It stood with white brick, tattered with dirt and age. The door was a rustic red, gaping open in an ivy, spiraled archway. Over the years, it developed rotting wood, the pungent smell of dead rats, creaky floorboards, and the decay of things that had not been touched in decades. This only became clear when inside the house, but nobody dared to take a single step on the property. There were windows looking out at the top of the small cottage. These windows were dirty and cracked, yet dark. There were big holes where the windows had been broken, but all that could be seen from afar was infinite empty space, like a black hole had swallowed everything that made the house a standard place to live. The front door was always open, as if there was no force strong enough to make it move just a single inch. Through that red, paint-peeled doorway, a chair was in view. A single chair of the most repulsing nature. What used to be a large, wooden structure had turned into a rotting, discolored, shriveling pile of wood.
The hill towered at the very perimeter of town. The mossy grass was such a vibrant green; it was as if it had been raining everyday for a year. But it never rained in this dry town. In the center of the village, amongst the small shops and homes, the air was cool and clear. Around the hill, the air was thick with humidity. This had sparked rumors with the older folks in town, claiming that if one older than 60 breathed in that toxic air, it would stop their heart within minutes.
The one elementary school in town was like something out of a storybook. It had red brick intertwined with chalk-filled grout and was always bustling with animated kids. The classrooms were filled with colorful plastic chairs, and the work of fellow students. During snack time, even the youngest kids would talk about that eerie cottage. They said that the house was haunted with ghosts and evil spirits. The older kids would go along with this, mainly as a joke to scare the little ones. Deep down, however, they too had their suspicions about the house.
Some of the mothers and fathers of the town would go to the local coffee shop after dropping their kids off at school. This early in the morning, they could see fog from the morning dew smuggling the hill so only a miniscule portion of the house was seen. Around the circular, wooden tables, steaming coffee in hand, they would converse.
“I don’t want my children going anywhere near that place,” a concerned mother would say.
“I always thought the disappearance of that young girl 10 years ago was linked to that house,” a father would chime in.
Some of the other parents would try to change the subject, too uncomfortable talking about a cottage that could make their own loved children go missing.
It was like they already knew that the new kid in town would let his curiosities get the best of him. It was inevitable. Having not lived there for long, this boy could not have heard the countless rumors and stories about the house. All that was given was a warning to not go near the cottage on the mossy hill. No explanation, just a sharp warning.
The moving truck drove smoothly into town on a sunny Saturday morning. Trailing the truck was a blue van, a family car. But something was off about this family. From the moment the vehicles came to a halt at the friendly blue house, the parents were screaming nasty things at each other and to their son, Troy. With a broad structure, standing at a height of 5’9, he looked older than he was. Merely 13 years old, Troy had to learn to be tough. It was just expected of him when his family moved every two years.
When Troy was in the grossest, grimiest homes, he imagined that he was living in the biggest, most luxurious ones. When he was at a new school and had no friends to talk to, he imagined that he was back home, playing basketball with his friends he had made before he had to pack up his life to move every two years. After talking to the woman who came over with a welcome cake, Troy had something new to think about.
“Welcome!” she had said.
“Hey,” Troy had said while reluctantly opening the door.
“Well, look at you! You look like you would get along with my boys. How old are you?”
“Oh, you’re still so young! You can come out and explore the town… but don’t go into that cottage on the hill,” her tone dropped significantly, showing a more serious side of her.
“What cottage? Why?” Troy had asked, his interest suddenly peaked.
“It is for your own safety, just stay away — Alright, I have to get going now. Say hello to your parents for me!”
And with that, the woman was gone, and Troy was left at the doorway with cake in hand and curiosity skyrocketing.
Now Troy sat on the sturdy steps of his front porch and ate the remaining bits of the cake he had all but devoured. He looked up at the picturesque blue sky and watched the clouds move across his view. He felt the smooth, cold concrete underneath his fingers, identical to all the houses on his street. Cookie cutter houses they were, alike in size and shape. There was something calming about looking at the similar houses. Troy became happy with the idea that if all the houses were perfect and pretty, including his, maybe his family would mold to become just like the other families in those houses too.
He almost began to feel comfortable sitting on that hard, cold porch when his father came clambering down the stairs of the house and out the front door.
“What are doing? You don’t expect us to do all the unpacking while you sit here enjoying yourself do you?” he boomed.
He leaned down, so close to Troy that he could smell the alcohol in his breath.
“No, Sir,” Troy murmured, rolling his eyes.
He immediately hoped that his dad wouldn’t notice. But he did.
