ANTLERS OF ANOTHER KIND

Belonging.


Sometimes it takes a person decades to figure out where they belong, where they can finally find a place to fit in. I once had the fantasy that discovering those people/places was instant, or at least fairly quick. I once believed that finding your place was easier done than said. I guess constantly moving around during my childhood didn’t help this. In fact, I grew accustomed to it. It was ironic, home felt foreign and moving felt familiar. It became like second nature to keep traveling, which probably explains why I still can’t seem to stay in one place…


Ohio.


There’s not really much of anything out here. Football? I could do without. Bars? Drink enough and they all become the same. Amusement parks? Well, I didn’t exactly come out here for the amusement. I will admit the quiet’s nice, a real nice change of atmosphere compared to the last place I stayed at. But it’s not the quiet as for the reason I’m here, it’s the work. More specifically, a contract job I was referred to by an old employer. It’s a simple job really, grounds keeping on some house by a lake.


So, why’d I take the job? Free housing and the pay’s good. Need I say more? Besides, I’m here for about a month, then it’s off to another place. Nothing to grow attached to, nothing to place my worries on. At the end of the day, it’s just another paycheck in the book.


October 1st.


Rain, that was the first thing I smelled after I stepped off the bus. It was fresh, like it occurred probably an hour or two ago. Just enough where it lingered but didn’t flood the streets. I took a gander around and I guess people were eager for the coming holiday as pumpkins, ghosts, and skeletons lined the outside steps of every nearby restaurant and shop to the naked eye. It was all innocent enough, nothing out of the ordinary…well, not until I asked about the place.


I first entered an old mom and pop shop, I believed they sold hardware. It was quaint to say the least. The owners were a friendly couple and welcomed me right in. I showed them the address I was given and that’s when things got rather peculiar. They first stared at me like I was lost or the subject of some cruel joke. They then asked me what business I had at the place and I replied I’d taken a grounds keeping job. The couple looked at each other as if they were telepathically communicating on how to respond. The wife said, “The Willow House is a half-mile down the road from here, but dear, if you’re in a pinch for cash, we’d be happy to offer you work here instead.” I thanked them for the offer, but I’d already accepted the contract and I always keep my word.


Stepping foot on the property was eerie, yet I was no stranger to the strange. It was unusually quiet, no birds chirping nor bugs buzzing, and there seemed to be an endless growth of willow trees. I guess I had my work cut out for me. Thinking not much more of it, I began to walk down the ever-stretching path.


It was a miracle I made it to the house before sundown. Even though it was a straight shot to the house, I wondered if anyone’s ever gotten lost along the way. With a never-ending array of trees on both sides, I hoped to never walk that path during the dead of night. However, that aside, the house was a surprise for sure. Who would’ve thought within a forest, you’d find a three-story gothic house? At this point, I was expecting the pope to come through the front door. To my dismay, a man dressed in rather formal attire walked out instead.


He greeted me by shaking my hand and introducing himself as Wilhelm Wright, a man I’ll soon never forget. I told him it was a delight to meet him and that he could call me, Reyna. Wilhelm was an easygoing man with an eye for detail. Everything to him was somehow adjusted to perfection. The folds in his jacket were crisp and symmetrical, his hair styled without a hanging stray, and his words exact. After our introductions, he took me around the place and explained my duties: water the plants, cut the grass, clear all debris from the yard, etc. The grounds were open like a field with only the house and nearby garage in the middle. I then asked whether my duties extended beyond the yard to where he replied, “No need to worry about that. Things tend to take care of themselves out there.”


Wilhelm then showed me to the room I was staying on the third floor and it was rather tame compared to everything else. It was your standard setup, a desk, bed, and dresser. Although, the connecting bathroom was a plus. All in all, this seemed to be one of the better jobs I’ve picked up. Before he left me to unpack, Wilhelm mentioned a few last things. “As you may have been told, board is included. Breakfast at eight, lunch at noon, and dinner at seven. Please let Mrs. Wright know of any dietary restrictions once she has returned.” Then there was this, “Lights are out by midnight and noise levels are to be brought to the utmost minimum. And this is the pinnacle of reminders, the missus and I enjoy a certain sense of privacy. I think you may have caught this after walking through our property. Therefore, it is expected that you do not speak upon us nor this property to those beyond the willows. Understood?” An odd request, but who am I to argue with the benefits. “Of course,” I responded.


That night, I finally met Mrs. Wright who remarkably mirrored Wilhelm in both behavior and mannerism. She nonetheless showed hospitality and was, what I would learn to be, one hell of a chef. I believe she served personal pot pies that night. It was one of the first dinners I’ve shared in a while. The conversations were pleasant, and the group setting was a nice change. Everything was perfect akin to the Wrights, that is until a resounding bang came from the basement. It seemed to startle me more that the Wrights, yet they assured me a recent renovation to the heating system was simply settling in. I can’t recall ever hearing such a loud and unsettling bang coming from a heating system, but then again, I was never an expert in that field.


The following days were uneventful to say the least. Everything in the yard seemed to take care of themselves in a sense, like it was its own organism. Additionally, I hadn’t thought about it at first, but ever since I’ve arrived here, it never once occurred to me that even in October, every single willow has retained their leaves and green hue as if it were the peak of summer. There was obviously something off about this place from the moment I stepped off the bus, something that was crawling under my skin. It’s only a month, right?


