The Haunted House Das Geisterhaus (5360049608)

I shouldn't have taken that call, I thought, looking down the dark, endless staircase.

But deep down, I knew there was no other choice. Running a computer repair shop in a town like Derry meant one thing: if you want to put food on the table and pay the bills, you can't afford to lose a client. No, not in this day and age, not in a market filled to the brim with geeky teenagers offering cut-throat prices. You snatch up every opportunity and suck it dry before it worms out of your hands.

Besides, it was supposed to be an easy job. Just an animal shelter on the outskirts of the town with a computer—"The Machine", as the monotone voice over the phone had called it—that wouldn't turn on.

Plug it back into the wall socket, pocket the cash, and head home, I'd thought, driving a muddy dirt road out of town and into a dark, foggy marsh. Easy money.

But now, staring down the abyss leading to the shelter's basement, listening to the distant howl of hundreds of stray dogs, breathing the stale air filled with a faint tinge of decay ... suddenly, it didn't look that simple.

"Take care." Behind me, the shelter's owner—an old, weary man stuck managing a building in equally bad repair— watched me from a distance. There was something off about him, about the way he looked at the door, how his face twitched slightly every time I mentioned the computer.

It's probably nothing, just the quirks of old age, I kept thinking, but the suspicion in the back of my mind refused to die down.

"I will," I told him, then closed the door behind me.

The bare old bulb at the end of the stairwell didn't provide much light to see by. I put my hand on the unpainted wall and slowly set my foot on the concrete step below, trying to keep balance while my eyes adjusted to the dimness. Step by step, I slowly headed down, the air growing thicker and heavier around me, the noxious smell intensifying, making me sick to my stomach ... but I held on, some nagging feeling driving me further and further into the unknown.

Finally, I reached solid floor and looked around the room. It was tight, quiet, and almost empty—very much unlike the rest of the shelter, as if it didn't belong to the building.

And it was there, atop a light wooden table against the grey, bare wall, plugged into the sole wall socket in the room.

The Machine.

It was an apt name for that piece of hardware. The solid, unbranded beige tower standing next to a bulky CRT monitor and a Model M keyboard radiated an aura of nostalgic grandeur. I stepped towards the table and ran my finger across it, collecting a thick layer of dust. But the computer itself looked almost brand new, its case shining even under the weak light of the room.

It must've been here for at least twenty years, I thought. Why would anyone still use such an antique? I flicked the switch on the front.

The computer roared.

I've heard a lot of noises coming from a computer, but never anything like that. It was the howl of a hurt, suffering animal, a scream of agony. I stepped back instinctively, but the sound persisted, filling the air with a maddening wail that I was sure could be heard throughout the whole shelter. A moment later, the monitor lit up.

OPERATING SYSTEM NOT FOUND

I turned the poor PC off, and the noise stopped. I reached for a screwdriver in my pocket, but then I noticed a floppy drive next to the switch. I pushed the eject button, and a disk slipped out of the slot. I pulled it off and held it to the light: a red, unlabelled 3.5 inch floppy, just like any other. Hoping that would solve the problem, I set it aside and tried booting the PC again.

The howl was even louder and angrier than before, and the same words showed on the screen before I put the computer out of its misery.

So, you won't find the OS. Let's see your hard drive, then.

I unplugged all the cables from the back and put the case on the floor. Slowly, I took out all the screws, and dismounted the side panel.

THUMP!

The mangled body of a black rat fell out of the chassis, filling the room with the rotten stench of death.

I froze. I tried to scream, run, do anything at all, but I couldn't, as if something were holding me in place. I looked at the rodent—its fur marked with deep, bloody wounds, its eyes wide open with a piercing stare—and a million thoughts rushed through my mind. How did it even get there? How did it end up like this? It's as if ...

As if The Machine chewed on it, a quiet voice whispered in the back of my head. Chewed on it, then spat it out like a bad dinner.

Holding back a retch, I tossed the rat away and examined the computer's insides. There was no hard drive, not even a place for it, but I noticed the floppy connector dangling in front of the motherboard, probably pulled out by the poor creature struggling for its life. I plugged it back in, reassembled the case, and hooked it to the rest of the setup.

Finally, I slipped the disk back into the drive, and, heart pounding, I pressed the power switch again. A fan spun up quietly, the floppy drive started buzzing ...

... and finally, the DOS prompt showed up.

I ran. I ran up the stairs, leaving The Machine behind me, rushing to get as far away from this place as possible. I kicked the door open and burst into the blinding light of the main shelter hall, panicked, breathing heavily and nearly falling to my knees. I looked around, squinting under the painful brightness.

No one was there. Even the dogs had fallen silent. A brown paper envelope rested on a nearby desk, labeled FOR FIXING THE MACHINE in bold, black letters.

A thought formed in my brain: How did they know I fixed it? And then another one: Would I be here if I hadn't?

I opened the envelope with shaking hands and reached inside. A thick wad of cash in tens and twenties, almost five hundred dollars wrapped together.

They could've bought a new computer with this kind of money, I thought, but something told me they would never do that.

I stuffed the bills back in the envelope and prepared to leave, but as I ran my fingers over the brown paper, I felt something stiff inside. Curious, I pulled it out.

A red, unlabelled, 3.5 inch floppy, just like any other.