her grandchildren. "You'ns should go unpack, and see what I've done with the place, I'm right behind you."

Once the small humans stampeded into the house, Mike and Mandy took their turns. "Good to see you, Greta," said Mandy.

"Eat here later, or go out for food," Mike halfway inquired.

Grandma looked almost offended. "Do you not like my cooking anymore?"

"What do you mean, 'anymore'?"

His mother raised her eyebrows. "I'm joking, let's eat here."

"That's what I thought," she replied, ushering them into the cool air and closing the door behind them.

Natalie and Brandon always enjoyed Grandma’s house, even if they didn’t always get away with their elder in question. The food was good, the beds were comfortable. And, unlike humid and coastal Virginia Beach, it was always a moderate temperature – even in the summer months.

But everything was different now, and Natalie was enjoying it more than at any point in past years.


They hadn’t seen that dirt road in over twelve years, and there it was.

Mike was looking dead at it.

“I… I could’ve sworn they covered it up,” Mandy stammered to her husband, both of their eyes unbroken on the spectral path.

“There were trees here,” he replied, after a moment of silence.

After yet another, Mandy decided to take it.

Just like their first time, it was flanked by hulking apple trees. Dormant giants they were, organisms that far dwarfed their animal, primate counterparts. Only now, the apples were bright red instead of their yellow predecessors.

The other thing they noticed that was different – was striking, to say the least.

There was a theme park.

‘Appalachialand,’ it was called. Rides themed with southern culture – the skyline dominated by a massive roller coast appropriately called ‘The Storm Tree,’ wooded and with cars themed after logs collected from lumberjacks – replete with eerily uncanny realistic animatronics. But by far the most unsettling was the funhouse – it was called ‘The Elderwood Cradle’.

Mike and Mandy knew they had grown distant from their children, and they knew this would be the perfect opportunity to have a family night out, to reconnect with the kids.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Mike cocked his head. “What?”

Mandy seemed almost hypnotized.

“On a ride,” she said. Mandy slowly looked over to her husband.

“Let’s take a ride on the Storm Tree…” she added. After a second of silence, “just to see what it’s like.”

Mike was hesitant.

“I guess, if it’s for the kids, just to see if it’s safe.”

He smiled.

She smiled back.


Their parents had been gone all day. They weren’t worried – at first. She woke them the next day with a big breakfast of eggs and biscuits and gravy.

“Ya’ll make sure and eat all of that,” she said. “Don’t want ya’ll getting up in the middle of the night for snacks like last night.”

But neither Natalie nor Brandon remembered doing so, and they proceeded to blame one another.

After breakfast, they played under the big tree with what looked like a face on it in the backyard, rocking on the swing and climbing its branches – each of which were bigger than a full-grown person.

Their play was interrupted by sirens.

“What’s that,” asked Bran.

“Not sure, sounds like someone’s hurt, or in trouble.”

But as the sirens got closer, they found it was worse than they could’ve feared.

Police cars spilled into the driveway, followed closely behind by their parents’ truck.

But there was only one person in the cab… their mother was absent.

What their father and the police told them that night, would haunt them forever.

“I wish we could be here under better circumstances, Mrs. Reading.”


Eighteen months later.

They stayed with their grandmother for the rest of the year and into the next fall.

Their father came by to drop off supplies, and say hi, but he was even more distant than before their mother died.

He kept saying something about ‘The Elderwood Cradle,’ and a theme park they’d discovered in the woods. None of it made any sense.


Mike had started drinking again, the first time in over a decade. Everything seemed like it was coming full-circle in the worst possible way. Things came out of his subconscious, and almost seemed to stare back at him.

Faces.

He didn’t even recognize his own reflection in the mirror. It was as if he had been possessed by a doppelganger, or a piece of him had been stolen and replaced with something… else.

His eyes seemed sunken, and lifeless. For some unfounded reason his mind kept returning to the graveyard, outside the apple orchard off the beaten path. The people who ate that fruit fell ill, and were never to be seen again.

