Everyone knew to avoid Mrs. Michaud’s house on Halloween. It was a sort of unspoken agreement that, even though the porch light called out to trick-or-treaters, the big house on the hill was off-limits.
I think that’s what made it so appealing.
That Halloween night was a special one. We had just reached the age where costumes and trick-or-treating were lame, but were not yet to the age of drunken Halloween parties. We figured this might be our last hurrah.
That was the mindset we were in, Tyler, Jack and I, as we sat on the middle school bleachers deciding what we wanted to do. Maybe that’s why Mrs. Michaud’s house came up so fluidly in our conversation. I’m not sure who suggested it originally, but somebody said something about going to visit old Mrs. Michaud or at least to sneak around her house.
“There’s nothing scary about some old broad’s house.” Tyler said after a moment of intense contemplation. “What’ll she do? Bore us to death with her husband’s war stories?”
“Probably the Civil War,” said Jack. We all laughed at that.
“Seriously, though,” said Tyler, “what’s the worst that could happen? What, she might yell at us? For what, trick-or-treating in our own neighborhood?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “My brother said a couple of kids went up there when he was in school and never came back. Just vanished completely.”
“Whatever, dude. Your brother’s a liar anyway.”
I felt a surge of anger for a second at Tyler, but remembered that yes, my older brother Ryan was a liar. And he loved nothing more than tormenting me. Still, we had all heard the stories of kids disappearing in that old house. That’s all they were, though, stories. They couldn’t actually be real. If kids were disappearing from Mrs. Michaud’s house regularly, wouldn’t she be in jail or something?
“Okay, fine. Let’s do it then,” I said. Tyler and Jack high-fived me, and we started making plans to visit Mrs. Michaud on Halloween night.
The plans were pretty flimsy, even by our adolescent standards. Jack and Tyler were going to go knock on Mrs. Michaud’s door, while I hung back in the bushes and filmed them. The idea was to not only prove that we were brave enough to go to the big house and interact with the old witch who lived inside, but to also prove that there really was nothing to be afraid of. Ultimately we thought we would be doing every kid in town a favor.
They weren’t supposed to go in or anything, just ring the bell, get their candy and leave.
On Halloween night, we prepared ourselves for the trip to Mrs. Michaud’s house. We gathered up supplies, and I made sure my camera was working. We filled a couple of bags with some candy, so it would look like we’d already gone trick-or-treating. Jack had the brilliant idea of wearing name tags that read “costume.” I grabbed my trusty pocket knife and flipped it open.
“Whatcha going to do with that?” Jack asked, pointing to my knife.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just like to have it with me.”
“He’s going to file her to death,” said Tyler, grabbing the small knife from my hand.
“It could be useful!” I said, snatching it back and depositing it in my pocket.
“All right, all right. The boy scout is always prepared.”
We set off just before dusk. The suburban streets were lined with younger kids in superhero and princess costumes. Parents followed along with the little ones, checking their watches and looking bored. As we started to climb the hill along Fairview Court, the crowds began to thin. Just a few teenagers hanging out in the empty lots. By the time we reached Mrs. Michaud’s driveway at the end of the road, we were all alone.
I’d seen enough horror movies to feel a trickle of fear as we approached the big house. It was one of those old Victorians, with a wraparound porch and wrought-iron fencing on the roof. It might have been beautiful if it hadn’t been so beaten-down. Shingles hung from the roof and weeds grew up in the cracks in the walkway. The grass reached the first-floor windows, which in turn had iron bars to prevent anyone from breaking in. Or out. I shuddered at the thought.
“Hey, guys, let’s be quick, huh?” I whispered.
Jack laughed. “Oh, it’s an old house,” he said, his voice a mocking falsetto. “So scary. Aren’t you scared, Tyler?”
Tyler punched me in the arm. “What are you afraid of anyway? It’s Jack and me that’s going up there to see the old witch. All you gotta do is hit record, dude.”
I laughed at that, feeling the lump in my throat start to dissolve. They were right; there really was nothing to worry about. Mrs. Michaud was likely just a lonely old widow. She probably had great candy, too, since we were the only trick-or-treaters she would see that night. Jack and Tyler would probably walk away with their bags filled to the brim with full-sized chocolate bars.
