Jeannine had never heard of the town Willow’s Peak. Something about the name didn’t feel right to her the first time she heard it. The name wasn’t particularly ominous and she couldn’t compare it to the name of any town from a horror movie or book that she recognized. But she ran the name in her mind over and over again, Willow’s Peak, trying to place why it gave her a tight feeling in her stomach. Why it made her freeze in place and tense up, terrified that every breath she pulls into her lungs will set off whatever dreadful apparition around her, pulling out every iota of fear within her.
The first time she heard that dreadful name, Willow’s Peak, was at school when she was still at Pine Street Elementary. The kids would spend time during recess hanging upside down on the monkey bars yelling things like, “If you hang upside down long enough, you’ll go into Willow’s Peak.” Or sliding down the slides yelling, “If you slide fast enough, you’ll fall into Willow’s Peak.” Or swinging on the swings yelling, “If you swing high enough, you’ll land in Willow’s Peak.” Every kid tempted fate, hanging upside or charging at the slides or swinging so high the chain almost wraps around the metal poles, but no kid ever wound up in Willow’s Peak. At least not through the playground.
When junior high came around, Willow’s Peak wasn’t a game anymore. Now, it was a mystery. Like the name should only be whispered by ghosts and no living person should ever hear the name. Jeannine would overhear other kids talking about Willow’s Peak, saying things like, “I heard it’s actual name is Widow’s Peak, because of how many men died there when the mine caught fire.” Or, “You know there’s still people living in Willow’s Peak, but they all live underground and only come out at night. That’s why our parents only ever drive through there during the day.” Jeannine knew the other kids at Mountain Pass Junior High probably didn’t know what they were talking about. But, ever since Jeannine and her dad moved to the town of Mountain Pass while she was in elementary school, the name Willow’s Peak seemed like it appeared everywhere she went.
Then there was the weekend her family had to go to Willow’s Peak. Her dad’s work had a new project there. They were going to tear down all the old homes and buildings in Willow’s Peak and rebuild it as a new part of Mountain Pass. Jeannine didn’t feel right about going to Willow’s Peak and tried to convince her dad to let her stay home for the weekend while he went out there to start planning the teardowns.
“Come on, kiddo,” her dad said. “It’s going to be fun. No one has lived in Willow’s Peak for decades! It’s a genuine ghost town. It’s something worth experiencing before it’s torn down.”
“What do you mean a ghost town?” Jeannine asked, wondering if some of the kids at school had been right to be fearful of this place.
“There aren’t literal ghosts there, if that’s what you’re thinking,” her dad laughed. “It just means that the town was abandoned and no one lives there but all the old buildings are still standing, like time froze everything in place. They’re neat to explore. I promise there’s nothing scary about it.”
“Why is it abandoned?” Jeannine asked.
“Well,” her dad began. “It was a mining town a long time ago. Probably sixty or seventy years ago. Iron or coal or something. And the mine ran out of whatever was being dug out of it. It was the only industry in the town, so when people started losing their jobs they all just left and moved to another town that did have work for them.”
This explanation seemed perfectly reasonable to Jeannine. Her dad knew these kinds of things really well. He had been redeveloping neighbourhoods and towns for years. When it came to information about an area around any town, especially Mountain Pass, her dad’s word was always reliable.
Suddenly, Jeannine was excited for this trip to Willow’s Peak. The name still didn’t sit right in the pit of her stomach, but she fought against it and tried to ignore the ominous sense that something sinister was constantly hanging above her, looking down and waiting for its opportune time to strike. Ignoring that feeling became easier and easier as the weekend she would spend in Willow’s Peak came closer and the excitement of spending a weekend not at home by herself studying or reading books. She loved studying and loved reading, but knew that a weekend trying something else would be a welcome change.
The Saturday morning that Jeannine and her father left for Willow’s Peak was sunny and hot. Jeannine thought about how odd it was to be this warm this far into October. But decided not to think about it too much and instead enjoy the weather for the drive out of town. There was a thick forest between Mountain Pass and Willow’s Peak and Jeannine was looking forward to seeing all the leaves in different fall colours. She had a book picked out for when staring at the leaves would get tiresome. But the wooded area between Mountain Pass and Willow’s Peak wasn’t as bright and colourful as Jeannine expected.
