(Horror. Things get properly weird when Colin reveals a new secret of the Hardwick House)
They lingered in the woods before returning. The presence, as if sensing Colin’s fatigue and resentment, returned with less urgency and intensity, giving him room to breathe. The day was starting to pass away, the sun dipping toward the tree line. They walked through cellars with care. “The newer wings of the house,” Colin explained in the dim light of the first cellar, “have separate cellars because the original never had one.”
Macy was actually relieved when they finished seeing the cellars. The low, dark rooms were dusty and filled with odd, creepy tools and devices that looked frightening in the poor lighting. She kept close to Colin and tried to imagine she was in a museum.
They ate sandwiches and drank some wine for their supper. The evening seemed to take root earlier than usual. “The valley,” Colin said when she mentioned it. “It makes it seem like the sun comes up later and goes down earlier. I had forgotten.”
The darkness brought on an entirely new feel to the building. As the light retreated from the sky, and the full moon took over, what had been a cosy, odd house felt forbidding and eerie. Macy noticed the change quickly, while Colin barely felt it. Some of the lights in the house were not working and Colin could not tell if they were burnt out or had other issues. Macy decided it would be best to stick close to the master suite until morning.
Colin made the pretense of working on his laptop for a while, supposedly recording his observations of maintenance. Macy played a game on her phone to kill time.
It was beginning to feel quite late when Colin, now starting to feel a growing urgency from the house, closed his laptop and moved closer to Macy, trying his best to be mischievous and charming. “I almost forgot to show you something very important,” he said. “It just occurred to me when I was recording all the maintenance stuff.”
Macy was equally interested and suspicious. “And what’s that?”
“The secret passage!” he said. “It is really neat. I used to love it as a kid.”
A few hours earlier and she might have gone for it, straight away; now, the house had bad feeling about it. Something just did not seem right and she could not explain it. Colin was looking at her with keen excitement for the first time since they left, making her challenge her instincts about staying put. She was pleased to see him looking happy and did not want to spoil the moment. She let her guard down, pushing her instincts aside.
“Really,” she teased, not wanting to give him no fight on the matter, “and why would this place need a secret passage?”
Colin had expected the question in the way a professional tennis player expects the ball to return to them at a certain place on the court, hitting it back with seeming comfort. “The family had been smugglers,” he began smoothly, still working his charm. “When they build the place, Charles Hardwick, the grand old man of the family, got it into his head he should have a comfortable way out in case they had issues with the law.”
“You’re not going to tell me there is an underground tunnel leading off the property,” Macy challenged, drawing the line at creeping through a dark, icky hole in the ground.
“Nothing like that, although there were plans for it,” Colin explained, trying not to sound too forced. “The old man wanted to build an escape tunnel, but never got around to it, and his successors didn’t think it was needed. Of course, they were slowly moving away from the illegal work and focussing on legitimate business by then. Anyway, old Charlie had his secret passage though the house and it stayed, even without the tunnel.”
“And you want to see it now?” Macy asked in a negative tone, hoping he would settle for seeing it during the day.
“Call it an adventure,” he said, smashing the ball back in her court as he had expected he would have to. “It was a fond memory for me when I was a kid, playing around in the secret passage, even if it was not a secret anymore.” This was partly true. Colin did enjoy the mystery and adventure of the passage when he was young.
Macy tried to think of some way to bail on the idea, but Colin was so excited and she wanted to make him happy. In some way or other, she had lingering guilt about sexually withholding herself from him, and it was times like this when she felt the pang of it. Her heart gave way and she agreed to go.
“You have to stay with me the whole time,” she said, setting limits as soon as she agreed. “And no fooling around, I’m already a little scared about it.”
Colin soothed, “I will be with you the whole way,” he said. “It will be all right.”
She instinctively grabbed her phone, until she remembered it was no use. Colin, still playing the game as if it were practiced, grabbed one of the camping lights he had packed in case of power failure; brandishing it for her to see. She used the bathroom before they were to go, finally preparing herself by taking a flashlight of her own.
“Okay,” she said, after a deep breath, “where does it start?”
“Right here,” he said, grinning. He moved to one of the paintings and gently pulled it back. The man in the portrait was typically grim and practically frowning; he looked almost angry with his high collar and dark eyes. “Excuse me, Charles,” he apologized, pressing a small notch in the wood trim behind the scowling picture. “Yes, that is the old man himself,” Colin remarked. As he approached another wall and ran his finger along the base board until it reached a specific groove, pressing it firmly. A loud set of clicks and one of the panels opened, just an inch or so, like a door. Colin gave her his best, reassuring smile and pushed the panel back, revealing the passage beyond.
“Shit,” was all Macy managed to say.
Colin turned his light on and shined it down the corridor. The walls were rough wood but dry and clean, even less dusty than the rest of the building. He stepped through the door, ducking slightly through the entry. Macy grabbed his arm, “We will be okay, right?”
He turned back to her, ready to win another point in this planned tennis match, “I have done this many times as a kid. The passage is nothing to be afraid of.” Her eyes looked carefully into his, as if searching for some doubt; when she found none, she relented.
The passageway was smaller than he remembered, though he was nine when he last set foot in it, but roomy enough for an adult man to walk upright with a little shoulder room to spare. They took a turn ten feet in, leading to a steep stair that felt more like a ladder to Macy; this lead to a series of short passages, ending in stairs. Macy was a bit disoriented, but knew they were trending down in their travels. “Where does this come out?” she whispered ahead to Colin as they reached another stair leading down.
“The exit is just below us,” he said, whispering back. The presence, which had mostly given him some space since their walk outside, was starting to build again; it was growing anxious, Colin could tell.
The final set of stairs was the easiest set, leading to a small room with stone walls and floors. “Are we in the basement?” Macy asked in sudden panic. She had not liked their earlier trip to basement and her nerves were not taking the return well. It was an unreasonable fear, she knew, yet could no longer contain it.
“Macy,” Colin said, a little harshly, “it will be all right. Just calm down and understand we are safe.”
“I just want to go back to the bedroom, okay,” she said, a little franticly. “The adventure has been awesome, now it’s time to fucking go back, okay?!”
“Macy,” he said, rather firmly, “We are almost out, now. It is faster if we just go to the next room and go straight back into the house.” The presence was growing agitated, as if anticipating things to come, spurred on by Macy’s burst of emotion.
“Okay, okay,” she said impatiently, “then just go quick, I can’t stand it.” She was shaking, now.
A heavy, wooden door was the only other exit in the room. Colin turned an ancient latch and shouldered the door open. Macy stayed right with him as he pushed though. She squeezed past as he closed the door behind them. The room was just wrong.