's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" The Plantation "

Submitted by Irene Vallone

The first time I went to the Plantation, I was ten years old.

I was always unpopular in school, especially elementary school. I was chubby, gullible and easily frightened, even as ten-year-olds go. I was especially afraid of spiders; I couldn't even look at a picture of a spider without starting to cry. The only people I could really count as friends were whatever older kids were trying to dupe me into doing something for them that week.

That week, it was Dylan and Brian.

Dylan and Brian had been friends since they were born, and were both thirteen years old at the time. To a ten-year-old, they might as well have been thirty. I followed their orders without question, desperate for the attention and respect of cooler and older kids.

I remember the day they took me to the Plantation more clearly than anything. I doubt I'll ever forget it.

I was sitting on Brian's front steps, sweltering in the Alabama summer sun and waiting for them to grace me with their presence. Eventually they emerged from around the side of the house brandishing a video camera, and they told me their plans for the day.

"We're going to the Plantation," they told me.

It was only ever "the Plantation", to kids and adults alike. It must have had a name once - all big old houses like that do - but nobody knew what it was, or at least nobody spoke it out loud. The story goes that its owners had all mysteriously died over a hundred years ago, and nobody had lived there since. It was accepted in my hometown that the place was haunted, maybe even cursed, and nobody would go near the place. I was terrified of the place, of course, and so I felt the need to ask them why we were going there.

"'Cause nobody else has ever been in there," Brian said, as though it were obvious. "We'll be ghost hunters. Everybody'll want to know what was inside."

This was not a good enough reason for me to accompany them. The threat of a punch to the stomach, however, was. I trudged behind them all the way across town with anxiety gnawing at my gut, silent as they discussed the important issues of seventh grade, until we reached the gap in the woods by the side of the road, with the dilapidated wooden fence that separated the Plantation from the rest of town.

The Plantation itself was a huge castle of a house, recognizable as having been white at one point, many years ago, but now covered in the accumulated grime and growth of decades of decay. About two hundred feet away from the house itself was the barn, an even more crumbling structure made of blackened wood with a huge hole collapsed into the roof. They were surrounded by a field that stretched on for what seemed like miles in every direction, where the yellowish grass towered over my ten-year-old head.

By the time I stopped goggling at the house in terror, Dylan and Brian had already vaulted the fence.

"You coming, fatboy?" Brian sneered.

After a minute of struggling to lift myself up using only my arms, I was over the fence and following Dylan and Brian. I felt a sinking sensation as we headed through the grass, but knew better than to voice my misgivings.

"Where the fuck are we?" Dylan complained as we continued to march. "I can't see the fucking house anymore."

"Quit whinin'," Brian grunted. "We're almost there." He spread open the grass in front of us, revealing a huge man looming over us with his arms outstretched. I screamed and fell backwards onto the ground. Dylan and Brian laughed loudly at my fear.

"Don't be such a fraidy-cat," Brian said mockingly. "It's just a scarecrow."

I looked up, shielding my eyes lightly with both hands. What I assumed was a man was only a pale imitation of a man, a dummy made of straw and dressed in a ragged moth-eaten shirt and a pair of grungy overalls. What I thought was the pose of a monster coming to grab me was only that of a scarecrow, arms outstretched against the wind.

"Get up," complained Dylan, kicking me in the side of my leg as I struggled to my feet.

I looked back at the scarecrow as we tromped onward through the grass. It towered above the grass, but I had completely failed to see it as we approached it. I shivered and ran to catch up with Dylan and Brian.

"Let's check out the house first," Brian said. "Then we'll move on to the barn."

As we approached the plantation house, everything around us seemed to go dark. The looming structure blocked out the sun. I lingered behind as Brian pushed the creaking doors open and strode confidently into the dark interior of the house. I would probably have run away, had Dylan not grabbed my wrist roughly and dragged me inside after them.

The inside of the house was dark and run down, with decades of accumulated dust and cobwebs on every possible surface. The few pieces of old, broken-down furniture that remained were sagging and crumbling. My mind began racing with thoughts of what kinds of ghosts and creepy-crawlies lived in the place. In my anxiety, I hardly noticed as the door creaked shut behind us.

