Thomas had never run a day in his life. However, when he was forced to move back to rural North Carolina from Manhattan, he had to find some form of cardio to make up for all the walking he was no longer doing. It also seemed to help ease his depression, which was still ever present, but he would never tell anyone that.
If you were to rewind three to four months you wouldn’t see the same Thomas. You would see a finely dressed, clean-shaven, art gallery executor Thomas. He was the first person in his family to board an airplane and the first black gallery executor at the Institute of Classical Art and Film in New York City. How a prestigious establishment like ICAF could go without having a black executor up until 2015 he had no idea. He didn’t care though because at least he had it, even for a small time.
One bad gallery opening cost Thomas his job and his dream of living in the best city in the world. Shortly thereafter he returned home, welcomed by his mother who hadn’t seen him in months. He had chased his dreams, succeeded, then made one mistake and it was all gone. Now granted, he had accomplished a lot for a man of 25, but that didn’t mean anything to him now that he was back home. He became depressed, gained a bit of weight and became inactive.
While attempting to pull on a t-shirt he had bought while in New York, he realized it was time to do something. Not only did it take him five minutes to wriggle himself into it, but also the side seam split open. So, armed with nothing more than his phone, ear pods and a cheap pair of shoes, he found a local park with 7-10 miles of trails and began running.
He had spent the day before walking around the park and looking at the map he had found at their recreation center. But now he was actually running the trails and exploring the different pathways. This park had a large creek running in the center of it that Thomas crossed several times during his run. The fall air filled his lungs as his feet pounded the paved trail. This was probably the most relaxing thing he had done in months, he thought to himself.
His music rang in his ears, motivating him to keep going and what he liked most was that there was next to no one on the trails. Every once in a while he would find an elderly couple walking their dogs but for the most part he was completely isolated.
As he nears his final trail, the wind picks up and dark clouds form overhead. He crosses the creek over a wide, old bridge that he could guarantee hasn’t been inspected in recent history. After a short time, he went through a tunnel that went under the main road for the small town Thomas now lived in. Exiting the tunnel, he ran a length of the trail that turned a corner and went out to the street. He ran to the edge of the road where the trail came to an end.
He stopped to catch his breath and to change the song on his iPhone. The leaves all around him came to life in a sudden gust of autumn wind. They rustled in the woods behind him and struggled for flight underneath his feet. He turned to run back through the trail and just before he turned to go towards the tunnel he saw something just off the trail, in the woods.
It was a life size dollhouse, white with bright purple trim. Completely abandoned for at least a decade, its paint was chipping and the shingles on the roof were clinging to loose boards, covered with moss and ivy. There was something about it that kept Thomas there, running in place, staring at its dark openings. Fighting the temptation to look inside he continued running and retired for the day.
The rain was light, but cold as Thomas ran through the trails. Thankfully, the majority of the trails were paved but there were spots here and there that were slippery and muddy. The rain seemed to amplify the color of the fall leaves and Thomas enjoyed looking at them as his music gave him the energy he needed.
Nearing the end of his run he approaches the bridge that leads to the final stretch of the trail. The creek had risen over the past day, not as tranquil as Thomas had remembered it. He paused once he was on the bridge to look over the side. The water just barely made it under the bridge, sometimes splashing the bottom of the wooden beams of the bridge that held him up.
He began running again, going through the tunnel and around the bend. There in the center of the trail, just before the edge of the road, was the dollhouse sitting amongst a patch of brightly colored leaves. Thomas had thought that possibly the rain had forced the dollhouse to slide down from its original position.
He approached it slowly and as he got closer, the hairs on the back of his neck stood as a chill ran down his spine. There was no door on this tiny house and although the paint was weathered and chipping it was still a vibrant white. It came up to about his neck; large enough to fit a person if they remained crouched down.
Thomas was curious so he crouched down and went inside the dollhouse. The inside seemed even more rotten than the outside did. A putrid odor came from the inside almost like what one would describe as burning flesh and Thomas couldn’t pin point its source. He looked around the base of the house and seen no rotting animals so he decided to leave.
As he turned to leave he was distracted by a bright red symbol that was painted above the threshold. A pentagram with a ram’s head was painted on the wall with the bones of what Thomas could only guess was a squirrel or small dog nailed to each point.
