The Night Will Taylor Vanished
To the reader of this work, I feel I must offer you some form of explanation and context for the very strange story contained in the manuscript you hold in your hands. Like all good things in life, this book originated over a cup of tea and the meeting of a new friend.
When I met Will Taylor, I thought he was just another bohemian wannabe writer trying to make it. Will stood three inches over six feet, wore his hair to his shoulders, and moved like an athlete. His look convinced me that he was some kind of struggling artist. Why else would he spend his days at Brakeman’s?
Brakeman’s was an independently owned coffee shop at the end of Old Town Road in Waxhaw. Our small North Carolina hamlet had morphed from a sleepy forgotten border town (to South Carolina) to a post-hipster craftsman community. The artists loved Waxhaw, but few could afford the lavish homes springing up in gated pockets all over town, and the soaring taxes.
And yet, Brakeman’s enjoyed the success that comes from the constant stream of creative clientele. Because creatives made Brakeman’s their home away from home, the coffee shop developed a mystique and that mystique drew everyone else to it. On any given day you’d find a healthy mix of local businessmen, book club members, college students, pastors, and landscapers.
It was no secret that several local writers and designers camped out in the front and rear courtyards. Like clockwork you could find William Vaughn sitting at the picnic table under the 200-year old oak, painting away with his watercolours.
Sarah McCarthy’s favourite spot was beneath the other giant oak in the front courtyard. Every Monday and Thursday she’d sit with her legal pads and journals and French press of coffee. Everyone knew she liked the attention. Perhaps it was a put-on, but no one cared.
Sarah was, of course, not her real name. It was the pen name she used for her novels. I happen to know Sarah’s real name but, for the sake of privacy, I’ll not connect the dots for you. Part of Brakeman’s mystique was the anonymity. The town knew who the famous people were, but no one treated them as such.
I met Will early on Monday morning, September 21, 2019. Brakeman’s was already buzzing and seating inside was scarce. I ordered my tea and walked to the back courtyard. Not one table was available, except William Vaughn’s picnic table beneath the old oak tree.
There, a man sat with a stack of old books scribbling away in his journal. He wore a tattered jean jacket, his hair in a ponytail, and thick-framed black glasses. He looked the part, sure enough.
I walked over to the table and asked if I could join him. When he looked up at me, his eyes widened, and he smiled almost as if he knew me. Thus began my very odd friendship with Will Taylor.
Over the next several weeks, we met on Monday mornings. We’d drink tea, and chat. It didn’t take long for me to realize that his looks had deceived me. He was no wannabe writer. He was a serious man, gifted poet, and joyful conversationalist.
He loved telling stories about his “younger years,” which always made me laugh because he didn’t look a day over forty. And yet, through all our conversations, he never shared too much about his personal life. And when I asked him about his vocation, he’d reply with a wink, “Oh, I’m just a storyteller.”
On Monday, October 15th, I arrived at Brakeman’s at our usual time. But Will was not at the picnic table. When I sat down with my tea, I found a small square envelope with a “T” on the front. Assuming it was for me, I opened it and pulled out a single two-sided card. It was a typed note from Will.
I cannot join you this morning. Something’s come up, and I must leave town for a while. Can you swing by the house tonight? I need your help with something before I leave.
I live at Blackthorn House just south of town. You must come after dark; you’ll understand when you arrive. Look for the lone oil lantern, as the house is not visible from the road.
Park at the lantern. Do not drive down the lane. I’ll explain later.
Enjoy your tea. See you tonight.
I Googled “Blackthorn House Waxhaw” but nothing came up.
I asked an older gentleman who was sitting nearby about the house, and he knew right away where the house was located.
“Blackthorn, eh?” he said. “I know about Blackthorn. Don’t find too many folks asking about that place anymore. All these new outta towners don’t know nothin’ bout it.”
“Can you tell me how to find it?”
“I can. But no one lives there. It’s abandoned. Used to be a farm of sorts. The town doesn’t tear it down because it’s one of ‘em historical sites—from the 1800’s I think. It’s surrounded by 500 acres of old-growth forest. The timbermen fought to get in there but lost.”
