Episode Thirty-Five: LINGERING
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The “Welcome to Havenbrook” Sign
CONTENT WARNINGS: Death (Accidental), Ghosts, Mention of Cults, Suffocation
This rusted and weatherworn old piece of metal is almost unrecognisable in its current state, but was once the welcome sign to a bustling and prosperous town whose name has been worn away over the years: Havenbrook. Havenbrook is, depending on your definition, either a small town or a large city, that never truly gained that strange, inevitable thing that makes a place a Place to Be. Had it been situated elsewhere it may well have become a bustling city, but instead- with the development of the railroad and the highway and the aeroplane, slowly but surely Havenbrook lost its reason to exist, as people from the outside world lost their reason to visit. Near the end of its life, a coal mine was opened to provide some industry, but it hadn’t worked. It lingered as one of those strange, insular towns that even people who live relatively nearby don’t know about, a dot on a map and nothing more.
One day, a twenty-something named Sabine received a letter from their younger sister Martha, asking them to visit her in Havenbrook. The siblings had been out of contact for some time- in the wake of their parents death, Sabine had taken over the family business, while Martha- always the wild child of the pair- had set off to wander the world. But now, out of nowhere, a letter. Saying that Martha had wound up in a town on the other side of the country called Havenbrook. And now she needed Sabine’s help. Sabine didn’t quite understand a lot of what was written in the letter, nor even how Martha had come to be in Havenbrook. But she clearly needed help, and though they had grown apart they were still siblings. So Sabine set off the very next day.
Sabine’s first impressions of Havenbrook were… mixed. Behind the wheel of their beat-up old car, they passed under an archway on the edge of town with “welcome to Havenbrook” emblazoned upon it- though in its decaying, dilapidated state, it was less than welcoming. The poor first impressions continued as they progressed further into the town. Havenbrook was a place of squat, low houses, many of them centuries old. Sabine had arrived late in the evening of a gloomy, overcast day, and while they imagined that contributed to the oppressive atmosphere… that wasn’t all there was to it. The shadows were long, and seemed to shift when Sabine turned their head. The streets were deserted- though they thought saw the occasional movement behind dusty window glass. Many of the businesses were dark and boarded up, and those that were still open did little to make themselves appealing: they were run down, and scarcely better-lit than their abandoned neighbours. But the thing that most unnerved Sabine wasn’t the people, or the buildings: it was the stillness. The whole place just kind of sat there, like a rock in a pond or perhaps a lizard baking in the sun. They pulled up outside a pub just as the sun was about to set, and got out to ask for directions to the address Martha had given; as they walked the few metres to the front entrance, they got their first breath of the town’s air. There was something a little… off about it. They couldn’t put their finger on what, it was too subtle to define. It wasn’t even a smell, really, it was more just something caught in the back of their throat. The sensation only faded slightly when they entered the pub itself.
The atmosphere inside was surprisingly cozy, with old wooden tables and a fireplace, a dart board on one wall, and a bar with a bowl of mixed nuts already out in front of the beer taps. Sabine looked around, and found that the place was completely empty- not unsurprising considering how deserted the rest of the town had been, though it felt at odds with the comfortable vibe of the pub. They sat down on one of the barstools and turned their back to the bar, examining the room- and nearly jumped out of their skin a moment later, as they heard someone clear their throat right behind them. They spun around, almost falling off the stool, and saw a man standing behind the bar, polishing a glass and giving them a confused smile. Sabine apologized, saying they hadn’t seen the bartender, and he chuckled and said it was quite alright. His smile widened when Sabine said that they were new in town, and in an instant he’d already pulled a foamy mug of beer and slid it across the counter to Sabine, commenting that they didn’t get many visitors in Havenbrook and that it was wonderful to see a new face. Sabine took a few mouthfuls of the drink for the sake of politeness- it was actually quite pleasant- and explained their reasons for visiting Havenbrook. The bartender nodded sympathetically and, while he claimed he hadn’t met Martha, was more than happy to give Sabine directions to her address. Sabine got out their wallet to pay for the beer but the bartender refused, firmly stating that it was on the house. Sabine took another sip, then thanked the bartender and left. As they headed for the door, Sabine glanced back over their shoulder; the bartender was still there, back to polishing another glass. But as they turned, Sabine could swear they saw a flicker of some unknown emotion pass over the man’s face. A scowl? A grimace? It was impossible to tell, and by the time they noticed it the man’s warm smile had returned.