As we reached the front porch, I slid over to the side and took my position in the bushes. I crouched down out of sight and pulled out my camera. From the viewfinder I could see Tyler and Jack climb the half-rotten stairs and knock on Mrs. Michaud’s door.
They stood there for what felt like forever. Nothing seemed to move in the house. Jack turned toward where I was hiding in the bushes and shrugged his shoulders. I was relieved, to be honest. We had a video that proved we were brave enough to knock on the door, and no one even had to talk to Mrs. Michaud. It seemed like a win-win. Just as Tyler and Jack were about to turn around to leave, the heavy front door swung open. I couldn’t see who stood in the doorway. The inside of the house was dark, and the porchlight provided no illumination of anything other than the two boys. I watched as they spoke to the person inside the house, gesturing with their candy bags. I could have screamed when Jack cast a look back at me and walked into the open doorway. They weren’t supposed to go in. Tyler followed behind him, and the door creaked to a close.
I froze where I was crouched. I strained to hear what was happening inside the house, but all I could hear was my own pulse thundering in my ears. I tried to calm myself down. They’d be out in a second, I thought. Mrs. Michaud is probably just showing them some old photos or something.
I waited for close to thirty minutes before I got up the courage to leave my hiding spot. The house was still dark, save for the porchlight. I crept to one of the windows and peered inside. I couldn’t see any movement, just a few shadows of furniture in the darkness. I went around the entire house, looking into barred windows and seeing nothing. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to just leave Jack and Tyler. If they came out and I was gone, they would never let me live it down.
I found a secluded bush and hid for another fifteen minutes. When they still did not emerge from Mrs. Michaud’s house, I left. I ran all the way home, fueled by a feeling of deep unease. That night I dreamt about the big house growing teeth and swallowing me up inside of it.
I called Jack’s house the next morning, mostly to apologize for leaving them there, but also to hear all the details about what was inside of Mrs. Michaud’s house. I braced myself for the mockery he was certain to unleash on me. Instead, I heard Jack’s mother’s voice on the other line.
“Hello, hello, Jack?” Her voice sounded frantic and uncertain.
“N-no, Mrs. Hampstead, this is Brandon.”
“Brandon, thank god! Is Jack with you? It’s okay if he is; he’s not in trouble.”
“No, he’s not. We split up last night. I thought he was going to be home.” I could feel panic start to well up inside me.
“Are you sure? Listen, Brandon, where was the last place you saw him?”
“We were trick-or-treating,” I said, weighing my words carefully. I didn’t want tell Jack’s mom about Mrs. Michaud’s house. I didn’t want her to think we were tormenting the old lady. “We split up on Fairview.”
Mrs. Hampstead sighed shakily. “Okay, Brandon. Listen, if you hear from him, tell him to come home immediately.”
“Okay, ma’am. I will.”
I hung up the phone and slid down the wall. Jack hadn’t come home. I thought that maybe he had stayed the night with Tyler, so I called his house, too. After the same conversation with Tyler’s mom, I realized that they never made it out of Mrs. Michaud’s house.
I knew that I had to go back, as much as I hated the thought of it. Anxieties swirled around in my head. What if she had killed them? What if they came out looking for me and froze to death in her yard?
Mrs. Michaud’s house looked somehow creepier in the daylight. The house seemed to cast shadows on the whole yard, even though the sun was not yet high in the sky. I shuddered as I climbed the stairs of the porch, stepping around the nails that stuck out of the crumbling wood. To calm myself, I clutched at the pocket knife in my pocket, turning it over in my hand. I stood on the porch, working up the nerve to knock. The door to the house opened before I could even raise my hand.
In the doorway before me stood Mrs. Michaud. She was an old woman, obviously, but far older than I would have guessed. She was stooped over nearly in half, and peered at me through the thickest glasses I’d ever seen. She was dressed only in an old pink robe, which she had tightened around her thin frame.
“Brandon, is it?” She asked, her voice croaky and high.
“Uh, yes ma’am?”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for you. Come in.”
I stared at the old woman. She couldn’t be serious.