It would be nearly a week later till I started having serious concerns about the job. I had just finished watering the plants when Mrs. Wright called out to me. She was in need of a few groceries, so she gave me a list and asked me to head into town. A couple of minutes later, I was in a local store picking up the items when the wife from the hardware store bumped into me. We exchanged pleasantries and I knew she had something on her mind. She then asked about the house and everything I’ve witnessed there. I kept my agreement to the Wrights and told her it was nothing out of the ordinary. I followed up by asking what’s the deal with the Willow House. She responded, “Every town’s got a thing. Whether it’s a historical event, a haunted house, or an iconic figure. Every town’s got something. The Willow place is our something. From the day it was built, no one knew much about it, yet nothing makes sense about it either. I once saw those willows in the heaviest of winters, and they remained as green and alive since the first day they sprouted. There just ain’t something right about that place.”


Her words weighed heavy in my head on the way back. By the time I was nearing the house, the sun was nearly setting. I was exhausted from the days work and took a breather on the driveway until I heard what seemed like hooves on the grass. I slowly turned around to find a white-tailed deer with the largest set of antlers I’ve ever seen. It laid its heavy stare on me and began tapping a hoof. I was terrified standing so close to this creature. I wanted to yell and scare it off, but my vocal cords refused to make a sound. Before I knew it, the deer charged in my direction then…


BANG!


I opened my eyes to find the deer on its side, blood dripping from its head. A metallic sound clinged from behind me. I turned my head to find Wilhelm, Kar 98k shouldered and an ejected round at his feet. “You okay,” he asked. I nodded. Without hesitation, he drops his rifle and carries over a saw. I was nothing but confused as he walked over, like he was on a mission or something. He took the saw to the antlers and immediately cut each one off. After that, he unsheathed a large knife and cut a hole right through the chest. He then reached right in and ripped out the animal’s heart. It was all sorts of fucked, yet he seemed too calm. Wilhelm then collected his “trophies” and turned to me. “Would you be a dear and dispose of the body in the woods?”


I did as instructed and dragged the deer to the trees just outside the yard before I collapsed. I stared at the animal and thought back to when it was charging. Though it seemed like it was aiming for me, I’m not sure I was its target.


The next day, there was a downpour outside. I sat on my bed rethinking this job. Am I really letting that woman’s words get to me? I kept telling myself it’s just a job in a place full of coincidences, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more than I had known. I then tried to fall asleep until I heard a knock at my door. I got up and opened it to the sight of the Wrights. “We need to talk,” they said.


There I sat in the living room, across from the Wrights. “I am sure you have a multitude of questions on your mind, but I can assure you everything is fine,” Wilhelm said. “I don’t follow,” I responded. “It is no stranger to us that people have created fantasies in who we are and where we live. We understand that. We now want to make sure that any questions you may have are completely answered.” Mrs. Wright then followed, “I know the incident you encountered yesterday must have startled you, but believe us, it will all make sense.” I was at a loss in what they were trying to say, so I asked the obvious question, “What’s the real story to you, to this place?”


They looked toward each other and back to me. Wilhelm then spoke. “Have you ever heard of paganism?” “Of course,” I answered hesitantly. “Well, the missus and I have been practicing for quite some time. How long you might ask, well that is besides the point. The point is that everything we own has been granted to us for our devotion to our all mighty gods. The gods that people once believed to be false have instead proven their benevolence unlike those of other oppressive faiths.” “And the deer,” I asked. “Benevolence requires sacrifice. The deer was simply an offering to our merciful god, Uulmbra,” Wilhelm responded. Now, it was clear, these people were insane. I was immediately ready to leave before Wilhelm asked, “Reyna, could you help us with an important task? It is nothing huge but know that you will be well compensated.” One last task then I was out.


Before I knew it, they had me in a hooded robe with a strange marking. Apparently, it was an outsider robe they said. The Wrights then led me to the basement where more markings were drawn all over the walls. There were kerosene lanterns lighting the room, a pedestal with a bowl of what looked to be blood, and a single door with the antlers affixed to it. I have never been the religious type but even this had me spooked.


Wilhelm then dipped a finger in the bowl and chanted a plethora of foreign phrases before drawing more markings onto the door itself. “Great ancient one, we are your humble servants and ask that you bring us further fortune in the coming times. We would be nothing without your unwavering benevolence. We are yours to command and lest you find us unworthy, our lives are yours to take. For your kindness, we offer you a sacrifice, one which stands before you…”


After those final words, I was in flight. I grabbed one of the kerosene lanterns and ran as fast as I could out the house. I sprinted into the woods past where I dragged the deer carcass, but strangely enough, the entire body was gone without a trace, like it had sunken into the ground. I didn’t dwell on it for too long as I had to find my way out of this place. I ran and ran till my chest could take no more. I stopped and for a moment, the wind blew apart the branches, revealing an opening. I paused though, as there was a young boy riding a bike on the other side. I can’t say for sure, but it seemed like he was staring at me. I began to move until I felt a sharp sting on the back of my head, and everything went…BLACK.


I opened my eyes to the sight of the door once again. This time, I was restrained to a chair, helpless but to watch. “I am sorry to do this to you, Reyna, but this has to happen,” Mrs. Wright said. I took another look around the room and noticed more robes like mine sitting in the corner, covered in blood. “It will be quick. Think of what an honor it must be, giving your soul to the gods,” Mrs. Wright continued.


Wilhelm then opened the door revealing what looked like the front yard but with the thickest fog and leafless willows. It was an ominous sight enough, until a dark figure appeared from the distance. I could hardly make out its features until it approached closer. A creature of massive proportion that crawled on all fours. It seemed to adorn a crown of elongated antlers protruding from its skull. Its face resembled a combination of a bear and wolf with two sets of jaws along with two sets of eyes. Its body was layered with quills, yet it was composed of parts flesh and other bone.


After all these years, is this where I’m finally meant to stay? No more moving, no more wondering about my sense of belonging. The last place I’m destined to belong to is one not of this world, one of no return.


What an ironic fate.