“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” — Edgar Allen Poe

Kingsport’s history has long been overshadowed by that of its more prosperous neighbors. A visitor to the Chesapeake will little doubt think of Annapolis, Alexandria, St. Mary’s, or (believe it or not) even Baltimore as historic places more worthy of a visit. People from D.C. or northern Virginia are completely oblivious to its existence, with the main roads never leading one there on their weekend trips to Atlantic City or Maryland’s eastern shore.

To the extent that it’s known at all, the town first entered the broader public consciousness in 2011, when a strange illness spread in the area and several old houses exploded near the waterfront. A faulty gas line was blamed in the papers, though to those living nearby, exploded methamphetamine labs were considered more likely culprits. The story remained on the evening news for about a week before being buried by news of the recession’s likely return, the war in Libya, and Obama’s questionable birth certificate. Outside of the local area, the episode was overlooked entirely, for the real powers-that-be are exceedingly good at making Fortean episodes disappear. It is only now, after signs of a similar sickness are being observed elsewhere around the Chesapeake, that the men-in-black-suits insist that I record my version of events. So, having put my objections to this on the record, allow me to offer the following:

I don’t claim that we were entirely sober at the time we came up with it, but the idea of a creating a haunted tour service through the colonial town seemed like a good one. We wouldn’t need much in the way of money to get the business off the ground, just enough to create a website and print a few pamphlets. If we did a good job, word of mouth would take care of the rest. We were all horror fiction fans and two of the guys—you’ll understand if I choose to omit names—had been trying to break into the stand-up comedy scene and thought this would be could dramatic practice (again, sobriety wasn’t necessarily involved). I was mostly just bored; that’s the real joke of how this whole tragedy started.

Located just south of the Pennsylvania line, near where the Susquehanna joins the Chesapeake, Kingsport is close (enough) to Baltimore, Philly, and theoretically D.C. or Harrisburg to be a viable tourist spot if we managed to get our shit together. There were four of us who signed the initial registration papers, but I was under no illusion that I would be the one doing much of the early legwork. The fact that I was the only one with a full-time job also meant that I was the only one with his own car and the ability to handle the early logistics. I didn’t mind, though; as I said, the whole thing seemed like a good idea.

We were off the ground in about a month. Business was slow at first, but we had a steady stream of people coming through before too long. We advertised two versions of the tour: a PG-13 one and an 18+ one. We 100 percent may have embellished some of the details in the latter tour for dramatic effect, but people loved it regardless.

We told the regular tales of Indian raids, pirate skirmishes, Revolutionary War heroes, an attempted Confederate coup, Prohibition-era smugglers, and other episodes of history largely unknown outside the area. What people loved most, however, were the “true” ghost stories: star-crossed lovers left to terrible fates, murder-suicides in moments of passion, the ever-familiar clichés of witch trials and vampiric specters, and so on. Somehow, these stories always seemed more relatable to most people, being more true-to-life than abstract collections of names, dates, and events.

We were actually doing well after a few months at it, even receiving recognition from the town council at the time (though good luck finding record of that now) for bringing attention to the small city, a place still struggling to get back on its feet after NAFTA and the housing crisis. That’s when over-confidence got the better of us.

We should have just left the fucking hill alone. Everyone from the area is at least peripherally aware of Dead Man’s Mountain. It lurks in the background of the local consciousness, like a mountain lion stalking its prey. It’s not that it was considered haunted in any traditional sense—there were few tales of ghostly apparitions walking about at night, no rumor at all of dead Indians yelping or beating drums—the place was just considered evil in and of itself.

The pond on its western slope was especially a source of trepidation. Animals always seemed to show up dead near it in alarming numbers. A poisoned water supply had been rumored since colonial times, but the park service had examined it on several occasions and, so far as science could tell, the water wasn’t tainted in any discernible way, despite your later claims to the contrary. When veterinarians examined some of the dead squirrels, foxes, raccoons, deer, and so on, no sign of poisoning, virus, or bacteria were ever found. Cause of death was usually attributed to malnutrition or a failure of the nervous or cardiovascular systems, though it was freely admitted that the precise cause of these conditions remained elusive. In other words, the hill was a perfect mystery spot to bring tourists to.

Now, I freely admit that I am exceedingly superstitious. My condition was less extreme at the time, but I was still superstitious, nevertheless. Therefore, you can understand that I was hesitant to incorporate Dead Man’s Mountain into the tour, but the enthusiasm of the others got the better of me (that and the promise of a fatter wallet in that era of debt and ramen). When a local community college actually booked a tour of over 30 people with this exact destination in mind, apparently as part of some sort local conservation project, there was little more I could do. My give-a-damn had broken and overflown.

For the first couple of times, nothing happened. We simply led our guests through the various trails and deer paths, telling the vague rumors of the place. We refused to go within 20 feet of the pond itself, though, which I think sold the whole experience more than anything else. People loved it. Our popularity grew and grew, and by the end of that year, we were booked for nearly six days a week. Until, of course, the boy fell in the pond.

I was distracted at the time it happened. I’ve always had a thing for a good-looking woman with red hair and freckles, and when one such sample had joined my group that evening, my mind dwelt on little else. Fortunately, I had told all the stories so many times that I could do it effectively on autopilot, because I surely would’ve been tongue-tied otherwise. Honestly, I think that tour had been one of my better performances, until I forgot to mention not to get too close to the spray.

