Owen Parker and his best friends, Andy Cunningham and Austin Fuller, had been calling the ramshackle house Acab’s Mansion for years, yet they’d never ventured inside; the dilapidated structure may have collapsed in on itself if you looked at it funny or exhaled forcefully in its general direction. No one actually knew what the graffiti meant until Jake Mullins moved in from the city and joined their friend circle.
“ACAB means: All Cops Are Bastards,” Jake said. “How’d you not know that?”
“No way!” Austin replied. “My dad said it’s just the initials of the guys who tagged the place.”
Jake chuckled. “And what does your dad do?”
Austin looked up at him sheepishly, then directed his attention to his sneaker in the dirt as he replied: “He’s a police officer…”
Jake began laughing so hard that he almost fell over. “Of course he is! I’m sure he’s not a bastard ALL of the time…”
Austin couldn’t help but giggle at Jake’s retort, and seeing Austin’s sense of humor, Owen and Andy joined in. The middle school pals howled in a chorus of laughter, clutching their knees and sides amidst the skeletons of dead trees and fallen leaves. Acab’s Mansion loomed a hundred yards in the distance, unaffected by the boy’s laughter. The gloomy day only increased the menacing aura radiating off the graffitied tumbledown.
“Well, are you guys gonna show me the inside, or are we gonna just stand here by the road and make jokes?” Jake said, catching his breath.
Suddenly, all the giggles ceased, and the only sound was the whisper of dead leaves upon the dirt. Owen and Andy’s gaze shot to Austin, their eyes wide. Since Austin’s father, Officer Dean Fuller, had already severely admonished the boys once for attempting to enter the run-down house, Owen and Andy had agreed the decision to disobey was Austin’s choice.
“Well… we’ve never gone inside…” Austin said.
“What? Why the hell not?” Jake said. “Old places like this are creepy and fantastic! Come on!” Jake was all smiles and enthusiasm, motioning for his new friends to follow him as he bounded forward.
“Wait!” Austin said. “My dad told me the place is dangerous; it’s basically boobytrapped with rot. And they’ve found a couple dead bums inside over the years!” Those were the best deterrents Officer Fuller was willing to give his son and friends, and he wasn’t exactly forthright. The truth was as confounding as it was horrific.
Unfortunately, Jake had been smoothly displacing Owen as the group leader since his first day joining the trio for lunch. Jake was tall, confident, and outspoken, a natural leader. Owen, Andy, and Austin hadn’t known him long enough or learned enough of his background to know of his incredible ability to make terrible decisions. It was, in fact, the reason the Mullins had relocated; Jake had gotten into far too much trouble back in the city.
“Jeez, maybe I picked the wrong group of friends here,” Jake said sternly. “I can’t be friends with chickens…” Before the others could reply, Jake was halfway to the house.
Against his better judgment, Austin followed, Andy and Owen at his heels. Oh, the wonders of peer pressure…
The alert hit Officer Dean Fuller’s phone once Austin was five steps off the roadside. The idea of being there to help strangers while on duty but not being able to help his own son had terrified him so completely that he’d discreetly set up the app on Austin’s phone. If his son crossed into areas he’d set up as “danger zones,” he received an alert. Officer Fuller quickly dialed his son. After receiving Austin’s voicemail three times, he abandoned his patrol, tires squealing as he made a quick u-turn, and sped toward the ruined old mansion. If something happened to Austin, damned if he wouldn’t burn the blasted old house down himself.
Acab’s Mansion’s front door laid in pieces upon the lifeless lawn, heavily graffitied plywood plastered with condemned signs was nailed over the entryway in its place; one corner had been yanked back, a cracked seam creating a flap easily pulled back to allow entry.
“Owen, hold this,” Jake said, slipping through the opening ahead of his new friends. Immediately he was assaulted by the vile stench of death and decay with a peculiar undertone of what smelled like burnt spices, perhaps cinnamon.
“God! It stinks in here!” Austin said as he crawled inside.
Andy and Owen scuttled in last.
As the friends stood and huddled together in the fetid foyer, the entire house seemed to growl and shift, as if coming alive from deep hibernation. Something clattered and fell with a crash in a distant room; Owen and Austin jumped, and Andy let out a girlish shriek.