That’s right around the time he began to have thoughts that were not him. He had to get his mind off of things, he had to get his head straight in time for his kids.

But the more he thought about them, the more he hated them.

Mike stepped out of the bathroom at the local bar, to have another drink, and then get a hotel room down the street. He almost didn’t see the large man in the tan duster standing up with a quickness from his barstool. “Yo, wanna watch it, chump!”

Mike threw up his hands, “hey, man I just want a drink.”

He couldn’t tell if he was looking at him or past him from behind his tinted aviators. Mike didn’t know whether to expect a punch, an arrest, or what. In the end, the man just hummed to himself, chuckled, and peeled out in his beater truck after storming out of the establishment.

Here, someone else caught his eye.

The first thing he noticed was her red sweater. A young woman, maybe a bit younger than his wife was at the time of her death, perhaps a bit older than when they’d first met. He couldn't tell exactly due to the hood and black hair obscuring most of her face. Feeling the alcohol, Mike decided to act on his instincts.

“You from around here?”

She grinned slyly, removing her hood and looking up at him with fiery hazel eyes. “No names? Just, right into it, eh?”

“So… I’m Mike. And you?”

“Kate,” she replied after a moment.

“Nice to meet you, Kate. I’m from Virginia Beach.”

She laughed. “I knew it.”

Mike cocked his head. “How?”

“I’m from Virginia Beach, too.”

“No kidding!”

“Well, I was born there. Wanna get out of here?”

Mike smiled. “I like the way you think.”


Grandma decided to take a nap, and for at least an hour Natalie and Bran had the house to themselves. An entire second story lay untouched by their curiosity.

The labyrinthine layout of the house was ever more confounding a floor up. Lining the corridors were doors leading to unexplored lands beyond, an entire unexplored dimension lie in wait.

“What’s this,” asked Bran, as they reached a closet in the furthest room at the end of the darkest hallway. It almost seemed to have a black blanket over it, but it was simply the shadow so thick that they almost couldn’t see in.

The small space was entirely bare. Aside from a thick layer of dust, a few cobwebs, and old books – there was nothing here of interest.

Natalie decided to procure a few of the manuscripts in the corner, having read all of the books she’d brought with her, and knowing it would be another few weeks before Dad brought any more from home.

The first three were cookbooks, but the fourth caught her eye. Natalie noticed it was blank, and thereafter realized it was backwards. She turned it around slowly. In emboldened print, glinting against the hallway lamps, was lettering which spelled out in calligraphic yet eccentric print the word “Fairies”.


When Mike awoke the next day, he was greeted with the aroma of apples.

No coffee. No cigarettes.

Apples.

The house was an old rancher home, single-level and no stairs. Ergo, the entire establishment smelled like apples. When he emerged into the kitchen, it was unoccupied – save all of the apple dishes. Apple pies were emitting steam from freshly baking in the oven.

These were joined by apple fritter. Apple cobbler. Apple dumpling. Apple crisp. Apple chips. Applejack. Apple sauce. Apple juice. Apple strudel. Apple turnover. Candy apples. Apple cider.

Before Mike could finish cataloging all of the apple recipes in the room, two hands encircled his waist. A voice whispered in his ear, “The goose that lays the golden eggs likes to lay where there are eggs already.”


Sam Parsons was immediately barraged with the stomach and throat-curdling tang of sour and critter-infested raw meat.

Through the glass just under the counter he could make out various pieces of what used to be a whole pig carcass, followed by a goat and something else that was no longer recognizable.

The smell became a taste as Sam fought to keep from using his undershirt as a makeshift mask, trying to instead focus on the ridiculous and somewhat amusing pictures and paraphernalia that adorned the rotting wooden walls. The floorboards squeaked and groaned underneath his boots.

“Can I help you,” a small feminine voice drawled from behind.

Sam almost lost his composure, there weren’t any cars around front aside from his. He smiled once he spied the short old lady with a spire of feral lilac hair protruding almost straight up from the top of her skull. She could barely see over the counter, which almost reminded him of the creeping retch.

