“What? No way. You’re such a liar, dude.” Caleb tried to sound casual, as if Amos’ preposterous story bored him. Like all ten-year-old boys who know what’s good for them, Caleb was on guard against a prank. The last thing he needed was for Amos’ earnest expression to morph into a finger-pointing grin, braying laughter and calling him a dumbass for believing such an obvious load of crap.
Amos wasn’t backing down. Squinting his windward eye against the blowing grit, he said, “Swear to God, man. Ask Blevins. He was there with me.” The dark sky threatened rain, tinting Amos’ face in shadow, making it hard to read.
Straddling their bicycles in the empty lot across from Sonny Fitzgerald’s scrap yard, the circle of fourth-grade boys had been waiting for Earl Pittman to arrive with the deck of naked lady playing cards he’d kifed from his older brother. This dispute was better, though. They’d all heard Amos’ story second hand, of course – you’d be hard-pressed to find a kid at Amoret Elementary who hadn’t – but the chance to hear it for themselves was too good to pass up. Plus, none of them felt rushed to get home yet, what with the OJ trial taking up most of their mom’s attentions that time of the afternoon. Their heads turned to Blevins as though following a tennis volley.
Tow-headed and solemn, Blevins had the kind of delicate features and long lashes that made him the object of schoolgirl crushes. Now he turned pale, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else talking about anything else. Leaning on his handlebars, he refused to meet their eyes. “I dunno, y’all. I was downstairs the whole time.”
“Pffft, see? What a bunch of bull,” Caleb said, pushing his heavy glasses up his nose. Deputized to press the skeptics’ case, he was glad to be winning the argument, but disappointed at the same time. He’d never say so out loud, of course, but in his heart he thought it’d be cool if Amos’ story turned out to be true.
Amos wheeled around, real fury in his eyes as he turned on the hapless Blevins. “Uh-uh, don’t you do that, you butthole! You said you heard it. Now tell ‘em!”
The wind made furrows in Blevins’ hair as he paused to choose his words carefully. “I mean, like, I heard something,” he mumbled.
“There. See?” said Amos, flinging an arm in Blevins’ direction.
“Whatta you mean, ‘see’, like that settles anything?” Caleb was indignant. “That don’t settle nothin'. Just admit it, dude. You’re a liar.”
Joe Kent Turner turned his head and blew a snot rocket without taking his eyes off Blevins. “C’mon man, no joke. What happened?”
Blevins opened his mouth to answer but Amos didn’t give him the chance. “I was on the second floor, up at the top of the stairs where there’s this hallway with three rooms. Ain’t none of ‘em got no doors no more. The walls’re all busted out, like somebody was, I dunno, lookin’ for somethin’. I was just kind of checkin’ it out, and that’s when I heard it.” Amos turned to Blevins. “Go on. Tell ‘em what you heard, too.”
Blevins had slow-walked his bike a short distance away, not quite part of the group, not quite separate. Head bent, looking more uncomfortable by the moment, he studied one sneakered toe as it spun its pedal. Finally, he said, “I heard a baby cryin’.”
Muttered “Whoooa”s and “Duuude.” Someone let out a low whistle. The almond-eyed Lozano twins crossed themselves.
“Ha! Screw you!” Amos flipped both middle fingers at Caleb.
Caleb was too taken aback to even care about Amos’ point-scoring. He mustered a weak, “So? Lotta things can sound like a baby cryin’,” but he sounded like he no longer believed his own words.
The legend was well-known, of course, part of the town of Amoret’s DNA. The long-abandoned Harrow place could rightly have been called a mansion, but most townsfolk preferred the alliterative “Harrow House.” You might guess they used the diminutive as a way of taking a rich family down a peg, but you’d be wrong. The universe had done that for them. Built in the deserts of west Texas shortly before World War I by the son of a mineral magnate for his child bride, he’d hoped its opulence would mollify her fragile constitution and delicate psyche. But when a few months after welcoming their first child into the world he left to fight the Kaiser, the austerity and loneliness slowly turned the mansion into a prison.
According to lore, once the neglected clocks stopped ticking, a silence like the ocean’s bottom settled over the house. The poor woman took to shambling loops through the brocade halls, shuffling past the iron leaf sconces and stained glass toward madness. In the end, she was found dangling from a noose in the second-floor nursery, looking down in death upon their infant son whom she’d strangled in his crib. Rumor was her face bore a trace of a smile, and when the editor of The Amoret Register reported that he had it on good authority she’d left a note on the child’s motionless chest which read, “In sadness, In capitulation, In relief,” a covenant of sorts was made with the town. Like a red-hot brand, the house's grisly story seared itself into Amoret’s identity for all time.
“What’d you do then?” asked a wide-eyed Otis Everett.
Credibility restored, Amos settled in. His voice dropped an octave, telling the story as though he had a flashlight under his chin. “Well, first thing, I ‘bout crapped my pants. I just, like, froze, you know? I mean, I could see Blevins down at the bottom of the stairs so I go, ‘You hear that? Git yer ass up here.’” He cast a withering glance at the boy before turning back to the circle. “But the little wuss wouldn’t set a toe on that damn staircase. He just stood there lookin’ at me with his mouth hangin’ open like a retard.”
Eyes brimming, voice thick with shame, Blevins said, “You was whisperin’ is all. I couldn’t hear what you was sayin’.” So enthralled was the group, though, no one mocked him.
“Hey dumbass, you had your chance. Now I’m tellin’ the story,” Amos snapped before settling back in. “That baby’s cryin’ sounded, like, far-off but with a weird echo, like, I don’t know— like it was down a well or somethin’. It sounded like it was comin’ from the last room at the end of the hallway. So reeeeal slow, I started walkin’ towards it. I was ready to book on outta there, but I wanted to see.”
“Wasn’t you scared?” asked a rapt Greg Leach, hanging on every word.
“Kind’a. But, I dunno— it was almost, like, I didn’t wanna know but I just had to know. You had to be there, I guess. So super slow, I push open the door—.”
“I thought you said the doors were missin’,” interrupted Caleb.
“Screw you. I think there was a door still on that one, quit interruptin’. So I pushed open the door.”
Karl Holub asked in a whisper, “What’d you see?”
“Nothin’. It was just a dusty old room.” Their disappointment was palpable, that of children finding empty carpet under the tree on Christmas morning. Amos gave it a beat, then said “At least, at first.” Their ears pricked again. Amos was a natural showman as it turned out, playing them perfectly.
“There wasn’t no windows but somebody had punched a couple holes in the wall and a little light was comin’ in between the slats of the boards. All the walls were peelin’ and there was busted up plaster on the floor from where the ceiling was fallin’ apart. It felt colder in that room than in the rest of the house, swear to God. I got big-time goosebumps, worst I ever had in my life, and the hair was standin’ up on the back of my neck.” He unconsciously rubbed his nape at the memory. “Further I got into the room, the cryin’ got softer, like somebody was takin’ the baby away.”
