The colors of autumn swirl around Olivia as she enjoys a late afternoon walk. Her rust-colored dog, Maisy, ambles along by her side. The old girl isn’t as fast as she used to be, so it catches Olivia off guard when the senior Irish Setter suddenly bolts off the trail.
“MAISY!” Olivia shouts, chasing her deeper into the thicket of flame-colored trees.
“Maisy, where the hell are you?” she hisses, getting frustrated. She hears Maisy’s barks off in the distance, further than they should be. She sighs, following the sound. The overgrowth of trees is making everything darker. Olivia stumbles around, her boots sloshing in the mud.
She pauses when she gets to a clearing. The old Wheeler farm sits off in the distance, abandoned. Olivia has some fond memories as a child attending their annual Harvest Festival. The month-long event was the highlight of everyone’s autumn season. That is, until the disappearances began.
Olivia remembers Ronny as being the quiet, skinny kid in the class who always preferred to hang back rather than participate in group activities. He was nice. But he didn’t have any friends and his home life was questionable. It took almost a week for anyone to twig that Ronny hadn’t been seen since the first weekend of the Harvest Festival. After Ronny, it was a kid named David, then a girl named Emily. A few more disappeared, but Olivia can’t remember their names. It was quite the alarming year. As a nine-year-old, Olivia didn’t know what to think. It was the autumn of terror for the residents of their small town.
When police began poking around the property, the Wheeler family just packed up and skipped town. Once gone, everything stopped, and life resumed like normal. But there was a constant darkness hovering over the derelict farm. It didn’t help that none of the missing kids was ever found, leading to all kinds of rumors and conspiracies to circulate for years. In time, the Wheeler farm became something of an urban legend.
“Maisy!” Olivia exclaims when she spots her dog’s rusty coat weaving in and out through the abandoned cornfields at the edge of the farm.
“Come here, girl!” she pleads.
Maisy nervously paces back and forth, making a sound somewhere between a whine and a growl. The back of Olivia’s neck is chilled by the whispering wind. She grips Maisy’s collar, attaching her leash.
“Let’s go,” she says to Maisy, but she pulls at the leash, dragging Olivia further into the corn fields.
“I don’t like this.” She tries to steer her dog back, but Maisy insists, pulling deeper and deeper through the darkening stalks. Olivia feels her stomach jump into her throat when their movements disturb a murder of crows that had congregated down one of the rows.
“What is it girl?” Olivia asks the moment that Maisy begins pawing at the ground, her efforts frantic for such an arthritic old dog. She gets down on her hands and knees, digging in the dirt beside Maisy.
A small gasp escapes her lips when her hands touch cold steel. One tug on the rusted latch reveals a narrow entrance to a secret bunker. Maisy begins to whine as she circles the hole in the ground, calculating how to get down. But it’s Olivia who takes the plunge. Though her phone has no service, she’s able to open the flashlight. Morbid curiosity propels her down the rickety metal ladder into the unknown. She covers her nose with her sleeve at the overwhelming smell of damp and rot.
Maisy barks at her from above.
It appears abandoned, the narrow entrance showing signs of heavy spider activity. She grips her phone in a shaking hand, the feeling of dread returning to her stomach as she shines the light around. Whoever built this must’ve been a collector of some kind. There are dolls everywhere. Large ones. Dressed up as though they’re clowns in a circus. The smell of rot intensifies.
“What the…” Olivia draws closer to one of the dolls, shining her light on its face. Its shrunken face, twisted as if caught mid scream. She recognizes that face. And the red hair peeking out from beneath the clown hat. Ronny.
Olivia lets out a scream, stumbling backwards, desperate to get back up to the ground level. But the hatch door is closed. Olivia pushes and shoves against the heavy metal, banging and screaming. She bursts into tears, listening to Maisy’s whimpers as she scratches at the door.