Night had fallen on Havenbrook, and Sabine saw a handful more people in the street as they drove across town, following the directions they had been given. Each of the residents smiled and waved, seeming every bit as pleasant and welcoming as the bartender had been. Sabine waved back; Havenbrook was, it seemed a lovely place- give or take a bad smell. Perhaps they should have asked the bartender about that. Before long, Sabine reached their destination: a quaint little bungalow near the edge of town, with flowers in the yard and an old fashioned mailbox by the road, Martha’s car parked out front. They got out of their car, but before they could make their way down the little path to the front door they had to double over, as a coughing fit wracked their body. Apparently, whatever it was in the air that disagreed with their nose wasn’t much more appreciated by their lungs. Eventually, the coughing subsided and Sabine straightened up- and was almost knocked off their feet by their sister lunging and enveloping them in a hug. Martha sobbed and laughed and repeated over and over again how good it was to see Sabine, how good they looked, how happy she was to see them. Martha had always been a bubbly and exuberant person, but this was a lot even for her. Then she released Sabine from the hug, and her face fell when she saw her sibling’s expression. Martha laughed and asked Sabine why they looked so serious? What was wrong? Sabine, even more confused, responded by asking what was wrong with Martha? Why had she summoned Sabine to this town in the middle of nowhere? Why had she seemed so panicked? How had she wound up in Havenbrook in the first place? Martha tried to laugh them off, saying it didn’t matter now that Sabine was there- the siblings were back together! She had to show Sabine her new house, the town’s sights, introduce them to her new friends! This only deepened Sabine’s confusion and- maybe it was just because they were tired from their days of travel, or the odd smell of the town, or simply unfinished business between the siblings- Martha’s upbeat demeanour got under their skin. Sabine had dropped everything- their responsibilities running the family shop, their social life- their life- to come here because of an urgent letter that Martha was now acting as though it was nothing! What the hell was going on here? But Martha just kept smiling and laughing, acting like everything was fine.
And then Sabine realised that this was just another of Martha’s silly little games. She’d always been like this: immature, superficial. After their parents had died she’d left Sabine to manage their affairs while she’d gone gallivanting off with her part of the inheritance, her life one long holiday. Sabine had held back their resentment and frustration with their younger sister in the years that followed but now, for whatever reason, it all came bubbling up to the surface. They said some things that they would come to regret, standing in the dark outside Martha’s house as their sister- confused at this outburst- just stood there, telling them to calm down, asking them to come inside. Eventually Sabine ran out of steam and just stood there for a moment, looking at their sister as tears filled her eyes. They almost apologised. Instead, they simply got back in their car and drove away, leaving Martha alone in the night.
Sabine returned to the pub, a beacon of light in the dark. They could hear from outside that business had picked up, and when they entered they found themselves in a crowd of joyful and drunken revelers. The evening crowd, come home to roost. The smell of beer and the heat of the bodies, the bass of the golden oldy booming from the jukebox in the corner and the rowdy chatter of the crowd mingling together, it nearly overwhelmed Sabine as they made their way over to the bar and sat back down on the same stool they had taken before. The bartender saw the look on their face and slid a fresh beer over the counter wordlessly, sympathy in his eyes, and they accepted it gratefully. They accepted the next one, too, and soon enough Sabine began to enjoy themself, forgetting about the encounter with Martha as they chatted with the other people in the bar. They explained what they were doing in town, and the other patrons nodded sympathetically and gave their advice. They seemed a bit old-fashioned, much like the pub and the town itself, but they seemed like good people. Welcoming. In fact, once they realised that Sabine was from out of town, they began to encourage Sabine to stay in town- permanently. A sober Sabine might have found this odd, but two- three?- drinks in, they just found it charming. They had a nice town and they were proud of it, what was wrong with that? They declined, but in that sort of way where you pretend you’re thinking about it for the sake of politeness, and the night continued as it had before. But it came up again. And again. They were quite insistent on it- not just one group of people, but all of them, seemingly independent of one another. It was like getting Sabine to stay in town was the talk of the town. Eventually Sabine grew tired- both from the constant badgering and the events of the day- and asked the bartender if there was anywhere they could sleep for the night, a motel or something. The bartender smiled warmly and said they were welcome to stay in the room upstairs- again, free of charge. Just drunk enough to think this was a completely normal thing to offer, Sabine accepted and went upstairs, falling asleep on the bed almost instantly.
They awoke sometime past midnight, to the uncanny sensation that they were being watched. They opened their eyes in the dark, blinking and struggling to see by the dim light streaming in through the open window, looking around for… they weren’t sure what. Eventually, their eyes landed on the dark silhouette of the bedside lamp, and they reached out and switched it on. The figure by the door did not move. He just stood there, motionless, watching Sabine as they blinked in the light, too startled to even react at first. They dimly recognised the man as one of the townsfolk they had talked to in the pub, just part of a drunken blur of faces. The woman next to him, Sabine didn’t recognise at all. The pair of them stood against the far wall, next to the closed door to the room, staring at Sabine expressionlessly. The hairs on the back of Sabine’s neck stood on end, their mouth suddenly dry. They swallowed. It was bad enough that there were strangers in their room, but there was something else about the pair, something off, something uniquely unsettling about their blank expressions, their staring eyes. After a moment that lasted an eternity Sabine finally opened their mouth to say something, but one of the intruders beat them to it. No- not one of the two figures by the door. Sabine’s head whipped around and they saw the bartender standing right next to the bed, standing over them. And, dead eyed and expressionless as the other two, staring right at Sabine, he said “I really think you should consider sticking around.”
