The Rainforest House
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The Rainforest House looked too wet and dank even for ghosts, but we assumed it was haunted anyway. We didn't really have the vocabulary for anything more complex than that…creepy houses were haunted, and that was that. When you're young, nuanced terms like “cursed” or “bizarre” are interesting, but not really useful. Like old dolls you can look at, but not play with. So, accurate or not, the Rainforest House was haunted, and whenever a pet went missing, or something weird happened, we blamed the ghosts or whatever there. In the deepest, sweatiest depths of summer sleepovers, or in the grip of Halloween bravado, we'd dare eachother to go inside, poke around, see what was there. A few close calls, and even the odd fight, but nobody ever actually went in to the building. Not until Randy…but then I'm not positive he actually made it in. We assumed, and the court said so, but seeing is believing and all that.

We were so young then…but that may just be nostalgia. Old people always think anyone under thirty is “so young”, and anyone in the teens or lower is “just a kid”. A lot of times it's not mean spirited, it just sort of happens. A slow change of perspective, the same as, when you're fifteen, everyone over thirty is basically a mummy. Your home town is the whole world when you're young, but as you age it's just another place, like many others, just soaked in old, better memories. Your first love is Aphrodite, a few dollars a fortune, the local bully the Devil himself. Time and age bring perspective, though, and things shrink. The gilding wears off, the curtain falls, and it's just…life. The Rainforest House, however…that never has. Somehow it remains just as eerie and grim as it did when I was small. Even more now, really. That growth of understanding that makes things shrink and lose luster can sometimes display even brighter aspects. In the same way that, as and adult, you realize that daddy wasn't just jolly some nights more than others, he was drunk off his ass, my awareness has shown the house for more. It's not haunted. Haunted implies something human.

The house itself squatted on a small, heavily forested hill on the very edge of town. I say squatted, because that's what it always looked like to me. The roof was huge, and spilled out wide and low over the whole house, overhanging at least eight or nine feet. It looked like an old sunhat with the middle flattened in to meet the brim…or a huge mushroom. The ground was uneven, as well, so in places you could all but step on to the roof with a tiny hop, and below it would make dim tunnels a few feet long. The whole house had loads of glass going all around, along with a deck that jutted out a foot or two past the low roof, separated by maybe seven or eight feet of space. There were tons of trees, but most of the ones near the house were weird, non-native things with weird bark and leaves. They grew close, making a mazey path between them, and with the tiny ponds dotted here and there, the canopy made it dim, humid, and spooky. The whole thing looked like some weird chieftain's hut, or some explorers base in a far-off country. Hence, Rainforest House.

Of course, a bit of this is imagination. By my time, the roof had fallen in here and there, sagging to touch the ground around the edge in places, most of the glass had shattered out long ago, and the hill was so overgrown it was legitimately like a patch of rainforest. We had lots of stories about the place, but none of us actually knew too much about it. We did know the local cops really didn't want people playing around there. They had vague stories about someone being hurt or killed, but what was that in the face of interesting things? Most folks in town just dismissed it as a weird old place. Old folks would talk about the owner himself being weird, dismissing him as “some kinda hippy” with a idle wave of the hand. Older kids generally just told us to fuck off, likely to preserve a prime booze-and-petting spot, and younger kids were even dumber than us. My dad had lived in the town all his life, but drove trucks until I was about seventeen, well after the thing with Randy happened, so I was never able to ask him much about it before then. Through snippets now and then, and the occasional walk by the property, I was able to pull a few details.

He said the house had been empty and starting to crumble even when he was a boy. His dad had told him it was built by “a rich fellow” who had helped set up a couple botanical gardens in nearby cities. Supposedly he was some big name back before the great depression, but had either retired or fallen on hard times, as so many had then. My dad said the place, besides being a total deathtrap, was built very weird, right down to the foundation. The botanist (“…maybe biologist? Somethin' with a 'B', anyway…” dad had mumbled) had personally sketched out everything, overseeing every step of the construction. He'd been a bit of a recluse, and nobody had even know he'd died until several weeks after. It had been a minor sensation, but it soon passed over. No heirs came forward to claim the place, and it soon started to decay. Tearing it down and building anything new would take ages, and a fortune, and apparently some of the trees were rare enough that they were mentioned in various grant documents as needing to be moved and replanted very specifically if the land was to be altered. Nobody who had the money and the time to accomplish this wanted to, so the place was just left to rot.

