No Way Does Anyone Live up Here
We plan the trip in a frantic, last-minute attempt to escape the city for Memorial Day Weekend. Chelsey wants to check out Alex Da Corte’s Free Roses art exhibition in Massachusetts, and even though most of the Airbnb listings have disappeared by the time we start looking, she finds one of the last places upstate and books it without even reading the description. “We’ll kick around a little up there, then head to Massachusetts the next day,” she says.
We leave work early on Friday and head a few hours north in my aunt’s car, hit a few shops, get something to eat. The sun is low in the sky when we spot a yard sale across the street from a cemetery. Chelsey points out a sign in the cluster of graves. “No trespassing after dark,” she says. We pull into the dirt driveway and get out of the car. Crickets everywhere. It feels good to be out of the city. “This is awesome,” I say, and the chirping stops, like a bad omen, like the crickets are annoyed we’re here.
There’s junk everywhere and a wooden plank with EVERYTHING MUST GO in yellow paint. We start snooping. I peer into a window. Weird folk art covers the walls; a papier-mâché pterodactyl with Abraham Lincoln’s face painted on each of its wings; a portrait of a colorful naked lady, her body distorted and twisted.
“Welcome, travelers of the dusk!” a voice says from behind a beat-up armoire.
We turn around and see a man with about seven teeth in his head strolling up to us in a grey tank top and black cotton skirt.
“I’m selling my life off,” he says. “Take it all!”
We kind of nod and smile.
“Look around, find some treasure,” he says.
We stare at a pile of broken chandleries. We test the sturdiness of a warped mahogany desk.
“You might not know it looking at me now,” he says, causing both of us to jump, “but I used to be a wealthy man. I was in the vintage furniture game back when people still loved the Victorian style. Not anymore. Now people just think it’s stuffy and uncool. Funny how the world changes based on your perception of it. What a powerful thing perception is. Cost me a pretty good living.”
While Chelsey talks to him, I check out a dirty Kermit the Frog stuffed animal hanging from a coat rack nearby.
“My partner left me when business dropped and the money ran out,” I hear him saying. “In the end, everything is OK, though. Everything is OK.”
Sweat is dripping down my legs and into my sneakers. I have this Kermit the Frog in my hands. I’m thinking about how it was once just a clean toy in a child’s bedroom somewhere.
“How much is this?” I ask, interrupting the man.
“Ten bucks,” he says.
I hang the dirty Kermit the Frog on the coat rack.
Chelsey mentions the sign and asks if we’re allowed in the cemetery.
“Of course, of course!” the man says, laughing. “This is a free country last I checked. Don’t let a little sign stop you.”
We walk up a small hill covered in crumbled and stooping graves. It’s getting dark. Looming tombs, crypts and scattered statues line the narrow dirt pathways throughout the grounds. We pass a small stone child, half her face long since deteriorated, cradling a little dog. I see a piece of her eye near the rubble at her feet. Behind her, a rusty metal door reads STAAB.
Then the world disappears. The lights of our phones give us about four inches of sight, the rest of our surroundings are a thick abyss. Animals dart around just outside our sight. Sometimes, we catch glimpses of a tail, or two beady glowing eyes. We almost trip over a small, unmarked grave with a ribbon that reads “Veteran of the revolutionary war, Battle of Johnstown.” I feel the strange urge to salute.
“Kind of spooky being all alone here,” Chelsey says.
“You mean, like, ghost-spooky?”
“I don’t know. Sort of.”
I pick up a stick, making sure Chelsey doesn’t see.
“You know I don’t believe in that crap. The only thing to be worried about here is some psycho jumping out at us.”
We start getting picked apart by mosquitoes and head back to the car. On the way, I toss the stick in the air. It lands somewhere behind us. Chelsey stops, tenses up.
“What the hell was that?” she says.
It’s funny to see her like this; she’s usually the brave one. I don’t say anything.
“I’m serious, did you hear that?”
