Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Calling the place a “fixer upper” would be a Hell of an understatement. Built in the 1890s, Willow House was three floors of crumbling, beautiful ruins. It was one of those homes old enough to actually have its own name, its own history, probably its own ghosts.
But this isn’t a ghost story.
If I stuck to the plan of working on my own, it would take me months–maybe a year–to put the house in any kind of working condition. It was perfect. Madison loved Willow House from the start.
“Can I have a room that’s high up, dad?” she asked.
I scooped her up, making her giggle. “You can have a room at the tippity top of the tower if that’s your heart’s desire, Maddy.”
Willow House stood on a 15-acre parcel solidly in the middle of the sticks. The nearest neighbor was a quarter-mile away. The building had a wrap-around porch, nine bedrooms, and a gothic vibe only partially undercut by all of the rotting wood and peeling paint.
“Look at the chimneys dad,” Maddy said, holding my hand as we walked up the driveway. “There’s a tower! It’s like a castle.”
Maybe the corpse of a castle, I thought.
I didn’t say that, though; I just smiled and agreed with my daughter and basked in this rare display of unreserved joy. It was the first time in six months I’d seen her smile so much. Ever since the funeral, Maddy walked around with hooded eyes, hunched a little in her own shadow. It was nice to see her step into the sun, if only for a few minutes.
“Dad, look at the rocking chairs,” Maddy squealed, running up the porch stairs.
I winced at the way some of the steps creaked. I’d probably need to tear out the stringers and boards and start fresh. That was fine, good even. I was glad for any distraction in such a shit year and Willow House was promising to be an absolute attention sink. I opened the heavy double-door using an ancient brass key the realtor left. The foyer spelled like dust and oak. That first room was massive and empty, half-covered in old canvas drop cloths.
“Welcome to our new home, Maddy.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon taking a tour of the house. Maddy picked and then re-picked her bedroom three or four times. All of the chaos wore her little five-year-old bones out, though, so eventually we just pulled out the air mattresses and settled into the gigantic living room for the night.
It was chilly in the house, a November draft stalking the halls. I didn’t want to risk lighting any of the fireplaces until I had a chance to clean them out so we huddled together around a space heater. Maddy’s face stuck out of her blankets like a mouse peeking from its hole. She yawned, big brown eyes fighting heroically to stay open.
“Will you read me a story?” she asked.
I reached over to one of the few suitcases we’d brought in. Maddy never wanted to go anywhere without a few books on hand for emergencies.
“Are we feeling Seussical tonight?” I asked, shuffling covers around. “Or maybe some Dahl?”
“Could you read me one of your stories?” Maddy said, her voice soft, almost nervous.
I sighed. “I don’t think I packed any of mine in your suitcase, honey.”
Maddy scrunched ever farther into her blankets. “Don’t you remember how they go? You wrote them.”
“I might mess it up.”
“It’s okay, daddy, I can tell you one of your stories if you forgot.”
“Okay, sweetie, tell me a story.”
We fell asleep that first night in our new house on air mattresses in the living room while Maddy recited (word-for-word) one of the first children’s stories I ever published. I’d written it the week after she was born, back when things seemed so clear and good for our family.
Those first few days at Willow House were some of the best we’d had all year. Every morning, Maddy and I woke up at dawn then got to work. Initially, that was unpacking and setting up the house to be, more or less, functionally. Maddy ended up taking the tiny bedroom near the attic as her main space, though Willow was so sprawling she could sleep in a different room each night of the week and still have a couple left over.
Once we were settled, renovations began. I was committed to taking on as much of the labor as I could on my own. I was a DIY weekend warrior back when Chloe and I were living in our first place. So the feel of tools and new wood and old paint, the smell of sawdust, the taste of also sawdust when you forget to wear a mask while sanding; all of that was comfortable. Familiar.
I quickly got in over my head. Maddy laughed when I accidentally short-circuited the house trying to rewire a chandelier. She was my assistant, then, eventually my supervisor and official tool holder. We both agreed to stick to carpentry and plumbing. We could call in an expert for the electrical work. Then I flooded the basement while fiddling with the hot water heater, so plumbing was taken off the table. The two of us were left as Matt and Maddy, Master Carpenters. I tried to sell her on, “Matt and Daughter,” but she countered with, “Maddy and Father,” so we met in the middle.
Five-year-olds are something else. Everywhere we went in the house, Maddy lugged around a small, red toolbox I’d given her. It was the old-fashioned kind, tin with an open lid and wooden handle. Maddy filled it with every tool an assistant carpenter could ever need: tape measure, level, square, fruit snacks, and about a dozen pencils.