The closer that her father drove out of town and towards Willow’s Peak, the darker the sky suddenly became. Thick, dark grey clouds built up in the sky about them. The thick forest didn’t any sign of leaves anywhere. Instead, the decayed, grey bark stood decrepit against the darkened sky. The bare branches and gnarled trunks weren’t what Jeannine normally remembered from driving through this are before to go to other town outside of Mountain Pass. She wondered about Willow’s Peak, how this was the first time she and her father would be exploring there and how this was the first time she had seen the forest along the highway out of town look so horrific.
As they drove along the highway, Jeannine noticed a bit of a mist in the air. It seemed to be getting thicker as they drew closer towards Willow’s Peak. Her father turned off the main highway and onto the side road that would take them into Willow’s Peak and Jeanine immediately noticed how much thicker the mist had become.
She unrolled her window and tried to smell the air. It didn’t smell like any mist or fog she had ever smelled. The nearby forest always gave the mist and fog around Mountain Pass a sweet dewy smell that Jeannine always loved. This fog, which was only getting thicker, smelled smokier to Jeannine. She could tell it wasn’t smoke, though. She had an allergy to smoke that would cause her to cough and give her a rash.
Strangest of all was how her dad didn’t seem to notice. He just kept driving, staring straight ahead out of the window. He would look over to Jeannine occasionally and smile, but said nothing the whole drive. Jeannine didn’t mind this, she was big on talking either and wanted more to just read her book and stare out the window in silence. But her dad would always try to break the silence with something. He would have at least brought up the fog. Her dad loved mentioning things he saw along the road, be it animals or weather or even what the highway signs said. This time, he was totally silent.
They drove past the welcome sign that said, “Willow’s Peak, Where You’re Always Home,” came quickly after came into what Jeannine deduced to be the town centre. The buildings that lined the streets were a couple of stories tall, the kind that had a storefront in the bottom half and an apartment or small office in the top half. The buildings had wooden signs hanging from chains on long metal bars. Each wooden sign had a different name like, “Wilson’s Grocery Store,” and, “McAllister Law Offices.” Every business had a person’s name on it.
Her dad stopped the car in front of a building with a wooden sign that said, “Robert’s Real Estate.” As he stopped the car and pulled the key from the ignition, he looked to Jeannine, smiled, and got out of the car and went into the building.
Jeannine tried calling out to him as he walked into the building, hoping to figure out what was wrong and why he was acting this way. But she got no reaction from her father. Figuring that she didn’t call out loud enough, she got out of the car and stepped towards the building. She stopped for a moment and looked up and down the empty, grey streets. The road was cracked all over and had weeds growing out between the splits in the concrete. The fog was heavy in the town leaving a grey hue on all the buildings along the block that Jeannine could still see. A cold wind blew through, sending shivers through Jeannine as she stood staring at the building her father walked into. Something was telling her to stay out of the building. It was that same feeling she had when she would think about the town’s name before. That dreadful, ominous feeling that she was being watched or stalked or hunted. But she had to know why her dad was so quiet throughout their drive. She knew something was wrong.
As she approached the door, she noticed a white flake fall in front of her face. She wondered if her warm autumn stay had suddenly turned to an early winter. She held out her hand to catch one of the flakes, and when she did she noticed that the flake wasn’t cold or wet. It was dry and it crumbled when she ran her finger over it. It left a grey smear along her hand where she once held the flake. She turned to look out into the street again and noticed the flakes were falling all over, slowly and gently like an early snow.
The first thing Jeannine noticed when she entered the building was how dark it was. She wondered how her dad navigated through this building. Directly in front of her was a stairwell that went up to the second level. The stairwell was against the right wall and Jeannine inspected the old, crumbling red brick and old smears of cement. To her left was an opening that looked like it would have been an old office. There were desks all over that still had stacks of paper on top of them. A small hint of light shone through the front window, between the half open blinds.
She approached one of the desks near the window and started rummaging through some of the papers on top. They looked like business documents that would have been written on an old typewriter. The headings on each of them said things like, “Willow’s Peak Real Estate Report September 1955.” Underneath the stacks of paper, Jeannine found a newspaper with a thick black and bold headline that read, “Mine Fire and Collapse Injures Workers, Many Feared Dead.” Jeannine looked at the date of the newspaper: October 10, 1955.
