The sky was overcast, but it was not cold enough for coats. “You know, Carter, it’s been over a week since we’ve been on an exciting adventure. Is it that we’ve seen everything around here and need to explore farther out?”
Carter and Kat were sitting under their favorite shade tree by the river where they discussed most of their exploration plans. The children were best friends. They were both twelve years old, and since they were the only two children who lived in their small community, numbering eleven houses within walking distance of each other, it had always been a challenge for the two to find things they enjoyed doing. The one thing that they enjoyed doing together was exploring and going on adventures. They referred to their relationship as a partnership in the business of adventure.
“I’ve been thinking about that myself,” Carter said. The boy was lying on the thin layer of dead leaves that had fallen from the shade tree. He sat up and several leaves stuck to the back of his blond hair. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should explore farther out from our usual stomping grounds. But there are still some things we have not explored that are fairly close.”
Kat had an amused look on her lightly freckled heart shaped face and a twinkle in her green eyes that hinted of a deep affection for her friend. As she reached over and brushed the leaves out of Carter‘s hair she asked, “Like what?”
“Like Half House,” Carter said.
“You mean that house someone started building and never finished? The one that is like two miles away standing out in a field surrounded by tall wild grass?”
“That’s the place. We can ride our bikes as far as the road will take us and then we can walk the rest of the way through the grass. The grass only comes as high as our waists.”
“I don’t know, Carter. That place is really spooky. It has been standing empty out in that field as long as I can remember. There’s no roof, no driveway up to the place; it’s made of that gray concrete brick, and… And I don‘t like the looks of it.” After a pause, she continued, “I don’t like the idea of walking through that tall grass either. The ground probably has holes and rocks we won’t be able to see. One of us could break a leg.”
Carter said, “We’ll be careful. We’ll go during the daytime and walk slow. Come on, Kat. What is it? We’ve traveled to Dearth and back with the Adversary trying to kill us. You’re not just afraid of a few hidden chuckholes or some rocks. What’s really bothering you?”
Kat shrugged and sighed. “You’re right. This seems to be a pretty tame adventure. Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of. Maybe it’s because it seems lame to waste a day going out to a partially built, abandoned house. What do we expect to find? I bet there isn’t anything worth exploring. There’s probably just a slab of concrete for a foundation, a few metal pipes sticking up where sinks and stuff were supposed to go, and partially built walls surrounding it all.”
Carter took a deep breath, looked down, and squeezed a handful of dead leaves to feel them crunch. He looked at his friend and nodded slightly. “You’re probably right, but on the off chance that there’s something more there, don’t you think we should check it out?” I mean it has to have a story. Who built it? Why wasn’t it ever finished? Who owns the land it’s on?”
“True, it is a bit of a mystery. Maybe we should ask around and see if anyone knows anything about it,” Kat suggested.
Smiling, with a bit of a crafty look in his blue eyes, Carter said, “I already did that. That’s one of the reasons I suggested we check it out. Nobody living around us knows anything about it. Even Mrs. Payton, who’s lived here for over sixty years and knows everything about everybody, doesn’t know anything about it. And I checked the last time I rode past the place with my dad; there’s no wire fence around it and no keep out signs.”
“Okay, why not.” Kat stood, brushing dead leaves and grass off her jeans. “It’s still early. We can ride over, check it out, and be back before dark. Do you think we’ll need any equipment or tools?”
Carter pointed at his bicycle and said, “Do you see that small duffel bag on my bike? I brought a flashlight, a couple screw drivers, hammer, bottled water, and even a spade.” He patted his right front pocked. “And I have my new knife you gave me.”
Kat smiled as she thought, I guess that experience we had with the hole incident made an impression on Carter; he is actually trying to be more prepared.
Carter did not see his friend’s expression. He was already climbing onto his bike, eager to get started.
It was a bit of a ride to Half House, but the adrenalin was pumping, and they were a little scared and a lot excited, so the ride didn’t seem long at all. They were eager and ready to face the unknown once again. Carter grabbed his small duffel bag, reached in, and took out a couple water bottles. He handed one to Kat. “Here, have some water before we hike up to the house.”