On day six of renovations, I was pulling out some drywall from the dining room when I noticed Maddy wasn’t with me. I felt a cold wash of panic, just for a moment, then I reminded myself she was probably in another room. After a few seconds listening, I heard the low hum of voices drifting from nearby. I guessed the sound was coming from the living room so I headed in that direction only to freeze after three steps.
Voices. Plural. I couldn’t have heard that. Maddy was the only person in the house. I stopped to listen again. It really did sound like two distinct voices in a conversation.
“Hey, honey,” I called out, walking down the hall. “Where’d you go?”
The voices stopped suddenly. I walked into the living room to find Maddy sitting alone on the floor next to the fireplace. She smiled as I came in, but it was her extra wide I-got-a-secret smile. That made me strangely anxious.
“Hey, Mad Maddy, what cha up to in here?” I asked.
“Just drawing,” she said, scribbling on a blank sheet of construction paper with a red crayon.
“Tired of being my assistant?”
“Oh, no, I can help.” She jumped up, dropping the crayon on the floor.
“Good good, lots to do. Maddy…were you just talking to someone in here?”
My daughter was silent, head tilted like she was listening to something. Eventually, she smiled.
“I’m just talking to my image-a-mary-”’ Maddy stopped again, listening. “Sorry, my imaginary friend. Oh. Friends.”
“Uh huh. You want to get back to work?”
“Sure,” she beamed, practically skipping back towards the kitchen.
I started to follow and then glanced back at the fireplace. When I walked over to examine it, the first thing I noticed was an usual absence of dust. Everything else in the house was covered in signs of decades of neglect but the area around the mantle was fresh. Pushing pristine. I made a mental note to investigate the chimney more when I had some free time. With everything going on with the remodal, I immediately forgot about the fireplace.
When we weren’t working on the house, Maddy and I liked to take long walks along the property. Our yard was large, a dozen acres complete with a duck pond. The edge of the land brushed against the treeline of a neighboring forest. It was a little jarring how wild the woods looked compared to our little slice of civilization. I made sure Maddy knew not to ever go into the trees without me. The waves of pine and oak and black walnut seemed deep enough to drown in.
Luckily, Maddy was content to play in the field next to the house, skipping rocks across the pond and climbing a few of the more cultivated trees that stood on the property. I loved everything about the space: the isolation, the immersion in nature. We were so beautifully, perfectly alone, just me and Maddy.
There were times where we had to return to society, sadly. We made weekly grocery and supply runs into the nearest town, a sleepy place called Albony. One rainy afternoon in October, Maddy and I were in the hardware store picking up an order and just browsing for the fun of it. I looked over when I heard the bell above the door chime. The oldest woman I’ve ever seen walked in bent over a cane, white hair wrapped in a headscarf. A sheepish giant of man came in after, gingerly holding out a hand to support the woman, which she ignored.
When the old lady saw me, she began to hobble over.
“You’re the one who bought Willow House,” she said. It wasn’t a question. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
Maddy chose that moment to pop around the corner of the aisle. She was holding a level that was taller than she was.
“Daddy, I think we need this tool,” she informed me. Then she glanced from my face to the woman in front of us. “Hello, m’am, my name is Maddy and I am five years old.”
The old lady looked aggressive as she approached me but as soon as my daughter started talking, the stranger relaxed. She even smiled, her wrinkles moving like a spiderweb in a breeze.
“Hello, Maddy. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Louis.”
Maddy grinned. “Hi! Oh, this is my dad.” She nodded in my direction. “His name is
Matt. In case he didn’t tell you already.”
“I didn’t get the chance, sweetie,” I said, sweeping Maddy back so she was behind me.
The woman was not giving me a good vibe. “Can we help you with something, Louis?”
The woman didn’t respond. Her companion–I guessed son–shifted uncomfortably behind her.
“You need to leave Willow House. You and your daughter are in danger. I can’t believe those bastards sold it to a family with a child. They know better. They. Know. Better.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “The house is rundown but it’s safe.”
Louis bent close over her cane, leaning in like she was worried someone would eavesdrop.
“You won’t see them, they move too fast, but you might hear them if you listen closely. Or catch a glimpse of them in the moonlight. They’re clever but simple. You might trick them or trap them but you’ll never get them all. I don’t think they like to stray far from Willow House.
You should be safe if you leave. Now. They’ll want your daughter.
