I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to get the house. Everything fell perfectly into place at just the right time. Our lease was running out and the owner didn’t want to renew because they decided to rent the space to a family member. Which was fine, but they didn’t give us a lot of notice and with Jessie being three months pregnant, living out of our car until we found a new place wasn’t an ideal option. It seemed like a miracle when Jessie’s coworker told her she had a house for sale in our price range and we could, and should, move in asap.
The house was old but well maintained. It belonged to the grandfather of Jessie’s coworker Becky. Becky barely knew the old man, apparently, but since she was more or less his only family in the area, he left her the house in his will. I was a little surprised Becky didn’t want to move into the house herself; it was a large two-story colonial and a clear upgrade to the small ranch-style she was in at the time. When I mentioned it to Jessie, she told me that Becky didn’t like to talk too much about the house or her grandfather.
“Bad memories, I think,” Jessie said.
Odd, but I didn’t want to probe too much. Becky’s loss was my family’s gain, I figured.
The house sat on an acre in a heavily wooded area. Our closest neighbor was nearly half-a-mile away. A fenced in yard for the kid-to-be, a large front porch for Jessie, and a nice office space next to the den for me. It seemed like our dream house.
Things went down to the wire with our move-in date. I did everything I could to hurry up the process. I even asked my cousin to handle the inspection. We had less than a week at that point until our lease expired, so I might have asked him to cut a few corners. I regret that now. There didn’t seem to be any real reasons for concern at that point. The old man had taken great care of the house. The interior would need a little work and some fresh paint, but that was more a style issue. The old man had terrible taste, lots of dark paint and shag carpet.
My cousin only found two issues during the inspection: the bathroom plumbing was irregular and the crawl space door had three exterior locks. With the plumbing, my cousin assumed it was a botched home-repair. Everything still worked fine, the water pressure was decent, but the pipes under the sink were jerry-rigged with duct tape and weird pieces that didn’t match. My cousin advised that we get a plumber down the road in case there was a leak.
We didn’t check for the leak immediately because we couldn’t get under the house. The crawl space door was a thick slab of grey metal with three locks along the right side and heavy-duty joints on the left. It was small, probably not much more than two feet high and a little wider. All three locks were padlocks but clearly installed at different times. The top lock was ancient and nearly rusted through. The middle lock was newer but showed signs of years of wear and tear, along with a small amount of rust. The bottom lock was the newest, fresh and shiny, maybe a couple months old.
“That’s kinda fucking weird,” my cousin said when we first saw the door.
Apparently, having an exterior lock on the crawl space wasn’t unheard of. My cousin pointed out that some people have them to keep their kids from going exploring. Three locks was…less common, but maybe the old man had issues with homeless people sleeping under the house, or maybe he was just paranoid. Either way, we couldn’t find the keys to the locks anywhere. My cousin suggested we cut the locks, though neither of us had the tools. I convinced him it wasn’t worth the hassle and that I’d check later.
The truth was I was happy there were locks on the crawl space. I worried that if he went in to check it out he would ask me to come with him. I am claustrophobic. Not just claustrophobic; I am deathly, cripplingly, terrified of tight spaces. I get sweaty in an empty elevator. I need a moderate sedative to take an MRI. The idea of crawling on the ground, in the dark, with the weight of an entire house above me, filled me with a dread so deep you could drop a rock in it and never hit the bottom.
So, yeah, I didn’t try too hard to get into the crawlspace. My cousin was against the idea of signing off on the inspection without doing a full check, but I talked him into it. The way I figured, the house seemed in great shape. Worst case scenario was that there might be a tiny leak, but that should go away once I had the pipes sorted. And we were getting such a great deal on the asking price, I wasn’t worried about shelling out a little bit of money to repair minor damages, if any existed.
I told all of that to my cousin and he relented but made me promise to get the plumbing fixed as soon as possible, and to check under the house if I found the keys. I lied and told him I would. As we got ready to head back inside, I thought I caught the faintest sound coming out of a vent near the door to the crawlspace. It sounded like something dragging. The vent was miniscule and looked at least partially clogged. I don’t think my cousin noticed. I chalked the sound up to my imagination. With all of those locks on the door, I doubted anything would be moving around in there.
