Will knew his house was haunted. Why wouldn't it be?
After all, the house was already a hundred years old at the time his parents bought it, and that was way before Will was even born. Sometimes, if you dug in the backyard, in the right place, you'd find an old horseshoe. You see, Will's house used to be on a farm. A big farm, Will's dad said. One that took up nearly half the town. When a house is as old as Will's, they just seem to gather up ghosts along the way.
Luckily, Will knew that not all ghosts are bad. Sure, they're all spooky. But that doesn't mean they're all trying to get you. But some are, like the Mud Man.
The Mud Man lived in the crawlspace in the basement of Will's house. The basement was already a pretty scary place. Half of it was filled with Will's dad's power tools and the other half was just piles of junk and extra food, almost like a bomb shelter. The laundry was on the bomb shelter side, and there was a big hole that some of the laundry pipes went into, and Will was pretty sure the hole was bottomless, but he never dared trying to test it out, because the hole was too close to the crawlspace entrance.
Sometime's Will's dad had to climb into the crawlspace and fix stuff. Like if there was a leak. Which sometimes happened, given how old the place was. It was obvious that Will's dad didn't like going in there, and neither did Will's mom, and Will didn't even like it the few times he had to stand outside the crawlspace and hold stuff, like screwdrivers and pipes, and hand them to his dad, deep inside the crawlspace.
The crawlspace had no floor. It was just dirt. And leaks meant mud.
Which brings us back to the Mud Man. As soon as you turned off the last light switch downstairs, the Mud Man would crawl out of the crawlspace. He would walk through the basement, dripping flecks of mud with every step, then go up the basement stairs into the kitchen. He'd exit the kitchen, walk past the family desktop computer, and then walk up the stairs to the second floor. The Mud Man was headed for your bedroom, for you, the one who set him free by turning off the last light.
You weren't safe until you scrambled up the stairs and slammed the door shut to your bedroom, which Will did without fail. Once the bedroom door was shut, Will was safe for the night. The Mud Man instantly disappeared back into the crawlspace, oozing back into primordial goo. At this point, Will could even go out into the upstairs hallway to reach the bathroom to brush his teeth and whatnot. He was safe, at least until tomorrow night.
As a kid, you knew you just had to deal with things like ghosts. Adults often didn't understand or even seem to care about this sort of stuff. Like controlling your dreams.
Will had some sort of power over his dreams. Not every night. But on the nights before holidays or his birthday, Will would have the same two recurring dreams. The first involved his ongoing adventures with twin giraffes and the second involved Will and the Gingerbread Man running around together. These dreams happened, without fail, on these special nights. Will told his mom about them, and she believed him and she told him to draw pictures of his friends, so Will did.
But there was also another recurring dream that Will never told anyone about. Because he was too afraid.
It was a dream about a haunted house.
This dream had no schedule. It could come at any time. Sometimes Will only knew he'd dreamt about it when he'd wake up in a clammy sweat with goosebumps on his arms. When this happened, Will would run into his parents room, dragging his comforter with him, and sleep on the carpet floor of his parent's room, with a pillow over his head to drown out his dad's snores.
It was one of those dreams where you are in a place you know, but it's not the actual place, you know, in real life.
In the dream, Will was supposed to be in Turtle Lake, a family campground he loved visiting with his family (including all his cousins and aunts and uncles, too). He was walking down a trail with his younger cousins. They were going fishing, Will guessed, because they had fishing gear. But Will didn't recognize the switchback-ed trail. Were they going the right way? At some point, Will would feel a cold chill from the woods alongside the trail, and he would step into the grasses towards it, where Will would find a barn.
Will knew the barn. Instantly. Every time he saw it. It was the garage in his backyard, a building which once held horses and now held tools and bikes and rakes and all sorts of his dad's stuff. In the dream, it was the barn from 100 years ago, open and filled with hay and the smell of horses.
In the loft on the second floor, Will would see a flicker of greenish yellow light, a campfire of chemicals.
Robotically, almost like he had no control, Will would head into the barn, where he'd find the wooden ladder to the loft. This same wooden ladder still existed in Will's real life, but Will was not allowed to use it, because it was rotted and dangerous and missing rungs. In the dream, Will climbed up the ladder anyway, getting colder as he climbed higher.
When he reached the top of the ladder, Will could see the loft stretched into the growing darkness of a sky filled with more criss-crossed wooden ladders. The pale light and the One Who Waited, rotted and dying and hungry, awaited Will at the top of this attic.
Will crossed to the next ladder and climbed.