It had been three days since we arrived in Pearlwood, Samuel's parents' hometown. Erika, Fergus, Sam, and I had come to conduct a study, as well as to enjoy a week away from the routine in a privileged enclave located on the northwest coast of Helensburgh. Specifically, Pearlwood sprawled along a not-so-high cliff, filled with fertile lands that gave this small and charismatic town its reputation.
“Cheese!” exclaimed Erika as she took a photo of me with her newly acquired camera.
“I think I blinked,” I said, somewhat surprised.
“Just wait until we develop them, Matt, you'll see how they do you justice,” added Fergus, giving me an energetic pat on the shoulder. “And we'll have the scoop on those who debunked the myth of Pearlwood!” he continued, making a kind of headline gesture with both hands.
We were getting ready to go searching for Joanna, an old family friend of Sam's, who worked at one of the fruit and vegetable stores in town. And why her? Well, because she owned one of the lands closest to the cliff house, the famous Russell House, which was currently abandoned. The Russells had lived there for only a few years—a young and talented couple. The woman was the only daughter and heiress of a well-known businessman who died in a plane crash. One of her father's investments was the land located in front of the house, several hectares where she managed the cultivation of all kinds of fruit trees and vegetables. As for him, he was John Russell, a musician and composer who saw Pearlwood as the perfect place to find inspiration. They both seemed to have struck gold when they found their dream house on top of the cliff, with breathtaking views of the sea and the entire town; they must have felt like the kings of Pearlwood. It was a dream that lasted only a few years, and one day, they both disappeared without a trace.
“We're heading out now, Joanna will open her market stall shortly,” said Sam. “We want to avoid drawing attention to ourselves when it gets crowded.”
We left Sam's house and walked up the street towards the iconic Russell house. Many months after its owners disappeared, the town council took over the management of their lands and delegated them among some residents, intending to maintain production and necessary care to continue with Pearlwood's main activity. Along the way, we passed through one of the town's central squares, adorned with a fountain in the shape of a farmer watering bushes around it. In the square, some children had already come out to play with their balls and bicycles; while some older people peered out of their windows to watch us pass by, as if our presence there disturbed them or was the most extraordinary thing they had seen in years.
“Erika, do you remember when we climbed that mountain to do the report on the changing seasons?” Fergus asked. “I think if I had chosen another partner, I wouldn't be here with all of you right now.”
“Don't butter up Erika,” I added, “she knows perfectly well that you didn't choose her for her skills.”
“Well, you can't deny that we make a good pair,” Fergus continued, reaching his arm over Erika.
“Not even in your wildest dreams, Fergusson,” Erika replied, moving away. “I'd become a nun before I'd have to wake up in the morning and see you every day.”
“What about a co-ed convent? Do those exist, right?” Fergus persisted.
“No!” we all responded in unison.
Erika and Fergus were classmates in journalism school. They both graduated a couple of years ago, with Erika having a flawless track record, while Fergus didn't seem to show much interest in the early years of his university studies. It was thanks to her that not only did he manage to finish them, but they also landed a job that would open the doors to The Scotsman, one of the country's most important newspapers.
On the other hand, there's Samuel and me. We've known each other for many years, although we're not classmates or anything, just friends who run into each other on the street. Sam was the only child of doctors, so it was expected that he would also follow in their footsteps, but with his parents' income, he never had to struggle to get things. That's why he's not quite sure where he's headed in the future. As for me, I finished my studies at the University of Glasgow, where I specialized in information sciences. It was in a seminar where I met Erika and Fergus, and it's already been three years since then, though it feels like just three weeks!
“Sam! There you are!” Joanna exclaimed upon seeing him. “But my, how you've changed!”
“And I must say, you're looking great too, in your fifties and…something,” Sam replied, turning to look at us. “Joanna, meet Matthew, Fergusson, and Erika, my fellow adventurers.”
“So, an adventurer, huh? I guess you always had too much spare time,” Joanna responded with laughter. “Nice to meet you all. My name is Joanna. Sam told me on the phone that you'd be coming to interview me about the Russell lands.”
Sam turned around again, feeling exposed, as he hadn't expected Joanna to think that we were going to interview her about the house. Maybe he should have hinted at it, or perhaps it was part of his plan.
While Sam and Joanna chatted, Fergus and I prepared for the interview. Meanwhile, Erika took the opportunity to take a photograph of Joanna with Sam.
The interview started off seeming like an in-depth study of horticulture, delving into details that only someone who knew how to care for crops would be able to understand. Joanna explained that Miss Russel had invested a lot of money in preparing the soil to a level that the rest of the town couldn't afford. She also mentioned that the town couldn't pass up such an opportunity and leave the estate in the hands of anyone else, so they rehired the staff using the town's common funds and fenced off the house; this way, preventing locals or visitors from entering or causing problems. This way, they were able to continue working the lands. Finally, without hinting at anything, Joanna ended up telling us about the disappearances that had taken place in that house over the years. All the cases had one thing in common: the disappeared were outsiders. It seemed more like a small-town urban legend than a real story, as some cases weren't even filed by the Pearlwood police themselves. Only a few headlines were saved, along with the Russels', so the attention on the house from the country was mostly local rumors. According to Joanna, it was believed that young Mr. Russel might have gone mad due to a creative crisis and ended up taking his wife's life before plunging off the cliff. They never found the bodies, just like there was no trace of the last people who disappeared inside the house. Most of the cases seemed like mere gossip, but for some reason, no local dared to venture inside and spoke of the house with respect. Nobody seemed to do anything about it, as if it was a necessary bad reputation, a sinister attraction that gave personality to the town.
