Read from the beginning

We went again to the stretch of road where our destination supposedly lay but the entrance to Ringo’s secret hideaway remained an enigma. We drove back and forth again, just like last night, seeing only a wall of impenetrable forest. Even Linda’s hint about road repairs, a section of fresh black macadam, yielded no clues. Dimity sighed impatiently. I breathed mild expletives. I was almost ready to give up completely—launch the car into the river and hitchhike home.

And then, as if revealed by Delphic augury, a dirt trail hidden under a veil of shrubbery flashed across my senses. I wheeled the car off the road and we plunged into a shadowy understory of thick foliage. The entrance became a mouth and the forest sucked us down its sylvan gullet.

Once inside, I followed a clear dirt path that was just wide enough for the car to crawl through. It was a wonderworld of rarest nature. Electric green algae climbed the trunks of trees, and constellations of cartoonish mushrooms grew in fairy circles. The insects seemed doubled in size. Our heads were dizzy with the dank mossy odor that was such a paradise for all things verdant and buzzing. Dimity pulled her nose down into the collar of her blouse and I suppressed a gag reflex, all the while remembering Linda’s grim warning about something called Lurkers who lived in this forest and hoping we could find shelter before they woke up and did whatever it is that Lurkers do to wandering, jejune strays like us.

At last, the sight that we hoped would soon bring an end to this whole adventure and let us return to our normal lives was before us. It was not what I’d expected.

Two Greek columns supporting a wide sculpted archway appeared amid the trees and formed an entrance to a wide space enclosed inside a low granite wall. To our left ran the full banks of the Tionesta Creek gurgling heavily from the recent downpour. We passed through the gates and saw a low stone building with red terra cotta roof and classical architectural features, Romanesque arches, columns with scrolled capitals, and a large oaken door. All of it showed signs of disuse and succumbing to nature—tendrils of ivy grew up the columns, mildew tarnished sculpted features, and everything had a moist greenish hue. A marble birdbath stood solemnly on a landing of flagstone pavers nearly overcome with moss and soggy black twigs, the bath full to the brim with murky rainwater.

We felt we were more than sufficiently isolated from outside view, so we drove in through the archway and parked on the front landing. The European villa before us was a scene completely out of place in an otherwise folksy American woodland, but not at all surprising given that it belonged to my Uncle Ringo. I turned off the car.

I noticed how little wildlife there was, or at least how quiet the little creatures were. A small number of doughty birds watched us in silence from their high branches. The squirrels did not scamper or seem concerned with acorns, they too just sat and looked at us from a distance, hushed, I presumed by the alien noise of the car; or was it the oppressive, damp gloom of the place—the shadows, the air thick with mildew, and the sadness of the woods?

But this was the moment Dimity and I had been after since we fled our city the day before. We’d been jolted internally by the transition from the sunshine and noisy roadway to stifled tranquility under a dome of living matter with ten thousand watching eyes.

Approaching the oaken front door, practically creeping in the stillness and melancholy, we became aware of other new feelings we didn’t understand. It reminded me of the sensations I felt when I first wafted Ringo’s brew that very first day in the basement of my house. This time I felt a quivering in my chest. Dimity felt it too and instinctively grabbed my hand. Suddenly we felt we were intruders, unwelcomed not by the house, but by the only other thing we could see, the forest itself. Were the trees affronted by us, frowning down on two little people with their smelly machine of hot oil and metal and steam?

“Something’s wrong,” she said.

“Yeah. We’re not alone.”

Crushing each other’s hands, we pressed forward to the front door. The knob turned easily enough but the heavy door creaked slowly on its hinges. As the door opened, we visibly perceived the shadows of the landing growing darker, the sun being sucked out of the day, the chill of the morning growing bitterly colder, and the intention of the trees pursuing us to the door. It could only be the trees because there seemed to be nothing else around. But as we stepped onto the threshold of the house we saw the shoulders of a looming figure behind, lumbering, looming, curious and sullen. Twice our size, the shadowy figure was barely distinguishable in the gloom but in the fractions of a second entering the house, it gained form and outline, moving sluggishly forward in mute, unsociable, dim-witted approach.

We scrabbled through the threshold and together heaved the massive door closed. There was a greatly oversized deadbolt that I slammed into position, and we tumbled away from the door, our hearts racing, every muscle ablaze, backing from whatever that was into wherever we were, like an underworld of the unknown. Sight was now dimmer in this dark antechamber lit only by a few remote windows, and as we scrambled away from the door, we ultimately fell backward onto the floor and clung to each other, lost in terror, panic, and blindness.