"Let's check out the first floor," Brian ordered. "Dylan, get that thing on."

I looked down just as an enormous daddy-long-legs crawled over my shoe. I screamed and frantically kicked it away. Dylan and Brian jumped, then turned to me in disgust.

"Calm down, fatboy," grunted Brian.

"Ecch!" Dylan retched. He quickly stomped on something, probably another daddy-long-legs. I felt my skin crawling at the thought of the creature. I began whimpering.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Dylan groaned as he struggled to turn on the video camera. "Shut up."

Several more daddy-long-legs scuttled by. I jumped out of their way and continued making noises of anguish.

"Shut the fuck up!" Dylan shouted.

Brian walked up to me, doing his best teenage attempt to be intimidating, which worked like a charm on a ten-year-old. "Fatboy," he growled, "If you don't shut up I'm gonna punch you in the fucking face."

Even more spiders began scurrying by my feet. I continued to panic. At this point, even Dylan and Brian began to look concerned.

"Shit," Dylan murmured. "This is a lot of spiders."

"Yeah," said Brian, not taking his eyes off me as I panicked. "Maybe we should g-"

Brian was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a massive swarm of daddy-long-legs spiders, nearly blanketing the floor as they scuttled around us chaotically. I screamed, longer and louder than I ever have since. Dylan and Brian retched and began frantically stomping at the carpet of spiders, trying to thin their ranks.

"Hello!" yelled a voice from the darkness. "Hello!" It seemed to emanate from all around us. It was high-pitched, grinding and metallic, like a talking garbage disposal.

Dylan screamed in shock. Brian dashed for the door and tried to open it. He pulled with all his might, but it wouldn't budge, despite being rotted nearly off its hinges.

"The door's locked!" he screamed, his voice cracking.

"Stay with me!" the voice shrieked in anguish. "Please stay with me!"

Brian frantically kicked down the door. We burst out of the doorway and scattered, sprinting into the field and away from the Plantation. In my peripheral vision, I could see what seemed to be dozens of scarecrows lined on either side of me, forming a lane that guided me through the field. As I ran, I heard Dylan and Brian screaming in fear, but I couldn't see them through the grass.

"Run all you like!" screeched the horrible grinding voice. "Run all you like! You will return! One day you will return!"

Eventually I found my way out of the field. I don't actually remember getting home; I must have run all the way across town without stopping.

I never did find out what Dylan and Brian's plan for me was. Maybe they were going to put a spider in my pants and take a video of it to show to their friends. Maybe they were going to lock me in some lightless bathroom and laugh at my screams of terror. Maybe they actually did just want to look for ghosts. Whatever they were hoping to do, they never got the chance. They didn't speak to me for years afterward. You might think that the reduction in bullying in my life would have been a good thing, but all it did was make me feel guilty.

I heard their screams in my nightmares for weeks. I also heard that voice, that pained shrieking voice, echoing in my dreams.

"Run all you like!" the voice echoed. "You will return!"

Even then, I knew it was right.

The second time I went to the Plantation, I was twenty years old.

I had gone to Florida for college, mostly to get away from my hometown for a little while, and had just finished my second year. I hadn't yet decided on a major, or on what kind of job I wanted to look for once college was done.

Continuing the tradition from middle and high school, I didn't have many friends. I expected that those I did have only spoke to me out of pity, pity for the confused and unfashionable Alabama country boy who had somehow found himself stranded in the middle of Gainesville. Looking back on it now, I can't tell you how wrong I was, but at the time I wasn't as wise.

Occasionally, I even felt this way about my girlfriend, who I had met halfway through my first year of college. She seemed to genuinely love me, but I could never figure out why at the time. I certainly couldn't think of anything to love about myself.

I took my girlfriend home with me for summer break after my second year. My parents didn't approve of her, but I couldn't afford to put us up in a hotel for three-and-a-half months, so I was forced to sleep on the living room couch while my girlfriend took my bed. I remember feeling a general sense of resentment at the whole situation and everyone involved, which makes me cringe a little bit now.