“I’m looking for my friends; they came here last night and…”
She cut me off. “Jack and Tyler? Yes, they’re here. After you ran off without them, they decided to sleep here.”
“They did?” It didn’t make any sense to me. Why would they stay the night with this strange woman?
“Yes, they surely did. Now come on inside before you catch your death. I’ve got sandwiches and tea, and your companions are most likely missing you.”
I didn’t want to go inside Mrs. Michaud’s house. There were strong spices and cooking smells coming from inside, and it mixed with the smell of mothballs in a way that turned my stomach. She stood waiting for me, beckoning me in with a bony hand. I stepped across the threshold against my will.
I jumped when the door closed behind me. I turned to look at it and thought for a second that something was the matter with it. I didn’t have time to look too closely, though, because Mrs. Michaud was walking into the darkness of the house.
“Come on, now. I’ve got food and tea in the parlor. You sit down and have a bite, and I’ll go get your friends for you.”
I followed her into the sitting room, my eyes darting around the house. I was so focused on the room that I hadn’t notice that she’d stopped. The furniture was old and stained and covered in a thick layer of dust. I stood awkwardly, not sure what to do.
“Sit,” she commanded, turning away from me.
There was a chair that was covered in slightly less dust, and I sat stiffly on it. The house creaked and groaned around me. I considered getting to my feet and running out the door. Something felt very wrong, and the thought of remaining in the old house filled me with terror. I rose to my feet and listened for Mrs. Michaud. I heard nothing. I began to slowly make my way back down the hall. As I approached the front door, I saw what was wrong with it. There was no handle on the inside.
As fear shot through me, I felt a bony hand around my shoulder.
“What are you doing, boy?” Mrs. Michaud was behind me, holding a small tray in one hand.
“N-nothing. I just, I mean, I should probably get going. My mom is going to worry; I told her I was coming here.” The last part was a lie, but I hoped it might scare Mrs. Michaud into letting me go.
“You don’t want to see your friends?”
“Uh, no, I think they can get home okay.”
Mrs. Michaud set her face into a stony grimace. “You’d best come this way.”
I swallowed hard and followed her down the hallway and back to the parlor. She sat me back down and put the tray in front of me. There was a cup of tepid tea and two crackers on it. I mindlessly picked up the cup and smelled a mix of herbs and roots. I sat it back down and nibbled at a cracker instead.
“Now, if you will wait here like originally asked, I will go fetch your friends.”
I nodded dumbly. When she walked away, I started thinking about how I could get out. The door was right out, and the windows had been barred. I fiddled with the knife in my pocket, thinking that I could maybe use it to pry the door open. As I sat contemplating my escape, the room began to swim before me. I gripped the arm of the chair tightly, and darkness took over my vision.
I awoke in the dark. My body was folded uncomfortably and my muscles ached. As my eyes began to adjust to the blackness around me, I saw that I was in a small crate. I felt the edges and found no gaps between the wooden slats, just a hinged door in front of me.
I couldn’t stretch my body out or sit up straight. I tried to readjust myself, but could only sit with my knees bent below me and my shoulders hunched forward.
“Shit!” I yelled, feeling monumentally stupid.
From the darkness, I heard another voice.
“Brandon, that you?”
“Jack? Jack, what the hell, man?”
“I don’t know. Mrs. Michaud offered us some cookies, and the next thing we know, we’re in these boxes. Tyler’s gone somewhere. I haven’t heard him speak since this morning.”
I pounded my hand against the wood of the crate, yelling as I did so.
“It’s no use, dude,” Jack said. “We already tried that. No one can hear us, and the boxes are too tough to break through.”
I sat back onto my heels to ease the ache in my thighs. My stomach growled loudly.
“You too, huh?” Jack asked.
“You’re hungry. So am I. So was Tyler. She brought us both so much food. I guess you’ll get some too. I didn’t want to eat it, but I was so hungry. I think she might have given us something to make us hungry all the time. I don’t know.”
As my stomach turned over, I thought about what she could be bringing to eat. I shuddered, but still my stomach ached with hunger.
