THE FIRST HAUNTED HOUSE
The ground was unhallowed long before Oliver Hedgewood stood ankle-deep in muck on the plot of land upon which he intended to build his home. According to local lore, the Duwamish tribe had done battle with a shapeshifting spirit somewhere within these two-and-a-half hectares of scrub and Oregon pine. Oliver had never been one to take tall tales and myth as gospel, no matter how tantalizing, but he did enjoy a good ghost story now and then.
He supposed he had folklore to thank for this small parcel of overgrown land having remained unclaimed, despite practically any request being approved by the Homestead and Timber Culture Acts. Much of the land once solely occupied by Chief Seattle and his people had already been gobbled up by the likes of Doc Maynard, Henry Yesler, the Denny Party, and many others. Oliver counted himself lucky to have acquired even this much.
From where he stood in the juniper brambles and boot-tracked mud, he could see nothing but forest primeval. But just beyond the rain-heavy pine boughs lay the dark waters of Elliott Bay, and it was there he intended to make his fortune. In his mind's eye he envisioned a house springing forth in this clearing from the riches he would amass on the waters below. A home, rather—larger and more opulent than any this area had yet seen.
He would christen it "the Hedgewood Estate," and one day it would be famous. People from all across the great land of America would come to visit, from his former hometown of Frisco all the way to the Big Apple, perhaps long after Oliver himself had perished. It would be a magnificent legacy to his genius, his cunning and diligence.
Just twenty-three years old and eager to make his mark upon the world, Oliver Hedgewood wiped a cool sheen of rain from his brow and plunged the blade of his shovel into the stony earth.
June 8, 1887
I write this entry by firelight, sitting in the dark clearing atop the hill where I will raise my House. Dreadful noises have awakened me, urging me to stoke the coals. My mind assures me these ungodly screeches and howls, which persist long after I've waked, are the din of machinery and squall of metal from the nearby coal bunkers or railway tracks, yet superstition insists it is the shrieking of banshees or perhaps the howl of shapeshifting Indian ghouls, possibly even the wail of their dead.
I am not ashamed to admit I am afraid for my life as well as my sanity. I worry I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this deeded land, though I am far more fearful of how father would perceive me should I slink back home with tail betwixt my legs!
I must tuck away this journal now and try to fetch some sleep, or I'll be of no use to myself in the morning.
The Hedgewood Maritime Corporation began with a single vessel: a yacht built by hand from trees felled on Oliver's own land. He started small, ferrying workers and supplies all throughout Puget Sound, as far north as Everett and as far south as Olympia. He soon became infamous among his competitors for being willing to travel into treacherous waters and conditions others wouldn't brave in order to get his passengers and supplies to their destinations on time.
From these humble beginnings an empire grew. By 1890, while many businessmen were still reeling from the losses from the fire that tore through the business district in June of 1889, Oliver owned a fleet of five passenger yachts, two tugs for pulling log booms, and a steam-powered ferry built to rival his only competition, a boat called the City of Seattle run by the Land and Improvement Company.
By then the construction of his estate was already well underway. He'd built himself a simple log cabin nestled at the edge of the clearing, and had lived there until the first wing of his home became habitable. As his fortune grew, so too did the House. By 1895, it had seven rooms. By 1900, twelve.
As with any difficult undertaking in the days before modern medicine and prevention, injuries happened. Even deaths weren't uncommon. While in Seattle proper the first electric streetcars crisscrossed the city among motorcars and horse-drawn carriages, the Hedgewood Estate remained outside of time. Grover Cleveland might have felt comfortable having a wireman string up Christmas lights in the White House but Oliver still held a deep, almost primal distrust of electricity, as did many of his contemporaries. For this reason these accidents often occurred under the soft, flickering glow of gas lamps and lanterns, as plastering and plumbing, carpentry and bricklaying continued well into the night.
The first such incident occurred when a bricklayer fell from a scaffold, though he claimed to have been pushed by an "unseen hand." A stack of his own bricks broke his fall and his back. Oliver begrudgingly paid the man's doctor's fees, in addition to a pittance to keep quiet about the "unseen hand," a story which had already started to make some of the other men—a superstitious lot, the Irish—uneasy.