I spent a lot of time outside alone. Everything in town seemed a little bit sadder and dirtier than when I was ten. It made me think of the old sagging farmhouse full of spiders that I hadn't visited in ten years.

I decided to pay another visit to the Plantation.

I took my beat-up car and drove it to the edge of town where the Plantation stood. It seemed to take almost as long to drive there as it did to walk there when I was young, and it still made me feel like I was on my way to the principal's office.

I kept a sharp lookout out my car window for the place, for that gap in the woods by the side of the road. Before I got there, I had been a little bit worried that somebody had bought up the land and knocked the old place down, but when I saw that same old rotten fence, looking just the same as it had ten years ago, I knew it was all still there.

The house and barn both looked the same, at least at a distance. Now that I was taller, the overgrown grass wasn't as intimidating anymore. I could see the scarecrows clearly now - I counted at least sixteen of them on my side of the house, towering over the grass with their arms outstretched. I wondered why anybody would need so many scarecrows, even back in the day when things were grown here.

I didn't hear any voices. I appreciated the silence for a few moments. As I listened to nothing, I didn't hear the sound of a car driving up behind me and parking next to mine, or the driver getting out of the car and walking up behind me.

"Hey," said Dylan quietly.

I turned around in surprise and greeted Dylan as warmly as I could muster. I hadn't seen Dylan since we graduated high school, and I hadn't talked to him since before that, but I couldn't really say I missed him.

He didn't say anything. He handed me a photo.

I looked down at it for a moment. It was a photo of Dylan at a party. His arm was around the shoulder of a man in a red flannel shirt. I still recognized him, even though I hadn't seen him since he took me into the Plantation when we were kids.

I looked back up at Dylan. He was holding back tears.

Without a word, Dylan turned away from me and walked into the grass. I raised a hand and gave a confused, uncertain wave goodbye.

I watched him walk across the field for about ten minutes, until he finally reached the barn and walked around the opposite side of it, presumably so he could go inside.

I sat down on the ground and watched the grass blow in the wind. I almost felt like lying down and taking a nap in the grass, right outside the house that had featured in so many of my teenage nightmares. I remembered, for the first time in years, how frightened I was by this stupid old house, how silly I was to be scared of a few spiders and scarecrows.

My cell phone started ringing, shaking me out of my memories.

I took the phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. It was my girlfriend. I sighed and pressed Answer.

"Hey," she said. I greeted her just as dispassionately.

"Where are you?" she asked. I told her I was outside, which was not a lie.

"Where outside?" she pressed. I said that I was just taking a drive, which was also partially true.

"Okay. I think we should get dinner soon," she stated, more like an order than a thought. I told her I would pick her up in a few minutes.

"Cool," she said. "Bye." It sounded almost hurried. She hung up the phone before I could respond.

I pocketed my phone in annoyance. I just wanted to be left alone for a few minutes; was that so hard?

I fumed to myself for several minutes as I sat in the grass. Eventually, I got up and stepped over the rotting fence, marching towards the grass. Maybe I wouldn't do whatever my girlfriend wanted, like always, I thought. Maybe instead I'd go join Dylan in that barn, and see what the Plantation had wanted with me ten years ago.

As I approached the grass, I noticed a scarecrow planted in the lawn just inside the edge of the grass. Its hands were covered by thick gloves, and its head was a featureless burlap bag. It was wearing a red flannel shirt.

After looking up at the scarecrow for a few moments, I decided to get back in the car. That was enough of the Plantation for one day, I decided.

Suddenly, I was pulling the car up in the driveway. I didn't remember driving home.

I took my girlfriend out for Italian food, even though I wasn't really in the mood to eat or talk. As she ate her pasta and tried to make conversation with me, I thought about what had happened to Dylan and Brian.

I knew that the voice I had heard ten years ago was right. I could run all I wanted, but one day I would return.

Dylan and Brian had returned already, but if whatever it was that lived in the Plantation wanted me, it would have to wait.