I figured the gentleman had not heard of Will’s recent purchase, so I didn’t mention it and he didn’t ask why I cared to find the old farm.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Sure. Head south on Old Towne Road to the light and go straight. You’ll go another five miles or so. Once you hit the “T” take a right. Don’t go too fast ‘cause off to the left you’ll see a narrow farm road, just one lane. Take it. Go about two miles.
“Then you’ll come upon a turn-off. Probably be grown over, but you can’t miss the oak tree—oldest Live oak in the Carolinas that no one knows about. Used to be a crazy lookin’ gas lantern at the gate. That’s the entrance to Blackthorn.
“We used to ride our bikes down that farm lane when I was a boy. In all my years, I never saw the house. It’s hidden by the Live oaks covering the lane. Haven’t been back there in years.”
I thanked the kindly gentleman, left Brakeman’s, and headed home.
It was late October, so dusk came early.
As the half-light grew, I climbed into my 1995 Land Rover Defender 110, drove through our small downtown, and out into the country. I almost missed the one-lane road—just like the old man warned. But once on it, the lantern was easy to find. It was impossible to miss, actually—because of the Live oak.
It was the most magnificent tree I’d ever seen on the east coast. Its circumference matched the famed Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina, which is 28 feet around, stands nearly 70 feet tall and casts enough shade to cover a 17,000 square foot house.
They say the Angel Oak is over 500 years old. If that’s the case, then this tree was its relative. The gnarled limbs reached out in all directions, low hanging and thick with age. In the dim light, it looked half alive, yawning and stretching toward the falling night.
Seeing the lone gas lantern burning, I pulled off in the gravel and parked. As I climbed out of my truck, I remembered how it was our affinity for old Land Rover’s that had sparked mine and Will’s initial conversation at Brakeman’s.
But even though our love for vintage Land Rover’s brought us together, I’d sensed that the meeting was anything but chance. I couldn’t explain if you’d press me. It was a feeling; the same kind you get when you whisper, “de ja vu,” like you saw it coming.
I approached the wrought-iron lantern. The leaden glass flashed flamelight into the dusking shadows. Lanterns like these were common in the south. But I’d never seen one with so much detailed metalwork.
The four-sided glass encasing did not just sit atop the tall iron stand. The iron itself wrapped its tendrils in and around the glass on two sides. I stood for a moment and stared at the lantern.
The longer I stared and followed the iron into the glass, the more I tilted my head. With my head turned sideways, I squinted into the firelight and saw what my intuition had been whispering.
The metalwork looked like the open mouth of a wolf, coming up and out of the iron stand as though eating the glass; or as if the fire itself was burning out of its mouth. The image stuck in my mind as I walked down the road to where I supposed the house was.
I couldn’t see the house for some time—just as the old man at Brakeman’s had said—and figured that I’d walked a mile through a tunnel of trees hanging low in the October air. Their limbs shot into the last of the light with heavy strands of Spanish moss dangling towards the road. The moss clumps looked like black tree tears suspended in midair.
The tunnel of tree tears flustered me with the kind of hollowness you might feel sitting in the ruin of a cathedral—a rampart of holiness with the despair of decay.
The road eased to the right, and there it was. The old house stood shadowed in the dusk, its red brick barely visible in the flickering of yet another wolf-mouthed gas lantern. This one stood in the center of an open bed of small boulders and what looked like an herb garden. It was hard to tell in the dimming light.
The house rose a full three stories with three chimneys jutting into the sky; two on either side of the house, and one in the back. The house looked like it rose from the forest itself, with natural areas surrounding it, and only a few patches of open space in the front and to the right side of the house. I could see light glowing behind the front door.
As I approached the doors, my suspicion was confirmed; the beds were filled with lavender and rosemary and various types of sage. I only recognized them because I too loved to landscape with similar cultivars. The large wooden door spanned at least six feet across and stood 12 feet high.
I looked for a doorbell but found none. So, I grabbed the iron door knocker, which was also shaped like the head of a wolf, and slammed it against the door.
The knocker echoed with a loud metal-on-metal sound that resonated in the door and boomed into the house.
I heard nothing for a few moments.
Then, the whooo hoot of a Great Horned owl sang out from the cavernous woods. First one, then another answered. Then another. Not uncommon in our area at all, but a touch unnerving given my mile-long walk down the lane and the utter quiet which accompanied me on my jaunt.
The door unlatched and startled me out of my ruminations of the owls. Will greeted me with a handshake then pulled me into an embrace.