“Takin’ it where?” asked Otis.
“How should I know? But when the cryin’ faded off, I heard whisperin’, like two people was arguin’. It was ladies’ voices from the sound, but in the beginning I was havin’ a hard time makin’ out what they were sayin’. Then they started getting’ louder and easier to hear, like they was getting’ more and more pissed off. I caught one saying’ somethin’ like, ‘Why is he here?’, and another one sayin’, I think it was, ‘has no place’ and ‘born in sin’ or somethin’ like that. But, swear to God, all of a sudden I heard one say clear as a bell, ‘Then let him know suffering’.”
“Well buddy boy let me tell you, that was all it took. I wasn’t gonna hang around to know nothin’, sufferin’ or otherwise. I go to leave, but just then outside on that— what do you call it, where the doors open onto?”
“The landing?” one boy volunteered.
“Yeah, the landing, I hear boards squeakin’, footsteps comin’ my way. First I thought, ‘Thank Christ, it’s Blevins comin’ after all’. But then I realized it couldn’t be him, they was more like a step, and then a scrapin’ sound, like somebody was draggin’ a gimp leg across the boards. Step. Scrape. Step. Scrape. I was listenin’ to ‘em come closer and closer ‘til they was right outside the door. I just stood there, waitin’ to see what was gonna happen. Then, God help me —.” He paused, his gaze darting from boy to boy, briefly making contact eye contact with each, “— I smelled perfume. It was pretty, but it was covering up some other smell, like spoiled meat, all rotten. Then I realized whatever it was was right behind me. Suddenly from behind I feel fingers on my neck. The fingernails was sharp, like they been filed—.”
“Were they claws, you think?” whispered another boy.
“Christ almighty, I never thought ‘bout it like that ‘til you just said it but yeah, like they was claws.” Amos gave a genuine shiver. “Rabbit run over m’grave with that one. So anyway’s. I feel these fingers or claws or whatever wrappin’ ‘round my neck from behind, at first real slow like they was tryin’ to tickle me or somethin’. But then they started squeezin’, pressin’ on my windpipe.
“Well let me tell you brother, I spun ‘round so fast I kind’a stumbled back, tripped over my own feet and fell backwards, hard. So hard in fact the damn floorboards broke, and my ass got stuck in the hole. I was like a friggin' turtle on its back.
“There wasn’t nobody behind me there, but the voices was still whispering. Finally I managed to pull my ass outta that hole, but them boards scraped me up pretty good. Lookit. See?” Hooking a thumb in the elastic of his tighty-whities, he tugged them off his hip to reveal a days-old collection of strawberry scrapes and scratches marring the pale skin. “I scrambled up off my knees and hauled ass outta there.”
“Sumbitch didn’t even wait for me,” grumbled Blevins. “Come barrelin’ down the stairs and jumped on his bike and took off. Was a hunnert yards ‘fore I caught up with him.”
No one spoke. Alone with their thoughts, they stared down a row of naked bodark posts from a long-missing fence, dotting a line from horizon to horizon. Far, far away the desert winds carried the sounds of the bells at Saint Anthony’s tolling the four o’clock hour.
Caleb grunted with the effort of pedaling into the wind. His backpack rolled side-to-side in a familiar cadence, sweat slicking his face and making his owlish glasses droop, forcing him to tilt his head back to see. He felt lonely, wishing he had someone with whom he could commiserate, but he hadn’t dared tell any of the other boys his plan. Going alone preserved the option of aborting at the last minute with no one the wiser.
When constructed, the Harrow house stood secluded on a hill outside the city limits, looking down on the town like a vulture in a tree. Oil money briefly tried to parlay the mansion’s grandeur into an enclave, but that didn’t get far as the building’s gruesome reputation poisoned the area. In the generations to come, the town grew up the gentle slope toward the place, true. But just as only weeds will grow in salted earth, those houses generally sported more burglar bars than rose bushes, and you’d have had to look hard to find a resident who wasn’t on subsidized housing.
Those people were “Fucking Charity Cases” according to Caleb’s dad. Fucking Charity Cases were too lazy to work, he’d taught Caleb, preferring instead to sit on their porches and wait for the postman to bring them their checks. So that’s what made it all the more galling when, after his pop ran off with that lady from the nudie bar in Fort Davis, his momma announced that she’d signed the two of them up for food stamps. She kept referring to it as the “SNAP Program”, but even at his age Caleb knew talk of food stamps when he heard it.
As if that humiliation wasn’t enough, though, last week he’d found a page from the classifieds in the trash. To his horror, he realized that circled in red were rental addresses in the neighborhood around the mansion. He worried less about his friends discovering the food stamp shame because his momma sold the paper scrip at a discount for cash money – you couldn’t buy cigarettes or pet food with the county’s funds – so that meant she was forking over actual currency at the grocery store when everyone was watching. But if they moved down to the neighborhood around the Harrow House? There’d be no disguising what that said about them.
Caleb’s legs were on fire by the time he turned onto the long cul de sac lined by clapboard houses with weed-choked yards. Scrawny trees’ bare branches arced over the street like steepled zombie fingers, undulating in the wind. The only sign of life was a skinny dog chained to a post that capered about for a few moments before settling down to give him a bleak stare.
Located at the bottom of the dead end was the Harrow place, and without thinking, he stopped in the middle of the street and stared. A chill ran through his thin frame before settling in his balls.
The house was unlike any other on the street. It felt aware.
And God help him, it was watching. Assessing.
Daring him to come closer.
During Amoret’s centennial festivities Caleb stumbled across sepia photographs of the mansion’s early years. Back then, with its intricate trim and decorative brackets and timbered gables, it reminded him of a doll house. That innocence had long since been stuffed in a sack and thrown in the river by whatever lurked in that house now, however. It felt like the mansion was malevolent, scheming.
Stop it! he commanded himself. You’re freaking yourself out over nothing! Quit being such a baby! He walked his bike the last of the way. It’s just that my legs are tired. That’s all, he thought. Deep down, though, he knew that had his brain decided to abandon this fool’s errand, had commanded him to jump back on the bike and ride hell-bent for leather back home, he’d have managed that just fine.
Caleb pushed his bike up the gravel drive, crossing the ditch that ran around the cul de sac’s perimeter and toward a chain link fence erected around the structure. A padlocked gate and posted signs reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” secured the chain link, but a vandal had cut the zip ties securing the fence to one of the posts, making it easy to lift the untethered chain link up and away from the ground. Caleb gently laid his bike down and paused, considering that curly-cued bottom edge of the fencing and what it represented.
