Sunday, June 30, 2013

Haunted Houses by Jeremy Billingsley

Terry, a tougher kid than he seems, leads his friends into an abandoned house with a terrifying history, in Jeremy Billingsley's atmospheric creepy story.

The old Victorian mansion, the only abandoned house on Smith Street, had been passed by the neighborhood kids a hundred times to and from school, had hovered over them as they played street-hockey and stickball on the shared street. One of the few Victorians left in town, its architecture highlighted the home against its more mundane, modern neighbors. Long-since denied human occupation, the house's windows, black like pupils, watched the children and their joy and life, watched with envy and maybe even a bit of contempt.

"We come back after dinner," Terry said, pushing the wire-framed glasses up his nose.

"Do we wear our costumes?" Billy Lancaster asked. Billy was short and pudgy, his blonde hair in a crew cut.

"Of course we wear our costumes, dick weed," Joey Tanner said. "It's Halloween. That's how we get our parents to let us out." Joey was as tall as Terry, but where Terry was lanky Joey was more athletic. Terry's hair was wispy and a dirty blond and Joey's was jet black.

Terry said: "We wouldn't much convince them that we were going trick or treating if we didn't wear our costumes."

"Sorry," Billy said. Then added under his breath: "Geez."

Joey: "So what time did we decide on?"

"Seven-thirty," Terry said, and looked to the other two boys. They nodded in unison and the three shook an oath, then went their separate ways.

"Swear to me, Terry," his father had said last Halloween when Terry had stood looking up at that house. "Swear to me you won't go in that house. No matter what."

"I swear."



Dinner was a quiet, reflective time. His mom and uncle were good at pretending when other faces were around. When it was just the three of them, a heavy uncomfortable silence hung in the stagnant air of the closed-in home. They would attempt civility with any guest, but that guest could still feel the palpable tension. Once he thought Grandma and Grandpa had wanted to talk about his dad, just a month ago when they were visiting, and his mom and uncle were just as polite and chipper. They completely ignored any sentence that contained his father's name.

"You going trick or treating tonight?" his uncle asked.

"Yeah, with Joey and Billy. We're really looking forward to going..."

"'Kay."

Terry finished his meatloaf and went upstairs to change into his costume. He was going as a zombie. Joey was going to be the vampire. Billy was going to be the werewolf. Laboriously Terry applied the makeup after dressing in his torn rags. In the old days, his dad would help him. His dad said you should be the monsters in shifts, and you shouldn't be the same monster as one of your friends. The order should go - as per his dad: zombie; witch/warlock/wizard; vampire; werewolf; ghost; Frankenstein's monster; this catalogue just long enough that it avoided any overlap.

Terry stepped back to examine himself in the mirror and was pretty satisfied with what he saw. It wasn't as good as his dad's zombie - that he could remember - or maybe it was just that he was six the last time he put on the costume.

"I know I promised." He pushed the glasses up his nose. "But I got to do this. And that promise was last year. Everyone knows promises end at New Year's."

That was his dad's rule, but there were also stipulations. That rule applied unless the promise was really, really important. Then it didn't matter how many times you saw January First.



Terry walked out of the house and down the street and stood in front of the old Victorian mansion. The house looked even worse than last year. There were more windows busted. The black hole in the porch was larger. From either side Billy and Joey walked up. Joey was dressed as a vampire. Billy was also dressed as a zombie.

"What the hell?" Terry asked.

"What?" Billy asked. "It was my turn."

"What the hell are you two bitching about?" Joey asked.

"It was my turn," Terry said.

"Bull shit," Billy said.

"Bull true."

"It was my turn," Billy said. "and I got proof."

The sound of the wrought-iron gate swinging open ended the spat. Joey was the first to step into the front yard. Billy followed next. He had rubbed almost all the zombie makeup off his cheeks so that what was left was merely a smudge of green and brown and a few smeared trickles of red.

Terry pushed his glasses up his nose and stepped through the gate. The roots of the old oak broke up through the cement sidewalk. The lawn was bare dirt, some rocks. Terry looked up to the house as the wind picked up, whistling about the eaves, screeching through the broken panes of glass.

"So how come we're standing still? Terry asked.

"You should tell us the story," Joey said.

"I don't know guys," Billy said.

"About the house. Like your dad used to tell it. Then we go in."

"Brian Marsden's parents are letting him throw a party," Billy said.

Terry nodded and cleared his throat. He would do the best he could, but no one could tell the story like his father.

"Dr. Wilhelm Schultz built the house for his wife in 1950. He had been a scientist in Germany during the war, and brought over to the U.S. in what was called Operation Paperclip. They say, during the war, he experimented on the Jewish people in concentration camps. Some were afraid he was continuing his experiments over here. The house was his wedding gift to her. Her gift to him was to have a baby boy. Try as she might, though, she couldn't get pregnant. Dr. Schultz grew desp... despond... desp... on... dent. He began drinking. His wife grew depressed.

