THE HAUNTING OF THE FOREST HOUSE
The forest house was haunted. Everyone in Sunrise knew it, and the children of town knew instinctively to avoid the house when playing at the lake. There had been rumors about the house for years -- stories from people that had been invited inside, and the strange things they saw -- and the one thing everyone could agree on was that the house was definitely haunted.
No one was more sure of the house's haunted nature than the owner, Alma Johnson. A widow for more than thirty years, Alma had lived in the old house by the edge of the forest since she was a girl, although the haunting had only really begun a few years ago. During a particularly bad winter some years back, Alma found herself snowbound in the house. Unable to enter or exit, she made due with the supplies she had stockpiled just in case, disposing of her trash and waste in the basement and confining herself mostly to the upper levels.
It was after that winter that the haunting began.
At first it was just small things. Objects around the house would move from one place to another, or vanish entirely. Dark shapes hid in corners and darted when you looked at then. And the noises in the walls... the noises in the walls was what had attracted the most attention to old Alma's place. One idle Sunday a neighbor had stopped by to drop off a loaf of freshly baked bread for Alma and was promptly invited inside. They let the bread rest on the kitchen counter while chatting in the parlor, but within minutes, the house seemed to come alive around them. There were banging and thumping sounds in the walls and ceilings, punctuated by the occasional low growl or hiss. The neighbor became very uncomfortable and, when heading into Alma's kitchen to retrieve her basket, discovered that someone had taken a jagged and rough bite out of the bread while the only two people in the house sat just a room away. The neighbor left in a hurry, and soon neighbors stopped coming by for a visit entirely.
With no neighbors to turn to, Alma was left alone in her house, surviving only on the supplies a local boy delivered once per week. Too weak to take out the trash accumulating in the basement and too old to perform maintenance on the house, the place slowly came apart (with Alma still inside), eventually appearing to become the haunted house everyone already expected it to be.
As time went on, Alma discovered that the house became increasingly haunted. The strange occurrences became more and more frequent, until the tension of living in the house almost became too much to handle. She grew thin and gaunt, her complexion becoming pale, and even her clothes seemed to hang off of her in a ghostly manner. Eventually things came to a head one night as Alma laid in bed, nearly drifting off to sleep.
The sounds began, as usual, with just one or two bumps in the night. She had learned over time that the haunting was the worst at night, so a regular amount of bumps and shuffles around her was nothing surprising. But on this night, the noises took on a different tone. It was relatively quiet at first, and hard to hear, but Alma quickly discovered that if she strained her ears carefully, she could make out the sound of a woman screaming in the distance. This unsettled her to no end; after all, being an older woman living alone in a haunted house is scary enough without having to listen to the sounds of someone very much like you endlessly screaming.
The sounds intensified, and grew worse. What started as one woman screaming quickly became two, which then became an entire chorus, and finally an entire rally of screams within her walls. All around her the ceilings creaked and thumped, screams poured from every wall, and the non-stop sound of footsteps in the basement below her finally became too much.
"This is it," Alma cried, clutching at her chest. "I think this is the end of me!" She waited for relief, but none came. Every time she thought the noises could not get any worse, they somehow did. Finally, a sharp pain stabbed Alma in the heart, spreading to her neck and arm. Her poor old heart had finally given out, spurred on by the stress of living in the nightmare house, and Alma died in bed right there on the spot.
Death sat across the room watching.
"Well, that wasn't as exciting as I hoped," he said, grabbing Alma's hand and lifting her ghost out of her body. "I thought for sure something more dramatic would happen."
"Something more dramatic?" Alma demanded. "Like what? What could be more dramatic than a haunted house?!"
Death threw back his head and laughed a kind of laughter that would have frightened Alma in life but only irritated her in death.
"Your house isn't haunted, you silly old cow," Death said, gesturing a long black finger towards a small hole in the wall across Alma's bedroom. "Look closer. Really look this time."
Alma leaned towards the hole, her spectral form pale and shimmering, just in time to see a raccoon lunge out of the wall and through her body before scampering out the door and into the living room.
"A raccoon? What on earth was a raccoon doing in my wall?"
"It's not just one raccoon, old timer," said Death, still chuckling under his breath. "It's a whole family. A whole colony of raccoons and foxes and squirrels living in your house. Moving through the walls. Bumping in the night. Eating food off your countertops and from that... dump... in the basement. Even the screaming... ever hear a fox calling out to other foxes? Sounds just like a woman's scream. And I would certainly know." Death elbowed towards Alma, his arm going right through her form. "Oh, right, sorry about that. Anyway, you're dead now. Should have disposed of your garbage better, trash tends to attract wild animals, after all."
"But if I had nothing to fear," Alma asked, "why are you here? Was it really my time to go?"
"Probably not," said Death, "but sometimes this sort of thing comes down to my discretion. Unless there's something serious in the works like a good explosion or a horrible murder, I'll take people to the afterlife a little early. It makes my numbers look good, and it's not like I have anything else to do all day."
"That hardly seems fair," Alma started to protest. "If you don't have to take someone, why wou-"
But it was too late. Alma disappeared in a flash of bright light, leaving Death alone in the house.
"I love what I do," Death said, and he really meant it.
Simon pressed onward towards the forest edge, solemnly shaking his head. He knew death wasn't always fair, but it seemed like Death was especially unfair sometimes, like with old Alma.
If he could manage to skirt along the edge of the forest without entering it, he knew that the next major clearing would lead him directly on a path to Daisy and the Watson Farm. The fall sun beamed down on him and Simon suddenly realized he was sweating. He had been navigating the forest and grounds around Oquirrh Lake for several hours now, and had grown very tired carrying the heavy old book, but he couldn't stop knowing Daisy might be next.