Greenery seemed to swallow the roadside down which they travelled, kudzu vying to take over the grassy ditches as the red '66 Mustang flew down Highway 341, pedal to the metal, air conditioner wide open and radio blasting. The Eagles sang 'Seven Bridges Road' and Duo Maxwell was singing right along with them.
"...There are stars in the Southern sky... Southward as you go... there is moonlight and moss in the trees... down the Seven Bridges Road..." 
Heero rolled his eyes, thankful that at least Duo had a decent singing voice. As they pelted down the road, he kept a sharp lookout through the window -- both for police cars and for spooky-looking houses. Duo's camera rested securely in his hands as sharp blue eyes scanned ahead; on a road like this, with so many abandoned houses left to rot, they'd surely find something to grace the front cover of the collection of ghost stories they were putting together. They'd already passed by several decrepit buildings, battered and falling apart under the weight of clinging tendrils of ivy -- picturesque, but nothing like what they needed. They needed... a haunted house.
When they'd made the decision, he had almost seen Duo's hair standing on end, but the other boy had grinned and shrugged it off in a manly kind of way. "Hey, it's a project, right?" he'd said, speaking of their creative writing class. "And we need something great for the cover of the project, so..."
So, that's why they had taken 341 back towards Macon instead of hitting I-95. 95 would have been faster, but there wouldn't have been any of the great stuff to see along the way, so they'd chosen 341 instead, despite the slower speed limit...
After all, according to Duo, speed limits were really just a suggestion anyway.
"There's one," Heero said, peering through the trees at a crumbling shack as Duo slowed down marginally. The shack was overgrown with vines and overshadowed by large trees, but... "Never mind. Too fresh."
"'sides," Duo noted, "didn't look like the kind of place where blood would drip from the walls."
Only the year before, they'd had a run-in with some kind of trapped spirit in a cemetery, and Duo had sworn off visiting anyplace even remotely rumored to be haunted after that. The likelihood of finding a house that *looked* haunted but actually wasn't was much higher than their finding a house that *was*, one way or the other.
"Ah," Heero agreed, shifting in his seat. "Up close, it didn't even look like the sort of place where a spirit says 'Give me back my golden aaaarm...' either."
Snorting, Duo floored the gas again, slowing down only to head through a sleepy little town that seemed half-dead in the Sunday afternoon August heat. Even the local cops were locked up tight in their air-conditioned offices, refusing to leave them, it seemed, for no one came after him, despite the fact that he was still speeding. As they headed out of town, he reached out and turned the radio down, glancing over at his companion. "Hey, you think we'll find something? I mean, you know, something good? Like maybe one of those Victorians with the crazy wrap around porches..."
"Probably not," Heero replied. "It looks like that's the best we're going to get. We should probably stop next time we see one; maybe if we catch it from the right angle it'll work." He sounded dubious, but what were the chances of their running across the Perfect House?
Pine forest stretched on either side of the highway now, only occasionally opening up onto a field or a creek that meandered beside or under the road for a while. They crested a hill, the trees opening in another of those gaps as they headed down -- and both of them simultaneously turned their heads, their eyes drawn by a house that attracted their attention and held it.
Heero was just opening his mouth to ask Duo to stop when his partner wordlessly took a left onto the small dirt road that led to the house's dirt driveway; the fact that they'd both been thinking the same thing struck Heero as a little odd, but kind of cool. Surely this was the Perfect House for the cover of their project!
On the opposite side of the dirt road was a small cinderblock home, with adults hanging laundry and children playing in the yard. Duo wondered momentarily what they might know about the house... if it belonged to someone, or what. After all, there were curtains hanging in it, its pistachio color obviously kept up. "There's a historical marker down the way. We can check that out, too," he said faintly as he parked the car at the edge of the dirt driveway, as if they had already held some sort of discussion about the matter.