Kat took the bottle and after a long drink said, “After driving by it for so many years, it just becomes part of the scenery. Now that I’m focused on it, I have to admit that it looks even creepier than I remember.”
“You’re just nervous. I’ll wager we will be disappointed because there will be nothing there worth seeing.” Carter put the cap back on his water bottle, shoved it in his bag, and slung the bag on his shoulder. “Let’s get moving, but be careful. I’ll go first; you step where I step.”
Finishing her water, Kat left the empty bottle by her bike and fell in behind Carter--careful to step where he stepped. The grass was brown, thick, and came up to their waists. Going was slow because the boy was not able to see the ground clearly under the thick grass. He had to test each step before he trusted his weight to it. It turned out that their concerns about the ground being dangerously uneven were unwarranted. The two explorers reached the unfinished building without incident. The ground surrounding the structure was bare, gravely, and extended some three feet out from the walls.
There was a slight breeze that blew through the openings in the structure and carried with it a smell of rotting meat. “Oh that’s nasty!” Carter said, pinching his nose. “I think something died in there.”
The wall in front of the children had a single window opening that was too high for them to see into the building. The rancid stench was enough to cause Kat to suggest that they end their quest then and there. “I don’t care if we can’t see what’s causing that odor. I want to leave; I’ve had a bad feeling about this from the start. This smell is all the proof I need that we should end this and go home.”
“What’s with you, Kat? I don’t remember you being this resistant to an adventure before. Who was it that insisted on climbing the ladder up to the hayloft at the Wilson barn at midnight to see the ghost of Jimmy Wilson? Who was it that insisted we walk through a predator-infested jungle to try to get help for the Graylong people? This isn’t like you. What’s really bothering you?”
“Okay, but don’t laugh. When I was little, I used to have nightmares about this place. It’s been years since I’ve had them, but when I did, I always dreamed that there was trapdoor inside that led down these dark stairs. I knew there was something waiting for me at the bottom. It frightened me so much that I always woke up before I reached the bottom.”
“They were just dreams. Let’s walk around to the entrance. You’ll see that there is no trap door, no stairs, and nothing to be afraid of,” Carter said, confidently.
Kat nodded and the two quickly found a gap in the wall. It was easy to see that Kat’s earlier predictions about the concrete foundation with pipes sticking up for fixtures were accurate. Once inside the partially built structure, the stench was much stronger. “Look, Kat.” Carter pointed off to their left to a large pile of empty dog and cat food cans. “That’s where the smell is coming from. There’s a pile of empty dog food cans. Oh! Be careful. I see mice rummaging through them.”
“Okay, I’ve seen enough.” Kat shuddered. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Hold on a minute. Aren’t you even a little curious about where these cans came from? And why just dog food? Why not peas, fruit cocktail, sardines? Let’s at least walk a little farther in and check things out.”
There were no inner walls, but the enclosed area was so large that it was necessary for the two to move a bit farther in to see that there actually was a wooden trapdoor near the center. When Kat saw the trapdoor, she froze. She shook her head and began to back away. Carter could see the fear in her eyes.
“Kat, it’s okay. It’s just a coincidence--nothing more. You stay back and I’ll check it out.”
“No. You’re right. Let’s check it out together. Go ahead and take out your flashlight. I think we should knock. It’s possible that someone is living down there.”
“Hmm, good thinking.”
While Carter searched in his duffel bag, Kat stooped down and knocked on the trapdoor. To their surprise, they heard a clatter like something falling. “What was that?” Kat jumped up and stepped back.
“Sounds like someone’s down there.” Carter kneeled down and called trough the door, “Hello, is anyone down there?” After hearing nothing more, the boy knocked and repeated, “Hello.” After knocking again and failing to elicit a response, Carter called, “If there is someone down there, I just want you to know, we’re going to try and open the door.”
“Carter, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Let’s just let this one go. I think we should leave. Besides, it’s getting late.”
“You step back if you want. I’m going to try the door.”
“Oh, just do it, but be careful.”
Carter grabbed a metal handle on the door and pulled; it was not locked. The boy lifted it slowly and saw concrete stairs disappear into the dark. “Hello. Is there anyone down there?” Carter pointed his light down the stairs. The light reflected off something round and white hovering about six feet above the floor. It took only a second for Carter’s eyes to focus and his brain to realize that what he was looking at was a human skull. Startled, he shouted and dropped the door with a loud slam.