“You don’t get to roll your eyes at me. Come on.”
He hastily grabbed Troy by the collar of his shirt and dragged him inside, his muscles bulging as if the weight of Troy was the equivalent of a feather. Troy curled his hand into a fist, debating the possibility of finally fighting back. But he didn’t. He never does.
After staying his first weekend in town, Troy finally had to go to school. He was used to coming part way into the year, but he never quite got used to the smirks and stares that accompanied being the new kid. The long, sharp trill of an alarm clock started Troy’s morning. Just like he had done before every other school, he got dressed, ate breakfast, brushed his teeth, and quickly grabbed his backpack on the way out. On his short walk to school, Troy’s eyes stayed fixated on the glimpse of the cottage that he could see from the rocky path. He didn’t know exactly what was in that house, but he wanted to know.
Troy climbed his way up the wide concrete steps of the school. The doors were propped open with bright, plastic chairs, and he could hear the noise of the other kids lingering. As he walked inside, everything seemed overwhelming. The sounds of eager kids, the aroma of sandwiches and lunch food, and the colorful array of clothing darting all over the hallways into the classrooms. It was like he was moving in fast motion, from the awkward conversation with the principal to being sat in a math classroom with a dozen other 13-year-olds. Things slowed down when he had been asked to introduce himself.
He shyly stood up and mumbled, “Um… hi. I’m Troy. Um… I moved here last weekend.”
“I. Um. Don’t care,” a rather plump boy mocked.
The class exploded into giggles and snorts. Troy sank into his seat and looked down at his shoes. They looked unclean and on the cusp of falling apart. He decided to focus on that for the rest of class instead of the immature boy or the number sequences that danced across the chalkboard in front of him. The bell rang, dismissing the students for lunch. Startled, Troy jumped out of his seat and gathered his things in a frenzy. He came out of the classroom, unsure where to go. Troy followed the herd of kids running outside for lunch on a warm day. He sat on a plastic bench by himself, watching the commotion as the tables filled up with hungry students.
“Look who it is! Shy boy!” the plump boy yelled, sitting on the bench right next to Troy.
His friends huddled around them, watching as they stifled their laughter.
“Come with us,” another boy said.
Before Troy could respond, he was yanked off of the bench and dragged to the warped wooden fence that encased the lunch area.
Troy frowned, contemplating the situation. He knew that if he didn’t go with them, he would be bullied more than ever. He started climbing. He turned his head to see if any teachers were looking, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The group of boys hopped down on the other side of the fence, dirt cushioning their falls. They took off running, leaving Troy to trail behind them. Troy was fast and caught up with them quickly. It was only when they came to a stop, jagged breathing, that he realized where they were. Chills crept up his spine as he took in the sight of the towering cottage. It felt as if the whole town fell silent as they all stood there, bewildered.
“I bet you wouldn’t go into that house. Probably too scared!” Another boy from the pack taunted Troy.
Troy took a step back, a look of terror washed over his face.
“Yeah, come on. What are you waiting for?” the boy that had called Troy out in math class said, pushing Troy closer to the bottom of the hill.
Troy had not heard any of the rumors about the house, so more than anything, he was curious. He was not dumb though and saw the way that the other boys were looking at the house. Each of their legs trembling, faces calm, but eyes alert and scared.
“Okay,” he agreed, gaining confidence.
He was slightly excited to see what was in that cottage and if he could do that, and prove his bravery to the boys, maybe his life in this town would be bearable. Taking a deep breath, Troy began to trudge up the hill.
“No way!” a voice from behind him exclaimed in surprise.
Troy focused on his shoes again, which were mostly submerged in mud, as he made his way through the moss. Finally, he reached the top of the hill.
Up close, the cottage looked much bigger, more intimidating. Troy stood frozen in his spot, trapped by the eerie silence. The air felt humid. Toxic. He breathed heavily, trying to gain the courage to take one step closer to the cottage. He did. As he eased his way to the front door, he swore he could hear sounds coming from inside. Maybe there really were sounds, or maybe it was all in his head. The red door was ajar as always, so Troy slipped through.
“What do we do?” one of the boys said, freaked out.
He put his arms behind his head and crouched over.
“I don’t know! I didn’t think he would actually go in,” another one said.
The worry-stricken kids clustered together and craned their necks to see the cottage. Their hearts raced as they tried to see him through the cracked windows. Troy had walked into the cottage in a way the boys had never seen. He was confident. Head held high, walking into the unknown, he needed to prove something to himself, to the boys, to his family. He had walked into the curious cottage, and the boys were left outside.