The old woman turned and walked away. I tried to respond but my mind was an empty sky without a proper thought in sight. Just as Louis reached the door, I got myself in gear and went to follow. A hand the size of a frisbee stopped me. It was the old woman’s companion. The pressure on my chest was gentle but I could sense the power in the meat and muscle behind the hand. The man must have been at least 6’7” or 6’8” and stood like a solid pillar of flannel and denim.
“Mom gets worked up some days,” the giant told me, his voice surprisingly soft. “Please forgive her. She doesn’t always think straight; she just insisted on coming in when she saw your truck out front. I didn’t know what it was about. I’m going to take her home. She had a stroke last year and agitation isn’t good for her. Sorry.” The big guy looked over his shoulder to the woman behind the cash register. “Mary, go ahead and put their order on my tab, okay? Sorry again.”
The man followed his mother out. Maddy and I stood in the aisle holding our supplies.
“Is there something wrong with the house?” Maddy asked.
“I don’t think so. I think that old woman is just a little…creative.”
I decided to shrug it off but still take advantage of the big guy’s offer. We loaded up on nails and paint brushes and plastic sheeting then brought it all to the counter.
“Sorry if Louis unsettled you any,” Mary said as she rang up our order. “She’s been the town, eh, eccentric, since I was a girl about a hundred years ago.”
“Do you know why she would think Willow House is dangerous?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t worry too much. Willow House just has a nasty history. Any house that old is going to have a few stains, though. Once you have it fixed up and lived in, people will realize the stories are silly. I mean, most of us already do.”
“What kind of stories?”
Mary stopped and glanced over at Maddy.
“Hey kiddo, why don’t you check out the gumball machine by the door?” I suggested, handing Maddy some change. Once she was occupied, I turned back to Mary and raised an eyebrow.
“It’s just a story parents around here use to scare their kids into behaving,” Mary said. “There’s supposed to be some kind of monster that lives inside the walls of Willow House, a starving or sick thing that eats children when they’re bad. Some folks around here take it more seriously than others but it’s just a fairy tale.”
“I’ll make sure to check the walls carefully, just in case,” I said. “Hey Maddy, let’s hit the road. Hey, did you get me gum? I gave you enough change for two pieces.”
Maddy giggled and ran out of the store.
It started to rain on our truck ride back to the house. The day was cold for October so the rain slowly turned to slush and then snow as we drove. Maddy kept playing with her new level, watching the bubble float in its green tube as she turned the object back and forth. We ran inside from the truck as the snow came down harder once we were back at the house. Maddy insisted on helping me unload despite the weather.
There’s a monster in the walls of Willow House.
The thought kept banging around while I was getting lunch and hot chocolate ready for us. The grounds surrounding Willow House were turning white with wet snow born to stick to grass. Tree limbs dropped under the weight of the powder. It was a fine afternoon and I knew Maddy would want to roll a snowman before dinner. I walked out of the kitchen with a bowl of tomato soup in one hand and a grilled cheese on a plate in another.
“You’ll have to pour your own hot chocolate, Mads,” I called out. “I only have two-”
Maddy was standing on her tiptoes in front of an open window in the living room. Her arms were on the frame; it looked like she was only a moment from climbing out.
“Kiddo, what are you doing?” I asked, setting down lunch so I could close the window.
“It’s freezing outside.”
“I wanted to go play.”
I led her over to the kitchen and sat her at the table. “We’ll play later. Eat now. Eat. Then snow. Then movies.”
Maddy shrugged but began chewing on her sandwich.
“I’ll just go ahead and get that hot cocoa for you then, your majesty,” I said.
“With marshmallows,” she yelled back, mouth full of food.
“Of course, your majesty.”
“And some for my friends.”
I stopped. “What friends?”
Maddy sat looking back into the living room, head tilted. “Nevermind, daddy.”
We had a good snow day. It was cozy inside the house. I was ready to sweep out the fireplace so we could get a nice blaze going but Maddy said she was worried we’d roast any mice hiding in the chimney so she insisted we stick to the space heater. An hour before sunset, we headed out to make a snowman. That excursion devolved into a snowball fight that ran across the entire property. Maddy was ruthless. I was swiftly defeated.
The battle ended near the duck pond. It had frozen solid over the past week, a rough circle of water about thirty-feet across.
“Can we go ice skating?” Maddy asked me, looking over the pond in her bright red parka with the fuzzy hood.
I stood up and brushed the snow from her last assault out of my hair.
“I doubt the ice is thick enough for anything other than to look pretty,” I said.