Like most kids, he’d been up here with his friends a handful of times over the years, usually to huck rocks at the façade. Back then, surrounded by mirth and noise it’d been easy to convince himself the house was nothing more than what it appeared at first glance to be, a decomposing collection of rotted timber and broken windows. Chimney bricks stained with century-old soot. A loose rain spout swinging lazily in the breeze. With the valor of the noncombatant, he laughingly reassured his nervous buddies as he lobbed a pine cone like a hand grenade at a cratered hole in the roof, “Me? I think only thing you gotta worry ‘bout in there'd be a case of lockjaw from a scratch. Otherwise ain’t nothin’ too bad in that place.”
But the chain link symbolized something to them, even back then, for flimsy as it was it still felt protective, like it served as a physical barrier to keep whatever was inside that house at bay. Caleb recognized this as magical thinking, but that didn’t change the fact things felt safe as long as you were on the outside. The possibility of going beyond the chain link had never come up, never even been entertained, for had it been they’d each have privately labeled the idea as stupidity on par with proposing to go inside the lions’ cage at the zoo. No sir. Lots of the boys from that circle of bicycles had made it this far, staring up at the house through the fence, but none had ever dared go inside.
That was the thing, though. Caleb had seen the way they looked at Amos after hearing his story, had felt twinges of envy at the respect Amos now commanded. With his exploits, the boy made his way from where the cowards sit and watch in the bleachers down to the arena floor. Caleb wanted that, to be seen as brave. But here it was, the moment of truth, and he was psyching himself out. A part of him had believed all along that he would turn around at the last minute and run for home weighed down by the rocks-in-his-pockets burden of self-loathing.
Hell with that, he thought. He laced his fingers through the holes in the fence, feeling it wiggle. I can’t do nothin’ ‘bout the friggin' food stamps and I can do even less ‘bout Momma movin’ us down here. But this is all me. The shame he bore sparked a collection of kindling in his core, the flames catching and growing until it burned hard and steady, serving as anger-fuel. Right now, only I know I’m a Fucking Charity Case. But how long can it be, I mean really, before them other kids start seein’ me that way, too? Goin’ in that house— and doin’ it alone on top of it— well, even Amos didn’t do that. That could stop any of that Fucking Charity Case talk ‘fore it even gets started.
His brought his face forward until the tip of his nose touched the chain link’s cold metal. This close, the metal strands disappeared from his vision, giving the illusion that he was already inside. I can do this, he thought. He took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly, then said aloud, “Time to nut up.” He released his death-grip on the fence, pulled up the bottom edge and scooted under into the knee-deep grass.
Inside the chain link, his poise vanished. He immediately felt the house radiating a malicious aura, a contentment born of the fact they now both occupied the same space, all barriers removed. Caleb felt staggeringly alone. A part of his brain screamed at him to turn around, it wasn’t too late, to duck back under the fence and hop on his bike and pedal as hard as he could back to their trailer where he’d wait for Momma to come home from work. He’d go to sleep on the couch and she’d wake him up and together they’d eat whatever she brought home from the diner and talk about their day as he promised himself he’d never, ever set foot on these premises again.
Yet while that inner battle raged, his feet carried him forward, gradually, in the way things are slow in dreams. He made his way forward to the house’s original fence, this one chest-high and topped with spikes. It rusted patiently around the perimeter except for the east side where disassembled sections lay stacked against one another like cards in a deck. Caleb followed it to the front and through a low gate that hung askew off one frozen hinge, then up the cracked path that led to the porch. Gaps in the brick foundation gave a peek into the house’s dark underbelly, shadows that looked dank and unpleasant. Withered mesquite leaves skittered across his path, their long, fine teeth looking like the brown barrettes his momma wore. He felt a prickle of fear as he made his way up the rickety steps to the wraparound porch and under the overhang that sagged in the middle like a sway-backed mule. He wasn’t sure if he was being brave or stupid. Sometimes it could be hard to tell.
The front door was cracked open about six inches. He felt like he was peeking inside an exhumed coffin as he slowly put his face to the opening, glimpsing the house’s guts. He paused, telling himself it was the sweat slicking his face and torso that gave him a chill, but knowing better, knowing the truth. It was this house, this house and his suspicion that it was alive and bore him ill will. He had to momentarily unsling his backpack to wedge his way inside.
Mildew and decay hung thick in the cobweb-festooned vestibule’s air, the smell if gray-yellow had an odor. Through an archway to his left was a fireplace, its stone hearth and black maw reminding him of the way he’d pictured Jesus’ tomb. Little wallpaper remained, but occasionally outlines where paintings had once hung were visible. Dust motes and mouse turds littered the warped planks and kernels of caved-in ceiling plaster made his reluctant footsteps crackle as if he was walking on bubble wrap.
He’d seen pictures of the moon landing in science class, and the images of Neil Armstrong’s footprints in the lunar dust had stayed with him after Miss Foster explained that since there was no wind, those footsteps would always be there, forever and ever. That was what he saw now, Amos' footsteps, coming and going toward the grand staircase leading to the second floor.
The banister wobbled under his hand as he crept up the stairs. Just in and out of the room Amos was talking about, check out what was inside, he told himself. Honestly, he didn’t really know what he expected to find, but he knew this was no longer about proving something to the other kids. He needed to prove this to himself.
He’d been scared before, of course. Problem was he’d always known the kind of fear that grabs you when Jason Voorhees jumps out from the closet wielding his machete up on the silver screen. Now he realized that was controlled fear, the kind that came with an expiration date, where you knew in ninety minutes the lights would come up and you’d walk out of the theater to hang out at the food court. This was something else completely, a kind of real-world scary that could leave you hurt- or worse. There were no parents to protect you against this kind of fear, he now knew. You were on your own, like looking up from your bed to see a face backdropped by moonlight peering at you through your window, then watching helplessly as the sash rose. This was an altogether different kind of horror, he’d too late come to find.
C’mon now, don’t punk out, he commanded himself. Just a little further to go. Around him the old house groaned and creaked in the wind. Maybe that’s what they heard? Wouldn’t take much to make your brain go in that direction.
Just as his foot made contact with the second floor landing, a draft tickled his neck, making him jump. He reached out a hand to steady himself but drew it back like he’d touched a hot stovetop when he heard scuttling inside the wall. Gotta be mice, he thought. Hundred percent.
That part of his brain that refused to shut up chimed in sarcastically, Yeah, stupid, you’re right. Probably mice. Or maybe, check this out, you’re gonna love this, or maybe it’s a tiny skeleton buried in the wall trying to claw its way out? What do you think? Hmm? Could that be it? Now once and for all, WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS PLACE?!? He muffled the voice once more, mentally stuffing a pillow over its face, focusing on his senses, trying to get out of his head.