Slipping on the wet wooden floor, he struggled to get out as fast as he could. He climbed from the dollhouse and looked at in disbelief. Why would someone perform a satanic ritual in a dollhouse?
He ran the trail backwards towards the recreation center where he requested to speak to a park attendant. Thomas told the park ranger of the dollhouse and its contents and how it was blocking the trail. He was calm, confused, but not really terrified he didn’t think. It was a tad creepy but he didn’t find anything truly scary about it. The ranger assured him that she would remove the obstruction and that he shouldn’t worry about it.
Thomas was tempted to go with the ranger to make sure it was actually moved but he decided against it. He ran no more that day and went home.
The rain was even harder than the day before. The clouds darkened everything at the park to where it seemed like it was a consistent nightfall. Still wanting to go for a run, Thomas decided to start on the trail with the dollhouse instead of finishing there. He wanted to make sure it was removed. But when he approached the trail this time, the creek had completely overcome the bridge that lead to the trail.
He almost attempted to go over the bridge regardless but then a large tree branch floated over it without stopping and at great speed so he decided against it. He turned and began running down the rest of trail that wound itself through the woods.
The darkness of the clouds dimmed the colors of the leaves and without the maintenance workers clearing the trails, the wet leaves made his running slippery and difficult. He continued through the trails, winding in and out of the forest surrounding the park, avoiding the over run bridges covered with water and debris.
Thomas rounded a corner leading deeper into the woods. A soft beeping interrupted his pounding music and silence filled his space instead of the steady stream of upbeat pop music. He stopped just off the trail and jogged in place and pulled out his phone. The ear pods were, like he suspected, completely plugged in; his phone had however shut off. He restarted the device and it flashed to life. Seeing that the battery was indeed full he started the music again and continued running.
Hardly a moment later the music stopped and a soft beeping came through his headphones. Again he surveyed the phone, this time when he restarted it, the dead battery signal flashed as it cut off again. Confused and disappointed not to have music for the remainder of his run, he began running regardless with his phone and ear pods stashed in his pocket.
Deeper and deeper into the forest he went and the leaves on the trail seemed to grow ever thick. He could see the creek rolling along on his left hand side and lines of trees on his right. He was the only person he had seen in the entire park that day. Was he the only one brave enough to go out in the weather? He hadn’t even seen the regular senior citizen walkers he had come accustomed to, or the park maintenance that had always picked up the trash.
He understood why people wouldn’t want to come but he also knew he couldn’t risk not going. If he hadn’t gone that day it would start a vicious cycle of not going that Thomas would have fallen into. Then he probably never would have come back.
Nearing the end of the trail in the woods, Thomas heard a tree branch crack behind him. Turning, he saw nothing between the trees. As he faced forward again he heard it again, this time dismissing it as an animal or a limb falling. Then he felt an icy chill on the back of his neck. Not caused by the weather, this type of chill seemed to go through him and instantly gave his mind a reason to be concerned.
Slowing down he began to hear footsteps behind him. He turned abruptly to see no one walking behind him on the trail. He continues up the trail and begins to run after he crests a hill. His feet on the pavement mixed with his breaths are the only noises he hears. He notices that the trail is now clear of the leaves and finds it odd that he hadn’t seen any attendant or maintenance workers come and pick them up.
Then from his left hand side he heard a twig snap again followed by the rustling of leaves. Dismissing it he continued running through the woods. As he listened closer he realized that the rustling of leaves was following him.
Someone was following him. Every time he turned to look there would be no one there but he could hear the footsteps through the leaves as if it were his own. Hoping he was just imagining things he retired from running for the day.
The rain had stopped but a fog had taken over the park. Thomas started towards the trail with the bridge and the tunnel where he had seen the dollhouse, the creek still over powered the bridge. After he completed his run the previous day he tried to explore other options for places to run but could find none that were as accessible and as safe as this park. So he began the trail that weaved in and out of the wood with the music in his ears being the barrier to any and all distractions.
He had seen the sparse walker along the trail all of them going at a turtle’s pace covered head to toe in rain proof active gear. When he entered the woods, however, there was no one. Leaves still fell all around him blanketing the ground with splashes of orange, yellow and red.