Several weeks later, a carpenter's apprentice dropped a heavy plank of wood which startled the horses behind him into a gallop. A rope left carelessly in the dirt, tied to the back of the horse cart, snagged tightly around his ankle as the animals bolted. He was dragged into the woods, jouncing over bedrock and bounding against tree trunks, until one of his fellow workers managed to leap onto the cart and reign in the wild beasts. The boy was so badly mangled he could no longer continue with his apprenticeship. Oliver paid his doctor's bill, and as he had the gentleman before him, provided a small fee to keep him quiet.
Even so, word spread throughout the area about the house built upon the malignant plot of land overlooking Smith's Cove. Despite the elegance of his new home, which grew more extravagant with each passing day, Oliver himself began to wonder about the legends. The sky above was stained permanently black with soot from the local coal bunkers, the bay below crammed with logjams and steamships. The ash crept into everything, coating his possessions with a layer of filth as black as pitch. Even freshly prepared food wasn't spared from the affliction. It was as though he'd built the house directly atop an endlessly burning coal fire, or the mouth of Hell itself.
January 19, 1897
As the erection of my House nears completion, I must ask myself if my needs will ever be satisfied. The rooms are undeniably stately, as opulent as any I've yet seen, though a voice persistently bellows within me for 'more.' I have instructed the builders to adjust the size and shape and even intent of each room more times than I can count on one hand. Surely, they must think me an escapee of Bedlam!
As for the men themselves, I have worked them beyond exertion with my constant vacillation. This, compounded by the spate of accidents over the years, has pushed several of them to leave the crew, or worse. Just this morning, a plasterer thought missing for the past several days was found dead beneath the staircase. Somehow, he had managed to wall himself in!
The stench emanating from the spandrel was atrocious. The plasterer's corpse and garments appeared to be thoroughly begrimed with soot, as if he had perished by asphyxiation, trapped perhaps within a chimney's flue. I cannot comprehend how the rest of the spandrel was spared from this scorching. It was as though his body had been set aflame, yet the flesh itself remained curiously unblemished.
Still more perplexing was that this cadaver smelled not of smoke but of the foulest stench of rot and putrescence I have ever borne witness to, as if his remains had been excreted from the very bowels of Hell.
"Fetch the light," Oliver muttered, still half asleep. "I heard a sound."
Desa reached for the night table and lit the gas lantern. Her shadow flickered over the far wall as she raised it to see. In his own bed, Oliver had sat bolt upright, the heavy down covers draped over his legs.
"What was it you heard?" she asked.
He hesitated a moment before responding. She heard an audible gulp as his bristly Adam's apple rose and fell. "It resembled a scream," he said.
"A scream? Was it the children?"
"It was a man," he grunted, staring into the darkened corridor through the opened door. "A man, howling like a banshee."
His young wife gave him a patient smile. If there truly had been a man screaming, she surely wouldn't have needed her husband to wake her. "The workers have all been sent home, dear husband. The servants shan't return until sunrise. You and I and the children are all who remain."
Oliver glowered at her. They'd been married a year and already the age gap between them had widened drastically: his pale face had grown pudgy and slack, where on their wedding day he'd been peart. "Hence my reticence, dear wife, to spring from my bedding and look."
She eyed the darkness in the hall where he'd been looking, sensing movement. "Shall I have a look then?"
Oliver set his jaw, cognizant of the challenge in her words. "I will go." He snatched the lamp and threw off the covers, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stepped into his slippers. His shadow fell long and grotesque over the wall as he stood and approached the door, footfalls creaking.
Desa shuddered, despite the warmth of her own bedding around her waist. "Be careful."
