James woke, groggy, head throbbing rhythmically. He kept his eyes closed and groaned. He didn’t dare touch whatever bruise had formed on his skull for fear of the pain. A whistling sound, like a train in a deep cavern, played brightly in the back of his ears.
Radio reception, he thought. Someone had told him once that the high pitch sounds in his ears were unfiltered radio frequencies. He never believed it—after all, it was pure nonsense—but for some reason it had stuck.
Finally he worked up the nerve to open his eyes. He took it slow, half-expecting there to be bright light shining through the window. But the room was utterly dark, empty. Without any source of light the bedroom on the second floor of Hansor Manor was as dark as during a solar eclipse. Thick mats of clouds hid the moon and rid the landscape of any shadows. In a way James was glad for the darkness. It meant his head wouldn’t hurt, at least not any more than it already did.
At a snails’ pace, James lifted himself up and gently felt the back of his head. He let out a groan as his fingers touched the small bulge there. Then the entirety of all that had happened hit him hard. He took a few groggy steps forward and blindly knelt and ran his hands where the burnt circle had been. The charred wood crumbled like dried bread beneath his fingers. His movement released a fresh scent of burning wood.
“Laura,” he said. His voice quivered.
There was no answer, just the call of wind rushing against the side of the Manor and the faint roar of thunder in the distance. He hadn’t expected an answer, but had hoped for it.
James held back the urge to panic. Now, more than ever, he had to resist temptation. He had to be more like Laura. It had never occurred to him that there would ever come a time when he could not rely on Laura’s unending adventurous personality. He wanted to scream out her name and the urge to cry welled up. His legs twitched as if they could bolt at any moment.
He resisted. Every instinct he had he resisted.
Silently his hand brushed along the smooth fabric of the satin bag. He ripped his hand back momentarily as if just touching it would set off whatever had happened to Laura. For a moment he stood still, and then he slowly lifted the bag to his face. His eyes were adjusting to the darkness and he could begin to make out the outline of the shield knot. He took hold of the drawstring, pulled it tight, tied a thick knot, and then leaned back slightly relieved.
What am I going to do with this thing? What about Laura? The thought brought a bad taste to his mouth. She had disappeared right before his eyes and somewhere, someplace, she still lived. The flames hadn’t killed her. He was sure of that. He shivered.
Then something twitched against the side of the satin bag. It wasn’t the wind or the bag itself, but something inside. The bag moved again and he nearly dropped it out of shock. Then the bag burst into continuous motion, thumping like a sporadic heartbeat. He dropped it. The bag thumped on the wood floor and sagged over creating a bulbous mass of fabric, squiggling as if it was filled with little worms.
A thundering clap rang in every direction and he looked up. Items all over the room began to wiggle like the bag, but he quickly noticed that only the things adorned with a Celtic symbol were in motion. The dresser, bed, and chairs remained motionless. He stood straight. With his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could make out the shapes rustling about.
To his surprise, as if nothing else could possibly make the situation any more frightening, an inhuman cry burst from the bag, jolting his gaze back to the floor. The noise resembled the sound of an eagle, bear, and the airy hiss of a snake melded together. The unnatural noise ripped through the air loud enough so that he had to clasp both hands over his ears. As he did so, the shield knot on the satin bag slowly lit up as little orange embers followed the pattern until every inch glowed red. Then symbols across the entire room burst alight until it seemed like daylight—bright and overwhelming.
James backed away, weary and slightly afraid. Again his panic reflex called, but he ignored it. He eyed the window nonetheless. He saw his reflection in the window and realized that the cloth wrapped tightly over his wound glowed bright red as well. Backing away farther until he touched the wall with his back, he pulled one of his hands from his ear and began to tug at the knot. It wouldn’t come loose; Laura had tied it tight. Tugging harder and harder he kept his gaze partly on his arm and partly on the room. The terrible noise changed pitch.
Suddenly several glowing items hopped into the air from various parts of the room, flew across and circled the satin bag. The knot he had tied burst open and a bright white light shot up through the center of the room producing a swift wind that circled like a vortex. James tried to move farther away but kept running into the wall. He looked around for a door; the bag, whirling items, and circle of wind blocked access to the window. The door sat along the wall he clung to at the far end of the room. He inched his way along. Wind and some invisible force flicked his skin like little fingers trying to grab him.