He wasn’t in the woods long when just as the day before a soft beeping came over his music. Looking down at his phone he saw that the battery had, again, died. Making a mental note to call the tech support company, he placed his phone in his pocket. He ran again through the woods, down a steep hill and around a bend, never running into a single walker, park attendant or other runner.
It was when he reached the end of the wooded trail that he heard the familiar rustling of leaves coming from off the trail. He headed back and heard the footsteps among the leaves following him. If he sped up, so did the other footsteps, if he slowed, so did they. He turned to look to his side where the steps were coming from inside the wood to see what he thought to be his own shadow.
But seeing his shadow on a foggy, overcast day like this was next to impossible. Besides, this shadow was weaving in and out behind trees. It was about the same height as Thomas, if not taller and its edges blurred as if it was a moving black powder in the shape of a human. Thomas became scared as the figure seemed to get closer to the trail and he ran faster.
He rounded the bend just before the steep hill to become stunned by a life sized dollhouse that sat in the center of the trail. Its bottom was sunken and splintered as if it had been dropped from a great height. Its white siding was bright against the orange leaves all around it and the purple accents on the windows and door were chipping off. Thomas noticed almost instantly that there was something on the front of the house, just above the door. It was a raven nailed by its wings and tail to a pentagram painted in blood.
Thomas heard the footsteps behind him again and bolted around the dollhouse and up the hill. Running towards the recreation center, the footsteps seemed to stop at the edge of the woods. Bursting through the door of the recreation center he found the park attendant lazily drinking coffee next to the reception desk.
“I thought you said you got that dollhouse a few days ago?” screamed Thomas. Not necessarily out of anger but more from being out of breath.
“Wow, lets calm down, son.” The attendant responded.
“You told me that the dollhouse was gone. But just a second ago I saw it at the base of the hill in the wooded trail. It had a raven nailed to a pentagram! What’s going on?” Now Thomas was upset. Everything he had said made himself more curious and confused.
“Son, we took that dollhouse to the county dump the day you told us about it.” The attendant said. Thomas didn’t believe her so he took her to the location he had seen it. To his surprise nothing was there but a couple of splinters of wood. The attendant left and Thomas stood and stared at the spot for a moment before leaving the park for the day.
Convinced that the added stress from his recent joblessness had resulted in possible day dreaming the day before, Thomas returned to run. The sun was peeking in and out of the clouds for the first time in days. The rain had stopped as he ran through the wooded trail. He could still see the over filled creek running along the side of the trail.
Unlike the previous days, Thomas was able to listen to his music through the entirety of his forest trail run. Even with multiple groups of fellow runners and walkers, he didn’t hear a single footstep or see a single shadow following him.
He reached the bridge that led to the tunnel that turned into the trail where he had first seen the dollhouse. The creek, however still high, had receded enough to allow him to cross the bridge. There was no one else on the trail but he crossed anyway.
The trail was relatively clear considering the still falling leaves that littered the park. The tunnel was darker than what Thomas seemed to remember. Just as he passed out of it, a soft beeping chirped over his music. He decided to not look at his phone and continued to the edge of the trail where he looked down the road for a possible route to continue his run without going down the trail again.
Then he saw something dart from the corner of his eye. He swung to his right and seen a powdery black figure moving amongst the trees and disappear inside a dollhouse with a red pentagram painted on the front, just above the door. Without a beat he ran swiftly back towards the tunnel.
The shadow follows him and he hears its footsteps quicken along with his own. Looking behind him, he notices the dollhouse had vanished and he exists the wooded area, nearing the tunnel. The tunnel swallowed him and Thomas heard footsteps echoing back to him but they were not his.
Pounding down the trail, the phantom footsteps began to dissipate as he neared the bridge. He stopped once he was out of the tunnel and turned to look back to see no one and nothing behind him. His breath was heavy and loud and his heart pumped violently in his chest. He jumped wildly into the air when his music suddenly started again at an outrageous volume.