Sam sighed and pointed with his aviators to the first thing he laid eyes on, before he could even put a few words together.

“That an old, uh, Moonshine distillery?”

“W-why yes,” she stammered. “Got ‘em from ‘ol Popcorn Sutton himself.”

“From who,” he couldn’t help but ask.

“Heh, you’re not from around here, are ya?”

He was found out. Should’ve kept his mouth shut, never did take too many assignments down below the Mason-Dixon, being a Knickerbocker to the bone.

“Guess I’ll get right to it.”

Agent Sam Parsons reached into his tan duster and fished out his belt fold containing the FBI badge and introduced himself.

“I have two questions, one – where’s the best place to get forty winks and some good food, and – two,” he asked, producing a small piece of paper with a photo of a brunette woman in her late-20's from his wallet.

“Have you seen her?”

The old lady appeared to grunt as the blood drained from her.

“Only around that apple orchard on the county line. You have a good life, sir.”

“Ma’am, do you–”

“Have a good life,” she repeated. “Oh, and check out that old ‘Elderwood Inn,’ up by that abandoned theme park.”

“Theme what?”

But the old lady had already disappeared into the darkness, clearly done with him.

The Agent shoved the paper and his wallet back into his duster and grunted.

“Looks like I’m doing this the hard way.”

Sam slammed the door to his beater and cranked the rattling, howling engine to life, peeling out of the gravel drive and onto the road leading to this so-called ‘theme park’.


“Jenny Greenteeth and the Tommyknockers,” Natalie proclaimed in half-confusion, half-disgust. “Ewwww, look at her face,” said Bran, clearly entertained.

Natalie couldn’t stand to look at it any longer. On the next page was an illustration of a small elven lady standing in front of a monolithic oak tree, its trunk cracked and worn from time. It spelled, “Treefolk,” in large print above. On the opposite fold, was something that almost frightened Nat so much she nearly slammed the book shut right then and there, merely dropping it.

What she had caught a glimpse of, was something that resembled a tall, thin person… but it had antlers. And all she could see of its face were two beady eyes of which tiny pinpricks of light glinted upon. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.

“Nat, are you okay,” Bran asked after a few moments?

Natalie didn’t respond, or she couldn’t.

Finally, to his relief, she nodded.

“We should get off of this floor.”

Nat nodded, and Bran helped his elder sibling up. As they rounded the corner, the hallway they found before them was not as they remembered.

“Huh, that’s strange,” remarked Bran, “I don’t remember the walls being green and the lights being rainbow colored.”

“T-that’s because they weren’t those colors.”

Bran exchanged a glance with Natalie. “Then… that means…”


After checking into his room, more akin to a small single-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and everything, the first thing Sam saw as he left his room for the first time almost made him drop his wallet, keys and gun right on the spot.

It was the guy from the bar.

And lo and behold, look who was with him.

Thankfully, they didn’t see him, and he was able to slip back inside the room unnoticed. He continued peering through the blinds at them, waiting until they were on the road and well on their way before returning to the parking lot.

And as it turned out, they were heading in the direction of the park.

He departed from his room, got in the car, started it up and pulled out after them.

Sam stayed behind by about 50-100 yards, following them past what looked like a dirt road, down another dirt road, all the way almost to the county line. About 500 yards away from the apple orchard, until he could see it with his naked eye, Sam stopped the car and turned it off.


“Shh!” Kate chuckled, holding a finger to her lips. “No, seriously, did you hear that?”

“I… nope.”

She patted him on the chest, “I’m going to go check it out.”

“No, wait, your shoes!”

Before he could protest further, she was gone.

“Kate!”


Dammit, he knew he shouldn’t have slammed the door so hard. Only problem was the door wouldn’t stay shut if he didn’t put some ass into it.

Sam heard a scream, it sounded like her name. He wasn’t taking any chances, Sam drew his revolver and crouched low behind an apple tree.

After a few moments, he caught a glimpse of Kate’s red sweater.

He moved into the maze of trees, trying to keep his eyes on her. There was a killer here, he was sure of it. He could feel it in the air, a familiar stench of fear.


