"If you love me, you will."
I was sixteen, and there was no doubt in my mind that she was the only girl I would ever love. Period. But what she was asking was a little much, even for my undying love.
"But, Anne, it's trespassing. We could get in a lot of trouble," I said.
She looked at me with those brown eyes that I found impossible to refuse.
"If you love me, you'll take me there." 'There' was the old Foster ranch house a few miles out of town. A lonely, desolate place with no other houses for miles around. I had seen it from the unpaved county road, a grey hulk of a house surrounded by a sea of waist-high johnson grass. Not even a tree, just that wild, thick grass. I had been scared and it was broad daylight then.
"I just don't know," I said. "It's an old house: I'm not goin' in it at night. If one of us gets hurt, what then?"
"Okay, we'll go in the daytime. This Saturday. You promise me, Derek."
"Okay, I promise to go there with you this Saturday. We'll have to take my bike: if I ask to use one of the trucks, my dad's gonna want to know why and then I'd have to tell him and then he wouldn't let me go. That's private property, you know. And I'm not gonna lie to my dad."
She looked at me hard. "Fine. Whatever. Pick me up at ten."
I knew that tone. The tone of disapproval. But honestly, my dad always knew when I was lying, so I just never bothered. "Pick you up for the game Friday night?"
"No. I have other plans." Her voice was ice. She was punishing me for not taking her to the Foster ranch sooner that Saturday. I knew she had no plans; in a town this small, everybody knows everybody. Our families had lived next door to each other for years. For the past school year I had been trying to get to second base with Anne and she kept stringing me along.
She was leaving my house to go home. I said, "Ya know, if there was any money in that old house, somebody would've found it years ago."
She stopped at the door and turned to me. "It's there. I know it." Then she left.
Poor girl, I thought, then smiled at the pun. That's what it was all about. Money. My family made less than hers, but we never thought of ourselves as 'poor.' But it was something that she never stopped thinking about. Money. My friends at school had warned me that my folks didn't have deep enough pockets to please Anne. They said that I'd never get anywhere with her. I was hoping they were wrong, but afraid they were right. This whole Foster ranch thing, for example.
The Fosters had been the first landowners here. Their ranch was huge. They sold off part of it to build our little hamlet when the railroad came through. They donated land for the school district. At one time they were one of the wealthiest families in Texas. They built a big house around 1900. The head of the Foster family, William, was supposed to have lost his mind in the 1930's during the Great Depression, and hidden all his cash, gold, and jewels in a secret room in that house. One by one, the Fosters died off. Heirs sold parts of the ranch until nothing was left but the house by the 1970's. The last of Williams' sons, Hank, was the final occupant of the old homestead. He passed away in 1974 with no surviving relatives. The house and a couple of acres went back to the county for taxes sometime in the recent past. Nobody would buy it.
Rumor had it that the place was haunted. Nobody went there. County road crews would tell stories about seeing apparitions in the windows. One time,in July, a neighboring ranch was changing pastures with their cattle and when they got in front of the house, they felt a cold breeze from out of nowhere. Then the cows stampeded.
And there were plenty of stories about the hidden treasure, but no brave soul had ventured in to look for it, at least nobody ever admitted to it. Now this girl I wanted so much to be with was asking me to do the unthinkable. And the crazy part was, I was going to. Love...
It was rough going on a motorcycle on that gravel road. But when you're sixteen and you want to impress a girl, you just tough it out. The bike was weaving from side to side, very difficult to handle. It seemed that the bike didn't want to make this trip either. The only one who did was Anne, clinging to my back as if she were riding a wild horse to a fountain of gold.
The gravel county road extended for about two miles from the state highway, twisting in a couple of places as it made its' way over the occaisional hill. On the last hill I stopped. Off to the right was an ocean of tall johnson grass, shades of green and yellow. And there in the middle, rising like the bow of a sinking ship, stood the old Foster ranch house. The wooden walls had been stripped of their paint by the Texas wind and rendered a pearl grey color by the harsh Texas sun. Most of the windows were still intact, but some bore the evidence of a hail storm or two. Here and there a board hung loose. All in all, it looked like a tornado had picked up the house in Oklahoma and dumped it in this sea of tall grass.
