Chapter 1

I turned the corner and picked my way down two deserted blocks…

past cracked windows and crumbling brick, beyond a lonely church, and toward the main street, where I turned right.

The road was desolate in the twilight.

I passed a vacant sweet shop, an abandoned market, derelict cafés and restaurants.

All were empty of life.

But as I approached the old apothecary, I thought I caught a glimpse of movement inside.

I peered into the window.

It was dark within, and still now, and I could see nothing.

I started to move on, but then I knocked on the window in case I was now wrong, in case the shop was in fact occupied as I had first thought.

There remained stillness and silence.

Then, suddenly, a match sparked in the darkness, the flame lit a candle, and the beacon moved toward me through the gloom.

The face of an old man was illuminated in the glow.

Illustration by John Stern

“What do you want?” the man appeared to snarl as he approached the window.

I read his lips. I could not hear his voice through the glass. His eyes were wide; his heavy brows were tensed together; he looked wild, surly, and defensive.

I knew he wouldn’t hear me. I pointed to the door on the corner, urging him to open it so I could make my inquiry and be heard. The man scowled and shook his head.

“The house, then,” I said, resigned to muteness through the glass. “The house on the lake.”

I pointed behind me, toward the east. My voice sounded louder than I expected it to, and it seemed to echo. It sounded unnatural in the surrounding silence.

But the man gave no indication of having heard me.

I made a sign of a house with my hands — a triangle with my fingertips touching to indicate a roof. I pointed eastward again.

The old man shook his head vehemently, his eyes burning with what seemed like fear.

Then, suddenly, with a feral exhalation, he blew out the candle. 

I could not tell if he turned away.

Darkness had now fully enclosed the street. I stumbled blindly northward. I had nearly a mile to go, and I wished, simultaneously, to happen upon someone who knew about the house, and to happen upon no soul.

The gloom was thick. The night was black, with a heavy dark cloud of murky fog overhead. It was much darker than more fashionable streets on which there were street lamps, traffic, bustling shops, and the pulse of society and life.

The street was more like a forest, with a perilous path that meandered around piles of garbage rather than trees, a path that was dark and indiscernible.

Presently I ran into something iron-like — an old stove, I guessed, as I fumbled my way around what felt like a range.

I stepped cautiously toward the other side of the obstruction, and continued on with uncertain steps, my hands in front of me to warn me of further obtrusions.

I felt as if with each step I were about to fall from a precipice.

Suddenly a rough voice called through the abyss.

“Meester!” it rasped.

It came from some distance ahead.

I had been beginning to feel uneasy by the darkness and the emptiness, by the ruin and the quiet that was broken only by sporadic skittering sounds.

Now I felt chilled by the suddenness of the raspy voice that seemed to come from nowhere.

Chapter 2 →