"He called her sister to come help around the house. Her sister, a nurse, began to care for Dr. Schultz's wife. And that's when the rumors started. The town wasn't as big as it is now, and people were a lot more in each other's business. They saw only the sister and Dr. Schultz come and go. They never saw his wife. Pretty soon, the sister was pregnant, and people began to suspect foul play. When the sheriff got word of this, he decided to pay a visit to the house.

"She was still alive, but she was not the beautiful woman the town had known. She was rail thin with sunken cheeks and eyes, the skin hanging off her bones. Her hair was cracked and dry, and she refused to come out of her bedroom. The doctor had already moved out of the room and in with her sister. When the sheriff tried to talk to her, she talked about a curse on them that her husband had brought from the war. She laughed, and the sheriff would later report that the look on her face was the most horrific thing he had ever seen.

"The night the baby was born was the night of the year's worst thunderstorm. It was spring, 1955, an unusually hot March. Townspeople all up and down the street could hear the screams coming from the house. The screams lasted well into the night, but soon enough the cry of a baby could be heard down the street. As things quieted the street finally slept and nobody suspected anything for a few days.

"People began to realize that no one had seen hide nor hair of the doctor or his wife's sister or even the new baby. More than that, there was a smell coming from the house. The sheriff returned along with a few of his deputies. When no one answered their knocks they forced the door open and went inside."

Billy and Joey stared at Terry wide-eyed, but Terry's eyes hadn't left the house. He pushed the glasses up on his nose and sighed. They knew the story, but still they waited with bated breath for him to finish.

"A few children have gone missing in there, over the years," Terry said. "My dad said one time a homeless man broke into the house when it was storming bad only to run out screaming just before one o'clock."

"What happened to the family?" Joey asked.

"What happened to the baby?" Billy asked. Both knew the answer already, but caught up in the story as they were, it became a sort of rite for Terry to finish, no matter how many times they had heard the story before.

Terry looked away from the house, looked them each in the eye with a little smile. "The baby? Nobody knows. The sheriff couldn't find the baby anywhere in the house. They dug up the yard trying find any evidence of the kid but couldn't find anything. They found the others, though. Dr. Schultz was found in the kitchen. The cops believed the butcher knife found in his back was the one used to stab him fifty times. The wife's sister was found in the bed, her stomach torn wide open, blood everywhere. One of the deputies wrote later that it looked like something had clawed its way out. The wife was found in her room, her door locked from the outside. She had hung herself over her four post bed from an exposed beam, using the sheets from her bed. The key to her door was found in her husband's pants pocket. Police could find no evidence of forced entry. But it was her fingerprints on the knife's handle."



The three boys looked up to the black windows. The shadow-veiled secrets in the oblong rooms dared the boys to enter and discover them.

Billy said: "We can tell everyone we did. We can go to Brian Marsden's party and you know Ginny Phillips likes you, right Joey?"

"We're going in," Terry said.

"Yeah... yeah," Joey stammered, his fists clinched. "Right."

"But we can just tell people we did," Billy said.

"We're going in!"

"Why?" Billy asked. His cheeks were red and he looked like he was on the verge of crying.

"Because we have to," Terry said. "I have to. You two queef queens can stay out here if you want." He wiped away a tear that stung his eye and stared at both boys to see which would defy him. When neither did, Terry walked up the porch steps, stepped over the hole in the porch, and tried the front door. It swung open invitingly and Terry took in the first images of the house's interior as his flashlight beam illuminated the front entryway. The crimson wallpaper peeling, a high table in the corner, a broken vase, the skeletons of roses and baby's breath that had wilted long ago. He pushed the door wider and stepped into the consuming shadow. There, hung over the mantle and caked in dust, a gold-framed portrait of the doctor and his wife. He turned the flashlight right to a breakfast area, an octagon-shaped room with a great bay window that let in moonlight, casting everything in a pale blue glow. He could make out dark silhouettes of objects; the round table, four chairs, and the tall silhouette of a man in the doorway leading to the kitchen.

Terry shined his light to the doorway. There was no one there. Fingers tapped his shoulders. He spun around to laughter, to two flashlights illuminating the face of a short vampire and a short and pudgy zombie with runny makeup. Anger flashed over Terry's face then faded quickly to laughter and for a moment the only sounds in the house came from the three boys.

Something heavy scooted across the upstairs floor.

The boys looked up, shined their flashlights to the ceiling as plaster snowed down on them. Terry broke their grip and walked through the front entryway to the sitting room, the cracked chimney with plaster in piles on the hearth, the stuffing torn out of the cushions of the couch and chair, the coffee table laying in two big splintered pieces on the floor. Terry stood at the base of the stairs at the back of the room as Joey and Billy caught up to him. His light did little to pierce the darkness only six steps up. Something heavy scooted again.