I noticed movement in an upstairs window. Probably an old curtain moving in the wind. I tried not to think about the fact that there was no wind blowing. I accelerated and we rounded a corner in the road and pulled into the waves of grass where the old driveway once was. We climbed off and I pulled the bike further into the johnson grass ocean. The height of the grass was perfect for making the bike invisible to anyone who might drive by.
When I looked up, Anne was already on the porch, looking into a window. "Crap!" I muttered under my breath, and walked fast up to the house. The steps up to the porch swayed under my weight and fear raced across my brain. This place is gonna fall down on top of us, never mind gettin' hurt by some ghost, I thought.
"What do ya see?" I asked, struggling to be Mr. Cool Boyfriend.
She looked up and said, "It looks like the old guy just walked out and left everything. Everything looks normal, just covered in dust."
I looked in the window and she was right! There was a couch and chairs, endtables with knick-knacks, pictures on the wall, a braided rug on the floor, and covering everything a thick layer of dust. It was eeiry.
I turned to Anne, and she was already at the front door. I caught up to her and asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
She turned to me and with ice in her voice replied, "If you want to stay poor, that's your choice." As she reached for the door knob, it turned on its' own, and the door creaked open loudly. I could not believe what I had just seen!
"Did you see that? Did you see that?" I asked.
"It was just the wind," she said, a little uncertainty in her voice. She stepped into the hallway and I followed. You could smell the dust. I looked down at my cowboy boots and the dust on the floor had to be a quarter of an inch thick. And there were no other tracks in the dust but our own. That meant that no one had been in this place for a very long time.
We went from room to room on the ground floor. Nothing was out of place, Anne found no secret panels, just a strange silence and the scent of dust.
We made our way up the stairs that groaned under us. Upstairs were the bedrooms, four in all, and one bathroom. In one bedroom I thought I smelled old-fashioned perfume like my grandmother used to wear. I asked Anne but she said she smelled nothing.
I should have known: she was a girl on a mission and ghostly scents weren't what she was after. She would go around, knocking on walls, I guess hoping to find a secret panel into the room she was so convinced was full of cold hard cash.
We stood at the top of the stairs, ready to go back down. I said, "I told ya. There's nothing here. Can we go now?"
"Nothing here? There's perfume, according to you, but that has little cash value. I'm not leaving here until I find that room and take what I want." She was glaring at me with her hands on her hips. She stepped down onto the first tread and the sound of knocking suddenly came from every room on that floor! It only lasted for a few seconds, but it scared the crap outta me.
I grabbed her arm and said, "What the hell was that?!"
For a second she seemed uncertain, then replied, "All that knocking I did caused the wood to bounce back, making it sound like knocking just now. This wood is old, that's all. Honestly."
She pulled away and proceeded down the stairs. As I stepped on the top tread, I heard a door somewhere on the second floor slam. I hurried down behind her, asking "And what was that?"
"I didn't hear anything. You're just imagining things."
I could not believe it. "How could you not hear that door slam? I heard it."
She looked at me and let out a heavy sigh of frustration. "You are such a wussy."
I thought I was doing very well containing my terror at every step in this ancient mausoleum of a house. Half the stuff I thought about saying, I bit my tongue. Mainly to keep her impressed with what a man I was. And partly to keep her from yelling at me.
She was still looking around, still on the mission. "I know there's a basement under this house. That's the only place it could be. I've looked every place else. But where is the door. I've opened every door on every floor and no basement."
I stayed silent, hoping I wouldn't hear or smell anything else before she finally admitted defeat and we could get out of this place. She had to give up sometime...we couldn't stay here forever, looking for lost loot.
"If I were going to hide a staircase, now where would I hide it?" she mused out loud. As if a light bulb suddenly turned on inside her head, she snapped her fingers and said, "Of course!"
I followed her into the kitchen, saying, "But we already looked in here, remember?"