He scowled back at her but said nothing. The House had been a bone of contention between them since their first night of conjugal bliss. Even she was loathe to admit it was pleasant in the light of day, despite its odd angles and peculiar arrangement. Exquisite, even. In the dead of night, however, she found it positively monstrous. With two suckling infants she was often called to leave the comfort of her bed, though the mere thought of it detested her. When unable to time her nocturnal calls to nature with these excursions, she would use the chamber pot beside her bed. The peculiar sounds, the tricks of light, her sudden disorientation—even if Oliver pretended not to, Desa understood why the servants refused to stay long beyond candle-light.
He stepped out into the hall, leaving her alone in the room, lit only by the retreating gaslight. His shadow flickered on the paintings and flocked wallpaper as the lamp swung. The wood groaned under his feet several more steps until silence swallowed them up.
The room fell pitch dark and uncannily quiet. Eventually, her vision adjusted to the moonlight, filtering in through gauzy white curtains.
Then she saw them.
Two small, white ellipses in the doorway, about the height of a man. She stared at them for a long moment, hoping to reconcile them with what she knew of the hallway directly outside the bedroom door. Glints of moonlight flashing off a sconce? Her own reflection looking back at her within a mirror?
It was neither. Only one of several oil paintings, a commission of one of Oliver's own fleet, would be visible in the light from where she slept. The longer she stared at the orbs the more she began to notice the slight outline of a shape surrounding them. It was as if the man in the doorway was dark as the bitumen the workmen slathered on the roof from head to toe.
"Husband," she hissed.
The orbs disappeared for a moment, long enough for Desa to wonder if she'd imagined them, the dark shape merely a trick of the light—until they returned, as bright as before.
"Husband!" she called, dreadfully afraid.
A sudden gale rattled the window panes. She startled, pulling the bedclothes up to her chin. When at last her gaze fell upon the doorway, the eyes were gone.
She had barely a moment's respite before a scream pierced the silence. It was her husband, wailing loud enough to wake the dead.
Howling like a banshee, Desa thought, recalling his own words. It was the scream of a man in a great deal of emotional pain, and it had come from the west, from the nursery.
"No," she gasped. She turned to rise as a blackened hand shot out from the darkness, closing over her mouth and nose. A second grasped the back of her head, cold as the grave, smothering her cry before she could loose it. She tasted char on her tongue. The smell of burned coal filled her nostrils.
The last thing she saw as she looked at her attacker was the mad terror in the lamplights of his eyes.
June 8, 1901
I am alone. I mourn for the children, naturally, but the lack of Desa's presence makes the house seem all the more sinister.
Was it always so? Yes, I believe it was.
Perhaps I should have heeded the warnings. Perhaps I should have listened to my personal misgivings. Perhaps I should have capitulated when Desa expressed her own fears. It has been exactly fourteen years since I first arrived on this land. How many lives could have been spared if I'd given in to temptation and simply walked away in the night?
'Accidental mechanical suffocation,' the doctor called it. Both Henry and Thomas, tangled up in their bedclothes and smothered. What made it more peculiar was that the boys sleep—slept, I should say, for they now rock in the Lord's everlasting arms—in separate bassinets dressed with white silk. Both cribs were streaked with what appeared to be coal. My dearest Desa suffered a similar fate; Doc Pleasance and I both noted the black smudges on her lips and nostrils. As he proffered the diagnosis, he eyed me studiously over the lenses of his pince-nez glasses, as though he suspected I might have been to blame! I promptly ejected him from the premises, promising never to call upon the man again, no matter the issue. For all the trouble my crew provides me down the docks and here, at my House, it should put him out at least sixty dollars a week!
After he left, I imbibed a smile of bourbon to soothe the sting of melancholy, and have raised several more glasses since. The domestics have all retreated to their various domiciles and my House is once again alive with the sound of its splintered bones groaning and crackling as it wakes, settling deeper into the accursed earth.
In spite of my intoxication, I still see the monster's visage just beyond the lamplight, black as soot, same as I'd seen it stood over my children's cribs that night. I could not relate this detail to Doc Pleasance. He would think me insane. For the man who'd stood over the limp bodies of our boys was the very same who'd been found in the spandrel four years hence. And when the whites of his eyes turned to gaze upon me, I swear he had disappeared like smoke!