The pit of her stomach tightened as she read the newspaper headline over and over again, making sure she understood what it said. She couldn’t believe that some of the kids at school were right about the mine fire. It actually did happen. She wondered if her father knew about, or if he simply held back that information to not scare her. She folded the newspaper and slid it into her backpack and continued wandering through the office space, trying to find her father.
The bottom half of the building proved to be empty. Jeannine walked up to the stairwell to the second floor and stood by the bottom step. She didn’t know why she was freezing in place. The long, dark stairwell that she was sure led to where her father was loomed over her. At the top of the stairs, she could see a window giving off a glint of light to the second floor. Jeannine’s eyes fixed on the window and she stared as she tried to muster the courage to walk up the stairs. As she stared, the window started to look like it was reflecting two round objects. The round objects became clearer and clearer to Jeannine and started taking the shape as a set of eyes. Then the reflection blinked.
Jeannine’s heart felt like it suddenly sunk to the bottom of her stomach. She gripped the bannister of the stairwell, feeling like her legs may give out on her at any second. The eyes on the window looked like they were staring down the stairs, directly at Jeannine. The feeling on a hand lightly grazing Jeannine’s arm caught her attention and she quickly looked at her arm and behind where she was standing. There was nothing except for the hairs along Jeannine’s arms standing on its ends. She looked back to the window and the image of the eyes was gone.
“The darkness must have been playing tricks on my eyes,” Jeannine said out loud, hoping talking to herself would help keep her nerves steady. “The cold breeze from outside must have tickled my arm and given me that scare. Dad, are you up there?!”
There was no answer from upstairs. Jeannine figured her dad must be in a meeting and can’t hear anything outside of whichever room he was in. Gripping the stairwell’s bannister, Jeannine pulled herself towards the steps and forced her legs up each individual step, slowly.
Jeannine was out of breath by the time she made it to the top of the steps. She walked up to the window and looked out onto the town. She could see right across the town centre and into some of the neighbourhoods in the distance. Further away, Jeannine could barely make something out through the fog. She couldn’t tell what it was at first. It looked black and was in the side of a hill. “That must be the mine,” she said to herself, still hoping talking out loud will keep her calm.
The floors creaked loud with each step Jeannine took across to the only door she saw on the second floor. The door was shut and Jeannine could see the pile of dust on the doorknob and on the floor in front of the door. She wasn’t sure if her dad was in this room. It looked like no one had been through that door since the mine fire. But she saw her dad walk in this building, and unless there was some secret passage that she was missing, this was the only place he could be.
The doorknob was cold to Jeannine’s touch. It squeaked loudly as she turned it and the door creaked even louder as it swung open into the room. She stepped into the room and saw more desks, just like the ones she saw downstairs. There was another window that gave just enough light into the room that Jeannine could navigate her way through. The creaks in the floor echoed through the room and filled Jeannine’s ears before she stopped near the middle of the room and looked all around at the empty desks with only a few papers lying on top. It was another empty room and Jeannine had no clue where her father could possibly be.
The creaking of the loud filled the room with noise once again and ended with a thunk and a click of the door closing. Jeannine stood completely still, staring into the room, terrified to turn around and look at the closed door. She tried to convince herself that the wind caught the door and pushed it shut. But she looked at the window in the room and saw it was closed. She remembered how the door swung open into the room when she came through, so it wasn’t pushed from the other window either.
That twisting feeling in her stomach, that terrified feeling that someone is standing behind you, watching you and waiting for you to move filled Jeannine. Her limbs started vibrating with nervous energy, she could feel her hands trembling and her knees shaking. She thought about trying to run to the door, getting around whatever was behind her. She noticed how cold the room was and how that make her shivering and shaking worse. Then she felt the warm breath trickle along the back of her neck.
Jeanine turned and ran for the door screaming, without even looking at anything else in the room. She made her way through the door, down the stairs, and back outside again. She stopped out of breath and looked around. First she noticed everywhere was covered in ashy the flakes that were falling before. The next thing she noticed was her father’s car was gone. There were no tire tracks, nothing through the ash covered concrete that would tell her where her father went. It was just gone.