The landing was uncomfortably narrow, especially since he couldn’t depend on the curling banister to protect him from a fall. Three rooms opened onto the landing, but only the furthest from him still had a door. In the plaster dust, Amos' small pair of sneakers had left neat imprints going into the room while a second trail headed in the other direction, their edges sloppy and ragged.
As though made by someone running.
He shrunk from the thought of going in the room. His mouth had the coppery taste of fear, like he was sucking on a penny. His heart jackhammered against his breastbone as though it wanted out. Come on now, just a little bit further. You’re almost there. Go in. Look around. Leave. You’re five minutes from being done. Three, actually, if you move quick. With a trembling hand, he nudged the door open. It squealed but yielded and he hesitantly eased inside.
The room was clammy and dark, a place of spiders and rats. Dirt dauber nests dotted the corners, and he mentally double-checked for the epi pen he always carried against the allergy that’d almost killed him in kindergarten when his throat tried to close off after a bee sting while playing behind the Dostal boys’ garage.
Scattered across the dusty floor, a haphazard spray of the same footprints testified to frenzied activity, as if someone had been dancing all by themselves. And holy hell but if the floorboards in the middle of the room hadn’t been punctured, leaving a defect about the size of a dinner plate. In uneasy fascination, he stared at two small palm prints smeared in the dust on both sides of the hole. So Amos had been telling the truth after all, at least about this much.
Caleb’s mind turned to the Harrow woman, locked in by her loneliness, quietly going crazy. He felt a moment’s twinge of sympathy for the poor lady, sensing the walls closing in a little more each day, the baby’s wails drilling like an ice pick through her eardrum, piercing her brain. He could picture her shaking the baby, shaking him harder and harder, the cries not stopping. Pity, an emotion he didn’t often feel but which seemed deserved, welled up. In only a few minutes he’d seen what a sense of isolation could do to you inside these four walls. And if you came into it with your head already not screwed on right? Well, nothing would have surprised him in that circumstance.
Now done with what he came to do, Caleb relaxed. The place was spooky, sure, but in the end the house turned out to be just what he’d told himself from the get-go: a loose pile of water-logged boards and small town rumors. He supposed this whole affair would turn out to be what his dad used to call “A Life Lesson.” There was Jesus and the Devil, sure, but demons and ghosts he knew then he could safely scratch off the list of things that should make him feel afraid. He felt something else begin to swell down in his core, a feeling of pride. He’d been scared beyond measure but managed to suck it up and get the job done.
He went to peel away a small square of wallpaper as proof of his deed— Amos was guaranteed to call B.S. when Caleb described this field trip tomorrow— but the brittle tartan cloth crumbled. He pulled off a second piece more gently, then retrieved a textbook from his pack. Pressing the wall paper between two pages like a leaf, he closed the heavy book and smiled at a job well done as he glanced around once more prior to leaving. Once you get over the first heebie-jeebies, this isn’t so bad, he thought. I could maybe even bring other kids in here. Most guys would like to check this place out but’re way too chicken to come on their own. In fact, they might even pay for the chance. Could be I could make a few—.
But wait. What was that?
The air suddenly had a weight to it. Like some airborne disease that he would catch just by breathing it in.
He heard a noise. No, a voice. Far off, in the distance. At first he thought it was a grown up, outside the house and calling. Had someone seen his bike? Technically, he was trespassing. He closed his eyes and concentrated, straining to hear. The voice was closer now, but he realized he’d been mistaken about two things. It wasn’t an adult, it was a little girl’s voice, calling, but in a musical, sing-song fashion. And it was inside the house. God help him, had it just called out his name? Yes, there it was again.
“Caaaaleeeb, he seeeees youuuuu.” There was a glee in that voice that terrified him. “Here he cooooomes, Caleeeeb.”
A tidal wave of fear washed over him, rooting him in place. Last year their teacher had read Watership Down to them, and he’d been fascinated by the idea of the rabbits’ going “tharn,” that instinctive way they’d become paralyzed in a moment of terror. He’d thought any animal stupid enough to freeze up when it was in trouble deserved what it got but that’s exactly what happened to him now. He wanted to run, to turn tail and bolt, but he was held in place as though knee-deep in sucking mud.
That thick, cloying air now carried a pungent smell. The odor was tart and fetid, like his dog’s breath. To it he added the ammonia smell of damp denim as he pissed himself.
The house had summoned something, some monster. And it had found him, it was upon him now. Too late Caleb realized the universe had set its usual indifference aside to help him by holding the ferocious monster back as long as possible, its shoulder to the door as he’d obliviously wandered around up here, squandering his opportunity to escape. Caleb knew now with the certainty of impending death he’d made a mistake in coming here, and it was a mistake the house wouldn’t forgive.
The little girl voice sounded like she was directly behind him as she cooed in faux-sympathy, “I’m sorry this will hurt so bad.” Caleb felt hot breath on his neck, the panting of a hard-ridden animal. The smell was so strong now he thought he might pass out. A parallel set of pin-sharp tracks— claws oh my God holy SHIT I THINK THOSE ARE CLAWS – drew lightly across the skin where his neck joined his back as though deciding which swatch of skin to flay first.
That thought snapped him out of his paralysis. He broke from his spot and sprinted out of the room. Just as his lead foot hit the landing, though, an unseen force stopped him, yanking him backwards so hard it threatened to take him off his feet. In blind panic he regained his balance and thrust forward again, but to no avail as the tractor beam pulled him back toward the room. Dimly he realized the doorknob had hooked his shoulder strap. He shucked the pack in one fluid motion, abandoning it to whatever was inside the room as he sprinted across the landing and down the flight of steps.
Pounding down the staircase, his foot broke through one of the slats, disappearing up to the knee. Like an animal caught in a trap, he pulled at his leg in full on hysterics. He was certain whatever’d been in that room didn’t want to give him a simple spook, to pass on a warning. It wanted him dead. He’d never been so sure of anything in his life. Before him, the sliver of light around the edge of the cracked front door beckoned, so near and yet so far. With savage tugs he tried to free his leg. If God had come down at that moment and told him he’d need to chew it off to escape he’d have done it without hesitation. But he knew that would never happen, because God wanted no part of this place.
With one final heave, he jerked the leg free and tumbled the seven remaining steps to the floor below. He was up in a flash. Behind him he heard the house roaring at him, a demon’s rage. Then he was through the front door and diving down the steps, landing on the packed dirt, staring up at the dark clouds and taking in his breath in whooping gasps.
He began to blubber, his lower lip sucking in and out as a rivulet of snot ran across his lips to his chin. He cried out of residual fear, he cried out of relief. Great wracking sobs convulsed his small frame and he began to shake uncontrollably as hot tears coursed down his cheeks. He regressed, a child fresh from the womb, unable to communicate with the world except through this explosion of emotion.