A few more strides and he was able to reach for the door handle. The door opened in. He pulled and before he could open it enough to squeeze through the same invisible force slammed against it. He tried again with the same result. Then with more effort he pushed the door open and jammed his foot into the opening. The force hit over and over, crashing the corner of the wood into his foot. He barely noticed the pain. Whatever pushed against the door didn’t want to let him out. It took all his strength to pry the door open far enough to get half his torso through the opening, then another burst to get the rest of him through. The voice screeched in protest, roaring angrily. James heard the door bang violently shut behind him.
He took off down a hall full of other doors, running as fast as he possibly could. The farther he ran from the bedroom the dimmer the cloth over his arm became until it completely blinked out and was normal again. At the end of the hall, running the length of the building in a zigzag fashion stood a staircase. His feet fell from underneath him as he turned to the stairs. He gathered himself up and bound down them three at a time, nearly falling once more at the bottom.
Down on the bottom floor not a single light lit the room. James found himself in complete darkness again. He tried to remember where the main entrance was, hoping he could break through, but as he wandered hurriedly along the walls he managed only to find a couple windows before deciding that one of them would do. The window was boarded, like all the rest, and he attempted to pry them open with little success. Finally he fumbled around the room keeping his bearings fresh in his mind so as not to get lost. He bumped his knee into something metal and instinctively grabbed for it. Then he jogged back to the window. As he did so a series of bangs—one after another—sounded upstairs. The doors to the other rooms opened and shut, opened and shut. The sound, added in with the inhuman voice, was deafening.
Raising the metal item over his head he slammed it hard into the window. He heard the familiar sound of glass shattering melded with that of wood splintering. He swung again and again. Bit by bit the boards on the outside crumbled and splintered, too old to withstand such beating. A few more hits later and he had made a hole big enough for him to squeeze through.
Getting through the hole proved more difficult than he had hoped. His clothes snagged on the jagged wood, sometimes pulling the wood free, other times being held tight. Finally he managed to get through and landed with a crunchy thud as he tumbled to the ground outside. He jumped out as fast as he could and ran. Behind him he could see the light from the bedroom, still bright and ominous. He crossed the Hansor Grounds and stopped on the opposite end of the playground where he was able to see the main road nearby. Then he turned and looked back.
It had all been too much. With his head still throbbing from the hit earlier, James realized he didn’t have the stamina to go on any farther. He pressed himself to stay standing, but a massive dose of lightheadedness came over him and he tumbled to the ground. A few seconds of conscious thought and he passed out.
* * *
James woke a million times groggier than before. At first he couldn’t open his eyes; his eyelids protested. When he managed to get them open he realized he was lying in his own bed. The familiar tan dresser, light blue walls, and suspended model airplanes greeted him. He welcomed the sight and didn’t move, relishing in the comfort of safety.
“Thank goodness you’re awake!”
James looked toward the door. His mother stood straight, her face slightly drooping, concerned.
“Philip come here,” she screamed down the hall.
A man slid in beside her—his father. He looked more than happy to see him. “How are you feeling?”
“Alive,” James said.
“Yes, thankfully. The doctor said you took quite a hit to the head.”
James paused. He wasn’t quite sure how to tell them what had really happened. They surely wouldn’t believe him. He bit his tongue.
“Well, I can tell you this,” his mother said raising her voice ever so slightly, “no more adventures to the Hansor Grounds.”
“Especially not on your own.”
“I wasn’t alone.” James blurted the words out. He would have to tell them something. The two of them looked at him questioningly. “Laura was with me.”
“Laura. I see. Well, I suppose we’ll have to have a talk with Laura’s parents then.” His mother turned leave.
“No, stop!” Then he blurted the whole story out frantically. He told them about the bag, the symbols, the lights, and flames, and about how Laura had disappeared. Every detail he could remember he said speedily—without pause.