Knowing that someone was still in that building stalking her, Jeannine ran down the street, calling out for help in case anyone else working with her father was still in the town. Her voice echoed through the empty streets to no response. She was on her own, though she knew she wasn’t totally alone.
The smell of smoke filled the air, stronger than she had noticed it before. She looked over to the hill where she thought she saw the mine. Instead of seeing the small black opening into the hill she saw, Jeannine saw a faint orange glow in the distance, cutting through the grey fog. She wondered if her father and his business partners went over there to inspect the mine as part of the area redevelopment. So she walked through the ash covered streets, towards the hill, using the light in the distance as her guide.
It took about five minutes of walking for Jeannine to exit the town’s centre area of old shops and offices and enter the neighbourhoods where homes were abandoned more than half a century before. The houses weren’t disheveled or dilapidated, as Jeannine would have expected from a town that has been uninhabited for this long. Instead, the houses looked to be in perfect condition, like time hadn’t touched a single home in these neighbourhoods since the day the mine caught fire. From what Jeannine could tell, the only significant change these houses had experienced was the thick layer of ash built up on them from the flakes falling from the sky.
Jeannine stopped at one row of houses and looked down the block. If she didn’t know she was already in Willow’s Peak, she would have sworn it was the exact same block she and her dad lived on in Mountain Pass. She counted the houses on either side of the block and followed the numbers on each house, every one of them matching up exactly to the houses back on the block that Jeannine had gotten to know so well.
Her curiosity became too much to bear as she ventured down the street to find the house that would match the one she called home. A quick turn around a bend in the block, just her block back at home, and she was standing in front of number 17, the number that matched her house. Everything about it was the exact same: the brown garage door, the large front window, the two windows on the second floor that looked into the bedrooms, even the dark brown of the shingles on the roof were the exact same.
As she stared up, she saw one of the curtains move up on the second floor. She realized that if this were her house, it would have been her room. Through the curtains, she could see a faint shadow that looked like the shape of a person. The curtains kept swinging, as if someone were playing with them. Jeannine’s eyes stayed fixed on the window above her, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was up there.
When her eyes finally moved back down to the front window, Jeannine saw a face of a woman staring at her through the window. The face was blue with a touch of silver, its eyes were black and empty, and its mouth hung open, stretching every part of its face. The face began to fade and in its place was a thick foggy condensation on the window. Lines began appearing through the condensation, as if a finger were writing a message in the fog. The message became clear as the letter spelling out LEAVE THIS TOWN appeared on the window.
Though the face was gone, Jeannine could still feel it staring at her. Though its eyes were empty, Jeannine knew it was staring directly at her. She wasn’t as terrified as she was back at the office building, but Jeannine knew she had to keep moving, find her father, and leave. No one was welcome here and she was scared to find out what would happen if they stayed any longer.
A low rumbling caught Jeannine’s attention. She followed the sounds as it grew louder and louder. The rumbling turned into a droning the louder it became. The more the sound intensified, the more Jeannine could make out what it sounded like. Did it sound like train wheel creaking against the tracks? Or like the whale calls she heard in the nature documentaries her science teacher showed her class? Or was it like a grinding noise echoing through the hills? All the while, the low rumble continued with the higher droning noises carrying over top. Jeannine had never heard a noise like this before. As she followed the sounds, she realized it was coming from the mine. And the orange glow was becoming brighter.
She followed the sound and followed the light. The smell of smoke became more pungent as she continued her trek out of the neighbourhoods, through the wooded outskirts, and to the hill where the mine lay. It was becoming harder for Jeannine to catch her breath. The fog was now more of a thick smoke and Jeannine’s lungs stung with each breath she took in. But she continued her journey, determined to find her father and leave Willow’s Peak and never come back again.
Jeannine could feel the heat of the mine before she even reached to the small opening in the side of the hill. The rumbling and droning noises became were so loud when she was this close to the mine that the sound caused sharp, shooting pains through her ears. She could feel the inside of her chest vibrate with the rumble. She approached the opening to the mine, still glowing orange brighter than a house fire. She could already feel the sweat pooling across her forehead as she approached the entrance.
