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My parents used to rent a cottage every summer, in the Laurentians. A region north of Montreal, full of cottages, lakes, ski hills.

My siblings and I used to go for walks along a nearby country road, to a depanneur (general store), where they sold comic books and candy.

Most of the road was edged by forest, thick forest but there was a section that had been cleared, obviously a long time ago, way back was an abandoned house and a barn. It looked pretty creepy and so, of course, it fascinated us, and we came up with our own backstories, each of us trying to outdo the other, in creepiness.

The house had most of the windows broken out, the paint was a distant memory, whatever colour it had once been, was now a weathered grey, what was left, was flaking off. There was a veranda, but it was falling apart, you could see that stairs were missing, from the road. One side of the barn had collapsed, inward. It could have been a poster for a scary movie. A single tree, broken branches, in the front of the place, the driveway was overgrown, by raggedy weeds and could hardly be seen.

It must have been July, around 1984 or 85. I was 13. My brother was 15, my little sister was 11, we were on our way to the store, we were getting close to the clearing where the old house stood. I remember daring my brother to go up to the place and look inside. I probably called him “chicken” or a baby. Maybe it was having a little sister call him out or maybe it was a build up of curiosity; whatever the reason, he veered off the road and started to make his way through the overgrowth.

My sister and I ran after him, yelling for him to stop. This was breaking the rules. He broke out in a run, toward the house; we were trying to catch up, screaming at him to wait. He didn’t.

He went in, alone. I told my little sister to wait by the tree, in front of the house; this place looked dangerous. Stairs were missing up to the veranda, and the other ones may as well have been. I remember how they bowed when I stepped on them. The veranda was missing floorboards as well, exposing a dark, scary underbelly. I was sure something was going to try to grab my foot and drag me down to the dark. Even after all these years, I can recall the terror of that place. It smelled like terror – mold and damp, decomposition of who knew what. Just rot. The place was rot, personified.

I don’t remember all of it, I think I’ve probably blocked it out. I recall pieces of furniture, a sofa that had sacrificed itself to rodents, it had been picked apart, what looked like hair was hanging out. Probably horsehair. I didn’t get that close to it. There were old photos, in frames, on the floor, glass broken and the images were now nothing more than water stains and dirt. A rocking chair on its side.

There was a kitchen, cupboard doors were hanging, some had simply given up the ghost and fallen to the floor. There were dishes in those cupboards. I could see that they were filthy. I didn’t want to get any closer, there was rodent poo on, virtually, every surface.

The smell was stifling, even with the broken windows and the air flow, it was like being smothered in rank. There was an old kitchen table, covered, like everything else, in rodent droppings, 5 chairs – 3 of them were lying on their side. There was a door leading out to a summer kitchen, with one of the walls leaning inward. The furniture was still there but like the rest of the place, it was rotting.

My brother called me; he had gone up to the second floor. Yes, a really dumb move, as the stairs were in horrible shape, the bannister hanging with a hope and a prayer. All I wanted to do was to get out of the place but he was calling me and he had urgency in his voice. I stuck to the side of the stairs, closest to the wall but without touching it. There was black and white mold, everywhere. My real fear was spiders or something else crawly. The place was full of spiders, cobwebs. This whole outing was a bad idea.

I made it up the stairs, alone – nothing with multiple legs had managed to hitch a ride or so I remember.

There were 3 entrances, off the second floor hallway; 1 door was closed, the other 2 were open. My brother was standing in the frame of one. His face was filthy but he was excited. The room he was in, had 2 beds, with old, styled metal headboards. There were, I guess they were sheets and blankets at one time. Just kind of shreds now. You could see the mattress ticking and the rodents had been busy here as well.

My brother was showing me bureaus with boys’ items still on them, covered in dust, leaves and grime. He started to pull out a drawer, and the floor gave way under him. The crack of the wood and seeing him fall? I learned, that day, what it meant to be so afraid, you pee’d yourself. Only one of his legs went through, just up to his shin. He pulled himself out and he was pale, even under the dirt; his eyes were wide and teary. Big brother was scared. We both looked at his shin, it was scraped up, pretty badly. There would be a lot of explaining to do, when we got back to the cottage.

I looked at the hole and there was a box, I could make out a bit of the colour and see writing on it. Scare and pain forgotten, my brother yelped and reached in to pull it out. It was an old tin, we wiped off the top with my brother’s sleeve; it was a candy tin.

We rested it on the old bureau trying to pry the lid off. It was stuck. We pushed and prodded, but rust had sealed it shut.

