As he walked, he noticed that the trees on either side of the road grew smaller and smaller, younger and younger, barer and barer. Eventually he came upon the oldest tree on the road. As far as anyone could tell, it was one of the oldest trees in Dover. Even ol’ Mr. Peasley could remember it from when he was a “strapping young lad”. The townspeople had insisted it be preserved against any and all construction, so that it would live and become a part of their childrens’ lives just as it had been in theirs’. For generations and generations, the old tree (which everyone had come to fondly call “Old Father”) had been a meeting place, a climbing point and place where people would come to just relax. There was something about that beautiful old tree that cast an aura of serenity over everyone and everything around it. But when James grew closer, his expression of admiration and love turned to one of horror. The tree was bare. No leaves. No birds. No bark. It was doubled over, almost as if in pain, forced to bow to some unseen foe. James slowly approached it, reaching a quivering hand towards the tree’s withered body. Where there was once life and vitality, he could feel only pain and sorrow coursing through the tree’s trunk, leaving him with a feeling of emptiness and drawing any last trace of hope and happiness from his heart. He slumped to his knees, still trying to cradle some life into the old tree. His head bowed, the tears started welling up and began their race from his eyes, down his cheek until they fell to the cold, dry earth surrounding the old birch.
What was that? James whipped his head up and around, quickly scanning the area. He got to his feet and wiped the tears and trails from his face with the sleeve of his jumper. He could have sworn he’d heard something. Maybe a rat? The little buggers seemed to plague the city during the warmer summer months. But no, it sounded… bigger. He spun slowly around in a circle. The thing, whatever it was, seemed to be circling around; waiting for the perfect time to strike. His eyes jumping from shadow to shadow, James could never be sure where it was. It seemed every time he shifted his gaze, it was just a step ahead of him.
Finally, the padding noise stopped indefinitely. James straightened up, leaning against the Old Father for support as he drew in a few breaths. He looked up: he’d made full circle around the tree and was now facing the house. That same mysterious house that none of the boys could remember ever having existed before. It stood out against all the small cottages and shacks that lined the small crescent, towering above them, overshadowing ever inch of the quaint homes. It stretched out to meet James, grasping his very soul in a grip that he couldn’t find the will to escape. He didn’t want to.
Slowly, step-by-step, he moved towards the great gate that offered only a glimpse of the massive estate. It stood stern and silent, despite the wind that still howled around it. Its hinges well-fixed and oiled, the gate look down upon the boy, taking in every thing it could. James could only look through the strong bars, across the front lawn, at the face of the house. It stared him down, its massive three-story windows leering at him in the most curious way – as if he were as strange to it, as it was to him. James stared deeper into its eyes, as it did the same to him, drawing him in deeper and deeper until suddenly, the long maroon curtains were thrown back. A blinding light was thrown out with such force that James was knocked onto his back, shielding his eyes into the corner of his elbow. Then, as quickly as it had come, it vanished – imprisoned once again by the long curtains that swept back out to contain it. James peeked out from behind his arm, and once he was sure that it was safe, got to his feet. He turned to go, determined to leave the house far behind him, but then heard the heavy padding noise from before. He stopped dead in his tracks, and turned his head slowly to look back at the house. It stood as it had before, no different than it had looked before when he had been standing at its gates only hours ago with his brothers. He turned completely, walking towards the barrier once more. Its metal so smooth, glimmering in the light of the moon, drew him to it. He reached out his hand towards it, closing his eyes, waiting for its cool touch beneath his fingertips. But it never came. He opened his eyes, and the gates stood wide open, inviting him to follow their path. So silently, so quickly, so swiftly – he had not even heard them swing open. The small lanterns swung in the wind, beckoning him to follow their soft motion. He looked back through the gates behind him, his eyes falling on the Old Father, lost, forlorn and weak against an unseen force. James took a step. Then another. And another. Before he knew it, his right foot had risen to the first step of the front porch. The roof loomed above him; a comforting, yet overwhelming protector. He blinked, and the massive black door stood before him, gleaming with its own light against the darkness of the night sky; deprived of the stars and the moon fled. He looked at the strong, stern face of the door knocker; a giant goblin with a ring through its hideously grotesque and pointed nose. He lifted his hands, and suddenly, from far behind him, he heard quick, hurried footsteps and the sound of Flynn’s voice rang through the thin, night air: “JAMES! What’re yeh doin?! COME BACK! DON’T D-” But James didn’t shift his gaze from the door. He reached out, Flynn still screaming at him to stop, and grasped the ancient door knocker. Its eyes grew wide in terror and its mouth opened in a silent scream, before they were all plunged into darkness.
Flynn awoke with a startled cry, his eyes pouring with tears, his voice hoarse and sweat flowing from every inch of his body. His head whipped around, scouring every corner of the small treehouse, jumping from Ronny, to Keith, to… “Where’s James?!”