Both his parents looked at each other and then at him bewildered, and in a strange way they had a look of surprise he hadn’t expected. It was more than surprise, more than the look of disbelief he assumed they would have given him. For a brief moment they looked at him as if they believed him. Then it was gone and they dismissed him.
“Such stories. I think we’ve raised a writer,” his father said.
“Well, under other circumstances I would praise your imagination, but right now is not exactly the time. You are to stay away from the Hansor Grounds, and especially from that dreaded Manor. Understood?”
“I’m not lying Mom.”
“Understood?” she said more sternly.
“Good, and your father and I will have a chat with Laura’s parents right now.” She walked out and down the hall, thumping her feet.
James’ father waited for the door to close then turned to him. “Look, we’re glad you’re alright, but that old Manor is dangerous. Hence why it is condemned. A board probably fell and hit you in the head and you dreamt of that story right there.”
“I didn’t dream it!” He felt himself getting angry.
“Sometimes dreams seem real. In any case, you’re lucky that the doctor said you should stay in bed for a while. We were going to ground you.” His father smiled. “Get some sleep. Laura’s probably at home in bed too. Just get some sleep and we’ll see you when we get home.”
James nodded and watched his father leave. He heard a car engine stutter to life outside and a series of crackles indicated that the car had left the gravel driveway.
He found that sitting up straight was practically out of the question. Lifting his head left him dizzy and sent throbbing pains through his brain. He lay there thinking with the look from his parents burnt fresh in his mind.
They know something, he thought. With effort he managed to tilt over and reach under the bed. He produced a thin laptop computer and sat farther up against his pillow so he could place it neatly on his lap. Then he plugged an Internet cable into the back. With his father being a web designer he had the luck of having a supportive family to his technological needs. His mother worked as his fathers’ secretary, more or less, but she had a hand in how the financial side of things went. Regardless, James had always been grateful that his parents supported his thirst for knowledge. He figured they had hopes to raise a technological genius of some sort.
Booting up the computer he started to think of where he was going to look. He’d spent enough time on the Internet to know where to find the usual information, but he couldn’t imagine where to go to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.
When the desktop appeared he followed his first instinct and went to the website for the Woodton Chronicle—the local newspaper. Woodton had an extensive archive of news articles available online and he figured he could start there if not anywhere else.
“What am I looking for,” he said when the archive search came up. He ran the list of possible searches through his mind, then typed “Hansor Manor” and hit enter. A moment later a list of articles appeared. He skimmed them. Each of the articles had something to do with the sale of Hansor Manor. The original owners had died in the house, which got passed down to their next of kin. They eventually sold it and the new owners spent a year there before reporting that it was haunted by the souls of the original owners and selling it as well. From then on Hansor Manor passed between hands, but not a single person ever actually lived in it after the original owners for more than a few months.
Ghosts. Once upon a time James would have dismissed any talk of the supernatural as complete malarkey. Now he thought differently. That explains why the place is still furnished. Nobody ever cleared it out.
The articles didn’t lead him anywhere. He still didn’t know anything about what was going on. Ghosts couldn’t make a person disappear, at least not in any story he had ever read. They were limited in what they could do to the living world; he knew that. With a few theories brewing, he clicked back to start another search. He tried a couple keywords related to the supernatural—ghosts, voices, and the like—but came up even more lost than before. None of the dozen or so articles he had gazed at were leading him in the right direction. He found himself, more or less, in a realm that had absolutely nothing to do with Laura’s disappearance.
He clicked back again and sighed. He thought hard, and harder still, imagining the giant brick wall that blocked him—old, moldy, and monstrous.
Then it came to him as if someone had thrown a heavy weight over his writer’s block. He clicked back again and typed missing persons. He secretly kicked himself for not thinking of it quicker, and then kicked himself again when several dozen articles came up. He should have known that in the long history of Woodton there would have been many reports of missing people. Some would have been solved, and others not. Woodton was by no means a small town, but neither was it a city. With a population of twelve thousand it fit into the niche that didn’t allow it to be called small or medium. Rather, Woodton could simply be referred to as “that town down the hill.” Woodton sat nestled in the bottom of a wide, shallow valley. Over the hills, climbing in altitude gradually, were other towns. It had its fair share of churches, five schools, and a modest Town Hall that tripled as the local action hall and dance hall.
