Fiction: The Ghosts of Old Milford

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By Aaron Polson

Nathan knew what they’d find under the house.

Even before the bulldozer blade crushed the grey wood into a pile and pushed it aside on a June day in 1968, Nathan Porter knew. He knew what they’d find under the house which used to sit at the end of a lonely street in a town called Milford, a house which used to crowd secrets under its corniced roof and tall, multi-paned windows. A house which knew how to hide its secrets. A house of collections, of shadows and dust.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

He knew and the knowing paralyzed him.

“What the fuck are you waiting for, Porter?”

Nathan brushed sweat from his forehead. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” His hand was damp as he pushed the lever forward, engaging the tracks of the bulldozer. The diesel gave a cough and the machine sputtered. The house cried a little as it died, cried with the tinkle of glass and crack of splintered wood. The ghosts cried, too. Nathan heard them.

Sergeant Willits, the pudgy foreman on Nathan’s squad, waved his arms. His mouth moved, but the sound of the bulldozer’s engine growled over everything, even over the thump of blood in Nathan’s ears. Willits flapped like a madman until Nathan cut the engine.

“What?”

A ring of sweat darkened under the arms and around the neck of the sergeant’s olive-drab shirt. “Some kind of hole.”

Yes, a hole, Nathan thought. A doorway.

“Don’t want you to put the ‘dozer in. Back her up and get down here.”

The house wouldn’t give up its secrets that easily, not even to the Army Corps of Engineers. Sure, they would build the dam, drown old Milford under thousands of cubic feet from the Republican River, but the hole would still be there. Nathan rode the bulldozer backwards, idled the engine, and hopped down. The loader driver, Hank McHenry, stood with Willits. McHenry was a skinny kid from Idaho, “pale as a peeled potato” as the joke went. The sweat chilled against Nathan’s forehead, despite the heat of a Kansas Summer. He carried the ice of 13 years in his stomach, a deep freeze of memory.

“Porter, you from around here, right?” McHenry’s words were slow, deliberate, each vowel carrying the drawn quality of Northern dialect. “You know anything about this?”

They stood at the lip of a square hole. A pit deep enough to frighten away the sun. No bottom was visible, only black. Pure shadow. The square, much wider than a cellar door, covered enough ground to threaten the metal tracks of the heavy equipment.

“I – I don’t know anything,” Nathan lied.

Willits spat a stream of brown tobacco juice onto the sun-bleached grass. “Fuck a-doodle-doo, Porter. We knew that already.” His fat hand waved at the hole. “I ‘spose you can just come at the rest of this wreck from the other direction. We’ve got other houses to smash today, fellas.”

The others backed away. McHenry moved back to his loader to carry away the debris, but Nathan shifted closer to the hole, remembering. His boots cracked fragments of glass and shards of wood as he stepped on the old floorboards. He counted back in his memory. Thirteen years. He was seven then, when they found the hole for the first time. Seven. He wanted to look away, but the memory held him: the last time he saw Bobby Talbot’s face, white like a plastic mask at the craft shop, slipping into the black square as Nathan dropped the rope.

Nathan shivered.

“Porter, these houses aren’t going to fall down on their own. Get on it, mister.”

***

In the valley which would soon be the bottom of Milford Lake, the Corps of Engineers’ trailers made a neat cluster, a temporary town to replace the one they were destroying. The best homes of Milford were moved at government expense, the houses of railroad millionaires and politicians, the grocery store owner and the postmaster. Fine homes. The rest of the town was to be razed and as much debris carted away as possible. Razed like the grey house at the end of a lonesome street. Other squads worked on trees and leveling the landscape; Nathan’s job was to knock down houses.

Knock down houses and reveal secrets.

Secrets like the doorway which haunted Nathan as he tried to sleep that night. His eyes wouldn’t shut – not for long. Not with the black specter and the memory of Bobby Talbot lingering out there, in the night, under the shadow of Nathan’s bulldozer, less than a half-mile from the trailers.

He held his hands in front of his face, searching for the weakness of a seven-year-old boy. The others snored while he stared. He searched until his mind was set and quietly slipped from his bunk, out the trailer door, and toward the looming shape of his ‘dozer in the dark. His eyes adjusted enough not to stumble under the half-moon. The valley was lost to blue sleep. The new town looked down from the ridge. A few lights burned there, but Milford was asleep.

He had to check. Had to do at 20 what a seven-year-old couldn’t.