"Ah," Heero said, and slid out of the car without taking his eyes off the house. It was just an ordinary-looking house, and yet... there was an atmosphere about it that was unsettling. There was a small, somewhat dilapidated shed nearby; his head turned almost unwillingly to look at it. Some part of him wanted to keep both the house and the shed in sight.
"We'll look in there after we come back," he heard Duo say, and Heero nodded his agreement, the hair standing on the back of his neck for no reason he could name.
The strange silence wasn't dispelled as Duo turned and walked back alongside the dirt road, carefully staying close to the non-existent ditch as he moved through the grass. The people who had been next door, he noticed, had gone inside, leaving only several large dogs and a couple of small ones, the children's toys still laying in the yard. There was something about that fact that made him nervous, but he kept on, a chill rising up his spine. /Don't be a pussy, Maxwell. It's just a house./
And Rose Hill was just a cemetery...
Heero wordlessly handed the camera over to Duo, walking on the other side of the shallow ditch -- he was still reluctant to step onto the house's property. The neighbors' dogs came trotting over, sniffed at both of them and then went back to their own yard; one of the little ones remained at Heero's heels. Duo started walking further into the yard, and with a sigh Heero crossed over the ditch and followed. He wasn't going to tell Duo that the house gave him the creeps -- it was only a house, a plain, box-shaped, obviously vacant house.
The walk to the historic marker was made in silence, aside from the occasional car whizzing past. Once they'd reached the highway, they'd both chosen to walk in the grassy ditch as opposed to walking on the lawn -- it made Duo feel a little better, the sensation of eyes boring into his back bringing up little prickles on the back of his neck, but he continued grimly forward until they reached the marker. "Okay... let me read this..."
Clearing his throat, he leaned closer and began. "Normandale was named for Norman W. Dodge, one of seven sons of William E. Dodge, for whom Dodge County was named in 1870. The home of over 500 people, Normandale was headquarters of the Dodge Land and Lumber Company which was established after the Civil War using questionable deeds. The company claimed over 500 square miles of the finest longleaf yellow pine in the world. The area included the counties of Telfair, Dodge, Laurens, Montgomery and Pulaski. Settlers had earlier claimed most of the property. After years of controversy, the Dodge Company appealed to the federal court and was awarded lands it had seized after the Civil War. As the Dodge Company evicted settlers, a bitter land war ensued. The Dodge superintendent, John C. Forsyth, was shot and killed on October 7, 1890. The murder occurred either in the executive house, now restored, or in a nearby twin structure which burned. Mr. Forsyth and his daughter, Nellie, are buried in the front yard of Christ Church on St. Simons Island. On September 9, 1892, the big mill and dry house of the lumber company burned to the ground. Having depleted the region's forests, the company did not rebuild what was one of the largest saw mills in the South. ." That said, he fell silent, shivering even more as he realized that the odds of them finding a house that wasn't haunted had obviously been defeated. 
"Wow," Heero said, carefully keeping his expression neutral. "Didn't think it would have *that* kind of history. I wonder if they do tours or something -- maybe we can get a look inside the house."
Knowing full well that he would rather *die*, Duo bucked up a bit of courage and winked at his lover, nausea beginning to roil in the pit of his stomach. "Yeah. Let's get some pictures, go up and knock on the door, see if there's a schedule or something."
"Sure," Heero replied, wanting nothing more at that moment than to jump in the car and get *away* from the whole thing. Still, Duo would have said something if there were anything amiss... and if Duo was okay with the idea of going in there, he wasn't about to be too chickenshit to put his money where his mouth was.
He'd just have to ignore the steadily-growing chills crawling up his spine.
Every fifteen steps or so, Duo would click off a picture, trying very hard not to think of what he walked towards or the way the wind was beginning to rise. It didn't help the heat, for it had rained every afternoon for a week, and the air was so thick that it could almost drown a person. He could feel the small of his back grow sticky with sweat and he knew that the stench of fear was on him. He couldn't help it! Especially not with the way the curtains fluttered at the open window on the second floor... that hadn't been open just a few minutes ago, had it?