Those were the rough strokes, the cut and dry facts, at least as far as dad knew them. Boring, but sustaining, like the oatmeal of the world of gossip. I did wheedle a little more out of him here and there, trying to get to the tastier bits. Apparently the former owner had died in the middle of summer, and had been in quite a state when he was finally found. Supposedly the flies had been so thick inside it was pitch black even in the middle of the day. Also likely a deterrent for prospective home buyers. When I asked about anyone else supposedly dying or getting hurt there, he got defensive in that way he did when he believed something, but didn't actually know much about it. It was classic friend-of-a-cousin type stuff, someone had fallen through a floor, someone had gotten maimed by collapsing wall and so on, the moral of the story being stay the hell away, it's dangerous. As he so well put it: “It's an old, rotten wreck of a house, one day an ice storm will finally knock it flat, that that'll be the end of it, yeah? Now keep the hell away from it, you're liable to break somethin' or get tetanus, that's all we need.”

Suggestive, but boring, like so many adult opinions of a child's fancy. We had other ideas.

We ignored the bland, simple truth, and instead populated the house with all manner of monsters and ideas. You have to remember, I grew up in…well, not a small town, but an old one. There wasn't much to do as far as actually thrilling stuff, so telling stories or straight-up lying about “something we heard” about whatever was a fine pastime. Mutant children, mutant plants, black rituals, experiments, we would gleefully retread any idea or story we pulled from comics, tv or books and present it as “something we heard”. It wasn't really lying, at least not in the normal way. Hell, most of us knew we were each full of shit, but it was more interesting than anything else going on. Like any game of make-believe, it worked best when everyone just sort of rolled with it with minimal questions.

I'd like to think, if we'd known more, we'd have found something else to poke at. Most likely, it would have still happened, in one way or another. Maybe not. Maybe I'm just trying to stall so I don't need to remember, or I'm just shy and embarrassed about my role in it all. Maybe I'm most worried that, despite telling myself I don't care anymore, nobody will believe me again.

Alright. The group I ran with was about…five or six people, with a sort of “extended cast” of maybe a dozen more. Of that, only two matter, besides me, those would be Randy and Kurt. Randy was a few months older than me, and grew up a few blocks away. We'd known eachother since about second grade and, despite some bumps and the odd broken bone between us, had been best friends. He was weird and could be intense at times, and had a competitive streak nearly as strong as his temper, but we meshed for some reason. Probably because I was more quiet and easy going…most of the time. All that said, there were always parts of Randy I never really understood, stuff that, even close as we were, he kept to himself. Everyone has private stuff, sure, but looking back it makes me wonder about some of the things that happened. He was someone that you could never fully anticipate…every so often he'd just go totally off the plan for some reason or another, and that was that.

Kurt was a bully, and yet somehow still our friend. I think every group has one of these, someone who's somewhat nice, especially in private, but is quick to turn if the opportunity presents itself. He was as much a weirdo as the rest of us, sometimes even more, but he would be happy to bash on anyone if he had the chance. I'm sure it was self esteem, and a shitty life up to that point, but at the time he was just an asshole we tolerated for some reason. It was more complicated than that, sure, but for this, the important thing is that he was generally a bully, and that for whatever reason he seemed to take special joy in bashing on Randy. Typically Randy would just take it, maybe with some shouting or shoving here and there…but every so often, something would apparently just rub him the wrong way on the wrong day…

It was a few days before winter break that things really started. I sort of came in at the middle of things, but apparently over Halloween something had happened between Kurt and Randy, which they were deciding to hash out now for whatever reason. As this sort of rolling, between-classes argument went on, I was able to gather that a chunk of our crew had gone out to a local haunted house attraction after the Halloween parade, and that Kurt had chickened out. Aside from some ribbing and teasing, that would have been the end of it, but Kurt had been picking at Randy over some other bullshit, and Randy found that bringing up the incident was a sore spot. So of course he started jabbing at it once he realized. Standard stupid kid bullshit that happened every few days, at least. That seems to be how all the worst things happen, with roots in the most mundane garbage, so you end up knee-deep before you even realize you should be careful.

Names were called, gestures given. Kurt called Randy a pussy bitch, which was untrue as he had neither. Randy called Kurt's mom a whore, which was also untrue, as whores do it for money. Both parties proceeded to try and start a fight, but due to hallway congestion and sharp adult oversight, they settled for a couple brief swipes and oaths to end it later. I was just glad it looked like this was going to end soon.

They ended up bumping in to eachother at a local party store, arguing more, then attempting a fight. Neither was particularly imposing, though Randy had a bit more scrappyness to him, and whatever the potential outcome, the owner tossed everyone out and said he was calling the cops. We were walking away, in that kind of amorphous, shifting blob that friend groups seem to take when elements of itself are fighting. Neither refused to give it up, or back down, and I somehow knew what would end up happening before anyone said it. We'd been walking near the big hill, and as they were sniping back and forth at eachother, cold gusts whipped up and made some of the old, weird trees on the hill creak and groan. It was like fate.