I couldn't have known that it really would wait. It waited as long as it had to.

The last time I went to the Plantation, I was fifty-five years old.

I never returned to my hometown after I visited the Plantation during my second year of college. I kept finding reasons to be somewhere else, at college or elsewhere, during breaks. After I graduated, I got a job with a bank in Miami, and I packed up my things and moved. I never looked back.

Things with my college girlfriend never improved. I never did figure out what it was that she liked about me so much, and over time I suppose she started wondering that as well. We fell apart slowly but surely, and started fighting more and more. She left me in December the year after we graduated and moved back to Gainesville, and I never saw her again. I had a string of other relationships, each one shorter and more toxic than the last, before I finally simply stopped trying. At a relatively young age, I had given up on love.

I threw myself into my work, but not even that sustained me. I had no passion for my job. I had no friends and no family.

I felt as though I had nothing left to live for.

I didn't remember the Plantation's promise immediately. It took me a few more weeks of toil before I considered it. I didn't know if it would help me, but I don't think I expected it to. I was just tired of my life. Tired of living the way I was.

I considered suicide. I considered how the outcome of suicide was relatively certain, whereas if I went back to the Plantation there was no telling what might happen to me.

I couldn't bring myself to do it. Not because of any cowardice, or any desire to keep living, but because I remembered the words I had heard at the Plantation forty-five years ago.

I could run all I wanted, but one day I would return.

I packed up a few things, got into my rusting sports car - an impulse buy from ten years ago that I had stopped caring about - and began the long drive back to my old hometown. I was returning home for the first time in thirty-five years.

I drove for days, stopping only when I had to, eating greasy food at gas stations and sleeping in run-down motels just off the highway. I never thought to stop to take in the sights, or spend a day relaxing. I wasn't going on vacation. I wasn't sure exactly where I was going, but I knew it was serious. In one way or another, I would find a way not to come back.

Finally, after endless driving, I crossed the state line into Alabama and found myself back in my home town at about 9 PM. Everything looked even worse than it did the last time I was there. It was all falling apart.

I considered telling someone where I was going and what I was about to do, but I couldn't think of anyone to tell. I hadn't spoken to my father in years, not since the death of my mother. Dylan and Brian had both vanished without a trace. I had no contact with anyone else I had gone to school with.

I briefly considered calling the police and warning them, getting them to try and stop me from going back, or to come with me to the Plantation to find out whatever was going on there, but I assumed that they wouldn't believe me even if I did call. That, and I knew in the back of my mind that they couldn't stop me. I had to return.

Resigned to my mysterious fate, I drove down that lonely road to the edge of town for one last time. Even at fifty-five, it filled me with that same kind of anxiety, the same basal fear of something unknowable that I experienced at ten and twenty.

When I pulled up to the fence at the edge of the Plantation, I was almost relieved. It was no more rotten and dilapidated than it had been thirty-five years ago. After seeing how my old home town had crumbled over thirty-five years, the rotting fence's permanence almost gave me comfort.

I parked my car by the fence and stepped out, after grabbing the emergency flashlight I kept in my glove compartment. There were no lights out here.

I gazed out at the Plantation, nearly invisible in the darkness. The barn and the plantation house were indistinct silhouettes against the surprisingly clear and starry night sky. Somehow it was less sinister in the darkness, even with the full moon shining down on everything.

Clicking on my flashlight, I swept it across the field. The scarecrows all still stood in their former places, including the one in the red flannel shirt. The house and the barn also looked much the same as I remembered.

Faintly, I heard a voice emanating from the barn. It was too quiet for me to make out the words, but I knew what it was.

I was almost glad to get some closure on this, after forty-five years of running.

Without a second thought, I stepped over the fence and headed into the field. I gave the flannel-shirted scarecrow a pat on the back as I passed it.

I kept my flashlight out as I headed through the field, shining it around, illuminating each scarecrow for a moment. They all seemed to be facing me as I passed them.

I trudged through the field for what seemed like far too long. It wasn't possible that the field was this large, was it? There were even more scarecrows than I had originally thought, and every single one was positioned to look at me as I walked. Who could have done this, I wondered?

