For those of you who liked "A Hanging Lantern", I have good news for you. I plan on turning it into a series with the original as a prelude. The version you are reading right now is a somewhat abridged version. I'm trying to balance a word count with style, if you wish the story were longer and more descriptive, please let me know in the comments section.
My psychiatrist suggested that I return to that place that has left me with nightmares for the past 5 years. He suggested that visiting that place may put some of my fears to rest. I initially rejected his proposal considering that the person who abducted me was never caught and there was never enough evidence to even mark someone as a suspect. He reminded me, as did the police many years ago, that the threat would have most likely moved on, and if any of the locals had a hand in it, they would have fled with a heavy clouded suspicion following close behind. They also pointed out that all twelve of the bodies were decayed beyond being identifiable. They concluded that the victims were drawn from cities far away as the number of missing persons in that sleepy little town were next to none that is technically, with the exception of me.
I never planned on returning home, but something greater than overcoming my fears lured me back. May I point out that I am not a city man? Sure the sprawling metropolis offered protection from a killer that I feared would be hunting me down. In a city with millions of people, I could hide. I could blend in with a crowd and no one would ever suspect my past, or even think to ask. To them, I would just be a stranger that would pass them on the sidewalk, and a face they would look upon once and never give a second thought to. This is what pained me the most. The protections were also my bane. I felt isolated despite the many people that surrounded me. As a human, I felt a strong disconnect from what actually made me a person. This pulled me into the depths of a long and dark depression which only exacerbated my mental health.
When you come from a town where there are fewer people than nails in a box, you begin to miss your natural environment as well. I longed for the clean and crisp air of an open sky. I often cried with the absence of lush and green herbage. I longed for the openness that would let me walk about the earth with the feeling of true freedom. Most of all, I missed the shimmering of a blanket of stars who's only back drop was a pure sheet of the most beautiful and mysterious black. The pollution of the air, the ubiquitous presence of concrete, my single bedroom apartment, and the sky marred with a sickly yellow glow from the street lights offered me no solace.
That's what finally brought about my homecoming. One fine day, I returned home and checked into the local hotel. The original plan was to simply visit for a few days and reacquaint myself to familiar sights. Then, if I was up to it, I would move back and reclaim what had been taken from me. At least that was the way I hoped it would go. Instead there was a series of events that triggered a different mentality to the problem and it turned out to be one that I would have to face head-on regardless of my harbored fears.
All of these things were what brought me to the banks of that pond once more. I'll admit that there were several times during my long walk out there that I second guessed myself for my journey. Yet, I pressed on in the afternoon sun until the image of the decrepit house and the water it stood by came into view. I stepped softly through the long grass with the occasional bumble bee and humming bird buzzing from wild flower to wild flower. I too had my own flowers to bear. To my chest I held a dozen red roses.
The flowers were not for me. They were for the poor unfortunate souls that met their end before it was due. They were more than just Men and Women. They were brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, sons, and daughters. Unfortunately, their names never surfaced like their remains did. It's a strange thing how water, the liquid of life, can so easily take it away. And in time, it can erase your identity.
Without giving too much praise to my would-have-been-killer, he or she went about it very carefully. They took people from faraway places and dumped them where no one would ever be able to recognize them. I was the unusual exception. I was taken from my hometown and was dumped near my hometown. Sherriff Hanin explained to me that killers often become arrogant and make critical mistakes like that. I never liked how he described it as a mistake. The real mistake was doing something so horrible to twelve people in the first place.
I can't go back in time to stop any of it. I wish I could, but it's impossible. The only thing that I can do is put to rest my survivor's guilt and show the spirits of the dead that I have not forgotten them. These were people that I never knew, but had I been given the chance, they could have been my best friends. I think that alone somehow bonded us, at least in my own mind it did.
That's what drove me further across that grassy field and to the drooping Weeping Willow branch that once held that lantern. The tree itself took on a different persona in the daylight though. Instead of a menacing symbol of the past, it became a cool shelter from the cruel sun's heat and its leaves were like a dull wind chime.
When the pond came into view, I took a long and deep breath of the pure air. This place was starting to become a place of beauty and peace to me. Even the gently rolling waters did not seem to have any dark presence to them. To me, it had become nothing more than a quiet swamp whose only company was the cattails that flanked its perimeter and the birds that sang their song as they stood anchored to the branches of the surrounding trees.
All had become right with world as I placed the flowers on top of the water and gave them a gentle push out into the depths. In that moment, I felt something that I had not felt in the longest time, peace. It felt as if a tremendous burden had been lifted from my shoulders and my feet began to lift from the ground. The broken pieces of my heart and mind began to come together as one again. For the first in years, I smiled with pure bliss as my fears dissipated.
I'm not sure how long I stood there watching the flowers drift further and further out into the pond. Maybe it was only a few minutes, maybe an hour, or maybe it was most of the day, but regardless of the length of time, it was time well spent.
Later on, I explored the area while basking in my new found courage. This proved to be my biggest mistake.
With all the natural beauty the place had to offer, I was somehow drawn to the dilapidated house that stood crooked on the property. The roof had since collapsed onto the floor of the second story since I was last there. A few of the windows were broken by what I assumed to be some rambunctious kids.