He adjusted his volume and continued running. Reaching the bridge, still clear of any water and debris, he stopped to walk across. Suddenly a board splintered and cracked beneath his right leg sending him falling to the ground. His leg plunged to the creek beneath him and scrapped against the side of the sharp and jagged wood. He could feel blood pouring from his calf; meeting with his now ripped joggers.
He screamed for help while he attempted to pull himself out of the splintered and broken pieces of wood. No one could hear him and no one came to help. He finally pulled himself out and limped his way back across the bridge. Letting go of his calf he looked back at the bridge to see that there was no hole where he had just fallen and the bridge was completely undisturbed.
He looked down at his leg to see that his sweat pant joggers were completely intact and, for the most part, dry. The exception came from a stain of dark red on the back of his calf. Pulling up his pant leg he saw three long scratches going down from the back of his knee to his ankle. He felt as if he was going crazy, and he very well may be.
The next day he didn’t decide to go to the park until mid afternoon. His hope was that it would be more populated then and that would allow his mind to be more at ease. To his dismay, there were no more people there than usual that day. With the weather overcast, a consistent light mist drifted over the whole park.
He decided to walk instead of run today, thinking that maybe his mind had been playing tricks on him while he ran because of the extra strain it had put on his body. He started through the wooded trail with his music thumping steadily in his ear.
He had no interruptions throughout the entirety of his walk; not a single walker, park attendant or even senior citizen joined him on the trails. He would look periodically to the creek on his side. It had tremendously reduced in size over the past day and it ran smoothly through the high ditches of its banks.
Once he neared the end of the park’s main trail he was confronted with the bridge that led to the tunnel. He stood looking at it remembering the trauma he had experienced the previous day. He knew that he should not cross; hadn’t he gone through enough by crossing that bridge to know better? He justified himself saying that being in an elevated state of stress and depression had caused him to imagine these things. But the scratches from the bridge were real, right? He had put it out of his mind, blaming it on a number of different, unrealistic circumstances i.e., a thorn bush or branch he ran into or a bug bite he scratched or a cat he had never actually encountered.
Despite his better judgment, he crosses the bridge. With the creek well bellow him and the bridge this time, he crosses without any disruptions. Walking now towards the tunnel instead of running as he was accustomed to, he had time he hadn’t before to absorb the true essence of his surroundings. After the bridge, the small stretch of trail that leads to the tunnel was narrower and more broken and split by unseen roots than the paved pieces of the main trail. The grass around this part of the trail was brown and rotted, hardly covering the ground completely revealing bulky sand instead of the regular soil one might see.
The tunnel itself looked as if it was hastily carved out from the hill that the road sat on top of. It was cemented and paved but it was uneven and the surfaces were anything but smooth and flat. It had places for lights for the illusion of safety but from Thomas’ experience they had never been turned on. Judging by the amount of dust and frayed wire that sat on the light boxes he ventured to guess they never had worked.
He exited the tunnel to find the trail leading straight back towards the woods where Thomas new there was a bend in the trail. What he hadn’t noticed, however, is that the trees in this section were completely bare. All of them. Where the others in the main portion of the park were still working on shedding their vibrant leaves, this section of the forest seemed to be dead for a long while. Never realizing this before he debated whether or not he should continue. But he did.
At the edge of the forest he could hear the leaves dancing on the ground with the wind breathing on them. He entered, slowing his pace and had hardly noticed the soft beeping fill his ear pods as his music stopping. A chill went shooting down his back as he neared the turn of the trail and stole his attention.
He could now hear soft footsteps walking beside him and could see shadow figures through the corners of his eyes. He almost knew it before it happened; he rounded the turn to see the dollhouse standing in the middle of the trail in front of him. The pentagram with a raven nailed to it was just as bold and prominent against the white paint as it was the other day. He stood staring at it unmoving as his heart quickened in pace and the footsteps got closer.
After a moment the footsteps stopped and his own feet began to move for him. He takes four or five baby steps backwards before his back struck something solid. He whipped around to see the dollhouse now to his back. There were two of them now. He glanced quickly around the trail and saw that suddenly twenty or thirty identical dollhouses with bloody pentagrams and dead ravens stared back at him. Black thresholds held his frightened gaze attentively, hungry for his soul.