Sabine flung themself out of the bed, scrambling away from the intruders, shouting in fright. The intruders didn’t react, except to step forward, faces still motionless and emotionless. Sabine, standing in their sleeping clothes, took a step back and found the courage to tell the three strangers to get out. They ignored them, stepping forward again. This time, the woman spoke up, simply repeating the bartender’s insistence that Sabine stay in Havenbrook. Sabine repeated their insistence they leave, taking another step back, and this time all three of them repeated the phrase, taking another step forward.
Then Sabine’s eye was drawn to the Bartender, who had stepped directly through the bed, the top half of his body poking out of the mattress, as though it wasn’t there at all. Sabine didn’t make a sound: they simply flung themself out the window, crashing and skidding to the ground below, rolling almost across the street from the momentum. They coughed, both from the impact and from the town’s odour, stronger than ever, and looked back toward the pub. The three from their room were already down on the street, slowly stepping down into the gutter. But now there were more. Every person Sabine had seen that night, and several they didn’t recognise, slowly advanced toward them, blank-faced and quite insistent that Sabine stay. Sabine scrambled backwards along the asphalt, heedless of the scratches and abrasions all over their body in their desperation to get away from their pursuers. Suddenly, there was a white hot heat across their back and they screamed in pain, lunging away from whatever it was that had burned them. They looked around for what had caused it, but saw nothing but the cold asphalt road- and a dozen more townsfolk approaching from behind. They were surrounded. All around them, the people of Havenbrook closed in, repeating in a neutral tone more unsettling than if they’d been screaming, that Sabine should stick around for a while. Sabine opened their mouth to cry for help, but before they could make a sound, they heard one: an approaching engine. The faces of the townsfolk shone as the headlights hit them, and they dived out of the way as a car careened around a corner and screeched to a halt next to Sabine. The passenger side door swung open, and Sabine was more relieved than they’d ever been before to see Martha behind the wheel, shouting at them to get in. Sabine obliged, and they didn’t even get the door fully closed before Martha put pedal to metal, carrying them away from the horde and into the night.
They got out of the car outside Martha’s house and Martha popped the boot, pulling some clothes out of a duffel bag and handing them to Sabine, who hadn’t even noticed in the chaos that they were still in their sleeping clothes. They put them on gratefully, then the siblings stood awkwardly in the dark for a minute or two. Both of them spoke at the same time, apologising over the top of one another for their behaviour, both recent and long past, each insisting that they were at fault. In the end they simply embraced, tears streaming down their respective faces, glad that- if nothing else- they were together. Then they disentangled from one another and Sabine wiped away their tears, and asked if Martha had enough fuel in her car to get away from the town. Martha frowned, confused. Asked what Sabine was talking about. Well, responded Sabine, they should try to get out of Havenbrook before the townsfolk found them. Sabine’s car had fuel enough to get to the next town. If Martha’s didn’t they could come back later, but their safety had to be the first concern. Martha shook her head, even more confused. Why would they leave? Sabine could only laugh, which led once again to a coughing fit. When they’d recovered, they pointed out that they’d been attacked mere minutes ago- the entire town had come after them! Why wouldn’t they leave? Martha smiled, a sad little smile. They were just confused, she insisted. They just wanted Sabine to stay. What was the matter with that? Sabine would understand soon. Sabine’s stomach sank. It must have been some kind of cult. Martha had gotten tangled up with a group like this before- well, not quite like this, but she was the sort to get pulled into orbits and go with the flow. Sabine just needed to get her away from Havenbrook and get her head straight, and everything would be fine.
A noise behind them. Sabine whipped their head around and almost fell over in shock when they saw the townsfolk standing on the other side of the street, watching the siblings. How? They couldn’t possibly have caught up. Sabine turned to Martha, and their eyes met- and the pleading look in Martha’s eyes told them it was time to take drastic action. They grabbed her by the arm and, ignoring her cries of confusion and pain, dragged her over to Sabine’s car, pushing her into the passenger seat and jumping in after. They slammed the key into the ignition and the car screeched away from the curb, nearly colliding with Martha’s car as they sped off once again, this time toward the brightening horizon. Martha shouted at her sibling, saying they were acting crazy, but as far as Sabine was concerned they were the only sane person in the whole town. And, whether she wanted it or not, they were getting their sister out.