I stepped into the old house and the floor boards creaked and flexed under my weight. With every careful step, I sank into the floor ever so slightly. A few loose boards poked through the cracked and discolored plaster on the ceiling, and the walls were in much the same condition. To my right was a crumbling fireplace made out of assorted field stones with the mortar showing its own signs of wear.
Just ahead of me were two doorways leading into two different rooms. The one of the left was inaccessible with a collapsed floor and parts of the upstairs littering the place. There was a chair curiously placed right in front of the wreckage that laid inside. In the other was what once a kitchen. Chipped yellow paint covered the entire area of the cupboards with its own doors hanging wide open or missing all together. Metal pots and pans were scattered throughout the place with their white enamel flaking away from time's passing being only replaced by a dark orange rust. The oven in the corner showed much the same kind of age as the pots and pans. It was all like the family that once lived there left in a hurry, as if there was an impending doom approaching.
I took a step towards the kitchen and screamed in utter surprise and shock. The world I'd know had fallen from underneath me. I landed hard on my back and desperately tried to crawl out of that place, but my right leg had been caught in the now broken floor board in front me. I then sat up and pulled my leg from the crevasse with a sharp pain pulsing in my ankle.
I sat there on the floor for some time rocking back in forth in pain with my hands clasped around the injured limb trying desperately to soothe away the pain. "God fucking damn it!" I screamed into the otherwise silent void of a home. I then started having flashbacks to that night when my ankle was in much the same state as it was now. I continued to curse my pain away as I rolled forward to look into the hole I'd made.
What was in it should have been left there.
I wasn't exactly sure what to think of it at first. Really all it appeared to be was an old plastic shopping bag nestled deep inside of the floor joist. I didn't need to pick it up, I really didn't, but I did. I gave the bag a shake and something was definitely inside of it. What was inside wasn't heavy, but it was heavy enough to spark my curiosity.
After lifting the bag out of the floor, I shuffled my way across the floor to the chair near the collapsed room. I picked myself up and sat in the old chair to let my racing heart slow its pace and to let my ankle heal a bit. Within that time, I opened the old plastic bag to look inside. Resting on the bottom of the bag, was a small stack of white bordered rectangles with squares of colors filling the centers. I removed the stack and examined them closer.
I knew exactly what these things were. They were pictures taken by one of those old Polaroid Instant Print cameras. You know? The kind that you shake? What was on them absolutely destroyed everything that had been restored in me that day.
They were pictures of people.
Every single picture showed a person sitting calmly with their eyes shut and their mouths hanging wide open. Men, women, and some on the border of being children. As I flipped through them, a realization came to me. That sick son of a bitch dragged the victims into this house and took a picture of them before tossing their bodies into the pond! My heart skipped a beat and then nearly exploded when I came upon the final picture. It was me sitting the same as the others in the chair I was in now!
I lost it right then and there. I broke into a sob realizing just how close to death I was that night. A piece of the puzzle fell into place. I was dragged into this house, a picture was taken of me, and I was dragged back outside. Then, the killer walked back to the house to stash away the picture. That is when I woke up and stumbled to the lantern. My God, had I walked to the house that night, I would have been dead!
My trembling fingers put the pictures back into a stack. I knew what I had to do with them. I had to take them to the police and show them. Then maybe, maybe, the nameless would finally be identified. And the killer finally caught. I stood up and hobbled out of that house and shuffled in agony across the long distance once more like I did that night, only less afraid.
When I made it to the road, I got in my car and burned a trail of rubber all the way to town. I headed straight for the police station. Before the officer at the front desk could even ask, I splayed all the pictures in front of her and explained everything to her. She called over Sherriff Hanin and he brought me into an interview room. I swear I repeated my story over a dozen times before he told me to go back to my hotel, but not to leave town.
I knew he had doubts in my story. After all, it’s rather convenient for me to have found these pictures without even trying, even after Hanin and his boys combed that place over and over again without finding anything but the bodies. Yet, I did not fear being blamed for any of it. My mother once told me that a person who speaks the truth has nothing to fear.
Despite the panic that I experienced earlier that day. A sense of peace came back to me at my hotel room. I had somewhat of an epiphany. Maybe it was all meant to be? Perhaps there was a reason there was such a strong pull for me to go into that house? Was I guided by the souls of the deceased to discover the truth? I had a self-assured feeling that it was and I was thankful for it. Finally these people would be identified. Their families would finally know what happened to them. The pictures would be dusted for prints and the killer would be caught.
All of these thoughts went through my mind as I changed clothes and jumped into bed. The warm and soft blankets took me to the edge of sleep, the place I had seldom visited these past five years. The pillow was cool. As I recall, it was too cool. Even damp at times. I wish I would have not given too much thought to it and had just went to sleep without a care in the world. Unfortunately, I saw my curtains shifting away from the window in the night breeze.
I knew the owner did this during the summer to let fresh air keep the room from hot without the use of air conditioners. Nonchalantly, I got out of bed and walked to the window. I opened up the curtains and saw what chilled me to the bone.
Broken. The window was broken.
I ran to the light switch and flicked the room to life. There was no one in there with me, but I did notice something I had not before. Around my pillow was a dark spot on the bedsheets indicating that they were wet. I cautiously stepped to the pillow and put a hand on one of its corners. With a quick pull, I saw what made me scream and collapse onto the floor in sheer terror. There on the bed where the pillow once was, were a dozen soaking wet roses.