His purge was interrupted by the sound of laughter.
Caleb opened his eyes to see three boys on bicycles, sixth graders whom he recognized from school. Worse yet, he knew one of them, Or more accurately, knew of him.
The biggest boy, the one in the middle, was Thaddeus Baczewski. Already big even before he was held back a year, Baczewski loomed over the other kids at school, standing out in the crowded hallways like a grown man pretending. He was already shaving a few times a week, Caleb was pretty sure. But even scarier were his bottomless black eyes.
Once, Caleb watched Baczewski whip a smaller Mexican kid in the Dairy Queen parking lot. He couldn’t recall what triggered the attack if he’d ever heard. Rather, what stayed with Caleb was the utter lack of mercy Baczewski displayed. It hadn’t been like any of the dozen or so playground fights he’d seen between spindly elementary school kids, flailing-armed affairs where the only risk of serious injury was to the combatants’ egos. No, Caleb received a lesson about how the real world works when toward the end of the fight (if that’s what it could be called), the relief he felt upon seeing Baczewski walk away from the defenseless and bleeding smaller boy was replaced by nausea at the realization he’d done so only to pick out a brick from the bed of a nearby pickup. He tested its heft, then, satisfied, sauntered back to stand over the dazed Mexican kid as he knelt on his haunches. Baczewski raised the brick on high, and then- well, by the time it was done somebody actually had to call an ambulance when the poor kid didn’t come to. Word was to this day the kid still had to eat through a tube.
The smart money said Baczewski would wind up the prison system’s problem, and before too long at that. But for the time being, he just seemed to be the earthly incarnation of chaos, leaving nothing but pain in his wake. And now standing astride his bicycle in front of the Harrow place, he looked on as his two lackeys hooted and pointed, doubled over with laughter. Simultaneously, they began heckling Caleb. “Hey, faggot! What happened? You see a ghost?” “Want me to get your mommy?”
Caleb tried to recover as a warm blush washed from his collarbones to his hairline. Mustering what little dignity he had left, he wiped his eyes and nose with the front of his t-shirt before standing up to dust himself off. To his horror, he saw loose dirt clinging to the front and inner thigh of his damp pants.
One of Baczewski’s sycophants cackled, “Jesus Christ, Thad, look! The kid pissed himself! What the fuck!” He hadn’t thought they could laugh any harder, but somehow, they seemed to manage.
His mind still reeling, he looked down to discover that masked by the adrenaline surge he’d torn his jeans and lacerated his calf to the bone. Like gory breadcrumbs, a fresh blood trail led back up the steps, through the door and into the house.
Spent, Caleb limped through the gate. When he reflexively pulled on the frozen hinges, the older boys’ mocking insults redoubled. Abandoning the effort after a few pathetic tugs, he made his way over to the chain link fence and scooted out under a steady barrage of derision. He had no energy to defend himself, he just wanted away from this place.
Arms crossed and smiling, Baczewski spoke for the first time. “Hey kid, what’s your name?” he called out as Caleb walked his bike onto the cul de sac’s asphalt, blood puddling in his shoe so his every step squished. Struggling to hold back tears, Caleb didn’t answer as he swung his leg over and found the pedal.
The smile disappeared from Baczewski’s face as he repeated the question. “Hey kid, I said, ‘What’s your name?’”
Now the two lackey’s laughter had been replaced by anticipatory grins. “I’d be tellin’ him my name I was you, kid,” one said. With the chill in the air, he’d pulled his arms in the sleeves of his faded Spurs t-shirt, stretching David Robinson’s face into a lumpy fun-house caricature.
When Caleb still didn’t answer, Baczewski let his own bike drop and advanced on him. He stood astride Caleb’s front wheel, grabbing the handlebars in his vice-like grip. He locked his gaze on Caleb. “Last chance, faggot. What’s your name?” He squeezed so hard his knuckles blanched white.
He heard himself mumble, “Caleb.”
“What? Say it so I can hear you, motherfucker.”
In a stronger voice, “Caleb.”
“Well, dipshit, when we saw you turn onto this street, Maurice over there bet you was goin’ into that house. I didn’t think there was no way a pussy like you’d have the balls so I bet him five bucks. So way I see it, you owe me. How much you got?”
Caleb turned out his pockets. Three crinkled bills came forth, money he’d scrounged for the arcade. Baczewski snatched the bills and stuck them in his own pocket, apparently forgoing the wager. Then he tilted his head at the mansion and said with a lascivious grin, “So what’d you see in there got you all worked up like this? Huh?” The other two boys looked on silently, fascinated.
“Bullshit. You tellin’ me you come haulin’ ass outta there cryin’ like a little bitch with a skinned knee over nothin’? C’mon. What’d you see in there?”
“I told you. Nothin’.”
“What got you cryin’ then? Huh?”
“Is it your widdle boo-boo?” one of the boys behind Baczewski asked. He pointed at Caleb’s leg which continued its slow ooze of blood. “You wanna go home, wet your mommy kiss it? Make it all better?”
“Are you a widdle baby?” the other boy chimed in. “You got a widdle baby Tic-Tac wiener?” This got a snort from Baczewski.
Caleb was too exhausted to care. Before he could help himself, the words were coming out of his mouth. “Yeah, that’s why your mom’s breath smells so good.”
The smile vanished from the boy’s face, replaced by a scowl. Baczewski and the other boy’s eyes grew wide as they looked at each other with grins and uttered drawn out, “Ooooooh”s.
“You gonna take that shit, Leon?” Baczewski asked in delight.
Now it was Leon’s turn to flush crimson. He glared at Caleb but made no motion to get off his bicycle. “Fuck you, motherfucker. Least my mom ain’t close to puttin’ us on welfare.” Normally that would have Caleb going over Leon’s handlebars to get at him, but not today. His tank was empty.
Baczewski looked impressed, though. He considered Caleb for a long moment, then suddenly released his grip on the bike and stepped aside, clearing Caleb’s path. “Get the fuck out of here.”
Caleb was too numb to even feel relief. He didn’t speak, just looked down to replace his toes in the pedal guard.
Suddenly Baczewski said, “But when I ask you a question, next time you better fuckin’ answer me.” With a lightning quick jab he snatched the glasses off Caleb’s face. The strap held for a moment, pitching Caleb’s head forward, then made a snapping sound as it rubber-banded off the stems.
“Hey, gimme those back!” Caleb shouted. He pawed at the air as the bully held them on high out of his reach. Then he pushed Caleb so hard he spilled to the ground, scraping his elbows and palms. His bike clattered down beside him, sounding like someone had upturned a silverware drawer.
