by Anniina Kafka
“We should go in!”
He’s bouncing on the spot because it’s minus seven outside and dark. Dark since seven this evening; but who cares? It’s never ‘light’ anymore. November—grey month. The uniform clouds block everything out but they never descend low enough to choke you walking on the street.
“We should go,” he says again. “You heard? There’re stories about this place.” And he’s grinning like an idiot.
“Fuck you, Sean. No there aren’t.” I’m rubbing my hands together. My fingers tingle. “Dave got busted for doing drugs here.”
His head turns. “Those who go in never come back.”
“Because they’re scared of juvie!” I spit out.
“Let’s go investigate.” He’s doing the voice, that excited, thrill-seeking voice. It’s full of adventure, full of daring.
“Let’s not,” I say, and it comes out all heaviness and sighs. Because I’d rather not. I’d rather just stay out here now, with the biting cold and the threat of rain and the late trains flying past with their memories of mother commuting home or father visiting with the night carriage.
“Can you stop sucking so hard Chase!” he spits, porch steps creaking under him. He scratches at his Adam’s apple. “Jeez, no one’s going to keep hanging out with you if you’re gonna be this much of a loser. I’m going in.” And he swings the door wide so that it hits the façade.
And I’m going to follow him in, because that’s the way it always is. That’s the way it always is with Sean.
I glance back at the dark tracks. Last train tonight.
I’d rather follow that.
The front room is dusty and large. All of it’s large, it’s a large house. It goes two floors up, when you count the converted attic, and down to the basement from the kitchen where all the ‘hauntings’ happen—that’s just the druggies. Fuck Sean.
He digs out two flashlights from his backpack on the floor, tosses the other to me. “Let’s investigate. Something spooky might happen!”
“We’re not meant to be here.” Mine won’t turn on. The battery compartment’s empty. I toss it back in the bag.
Sean shines his in my face. It’s so dim I don’t even have to squint. “Well don’t sound so bored about it.” Actually annoyed now. “What the hell, you’d think you had more than homework to go back to.” He doesn’t wait, starts walking. “Fine. Fuck off then if you want to so badly.”
But I don’t. I follow him into the lounge. That’s how it always is with Sean.
He shines the light around—uselessly, I get more ambience from the streetlights out front. The furniture is all there, the seats by the bay windows, the coffee table dusty with time and tatty with vandalism. The grand piano across the room, the one with the game leg that finally gave a year back but which still plays if your knees and spine are up to the task. The cheap chandelier above, which some fake-posh neighborhood mother tried to steal and pawn off once, only to find out what it was worth—or not, as it were. Only brought it back, I swear, because of the news casts in order to save face.
Sean shines the torch on it. It’s just glass, but I still like the way it throws the light around the walls. Little fireflies in the room.
He spins around. “Can you imagine what it’s like to own a place like this? They musta been well rich.”
“Yeah, probably.” I’m leaning against the back of the piano. I like to imagine it as someone on all fours sticking their fairer side into the air. It makes me smile.
Sean’s almost finished checking under the furniture. “C’mon, I reckon we can find a joint somewhere if we look hard enough.” He’s up and storming towards the downstairs bedroom now. I wander up as he’s done going through the closet. “Gah, smells like my brothers fucking room in here.” Looks at the bed and grins that stupid creepy grin. “Hey Chase, what if there’s someone sleeping there right now?” The sheets are rumpled and wadded. “I dare you to go lie down.”
“It’s just the group who snuck in. The girls sit on the bed so they can watch the guys from the window and act like the fashion police.”
I head him off toward the dining room, which Sean has a field day with even though it’s the most boring room in the whole place. If I’m going to get into this at all, I want to get upstairs. After that the basement. Ground floors always suck.
Sean skips the kitchen and goes for the stairs. ‘Never do the kitchen or basement until the end.’ He’s got rules. And ‘standards.’ Utter prat.