Inside the bulldozer’s tool chest, Nathan found an electric lantern and pair of leather work gloves. The rope, knotted for climbing, came from the trailer. Testing the lantern, he shined its yellow eye toward the stripped ruin. The beam swung back to the bulldozer and Nathan studied the rope. Long enough, he thought. He tied one end on the articulating arm of the ‘dozer blade and began walking toward the hole as if measuring the years. More than enough. He dropped a length of at least forty feet on the ground next to the black mouth and began feeding it inside.

Once the hole swallowed the balance, Nathan gave it a solid tug. He turned his lantern toward the hole, letting the warm light probe inside and search for the bottom.

“Porter?” McHenry’s voice lanced through Nathan’s skin like a knife. “What the hell are you doing?”

Nathan straightened his back. “Just…just….”

“I heard you leave the trailer. What’re you doing with that rope?” McHenry waved his own flashlight across the opening. “Are you – ”

“Does anybody else know you’re out here?”

“What?”

“Did you wake anybody else?”

Nathan’s yellow lamplight caught McHenry’s long, pale face. Shadows sung around the eyes and mouth, making it look like a strange, stretched skull. A ghost. A phantom. A mask.

“No,” McHenry said. “Don’t think so.”

Nathan glanced back to the hole. “I think I dropped something earlier. My scr – ”

“Bullshit.”

An owl called in the distance. Both men shifted their weight.

“Right. That’s bullshit. I just have to go down there. Tonight. Before we smash the other houses and collect our gear and head out.” Nathan’s fingers scratched his close-shaven scalp. “I have to do it.”

“You’re from around here, right? Like I asked earlier, ‘cept you didn’t answer.”

“Yes.” Nathan nodded. “I’m from here. This town.” His throat tightened, squeezed by the memory.

“I’m not gonna stop you, then, am I?”

Nathan’s head swiveled back and forth.

“Then I’m not gonna try.” McHenry shrugged and walked to the bulldozer. He knelt near the knotted end of rope with his back turned. His shoulders moved.

“What are you doing?” Nathan let the lantern beam sink to the dirt.

“Checking the rope. If I’m going in, I want to know it’s safe.”

Nathan closed his eyes for a moment. He listened to McHenry’s footfalls on the dirt and debris.

And they descended.

Both men wore gloves, stiff, leather work gloves to protect their palms should they slip and burn their flesh against the rope. Knots at regular intervals aided their descent; this was a climbing rope and the Army had taught both well. Nathan counted as he dropped. The knots were two feet apart…eleven in all. “Over twenty feet,” he muttered, once his boots touched the packed floor below. McHenry came next and dropped the last few feet with a thud.

“What the hell is this place?” he asked.

Nathan’s lantern was already skirting the shorn rock walls – at least, those close enough to illuminate. He turned in a circle and the yellow beam would occasionally slip into blackness and then back to a rough-hewn plane. They stood at the bottom of a cylindrical well, at least fifteen feet across by Nathan’s estimation, but with missing sections.

“Tunnels,” he said.

“What?” McHenry looked up from his flashlight; the bulb had fizzled on the descent and he tapped it against his leg. “What about ‘tunnels’?”

“Just that there’s tunnels. Looks like tunnels, anyway.” Nathan waved the light at one of the dark sections. “Doorways.”

“These walls look carved.”

“Choices….”

“Porter? Are you listening?”

“What?”

McHenry cleared his throat. “You know who did it?”

Nathan shook his head, unaware that McHenry could scarcely see him in the dark since his flashlight malfunctioned.

“Look, my light’s out.”

“Tunnels,” Nathan uttered again, almost in awe. A cold, knowing sensation crawled into his toes and began to nibble away at the edges of things.

“Why the hell did you ever want to come down here? Gives me the God-damn creeps.”

Nathan said nothing for a moment. They stood in the dark, silence surrounding them, a swallowing, all-encompassing silence. “Just looking for something I lost a long time ago.”

“What something?”

“Bobby Talbot.”

“What the hell?”

Nathan turned the lantern on McHenry. “Bobby Talbot.”

“Bobby? You…you’ve been here before, haven’t you?”
“Almost.”

McHenry stepped closer to the rope and let his hand wrap around the rough cords. “Almost…what’s that mean?”

“Bobby fell in. We snuck out one night, seven years old, and Bobby fell in. He tied a shitty knot, so I ‘spose it was his fault. I tried to catch him.” Nathan held out one hand, illuminating it under the yellow light. “I tried to hold the rope, but my hands gave out.”

“Jesus….”

“Bobby fell. I ran home.”