“Kate!” Mike shouted again, to no avail.

He darted and dashed through the rows of large tree trunks after Kate, catching only a glimpse of her red hoodie.

Mike shouted after her again, picking up his pace as she neared the tree line. He caught only one further quick crimson snapshot of her vanishing into the blackness of the woods.


The duo saw before them an ersatz threshold, from which emanated a white light. Nat and Bran made their way through the lopsided doorway at the end of the elongated corridor to find themselves in a white room with black polka-dots.

The glare reflecting off of the white paint was almost blinding, so much so that Nat didn’t notice some of those black polka-dots were moving.

“Bran!”

Brandon looked over her way, and only followed her finger in time to see the wall come to life and reach toward her little brother


Mike thought he’d found Kate, when he heard a familiar voice scream the name of his youngest.

“Natalie?”

It sounded like it came from his southwest… in the direction of the park.

Appalachialand.

He heard a second scream, this time it was Brandon.

“Hold on Bran, I’m coming!”


Sam was sure he wasn’t seeing things, but it couldn’t be – could it?

A footprint, impossibly big. A man that large couldn’t possibly exist.

And they were everywhere.

His hands were starting to shake, he couldn’t keep his weapon straight, couldn’t aim. If he couldn’t aim his weapon, what use would it be?

Sam’s heart almost stopped when he heard it.

Breathing.

Sam slowly turned, and when he saw it – only the brief span of time he did before it hit him – he screamed.

First in terror.

Then in pain, as the beast’s arm hit him square in the solar plexus, and sent him hurtling into a tree trunk.

Sam immediately lost consciousness upon impact.

And the last thing he saw, Sam couldn't aptly describe in the English language.

But it wasn’t human.


On his way through the darkening forest, Mike stumbled across a man lying unconscious at the foot of a tree. He looked familiar, but Mike couldn’t place him. He distinctly remembered seeing a man with a tan duster, aviators and a large frame.

What he didn’t remember, was the revolver that sat between his legs on the ground.

“Mike,” shouted a voice from the darkness.

He turned to see Kate, smiling, running up to him. Her friendly ebullient demeanor faded with her smile as she followed Mike’s gaze to see the unconscious man on the ground – and the inanimate metal object lying between his feet.

“I recognize him,” she said, checking his pulse. “He’s alive.”

“Me too, but we don’t have time.”

“What?”

Mike ignored her and took off running.


The polka-dot man narrowly missed Bran as Nat grabbed her brother and tackled him to the ground.

Hoisting him up again, they took off through the threshold on the left-hand wall and found themselves falling again as they emerged into a cylindrical spinning corridor of flashing lights with a bridge running down its center. The disorientation hit them immediately, and Nat struggled to stand up as they made their way out onto the narrow walkway.

Bran screamed and Nat turned as the polka-dot man entered the cylindrical chamber. Bran grabbed at Nat to hoist her along, and the polka-dot man began to climb the spinning walls in pursuit. His arms and limbs appeared to extend as he crawled across the flashing panels.

The duo, falling over themselves to get to the other side, were losing distance fast. And just as they stumbled forward, nearing the exit, just as the thing was in arms-length...

Bran and Nat collapsed to the floor in the next room, heaving, completely unaware of their surroundings. After resting for a moment, Bran slowly rolled over, and had to blink a few times to be sure of what he was seeing.

“Uh… Nat? Natalie?”

“What?”

Natalie slowly looked over at his hand, and saw him pointing. She followed it to a fridge, with bad artwork plastered all over it.

They were back in Virginia Beach.


Mike stumbled over the vine-encased turnstiles in a furious hurry, Kate struggling to keep up.

“Bran! Nat,” they shouted, Mike much more frequently.

An odor of pine and earth, old dirt and food, the stench of age and decay with a faint scent of charcoal complemented the decrepit visage of a theme park unused for years, perhaps even decades. Mike listened for any sign he could detect that they were nearby.

The only noise that greeted him was that of a faint breeze, not even a bird or an insect made a peep.