Jake laughed. “Don’t be so jumpy, pussies; it’s just the wind…” He pulled away from the group and crossed under an ornately carved doorway, the dark wood festooned with spider webs. Leaving the others in the entryway, unsettled and on edge, Jake passed through a junk-strewn drawing-room and entered an expansive ballroom with checkered wood floors, and… “Holy shit, guys! You gotta come see this!” Jake yelled.
With a succession of creaking, crunching footfalls, Owen, Austin, and Andy entered the room, gasping as the massive fireplace came into view.
“Whoa… wicked,” Owen said.
Beyond the detritus-covered dance floor, a great stone dragon stared back at the boys with eyes that seemed to shift in the low light. The fireplace opening was a terrible, sharp-toothed maw, the mantle a protruding snout with nostrils appearing to steam in the dusty air. The overmantle contained the hyper-realistic relief of the dragon’s menacing eyes and a pair of freakish corkscrewed horns. Why anyone in their right mind would want something like this in their home was incomprehensible. Busted out windows ringed the high-ceilinged room, and murky beams of mote-filled light left the room patched in pitch-black shadows. Only Jake seemed impervious to the dark foreboding atmosphere.
Jake began advancing toward the fireplace for a closer look while Owen scanned the rest of the room. Andy and Austin remained still, trembling as their eyes flitted back and forth as if waiting for something to leap from the shadows.
“Look,” Owen said. “Other parts of the dragon are built into the walls around the room!” He pointed toward great claws extending from the wall on either side of the hearth and faint impressions of wings midway up the wall. A long, spiked tail wound from the wall on their right to the wall containing the doorway they had passed through. Cautiously inspecting as he moved in, Owen perceived various spots on the floor and walls, some appearing as large burns, others as splashes and splatters of a dull, dark substance he hoped was paint.
Kneeling down before the fireplace, a subtle heat blew against Jake’s face containing a faint odor of smoke. Jake withdrew his cell phone and flipped on the flashlight. As his light traced over the dragon’s carved teeth, Jake suddenly jumped backward, his breath caught in his chest, the words unable to find life on his tongue.
“What is it?” Andy said.
Owen and Austin broke from their tentative appraisal of the room, focusing on Jake, sprawled upon the filthy ballroom floor.
“B… b… blood…” Jake spoke in a whisper. He tried to drag himself back across the floor, then yelped as something sharp jabbed into his palm. Jake lifted his trembling hand and withdrew a jagged, pencil-sized splinter from his hand, grimacing. As he did, two large droplets of blood splattered upon the floor.
“What?” Owen said, and again the house seemed to rumble and grumble, like the muffled passing of a nearby train.
The next moment drew out in dreadfully slow horror as if all was slowed by a thick covering of molasses. Austin looked at Jake frozen before the stone dragon’s terrible visage and tracked the beam of light from Jake’s phone toward the dragon’s left eye. It blinked. The vertical pupil slit swelled and constricted as it scanned the room, coming to rest on Jake’s supine form. Suddenly, the walls came to life, crumbling apart as the dragon broke free in shards of plaster and wood. Before any of the boys could move, the fireplace roared with bursts of orange and blue, and Jake was engulfed in flame. The sound of the fire drowned out the boy’s screams.
Officer Fuller fishtailed around the final turn, his engine roaring as he blasted up the empty road toward Acab’s Mansion. He’d tried Austin six more times while racing over. Nothing. As he collapsed the final mile in record time, the memories, stories, and absurd legends surrounding the condemned home he’d forbidden his son to enter melded into a blood-soaked daymare.
Any condemned building was dangerous to enter, and as more time passed, entropy only seized the structure more firmly in its grasp, creating more hazards; Officer Fuller had been honest with Austin on that point. They had also found the remains of a few local vagrants inside the place; at least the authorities believed they were vagrants, squatting in the vile old building. He hadn’t told Austin that they’d only found dismembered limbs, a singed eyeball, and a toothless mandible, also burned. The most horrific aspect had been that the recovered limbs–a footless lower leg and an arm torn off at the shoulder–had been discovered stuck into the walls. They had to be literally torn out of the plaster.
Needless to say, the town was full of superstitions about the property being haunted, and the only reason the terrible house still stood was that the President of the town’s Historical Society was determined to get state-funding to refurbish the home before it was nothing but a pile of rubble. Officer Fuller was pissed. The estate, historically significant or not, was a danger to the town, and he was going to do his job: serve and protect.