I’m droopy and I’ve a headache coming on. Sean gets to the landing and he’s waving the torch around like a strobe light. “There’s got to be something up here.” One of the doors creaks open a little more. “Did you see that?!”
The window’s broken in there. It’s boarded up; not that it makes any difference, the wind and rain come in all the same. “Yeah. Spooky.”
He looks between me and the guest bedroom door. “Well?” He nods in its direction. “Y-you go, take a look.”
“Why me?” I really want to massage my temple, it seems to be focussing there.
“You’re the one who’s like ‘there’s nothing here,’ ain’t ya!? So you can go look since you’re so damn brave!”
Don’t sigh. Don’t strop. You’ll piss him off properly, and then he’ll act like a brat for the rest of this and it’ll be miserable as hell. Not worth it. Not worth it.
I walk into the bedroom, doing my utmost not to stomp or stalk. Tattered curtains are flapping in the breeze. It’s started raining—well, drizzling—and the light is distorted by the film of water. I like the rippling orange it casts across the peeling cream wallpaper. It looks warm although it’s not. If you put a hand on the windowpane it’d leave that foggy print.
“It’s the window. There’s a draft.”
He clomps in and deflates. “Ah lame. Would’ve been cool if there’d been someone here.” He coughs and scratches his throat. Dust blankets the floor like a carpet.
“There is.” He looks at me, a little freaked out, and I stare flatly back. “We’re here.”
Sean rolls his eyes. “Fucking hilarious. C’mon.”
The other rooms are lonely. The baby’s room is the most untouched out of everything. There’re dolls in a pile in the corner, and teddies. Everybody thinks they’re so creepy that not even the potheads have enough nerve to come in. I don’t know whether that makes me happy or sad. Happy that the room is left undesecrated, or sad that the teddies don’t get any company. I like the brown teddy with the polkadot bow and satin-button eyes. Sean’s opinion, of course, ‘don’t touch him, he’s the most disturbing one.’ I don’t feel it. I’m glad he’s got friends, but it’s like he wants to be played with. I want to take him with me, but he’d get soaked outside in the rain.
“It’s better in here, where it’s dry,” I tell him. His bow droops a little.
The converted attic has a skylight. The rain drips along the glass in streaks. There’s a king sized bed beneath it, and a cushy chair next to this bay window. There is a basket with yarn and needles beside it on the floor. The curtains had a flowery pattern on them.
“There’s a body on the floor!” Sean runs over to the chair and the window. “The hell,” he kicks at the mound beneath the glass. “It’s just cloth.”
I look up and point. “Curtain rail’s been damaged.” Its halves are hanging in a V-shape. The middle’s been broken with force, hacked at crudely first then snapped. Dare; I’m betting it was a dare.
“Yeah, guess if you left a body here you’d want to hide it in the floorboards. Or the walls.” The sinister voice again.
This whole place would stink of rot if there was a body in the walls. “Yeah, no doubt.”
He’s rummaging around in the drawers now. “Hey, have you found anything yet? Dave said you can find joints here all the time. Or at least cigarettes. We ain’t seen squat yet.” He pulls his head out and kicks the drawer closed. “Fucking Dave is a liar. Bet he just brought his own.”
Goddamn pothead, is this all you ever think about?
But I don’t say it. I don’t ever say it, even though I’m tired of it. Tired of him bragging about doing drugs—he’s never smoked, just pretends he has; it’s an aspiration, Sean’s a moron. But so far I’ve preferred listening to Sean talk about hunting for weed scraps over the idea of being here alone. Or of him here alone.
That’s the way it always is with Sean.
“Of course there’s none here, idiot,” I huff, and I see he’s ready to start snarking at me. “They screw around up here, but they always smoke in the basement. Go look there.”
His scowl turns to an ugly grin and he bounds down the stairs like a hippo. I follow at an even pace, not looking at the paintings along the wall—although the one of the mountains is pretty nice. I’m still of the opinion that the owners must have gone there themselves—the picture is too personal somehow.