Mike squinted over at Kate. “Hear anything?”

Kate was beginning to look anxious. “Nothing.”

They scanned the area in the dead silence.

“Not a damn thing,” she added after a moment.

“Let’s split up,” Mike said, after yet another moment of uncomfortable silence. “We’ll cover more ground that way.”

“What if we just spread out, instead of splitting up entirely?”

Mike thought for a moment, he could tell Kate was beginning to get deeply disturbed.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Stay behind by about sixty feet and I’ll go on ahead.”

Kate was about to protest, but then nodded reluctantly.

He nodded back, and took off at a sprint.

Kate took her time, ducking in and out of food stands and gift shops.

Mike rounded a corner up the hill past the funhouse, where the first thing that caught his eye before he even reached the top of the hill was the hulking 200’ rollercoaster. But something was… incorrect.

He could smell salt water and hear seagulls, and the rollercoaster was certainly not the infamous ‘Storm Tree’.

When he reached the top of the hill, he could feel his heart in his throat.

“That’s… impossible.”


Sam awoke with no memory of what happened, missing his gun, and with what felt like a hangover on steroids.

He stood up with some difficulty, wincing at another sharp source of pain emanating from his ribs. He must’ve been hit with some kind of… weapon, like an incredibly large aluminum baseball bat or nine-iron, or… right in the ribs. Sam must have thereafter fallen and hit his head.

The investigator remembered why he was there in the first place, of course – he would never forget her name, or her face. Sam needed to find out where they went, especially considering they likely had his gun.

He followed the foot prints and leaves, branches and dirt that had been disturbed on their trek through. Sam must have only been out for about thirty minutes, an hour tops. His instinct could’ve predicted where their path led, for he felt no surprise when he saw the wooded coaster through the trees.

Sam climbed over the turnstiles, continuing his hunt for the duo. His journey led him up a hill to his left, past the funhouse. Even before he finally did reach the top of the hill, he noticed something different about the coaster. He wasn’t sure he could believe his eyes at first, but it looked like someone was on it.


Mike used one of his tiny preteen legs to propel himself and the other rested firmly on the skateboard. As he cranked himself and the device he loved nearly as much as his own family up the incline, he became ever more overjoyed and fearful simultaneously as the boys cheered him on.

“You got this,” shouted Kev. Ray and Josh egged him on in their own way. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into that day, he honestly tried not to think about it too often.

As he neared the apex of the hill, Mike remembered all the times their school bus almost seemed to float for a second as it careened over the top.

There were many positive memories he associated with it. He liked the long bus rides and being one of the last stops on the route, a rare moment of solitude accompanying him each day he passed over its peak.

But as the earth beneath him evened out, and Mike looked down at the street leading to the “T” intersection that lay before the rocks that separated land from ocean, he began to sense an approaching doom.


“Oh thank god,” shouted Kate, “please, you have to help!”

“Just calm down, ma’am,” he began, about to ask about his gun, but struggling to prioritize and think past the pain.

“I’ve tried getting through to him but he won’t come down.”

“Have you shut off the ride?”

“Y-yes, but he-he thinks he’s… somewhere else.”

“I have to do this, Dad! After all of that, they’ll never talk to me again, you can’t do this!”

“I’m not trained in this, but I’ll try,” Sam replied. “Just, don’t…” before she could finish, she turned around and screamed. Sam almost did himself when he saw what she did.

“Oh god, sir – sit down!

But it was too late. Whatever Michael Reading was trying to accomplish, it came to an abrupt ending as his foot got caught under the seat, and he quickly lost his balance.

Michael fell over backwards, out of the seat, and over the edge to the pavement two-hundred feet below.

The noise his body made when it hit would haunt Sam for the rest of his life.

Kate turned away just before it happened, shielding her eyes in Sam’s tan duster. Before either of them could’ve had enough time to process what happened, another scream reached their ears, the first one Sam had heard.

“Was that… a kid?”

“It came from the funhouse.”

They exchanged a weary expression.