“Oh gawd….” Metal rattled, the squeak of plastic. McHenry’s flashlight came to life. “I guess the top was loose. What – ”

“Happened? I ran home. I didn’t tell anybody. The old house, the one that used to stand above us, was off limits. But boys make up stories, especially in shitty little towns like this. “Haunted,” we said. Gate to Hell in the basement. You walk by so many times at night, trying to imagine something in the house. A ghost. Ghouls. Werewolves. The Devil himself. Sometimes, you think you hear something – ”

Nathan paused. His voice had fallen into a rhythm, almost mechanical. A sound echoed off the stone walls, a scraping. Maybe the scuttling of some invisible creature, lost to the shadows. McHenry’s feet shuffled against the gravel on the chamber floor.

“Like footsteps,” Nathan continued. “Voices. Anything.” He pushed his lantern around the area at their feet. “Bobby never came out.”

“Jesus…Porter…are you telling the truth?”

A bit of metal flickered in Nathan’s light. He knelt, pulled an object from the dirt, and brushed it against his pant leg. “Here,” he said, holding out a dented cylinder. “Bobby’s flashlight. He dropped it.”

“Fuck this, Porter. You’re nuts.”

“I didn’t expect the other tunnels, though.” Nathan brought his lantern back around in a wide arc, taking in the empty spaces in the walls. “Four of them, like the cardinal directions, maybe. Choices. Other paths. Somebody carved this. Somebody made these tunnels.”

“But there’s no body. Let’s go, all right? I’m done.”

Nathan breathed deeply, sucking the stale, cold air through his nose. The noise, the distant scraping, came closer, sounded from the open maws in the rock. “Maybe we should go.” His voice shook a little – not fear, really, more like sadness, a young man’s voice on the edge of tears. “I fucking left him down here. You know that?”

“We didn’t need to climb – ”

“I did. I needed to see it. See where he died. I spent so many nights awake, hiding under my covers.” Nathan’s voice rose, almost sobbing. “I didn’t tell anybody until a week later…I guess I thought Bobby’d be out. Find a way out somehow. I was seven God-damn years old. Scared.”

“Didn’t they search?” McHenry held the rope with one hand, his flashlight in the other. He was ready to climb.

“Yeah. They came to the house.” Nathan turned, stared into McHenry’s flashlight with watery eyes. “There was no hole, just floorboards. They couldn’t find the fucking hole.” He threw up a hand. “This hole.”

“There’s no body. C’mon, man, let’s go. This place is creepy as hell.”

“They thought I made this shit up. I never thought…never said anything about Bobby.”

Something like laughter came to them, soft and distant. The rock made an exact direction impossible.

“Sorry, Bobby…Jesus, I’m sorry.”

The sound stopped.

They climbed hand over hand, straining against gravity. McHenry went up first. Nathan Porter’s muscles ached; they ached with the years of knowing Bobby Talbot died at the bottom of the pit in the haunted house at the end of a quiet street. He’d killed him. He’d killed him because his hands weren’t strong enough. Halfway up the rope, Nathan paused and removed his gloves, one at a time while holding his weight with the other, and finished climbing bare-handed, feeling the bite of the cords against his skin. He slipped three times on purpose and swallowed the pain.

His palms bled by the time he surfaced.

McHenry gawked at the wounds, open-mouthed. “Fucking-A, Porter. You’re nuts. I’m heading back to the bunk before anybody finds us, right?”

Nathan nodded.

“Look, I’ll buy you a drink tomorrow night, all right?”

Nathan watched as McHenry hesitated, shook his head, and vanished in the darkness on the other side of the bulldozer. Nathan moved to the machine, examined his knot again. He touched the twists of rope, looked over his shoulder at the square opening, and walked back to the trailers while his wounds were still raw and wet.

***

Nathan Porter lay in bed watching shadows twist and cavort on the ceiling of the Army trailer. A scrawny kid from Oregon with a nose the size of Portland snored – the only sound in the trailer. The air was too still. Too warm.

A pebble struck the window near Nathan’s bunk. A tiny tick – must have been a pebble.

Nathan sat up and quietly slipped his feet from the bunk. He moved to the window and pressed his face against the glass. Bobby had hit his bedroom window with pebbles when they planned on sneaking out.

Moonlight glinted on the yellow paint of his bulldozer.

Shadows moved – not trees-in-the-wind shadows. Shadows cast by living things.

Nathan hurried with his boots and closed the trailer door, nearly tripping down the stairs to the ground. Fresh breeze caught him across the face, cooling the sweat that had pooled in tiny beads on his forehead and nose. He paused. A noise clicked behind him.

The trailer door snapped open. “Porter?” McHenry called into the night.

“Shhhh.” Nathan brought a finger across his lips. “I’m here.”