Standing in the middle of the floor she said, "Correction, I looked in hereyoujust followed me around like a lost dog."
Ouch, that hurt. It wasn't my fault; this wasn't my idea. I'd have much rather spent the day at her house trying to feel her up.
She walked up to the beaded board wall, across from the cabinets, and ran her finger along the grooves in the wood. "Aha!" She pushed on the wall and there was a click sound, then a section of the wall opened, creaking on its hinges. It revealed a black casm that could only be the basement.
The blackness of the basement was like crude oil, without the shiney surface. It seemed thick and deep and troubling. We could see the stairs going down three, maybe four steps then vanishing, like reason to an insane man.
"We're not going down there," I declared. "I can't even see the bottom."
"Your eyes haven't adjusted yet. We'll be fine." Anne radiated her selfconfidence. Or her greed. I wasn't soaking up either one. I was seeing headlines: Local Boy Dead At Sixteen; Just To Keep A Girl.
She slowly stepped onto the first tread and I could hear the wood pop from where I was standing. And that did not sound good.
She went a few more steps down, with each one the old staircase creaked and moaned more and more. When she was in the middle, it started to shake from side to side. "Get on back up here; that things gonna fall!" I demanded. As usual, she did the opposite, running down the last few steps. At least there was a floor down there, that was a relief.
I suddenly had a new thought, a new dread. "What if there's a snake down there? Come on back up."
In the light cast by the open doorway, she looked like she was floating on an ebon sea. She faced me and extended her right hand, palm up. "Let's see, a snake on one hand," she then extended her left hand, also palm up, "or all the money I'll ever need on the other. Hhmmm...which [i]will[/i] I choose?" She turned and moved out of the light into the darkness of the basement, saying "Get your ass down here."
I couldn't let her disappear into that black sea: what if something happened? Worse still, if I didn't follow her, would I ever get to second base? Let alone third...
I slowly put one boot on the first step. It creaked a little, but held. Then the second step, then the third. Now it was shaking under my weight. Suddenly I felt a cold breeze wrap around me and go up into the kitchen. It was ice cold!
The secret door to the kitchen slammed shut. The force was so strong I fell onto the middle of the staircase. It began to shudder and shake, I heard the splintering of wood. Before I could get up to jump off, the whole thing collapsed in a cloud of choking dust.
The dust was everywhere; in my mouth, my nose, all over my clothes. And I couldn't see.
I heard a familiar voice. I expected a question about my well-being. A show of concern. What I got was, "Great. Wonderful. Good going, Mr. Einstein. May I call you Albert?"
I picked myself up from the wreckage of the stairs and tried to brush some of the dust off. No bones appeared to be broken, but I felt the bruises and couple of small cuts.
My eyes were beginning to adjust and I could see that it wasn't so dark down here after all. Here and there were little shafts of light coming from the ceiling above. Not a lot of light, but it did help. I couldn't see a window anywhere. This really was a hidden basement, though not a very big one. It seemed curiously small for such a large house.
I didn't care. The main issue I was facing was how to get the hell out of here. Looking around I spotted old wooden crates stacked in a corner. Off in the distance I could make out Anne, feeling along the walls. I dragged the crates over and started stacking them up under the secret kitchen door. All the while wondering about that blast of icy cold air that had blown past me before the door slammed and the world went out from under me. Was that a ghost?
With the last crate in place, I climbed up on top to see if I could open the door. To my surprise there was a small pull handle way up in the middle. For some reason, I had expected it to be lower. At any rate, it was out of reach. I tried to get my fingers under the bottom of the door, but to no avail. I was frustrated. How were we going to get out? Any second now, I expected Anne to announced that she had found the Foster fortune. That'd be great: we'd be rich! Right here. Til we starved to death in the dark. Would it get so bad that we would have to eat wood and dust? Worse than that, what if I died first? She probably wouldn't hesitate to start a fire and roast her devoted boyfriend. She'd probably say something like, "For a boy with no taste, you sure taste good."