So best as I can tell, the boy simply tripped on a tree root and fell forward into the water. He seemed no worse for the wear and was out after only a few seconds. He had been in an area scarcely inches deep and never seemed to be in any real danger. The night was a warm one; he wasn’t even worried about catching a cold. He came out of it in good spirits.

I’ll skip over some of the more mundane details, but the woman I had my eye on turned out to be his sister, and I used this incident as an excuse to exchange numbers with her (“how else can I give you a refund for your trouble?”). We began seeing each other in the following weeks, hitting it off better than I honestly expected. Thus, I was around to witness the tragedies that were to follow.

The woman turned out to also be her brother’s legal guardian. Their mother had been checked into rehab about a year previously and the father was out of the picture; I didn’t ask for details surrounding either circumstance. It was a typical Rust Belt story from that era. She was 26 and a successful manager at one of those soulless retail places; her brother was 14 and a freshman in high school.

Changes were slow-moving, which was both merciful and horrific. Merciful, because we enjoyed a few weeks together in an almost family-like state of happiness. Horrific, because the tragedy to follow was all the worse for this.

From what the government men tell me, the plague had worked its way into the water system about a shortly after the boy returned from the tour that evening. As best as the investigators could determine, and in defiance of all known medical conventions, the yet-unidentified pathogen had clung to the boy’s skin and, upon him showering that night, had gained access to the drains. Though they use words like “plague” and “pathogen,” they know damn-well that the true horror of Maryland cannot be accurately described in this way. Human tongues have no term for that which is from outside our time and corner of consciousness.

It’s not that people turned sick, exactly. They just…ceased moving and began to decay. Leprosy is the only approximate analogy medicine has been able to use. Their bodies disintegrate around them, turning almost into powder, causing death when one of the vital organs becomes effected. Fortunately, in a macabre sense of the term, this was almost invariably a painless process. Strangely enough though, neither my girlfriend nor her brother, patients one and two so I’m told to believe, showed obvious signs of the sickness for a long time.

But as both of them eventually began to experience strange symptoms, I found myself at their place more and more often to take care of them. For context, they lived several miles away from Kingsport, in the seldom-visited country forgotten by time and cell service. He was calm for the most part, complaining of symptoms which seemed to indicate vertigo (if you may permit my street-WebMD diagnosis), whereas his sister grew more and more hysterical.

She experienced violent—almost epileptic—fits and I had to physically restrain her on more than one occasion for fear that she would injure herself. Eventually, when she began to grab at sharp or blunt objects to strike me with, I had to pull a page out of Charlotte Gilman and lock her in the attic. I knew that they had no immediate family to speak of, but upon asking the brother if they had anyone at all to call upon, he simply looked at me, not understanding.

I spent several days in their home in this manner, leaving only occasionally to buy more bottled water and non-perishables. I would have called some of my friends for help, but they had all been taken by the sickness, too. For reasons that remain unclear to me, our Father in Heaven spared me from this.

I worked out a system whereby I would slide food into the attic at random times of the day, armed with a trash can lid as a shield. I’m the first to admit that this makes for a pitiful picture, but you asked for the honest truth, so I’ll give it to you without pretending I did something more dignified.

For a while, I was able to persist. But eventually, as the days got more stressful, I turned to my ancestral comfort: Southern whiskey. Never irresponsibly, mind you, but to help myself get to sleep amid the chaos.

It was after one such alcoholic lullaby that I heard the crash. Stumbling to my feet, I ran up the stairs and found that a piece of the wall had been broken from the inside. I don’t exactly have words for it, but it seemed somehow…clawed open, as though she had grown talons far in excess of her hands. Inferring that she was no longer confined to the attic, I ran to her brother’s room (he, meanwhile, had seemed to be recovering in the days that led up to this).

I found him standing near in the doorway to his room, perfectly still and clearly in a state of shock. He mumbled something upon seeing me, but “the pond” were the only words I could make out. I approached him and, taking him by the shoulder, asked him what happened here, and where his sister had gone to. He only replied “nothing. It was nothing at all…I’m sorry for all this, [name of narrator omitted].” Then he simply sat down, Indian-style, and would move no more.

From what the government men tell me, the corpse they found in that doorway acted like the body of a dead spider; it seemed to give out as though in mid-motion, but remained in position without obvious corruption for a long time. I never learned the cause of his death. Nor have I ever seen his sister again.

The house blew up a few days later. I don’t know anything about that, but the investigators tell me that it was a gas leak. She had been a smoker, though hadn’t indulged in that trap since the sickness took her, but it’s entirely possible she came back and blew the place up. It’s possible. A similar fate soon fell on the houses of the other departed.

I was questioned extensively afterward, but the lawmen were convinced that I knew nothing more than I’ve told you. As I’ve said, the powers that be set about obscuring the entire episode and the public has forgotten altogether. So long as I agreed to move and stay quiet, they have been content to leave me be. Ghost towns still exist in this country, and a sluggish economy is just as good a culprit as anything else. In this case, I don’t blame them for concealing things the way they have. I’m happy to work further with you gentlemen, but I really have nothing more to say. All the tests the doctors ran show that I don’t have…whatever it was.

Let the dead rest; they’ve been through enough trials. I’m happy enough to live out my days in peace, here in my new home, and continually pray for those who have fallen. If you truly have no one else to help you, I’ll go, but otherwise let me simply be. “O let the sorrowful sighing of the prisoners come before Thee; and according to the greatness of Thy power, preserve Thou the sons of the slain.”


For all installments of “Underhill,” click here.