We’re on our way to the Airbnb when a dense fog envelopes us. We follow the GPS directions, ending up in a mountainy area where it seems everyone is either is dead or asleep. No lights anywhere. We cut through the darkness and fog, maneuvering down narrow, winding roads until we come across a mailbox. “Looks like the place,” Chelsey says, glancing at her phone. I make a left that leads us up a dirt driveway surrounded by trees on either side. The driveway is narrower than the road, and scoops all around in a wiggly line.
“That’s gotta be it,” Chelsey says, pointing to a house through the trees up ahead.
“So, the owners are supposed to be here too, right?”
“Yeah, but they’re probably sleeping.”
It’s one-thirty. The fog is heavier up here, and the darkness eats any light that strays too far from its source. Both of us have to pee. Bad.
“It’s kind of hitting me now that this is a little weird,” I say.
“Oh yeah, this is definitely creepy.”
The path takes us to a small dirt lot next to the house with two cars parked in it.
“Where should we park?” Chelsey asks, her legs crossed and shaking. I try maneuvering the car around the narrow driveway as much as possible so the headlights can give us a better view.
“I think there’s another path,” I say. “Let’s try it.”
The headlights pass over something in the fog. It moves. We get a little closer and see it’s a yellow lab. The yellow lab is just sitting there staring at us with a blank expression. A yellow lab sitting by a tree on the top of a mountain. Not something we’re used to seeing.
“Cute dog,” I say. “Is it strange that it’s just out here by itself?”
“A little weird, maybe,” Chelsey says.
We head further up the path, into a bigger dirt lot. Two cars are already parked here, but there’s room for one more.
“Is this even their property?” I ask.
I pull into the empty spot, headlights revealing what look like small, one-story homes surrounding us. Some seem to be under construction, covered in frayed tarp. The others, from what we can see through blackness and fog, are decaying.
“No way does anyone live up here,” I say. “Must be part of their property.”
I park and we step out to no leaves rustling, no animals moving about, no crickets, just a heavy stillness and the jingling of my keys as they slip from my hands and fall into the dirt. When I bend down to get them, a high-pitched scream pierces the darkness to my left. Not the scream of someone in need, but a drugged-out lunatic shriek that echoes through the mountains, breaking the silence.
“NO!” I shout, which is surprising because I never thought I’d be shouting “No!” on a mountain in the middle of the night when someone, some thing, is about to lunge at me in the dark. Chelsey freezes, grips her bag. I pat the ground, grab a fistful of dirt and pebbles, the keys. “CHELSEY, GET BACK IN THE CAR!”
We jump in. I jam the keys into the ignition, reverse, spin around like a pro-stuntman, and peel out of the lot. I tear down the path towards the house, not saying a word. Chelsey is in the back, still clutching her bag, knees to her chest. We go down the driveway until there’s enough room to turn around, then head back to the house and park outside, behind the first dirt lot. We peer into the dark, waiting. The dog, still in the same position near the tree, watches us with that blank expression.
“Okay,” Chelsey says, catching her breath, “what the fuck just happened?”
I look at the Airbnb house, try to see if anyone’s moving inside. Nothing.
“You think it was just some kids trying to scare us?”
“Not at one-something in the morning at the top of a mountain,” I say. My eyes never leave the path. “Meth heads. Psychos. The fucking Hills Have Eyes.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do now?”
We message the homeowners, hoping that maybe they’ll be awake somehow. Chelsey types up a frantic message and sends it. Service is awful, and the message takes a few minutes to go through. I crack the window and turn the car off. We sit in the darkness, listening.
“They’re not responding,” Chelsey says. “Should we call them?”
“Yeah, call them. NO! Wait. Don’t. What if they’re in on this?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
My eyes follow the path until it disappears. I’m picturing a group of tweaked-out meth heads lead by a deranged woman holding a dirty Kermit the Frog in one hand and a 12″ kitchen knife in the other. I picture them grabbing Chelsey and dragging her away.
“It’s probably just some squatters or something. We should warn them,” Chelsey says.
“Go ahead then, call them.”
Chelsey looks at her phone, her thumb over the call option.