Sam didn’t find his gun on the body, so he had to procure an axe from the toolshed. As the duo approached, a dark form darted from the tall grass, and a dirty fox trotted into view.

It stood before the path leading to the so-called ‘Elderwood Cradle,’ and stared right into their eyes.

“Abandon all hope,” it spoke, “ye who enter here.”

And with that, it licked its chops and vanished into the funhouse.

Kate looked pleadingly at Sam.

“We have to, it’s what he would’ve wanted.”

Sam sighed, and failed to form a response, merely nodding.

Taking the reluctant lead, Sam entered the funhouse, followed closely by Kate.


Natalie didn’t recognize any of the drawings as ones she or Bran had done. She knew the house as the one they and their father before them had grown up in, but didn’t recognize any of the furnishings or appliances or the people in the photos.

“What’s wrong,” asked Bran, before adding without a beat, “is that Dad?”

Natalie didn’t notice the kid in the photos was, indeed, Michael Reading around her age.

“This isn’t possible.”

Behind him stood a young woman and a tall, tree-like man with a face so worn from many years of dirty grunt work that Natalie didn't even think of a human being when she looked at it.

It almost reminded her of the face in the tree.

Before Bran could respond, they heard the front door open. A second later, a smaller woman with a crucifix hanging from her neck rushed into the kitchen from the hallway, passing right by them. This was followed by voices emanating from the other room, and the door closing.

As quickly as the woman had disappeared, she reappeared being led by a larger man in overalls with one hand unfastening his belt and the other around the crook of little Michael’s elbow.

“Does it have to be this way,” the woman, whom they could only correctly approximate was their grandmother over forty years ago, plead to deaf ears.

The man ignored them, hauling their Dad into the hallway and through another door. Their grandmother followed, observing a spectacle they could not see, but could hear.

A deafening “crack!” ripped through the air, followed by countless more.

“Crack!”

And Grandma would flinch with each one.

“Crack!”

Their Dad screamed in agony.

“Crack!”

And they were hopeless to do anything about it.

“Crack!”

Their estranged grandfather stormed back through the kitchen, through the living room and out of the house. Grandma stumbled into the bedroom, and they could hear her soothing their Dad.

“I’ll talk to him,” Nat heard Grandma say. “This has to stop.”

Natalie inched into the hallway even slower than Grandma had edged into the bedroom, Bran clutching her side, just as afraid to see as she was.

When she saw her Dad’s back, she retched, and Bran screamed. There wasn’t a spot on it that wasn’t some shade of purple, blue or even red.


In the first room of the funhouse, the only other door was on the ceiling. Kate managed to get through by standing on Sam’s shoulders, but once she was in, the gravity in the room seemed to change direction entirely.

Sam hurtled through the opening and landed on a wall next to Kate, wincing as he tried to steady himself.

“That hurt,” he wheezed through clenched teeth.

“You and me both.”

She helped him up, and once they both found their footing, they looked ahead to see doors on all four sides of the hallway – the floor, ceiling, upside down on both walls…

“Well, that’s just awesome,” Sam remarked sarcastically.


“You can’t touch him anymore, Randall,” said Grandma. “Not until you quit drinking.”

Randall looked like someone had just physically spat in his tree-like face.

“You have any idea what I caught him doing, Greta?”

“No, because you didn’t tell me, you never tell me anything.”

“He tried to kill himself!”

Everyone in the room, including the kids, were speechless. It was a solid minute or more before Grandma spoke again.

“Maybe, if you hadn’t tried to shove your bastardized interpretation of Chris–”

Before she could finish, Randall had rocketed across the room and struck her across the face, closed fist.

Another minute of silence eclipsed the room, before Greta was able to collect herself to sit up. “Or do that all the time,” she wheezed. “Maybe he wouldn’t try to kill himself. Maybe, he would talk to me, and have a good paternal role model.”

Randall simply stared down at her, before uttering, just loud enough to hear, “you’re such a whore.”

As he said this, and stormed out, Greta lost her composure – holding it together just long enough to show him. And although they knew they couldn’t be seen, Nat and Bran did so as well for some reason, for they too were now in tears.