Concentrating so hard on the house had made him careless, and he'd tripped over a root, nearly landing on the little black dog that had stayed near them -- carefully between both of them and the house, he noticed, dazed as he looked at the little thing and then back up at the house.
The window was closed.
/Oh, shit, motherfucker, oh, God, why am I doing this again!?/
"Careful," Heero said, grabbing hold of Duo's elbow and steadying him. "Let's go see if there's a tour; we can get shots of the house on our way back to the car." Having said that, he led the way right up to the front door, back ramrod straight with undeniable tension. The little dog stayed with him right up until his foot touched the first step, then it took off, whining, and ran all the way back to its house. Heero squelched his misgivings and strode boldly up to the door, giving it a firm rap.
"Nobody's home," Duo declared from the edge of the porch, an edge of outright terror in his voice. "Guess that lets out tours, huh, baby? Let's head back to the car..."
Heero huffed, feeling a ridiculous mixture of relief that nobody had answered the door, and irritation with himself for being so cowardly. He wasn't going to be intimidated by an inanimate object, no matter how evil it felt! Mustering up all the determination he could, he forced himself to walk up to the nearest window and peer inside. "Hey, look at this," he said, gesturing for Duo to join him.
"What's that?" his boyfriend asked faintly, moving towards the window slowly.
"I think I see a stain on the floor. Maybe this is where the guy got shot," Heero replied. "Maybe it's a blood stain -- see if you can get a picture of it."
The gleam of the glass momentarily dazzled him as he leaned forward next to Heero, camera in hand, and he blinked rapidly for a second, a deep and terrible sense of foreboding rising up in the pit of his stomach to well sickly, churning with a sudden blatant and horrible terror. The bloodstain, he realized, he could see -- soft pine boards with their butter yellow gleam had irrevocably soaked up the sanguine liquid that must have been spilled there. With a scream, he jerked back as a terrible grinning face appeared before him, eyes burning vicious and terrible gold from black holes, blood dripping down the bridge of the nose from the horrific gaping wound that opened in the forehead, the hideous and vicious laughter of the thing ringing in his ears.
"MotherFUCKER!!!" he squalled, backing up rapidly, back ramming into one of the posts. "Oh, God, oh, God, oh, fuck, oh, Jesus, Jesus help me, Jesus, God, oh, GOD!" he cried, stepping backwards off of the porch and tumbling to the ground, still fervently praying as the grinning thing moved quickly away from the window, towards the door, it seemed. He scrambled up onto his feet, whimpering hysterically as he backed away. "Oh, God, OH, JESUS, *HEERO*!!"
Heero didn't need any further encouragement; he leaped from the porch, grabbed Duo by one slender wrist and all but flew back to the car. His heart was pounding in pure terror as he threw himself inside, slammed the door shut behind him and fumbled with his seat belt while Duo tried to fit the key in the ignition, hands shaking so badly he couldn't get it into the slot. The camera slid to the floor of the car, forgotten, as Heero grabbed the key and jammed it into place.
"Oh, God, oh, GOD, oh, GOD!" Duo gasped, shaking hands fumbling to make the key turn. It seemed as if the car itself was going to stall, and it was probably his fault -- he couldn't for the life of him make his feet remember how to use a clutch! -- but he got it going in a roar of thundering motor and backed out, slamming on brakes before pumping the gas pedal and flying to the end of the small dirt road. He didn't even pause at the stop sign, only took a screaming left to get back on 341, laying tread on the pale silver of the worn out highway.
Heero heaved a sigh of relief as the car tore down the highway and the trees swallowed up the house. "Thank God," he said. "I'm glad we didn't look in the shed, though why you really wanted to is beyond me."
"What are you talking about?" Duo asked, even his voice trembling, hands barely able to keep the steering wheel straight. "Wanted to look in what shed? Why?"
"The shed we parked the car by. I looked at it, and you said 'we'll look in there when we get back'. But to be honest, I really didn't want to."