The sun was going down into the forest and the clouds above us were already that orange-purple pastel smudge that comes just before the dark. I promised Maddy that we could come out in the morning with a drill and measuring tape to see if the ice was at least four inches thick and safe to skate on. We returned home, stomping a trail through the powder, then had another round of hot chocolate with dinner. Maddy rearranged our blanket fort (Fort
Snuggie-by-the-Sea) before we watched Wizard of Oz. It was still snowing when we went to bed, each with a small space heater for our rooms. The day was simple and sweet and will stay with me forever.
I woke up that night to the sound of something heavy falling downstairs. Then Maddy started screaming. I ran down the pitch black hall so quickly I nearly fell down the stairs. It took a lingering, awful moment to find the lightswitch. When I did, I saw Maddy curled up on the floor of the living room in front of the fireplace. She was shrieking and holding her left leg. “Maddy, Maddy, what’s wrong?” I said, taking the stairs down two at a time.
“My leg,” she sobbed. “My leg. Daddy. Daddy it hurts.”
I shifted Maddy’s pajama leg and saw there wasn’t any severe damage but the leg was already swelling at the ankle.
“What happened, honey?” I asked, brushing her hair. I hoped the snow had stopped.
“My friends tried to help me fly but I got scared.”
“What? What friends? What do you mean fly?”
Maddy’s crying trickled off with a few final sobs. She got a far away look in her eye and that head tilt again.
“But I want to tell him,” she said.
“Tell me what? Maddy, what’s wrong?”
Maddy winced. “Nevermind, daddy,” she whispered. “I fell down the stairs. That’s all.”
No amount of coaxing could get Maddy to elaborate. I picked her up and took her out to the truck, then drove us into town, windshield wipers sweeping away the light snowfall. Maddy was lucky that her injury ended up just being a twisted ankle. She told the doctor a different story than what she told me in the house: in the latest version she was climbing the chimney trying to see her “friends.”
“She could mean mice,” the doctor told me as we were leaving. “Or some other animal. I tell ya, once a kid watches Cinderella you’ll have to be on the lookout for the rest of your life.
Every time you blink, they’ll be out there trying to tame a fox.”
The snow had stopped by the time we left the hospital. Maddy insisted on trying to use the crutches they gave her to get to the truck but gave up after six steps, reaching her arms up for a carry. She was asleep in my arms before I even opened her door. The drive back was quiet and warm and clear. After putting Maddy to bed–her not so much as stirring the entire time I carried her up the stairs–I decided to investigate the chimney.
The brick was cracked and worn at the base but looked solid. I poked my head into the opening, which was wide enough for me to lean in and shine a flashlight up.
Hundreds of tiny eyes reflected the light back.
I cursed and scrambled out of the fireplace so fast I almost dislocated my shoulder on the brick. There was a rush of air from the chimney. Dust rolled out like morning fog. I stood in the middle of the living room for several minutes, my light fixed on the opening of the fireplace.
Nothing but the dust came out.
“Crap crap crap crap,” I muttered. “Please don’t be bats.”
I crept forward and leaned into the chimney again. When I flashed my light upwards, there were no eyes, no reflection. What I did see were scratches all over the brick, deep pits and something fibrous; hair or feathers or both. There was certainly something infesting our chimney. I went to the garage for some rat traps, placed and baited a few inside the grate, then blocked off the opening with tarp and storage containers that would be far too heavy for Maddy to move.
One more check-in on the girl–she was sleeping like a tranquilized rock–then I went back to bed. I remember glancing at the clock as my head hit the pillow. It was just after 3 a.m. It felt like my eyes were hardly closed before screaming woke me up for the second time that night. Not even screaming but shrieking, panicked animal sounds that ripped me out of bed and sent me sprinting for Maddy’s room. She was awake but wasn’t the source of the noise. Maddy looked how I probably looked; wide-eyes, confused, startled, kind of terrified. Once I saw that Maddy wasn’t in danger, the logical slice of my brain took over and I listened carefully. The screams were coming from downstairs.
The wailing ended when I reached the living room but I heard enough to guess at a location. I moved the storage containers and tarps around the fireplace. Something must have set off one of my traps. When I was upstairs, the screams seemed so human but if the thing was in the chimney, I was guessing I’d find a mouse or bat or maybe an unlucky raccoon. Instead, I found a bird.
Almost a bird. The creature caught in my mouse trap was the size and shape of a sparrow. It was covered in thin, blue feathers but also a soft, fine hair. In addition to its wings, the thing had what looked an awful lot like tiny arms and legs. What made me drop the trap, though, was its face. There was no mistaking it, the face was human. Miniature features were coiled up in absolute agony. The trap had snapped the creature’s back and distended its stomach. I was pretty confident it was dead but I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up to check.