“It’s good to see you, Tim,” he said.
“And you,” I replied. “Quite the place, Will. Is it in your family or something? It’s a relic!”
“It certainly is a relic,” he said chuckling. “Come in, come in.”
We walked into the foyer where stood a massive fiddle-leaf fig.
“I love fiddle-leafs,” I said, walking over to the broad-leafed tree. “But I’ve never seen one this tall.”
“Yes, she’s been through the ages.”
“What is she, 40 feet tall?”
“Something like that, yes. My daughters, years ago, named her ‘Maple.’ They thought the irony cute.”
Maple soared all the way to the ceiling, filling the entire three-story foyer with her bendy-shaped limbs; each limb must have held up to 100 leaves; each fiddle-shaped leaf spanned two feet in length. We stood side-by-side staring up into Maple’s limbs.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“She’s a treasure. But I’m so used to her presence, I forget how enormous she is. But, as wonderful as Maple is, I have other matters to attend. And you, my friend, are part of those matters.”
He sounded serious; not in a foreboding way, though. More grave than worried. We walked to the back of the house and into a fireplace room. The fireplace wall was made of granite. It looked as if the entire wall was one piece of stone; like Will had taken the side of a mountain and stuck it in his living room.
And the fireplace looked like it was dug into the granite wall. A full-grown man could stand in it. A single oak beam ran about ten feet above the opening. The beam looked like it had grown out of the rock itself; like an ancient tree-root had somehow grown through the granite shaping the perfect mantle.
The fire was already burning bright.
We walked across the wide-plank wood floor to where Will offered me a seat in one of the two leather chairs that faced the roaring fire. As I took my seat, I looked up at the granite wall and noticed three paintings hanging above the mantle. The first looked like an oil painting of a snowflake. But not in the way you’d expect. The detail was unlike anything I’d ever seen; as if the painter had painted while looking at a snowflake through a microscope.
“Is that a snowflake?”
“Very perceptive, my friend. It is. I never tire of staring at it.”
“The detail—it’s incredible.”
“A dear friend of mine painted that for me just before he … well,” Will’s voice cracked and I could tell it surprised him. “It’s amazing is it not?” he said, composing himself once again.
“Extraordinary,” I replied.
“Tim, I’m sorry, but I haven’t much time to talk about the painting tonight—though it is my heart to do so. I’ve asked you here for a specific reason that you may not understand, even after I’ve gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean? Where are you going? I’ve only just arrived. Are you moving?” He seemed not to hear me. His eyes grew intense and stared deep into the fire.
“She helped me find you—she’s good like that; good at finding the right people,” he said, seeming not to hear my questions in the least; more talking to himself than to me.
“Who do you mean? She? Is she from Waxhaw as well? Is she coming tonight?”
“She’s not from Waxhaw, Tim. I do apologize; my mind is preoccupied at the moment. She did say you loved books and that you and I shared a love for Oxford, England and that you too had lived there once.”
“Uh, yes. I just moved to Waxhaw from Oxford three years ago, actually. Who is this friend of yours? Did I meet her in Oxford?”
“I’m sure you did, but we mustn’t linger on that right now. I mean to escape tonight, and I need your help.”
Though his voice grew stronger, Will remained seated in his chair, calmly looking at the fire. He brushed off my inquiries with a firm grace. He was in trouble, that much was clear.
I was confused and intrigued, but the only thing I really knew about Will was that he loved Land Rovers, beautiful works of art, and books; all great things on which to build a solid friendship, no doubt.
But still, we were new friends, and I started to feel uncomfortable.
After he mentioned needing to escape, he rose from his chair and walked past me over to the west-facing wall of the house. It was filled, floor to ceiling, with books. I hadn’t noticed it earlier because the room was so dimly lit, and, well, things tend to get swallowed up in a room that contained an entire granite wall and a fireplace big enough to burn small trees.
He pulled the ladder to the far left of the bookshelf, which butted up against the granite wall, and climbed to the top where he reached for the very last book and climbed down.
As he walked back to his chair, I noticed that it was indeed not a book. It was several books encased in antique wood—like old barn siding.
“What a collection,” I said as he returned to his chair. “Is it a treasury of first editions? I love old books.”
“I know—she knew, you did. And yes, you could say it is a collection of firsts.”