“What! What did you see?” Kat was backing away from the door and was about to bolt out of the building.
Carter seriously considered joining her, but then he paused. “Wait a minute. Just wait a minute.”
“What? Why? What’s going on? What did you see, Carter?”
“Okay, don’t freak out on me. I saw a floating skull.” Seeing the panicked look on his friend’s face, he quickly added, “But there was something fake about it. In fact, it looked like the skull mask I wore last Halloween and threw away because it was cracked.”
With a trembling voice Kat asked, “Even if that’s true , what’s it doing here?”
“I don’t know if it’s the same one. My point is that if it’s a fake, then we do not have to be afraid of it.”
“What about the person who put it there? Maybe the skull was put there to frighten people away. You heard the clatter when I first knocked. It obviously startled whoever’s in there.”
“Or it startled whatever’s in there.”
What little blood was left in Kat’s face drained out. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well what about the cans of pet food? Maybe someone is hiding something in there, and they have a dog guarding it.”
“If that’s true , I would expect to hear barking.” Kat said.
“Maybe…” After a long thoughtful pause Carter said, “The only way to get to the bottom of this mystery is to go in.” Seeing that Kat was about to protest, he quickly added, “Someone may need our help.”
“Or someone may just want to be left alone,” the girl suggested.
“Either way, I’m going to find out for myself. You stay here and if I’m not back in five minutes or if you hear me yell, go for help.”
Kat nodded. “Be careful.”
Carter lifted the trapdoor and laid it all the way open. With flashlight in hand, he started his descent.
Kat stood watching with a worried look.
“Hello down there,” Carter called. I’m just a kid. I mean you no harm. I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
Carter was far enough down the steps that he could see that the skull was just a toy mask. From the crack in the right cheekbone area, he recognized it as the one he threw away. Whoever was living in the basement had gone through Carter’s garbage.
Then it happened. A weak voice called from the darkness. “Go away. I do not need any help. I just want to be left alone.”
There was so much pain and hopelessness in that voice that Carter suddenly realized what he was dealing with. There were no monsters or vicious dogs at the bottom of these steps. There was just a poor homeless soul who had taken shelter in the basement of this unfinished, forgotten ruin.
Carter looked up the stairs at Kat and motioned her to join him. Together, they continued to the bottom of the steps. Pointing his flashlight around, the partners could see that the basement was only a small storage area about seven feet deep and ten by ten feet square. Resting on the floor in a back corner was a thin, young man dressed in rags. He had a shaggy beard, long dirty hair, and sad eyes. He appeared to be in his early twenties. There was no light in the basement, so when Carter shined his light at the man, he covered his eyes with his forearm and said, “Go away. I’m not hurting anybody. Please, leave me alone.”
The boy pointed the light down. The children saw that next to the man there was a half empty can of pet food with an old spoon sticking out. The mystery of the pile of empty pet food cans outside was clear now. They were the discarded containers of this poor fellow’s diet.
The room also contained a couple large, black plastic bags full of aluminum cans and plastic bottles that could be recycled. This was obviously the source of the man’s income. He had been able to collect just enough money by scavenging things to sell to a recycler to purchase and live off dog food.
Kat was so moved by what she saw that she kneeled down and looked into the man’s face. “Who are you? How is it that you came to be here? Do you own this property?”
The poor man began to weep. He covered his face with his dirty hands and sobbed. The children did not know what to do, so they waited. When the man regained control of himself, he wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve. He cleared his throat and said, “My father is very rich, you know. He sent me to college.”
Seeing that the young man was going to share his story, the partners sat down on the floor.
Looking at the children he said, “My name is Matt, Mathew Solomon.”
“I’m Carter, and this is Kat. We live near here.”
“Yes. I know; I’ve seen you around sometimes when I…” Matt trailed off as the looked at his bags of recyclables.
