Our Haunted House
We had a haunted house when I was growing up. It wasn’t even a block away, over on State Street next to the Catholic church, which had its own graveyard. From the gate in the rusty, hooped wire fence, the house was mostly hidden by Spanish moss hanging down from the live oaks’ enormous branches and by overgrown bushes and vines that covered the walls all the way up to the second storey. Abandoned and rundown and full of all sorts of evil and danger, so everybody said, it was the scariest place in town. Out back, the pine woods we used to explore came to an abrupt end after stretching all the way down to the railroad tracks and out beyond the integrated elementary school at the edge of town.
My friends, except Charlie who lived near the elementary school, all lived on the same block as me. We had everything in reach. The high school, on the west side across the street from my house, had a ball field and two basketball goals, like a real basketball court, only on asphalt. St. Thomas and the haunted house were on the south side. The Baptist church, where my dad was preacher, was on the north side. It had a pecan orchard, and we used to get paid a nickel a pound. On the east side was the strip of stores we called downtown. We spent a lot of time in The General Store looking to buy baseball cards, army men, toy cars, or firecrackers. The stores on Main Street faced the railroad tracks, which were laid out on an embankment just in case the creeks rose.
All of us were born and had lived our entire lives here. Charlie was the most foreign one. He had a strange last name that must have been 10 letters long with only one little vowel squeezed in. His father's father had been in the German cavalry in WWI and his sabre was mounted on the wall in their den where we sometimes watched the Saints play. World War I didn’t matter a whole lot to us. We didn’t know anything about it. All we knew about was the second one—the one with the Japs—and that was from the movies.
Lane and Cory lived next door, and we had a secret tunnel between our yards lined with pine straw. They were Methodists and their dad owned the hardware store. Lane, the oldest, was expected to take over the business one day. Cory was quiet.
Earl, twice our size and age, protected us from the bigger boys. He was especially hard of hearing and spoke funny on account of it. We figured he was deaf since his momma was always screaming at him, inside the house and outside, too. He never talked about his father.
Bobby was the fastest kid in school, and the girls all liked him best. He lived with his grandma and ate sandwiches covered with mayonnaise, didn't matter whether it was a ham sandwich or a banana sandwich. Gross me out. He invited me for lunch once, but I never went back a second time.
Most days after school we did stuff together and didn't go home until dark or later, depending on how persistently we were being called home. Every day was spontaneous—homework rarely kept us home. One day we'd ride across the tracks and go through the other part of town looking for Lucius and watching for Eddie. Lucius we liked, Eddie we feared. Another we'd play football in my side yard. It was like a magnet for the high school boys who got out later than us. It never failed—well, sometimes in the rain it did—but what 10-15 guys would stop by to play. We were still in elementary. They were big. Usually they made us watch, but sometimes they'd let us play if we promised not to cry. Cory was known to. Earl and Bobby were the best. Earl wasn't afraid to tackle anybody, and Bobby could outrun or fake off every one of them; we knew these guys weren’t as good as the high school football team, but we never let on.
In our last year at Lott Elementary, we faced a new challenge. A new kid—frail and freckled wearing ugly black glasses half the size of his face—moved into a trailer in the vacant lot where we used to go and hide in the waist-high grass when we were younger. Billy was sickly-looking and no good at sports, but he had great toys and once Bobby and I got caught playing with his train set while they were out. Billy covered for us telling his parents he’d told us it was ok.
Well, after that we had to let him in. Lane said we should give him a test though, an initiation. Charlie said we should make him go in the Anderson house. He meant the haunted house. No one could think of anything worse, so we agreed. None of us had ever gone in.
“I once got as far as the front porch, but heard something and ran,” said Bobby.
“It can’t be that bad, since it's next to a church—my church, that’s where I go,” put in Charlie.
“Yeah, but your church has a graveyard in the back,” said Earl.
“Our dad told us the house has been empty ever since he was a kid and that it used to belong to a family from Mobile,” said Lane with authority.
“I heard the father killed everybody and then himself,” I chimed in.
“They got a divorce, and the mother died of leukemia. The father was long gone, so the two little girls moved to Montgomery to live with an aunt,” said Charlie.
“But I heard that the two little girls never actually left,” whispered Bobby, as if someone might be listening.
It was agreed that Billy would have to go inside. Earl offered to go and stay on the front porch, but we all said that Billy had to do it alone. I said he'd be alright, that we'd all be at the front gate and besides the police station was only two blocks away, and Bobby could be there in 15 seconds flat. Bobby nodded.
The next day we got Billy to come along to the Anderson house. We told him our plan—that he had to go inside and stay for one hour if he wanted to join us.
“Why?” asked Billy.
“Because we said so,” answered Lane.
“Why this house? Is it haunted?” asked Billy again.
“Of course it's haunted. If it weren't haunted, why would we ask you to go in?” I said, stating the obvious.
“Have you been in it?” he asked, looking first at me then at each of the others.
“I’ve been there,” answered Bobby, which wasn’t quite true but got us past that awkward question. And when Billy asked whether he'd seen or heard anything scary, Bobby said “I didn’t see no ghosts or nothing.”
“Enough questions, just get going, will you?” said Lane, getting impatient.
“Just one more. Where you gonna be if I call for help?” asked Billy.
“Right here, Billy” answered Charlie, patting the top of the gate with both hands.
“Ok, it's 5:30. It'll be getting dark soon and we don't have a flashlight,” said Lane, cutting off any more questions.
“I have matches,” said Billy.
“Just don't burn down the house,” said Lane.
Billy was on the front steps in two minutes. We were staring, eyes fixed on the front door, ready to run. Billy bounced on the loose boards a couple of times making a hideous groaning sound, and then he gently opened the screen door and knocked politely on the wooden door.
“There's nobody there. Just go in,” yelled Charlie.
Billy looked back at Charlie and waved, then he turned the door handle and walked in, closing the door behind him.
“Why'd he do that? Why’d he close the door? Now he's trapped,” said a panicked Bobby.
This went on for a full hour. We couldn't see or hear Billy. We didn't know what had happened to him. Was he still alive? Had the ghost of the father or the little girls or somebody else taken him? Bobby was ready to run for help, but Charlie kept telling him to stay calm. Earl said we should go in after him, but like a chorus we answered “Not me.” Cory swore that he'd seen something in one of the upstairs windows, but he couldn't say whether it was Billy.
All of a sudden we saw the small round light approaching from the side of the house. That light burned out and another was lit. Billy was coming. He had gone out the backdoor. We were all standing there shouting “C’mon, hurry up. Run!” And he kept walking. When he got to the gate, the house was in complete darkness, and he had his back to it.
Until then we'd never had a leader.
Billy reached in his pocket and pulled out a small gold chain with a locket on the end.
“What's that?” I asked.
“It belonged to my mamaw,” he said. “She lived here a long time ago.” Then out of the blue, he shouted "Boo," and Cory and Earl and Bobby nearly jumped out of their skin, and I felt a chill down the middle of my back. Even Lane twitched and took a step back.
After a moment, Billy stifled a chuckle, wisely, and apologized. “My daddy’s gonna buy this house and fix it up so we can live here,” added Billy. Charlie almost smiled, then tried to look inscrutable like his father, the principal.
Billy had pulled one over on us, but much as we wanted to give him a good pounding, we couldn’t because he had the goods on us. After that we thought of Billy more as our mascot. As for our haunted house—it felt like another Santa Claus shock. But there were still youngsters who believed and Halloween was just around the corner.
Peter McMillan, whose roots are in Alabama and Georgia, is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers. In 2012, he published his first book, Flash! Fiction.
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