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Dead grass crunched under the two men's feet as they stumbled about the darkened woods. The trees overhead were devoid of leaves, their branches seeming to reach out towards them. As they walked, the man in back looked up. The moon hung low in the sky, casting a dim glow across the woodlands. He looked back towards the man in front.
"How much further?"
The man in front looked back towards him, adjusting his ball-cap.
"Dude, you've got to stay quiet. It shouldn't be more than a few minutes."
The man in back shivered as a cold wind howled down the path. He'd figured that his friend was full of it when he told him about the haunted farmstead, but he hadn't thought he'd take the deception this far. Now, here we are, he thought, about to freeze to death in the middle of nowhere. He jammed his pockets into his hoodie and looked back ahead.
"Rich, if I just tell you I believe you, can we go back to the bar?"
Richard stopped. He turned back towards the man with a look of irritation.
"Jim, I've known you for thirty goddamn years and you never passed up doing something like this. But just because it's a bit cold you're gonna puss out?"
"Look, man, it's not that I don't believe you. It's just that I told Martha I was going out more than an hour ago. What if she calls?"
"I love you like a brother, Rich, but I'm not gonna lie to my wife."
Richard crossed his arms. A look of disdain on his face.
"We used to do stupid shit like this all the time. You remember the silo?"
Jimmy sighed. He remembered, of course. Many years before, he and a gang of friends decided to check out an old silo outside town. When they got there, Rich bet that he couldn't climb to the top. Jimmy had never been one to pass up a bet, so he started climbing. Three days in an emergency room and a hefty scolding from his father later, he learned that would be a poor decision. He remembered it fondly, though. Rich and his friends came to visit all the time, sneaking him candy from the hospital cafeteria.
Richard's voice broke him from his reminiscence. He looked back over to him, silently noticing how different he looked from his childhood friend.
"Yeah, yeah. I remember," Jim replied.
Richard rolled his eyes, looked down the trail, then back to Jim.
"Look, it's only a couple more minutes of walking. This place is gnarly, but if it sucks, I'll pay you for the gas. Ok?"
Jim sighed and smiled.
"Fine," he said, "but you better pay in full."
The two men continued trudging down the path, the banshee scream of the wind echoing around them. Every so often, clouds rolled over, bathing the trail in darkness. In those moments, the two men stood close, guided by their flashlights. Jimmy continued to recall old memories from his childhood as he walked.
He remembered going through middle school, meeting his future wife, even his father trying to teach him how to drive. Jim failed, horribly, and managed to crash the car through the garage door. He lived in a pretty small town, so word got around pretty quickly. Jim soon found himself the butt of many of his friend's jokes. Rich always stood by him, even when people mocked him. It was little wonder, he thought, that they'd stayed friends ever since.
As the decrepit buildings came into view, the two men stopped. Richard turned to Jim.
"There she blows. Ya know, I heard the guy who lived here chopped up his whole family with a hatchet."
Richard chuckled. Jim shook his head.
"Yeah, and I'm sure he ate the bodies too."
The two men laughed and started down towards the buildings. Urban exploration, as they called it, was something the two had enjoyed as kids. There was something oddly fascinating, Jim thought, about abandoned places. They'd explored nearly every abandoned building around town; with most of the mining companies leaving before Jim was born, they were never in want for something new to explore.
The clearing was nearly empty, save for the few remaining buildings. Jim looked up in awe at the rusted windmill, still creaking away. Ahead laid an old ranch-style home. The windows were shattered, dust and cobwebs covering the furniture that remained. A rotting armchair faced a television with a broken screen while piles of rotting leaves laid about the room. The whole place smelled strange, like a combination of decay and iron. Richard walked over and kicked an old, rock fireplace on the wall. A torrent of dust poured out onto the floor, accompanied by the skeleton of a dead bird. A handful of maggots laid in its open stomach, a large chunk missing from its broken corpse.
"Gross," Richard said.
Jim walked over, nudged the body, and shrugged.
"It's just a skeleton, ya puss."
Rich pushed him, jokingly.
"I knew that."
As the men wandered the decimated room, Jim remembered something Richard had said, back when the two were at the bar. Richard had mentioned something about his wife, Anne. Jim remembered when Rich came to him, crying and sobbing about how she was going to die. Apparently, she'd been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Richard told him that the doctors couldn't take it out, that it was buried too deep in her head. Jim couldn't recall a time when Richard was more depressed. He'd disappear for days on end, always coming back haggard and red-eyed. Jim turned to Richard, who was examining a rusted oil lamp.
"Hey, Rich. How's your wife?"