Turning his gaze back to the children, he continued. “I told my father that I did not want to live at home anymore, and that if he did not give me enough money to live on for at least four years while I went to college, I would leave, and he would never see me again. He gave me a small fortune, more than I expected. I took the money and left. I attended school for almost a year, but all I did was party. I moved into an expensive apartment off campus and I rented limos almost every week, trying to look the big shot. It was great.” Matt smiled, but it was a sad smile. “I had lots of friends. At least I thought they were my friends. And girls always wanted to be with me… Then, one day, it was all gone. The money ran out, and I found that I didn’t have any friends. No one would help me. The women who said they wanted to spend their lives with me were all gone too.
“After I was evicted, I wandered the streets until I found that it was too dangerous. I went to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and rode as far as my ride would take me. He let me off in the middle of nowhere. I walked for miles, slept on the ground under trees, and when I was almost spent, I saw the little café and convenience store a couple miles from here. I had enough change in my pocket to buy a cup of coffee and a doughnut. After that, I wandered around and I happened upon this half-built house. I checked it out and found the basement. It was shelter; I needed some place to stay. I collect cans and bottles and sell them to the recycle guy who shows up at the convenience store once a week. It’s enough to buy my food. It’s not so bad if you’re really hungry.” Matt was silent for a while, his eyes unfocused, staring at nothing. His mind was some place far away. His lips started to quiver, and tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. “I treat myself to a doughnut and coffee once in awhile.”
“I don’t understand,” Kat said. “You said your father is rich and yet you live in a hole and eat dog food? Why don’t you go home? No matter how bad things are with your family, anything is better than this. You have no life. You are miserable and you’re not well.”
Matt looked at the girl and said, “My father is a good man. He always tried to teach me that the way to have a gratifying happy life was to work hard and make a difference in the world. He wanted me to be a responsible, principled man. But I thought I was smarter than him. I thought I knew how to live and be happy. Now look at me. Look at what I’ve become. I am too ashamed to go home and face him.”
“But he’s your father. He loves you,” said Carter. “You said he’s a good man. He wouldn’t want you to live like this. Trust him. Go home and tell him you’re sorry.”
Matt sat up a bit straighter; he had a look of hope in his eyes. “Yes. Even my father’s servants live like kings compared to this. I’ll go home, and ask him to let me prove to him that I’ve changed. I’ll ask him for a job and pay back all the money I squandered. But how will I get home? I have no money, and no one will want to give me a ride. I’m a wreck of a man.”
“We’ll help you,” Kat said.
“Yes,” Carter agreed. “I have enough money you can buy a bus ticket. There’s a bus that stops at the convenience store every Friday--that’s tomorrow. My dad has some old cloths you can have. Meet us at the store tomorrow at noon. We will buy you lunch. You can change clothes in the restroom and catch the bus at 3:00 p.m.”
“You children are so kind, but I cannot take your money. I will have to find some other way to get back.”
Kat shook her head. “This is the only way. Don’t make us blackmail you. If you do not let us help, we will tell the sheriff you’re here, and he will arrest you for trespassing.”
Matt smiled at Kat and said, “I think you just did blackmail me. All right, but I’m going to find a way to repay you. I know your addresses. There are only eleven houses in your village and I have been through everyone’s garbage cans.”
Everything went according to plan. Three weeks later, Carter received a letter with a money order for considerably more than the cost of the buss ticket and lunch. The letter read:
My dear friends,
You were right about everything. As I walked up the drive to my father’s house, I saw him standing at the front window as if he was watching for someone. I learned later that everyday, he stood for hours watching and praying that I would return home. When he saw me, he ran out of the house and embraced me and forgave me everything. I owe you both so much; I cannot begin to thank you. Knowing your kind spirits, I knew that if I sent you a check to repay your kindness, you would simply destroy it. So I have sent you a money order. It is as good as cash and cannot be returned--thus, no return address. Of course no amount of money will repay what you have done for me, so I will repay you by showing the same selfless love to others that you have shown to me. And now I will say goodbye, knowing that two beautiful souls such as yours will never make the mistakes I have made. Your lives will no doubt be a blessing to all you meet as you journey through life.
Your friend forever,
This story was based on the main characters from the novel, Beyond the Dead Forest. This book can be purchased from most online bookstores. fiction, adventure, children, kids, young adult, spooky, thrilling, teaching story, Sunday school lesson, children's church, home schooling, prodigal son, drama, mystery