“It’s haunted,” I say flatly.
“It is not haunted,” Erica says, exasperated.
“I bet you anything that people have died in that house. Anything.”
“John, you are such a p***y,” says Aaron bluntly from the passenger seat.
“No one’s died in there,” chimes in Trevor, incapable of forming his own thoughts, but significantly more diplomatic.
I hold up my hand in order to silence their protestations. “I’ll go, only because I am more scared of your father than I am of the undead,” I say to Erica. I step out of the car, breathing in the chilly winter air deeply.
The window rolls down behind me, and Erica leans across Aaron’s lap. “We’ll be back as soon as I grab my purse,” she says, her words forming clouds in the cold air. “I just don’t want my dad to see that I have too many people in my car.”
“Yeah, yeah, because he’s a state trooper, and it’s the law,” I say in facetious tones. I give a wry grin. “No harm, no foul. Just don’t leave me too long, or I’ll get possessed by some dismembered housewife with a taste for bloooooood,” wailing spookily over the last few words.
Erica laughs appreciatively as the window rolls up. Aaron cranes his neck in order to get the last word in. “p***y,” he yells, milliseconds before the window closes. This is his idea of being clever.
I give the car a cheerful middle-fingered wave as it crunches down the driveway. They pull back onto the road, driving away; I know that Erica’s house, just out of sight behind the trees that encircle the house here, will be graced by the three of them in a matter of seconds.
I, however, am in front of a dilapidated house. I stand by my statements – if any house was going to be haunted, it would be this one. The windows are the epitome of ‘empty;’ looking in them is like locking eyes with a corpse. The shutters are crooked, the wooden steps to the front door even more so. I’m surprised there’s still a gutter – I would have thought that a few autumn’s worth of fallen foliage would have torn them down, but it stands as a testament to Northeast construction techniques. It can’t have been occupied in years.
Well, as long as I’m here… I’ve got a little of an explorer’s side to me, as well as a total devil-may-care attitude towards the supernatural. I have a certain rapport with graveyards and spooky houses – they certainly scare me, but not as badly as they excite me. Some read scary stories in order to simulate fear while in safety. I read them in order to fuel fear when I am alone in a dark room, or walking alone on a foggy night.
I approach the door, pausing a moment to reflect on what I am about to do. If Erica’s dad frowned upon four of us riding in the car when she only had a limited license, I’m sure that he would have some stern words on trespassing, breaking, and entering. On the other hand, I’m still three years too young to be tried as an adult. Impetuousness wins over, and I turn the handle.
Inside, a foyer, which is also a living room, which is also a kitchen, I assume. It’s hard to tell; the only furniture is a table of strictly the most functional sort, painted a fading baby blue, the sort of wooden furniture that I mentally date somewhere around World War II. This room must have been the nucleus of the house. I bet that the doors to my left lead to a bathroom and a bedroom, and the stairs against the wall opposite lead to another two, maybe three bedrooms.
Here is where the family would congregate – the mother over the stove, keeping an eye on the young boy, who is building as though divinely inspired with his blocks. His older sister sits at the point furthest away from him, trying to ignore him as she reads to herself – quite the escapist, her, always off with her head in the clouds, imagining fantastic balls in far-away lands. Father comes in, older than you’d expect with a son so young, but there’s joy in his face at returning home to this Rockwellian scene. His smile shows a deep contentment.
Of course, it doesn’t last. There’s a falling out – why is it so inevitable that fathers and sons don’t approve of each other’s life styles? Especially back then – it seems like the generation gap was so much wider in those days. The son leaves as soon as he is able to. The daughter, too, married to a city boy, living in a Park Avenue apartment and never talking about her Podunk roots – upstate is as far as Nubia from her ritzy and semi-glamorous life. The mother doesn’t last long after the house is empty. The winters never agreed with her, and without the children to occupy her, she simply wastes away one winter. She always was a Southern belle at heart, cluck the town gossips.
The children do come back for the funeral – they aren’t so heartless as to completely abandon their kin in this time of need. They say a few words to their father, a s few as they can and still save face among their old friends and family. He loved them, certainly, but it was a kind of love that was difficult for the two of them to understand. They retreat to their significant others when their roles are played, replying that they are fine to their lover’s scripted questions.
The father remains stony-faced the entire time. He lived for her, and now that she’s left him, he stands as still as she. Condolences are heaped upon him – his wife was well-liked. He responds with as little as he can without appearing overtly rude, and more than one mourner comes away from the conversation unnerved by the depth of mad despair that shows through his eyes. Everyone agrees that he looks good in black.
He doesn’t last much longer. A week before the one-year anniversary of her death, he’s found dead in his bed, looking more at peace than he has at any time since her funeral. The autopsy finds nothing physically wrong, so the court of public opinion decides that he finally succumbed to his broken heart. The son doesn’t even come back this time; the daughter, only for exactly the amount of time it takes to bury the last piece of her past that she couldn’t simply ignore.
But back among the walls of the house, back in the present, things aren’t as dead as they first appeared. A few stray tools, drills and hammers, uncovered by the sheets of age that lay on every other surface in the room, await hands to lift them again. Not an offshoot from that first family tree, certainly – not as I imagined it. A new family, a new tree growing from the fallen log of the first one. A young pair of newly-weds, looking to get out of the city. He makes weekend trips with his brother and a friend from work to drink, play cards, and fix up the place; she’s been picking out paint samples and brainstorming baby names with her sister-in-law. They’re both terribly excited about the place.
I’m brought back to myself by the sound of crunching tires in the driveway. I give the place one last look-around. It’s not traditionally haunted, no; no wailing or clanking chains, no transparent specters. But a sadness so thick, it’s papable, covered with a thin veneer of hope. This house has history – and what are ghosts, really, but history so papable you can sense it still?
I shiver once and exit out the doorway. I hadn’t taken a single step into the room.
Now I can drive. I still see the place sometimes; a fresh coat of paint, cars in the driveway, some of the trees cut down to make a yard. There’s a fence up, classic white picket. I keep looking for children’s toys to cutter the yard. The gutter looks like it’s been retired and replaced, the old workhorse.
I wonder if the new father thinks of how it once looked. I wonder if he can feel the ghosts.
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