The horizon was turning orange with the light of the approaching sun as they reached the edge of town, the “Welcome to Havenbrook” sign marking the end of this nightmare. Martha screamed as it came into view, begging her sibling to stop, but Sabine was done playing around. They shot under the sign, and Sabine reached over to hold Martha’s hand, whispering assurances that she was going to be alright, that everything would be alright. When they didn’t find her hand, they slammed on the brakes and spun around to look at the passenger seat. The empty passenger seat. Martha was gone. Sabine whipped their head around, searching the empty car for any sign of their sibling. Then their eyes landed on the rear-view mirror. And saw Martha standing behind the car, in the middle of the road, underneath the “Welcome to Havenbrook” sign, sobbing. Sabine got out of the car and walked back to her, baffled. A question formed on their lips, but before they could say anything they saw, yet again, the people of Havenbrook approaching, steadily walking down the road from town toward them. They reached out for Martha’s hand to pull her back toward the car, but Martha snatched it away. Their eyes met, again. And this time Sabine saw that Martha’s fear and confusion had been replaced by cold determination. Stay, said Martha. Stay with me. Her expression softened a little. Please. Sabine shook their head, flummoxed by everything that had happened that night. Their sister wasn’t well. That much was clear. What harm could come from humouring them? Maybe they could stay for a little while, until they could figure out what was going on. Slowly, they lifted their hand up toward Martha, as she repeated herself: Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. Then, as their hands were inches from touching, the morning light fell on Martha’s face and in an instant it changed, twisting and morphing into something that was both her and absolutely not her. And, in a mixture of panic and fury, she screamed DON’T YOU DARE LEAVE ME.
Sabine snatched their hand away in horror. Martha and the rest of the townsfolk snarled and began to lunge forward- then the sun finally breached the horizon and they were gone, as if they had never been there. Standing below the dilapidated sign, Sabine was alone. Silently, they walked back to their car, and sat in it for a long time. They weren’t sure what made them pass back through the town. A hunch, maybe. A need for closure. It looked a lot different in the daylight. The buildings that had looked rustic in the dark now revealed themselves to be more like abandoned relics, the windows mostly shattered. Weeds had overgrown the footpaths and walls, and the road itself was riddled with cracks and holes. As they passed the pub, which had been so welcoming last night, they saw it as an empty shell: all the furniture and fixtures, even the taps, were gone now. The biggest crack in the road they had seen yet lay outside, and as they approached they could see a faint flickering flame emanating from the ground underneath. The smell was worse than it had ever been, even with the windows wound up. There was not a soul to be found.
They pulled up outside Martha’s house once more, parking behind her car. Far from the charming bungalow it had been the night before, Sabine now saw it for the crumbling mess it truly was, more weed than brick. And the car… Martha’s car. Fogged-up windows concealed the interior as Sabine approached, concealed… what they already knew, somehow, was inside. They didn’t want to open the door. They didn’t want to see. But they had to. They pulled the handle on the rear passenger door and it swung open. It wasn’t locked. Why would it be? Martha was still inside. She looked so small, curled up under a jacket on the back seat. Sabine wasn’t an expert but they supposed she’d been there for a few weeks at most. She hadn’t decomposed much. She was still recognisably Martha, but everything that had made her Martha was gone.
Sabine would go on to learn the history of Havenbrook, in the days that followed their sister’s funeral. Apparently, the coal mine that was supposed to revitalise the town had done more than fail: it had doomed the place in a whole new way. A fire in the mine that had never yet gone out had led to its abandonment, but not before many residents had died from the fire or its toxic fumes. A coroner’s report attested that it was the latter that had killed Martha: she had likely heard that there was a largely intact abandoned town, and came to explore the place. Based on the last sightings of her in a nearby town and the estimated time of death, she had explored Havenbrook on her own for several days, sleeping in her car, unaware or uncaring of the damage the fumes were doing to her. In the end, she had gone to sleep in her car and never woken up.
Sabine closed down the family store not long after their sister’s funeral. When friends asked why, they said that it was what Martha would have wanted: regardless of how her life had ended, she had lived it. Sabine wanted to do the same, for a while. Explore. Find themself. Martha would have liked that. Eventually, as lost souls often do, they found the Museum, and told us their story. Retrieval agents acquired a few items from the town, including this sign, and the Curator assured Sabine that Martha would be immortalised in the Museum. Then they asked what Sabine planned to do next. Sabine mentioned a couple of places they had yet to visit, some things they intended to try. Then, softly, they stated they would end their journey in Havenbrook. Their sister was still there, after all, so very alone. Regardless of what it meant, they would return there and stay there for as long as they would, so long as it meant they could be together.
What else are siblings for?
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