"Heero..." It didn't seem even remotely possible, but Duo became even more pale upon hearing those words, his voice turning sharp and hoarse. "I didn't say any such thing. I didn't even really notice it. I was looking at the buckets on the back porch and thinking that they might be renovating a little, even though there were curtains in the upstairs windows..."
"You said it," Heero said, turning to look at him. "I heard you. And there was nobody else around at the time." A slow dread was creeping up on him; he wasn't sure he wanted to ask what Duo had seen, but at the same time he had to know.
"Heero," Duo said, slowing down as he began to shake beyond what he could control. "I didn't. I didn't say anything, baby, not until we got to the marker. Oh, God, Heero..."
"It... was your voice," Heero said, the blood slowly draining from his face. "It sounded just like you. And I wasn't looking at you at the time..."
"Oh, God," Duo whispered, slowing even more as they came up on a town, a small silver trailer with a sign that declared 'Silver Dollar Diner' just in sight, so he pulled into the parking lot, stopped the car, and hid his face in his hands. "Oh, GOD... I can't take shit like this, Heero, not after...." Not after the Meiran-demon who'd chased him, not after those moments in the Lakeside Terrace ravine at Rose Hill....
"It's okay," Heero said, patting Duo's shoulder consolingly even though he didn't feel any such reassurance himself. "We left that place far behind. Come on, I'll buy you a cup of coffee or something. Help us settle back down." He didn't mention that the hair on the back of his neck was still standing on end; it was over because he wanted to believe it was over.
"Yeah," Duo replied roughly, still shaking as he sat up, tugging the keys from the ignition. "Yeah, okay. That'll help." And maybe something to eat, chicken fried steak and scrambled eggs to go with the coffee, and then he WOULD feel better.
Half the world could be dead and after him and Duo Maxwell could still *eat*.
The diner was all but empty, so it wasn't long at all before Duo and Heero were seated at a table and hungrily digging into plates full of greasy food.
"You know, what got to me was the dog," Heero said around a mouthful of hash browns. "It was like it was trying to protect us." /Until I stupidly walked right up to the building.../
"Let's buy one," Duo decided, shivering and cutting his chicken-fried steak into pieces before downing a couple with a bite of scrambled egg. "I wanna dog. Something vicious about protecting its owners, not some poodle."
"Do I look like a poodle owner to you?" Heero asked, one dark eyebrow rising. "I'm thinking Rottweiler. Or German Shepherd. Or maybe a Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix."
"Yeah, a Shepherd sounds good," Duo agreed, shivering again.
The waitress moved up, tea pitcher in hand. "You boys need your glasses filled up?" she asked, winking. "Couldn't help but hear your conversation. We've got a dog. Vicious little thing, savage your ankles in a heartbeat."
"Yes, please," Heero said, holding out his glass. There was nothing better than sweet tea made Southern style. "We saw a little dog today, at a big house down that-a-way," he said, indicating the direction of the house with a toss of his head. "Cute little thing; real protective."
"Ohh, really? There's not much 'tween here and the last little town. Y'all stopped at the Dodge house, did you? Must've been, it's about the only one between here and there. You know, my daughter helped do some renovations over there. They say the place is haunted -- man got killed there, you know. There's a marker says it might have happened in the house that was next to it, but..." She raised her eyebrow. "My daughter says the stain at the foot of the stairs is unmistakable. I sure would like to go in. The historical society was going to open it up, but something's fallen through..."
Duo shuddered, almost nauseated, suddenly unable to look at his plate. "Ma'am," he said solemnly, "you don't want to go in that house. Just take my word for it."
"Your daughter worked there?" Heero asked, swallowing hard. "Did she ever... see anything weird?"
The waitress laughed, pouring tea into Duo's glass, too. "Oh, heavens no, honey, there's nothing there to see! That's all over and done with more'n a hundred years ago!"
"Just..." Duo shuddered. "Still." Oh, and he knew better, KNEW that god-awful thing was in there, and he hoped it never, ever, *EVER* got out!!
