The trees gave way to a large clearing, in the middle of which stood a four-story building. It may have been a mansion at one time; now, in the midmorning light, it appeared an empty shell, long abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Unless you counted the vines and other plants growing everywhere, the place was lifeless.
At least it seemed that way. All the windows and doors were shut or boarded over, and there were no holes in the exterior anywhere. It looked much as it had the last time he had been here, over a year ago. The state of the outside had been intentional, in order to suggest that nothing of value or interest remained in the building. Having been gone so long, he had no idea if it was still just a facade, or if reality had finally caught up.
He stayed at the edge of the clearing, watching for any signs that it was safe to go inside. An overgrown hedge protected his position from every direction, so he could observe without being spotted himself. As eager as he might be to rush to the door, years had taught him the need for caution. The only smart move was to wait and watch.
He sat for hours, but no signs of life became evident. Perhaps that meant that everything was fine, and they were simply staying safe by keeping things quiet. Or perhaps it meant that everyone was gone.
As night began to fall, he became even more vigilant, keeping his eyes more on the woods than the house. The monsters that lived in the darkness would begin to stir soon. Before that thought even fully formed, two of the beasts entered the clearing from the right. They walked on two legs, and in the darkness, it would be understandable to mistake them for human beings. Understandable, but deadly. Their joints bent at odd angles, giving their gait an unsettling quality.
He gripped his machete tightly, muscles taut, waiting to attack or defend. The creatures, however, didn’t come towards him, instead approaching the building. They made no sound as they walked and constantly adjusted the tilt of their heads to better hear their surroundings. Next to the walls, they sniffed the air for traces of prey. He spent several anxious minutes breathing as softly as he could. Finally, one of the creatures lifted its head to the sky. Terrified, he quickly covered his ears just before a nerve-shattering screech filled the air. Had he not been prepared for it, he would have run away as quickly as he could.
That would have been exactly what the creatures wanted. As the one stopped its screech, the other listened intently for any panic nearby. Minutes passed before they appeared satisfied that no prey was in the area. They reentered the woods opposite from where they had first arrived, and disappeared into the darkness. He waited even longer before he allowed his body to shake from the flood of adrenaline it had experienced.
Nothing in the building changed. If someone had been inside, surely that cry would have created some panic, and the creatures would have reacted. But they left. It seemed increasingly likely that no one was there. Still, now was not the time to leave his hiding spot. He would stay put until the sun rose; only then would he investigate.
Time passed slowly, and the wait was made even more painful by the scenes his imagination conjured for him. The deaths of his friends inside, the only people left he even knew. Killed by those creatures? Or perhaps by some other humans who wanted the place for themselves? Maybe it wasn’t as dire, and they simply left for other shelter. That was unlikely, he had to admit. Silent grief, mixed with guilt about not having been there, caused the night to go on forever. By the time the first sliver of the sun broke the horizon, he had resigned himself to the tragedy that waited inside.
As he prepared to approach the building, the large front door opened. Out walked a woman who was instantly recognizable. She moved to examine a spot on the wall near the door. He knew it was a camera because he had installed it several years ago, when together they first set up this place.
His greeting caught in his throat. They were still here, still alive, but would they accept him back? He had been gone a long time. When he had first resolved to return, he thought he was prepared to face them all. Now, however, after a night of needless mourning, his courage failed him. He did not know what he could say to them. To her.
Finished with her examination, she quickly retreated back inside. He watched the building for several more minutes, but no one else emerged. Then, he left the protection of the hedge and slipped back into the trees, walking away as quickly as he dared.