“There, how 'bout we see who can go in to the Rainforest House for longer, then we see who's a pussy!”

“Piss off Kurt, you wanna get tetanus so bad, you go.”

“So you admit it, you're a scared little bitch!”

It carried on in this general vein for some time, until both parties were simmering again. Times and places were established, and things sort of broke apart after that. Business concluded, everyone back to your respective corners.

A few days passed. Vacation started, and our first day of freedom came with snow, followed immediately by rain. Soon everything, even the air, seemed to be filled and coated with cold, wet slush. I'd honestly forgotten about the “showdown” between Kurt and Randy. I was talking with another friend, laying out a vague plan to acquire snacks, wander, then maybe watch movies at whatever house had better selection, and just offhand they said “Oh, yeah, we could go watch Kurt and Randy be idiots too, they're doing that thing at the old house tonight.”

I don't know why, but I suddenly got a cold chill. Like that dropping cold draft that rolls through your abdomen when you smell smoke and suddenly realize you left a burner on. I realized I had been avoiding thinking about it, that the stupid Rainforest House scared me. Before it had been fun, thrilling even, but now I was scared. For some reason it felt closer to my life now, like somehow now, among all the times we'd gone by and up to the place, this was different. It might just be my memory from now, bleeding back to color the past, but I do remember my friend having to ask if I was still on the line, as I'd gone silent since they told me about the house expedition. I agreed to go. Why not, I thought. It would show I'm being stupid, and it wasn't as if anything would happen beyond some scraped shins and screams.

Trees can trap heat, or at least it feels that way. As we moved up the hill, it was so wet and humid our clothes steamed along with our breath. It was late, that deep, sudden dark that comes with the cold months, leaving you feeling both exhausted yet fully awake in what seems the middle of the night. Our little crew dragged ourselves along the slushy road, scattering and laying low with each hissing pass of a car on the road at the base. Between bored patrolmen and local busybodies, we felt like infiltrating spies. Kurt and Randy sniped and wheedled at eachother, goading eachother on as we finally got on top of the hill. We stood, catching our breaths, looking out between the sagging, dripping trees at the Rainforest House. It felt like being in a building, the trees and canopy dulled sound and squeezed down our line of sight. The melting, dripping snow made a steady undercurrent of white noise that felt as if it was hiding something.

The house sat like a wet, curled animal, spattered and oozing snow and water along its flanks. The wide, broken glass walls seemed to open in to pure blackness, tiny rivulets of water drooling out over the buckled deck and off the pitted roof. One of the nearest trees, bowed slightly from storm and snow, sagged against the rear of the house, the limbs spreading over the roof like it was trying to hide it. It all felt wrong, like it was somehow too detailed and blurry at the same time. The darkness was total, even the smallest shadows, yet colors seemed to bleed in to eachother. I realized the rest of the group was moving only when they started passing my field of view. Everyone was whispering, like they were trying to avoid notice. Like the house was listening.

I felt like a sleepwalker, despite the cold. Kurt and Randy had split up, with their attendant supporters, and were working their way to either side of the house, with the whispered intention to meet in the middle, then explore until someone chickened out. I stared into the total blackness between the low roof and the puddled deck, like a rat hypnotized by a predator. I moved sideways, keeping my eyes glued to the house, even as a few flashlights started to stab tiny rays into the gloom. The darkness was like dough, pressing dense and close around the light, revealing only vague, damp edges of shapes and moldy patches of color. Randy had gone back, near where the tree was leaning over the house. Even as the rolling earth blocked much of the view of the house, I kept watching it, feeling scared to blink.

I could hear shifting, furtive, from inside. The groan and brittle squeak of rotten wood, smothered to near silence by the dripping water. I assumed others had managed to get inside. Around the smell of water and damp, rotting plants, there was a sudden stench. The smell of old mummified mice, of dusty cobwebs and black mold, like a draft pulled up from a decades sealed crawlspace. I started to move faster, eyes fixed wide, even as this fungal stench seemed to move over me like a cloud. I could hear more moment, but faster, sounding less like furtive moment, and more like something being dragged, quickly. I could hear the other kids starting to yell, and the rapid splattering and sliding as they poured out and away from the house. I saw Kurt, flying between the trees, not sparing a moment to look back, half-sliding along the grass in blind retreat. Someone was shouting about someone in the house, someone else said it was a snake. It was everyone for themselves, fleeing back down to the town. The house was between me and the town. I could hear them shouting if people had seen me.