As Baczewski walked back to his own bicycle, he said over his shoulder, “Lucky I don’t smash ‘em just to teach you a lesson.” Then he stepped down into the low ditch that ran around the perimeter of the cul de sac. Bending deep at the waist, he chucked Caleb’s glasses underhand into the black mouth of the small drainage pipe that ran under the mansion’s packed dirt driveway. Caleb heard them ricochet off the walls with the sound of a pebble dropped into a well. Then Baczewski was back on his bike. “C’mon, let’s get outta here,” he said to Maurice and Leon and the trio pedaled out of sight just as twilight’s purple gloam began to seep into the western sky.
Caleb sat Indian-style, sniffling and trying to stitch together his tattered pride. By that time tomorrow, everyone at Amoret Elementary would have heard of how he’d been found bawling in front of the Harrow place, pants full of piss and face full of terror. And as bad as the reality was, who knew what the story would be by the time Baczewski and his cronies were done embellishing? The final version of the tale that’d spread through the school like smallpox would probably have them finding Caleb squatting in the yard with his pants around his ankles, digging the fingers of one hand in his own asshole and jerking off a border collie with the other. There’d be no spinning this into something positive, no way he could make it into something relatable. No sir. It was safe to say his life was over. This was the kind of story that stuck with you, that became a part of you for the rest of your life like a bad tattoo.
What had I been thinking, going into that house alone? he wondered as he snapped a short green branch off a nearby juniper. He knelt at the culvert’s narrow opening, trying to spot his glasses. There they were, about six feet away, the ear stems silhouetted against the light at the drainage pipe’s other opening. Hopefully they weren’t broken. That’s all he’d need to make this day complete, coming home with broken glasses, triggering his mom’s wrath. He’d be sleeping on his belly tonight for sure from the ass-whooping that would spawn. Plus, for a while he’d be going to school with electrical tape holding them together. As it was, Caleb was outgrowing his pants, and money being tight meant half the time he was going to school in high waters. While the teasing from that’d been mild so far, taped glasses would do nothing to help.
He extended the branch toward the glasses, but with the strap broken the tip just slid around the plastic frames, unable to get purchase. He ducked his head in the pipe along with his shoulder to get more reach. Now the more proximal portion of the branch could reach one hinge, but it was too green and supple, the sapling just bending without moving the glasses.
“C’mon you piece of crap,” he muttered. He inserted his other arm into the pipe so that he looked like Superman in flight and squeezed his shoulders through. The inside of the snug tube felt cold and slick against his skin. The switch still just spun the glasses in place so he shimmied in a little further. Now he was in up to the waist. The stick easily reached the glasses but slapped inefficiently at the hinge. He grimaced with effort, fighting the poor leverage as he could barely move his elbow enough to withdraw the supple branch, to pull the glasses closer to him. The glasses swiveled in place but came no closer. Frustrated, he wedged himself ahead another half a foot, levering himself forward with his knees, which were now at the lip of the pipe. He strained, stretching until he thought his tendons would pop and inhaling sharply through his teeth at the pain when the cut on his leg scraped past the culvert’s lip. Now he could really only move his wrist, a claustrophobic “come here” beckoning gesture, but finally the glasses started to move toward him, an inch, then another before the green sapling bent and slipped off.
He was almost there. There was a small knot where he’d stripped a side stem off the main branch. If he could just get that little “Y” up against the hinge, he thought he could hook the hinge sufficiently to start backing out. But that was when he realized the culvert was not one long tube but connected smaller ones. The seams where they touched flared out, narrowing the diameter of the tube at those junctions ever so slightly and his shoulders were up against one such seam, making it harder to squeeze ahead. He felt around with his toes and palpated the lip of the tube and the first of the culvert’s ribs. The ridge was low and small, hardly anything at all, but it was just enough for him to catch his toes and thrust himself forward slightly, just another inch or two.
But it was enough. His shoulders whined at the discomfort, but mercifully the side branch’s nub caught under the nosepiece securely. The glasses moved easily, hooked as they were. Caleb’s head slumped in relief. Finally, at long, long last, something in this colossally screwed up day had gone his way.
He went to wriggle backwards, to pop his shoulders free and shimmy his hips against the culvert’s ribbed insides.
But his shoulders wouldn’t move. His last push had compressed them so tightly against the seam’s narrowing that he’d lost the mechanical advantage he needed to back up or advance.
If he could get purchase with his toes he’d be alright, he thought. Caleb hooked the tips of his tattered sneakers against the lip of the culvert and pulled, straining until his calf muscles screamed, but he had no leverage. All thoughts of the glasses flew from his mind as he dropped the sapling. He tried and failed to grab the insides of the tube’s ribs with his fingertips and push backwards.
“Oh, no. No no no no no no,” he whimpered.
His predicament revealed itself all at once like a magician’s ta-da. The culvert’s walls were so tight they wouldn’t allow him to take a deep breath. They squeezed him, wringing him out like a wet dishrag. The pipe seemed to be shrinking by the moment. Finally, the frayed leash on his panic snapped and he began to scream.
The feral shrieks of terror he emitted scared him all the more, sounds he wouldn’t have thought himself capable of making. Primal and pure, they were the sounds a rabbit makes when the night owl’s talons sink into its hide and snatch it into the dark sky.
Amplified by the echo, the tiny, enclosed space became a cacophony of noise. His ears were overwhelmed by the frantic drumming of his feet against the lip of the culvert, the reverberation of his screams, and the pounding roar of his own heartbeat. If you’d asked him ten minutes ago whether his reservoir of fear had been depleted, he’d have told you there was nothing left, but he knew now he’d have been wrong. Blind panic seized him for the second time that day, made all the worse by the knowledge that this time, without help, there’d be no escape.
He had a dream once he’d been buried alive, after Momma’d taken him to his great-grandfather’s funeral. Short as he’d been at the time, at first all he’d been able to see above the edge of the casket was the old man’s hook nose and interlaced fingers. He’d wanted to go up and look inside but hadn’t dared ask. When his momma said, “Okay, honey, it’s our turn,” though, he’d felt a dreadful thrill. He clung to her thigh, clutching two fistfuls of her homemade dress as they made their way forward until he stood on the kneeler looking down into the casket.
Grampa Tony had looked the same but different, kind of waxy, like the thrift store’s mannequins. He half-expected the old man to suddenly sit up and say “Boo!”, clutching at him in the kind of prank he’d loved to play in life. But later he’d wondered, how did they know he was really dead? Like, really? Was there any chance he’d only been very sleepy? And what if he didn’t wake up until the coffin was in the ground? In dawning horror, he wondered if that happened a lot? Could that happen to him?
Now he knew what that would be like. The blackness all around, interrupted only by the small disc of light straight ahead with a view of the brown dirt in the ditch beyond. He clawed at the walls until his fingers bled, sobbing and sniveling. Could you go crazy from fear? Caleb was pretty sure he was going to find out.