“Tell them there’s a crazy woman outside their place.”
Chelsey cancels the call. “Probably a trap.”
We try to verify all the reviews for the place are real, but the page never loads, and both our phones are dying.
“Ok,” I say, “let’s trick these cannibal assholes. I’ll slam the car door, then we’ll listen for any movement.”
Chelsey is still in the back, bag to her chest. Pumped with adrenalin, I open the door and slam it shut. Nothing. Then, coming from the direction of the scream, we hear banging noises like someone is hitting a stick against a metal pole.
“What. The. Fuck,” Chelsey says.
The banging continues as we take off back down the mountain.
Once we’re on the main road, I pull over and get out to pee. Chelsey refuses to budge. She scrolls through her phone, hands trembling. “I think we’re in Coxsackie,” she says.
Cruising the vacant streets of Coxsackie, I spot something that seems kind of like a motel in a strip mall. We pull up and run inside. A guy wearing a stained t-shirt is just sitting there sipping a Slurpee from behind the counter.
“Some crazy lady just screamed at us out of the darkness on a mountain,” I say. “Can my girlfriend use the bathroom?”
He points behind him, towards a door with a DO NOT USE sign that’s been crossed out. Chelsey sprints for it.
“We’re looking for a room,” I say.
“This late on Memorial Day weekend? Good luck,” he says, laughing. “Everything around is gonna be filled to capacity, but I can help you out.” He sips his Slurpee, some dripping onto his shirt. “I got something for you two, off the books. I’ll need to show it to you first, and if you like it I need a hundred bucks, cash in hand. No paperwork. I’ll take care of you good.”
Chelsey is out of the bathroom and standing behind him shaking her head and mouthing NO FUCKING WAY. I tell him we’ll discuss it and thank him.
We talk about staying in the car for the night.
“Not a good idea,” Chelsey says. “We’ll barely get any sleep, and what’s the point of going to the exhibition if we’re both miserable and exhausted?”
I’m lingering at a green light. No one’s around.
“Are we really about to head back to the city right now?” I say.
“I think we are.”
It’s 3:05 am when I turn onto the expressway.
Twenty minutes go by in a blur. Chelsey dozes off a few times, but I keep poking her awake.
“Talk to me,” I tell her, “I’m about to pass out.”
Something jumps in front of the car.
“DEER!” I yell, swerving right.
The deer springs out of the way, its claw-like antlers almost hitting the driver’s side window. I gain control of the car again.
“What is this night?” Chelsey says.
“Deer night,” I say.
We take turns driving the rest of the way home, watch the sunrise, watch the streets fill with people going places. We park a little after six in the morning and walk to our apartment like zombies. We blast the AC and pass out in our clothes and shoes.
The afternoon sun blazes through the windows as we start to wake. Chelsey rolls over to check her phone. There’s a message:
I am very sorry this happened to you. It was probably not a good idea to show up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar place.
I think what you heard was a sheep calling her mother in the middle of the night. To someone unfamiliar with sheep/lambs, it could sound like a screaming human. It would have been a sweet sound if you would have come during daylight and had some knowledge of the animal. The banging you heard afterwards was probably the other sheep shifting around in confusion from the sudden noise.
“Wait a second,” I say, “there were animals at this place? Like farm animals? Did they mention this in the listing?”
We check the listing—the one we had skipped reading in our haste—and find that, yes, it’s all there: the animals, the barns that are under construction, the yellow lab that likes to roam around.
We watch “screaming sheep” videos on YouTube. Seems about right.
“I’m sorry,” says Chelsey, “but that is not a sweet sound.” She plays the video again. Sheep start screaming.
Outside on the street, someone scrapes against another car as they park. You can hear the drivers arguing through the closed windows.
Michael Seymour Blake is the author/illustrator of 12 Days of Santa Crying. His work has appeared in Entropy, Paper Darts, People Holding, Autre, and Reality Beach. He has painted various murals around NYC, including one that was prominently featured at Silent Barn in Brooklyn, home to the new Mellow Pages Library. He lives in Queens. www.