“So don't even think about getting close, I see Sam itching for an adventure,” Joanna concluded, referring to a nervous and restless Sam.
“Okay, we can cut that last part,” I said as I stopped the recorder. “Thank you very much, Joanna, this will be really helpful for our work on Pearlwood.”
Sam continued catching up with Joanna, who treated him with a special fondness. While Fergus and I packed up our things, Erika headed towards the fence that separated the estate from the fields, intending to get a closer look at it.
We said our goodbyes to Joanna and made our way back to Sam's house. As we moved away, I kept turning to look at that imposing house, with its blackened porch covered in dried ivy, some of its windows broken, and the facade slightly weathered, though not appearing as a ruined house. I couldn't help but wonder why someone would invent such stories… Were they trying to hide something? It was clear that something strange was happening, and I was starting to feel like we were getting ourselves into some murky business.
The day of the raid on the Russell's house dawned. Recorder, batteries, tapes, film reels, and a notebook for taking notes; everything was ready to go. Along the way, Fergus yawned and looked at the windows of the houses, where sometimes faces could be seen watching us on yet another morning. We walked until we left the paved road, onto a dirt path filled with small bushes. There wasn't much grass growing where we walked, so it was likely a known route to the cliff house. The moment of truth was approaching, along with the silhouette of the house. We walked through a narrow passage that, just a few meters away, offered a sheer drop to the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. Sam warned us about what we would find as we progressed. Erika, marveling at the incredible views of the sea, took photos on a journey that only drew smiles and expressions of amazement on our faces. But soon, those smiles faded as we approached the house, which had a large hole in its side where the light seemed to be consumed.
“And this is as close as I've gotten to this house,” Sam said with a serious tone, stopping in his tracks.
“Come on, guys, it's daytime and the windows of the house have no curtains. It can't be that dark inside,” I said, trying to convey some courage.
“I'll be right behind you,” Erika said to me.
Without thinking too much, I entered through the gap. Behind me, Erika and the rest followed. It seemed like a hallway that surrounded the outside of the basement of the house, with a creaky wooden floor that complained about our steps, accumulating dirt and grime from at least two decades. As we turned the corner, we could see the light coming through some cracks at the end of the hallway, illuminating part of the way. There were rocks and some broken bottles, suggesting human activity. Maybe it was the perfect hiding place for daring young people to have secret fun, or perhaps it had been or was the home of a homeless person. The morbidity was palpable.
We stopped for a few seconds, trying to hear any sound bouncing off the walls of those corridors, which seemed more like a maze, but we heard nothing but the crashing of waves on the cliff.
We continued until we reached the next corner where, upon turning, stairs going up welcomed us to the first floor. Once upstairs, the hallways continued, although there were doors on the wall to our left. For a young couple's house, the decor was too austere, lacking any charm: plain wallpaper and not a single ornament, only a few sconces along the hallways. Light seeped through some windows as we kept exploring the house as if we were walking in circles, ignoring the rooms and trying to reach the corners of the house as soon as possible. At the first turn, halfway down the hallway and to our right, we found what appeared to be the front door. From the windows, we could see the fence that separated the house from the farmland. A couple of turns later, we found another staircase going up.
“Do we continue or do you want us to open any doors?” I asked the group.
“Go ahead, Matt, let's see what's on the next floor,” Sam replied.
We climbed the stairs and reached a new hallway, but this time we could see an open door on the right wall, through which a lot of light from outside was coming in. We couldn't resist entering directly. Inside, a room extended with a small sofa, a dining table, dressers, and an entrance to what seemed like an adjoining room. At the end, a window facing the sea gave you a warm welcome.
“Who's there?” suddenly, a young man's voice was heard.
My heart skipped a beat for a moment, not knowing how to respond accurately to such a simple question, but it wasn't necessary because a young, somewhat unkempt man appeared from the adjoining room.
“Well, I could ask you the same thing,” the young man replied as he headed towards the sofa that was just about a meter and a half away. “My name is Thomas Reid, but you can call me Tom… And who are you? Have you also come to stay?” he asked as he settled on the sofa. “It's a big house and many people come here with that intention, but this is my personal alcove.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Tom,” I began to speak. “My name is Matthew, and these are my friends: Erika, Fergusson, and Samuel.”
Everyone looked at me dumbfounded, as we were all surprised by Tom's presence.
“We came to try to debunk a myth about the disappearances that happen in this house,” Fergus said. “What we didn't expect was to find someone so… normal here.”
“And what were you expecting to find? The Russels?” he replied and laughed. “You just have to look out that window to understand why someone would want to disappear in a place like this.”