I could make out four, maybe five volumes. With only the glow from the fire, it was hard to see in detail; so, it might have only been three. Will pulled one of the books from the case. It was a ragged leather-covered book, the edges of which bent in.
“What a wonderful cover. Is it case-bound?”
“No, this is actually a journal. This old leather wraps the pages. Tim, this is what I want to talk to you about.”
“Yes, it’s a very old journal and like so much about tonight, I can’t go into detail because—” He paused, turned, and looked down the hall toward the front door. “He is coming,” he said, with distance in his voice. “And I must be off before he arrives.”
He placed the journal into my hands, set the encased volumes on the floor, and rose again from his chair. This time, he walked away from me towards the back door—a large wooden door with a curved top, and leaden glasswork built into the upper half.
The door, like the fireplace, looked as if someone had cut it into the granite wall. It looked medieval, like the side door to a castle. Next to the door sat an old rucksack from World War II. Next to the rucksack something long and wrapped in canvas leaned against the granite, along with a blanket that piled next to the rucksack.
“Will, maybe I should go,” I said, finally voicing my concern. “You’re acting very strange and your story, well, it makes no sense. You mention some woman who knows me but can’t tell me anything about her, not even her name. And now you say some guy is coming after you. Did you do something to him or his family? What’s going on?”
I grew more worried as I recounted all the odd things that had come out of Will’s mouth since we had walked into the fire room. But as I ranted, he dressed. He took the blanket, which was no blanket at all. It looked like a poncho but was clearly not from Mexico.
When he stuck his head through the center hole, I noticed a silver clasp but could not make out the design. I continued on about meeting him randomly and how my decision to come tonight was against my better judgment, while he calmly tied the long canvas package to his back and slung the rucksack onto his shoulder.
I rose from my chair and threatened to leave if he didn’t tell me what was going on. At first, Will did not respond. So, I walked around the chair and headed towards the door.
“Wait,” he said and walked towards me. But after a few steps, he stopped.
“Tim, wait—please. I know you don’t understand. And you have every reason to leave. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But before you do, no matter what happens, can you at least promise me that you’ll read the journal?”
“What is going to happen? Read the journal? I’m leaving.”
The words barely escaped my mouth when a great howling came from outside.
“Did you hear that?” I said, turning towards the front door.
“I did,” Will said.
“Sounds like wolves—certainly not the yelp of a coyote. But wolves? Here, in Waxhaw? I’ve never—”
“He’s come,” said Will as he walked back to the granite wall door and locked it with a key. I heard a heavy bolt latch, and Will murmur something almost prayer-like.
“What is going on, Will?” I shouted more than asked and felt guilty doing so.
“I dare not utter the name of the one I speak of, Tim. He is here now only because I am here. I cannot stay. If I go, he will follow me and you and everyone else will remain safe.”
The howling outside grew frenzied like there was more than one of whatever was out there. Then, the howls fell silent. Will walked back to the fireplace and faced me for a moment. Thunder rumbled and Will walked back into the foyer and opened the front door.
The winds howled while peels of thunder shook the great house. Holding the journal, I followed Will to the front door. Lightning streaked beyond the trees and high up into the darkness. The rain fell in heavy sheets, flooding the herb beds and the pea-gravel drive.
The night was filled with storm.
“She’s keeping him at bay, for now, I think,” said Will. Quickly, back to the fire!”
A new sense of urgency gripped Will as he ran back to the fireplace, leaving the front door wide open.
He was all business.
There was no more time for debate or explanation.
“I’m counting on you, Tim. It’s all in the journal. Everything you need to know,” he said as he stepped onto the hearth.
He looked like some vagabond traveller silhouetted against the granite, backlit by the raging fire; an image I will never forget. For it is the last one I ever saw of him—at least thus far in the journey.
The fire leapt behind him as he lowered his head and began to sing the soft notes of a sad song. I stood transfixed on the silhouetted figure while the song filled the granite room.
Even above the storm, I could hear the notes to Will’s song. I cannot explain how or why only that the storm should have filled my ears and the entire house.
But the song—the song.
The notes felt like waves of the ocean travelling in their constant roll to a distant shore. I was not the shore. I was the sea itself, the waves moving on me like strength through sinew and muscle.