Fast forward three weeks and I’m on cloud nine. We moved in, we saved enough on the sale to have a modest redecoration budget, and we were even converting one of the rooms into a nursery. Everything is like a dream except for two little annoyances. The first issue is the smell. I noticed it a few days after moving in. At first, it was only in the bathroom, the downstairs one with the funky pipes. There was this, almost sickly, sweet odor mixed with other, harder to identify smells. It was odd; I thought I could smell evergreens, combined with a trace of mildew and old trash. As the weeks went on the odor became worse. The pine faded and the other smells overwhelmed it. If I opened the sink and leaned in, it reminded me of standing inside a port-a-potty in the summer, of overfilled dumpsters and other, unidentifiable things. Naturally, I stopped opening the sink.
After a while, it became a persistent odor in that bathroom and by the third week, I thought I was starting to detect hints of the smell in the kitchen. It was definitely getting worse. Conversely, the unexplained noises were doing the opposite and becoming quieter, less frequent. Ever since I’d heard dragging during the inspection, barely a day went by without me noticing some muffled thump. At first, I convinced myself that it was just the pipes, or the house settling. When it continued, I decided to tell myself that the sounds were probably from a wild animal that found a way in besides the locked door. Never mind that neither my cousin nor I noticed any holes or damage along the outside of the house.
Whatever it was down there, the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to go under the house, in the dark, barely enough room to crawl with my face in the dirt and the weight of the world above me. I didn’t want to be stuck in that tight space with whatever was making those noises. But as the one month anniversary of our move neared, Jessie finally sat me down to talk about the crawl space. She asked me to cut the locks so she could go down there.
I’d fooled myself into thinking she hadn’t noticed the smell or the noise. The odor was barely there the first week or two, and she primarily used the upstairs bathroom, so I thought maybe, maybe she didn’t smell the sick, sweet evergreen-and-waste scent. Apparently, she noticed not long after I did. As for the strange noises, she heard those, too. Not as often as I had, since I work from home and they were more active during the day, but she’d still heard something.
“Maybe coughing, or…whimpering,” Jessie said. “And tapping, I could swear I heard tapping.”
Jessie had noticed there was something wrong; she didn’t say anything because she knew I didn’t want to go under the house and, like me, she hoped the problem would go away. Ignoring problems doesn’t generally work out in real life, sadly, just like how walking away from a fire doesn’t usually put it out. Eventually, Jessie decided enough was enough and she would check the crawl space herself. My now four-months-pregnant wife would go down into the dark because I was too scared. All she asked was that I cut the locks for her. It took me a long time to reply.
“I’ll go to the store tomorrow morning, buy bolt cutters and then I’ll go look,” I said. “I’ll go down there.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes…I think I do.”
She made me promise to wait until she got home from work before I went under. I lied and said I would. There was no way I was going to wait that long. It would be nearly evening before she got home, and the thought of going into the crawl space at night made me sick to my stomach.
I doubted my nerve would hold up beyond the morning and when I went under the house, I wanted it to be sunny outside, so I could at least leave the door open and let light in.
The next morning I kissed my wife goodbye, went to the hardware store, and was back in front of the locked door by 9 a.m. My prayer for a bright, sunny day went unanswered. The morning was overcast and chilly. But I knew if I put the trip off any longer, I’d keep finding excuses.
The first lock, the old lock, came off without much pressure. I had to lean into the second and for the final lock, I thought (hoped) that I might not be able to break the damn thing. It finally came off with a snap. Now that I wasn’t distracted by labor, I noticed the same smell from inside the house drifting out through the vent near the door. It was disgusting, like old road kill and sugar.
I was surprised at how easily the door opened once the locks were off. The metal was thick but the joint had a smooth motion, possibly lubricated. Once the door was open, the odor made me gag. The stink became nearly a physical thing, cloying and choking me, reaching down my throat to strangle me from inside. I was too far along to quit now, though, so I pulled the top of my shirt over my nose and mouth, put on the new headlamp I’d bought that morning, and crawled into the dark.
I remember hoping that I’d be able to stay near the entrance and spot whatever the issue was from there. As soon as my head was in the crawl space, I realized that wouldn’t happen. Two things stood out immediately: there was heavy fabric hanging everywhere, and the fabric was covered with dozens of small shapes. I took a deep breath and moved forward. There was enough room near the entrance for me to at least shuffle around on my hands and knees, but the ceiling kept scraping my head.
I got close to the fabric and realized it was some kind of blanket or curtain and the small shapes were tiny trees.
Air fresheners. Some were so old that both the scent and the image were completely faded, others were newer. That explained the pine smell.