"Oh," Heero said. "So the stories about the place being haunted -- nobody's really seen anything." He tried to tell himself he was relieved, but the creepy feeling was still there, his skin crawling with it.
"Don't you worry your pretty little head over it, honey. It's none of it nothin' but rumors and such," she assured him, laying their ticket on the table. "You boys have a good day, all right?"
"Yes, ma'am," Duo whispered, swallowing hard.
"You, too, ma'am," Heero said. He pushed his plate away; suddenly he wasn't hungry any more. "Let's get back on the road," he suggested. "I want to get home while it's still daylight."
"Me, too," Duo agreed, abandoning the majority of the food on the plate. "We'll cook or something when we get home, maybe, and we can watch 'The Princess Bride' or something." That seemed like the way to go, really -- something totally harmless and soothing that they could watch together and calm down.
"Or 'Noises Off'," Heero agreed. "That's a good one."
"Yeah," Duo agreed, dropping a twenty on the table to cover their food and the tip. "Let's blow this popsicle stand."
Five hours later, both boys were firmly ensconced in the small brick home that belonged to Duo's parents, curled up under the covers of the poster bed in his room that was so far off of the floor he had needed a stool to get up on it for years. The television on his dresser was on, and Buttercup was tumbling down into the deep ravine that led to the Fire Swamp. Heero's arms were tight around him, both of them laying there quiet and content.
Supper had been easy -- they'd felt too shaken up to cook, so they'd run by Ingleside Village Pizza and picked up something to eat. It had actually been dark outside by the time they got home, but now that they were safely curled up in the bedroom, it didn't seem to matter.
Duo was really glad that his parents were still at the Golden Isles for their second honeymoon -- Zechs would have known immediately that something was wrong with him and would have weaseled it out of his son, and Duo wasn't really ready to talk about it yet, so he couldn't help but be grateful.
"She's really more trouble than she's worth," Heero said, yawning. "He should've let the RUS's have her."
"And run off with the Spaniard," Duo agreed. "Juu~uustice!"
Heero laughed, as he was meant to. He still felt oddly twitchy; it was probably just a left-over reaction from their scare earlier in the day... kind of an aftershock. Heero tightened his arms around Duo fractionally, burying his face in Duo's hair and breathing in the familiar scent, comforting and warm. "Or stayed with the Dread Pirate Roberts," he murmured.
"Sounds good to me," Duo agreed, grateful for the window unit that was blowing frosty air over them where they were buried under the covers. "Hee-chan? 'm fallin' 'sleep..."
"Mm-hm..." Heero mumbled, nuzzling Duo contentedly as his eyes slowly slid closed. The TV droned on in the background as two very tired teenagers drifted off to sleep.
At first, it seemed like a dream. Maybe it even was a dream. After all, Duo knew he was sleeping... but it didn't FEEL like one. The ground was firm under his feet, the little dog beside him snarling viciously, hackles firmly risen, and he could feel a rising sense of panic. "Heero?" he asked, frightened. "Heero??"
"Duo?" Heero reached out towards his lover, his voice so strangled with terror that he could barely hear himself speaking. He knew it wasn't real; they'd left the house behind them, miles away down the lonely highway... but there it was, looming above him, and there was something inside, racing from window to window, *looking* at him with baleful, golden eyes... He turned, and reached out to pull Duo towards him...
And realized that what he held in his arms was not the warm, pliant body he knew so well, but a moldering corpse, golden eyes glaring at him from a grinning skull.
Heero and Duo woke at the same moment, reaching out to each other for comfort, eyes wide and wild in the dim glow of the TV screen... and golden eyes gleamed back at them with malicious glee! It was *THERE* AND IT WAS BETWEEN THEM!
 All Southern boys love the Eagles. It's required by some unwritten creed, just like they all play Charlie Daniels wide open... For lyrics to "Seven Bridges Road", try here. ^_^ [back]
 If you would like to see the Historical marker, just click here. [back]
Curious about where the story came from? Try the true version -- though it's not quite as scary, we assure you #^_^#