Terrified he bolted around them all heading down the trail towards the tunnel. Each time he looked back he could see a new dollhouse on the trail behind him as if they magically appeared at each of his footsteps. Sprinting now, his breathing was heavy and he began using the little breath he had to scream. Reaching the entrance of the tunnel he feels a tug at his ankles.
His feet go flying behind him and his breath escapes his lungs mid-scream. His chin smacks the pavement full force clenching his jaw completely on his tongue that split on impact. A loud crack is heard from his chin as blood spills from his mouth. Something had grabbed hold of his leg and was dragging him down the pavement.
He tried desperately to scream but no noises escaped his mouth. He looked back to see his leg suspended in the air by an unknown force with multitudes of dollhouses surrounding the trail and tunnel.
While being dragged on the pavement he tried desperately to grasp onto something. This was a helpless pursuit as he knew and it only made his fingernails crack and become bloody. He was moved off the trail and was now being taken directly towards the opening of a dollhouse at the edge of the woods. Still grasping and clawing his hands at any solid object he grew nearer and nearer to the ominous mouth of the small building.
When he had finally been pulled halfway through the opening he had grabbed the edges of the doorframe with both hands and held on for as long as he could. Having excellent upper arm strength he was able to lift himself up to an extent. But the power of the force that had its hold on him was too strong.
With his face bloody, pale and drenched with sweat he arched his neck and opened his mouth wide for an inaudible scream revealing broken and bloody teeth and a half-missing tongue. His fingers then seemed to let go one by one as the dollhouse took him in completely.
Joyce was never the type of person to outwardly express her feelings. She claimed to always project a positive, but still grounded in reality, outlook on the world. But after the death of her husband and her sister within 6 months of each other, she began to realize that holding back emotions and feelings, especially for multiple decades and in close relationships like those, was one of the worst things she could do.
She was surprised at how quickly the depression had taken over her. It came one night, very suddenly while she lay in bed. One moment she was mentally checking off a grocery list, the next she was doubled over in pain, sobbing uncontrollably. She had had a thought that her husband would be picking up the dog food as normal. But then she realized he wouldn’t. Her realism approach on life is what her depression fed on. Life ends, everything is temporary, people have no purpose unless they create one for themselves. This was what she thought and what she told herself each time she took a loose razor blade to her forearm.
It had already been 3 months since Joyce had lost them both and she was struggling under the depression of it all constantly. Her children, however distant, were concerned for her and recommended she see a therapist. The therapist, who Joyce considered a nosey dumbass, suggested various exercises to do on a daily basis that may help ease her depression and anxiety. She hardly did them at all but told him she had when she went back to her sessions.
Nothing the therapist requested seemed to be helping but as much as she hated to admit it, she thought the walking was helping her sort through her thoughts. She took the dog to the park everyday with her, Pilot was a large German Shepherd- Husky mix with white and grey fur and large pointy ears. While they walked, Joyce was able to think about everything in her life without distraction or interruption. Unlike journaling, which was an exercise her therapist suggested, walking seemed less like a chore to her and she was able to understand herself more, she thought.
The sky was a mix of grey and a darker grey with heavy clouds threatening rain. It was early morning and Joyce could feel the mist settling over the park. This was her favorite time to walk because there were less people on the trails and most of the people she would run into would know of her or her family and feel the need to talk, which is something she was not interested in.
Wind whipped around her and Pilot, scattering leaves and misty water into the air. She walked the trail normally for about an hour but as she was walking toward her car, something within her gave her a bit of extra motivation to continue walking. So she did.
She got to a section of the park that she normally didn’t go to because she was always afraid Pilot would get away from her so close to the road. But she continued anyway, crossing over a bridge and following Pilot through a tunnel. She got to the bend of the trail and the wind sent a chill down her spine.
Turning the corner she saw a life-sized dollhouse with white siding and bright purple paint. Its doors and windows were open and inviting. It was familiar to her. It was the same dollhouse her and her late sister had had when they were younger, she was sure of it. She cried at the thought of her departed sister and crept closer to the playhouse. Pilot eyed it carefully and then planted his feet firmly on the ground and growled low, deep and long as if confronted with an abuser. Then there were rustling footsteps in the leaves.