“Jesus, Porter. You going for another climb?”

“No.”

“It’s late.”

“I’m taking a walk. Just a walk. I couldn’t sleep.”

McHenry hesitated before clicking the trailer door shut.

Good.

Nathan walked toward the bulldozer, almost chilled now by the night breeze and suggestion of something wavering in the gloom. Black lines like tiny hands moved up and down the side of the machine. Something was wrong. Pieces of the bulldozer were missing – the exhaust stack for one, he could see clearly now. Nathan trotted toward the equipment.

“Wait there, Nate.”

Nathan shoved his hands in his pockets. His stomach boiled. “Bobby? Oh…shit. Bobby.”

“Right-o.” The voice belonged to Bobby Talbot thirteen years ago, but was tainted now with a deep resonance which didn’t belong to a seven-year old. The thing which used to be Bobby – still wearing the bones of a seven-year-old – moved toward Nathan. His black eyes winked. “A piece of him, anyway.”

“Bobby….”

The near-Bobby turned and looked toward the bulldozer and ruins of the old house. “I heard you earlier, down below. In Old Milford. You weren’t alone.”

“Old Milford?”

The near-Bobby smiled, showing a mouth of black, shiny teeth. “Older than people, anyhow.”

The shadow-things chattered as they dismantled the bulldozer. Nathan pulled his collar around his neck.

“Still gets cold some nights, huh?”

Nathan shivered. “God, Bobby. I thought you were dead.”

“I am, mostly. My friends gave me some new parts.” He stretched his arms and a ripple crossed from his neck to the tips of both hands. “Gonna live a long time now.”

“Below…Old Milford….”

“You left the rope this time. Didn’t drop it.”

Nathan shook his head. “We’re flooding the place. Drowning everything.”

“My friends and I will be fine, Nate.” The near-Bobby nodded. “Just fine. Taking your tools to speed up our work, though. We can do something handy with all this metal. Hope you don’t mind. We’re building a better city.”

In the distance, one of the shadow-things lifted off a panel from the side of the bulldozer. Its fingers stretched in a line of black oil, encircling the metal casing like a length of rope. Nathan dropped to the ground and crossed his legs in front of him. He looked at his hands, at the dark wounds across his palms.

“Didn’t need to punish yourself, Nate. I figure we’re even now. We all will be fine.” The near-Bobby turned and walked back toward the ruins.

“We? Who…who are they?”

The near-Bobby paused, glancing over a shoulder. “The citizens of Old Milford, Nate-o. Older than people.”

Nathan sat and watched, wordless, as the shadow-things carried the rest of the bulldozer into the hole, piece by piece. In the morning, McHenry and the others found him there, sitting cross-legged like a child. The opening below the ruined house was gone, not just covered, but gone without a trace – solid dirt beneath. Nathan’s bulldozer was gone, too.

“What the hell happened out here, Porter?” Sergeant Willits barked.

Nathan could only close his eyes. Three weeks later, the unit left with the dust of old Milford under their nails and the mystery of a missing bulldozer on their tongues.

***

The lake eventually drowned the valley, covered it under leagues of river turned into a rippled sheet of brown water, murky and deep. Nathan Porter came back to town in the spring of ’71. He rented a little boat and rowed out onto the lake one night, pushing off from the asphalt remnants of Morgan Street. He listened, the air still and quiet without a breeze. His nostrils touched the cold scent of the water, water not yet warmed from the winter’s cold. It smelled of fish and mud and memory. His flesh dappled with the chill. He rowed alone with only the oar and a sealed bottle of Johnny Walker at his feet. The moon’s reflection rode on the water like a discarded sheet.

In the middle of the lake, he slowed. He laid down the oar and started with the bottle, dumping the amber liquor over the side in short bursts. A few times, he tipped the neck to his lips and the little boat seemed to rock on ocean swells.

When the bottle was gone, Nathan closed his eyes, leaned his head against the port gunnels and thought about a child he once knew. He thought about the rope he dropped as a child and the one he left tied to the bulldozer as a young man. With his palms turned up to the moonlight, Nathan examined the scars.

He’d never told anyone the whole story, but just might. He thought about going to Idaho to see what an old buddy from the Army was up to. When I do, he thought, I’ll tell him about how Bobby was still alive and how his friends took the old ‘dozer that night. I’ll tell him about the lake, why it took six months longer to fill than we planned. And we never did drown all of it, anyway. Not Old Milford.

That might make a good story.

THE END

Bio: Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar. He currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, a book of lullabies for baby vampires, and other oddities. You can visit Aaron on the web at www.aaronpolson.com.

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