Then the notes fell silent upon my ears. Will sang no more. The sounds of the rain and the wind and the thunder echoed through the house now. Cold air filled the room and then I heard what I thought was a faint howling cut through the storm sounds.
I turned toward the front door to decipher sound, but as I squinted my eyes in concentration a great and powerful wind tore through the front door, shaking every inch of Maple.
The wind blasted into the granite room with a force so strong, I had to throw up my forearms to protect my face. I shouted in fear, and turned my back to the wind, ducking my head.
The wind hit the fire with such velocity that flames lapped up the granite face, like the tongues of dragons. I’d never seen such a spectacle. The fire nearly covered the granite wall for the briefest of moments.
A fierce light enveloped Will. I thought the fire was going to incinerate him.
And then, as if pulled from some hidden place behind the fireplace, the fire was sucked backwards and turned into fiery crystals—the way stars look on a clear night; like a billion shimmering orbs, on fire and somehow dancing.
The dancing crystalline light encased Will, who still stood motionless. And with one final burst, the wind swept through the fire crystals and through Will and sucked him into the fireplace and into nothing.
The fireplace fell dark in an instant.
Not even the smell of smoke lingered. No wood was left, no ash. The room, calm; the wind, ceased. I rushed towards the hearth.
“Will! Will!” I screamed in fear.
But Will had disappeared with the fire. No smell of burned flesh or hair. Everything he carried disappeared with him. The chairs showed no signs of scorching and the encased volumes sat right where Will had left them.
“Will!” I kept shouting.
I shouted so hard I began to cry, and I didn’t even know why. Tears streamed my face as I shouted into the fireplace.
“Will! Where are you!”
No response came.
The only sound came from the rain.
I still held the journal. It felt warm in my hand. I sat down on the hearth, holding the journal in both of my hands.
Part of me wanted to run from that old house, back to my Rover, back to my house. My wife would be worried. I didn’t even know how late it was; and with the storm, she’d want me home.
But the other part of me wanted answers.
I found myself breathing hard. I felt exhausted. The wind, the screaming, the fire.
I couldn’t tell if I’d held my breath through it all or was just worn out because of the intensity of the fire and wind. My thoughts ran together. I wasn’t myself.
As I tried to gather myself on the hearth, a new sound came in the rain. Or maybe it came through the rain, I wasn’t sure. It was not howling, nor was it the storm sounds. It was singing, but not like the voice of a human being. It was something else.
Whoever or whatever it was had clear entry into the house. I needed to close the door. I needed to think.
But the song from the woods grew, not louder, but stronger. I found myself losing concentration and wanting to sleep. I fought to keep my eyes open and to keep hold of the journal. But it was useless.
As the song grew, I lost my ability to do anything. I leaned over on the hearth, stuck the journal under my head, and fell asleep to the sound of the song of the woods, and the storm rain.
I woke with an aching back.
A blinding light streamed into the granite fireplace room from the eastern wall, which was nothing but one giant window with a view of the woods. I sat up on the hearth and picked up the journal.
I didn’t want to believe the events from the previous night were real. But the empty fireplace said it all; and the fact that the journal was still in my possession. I opened the journal. Page one contained a handwritten note from Will.
I know you have unanswered questions. But don’t we all?
I’ve learned that stepping into the unknown is the best way to acquire the answers we seek. That’s what this journal represents for me, and, now, for you as well.
It is no ordinary journal. Over time, you will understand what I mean. For now, you need only read it. More instructions will follow. How? I’m not sure. But again, we must trust to hope and wade into the unknown expectant of answers.
The contents of the journal chronicle two of the most significant nights of my life and the meeting of three of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. For you, this story will feel very new. But for me, it spans a lifetime. And yet, you and I feel about the same age, right? Another mystery I’ll save for another time.
I was hoping my time in Waxhaw would throw off my pursuers indefinitely. But I was mistaken. It seems nothing can hold them back. As I draw them away, do your utmost to tell my story to anyone who will take the time to listen. I give you permission to distribute it if it comes to that.
Thank you, my friend. I will signal you when it is safe.
To be continued …
Join me for the next instalment, “Chapter 2: An Uninvited Guest,” in which I discover how Will rescues a peculiar young woman from certain death. If you’re enjoying the story, click the “heart” at the top of the page, leave a comment, and share with your friends by clicking the little black button. I welcome and love your feedback.