The kitchen actually stinks. Blackened tiles are coming loose, and we hear little squeaks and scrabbling as we enter. No one’s opened the fridge in a long time; last person who did threw up from the stench. Sean doesn’t search here. He’s not scared of rodents but he’s paranoid about getting bitten. ‘Dad says you can get rabies from ‘em!’ Bullshit. His father did get a real award for his research, but Sean just comes up with anything off the top of his head and backs it up with his dad’s title.
He once told me puerile fever was something you got for being too sinful.
“There’s nothing in here. Let’s just go down.” He’s standing by the door to the basement, not able to keep still. Clears his throat loudly. “You coming or what?”
The pipes still groan, although the house has been empty for decades. You can hear it down here. The air is deader, heavier. When I’ve got the energy, I spook Sean out by whispering that the sounds are the ghosts moving in the walls. That the air feels heavy because they burned the maid for witchcraft in secret and the ashes of her corpse still hang in the air. It scares the hell out of him. And it wouldn’t be half as satisfying if he didn’t act so hard. But he does, so it is. When I’ve got the energy.
“It’s so cramped down here,” he complains. And coughs. “If you get scared and push me into something I swear I’ll break your nose!” he hisses.
The headache thumps a little harder. Not gone yet then. “Scout’s honour,” I say with a hand in the air. I feel like something…hot towel maybe? Or just an aspirin, although it gives me heartburn like the devil. Mostly I just want to sit and massage my head.
The basement goes all around the stairs like a winding corridor. It feels like a maze. You can’t get lost, not really, but it’s easy to feel claustrophobic. Easier to get disoriented. That’s how Dave was caught—kept running in circles in a drug-induced stupor. Never found the stairs. They’re behind a bit of a corner, but you can only really miss the turn if you’re in a blind panic…or high as a kite.
“Don’t like it down here,” Sean says.
“Let’s just try and find something and get out.”
The walls are grey and crumbling. They drink the light up, swallow the sound. The cops don’t notice anyone here from outside, they just come. Routine. The boiler is down here, they like to sit around it, those who snuck in. Doesn’t get warm anymore, but it’s like the memory is enough. There used to be tools down here, and there’s still a wheelbarrow and some gardening gloves. The rest has been taken along the years, replaced with spray cans, beer cans, garbage. Their place is in the back, the druggies, and Sean leads the way.
He’s not talking now, he’s listening. Listening for sounds that don’t carry. There’s someone walking on the other side of the wall. He flails the flashlight.
“It’s just one of them,” I say. I’m not in the mood tonight. He’s so jumpy, he’ll jump at the sound of his own voice.
“How d’you know?!” He shines the light at my face.
“This is their place.” I shield my eyes, although I don’t have to. Habit. “Chill. He’s probably just getting his bearings.”
The back is empty. Group’s cleared out, but Sean doesn’t find any joints—what a surprise. There’s graffiti on the wall and a blackened, sludgy pit in the middle of the floor. Someone lit an open fire, realized what smoke does when smoke has nowhere to go, then put it out with the only water available. There are myriad used flares and glow sticks around the bench by the wall—the less hazardous form of illumination.
I listen to the footsteps. I wait for Sean to wear himself out.
“Ah piss!” He wipes his face on his sleeve. “Smells like shit. There’s nothing here but rusted cans. Total waste!” He throws the light into the corner. It tumbles and points through him at the wall. “I’m gonna knock Dave’s block off next time I see him. He ain’t gonna lie to me again, damn cheapskate.”
Footsteps come down the stairs. Sean scrabbles for the torch and puts it out.
“Shit!” he hisses, scared now. “It’s gotta be the cops. Chase, get down dammit! If I get busted my ma’s gonna have a fit.”