Our little sister was yelling from outside. She was fed up and wanted to go. My brother and I agreed to come back, another day. He grabbed up the tin and we made our way out. Carefully.

We were desperate to open the tin, if you shook it – you could hear things rattling. It was more than he could take; we needed our Dad. The store could wait. We offered up our candy money to our little sister, with a promise that we’d bring her to the store, the next day, so much the richer for her cooperation and silence.

She finally agreed and we started toward the road. We were almost there when she said, “Who is THAT? Was there someone else in the house?”

She was pointing to one of the windows. There was a shape, a dark body shape, in one of the windows, on the second floor. It as there. It wasn’t my imagination, we all saw it. Figuring it was someone living in that mess..someone in “authority”. We took off, running all the way back to the cottage.

I remember we got in trouble, my brother more than my sister or myself. He was, after all, the eldest. We spun a tale of playing tag on the road and that’s how my brother hurt his leg. Story was that we found the tin, on the side of the road, in some weeds.

My parents were just as interested in the tin, as were we. Mom cleaned it off and my Dad went about trying to open it, with Mom telling him to be careful and not damage the tin. Dad finally opened the lid and poured out the contents. It was, obviously, a secret treasure box, for some little boy, long ago. There were 3 mandatory marbles, a couple of pennies from 1920, an old pen knife with a pearl handle, and a couple of metal toy soldiers. My brother was disappointed. I guess he expected real treasure or at least a secret decoder ring. He lost interest and wandered off. I joined him. I don’t know what my parents did with the contents of the tin.

But the story didn’t end there; that night, my brother woke us all up, screaming. My folks ran into his room, with my sister and I, in hot pursuit. He was sitting straight up in bed, there were tears on his face, he was looking at us, over my Dad’s shoulder, his eyes were wild and terrified. My sister and I were invited to go back to our room, by my Mom. We talking about what had happened, scared ourselves silly but eventually went back to sleep.

Next day, my brother pulled us aside and told us what had scared him. Something woke him up, he thought he had been shaken awake by someone or something. Rough. Hard. He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt and there was a bruise. A new one. There was someone in his room, he told us. A dark shape, just standing there, as if it was just looking at him, then it started to move toward him and he that’s why he had screamed. It disappeared when we came into the room.

We were at the cottage for another week, the next night, was the same thing, he screamed, we all came running. Nothing was there.

He wanted to bunk in with my sister and I but my folks wouldn’t allow it. They weren’t ogres; Mom offered to sleep in his room and he could sleep with our Dad. Neither of them were too happy about it but that was the only option. Sure enough, Mom woke up, screaming. Dad flew into the room, with my sister and I in hot pursuit. As I ran past my parents’ room, I saw my brother, still in the bed, sitting up – looking like the “O” emoji. Dad turned on us and actually yelled for us to go back to our rooms. Dad yelling just make this all the scarier. My sister and I were in tears, in our rooms. My brother came in, Dad and Mom were still in my brothers’ room, Dad had closed the door, they were talking, low but I could hear my Mom talking a mile a minute, her voice raising and lowering.

My brother told us that he thought this was our fault. That going into that house and taking the tin brought something back. Something bad. For the remaining nights, we all slept in my parents’ room. Vacation was over the night my brother screamed.

As it turned out, that was the last year we went to the cottage. My Dad was diagnosed with cancer, that October. He passed away 4 months later. Mom put the house up for sale. She couldn’t afford it and it was too hard to maintain. We had a yard sale and I noticed Mom had put the candy tin, we had found, up for sale. I asked her why she was selling it as she seemed pretty stoked about it, when we presented it. She just said, it gave her the creeps and she wanted it gone.

A few years later, when we were in our early twenties; Mom suggested we all get together for one more vacation at the old cottage. Time has a way of making your forget so, although we weren’t real happy about it, we agreed.

Our first night, we were sitting around the kitchen table, playing cards, drinking wine; my brother was telling stories about the old days, vacation – my little sister brought up the house. This was the first time my Mom had heard about it. She paled up.

There was a backstory to the house and she knew it. The couple that ran the store told her, when she had mentioned how sad it was, that it was abandoned like that. A man, his wife and 4 kids lived in the house. One of the boys was killed, he was playing in the barn and fell, breaking his neck. The father took it very badly and started drinking, then becoming violent. He beat his wife and remaining 3 kids. Finally, the wife picked up and left. The husband shot himself in the head, in his son’s room, shortly after. We all figure the tin belonged to the boy who died in the barn and maybe it was the Dad who wanted the tin put back.

I guess the moral of the story is to leave things be, if they don’t belong to you.