"C'mon," Terry said.

Each step creaked as the boys ascended. Pressed together, they moved slowly, their lights dancing on the wall and window just beyond the top riser. The sound came again as they reached the top of the stairs. Louder now. They looked down the hall to the source of the sound. Thin light seeped out from around a door frame at the other end of the hall.

Terry crept down the hall. The light flickered. His flashlight illuminated dirty wooden floors, cracks in the paneling, a rat in a far corner whose eyes glowed red. He heard crackling, saw the light dance. He clicked the flashlight off and reached for the doorknob even as it turned and pulled away from him. Terry glanced down the hall to his friends, looked back into the room and entered.

He guessed it had been the sister's room. A fire blazed in the wood-trimmed fireplace, bathing the room in flickering light, gold and yellow. A crimson stain still covered the checkered quilt in the center of the large four-post bed. The door creaked.

"What the hell?" Joey asked.

"I don't know," Terry said.

Billy walked up to the bed, stared at the stain.

"Why is there a fire in this room?" Terry asked. "Why was the front door unlocked?" The boys watched the shadows dance in the firelight as a moan rolled through the house. Just outside the bedroom door, the wooden slat floorboards creaked. As the creaking stopped, the silhouette of someone short appeared in the doorway. Billy and Joey's backs were to the door, but they saw Terry's face and neither wanted to turn around. Billy squeezed his eyes shut. Joey's lower lip quivered in the soft glow.

A giggle wiggled through the halls and abandoned dusty rooms. The silhouette vanished and quick steps could be heard receding down the stairs. There came a creaking, soft and slow, from down the hall, like the old rocker Terry's grandmother kept on her porch.

A few rooms down, a door stood partially open and the black room beyond concealed the source of the rhythmic creak. Terry touched the wood paneled door, pushed. The creaking became louder, like a rope hammock stretched and swinging in the wind; his hand trembling, Terry shined the light into the room.

The doctor's wife swung from the noose in the darkness, her eyes bulging from their sockets, staring down at the boys. Her once pale face was blue-black and swollen, a fat black tongue flopped out from her mouth. The boys screamed and ran down the stairs till they stood, doubled over and huffing in the front room. Using the tail of his shirt, Terry cleaned the fog off his lenses and then walked to the front door. He didn't like that it was closed. He hadn't heard it shut and tried to remember which of them came in last.

"I left it open," Billy said.

Terry tried it. The knob wouldn't even turn.

"We could jump out a window," Joey said.

"There's a back door off the kitchen," Terry said.

Circles of light danced in the darkness, spotlighting a broken vase, the brown and crusted doily on the old table, the corner of a picture frame. Terry shined his light into the kitchen, saw broken tile on the wall, a cracked countertop. The man's face bloody, his eyes open, and as Terry moved the light, he saw the disembodied head floating in the darkness. Only, when he tried to find the head again, it had disappeared.

"I saw that," Billy said.

"We all did," Joey said.

"The house," Terry said. "Trying to scare us is all."

In the kitchen their lights illuminated bits of wall and cabinets, cherry doors barely hanging from the hinges, cobwebs and a black widow scurrying up a line to her hiding spot. Then Terry's flashlight trained on the back door. He tried the knob but the door wouldn't give. Terry turned his shoulder and slammed into the door only to ricochet off.

"Dammit to hell," Terry said.

"You don't sound any tougher when you cuss," Joey said.

"Oh yeah, tough guy, why don't you try?"

Joey bounced off also. Even Billy tried. Terry found a rolling pin in a drawer, and each boy tried to smash that against the cracked glass to no avail. Suddenly Billy began to jump up and down and even laughed.

"Why are you playing the 'tard card?" Joey asked.

"Basement," Billy said. "Window. I saw a window when we were coming in. It was a tiny window near the ground. But it was broken some and if you could break the rest out then someone could climb out and get to the front door and open it or go get help. Only... Oh no...!"

"What?" Terry and Joey asked in unison.

"I won't fit through."

"Then one of us should go," Terry said.

"You're skinnier than me," Joey said. "Quicker too."

"You're stronger than me," Terry said. "You could get the door open better."

"I am stronger than you. That's why I should stay. I can pull from this side while you push from the outside."

"Whatever," Terry said, shined his light around until he found the basement door. It stood open; a cold draft wafted up from the cellar depths. "Pussies," Terry said, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and started down.

