Prologue prologue SPRING
One of the girls found out about the house first. It was always this way; one heard the story and told the others, and so the secret was passed down, girl to girl, generation to generation. She heard her mother talking about it, about something that had happened there before the girl was born, something bad. This secret place still existed, hidden in the woods, waiting to be found again.
And so, one spring afternoon, the girl led her friends around the curve in the road where the field stopped and the woods began. Partway along, she slowed down, searching for the spot where the fence was only hooked over the nails. Easy to pull back; easy to hide. They hid their bikes just inside the woods and followed the old road. Insistent undergrowth pulled at their legs like barbed seaweed, but they kept moving deeper. “Why would you build a house in here?” “Are you sure this is where she said it’d be?” “Maybe it’s gone now.” None of them were willing to say that they wanted to turn around, that as soon as they’d crossed into these trees, they knew this wasn’t a place for them. And then they tumbled into the clearing. And there, alone and asleep, was the Octagon House.
They went inside. Of course they went inside.
Their feet crunched over decades’ worth of broken beer bottles, leaves, animal droppings, and scattered remains of garbage, all of it turned a uniform shade of dust. The girls shivered and wanted to hug themselves but didn’t. They walked carefully around the two large rooms on the first floor. They glanced up the decayed stairs to the second floor. They looked at the strange door, too large for a regular door and made of metal instead of wood. “It must lead to the basement,” they said. They wiggled the latch, but it was broken, the door firmly shut. The girls were quietly grateful for that. They wandered back into the old kitchen where they had started, kicking at the garbage, wondering what to do next.
But the one who had brought them returned to that metal door. It was once dark green, but rust had spread over most of its surface, slowly gnawing its way through. Nothing stays hidden forever, she thought. And then she remembered how her mother had sounded when she’d talked about this house, that old fear coming awake again. She heard the others and turned to follow them. Just as she did, there was a click, and the door began to slide open. The air that escaped was cold and wet and smelled of earth and rot. Go, she thought, they’re leaving. But her legs wouldn’t move. The door opened farther, and now she could see the top of old wooden stairs.
She wanted to look.
She didn’t want to look.
She dared herself to look.
Only darkness, but there, on the lowest stair: something. She leaned into the doorway and looked down. She took out her phone and shone the light into the darkness, but that only made shadows, so she turned it off again. And in that millisecond, the instant between the light and the dark—
The voice was inside her head, but it wasn’t hers.
Her friends called out to her: “Are you coming?” They were already at the door, stepping out of the grip of the house like it was nothing. She was alone.
Help me leave this place.
She pulled herself away and ran to them.
The girls bolted across the clearing, giddy with adrenaline and release. And as they disappeared into the woods, the door shut. But it would open again. The house was awake now.
She would come back. They always came back.