“What’s wrong, daddy?” Maddy called out from the top of the stairs.
“Uh, just…it’s just a rat, honey. Go back to bed.”
“Poor little rat. Is it going to be okay?”
“Yep, I’m about to release it outside as soon as it calms down. Go ahead to sleep now.”
I hate lying to Maddy but I wasn’t equipped to explain what I saw in the trap. A little part of me wondered if I might be dreaming. After a few moments of standing in front of the fireplace in a daze, I replaced the tarp and moved the storage boxes back to block the opening. I’d deal with the situation after a good night’s sleep. I had my first foot on the stairs when there was a thump against the window. Another followed. I walked over and moved the curtain to see hundreds of tiny, bright lights hovering over my yard.
They all burned blue and, every now and then, one would zip around, leaving a cobalt wake hanging in the air. It was like a sky full of stars had crashed into my lawn. I stared until they all began to move together. The patterns were erratic, too quick to follow, dust in a hurricane. But I’d grown up in the country and I recognized a swarm when I saw one. There were more thuds against the window as I closed the curtain. I hurried upstairs then dragged a chair from my office into the hallway outside of Maddy’s door. I was still trying to convince myself that I was dreaming but, just in case, I’d sleep outside of her room that night.
Even though I was dog-tired, I still woke up early. Dawn light was spilling in from the windows, soft and gray and filtered through curtain-cloth. I stretched in my chair, feeling my vertebra give a satisfying pop one-by-one. The house was silent. I listened at Maddy’s door for a few heartbeats before inching it open to check on her. Two terrible observations stood out one after another. The first was that Maddy’s bed was empty. The second was that her window was open.
The wind had carried snow in from the roof or nearby trees. Fresh powder covered the window sill and the floor underneath. I almost tripped on it in my rush to look down. The image that kept flashing in my brain in the six or so steps it took me to reach the window was a tiny, fragile body two stories below, surrounded by red and white. However, when I leaned out, there was no sign of Maddy other than tracks in the snow. None of it made sense. She couldn’t have climbed down; the wall was sheer without even a nearby drainpipe to grab. And little girls don’t just…float.
It didn’t matter how she got outside, only that she was missing and in danger. I threw on my boots and jacket at the door without changing out of the sweats I’d slept in. Maddy’s tracks were easy to follow. They led away from the house towards the forest, shallow prints that–when I looked close–had the faintest imprint of individual toes.
Maddy was barefoot.
I ran as quickly as I could through the drifts. Here and there, Maddy’s tracks disappeared leaving flat snow. They’d pick up again after a few yards. It was like she was jumping a great distance or flying. The trail led over a hill and towards the frozen duck pond. Only it wasn’t completely frozen anymore. I saw that the ice was cracked near the shore right where Maddy’s tracks stopped. I think I yelled, called her name, probably screamed. But I didn’t really believe it until I was at the edge of the pond and I saw her there, facedown in the water, her pajamas dusted with snow.
I pulled her out. She was so blue. I was definitely screaming then, and crying, no coherent thoughts in my head. I performed CPR and rescue breathing; I had that much as muscle memory from a training years before. When Maddy didn’t respond after several minutes, I scooped her up and ran for the house. All I can remember is thinking that I had to get her warm. If she could get warm, she’d be okay. As I reached down to grab her, though, one other memory stands out from the fog.
Thousands of blue lights shining in the forest across from the pond like spiteful ornaments among the trees. I remember feeling their hate, a cold, crystal thing. Then I was running with Maddy.
It took the paramedics forty minutes to reach the house. Bad roads from the storm, I guess, snow and fallen trees and all of that. Even if they’d gotten there the second I called 911, it wouldn’t have mattered.
I buried my daughter on the property under her favorite tree. I put her toolbox in with her.
The little red one with the wooden handle. It still had all of the tools and I added some polaroids
I’d taken of us. All three of us; me, Maddy, and her mom. I took them back before…
I’m not sure why I put the pictures in there. Something about Maddy being alone there under the tree scared me. I was afraid she’d be lonely.
I still live in Willow House though I’ve given up on the remodel. Some evenings I will catch a glimpse of darting sapphire lights at the treeline. I don’t think I’m welcome here. They want me out.
They can go to Hell. As long as Maddy is here, I’ll be here.
Remember when I said this wasn’t a ghost story? That’s true, but I have to hope that it could be.