If anyone had seen Randy get out.

I ran now, the few remaining steps. I had no idea, no plan, maybe just trying to get around the house to escape. I broke my focus on the house for a moment as my feet slid, nearly slamming me in to a tall, thin tree. That horrible stink was pouring from the house, and it sounded as if someone was throwing around furniture inside, the creak and splintering pop of wood rising about the sound of the water. I leaned against the thin tree, maybe a few dozen feet from the house, suddenly breathless, heart in my throat. I heard a sound, a yelp, almost like a dog that had suddenly been stepped on, then this sound like…stretching leather, and that smell got even worse, wetter, fresher, rotten and damp, and then I looked and…

I saw…

The tree, the one nearest the house, it…it had Randy.

The roots. Or whatever the hell they were, they were wrapped around him, squeezing him as they held him up off the ground. Inside I could see more of them moving, whipping around, crushing, searching…easily mistaken for snakes, or maybe a fast-moving homeless person. They were easy to see because they were so pale, these long, twisting ropes covered in pale, soggy looking…bark? It shifted and bulged around the roots as they moved, like a second skin, and it all stunk like rotten mushrooms and fermented wood. Randy was wrapped up in roots like cables thick as a big man's arms, and they were…squeezing him, twisting, and he couldn't scream because some were around his head, and…they just kept squeezing and squeezing.

It was like flabby pale fingers trying to wring out a cloth.

I heard him die. That was the worst part of it. Bones sound like ice when they snap, sometimes. It stretched and pulled, and suddenly it was like a bunch of ice and branches snapping, and I watched Randy get crushed and stretched, pulled like bloody, bone-studded candy. I just stared, shivering, as these roots lowered down, still wrapped around Randy's shredded rag of a body. The tree shifted, and the gap in the base of the roots seemed to be the source of the smell, even worse now with it opened…and it just slid Randy's body in. Like throwing a wrapper in the trash. The roots squirmed, but seemed to be laying back, the tree shifting down like an old man disturbed from a nap and settling back into his chair. One of the roots, fat around as someone's leg flopped down just a few feet from me, starting to nose and slither back into the wet dirt, and I finally managed to snap free and ran.

I don't remember much of the rest of the night. Eventually there were hospitals, police, people in suits looking dour. Officially, Randy died falling through the floorboards, to then smash himself to bits across old equipment and junk in the basement. A lot of people cried, his parents divorced, then moved away shortly after the funeral. I learned to shut up…either people flat didn't believe me, or they called me disrespectful, or worse. Then came issues, acting out, pills, care. I got better, in that I shut up about seeing a tree twist my friend apart like a bunch of celery, then eat him. I tried to push it away, but it would bubble up. Make me wonder, did I really see it? What, exactly, was the builder's job? I've tried digging in to it now and then, but it never seems to go anywhere. Was…whatever that was, something that maybe was found, or made? Did it just…grow there, somehow?

I worry now, because just a short while ago, I had a call from a relative who still lives in town. It was about other things, but as we gossiped, she suddenly asks me if I remembered the old house. I said of course, and she said it had fallen down, finally. I felt a little chill roll down my back, like a cool metal ball inside my spine. I asked more, and apparently it hadn't just fallen down, but in. A sinkhole had swallowed almost the whole hill, fallen in rather quickly after a few weeks of heavy rain. The ground had been like a sponge, just shot through with holes and fissures. She kept talking, but all I could hear was that spattering hiss of water, just over the sound of smooth, pale slithering. I spoke, barely even aware I did.

“Did…they end up saving any of the trees?”

“Oh, no, it was very sudden. I know there were some rare ones, but they're all down at the bottom of a big hole now, all smashed to bits and splinters.”

I pleaded off for something or other, and just sat, feeling cold for some time. I hope they're smashed to splinters, I hope that I just lost my mind briefly and hallucinated everything. I doubt it though. I am willing to bet, if they tried, there would be at least one tree missing. Or something that looks like a tree, and might actually be some mass of wormy things, slithering and reaching until they chew a whole hill to mush before moving on.

I'm old, and I don't have much to fear for much longer. I just wanted to…get it out there. In case someone looks. In case some other house falls into a wet pit somewhere. In case some kid gets ground up like a rag in a blender and nobody can tell why. I saw a spongy white…something peeking out of the ground on my way home, and I almost screamed, hobbling away with all my speed, trailing looks as people watched the crazy lady run from a mushroom. Just…remember, even if you don't believe me.

Not every bad house is haunted. Some are still very much alive.

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