A ball pit hiding an entire graveyard, a room filled with lethal traps and flamethrowers following the door room beginning to collapse in on itself, Sam and Kate felt like the “fun” house itself was trying to kill them. They now found themselves in a seemingly infinite hallway made entirely of warped mirrors.

On either side of them were infinite copies of themselves, each more distorted than the previous. The uniformity of their surroundings threw off their sense of both direction and space itself, Sam nearly walking straight into the end of the hallway itself, forced to feel the walls.

“I think it’s a dead end,” he said finally, failing to find an exit. “We’ll need to double back.”

Kate nodded, turned to retrace her steps, and walked straight into another mirror.

“What the hell,” Kate rhetorically inquired, turning to face Sam. He held a finger to his lips.

"Shh. You hear that?"

She stopped moving. A faintly-discernible knocking sound replaced the ambiance in the distance.

"Yeah..."

After a moment, silence prevailed.

"I think it stopped," said Sam.

As if on cue, the silence was broken, this time by a deafening slam.

They covered their ears.

"Slam!"

It got closer.

"Slam!"

And closer.

"Slam!"

Then, it stopped again.

When Kate looked over to him again, Sam’s features had contorted into one of paralyzed terror.

“What?”

He stammered, pointing behind her.

“Y-your r-…”

She turned back to her distorted reflection, which reached out of the mirror and grabbed her.

Kate stumbled backwards, knocking Sam into the clutches of his own warped doppelganger.


Nat and Bran watched in fear as Grandma pulled a small box from inside her jewelry kit, and slid the small gun into her sleeve.

It was a different day, or night, rather. Greta Reading was herself, at least on the outside. But, again, Randall was on the warpath, screaming at the top of his lungs in the other room.

“Horror movies?! Devil’s music!? Not in my house!”

“Crack!”

“Not…”

“Crack!”

“In…”

“Crack!”

“My…”

“Crack!”

“HOUSE!”

Next, in the span of seconds, Grandma strode swiftly out of the room.

And then, gunshots.

Only silence followed.


Sam swung his weapon into the misshapen abomination, yet more deranged copies of the two of them crawled out of whatever hell they came from.

Kate hauled him to his feet.

“Come on, we’ve gotta find a way out.”

Yet everywhere they went seemed to lead to a new dead end. And everywhere they went, they were greeted by more of the abhorrent monstrosities.

Seemingly every direction they looked, an army of the distorted facsimiles of human beings were swarming after them. Sam swung away with his axe in vain, delaying the inevitable.

Finally, they rounded into a corridor that terminated in a dark rectangle with a pale green fluorescent sign reading “EXIT,” in large print hovering over it. As they neared the end, Sam disappeared into the floor beneath, bloodied hands enveloping his ankles.


Grandma had moved to the house she lived at now in Creswell, and the next time Nat blinked they were back to where their journey began. The last time they saw her as she was, she was praying in front of the altar she had built of the five elements; fire, earth, water and air, with God as the fifth.

The visage faded, and was replaced with Grandma as Nat remembered her, standing in the threshold of the doorway.

“You two look tired from playing all day,” she declared with surprising sweetness. “I know just the thing.”

With that, she vanished into the kitchen.

Nat and Bran, for a moment, were unsure what they had seen was even real – or if it were all imagined.

“How about some warm apple cider? You’ns haven’t had any of my cider yet, have ya,” her voice inquired from beyond the doorway.

Nat was the first in, Bran following close behind.

“While sitting in his garden, Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple falling and asked himself why the apple didn't fall sideways or upwards,” Grandma added suddenly. “But only downwards, perpendicularly to the ground, which led him to discover one of the fundamental forces at work in the universe,” she continued, finishing the stirring of their drinks.

“What was that,” asked Bran.

Nat sighed. “Gravity, duh.”

Grandma smiled and carried over their mugs.

“Exactly.”

Nat was about to take her first sip when she heard Grandma gasp and loud thud from behind her, followed by a deep voice, “Don’t drink that!”