I climbed down from the crates, thinking I could maybe find another secret door somewhere, maybe one to the outside. I heard a shuffling noise in the kitchen above. Instinctively I looked up. The secret door was slowly opening, creaking on it's hinges. My heart beat faster. There was nobody in the kitchen. This was all gettin' to be too much for me.
"Oh good, you got the door open. Come and look at this." She was a few feet away and I could see better now that the kitchen door had opened itself. "This part of the wall is covered in beaded board. When I knock on it, you can hear that there's concrete behind it." She was making her way along the wooden part of the outside wall, knocking every foot or so. "But why would anyone cover a cement wall in ceiling board? Unless they were trying to hide something."
No sooner had the words left her lips than her knuckles rapped out a hollow sound. "Aha," she said, sounding immensely satisfied with herself.
"Oh no, not another 'Aha'. I haven't recovered from the last one yet," I said. I wanted so much to climb up those crates and run out of this strange house and never look back.
"We're about to be rich. Shut up." She pushed on the hollow-sounding part of the wall and just like in the kitchen, there was creaking as a secret door slowly swung away from us, slowly swung into an even darker abyss. There was no light at all in there. None.
There was a boom over us, coming out of nowhere. It sounded like something extremely heavy had fallen to the floor in the room right over our heads. A fine mist of dust came cascading down onto us. We both cowered, not sure if the house was about to collapse. After a minute, the dust settled and there was no further noise.
I looked at her. "Now what the hell was that? The house reacting to you knocking on walls? I don't think so! Can we please get the hell out of here?"
"I don't know what that was. Maybe a piece of furniture fell over as the house settled; I don't know." As she spoke, I could see her breath, the way you do on a cold winter day. I could see my breath, too. "We can't give up now: we found the hidden room."
I said, "I know we found it. That's great. But have you not noticed all the wierd stuff that's been going on the whole time we've been here? Maybe somebody doesn't want us to find the money."
"A little noise in an old house? That's hardly wierd, Derek."
"Have you felt how cold it got once you opened that door? I can see my breath, and yours. Now that's wierd this time of year, even in a basement in an old house."
"Well, it was just trapped air that's been below ground and hasn't warmed up yet. Nothing to worry about. Besides, don't you want to see what's in there?"
She had me there. As scared as I was by everything, I was very curious about whether the legends about the Fosters was true. Still, it was so damn dark in there. You couldn't see walls or floor or anything. Besides, I knew there was no way that Anne was going to leave now.
We stepped into the doorway together, shivering from the strange cold. She stopped, I moved forward a couple of feet. I turned to her. She was a silhouette in the gloom. "What is it?", I asked.
"I feel like I'm being watched," she said slowly, "by several sets of eyes. Do you feel that?"
"No, I don't." I was taken aback by her change of heart. "What happened to Miss Gung-Ho?"
"I can feel a cold stare." Her hair was moving in a breeze, a breeze I didn't feel. I couldn't see her face, but felt her sudden fear. It was like an emotion she had never considered feeling before.
"Alright," I offered, "I'll check it out. Just stay there." I turned to look into the blackness. "I wish we had brought a flashlight."
She didn't reply.
I felt a cold chill start at the base of my spine and shoot up to my neck. Even though I couldn't see my skin, I knew there were goose bumps everywhere. I had the feeling I was surrounded. I heard breathing; it wasn't mine, it wasn't Annes' and it was coming from beside my ears. What the hell?, I thought.
I heard Anne scream and fall. As I spun around the door slammed shut, plunging me into complete darkness. "Anne?! Are you alright?" I shouted. I heard no reply and knew instinctively that she was outside. I moved toward where I thought the door had been and down I went, tripped over something unseen. I lay there for a moment, trying to get my bearings. Ahead of me was a thin sliver of prescious light creaping in under the door. I started to get up when I felt a boot kick me in the ribs. I went down again.