Jack and I sat together, speaking softly for what could have been hours. Eventually I heard the creak of a heavy door. I froze and listened. I could feel cool air enter into my prison. I squinted into the darkness, but could still see nothing. The door creaked once more, and I was again alone in my crate.
I could smell something new, however. There was a tang in the air, of just-cooked meat. I couldn’t see what was before me, and I didn’t trust it after I’d been previously drugged, but my stomach cried out for food. I couldn’t control myself. I began ripping into the meat with my hands and shoving it by the fistfuls into my mouth. I felt the hot juices run down my chin and kept eating. I ate until the food was gone, but still my stomach roared in hunger.
“Jack,” I breathed out. “Jack, what has she done to us?”
“I don’t know, man. All I know is the food keeps coming, and Tyler is gone.”
Understanding rocked through me and my stomach began to turn. I didn’t know if Jack was implying what I thought he was, but it made me sick. At least, in the logical part of my brain. The rest of me screamed out for more food.
Some hours later, the same pattern repeated. The door clanged open in the darkness, and meat was dumped into my crate. Even with the awful suspicions in my mind, I ate. I ate every bit. It went on like this for I don’t know how long. I lost track of all time there in the darkness. All I could feel was the hunger in the pit of my stomach, and its expanding fullness. I felt no desire to escape, or even to talk to Jack after some time.
Between feedings, I slept. Jack was quiet in the next crate. It was hours, or maybe days, before I realized that he was missing.
I don’t know what pulled me from my complacency. Maybe it was the realization that Jack was gone. Maybe whatever drug I’d been given had finally worn off. Whatever the cause, the urge to escape from that place soon became overwhelming.
I concocted a plan. It wasn’t a complex one, but it seemed solid. The next time the crate opened, I would wedge my pocket knife in the door. From there, I figured I could pry it open and escape.
I waited and waited, preparing myself by checking the strength of my knife and confirming the position of the door and its hinges. It was difficult to do in the dark, but the smallness of the crate made it possible.
When finally the moment came, I was as silent as I could be. I wedged the tip of the knife into the door. It closed and clicked softly. I ignored the delicious-smelling meat next to me and began to work, pulling the knife slowly back and forth until the crate popped open.
I unfolded and stepped out into the dark room. Every muscle in my body screamed with pain, and I could see spots of color swimming before my eyes. I crouched down until the pain and dizziness subsided. It was then that I looked around the room. In the darkness, I could see that we were in some kind of a cellar. Next to my crate were two others. I rushed to them and looked inside to find them both empty. I had known Tyler was gone, and suspected the same of Jack, but seeing those empty crates still sent waves of nausea through me.
Any thoughts I’d had of simply running from Mrs. Michaud’s house vanished. I had to find out what she’d done to my friends.
I walked up the cellar stairs and quietly shut the door behind me. The house was old and large, and I couldn’t at first make sense of where I was in relation to anything else. I’d walked into what might have been a bedroom or another sitting room. The dust that coated the room was worn away in a path from the door to the cellar, and I followed that out into the hall.
The smell hit me then. It was roasting meat. Hunger shot through me, and I willed it away. I snapped my pocket knife open and walked toward the smell.
Mrs. Michaud was hunched over the counter next to the oven, humming softly to herself as she worked. I watched as her elbows splayed and retracted, as if she were sewing something. I didn’t have time to think; I plunged my knife into the sinewy lines of her exposed neck and pulled it down, tearing a ragged line from the base of her ear to her collar bone.
She screamed and clutched at the blood gushing from her neck. I watched as the red fluid seeped between her fingers. Mrs. Michaud fell to the floor, her mouth opening and closing like a fish drowning in air. She managed to speak between sputtering gasps.
“Why...did you...do that?” she asked, pain and confusion twisting her face. “I was...making...you...a special...dinner.”
Revulsion pulsed through me as I watched her convulse on the ground. I didn’t know what I would find in that kitchen, but I knew it would be bad. You don’t lock children in cages and force feed them fatty foods without bad intentions. I’d read fairy tales, and I knew what witches did with children in cages. Mrs. Michaud let out one more shuddering breath and her eyes became unfocused and dull. I nudged her with the toe of my shoe and breathed in deeply. The smell of roasted meat made my bloated stomach turn and growl, in a mixture of disgust and hunger. I knew the drug was to blame for my watering mouth, but I still hated myself.