So, as James sat blurry eyed, it dawned on him that over the course of the papers’ existence there would have been a considerable amount of missing person’s reports published, and still more than probably never saw print in any form.
He narrowed the search to children and grinned when only five came up. He read them: two boys, two girls, and an outsider who had appeared in Woodton and just as quickly disappeared as if he had never existed. Neither had been solved, nor did the article give any other useful information.
1856, 1886, 1916, 1946, and 1976. Each in January. James soaked them in. Exactly thirty years apart. He pondered the significance. Thirty years was a long time, but for each disappearance to be exactly that many years apart seemed more than coincidence. He drew the connection out farther. Thirty years from the last date made it present time—January 2006. That meant that Laura was the sixth disappearance to follow the pattern.
James knew there was a connection there. Surely something he had read would have given it away, but as he thought it he realized that if there was a connection it had not been made blatantly obvious. He would have to dig for the information if it existed. It has to, he thought. It’s more than mere coincidence. It has to be. Searching his memory he tried to remember when the Hansor Manor had been sold, but, strangely enough, the information wasn’t there. He had never looked for the dates.
Hurriedly, he went back to his original search. And there it was. He giggled joyously for a brief moment. Hansor Manor had been sold three months after each of the disappearances. Though circumstantial, James felt glad that he had any sort of connection with the Manor at all. He could assume that each of those children had been in Hansor and had probably seen the same things he had seen. The satin bag had gobbled them all up in flames just like Laura. James suddenly felt his stomach drop. All those children had been snatched up, and their parents left with nothing to do but hope they would return. Likely some of the parents still lived in Woodton, hoping endlessly.
A crackle of rocks told him that his parents had returned. When the engine cut off and the doors had opened, he could hear the muffled sounds of their arguing. He hadn’t moved much since they had left and thought to lean over and open the window enough to hear. He dreaded the throbbing that would come with that.
But I have to know what they are saying. That thought was all it took for James to gather the strength necessary to lift himself up, stumble to the window and gently slide it far enough where he could feel the long draft of the cold winter air coming in.
“She’s the sixth Philip,” his mother’s voice was frantic. “The sixth! For heaven’s sake something has to be done about that god-awful place!”
“There’s nothing we can do. We don’t own it. The Council has to make that decision.”
“They’ll never make the decision you know is necessary. Mayor or no Mayor, this town will never do anything.”
“What do you suggest?” His father said shortly.
There was a long pause where James could only hear the rustling of feet.
“It’s made of stone. That place won’t just burn down.”
“Burn everything inside and then collapse the building then.”
“We don’t have the means to do that.”
“We could have lost James to that infernal place. Did you stop and consider that?”
“Yes, it has been in my mind since he was born. The only way to keep him away from that place is to tell him everything about Angtholand. And I mean everything. But the council forbids it. And we can’t leave neither. We know too much here. You know the punishment for betrayal.”
“The worst is over. We’ll make it clearer to him that he cannot go near that place. Okay?”
“Philip,” there was another pause, “I think he’s seen the eye.”
For a while his father said nothing, but James could hear him thrust his fist into the side of the house.
“Don’t talk like that.”
Then the argument ended and the front door opened and slammed shut. James heard a set of long sighs. He shut the window, got back into bed, put his laptop into sleep mode, and pretended to sleep. He didn’t want to face them. Too many questions were lingering in his mind. They knew a lot more than he had ever thought. And the whole town seemed to be in on whatever had happened at Hansor Manor.
James wondered, as he kept his eyes closed, what sort of name Angtholand was. He tried to pick it apart and look at the root words. Angtho was no word he had heard before. But his parents had talked about it as if it were a person. He had seen the eye too; he remembered it vividly.
The same questions swam around in his thoughts. He conversed with his mind for a moment. Any questions he had he could ask when things had cooled down. Who is Angtholand? What is the Council?
And, where did the eye take Laura?
He rolled over and stared at the ceiling and spaced out on his thoughts.