“Help me! Please! Someone help me! I’m stuck! Heeeelp!” He screamed it over and over until he grew hoarse. Head slumped against his arm, he wept. He lay prostrate like that for so long he lost track of time, exhausted and eyes closed. He whispered into his armpit, “Please Jesus please Jesus please Jesus please Jesus…” Over and over, barely audible, no energy to do anything else other than strain his ears for any sign that help was on the way.
Then he heard something. He perked up, smarting the crown of his head against the top of the pipe so hard he saw stars. Yes, some sound in the distance. Tentative. Intermittent but real. He closed his eyes once again, this time to better focus. There it was, far away. Was it… hoofbeats? Getting more steady, more confluent? The culvert’s acoustics were playing tricks on him. The sound was familiar but off somehow, as his brain flipped through its Rolodex of noises trying to identify the source.
As the sound grew louder, its etiology came to him all at once. The knowledge brought a chill with it. It wasn’t hoofbeats he’d heard. Rather it was a soft patter, as if someone was drumming fingers on a table top. It started softly at first, almost embarrassed to announce itself. Then it built to a dull roar until finally it sounded like bacon sizzling on a skillet. It was worse than anything he’d heard that day: ghosts and ghouls and goblins were nothing compared to this. Worse than the boys’ laughter or the sound of his screams echoing off the walls of what he was growing sure would be his own grave. It halted his screams, choking them off until only guttural sounds came from his throat.
A crack of thunder confirmed his fears. It was the sound of a hard rain.
The kind of rain that would leave the walk leading up to their trailer under a few inches of water, making Momma tip-toe out to the mailbox.
The kind of rain that would turn the high school’s football field into a mud pit Friday night so that the players would look like they all wore the same brown uniform.
The kind of rain that would make the janitor at Amoret Elementary put out buckets to catch the drip down from the ceiling and would thrum a metal roof so hard you’d have to shout to be heard.
The kind of rain that would fill a ditch.
I've always thought the Harrow place a blight on the town.
Retirement’s a natural time for reflection, I s’pose— not that I got a hell of a lot else to fill up my days now, ‘cept putter ‘round these seven-point-six acres and annoy the missus. I look back all the time, feels like. Sittin’ out here on my porch or behind the wheel of my truck before I start it. And I’ve surprised myself with the amount of regret I got ‘bout things. I heard say it’s human nature to think that way, to focus more in the end on your losses ‘stead of your wins. It’s only been two weeks since I walked out of the Sheriff’s office for the last time, shakin’ hands and tryin’ on the gold watch they gave me. I might drive out to Del Rio one of these days, far enough away nobody’d see me do it, and trade it in at some pawn shop for a new Leopold for my ought-six. Now that’s somethin’ I could use.
But it’s that regret what’s got me thinkin’ back to all those years ago, ‘bout that tragic business with the Engel boy. Caleb, I think his name was. That, plus the news I got yesterday mornin’. More on that in a minute.
Back when the Engle boy went missin’, mid-nineties I believe it was, I hadn’t been out to the Harrow place in seven – no, eight. Eight years. Not since we got a tip some wetbacks was holdin’ dog fights in the house’s fruit cellar. I remember bein’ surprised that grupo de hombres had picked the place as a spot for their shenanigans. In fact, was what made me deduce they must’a been from out of town, truth be told, figurin’ anybody local would’a knowed better. And I was right. Turned out, they’d all been from Del Rio, all of ‘em clueless ‘bout the house’s history. That’s some top-shelf police work right there. I like to think that’s the kind of thing kept the good people of Brewster County checkin’ the box on the ballot next to “Lloyd McHenry, candidate for Sheriff” for all those decades. And through that whole goddamn time, I kept hopin’ to come to work one mornin’ and hear a lightning strike had burned the place to the ground overnight. Because one thing was for sure. It wouldn’t have been a bum’s cigarette that made the mansion go up in flames, if it ever did, ‘cause squatters never set foot inside. That fact alone’ll tell you all you need to know ‘bout that goddamn house.
Lookin’ back, after I got the call the Engel boy wasn’t in bed when his momma come home from the three-to-eleven at Penny’s and his bike’d been found in a downpour in front of the Harrow place, I got that feelin’ lawmen get after they been doin’ this here job a while. At the time I splashed my way down the cul de sac, the wheels of my truck throwin’ up sheets of water, it was quarter past two in the morning and he’d been missin’ for almost ten hours. All these years later, I remember how my high beams lit up the rain drops. I dunno. Just funny how some details decide to stick sometimes.
The blues and reds of the two cruisers parked along the curb strobed across the front of the mansion, and I caught myself starin’ at ‘em too long. I seen that sight a million times before but on that particular night it was— well, it felt like they’d hypnotize me given a half a chance, had to actually shake m’ head to snap out of it. That was when I seen a flashlight bouncin’ round one of the rooms on the second floor, through a broken window up ‘ere.
I hunched against the downpour and legged it through the gap in the fence and up onto the porch, water drippin’ from my Stetson. The rain muffled my footsteps so the deputy standin’ in the front door didn’t hear me come up behind. The young fella was cranin’ to look without going in, rubbin’ the front of his neck, protecting it, like somethin’ inside might all of a sudden charge out to rip at his throat.
“Mind tellin’ me what the hell you’re doin’?”
The deputy ‘bout jumped outta his skin. “Hell fire, Sheriff. I ‘most shit my pants.”
“Wanna give me the bullet?”
“Cletus just started searchin’ the house. Said he found the boy’s backpack on the second floor.” His tone turned grim. “Plus, got a blood trail from the staircase that leads here to the porch, but we lost it out there once the rain started up. Found his bicycle yonder.” He jutted his chin off in that direction.
“M’kay. You ruled out yet that he ain’t nowhere on this porch?”
“So how come you ain’t in there helpin’?”
The deputy gave me a half-hearted shrug. “Umm, I figured somebody ought better secure the scene out here.”
“’Ought better secure the scene’, huh?”
“Yessir, I just thought—.”
“Tell you what. Why don’t you go check out the rest of the grounds.” A command, not a question.
“Can it wait ‘til this passes, Sheriff? I go now I’m gonna get soaked to the bone.”
“You made outta sugar?”
“No sir,” he said glumly.
“Then I don’t ‘spect you’re gonna melt.”
“Yessir.” He backed down the low steps, like he didn’t want to turn his back on the house. I watched him squish his way ‘round the corner, then I turned back to look at the cul de sac.
A missing child.
My whole career, I only had to deal with three missing children. Three missing kids in forty-one years as Brewster County Sheriff— well, I guess that’s about as rare as a man’s got a right to ask for. The first, a doughy kid name’a Larry Bagwell, told his momma he was gonna meet up with his friends at a convenience store that’d just bought a Pac Man video game and set off on his bike. That was the last time anybody saw him alive. He stayed missin’ a few weeks ‘til his body clogged the unloading auger at the bottom of one of George Timpkins’ grain silos. He’d apparently been playin’ in the slidin’ mountain of kernels when it collapsed on him, suckin’ him in like quicksand. Smothered him.