I kicked at the body lying on the floor one last time, and started to look around the kitchen. I know I should have just run away. I should have left that place and called the police. But, I couldn’t help myself. I turned toward the counter, and I saw what Mrs. Michaud had been working on.
It was Jack, or the remains of what had been Jack. It took me a second to register what I was seeing; it was all so foreign that my brain couldn’t quite put it together. When it finally clicked, I felt the bile rising up in the back of my throat. I fell to my knees and vomited. The stuffed feeling in my stomach abated as I hacked up the remains of the day’s many meals, and after what felt like hours, dry heaves replaced the wet. I squeezed my eyes shut and steadied myself.
I tried not to look again at Jack, but my eyes were drawn to him. He no longer looked human.
His arms, back, and chest had been cut away, leaving his spinal column intact. This was positioned into the graceful curve of a bird’s neck. At the top of the neck was his head, which was stripped of enough flesh to give the impression of a distorted beak, provided by the jut of his upper teeth. His lower body was broken and folded upon itself. His legs bent backwards over his butt, creating wings along his side. He looked like nothing more than a grotesque Christmas goose.
I started to hyperventilate. Adrenaline rushed through my body, tensing my muscles and freezing me in place. Had I been able to run then, I might not have seen it. I might have been able to leave without that image in my head. Instead I was looking right at the remnants of Jack when his eyes opened. Slowly the lids raised and the unfocused eyes seemed to fix on me before they closed once more.
“No, Jack. God, no. No, no.” I stared at him wide-eyed. If I’d been thinking straight, I would have killed him. Put him out of his misery. Instead, I ran.
I barreled out of that kitchen and down the hallway, knocking aside furniture and the old stacks of newspapers as I went. I slammed my body into the front door, but it didn’t budge. Frantically, I searched for a window that wasn’t covered by iron bars. There was one, near the corner of the living room. I looked around for something to break it with, but there were only dusty chairs and boxes around me. With my pulse pounding in my head, I stripped off my t-shirt and wrapped it around my hand. I took a deep breath and punched the glass as hard as I could.
Pain shot through my hand from the impact, and shards of glass lacerated the exposed skin of my forearm. Still, I had managed to break enough to climb through. I didn’t even feel the sharp points of the window as I pulled my body up and over the wooden pane. When at last I had gotten free, I ran.
I ran all the way to the police station. When they saw me, shirtless and bloody, they immediately took me to a back room. I tried to tell them what happened, but the words caught in my throat. All I could say between the big gasping gulps of my crying was “Mrs. Michaud.” That was all they needed to send out an officer.
I sat wrapped in a blanket and sipping hot chocolate waiting for my parents to arrive. An officer sat next to me, looking down at me with concern. Over the din of activity in the station, I heard his radio buzz with static and a voice cut in.
“This is Officer Adams,” the voice sounded tight and thin through the radio. “Send backup to the Michaud place, 864 Fairview Court. EMTs. Anybody you can spare. My god. My god. Send anyone. There’s...” He trailed off, and a muted sound that could have been retching came through before the radio clicked off.
When it was all over, when the house had been cleared and a dozen small bodies had been removed, they asked me questions. Kindly and understanding at first, but then more insistent. What had I seen? What had I been given?
I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t even talk about it. They provided me with a therapist, but she just tiptoed around it all, looking at me with concern and fear. For years after, I couldn’t think about it without breaking down into tears. I’d be walking along and catch a whiff of roasted meat, and next thing I’d know I was on the ground, curled up into the fetal position and screaming. It made it hard to finish school or to get a job. Everyone understood, they said, but they didn’t really. When the years went by and I still had panic attacks, they’d pat my shoulder and look away. I read between the lines: “Why aren’t you over it yet?”
I don’t think I’ll ever be over it, not really. Intensive therapy has helped, and anti-anxiety meds level me off. But, every now and then I remember what happened at Mrs. Michaud’s house and it’s like I’m right back there. In that cage, or in that kitchen. I close my eyes and see Jack. I see his slow, calm blink, and I start to scream.