“Dad!” she called out. “Dad? Are you in here?”
Through the mine’s entrance, Jeannine could see the opening plateau where the miners would have walked through before delving down into the pits to dig. She walked across the dry, dusty ground in the mine’s entrance and approached where the plateau dropped off and where the pits of the mine sunk down. Even before looking down into the pit, the heat inside was becoming unbearable for Jeannine. She wondered why it was so hot and what was making that orange glow. With no sign of her father anywhere, there had to be someone else illuminated the abandoned mine.
In the depths of the mine’s pit, Jeannine found out why it was so hot and what was glowing so bright. The put was engulfed in flames and Jeannine could see the skeletons of hundreds of miners still burning, all looking upwards with their arms extended outward, as if begging for someone to help them.
Along with the blazing heat of a fire that burned since 1955, Jeannine could feel the rumbling and droning sounds shooting up from the mine’s pit. As if it were the culmination of hundreds of screams, cries, howls, and gasps for breath all finally escaping out of the mine for someone to hear.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HEAR?” the rumbling and droning suddenly became words that Jeannine could understand. At first she didn’t know whether to respond. She stood frozen in place trying to figure out her next move. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” the rumbling and droning repeated.
“I’m looking for my father!” Jeannine answered. “I can’t find him anywhere! Where is he?”
“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” the noise responded.
“Once I find my father, we’ll leave this place forever!” Jeannine cried out.
“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” the noise repeated.
“Then let us leave!” Jeannine screamed.
“NO!” the noise barked back. “YOU WILL LEARN THE SECRETS OF WILLOW’S PEAK! YOU WILL LEARN IT AND YOU WILL TELL EVERYONE WHY THEY CAN NEVER COME TO THIS PLACE. AND WE WILL START WITH THE WORST PART OF BEING TRAPPED IN A MINE ENGULFED IN FLAMES! TYRING TO CATCH YOUR BREATH WHEN THE AIR IS ON FIRE!”
The entrance of the mine collapsed and the ground under Jeannine’s feet quaked, knocking her to the ground. She could feel everything around her getting hotter and hotter and she looked to the mine pit and saw the flames crawling up to the plateau where Jeannine lay.
All the while, the low rumbling and droning noise repeated over and over again… “JEANNINE… JEANNINE… JEANNINE…”
The sound of her father’s voice woke her up. She looked around as saw she was in the passenger seat of her father’s car. It was sunny and warm outside. They were parked in front of the real estate office in Willow’s Peak, but there were other cars around, all of her father’s business partners, Jeanine immediately recognized.
“You been asleep a while there, kiddo,” her father said, smiling. “I didn’t want to wake you, you seemed too peaceful. I feel kind of bad that you missed out on exploring the town. Our meetings are done and it’s time to head home.”
Jeannine remembered the dream she had. It didn’t feel like a dream and she remembered it much more clearly than she ever remembered any other dream she ever had. She remembered the message on the window in the house and what the voice said in the mine. Her father would think she was insane if she brought up her dream and how she thought he shouldn’t develop the area because of it. But she needed to know what he would be doing next.
“How did the meetings go?” she asked.
“Well, awful,” her dad said. “We wound up meeting with a historical society, and they want to preserve all of this. And it looks like most of the law makers around here are going to side with the historical society. To battle them in court would cost us way too much money. So we’re just going to scrap the plans and look at developing another area. Sorry that this turned out to be a bust, Jeannine. Kind of a waste of everyone’s time I guess.”
As the car drove out of Willow’s Peak, Jeannine looked to the hill where the mine was. The orange glow wasn’t there. Instead, it was boarded up with wooden planks and caution tape all over, blocking anyone who would try to get in. The dream seemed so real, she thought. The office, the buildings, the houses, the mine, all of it seemed so much more real than any dream could possibly be. She thought about the rumours the kids at school would talk about and figured the nightmare was instigated by their chatter.
And Jeannine wouldn’t have paid any more mind to her nightmare either. If she didn’t open her backpack to find her book and instead found a newspaper from October 10, 1955, with the headline “Mine Fire and Collapse Injures Workers, Many Feared Dead.”