Office Fuller screeched to a stop in front of the graffitied monstrosity, grabbed his 12-gauge, and sprinted toward the awful structure his son called Acab’s Mansion. Smoke was rising from the chimney tower. As he reached the entryway, a disjointed chorus of blood-curdling screams seemed to shake the very foundations of the earth.
The dragon’s great tail ripped free of the wall and cracked like a whip, slamming into Owen from behind and sending him flailing across the room as Jake writhed in agony upon the floor in his hooded robe of flame. Andy and Austin stood frozen in pure terror, deafening caterwauls of anguish pouring out from ancient inner-sanctums of fear. The dragon’s face erupted from the wall in full form, releasing an atavistic growl and shaking free of debris like a wet-dog. The dragon was a gargantuan stone nightmare, a lithe monstrosity of scales glistening like wet concrete. Striking like a serpent uncoiling toward an injured rodent, the dragon lashed out, snatching Jake’s roasting remains from the floor, its gray teeth snapping closed with the sound of clacking bricks. Andy’s bladder released, flooding his Levi’s with warmth. In all the bloody, flaming chaos, the surviving friends were deaf to the sound of Officer Dean Fuller tearing the plywood from the front door and crashing into the foyer.
“AUSTIN! AUSTIN!” Officer Fuller yelled. He received a fresh torrent of screams in reply. He ran toward the sound.
Owen took a deep, painful breath, his eyes shuddering into focus as he struggled to his feet. A flaming ball rolled to a stop against his ankle, singing him through his jeans; he looked down to see an unrecognizable face peeling away from Jake Mullin’s flaming skull. A terrible crunching noise came from above him, and Owen slowly gazed upward to meet the glittering stone eyes of the great gray dragon as the beast chewed and swallowed, tendrils of smoke rising from the beast’s nostrils.
The sound of Officer Fuller pumping a shell into his shotgun stole everyone’s attention, the dragon included. “Good God…” Officer Fuller said under his breath. Without attempting to process the serpentine movement of the great stone beast, Officer Fuller rushed forward, yelling: “RUN, boys! RUN!” The ballroom was filled with deafening shotgun blasts.
Owen leaped over the flaming skull and rushed to exit the room.
“Dad?” Austin said in disbelief, watching as the dragon withdrew back into the wall as chunks of its animated stone body flew away with each blast.
“GO!” Austin’s father screamed again, his shotgun falling empty on the floor as he withdrew his Beretta from his hip-holster.
Austin broke from his stupor as Owen grabbed his arm, sweeping him toward the doorway behind Andy. Owen shoved Austin through the door one step ahead of him as two massive spikes drove into him from the rear. A faint gurgle fell from his lips along with a mouthful of blood. The dragon withdrew its spiked tail, and Owen fell lifeless to the floor.
Andy and Austin were outside before they realized Owen had fallen behind, the POP-POP-POP of the Beretta ringing from inside the house like fireworks. “What happened to Owen?” Austin said as they crashed breathlessly upon the hood of his father’s patrol car. “We have to go back!” Austin turned back toward the house, but a sweaty hand latched upon his arm.
“No,” Andy said.
Before Austin could protest, the sound of gunfire ended, and a chilling wail of agony escaped the deep bowels of Acab’s Mansion. Austin would never forget that sound for the rest of his life, the sound of his father surrendering his ghost.
Silence fell across the yard as the tears began streaming down Austin’s pale face. His vision blurred, he stumbled, and he fell back into a slump upon the car hood. “D… D… Dad… Noooo…” he whimpered.
“Look,” Andy said, sniveling. He pointed toward a busted-out window high on the house near the chimney. One of the dragon’s glimmering stone eyes filled the window, watching. “It can’t leave the house…” Andy said.
“It IS the house,” Austin replied.
Quickly, the dragon’s eye withdrew, and a massive jet of blue-white flame leaped through the open window. Something soared beyond the reach of the blaze, falling amidst a pile of leaves a dozen steps away. The leaves began to smolder. The entire house seemed to shake, and there was a muffled crackling as something seemed to settle in the house’s depths.
Austin slowly advanced toward the fuming leaves, and fresh tears began cascading from his eyes as he saw what lay before him. A sooty, dull police medallion burned into the leaves like a hot coal. Before the emotion overtook him, and he fell to the ground in a heap of grief, Austin murmured one final, discernible sentence–the last understandable thing he would utter for three straight days. “My dad isn’t a bastard… my dad is a damn hero…”