I keep standing. “It’s not the cops.” The cops stomp about and talk to one another, and there’s always two. Nobody’s talking, just several walking. Probably three.
“It’s just the druggies.”
“Everything’s the fucking druggies with you,” he hisses, then cowers as someone shuffles into the boiler room next door.
“Let’s just go the other way round to the stairs if you’re so worried.”
He hesitates for a minute, listens, then scrambles up ahead. I follow. He doesn’t turn the light on and he’s stumbling around in the dark, waving about. I don’t bother. At one point it feels like we go past someone, but they don’t make a sound and I think they’re beside the far wall, so we just ignore them. Sean reaches the stairs first and hurries so much his feet keep slipping. He stops by the kitchen door, in the halo of streetlights filtering in.
“Chase, c’mon, let’s go!” Idiot’s worried about coppers but is yelling anyway.
I try to take the stairs two at a time. But someone grabs my ankle and yanks. My chest collides with the stairs and I wince. Someone else falls on top of me, and suddenly I can’t move.
“I can’t get up,” I call back. “I’m pinned. I can’t get my ankle free.”
Sean’s eyes go wide and he backs off a step then runs out of the doorway. I think he’s chickened out and left me.
I wonder how I’m going to get out of this. I’ll admit I’ve never had anyone hold me down before, so this is new. I can move my arms, so I try to grab a higher step. But the one on top of me takes me by the wrist and pulls my hand back. Won’t let go. He doesn’t really do anything else though, just won’t let me reach out. I get the feeling he’s kind of confused; the drugs probably. Maybe he’s trying to ride me like a pony up the stairs. But I’m more worried about the guy at the bottom, since he’s pulling now, like he wants me back in the basement. I’m about to ask him to stop when Sean reappears at the door wielding a rusted kitchen pan with a ladle inside. Crap, he’s going to throw it at me, isn’t he?
He bellows and the metal crashes and rattles against the back wall, bouncing down with a clatter. Suddenly the others are gone and I’m free. I run up the stairs and Sean and I leg it from the house.
Outside we stop and look back as the front door swings closed.
Sean’s quiet for a moment (just a moment). “Man, you shoulda seen your face!” he laughs, a bit shakily. “You were terrified.”
I’m not listening. The back of me feels like it’s warm, from the guy who jumped me no doubt. My temple is still hurting.
“Wish we’d found something in there. We’ll need to come back and try again.”
We will. We’ll be back tomorrow night.
That’s the way it always is with Sean.
“Anyway, it’s getting late,” he says, scratching at his throat. It’s gone red. “Mom’s gonna chew me out if she catches me sneaking in. I’m taking the shortcut. Coming with?”
I used to. I used to go with him, but I don’t anymore.
I say, “no I’m good,” and he waves to me and starts heading for the woods. And I stay and watch. And wait…wait for him to come back.
Because Sean doesn’t remember. Doesn’t remember the guy who waited for us in the woods. Doesn’t remember the fight, the bullet through his throat. I still remember the strike on the side of my head. I remember feeling dizzy, the migraine. Kinda remember the drowning.
Sean didn’t think the police were around for us. Thought they came looking for the druggies. Doesn’t remember they found them too, after they overdosed.
Maybe doesn’t remember because they never found him. Never found me either, but I made my peace.
I sit down on the porch steps and watch the tracks. No more trains tonight, but the signal lights still blink. Even after the streetlights go out, lights on the track still blink. And I wait. I wait for the first morning train to come along, and then take back off northward.
I want to leave.
I want to follow that train.
But I won’t.
Sean doesn’t remember. He’ll come back tomorrow night, all ready and eager. There’s no one else who talks to him. If I’m not here, he’ll be lonely. He doesn’t remember, he doesn’t know, and he can’t leave. He’ll never leave.
He’ll be alone in a lonely house.
So I play along, I keep him company, when I have the energy.
That’s the way it always is with Sean.
That’s the way it’s been for eighty years.