Other was Doc Grady’s boy in the early eighties, and, well, my heart ain’t in it for tellin’ you that story ‘cept to say it didn’t end good.
That night there on the porch, my gut told me things with the Engel boy were gonna be somethin’ like that. That whatever endin’ the boy’d known, he likely went through the kind of sufferin’ makes you sorry you were born. Growin’ up, you couldn’t ‘a paid me and my friends to go inside that house. Just ‘cause it looked empty didn’t mean nothin’, we knew. It was sort’a like the way a dead snake’s head can still bite you even after it’s been cut off, kill you dead as Dillinger if you’re not careful. That was a life lesson the Engel boy learned a little too late.
And then the next mornin’ when the rainwater that’d puddled the yard, filled the ditch, and overflowed onto the sidewalk finally started to run off and somebody noticed the worn treads on a small pair of tennis shoes stickin’ out the end of the drainage pipe under the driveway, I knew it for sure. Not the kind’a thing I wanted to be right about, but there it is.
That goddamn house.
Now, I’m not comin’ out and sayin’ I think it’s haunted. I did that, they’d be chasin’ after me with a butterfly net. “Ol’ Lloyd McHenry, lost his marbles there at the end,” they’d say. Mmm-mm. No sir. But I will say this. I think it’s alive. And while I dunno if it’s evil, I’ll one hunnert percent guaran-damn-tee it sure as shit is fickle. Once somebody ducks under that chain link fence, they’re fair game. That house, it’s— well, it’s like a spider, watchin’ and decidin’, tryin’ to make up its mind if it’s hungry ‘nuff to expend the energy.
So now maybe you’ll understand why I’m doin’ what I’m doin’. Even in retirement I keep up m’ ritual of breakfast every mornin’ at Penny’s, and when today I heard over my chicken fried steak and eggs over easy that another child went missin’ out there, this one Louisa Shepherd’s little daughter, I knew what I had to do. These days was easier to find her, what with her phone. Eleven years old and cute as a button, but when I heard tell they found her in that same goddamn upstairs bedroom, with her head twisted halfway ‘round so her left pigtail was on the right and her right one on the left, neck broke, that was bad enough. But that both her eye sockets was empty, eyeballs gouged out and left on the floor side by side so they’d be lookin’ back at whoever found her? Well sir, by the time I finished soppin’ up the whorls of runny egg yolk with my toast, I’d made up my mind.
It took two stops to get the diesel fuel. The first service station was out. Goddamn OPECkers, walkin’ ‘round with fanbelts holdin’ towels on their heads, screwin’ us to the wall. But I got enough to get the job done. And come dark, me, that diesel fuel, and my trusty Zippo that I got at the Fort Hood PX right before I shipped out to ‘Nam are gonna make sure Louisa’s daughter is the last. Doubt I’ll get caught, but if I do, Beau Alexander was my deputy for years, and some say it was my endorsement that won him the election to be my successor as Sheriff. Doubt it’d get so far, though, as me havin’ to call in that favor. Worse comes to worst, I’m old enough that I can just play the dementia card. My wife tells me that in just the two weeks since I retired somethin’ happened to my brain that I ain’t got the sense God gave a goose. She may be right.
That’s somethin’ I’ll put some thought to while I’m watchin’ the Harrow house go up in flames so high they’ll rise up to meet the stars.
Welp. That went to an altogether different place than I predicted when I started. I’m writing this moments after finishing the story and it’s almost Halloween, so maybe that accounts for some of the final destination.
Don’t get me wrong. I really, really like this version. But when the seeds of this yarn were planted, I envisioned something very different. In fact, I wrote about a thousand words before getting distracted with my latest novel, and that quick opening sat in an electronic drawer for well over a calendar year. It’s funny as I go back and re-read that draft. This finished product bears almost no resemblance to it.
The origins of this story reside in a terrifying moment from my childhood, a time they say in which experiences imprint themselves more clearly on our psyche. I can attest to that. I was a boy much younger than Caleb, maybe five or six, playing in the yard of the family who lived behind us with their son. They had a small culvert that ran below their driveway, and one afternoon in that bored way young boys’ll do, he dared me to crawl through it. As here, it was just wide enough for me to shimmy through with my arms straight out in front of me, and I needed to go a relatively short distance, maybe twelve feet or so. It started off easily enough, scared shitless as I was, but unbeknownst to me, the tube had one of the seams I describe, where two small tubes kissed in the middle. This only narrowed the tube a small amount, but it was enough. I got stuck.
Even now, roughly half a century later, my balls are crawling up at the thought of that moment when I realized I couldn’t move forward. Who knows all this time later which details are real and which ones have been filled in by my imagination, but I can remember the friction of the rough concrete rubbing against my skin, the echo – Jesus, the ear shattering echo— of my wails of terror off the narrow, smothering walls, and the way when I tried to take a deep breath as scream-fuel, the walls’ rigidity constricted the expansion of my chest. Worst of all was my friend’s brown face looking back at me from the end of the tube a few feet in front of me with a panicked expression followed by his disappearance. I laugh about it now, but I can only assume his young-boy-thought-process was that if I died in there as it surely looked like I must, he could maintain plausible deniability. I think sheer exhaustion was the only thing that got me out. Once I’d burned off the panic, I found I could wiggle backwards enough to get unstuck and back out the way I came.
As I mentioned, unlike the other stories in this collection, this one rattled around in my head for a long time. In part, this new direction incorporating a haunted house came about on a stroll through our neighborhood. Amy and I live a short walk from Audubon Park, and when the weather’s nice I like to walk over there, make a loop, and come back. On one such trip, I passed an antebellum mansion that was in the process of being renovated. While a chain link fence kept me from getting too close, I walked around the perimeter of the property, the twelve-year-old boy in me fascinated. I got out my iPhone and jotted down my impressions of the house and the sense of passing history it evoked. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was haunted, and if so, does ripping out the guts rip out the ghosts? Does changing out the beams and wallpaper and decorations expunge the spirits? Or do they occupy the space? I still think that’s pretty cool to noodle over. In any case, those two events collided and this story came out.
One final note. I decided at the last minute to set this story in Amoret because I’m considering developing a universe around the town, a la Stephen King’s fictional Castle Rock, Maine. Those of you who read The Bones of Amoret or who decide to check out my forthcoming novel Last I Saw Him will be familiar with Sheriff McHenry. I gotta tell you, the more I write him, the more fleshed-out he’s become in my mind and by now I’ve come to think of him as a friend. I hope you can say the same.