“What are you doing here? How?”

Nat and Bran turned to see a man, covered in blood, an axe in one hand and the other hidden inside his filthy duster.

“Get away from them.”

Nat was on the verge of tears, she had no idea what was happening, or what this man wanted.

“Why? What do you want from us?”

“Kids, the apples in that cider are dangerous, and that thing is not your grandma.”

“What?”

Nat turned to confront Grandma, but what she saw was something she had wanted dearly to never see again… let alone standing in front of her.

Grandma’s face had begun to contort, and antlers began to protrude from her skull.

“I thought I left you to die.”

Her hands and fingernails swelled to enormous size and her skin became a thick coat of hair.

“I’ll have to finish what I started.”

The monster reached for her, but Sam grabbed her and hurled her after him with Bran thrown over a shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The trio raced upstairs, through a series of doors until they found a sufficiently-hidden spot.

“Where is Grandma,” rasped Nat just above a whisper.

“I don’t know, but whatever that… ‘shape-shifter’ is now, it used to be a girl named Kate Summers. She went missing and I came down here to find her.”

Bran started to sob and Nat immediately grabbed him and put his face in her sweater.

“Shh, no, not now. You have to be strong if that thing hears us… shh,” she cooed. Her efforts were successful and Bran began to collect himself again.

The floorboards groaned and shook as the beast passed nearby, before fading again as they heard it making its way down another hallway.

“She took my gun, I don’t know how we can beat it without that.”

After he said this, Nat remembered the jewelry box her Grandma had kept her own gun inside of.

“We have to find Grandma’s room. Follow me.”

And with that, Nat slid out of the closet with a silent quickness, ignoring Sam’s protests. He sighed and waved Bran after them, following closely.

As they made their way down the first hallway, they saw a massive form dart down the perpendicular corridor at the end, only a quick flash across the opening. They had barely enough time to stop, whether the beast spied them or not.

They made their way slowly and silently to the other end of the house, keeping an attentive ear on the lumbering behemoth slamming around on the floor above. Sam estimated they had approximately five minutes or less to find the room, before the thing was back on the second floor.

“In here,” rasped Natalie, motioning to a side-hallway leading to a door set back from the others on the floor. She led Sam and Bran into a large bedroom and immediately dashed over to the large armoire and started shifting through drawers.

“Careful,” Sam cautioned, easing over.

“Found it.”

Inside, sure enough, was a small snub-nose revolver.

“That means what we saw was real,” said Bran.

This dawning realization was not to last, for they turned to leave and found another door behind the ajar doorway leading back into the hallway.

“Oh no,” Natalie uttered.

“Is it happening again,” Bran nearly screamed.

Sam opened the door to find another door at the end of the small hallway, and opened that one to find still more doors and small corridors. “This can’t be right.”

After the fifteenth door Sam began to hear voices.

“What’s that,” Bran shouted.

They were clearly voices, but not in any discernable language.

This was soon accompanied by the creaking of floorboards.

“You’ll never escape,” the cracked voice gurgled from the distance.

“We should go back,” Natalie said after a few seconds.

“No,” said Sam. “We finish what we started.”

After a few more doors, the footsteps of the shapeshifting monstrosity had become almost deafening.

“I’m going to eat you,” the beast bellowed, its voice more distorted than earlier.

Seconds later, it careened through the door, tackling Sam to the ground. Natalie didn’t blink before she grabbed Bran and backtracked through the maze of corridors and doorways, the beast bellowing cackles and Grandma’s gun thundering along with it.

They hightailed it through the window, along the crosshatching on the wall outside, down to the ground. As they made their way through the backyard, something caught her eye that almost made her faint.

“Come on, what are you doing?”

“I just thought I saw…”

“No time!”

Bran pulled her away and they made through way through the forest to the neighbor’s house over a mile away.

What Natalie thought she saw, was the tree in the backyard facing them as they left, instead of the house.

And instead of only one face in it, there were now three of them.



Written by D. Compton Ambrose
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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