I was beginning to hyperventilate. Adrenaline and a growing morbid curiosity kept me moving forward. A few feet from the entrance, I had to sprawl out onto my stomach to wiggle through a tight space where a thick beam came close to the ground. Even with the headlight, all of the fabric stunted my visibility to only right in front of my face. Once I was past the beam, I got back onto my hands and knees and headed towards where I thought the bathroom was located. I pushed one more curtain aside and came face-to-face with the Devil.
At least, that’s what I thought I saw in that exact moment. Even with all of the therapy, I still struggle to process the memory of that face. Because it was a face, a human face, more or less. Except that it was so very pale where it wasn’t covered in filth, and narrow. The eyes, I’ll never forget the eyes as much as I try to; they looked like large black pupils floating in a sea of red. The thing was less than a foot from my own face when I’d moved the curtain. As the light from my headlamp illuminated the shape, it shrieked, high-pitched and terrible, like it was in pain.
I don’t think I can adequately describe the fear I experienced when I moved the curtain. I’ve done my best to drown the associated brain cells in cheap alcohol and expensive pills, but I can’t shake the pure, hopeless terror of the memory. Underground, in the dark, barely able to move, staring at a monster. I thought I’d accidently crawled into Hell.
Since I’m being honest, and I am, I won’t leave out details. I screamed when it screamed, and I also pissed myself for good measure. I didn’t notice that until later. I went into full animal, lizard-brain panic and desperately tried to get away. I half-turned, half-crawled backwards, bumped into the beam and tried to push under it. In my mad scramble, I came in at a bad angle, neither head or feet first, but mostly sideways. I got stuck. The fact that I was hyperventilating and screaming like a man on fire couldn’t have helped.
After a few frantic seconds, just waiting to feel a cold hand grab my leg, my mind left me. This was probably shock setting in. There’s only so much horror you can subject a human mind to before it performs a natural DDOS. A little while longer and my breathing slowed. I scooted out from under the beam along the path of least resistance, on the same side as the creature. I laid face-down in the dirt for a bit, waiting for…anything. Eventually, I rolled over to look at the monster.
The thing was curled into the fetal position, hands pressed against its eyes, making a screeching, sobbing sound. It sounded hurt. It sounded scared. I lay watching it shake and cry.
My brain began to reset slowly. A terrible realization crept in through the comfortable numbness of shock: the creature was human. It was a child.
As my headlamp swept across the space behind the (boy, it was a boy), I noticed two unmoving shapes. Feeling like I was in a dream, I moved closer. I wish I hadn’t. The two shapes were also pale, covered in rags and waste, and very small. Both children were dead and in various states of decomposition. Something had been…chewing at them.
That was enough to finally blue screen my mind. I passed out. When I woke up, the boy was still curled in a ball, crying much more softly now. My crawl back to the door was surreal. The boy wouldn’t follow me, so I went alone.
Once I was back inside, everything went by in a flash. I felt like I was watching myself from far away. The dispatcher didn’t believe me at first, but I eventually convinced them I was serious. My wife rushed home from work to find our new house an active crime scene. The fire department was able to get the boy out; he survived, but was in serious condition physically for more than a month after extraction. Mentally, well, I don’t know how you come all the way back from what he went through.
The pieces all came together over the coming weeks. There were a series of disappearances of kids in our area going back several years. Once the police began to go over the property, they found more than a dozen graves in the yard and adjacent woods. Small graves. They found the keys to the crawl space locks hidden in a secret drawer, along with the old man’s diary.
Police were able to ID the three children I encountered under the house from missing persons reports filed in a neighboring town. They estimated the kids were down there between two to three months. The old man kept them fed until his sudden death, and he’d purposefully rigged the pipes in the bathroom to provide a slow, steady leak into the crawl space.
The town was able to keep the situation quiet. Nobody wanted to be associated with that much pain and suffering, but I’ll never be able to forget being there in the dark, the smell of it, the sound of the boy trying to weep. I always wondered why we didn’t hear them making more noise under the house. The blackout curtains would dampen the sound, but surely we’d hear it if they were screaming. I brought the question up, drunkenly, to a friend once. He theorized that, if the kids were already under the house for a month or more before we’d moved in, they may have already screamed their vocal cords raw.
I try not to think about it. Just like I try not to think about how things would have gone if I’d just let my cousin finish his inspection that day. If I’d faced my fear of the narrow dark, would we have pulled three kids, traumatized but alive, out from the crawl space instead of just one?
I try not to think about it. The smell of pine still makes me sick.