There was a smell, wood rot and stale air, a cool dampness all in the darkness. Terry knew he was near something ancient, though his flashlight only showed a regular, run-of-the-mill basement. There were shelves and glass jars filled with murky water and flesh-colored amorphous shapes. In one corner an assortment of stacked white buckets, one inside the other. There were other knickknacks, regular things one would store in a basement, an antique lawnmower and sling-blade, boxes of various sizes. Terry's hopes rose and fell in a single second as he saw the window Billy had mentioned, above a six-foot bookcase, well over his head. That's where most of those glass jars stood, dust-covered and rank. Terry walked up to it, pushed it only to feel it wobble. It wasn't secure against the wall, if he tried to scale it the book case would topple and crush him. But even worse than that, the thought that he would knock the jars over and spill out whatever they contained.

There was another smell, pungent, and the closer he stood to the jars, the stronger it reeked. It smelled like biology class, like the frogs they had to dissect. It was sweet and noxious and made him gag.

"I do like this house."

The voice came from a dark corner. Terry shined his light to the source but saw nothing, cracked plaster and some empty paint cans. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a silhouette. Not very tall, and he thought about shining his light that way, then thought better of it. He didn't really want to see what had to hide in the shadows down here.

"What do you want?" Terry asked.

"To make friends. I've been alone so long."

"You killed your family."

Laughter. "You think I'm the child? I am so much older than that. I watched what the doctor did in Europe, then what he did here. I watched the boy birth himself and grow to nine years old. I watched the doctor's wife hang herself the night the child was born. I listened to the rumors that wound through the town. The boy grew despondent. The family fell apart. Ever since I've wanted a friend. Boys have come, some vagabonds too. No one stays when I show them the house. Some were swallowed. They still walk these halls, but I can't enjoy them after they succumb. The dead's fear is useless. Most of the living just walk on the other side of the street and watch me, keeping their fear all to themselves when they could so easily share it with me."

"What are you?"

"Shine the light and find out," the simulacrum said.

Terry started to then saw an alien shape. He caught an outline of a segmented body, a thorax tapering to a point and what looked like several skinny legs. He pulled the flashlight away. His breaths came quick and shallow, and he only thought of his father. Oh God why couldn't he still have his father.

"But you aren't terrified, either. You're preoccupied. Here or there, it's all the same to you, isn't it," the voice sounded disappointed. "I don't want anyone here who isn't scared."

"What about my friends?"

"Take them too. I don't care. There are some high school boys coming tomorrow. They thought Halloween would be too obvious. I think we'll have some fun."

Terry wasted no time; he rushed upstairs to the kitchen to find his friends and led them through the breakfast area. The ghosts stood against the walls. The doctor with his stab wounds stood next to his wife with the noose around her neck. On the other side of the doctor stood his wife's sister, her dress bloodstained just below the waist. Next to her stood a nine year old boy, emaciated. The child held his mother's hand.

Terry tried the door and it opened easily. Cold dry air blasted him in the face. The stark night greeted them. The boys rushed into the yard, collapsed in the dirt.

"We get to go home," Billy said.

The boys stood, looked back to the house. It squatted dark and silent on the side of the street. Rust-colored leaves scraped the sidewalk, propelled by an autumn zephyr. Terry saw the faces of the dead in the black windows, longing to come outside.

"Yeah," he said. "We get to go home."

One by one the boys walked through the gate, Joey first and then Billy and Terry trailed. Terry turned back to the house but saw no one in the windows.



Terry's home was dark as he approached with no discernible artificial light in the windows. The wrought iron gate squeaked open and dead leaves crunched under foot. He walked up the five wooden steps to the porch and opened the door. Upstairs he greeted his parents' room, dark, the sound of snoring reverberating into the hall. A golden bulb illuminated the carpeted gallery. Terry peeked in and saw his father's side of the bed, a lump still for the moment, its shape masked by bed sheets and a comforter. His mother's side was flat.

He heard a quiet sob. Terry walked around the banister and down the hall and saw his door open. He peeked around the corner and saw his mother. She laid on his bed, cradling the pillows. Tears flowed mercilessly. She was trying to be silent but was not too successful.

"Mom," Terry said.

He heard a rustle and a creak, looked over to see his uncle out of his parent's bed, leaning on the doorframe, staring at him. His eyelids were heavy, his cheeks puffy.

"Leave her alone." His uncle leaned on the doorframe to his parent's room and stared at Terry with bloodshot eyes.

Terry walked to the guestroom. He didn't turn the light on. He undressed in the dark, but rather than get in the bed he walked to the window and peeled apart the blinds. He couldn't see the house exactly but knew where it should be. He thought about his father again. The accident still felt like it had happened only yesterday, but no, his uncle had been with them for six months. Only when the night caught up to him, with a great yawn Terry crawled under the covers and fell into a dreamless sleep.

3 comments:

  1. Nice little "around the campfire" ghost story. I have to say, the title "Haunted Houses" is apropos, as not only was the house they visit filled with spirits of the past, everyone at Terry's house remain "haunted" by his father's passing.

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  2. A good, quick paced story. Never a dull moment.

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  3. You're good at descriptive passages. I felt the story was rather drawn out, but well told.
    Beryl.

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