Suddenly, I could hear the sound of several boots walking around me in a circle, and a jingling sound. Spurs! An unseen boot slammed into me on the other side of my ribcage, the spur jangling. I balled up and tried to rise and make toward the door. A rain of fists came down upon me out of the blackness. I screamed in pain and lashed out with my arms to try to ward off the blows.
They backed off a bit and I stood upright and staggered to the door, pounding on it. "Anne! Open the door!" No sound from outside, just the boots and spurs still circling. I felt fists strike the small of my back and I careened backwards onto the floor. A boot kicked me in the thigh, another in the side of my face. Each time I could hear the spurs jingle.
Again I managed to get to my feet and stumble to the door. I banged on it, real panick settling in. "Anne! For God's sake open the door!" I felt a boot stomp the back of my knee and I went down again. Then there was creaking and a small shaft of light pierced the darkness. I scrambled to the door and grabbed the edge with my fingers and pulled.
Before the door would open enough for me to get out, I felt the weight of unseen bodies thrust against it, my fingers getting caught on the jamb. The pain was excruciating! If I didn't do something fast, I was going to die in here.
"Anne, push on the door!" I screamed. With renewed desparation I forced my throbbing fingers to pull harder than ever. Under my breath I muttered, "Let me outta here, you bastards! Keep your damn money!"
The resistance on the door slackened and I pulled it open, just enough to slip through. It slammed shut behind me. Annes' arms wrapped around me, displacing the chill. "Are you okay?" she asked. "What the hell happened in there? I heard scuffling. It sounded like a fight. Is there somebody in there?"
After I caught my breath I said, "Yeah, several somebodies. Only they don't got no 'bodies' just fists and boots." I looked up at her. "There's no money in there. Just ghosts."
"Are you sure? Maybe we can go get a flashlight and come back. You can draw whatever it is out and I'll slip in and look around." She was still not giving up. In that moment, I did. No girl was worth this.
I straightened up and said, "We're going now."
She said, "Oh no, we're not. Not until I know for sure."
Before I could argue with her, the door to the secret room slowly opened in front of us. We turned and watched. Shadows were coming towards us. I heard the crunch of cowboy boots on the floor and the sound of spurs. I grabbed Annes' hand and pulled her behind me as I headed for the doorway to the kitchen.
I clambored up the crates and dragged myself onto the kitchen floor. Turning around I reached down and pulled her up. She was no sooner up than the crates fell back into the gloom of the basement. I could hear the boots and spurs and see three shadows in the shape of men, trying to get through the door. I pulled it closed and we went into the hall, making for the front door. Doors were slamming throughout the place, making the whole house shake.
We were through the front door and out into the johnson grass. You could still hear the doors slamming inside and the house rattling. In my panic, I couldn't find my bike! I screamed at Anne, "Where's the bike?" She didn't reply. She was standing still, facing the house. I was too spooked to yell at her, so I kept looking for our only way out of here.
Finally I found it, got it started, and turned to look for Anne. She was a few feet away, staring at the house. "Come on," I said. Then I saw what she was seeing.
The front door was opened and standing on the porch were three dark shapes, the shadows from the basement. They were staring at her and she was staring right back.
I said firmly, "Anne. We have to go. NOW."
She turned, climbed on behind me, and we sped away. Rounding the corner and getting to the top of the hill where we had stopped on the way here, I brought the bike to a stop. We were both breathing hard. There across the road, in the field of tall grass stood the old Foster ranch house. What my mind was thinking she put into words, "Did that just happen?"
I looked down for a moment. Blood from a cut somewhere on my face dropped onto my jeans. Another drop landed on the bike's tank. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure it did."
"I don't know. I still think you could distract whatever they are and I can slip into that hidden room and get the money." She never gave up. And why was it me that would do the distracting?
Before I could answer, I noticed movement in the johnson grass next to the house. "Look," I said.
"What the-" she blurted out. The grass was parting, in three places, like the wake of a boat on a lake. And they were headed right for us. "Damn," she said.
I didn't say anything, just twisted the throttle and the bike spewed gravel behind us. At the next turn in the road I looked back. On that hill where we had stopped were three shadows in the middle of the road.