As I approached the barn, I heard what sounded like engines running inside. It was as though there was a fleet of old, broken-down cars idling inside the barn.

Hesitantly, I began walking around the side of the barn to find the doors. I noticed several daddy-long-legs spiders crawling on the barn wall, and recoiled from them reflexively.

I turned the corner and found the doors of the barn. They were flanked by a pair of scarecrows with rotting pumpkins for heads. The way their heads were rotting made it look as though they had grimacing faces.

The barn door began to creak open, seemingly of its own volition.

I debated for a few moments whether or not I could still leave.

"Run all you like," said a voice emanating from inside the barn. "One day you will return."

It was the voice from my nightmares, the voice from whatever we had encountered in the plantation house. It sounded different now - it was still metallic and grinding, but it no longer shrieked. Instead, it rumbled, like a well-oiled car engine. It was still the same voice, however. I was sure of it.

I knew I had no choice. I reached for the barn door, careful to place my hand on a spot free of daddy-long-legs, and pushed it open.

As I stepped inside the barn, I knew that something awaited me in the darkness. It was pitch-black inside; the stars shining through the hole in the roof provided little illumination. I pointed my flashlight forward and it instantly sparked and went out before I could see anything.

"You did return," the voice rumbled. "I knew you would return."

Suddenly, the barn was illuminated when six scarecrows - a row of three of which was on each side of the barn - spontaneously burst into flame, casting a harsh orange light on me and the thing in the center of the barn.

It was at least four times my height, with a spindly body composed of broken pieces of scorched wood and what looked like tractor pieces, bound together into a humanlike shape with yellowed twine. Its head was a running tractor engine. It was seated on a huge throne-like pile of hay bales. Hundreds of daddy-long-legs crawled up and down its body.

"Thank you," it rumbled, its engine-head sputtering smoke. "Thank you for coming back to me."

I fell to my knees and bowed to it, without knowing why.

"Will you stay with me?" it asked, as though it thought I had a choice. "Will you?"

I nodded. I was too choked up to speak. I knew that this was turning point in my life. I was finally home.

I looked up at and smiled as something slipped a burlap bag over my head.

I've spent the rest of my life on the Plantation.

I never wanted to be anywhere else again after that. Even if I wanted to leave, I doubt that I could. These old bones don't do me much good anymore. Thankfully, the Planter had his men hang me up to rest quite nicely in the field, in a very nice spot where I get a good amount of sun. I'm quite grateful to him for that.

There are a few things I miss about how I used to be. Speaking, for one. I never thought about how much I would miss speaking until I couldn't anymore. Now that my throat's all stuffed with hay, I haven't said a word in years. I suppose it's alright, though. I don't know who I'd talk to if I still could. My neighbors aren't exceptionally talkative themselves, after all, and the Planter already knows everything I could possibly say to him.
I suppose I also miss being able to see. This burlap bag hasn't come off my head in so long, I'm not even sure that I still have my eyes. At least I can still feel. I can feel the spring rain and the first snow of winter, and I can feel the summer sun shining down on me. I think my favorite feeling is the feeling of autumn, the feeling of the breeze blowing against me while I hang up here. It's quite nice.

Sometimes I can also feel a harvestman crawling on me, moving up and down my arms or on top of my head. I can't think of why I ever used to be scared of them. They keep me company, and their feet are quite tickly. Sometimes they dance messages on me, and they only ever have nice things to say.

I think I've finally figured out what it means to love. It's a wonderful feeling. In my former life I was too concerned with what other people thought of me, with chasing after things that didn't matter. Here, I know what really matters. I hear the autumn leaves blowing by and listen to the stories the harvestmen tell me and sleep underneath the harvest moon, and I know what really matters.

If you ever want to find out for yourself, and you ever find yourself in small-town Alabama, you can come pay me a visit. The Planter and I can never get enough company.

Even if you decide not to stay, that's all right. You can go on your merry way and keep on living your life, same as you always have.

Just remember one thing.

You can run all you like, but you'll return.

One day you will return.