As they were talking, I wanted to approach the window. When I reached the door that led to another room, I couldn't help but notice what looked like a piano covered with a sheet and a dusty drum set. I entered the room to get a closer look at those instruments.
“But why is there so much talk about the disappearances in this house? What's in the rest of the rooms?” Erika was heard asking Tom.
“I don't know, I've tried to open some doors myself, but they seem to be stuck,” Tom said. “Although personally, I'm content with this room, I spend most of my day here when I want to disconnect.”
I returned to where everyone was, and Tom lit a cigarette and continued talking.
“It's said that you should never enter this house alone, or leave anyone alone while you're inside, but look at me,” he said, patting his belly, “here I am! I'm a free spirit.”
Erika and the others whispered among themselves, and I approached.
“Do you mind if we explore the rest of the house?” Erika asked.
Tom responded with a gesture, as if inviting us to continue investigating, so we all left the room. Erika took the lead and went back downstairs; we followed her footsteps. She stopped at the entrance of the house and opened the doors. Once outside, she descended the porch, approached the fence, and turned to look at us.
“This looks like a squat, guys. Whatever it is, this place is nothing special,” Erika said, sounding somewhat disappointed, as if she was annoyed.
“What are you doing in there?!” a woman's voice was heard in the distance.
It was Joanna who was approaching hurriedly from the other side of the fence.
“I told you not to get close to the house, strange things have happened there, and I don't think it's a good idea for you to be around,” Joanna said, nervously and worriedly.
“It's fine, Joanna. We came to continue our investigation, but it appears that this house is now occupied by squatters,” Erika argued, turning towards the house.
“Squatters?” Joanna responded, confused.
“Yes, we went inside and found someone named Tom,” said Fergus.
“Tom? That's impossible… Thomas Reid?” Joanna asked.
“The same, do you know him?” I asked.
“Matt, Sam… Thomas Reid disappeared almost a year ago. The police never found him,” Joanna said, scared. “I don't think it's a good idea for you to go in there again. Turn around and come to this side of the fence as soon as possible, Sam.”
“Well, he must not have liked the idea of being found because right there is the bohemian gentleman, sitting on a sofa and relaxing to the sound of the crashing waves,” Fergus said, turning back towards Erika.
“We're going back inside, then we'll convince him to come out. Maybe it's a misunderstanding,” Sam said.
“No, Sam, don't go in. Let's go out and call the police for them to handle it,” Joanna said. “Your friends are going back inside!” she raised her voice as she saw Erika and Fergus returning to the house.
“Erika! Fergus! Wait for us!” I shouted.
But they were determined to find Tom. Sam and I ran towards the entrance, trying to catch up with them, when a loud noise rang out. As we entered, we saw Erika on the ground. The wood had broken under her feet, her leg was trapped, and her knee was bleeding.
“Don't move!” Fergus yelled.
“Erika, are you okay?” I asked, nervous.
“What do you think? It hurts…” she said, accompanied by gestures of pain.
“Tom…” I said to myself aloud. “I'm going after Tom, maybe he can help us,” I added, before running upstairs.
“Matt, I'm coming with you,” Sam said.
Sam and I ran upstairs to the room where Tom was supposed to be.
“Tom! We need…” I said, then instantly fell silent. “Tom?”
“He's not here,” Sam said after looking in the adjacent room.
“It doesn't matter, let's look for something that can help us,” I hastily concluded while rummaging through drawers and containers for anything that could assist us in rescuing Erika.
“Fergus!” Erika's shout was heard in the distance.
“Erika!” he seemed to respond. “Erika! Where are you? Erika!”
Sam looked at me in fear and ran off to help our friends.
“Sam, wait! Don't go alone!” I shouted, trying to prevent us from being separated. “Sam!”
I dropped the things I had in my hands and ran after Sam.
“Sam! Wait for me!” I yelled as I tried to catch up with him, down the stairs. “Sam!”
“Matt! Come on, I'm here! Erika and Fergus are not here!” I heard Sam respond, getting further away.
When I turned the corner of the hallway, I found the hole where Erika got trapped, but there was no one there. I attempted to exit through the front door, but the handle wouldn't respond. I pounded on it, rammed into it, but I couldn't open it or move it an inch.
“Sam! Fergus! Erika!” I called out loudly.
But there was no response, so I stopped, in silence, trying to hear any faint sound. However, the noise of my heavy breathing in the midst of that silence made the situation even more unsettling. Desperate, I ran towards the crack we used as an entrance. I descended the stairs as fast as I could. As I turned the corner, I came to a sudden halt at the sight of a pale woman in front of me. I didn't have time to react when suddenly she started moving towards me at great speed, with a cold, vacant stare, without moving an inch of her body. When she was just an inch away from me, I reacted by putting my arms up to protect myself, but I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I closed my eyes and brought a hand to my heart. When I opened them, everything was pitch black, as if I had been plunged into absolute darkness. In my thoughts, the echoes of my friends' voices faded away. Soon, I felt a great fatigue that dragged me, unable to resist, into a deep sleep.
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