"Your wife, Anne? You mentioned her before we came out. How is she?"
Rich turned sullen, setting the lamp down as he spoke.
"She's, uh, she's doing ok. Doctor'd given her a few months to live, but she recovered. They said it shouldn't be possible. I dunno, I'm just happy she's alive. I don't know what I'd do without her."
He smiled. Then, he nodded towards a door on the other end of the room.
"Hey, you wanna check out the basement?"
Jim shrugged and the two walked over to the door. It was a thick, oaken door with a rusted bronze handle. Richard tried to open it, but it stuck fast. The two men struggled to open the door until it finally relented. The stairs down to the basement were coated in mold and dust; they creaked as the two stepped into the darkened room. It was eerily silent as the men shone their flashlights around. All manner of trinkets lined the walls, from old dolls to mirrors and coats.
Jim looked around, examining everything he could. The room was almost completely silent, save for the quiet blowing of the wind outside and the occasional drip of water. That's weird, Jim thought. The water shouldn't still be running out here. As he looked about the room, Rich stumbled around the ancient toys and eased his way past a pile of broken scrap metal. Jim's eyes fell on the wall; deep, painful looking scratch marks coated the stone. He looked over to Rich, who had cleared some of the junk to reveal a large metal door.
"Hey, Rich. Maybe we should go."
Rich looked back at him, ushering him towards the door.
"Hold on, dude. You've gotta see this."
As Jim sauntered over, Rich managed to force the door open. The two men stood, peering into the darkness. The room was unnaturally cold. Jim could see his own breath as he stared into the abyss. For a brief moment, he thought he saw something moving, but he passed it off as a figment of his imagination. He clicked on the flashlight and stepped into the room. The walls were much the same as those in the cellar, but the scratches seemed far more pronounced. Curious, Jim went to examine one.
He had just begun to touch the cold, rocky wall when the door slammed shut. He was bathed in total darkness, save for the glow of the flashlight. Jim quickly ran to the door, pounding on it.
"Rich! Rich, open the door!"
Cold sweat ran down his back as he heard something shuffle behind him. Richard's voice, though muffled, came through the door.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry Jim. I had to do it."
Jim's eyes bulged as the scraping grew ever closer.
"What the fuck are you talking about?! Let me out!"
"I had to. I really did. It made the offer. I didn't want to lose her."
Richard had started sobbing as Jim slammed his fists against the door. Fatigue eventually got to him and he collapsed against the icy steel. The scraping grew closer as Jim began to cry. Richard spoke again.
"It said that all I had to do was give it someone I cared about. That was all it asked. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't want it to happen like this."
Jim wept, quietly, as the scraping grew in intensity. He raised his flashlight towards it. The light bathed the creature as it ground one of its enormous claws against the wall. It was about the height of a man, but it hunched forward as its eyeless face stared at him. Its skin was a shade of sickly tan, with ulcers and rotting flesh dangling from its body. As the light illuminated the room, another creature appeared from behind the first. Its lips curled back to reveal a set of rotten, human-like teeth. Behind it, another appeared, and another. Jim quivered in horror as the first crawled forward on all fours. Its face came within inches of his. Its breath stank of blood and vomit. Its enormous claw reached forward and grasped his arm. Jim screamed.
Richard sat against the door, sobbing as the screams resounded from behind him. He could hear every crunch of bone, every snap of sinew as his best friend was consumed. He stood up and brushed the dust off his coat. The door creaked loudly as he opened it once more. Blood and detritus covered the walls. Small piles of skin and muscle laid on the floor before him. It took everything in his power to keep from vomiting at the sight. Richard could hear them stumbling about in the blackness.
"I covered my end of the deal. You do your thing. She'd better make it the rest of the month."
With that, he shut the door and walked outside. He made his way back down the trail, moon shining brightly in the clear night sky. Tears slowly ran down his face as he walked. How much longer can I keep this up? He thought. Richard eased back into his truck, wiped his eyes, and drove back into town.
Craig sat on the couch, a cold beer in his hand as he flipped through channels. He finally settled on the news after skipping another infomercial. A busty blonde in a revealing dress talked about a spat of disappearances over the last two months. Craig sipped the last drop from the bottle and set it to his side as the blonde passed off to a well-trimmed man at the sports desk. A pizza box sat nearby, providing his dingy apartment with the odor of pepperoni and hot sauce. He jumped slightly as his door rattled. Craig stood up, brushed the crumbs from his shirt and opened the door. The bright light of day blinded him for a moment, but his eyes eventually adjusted to reveal his childhood friend.
"Oh, hey Rich. It's been a while."