The old Jenkins place. The perfect example of something I don’t despise.
It’s got character. Personality. Everything fits.
It has the quiet, settled smell of old things undisturbed.
The air inside is damp and heavy. Dust has settled everywhere, but calmly, as if each bit fit into a precisely destined place.
Door hinges creak, windows are stuck until suddenly they aren’t, and the door knob is slightly warmer to the touch than it should be. As if it retained a bit of residual heat from the person who just went through ahead of you.
Only nobody did.
The last hand that gripped that door knob was covered with blood.
It’s the perfect getaway for a guy who despises humans. And who isn’t drawn to a haunted house? Say a guy wants to show off for his female friends and show up his male friends. What better way to expose their true colors than offer them a challenge they both can’t refuse and can’t abide? Heh.
That was the thought in my mind after school on Friday when I stepped out from behind that oak tree in front of Johnny and Joe Wilkins and Robert “Bobby” Boyd. “Duuudes! What’s up?” I grinned broadly.
All three stopped, but Bobby froze and his hand shot to his chest. “Ah Jeez! Damn! Don’t do that, Nick!”
Then, almost as fast, he remembered the girls strolling along not quite a block behind them. His shoulders relaxed and a grin creased his face. A little too loudly, he said, “Is that the reaction you were looking for?”
The look on Bobby’s face admitted I’d gotten him and begged me not to say anything.
The look on mine said Maybe. Then I grinned again. “Yep, that’s the one.”
Joe glanced at Bobby, then grinned at me. “Hey Nick, what’s up?”
Johnny said, “Hey Nick.”
I exchanged knuckle bumps with each of them. Greetings over, I said, “Hey, I got an idea. Might be fun.” I glanced past Johnny’s shoulder. The girls were still about a half-block away. “You know the old Jenkins place?”
Bobby shook his head almost imperceptibly, uncertain where the girls were, and said, barely above a whisper, “That place doesn’t feel right. Even out on the street, just walking by.”
Joe jostled Bobby from the side. “Yeah, so what?”
Johnny said, “‘Sides, whaddya mean it don’t ‘feel right’? It’s a house.”
Bobby glared at Johnny. “You know what I mean. It feels— I don’t know. Bad. Like evil.”
Joe grinned. “A house can’t feel—“
Mary Simpson came up behind Bobby and put one hand on his shoulder.
He ducked away and stumbled sideways.
Mary grinned. “What feels evil, Weevil?”
Bobby blushed. “Aw… uh, nothin’. I was kiddin’ around with Nick here.”
Joe laughed. “Man, Bobby, I ain’t seen you move that quick since lunch.”
“C’mon Joe. You know I was actin’ on account of us kiddin’ around with Nick.”
“Yeah, that’s all it was,” I said. “He was just actin’.” I moved my left leg back a half-step, grinned and said with mock politeness, “And how are you beautiful ladies doing today?”
They all giggled, then spoke as one in that special girl voice they reserve for certain occasions. “Fine.”
Mary’s eyes glistened for a moment before she averted them. A slight smile remained on her face. We all started walking again.
Darlene said, “So you guys were talking about…?”
In a slightly deeper voice than before, Bobby said, “Ah, the old Jenkins place. We’re gonna stay up there overnight. Or somethin’.”
Johnny said, “Nah, that ain’t it. Nick was just tellin’ us he’s got an idea.” He glanced at me. “Ain’t that right, Nicky?”
“Yeah. Feels like it’s got real character, that place, y’know? Almost like it’s alive or somethin’.”
Bobby glanced sidelong at me and frowned. “How do you know?”
I shrugged. “I been in there a couple times.”
Joe stopped, his expression split between amazement and disbelief. “You what? You were in there?”
I kept walking. “Well… yeah, a couple times. No biggie.”
Bobby said, “Sure, no biggie. I mean it isn’t like you stayed overnight or anything.”
“No. Not exactly. Well, only once.”
Johnny said, “Wait. Only once what?”
“Overnight.” I shrugged again, then looked over and locked eyes with him for a moment. “I went up there late, just decided to stay the night. Nothin’ happened.”
Johnny forced a smile at the others, then said, “So how many times you been up there exactly?”
“Exactly? I don’t know. Maybe six? No, seven. Seven times.”
Bobby took the opportunity. “And you didn’t let us know? Man, we’d’a come with you. All you hadda do is—“
“Nah, I wanted to go myself the first time or two, y’know? Kind’a get a feel for the place.” I stopped walking and the others gathered around. “‘Cause you know, it’s a little spooky at first, goin’ into a place like that. One thing you don’t need is somebody else taggin’ along. You know, both of you bumpin’ into stuff in the dark and all that. Just makes it worse.”
Joe said, “But you been there seven times? How come you never asked us to go then?”
“Well, after the first couple times it just felt sort’a like my place, y’know?” I looked at the ground for a moment, then looked up and shrugged. “Guess I didn’t feel so much like sharing it. Dumb, I know, but now I could almost serve as a guide.”
I looked around the group. “Y’know, we could go up there tonight if you want. Or maybe tomorrow. We got all day tomorrow.”
Almost too quickly, Bobby said, “Well, I’d rather go tonight, but if everybody else wants to wait ‘til—”
Joe frowned. “Who said anything about waiting?” He glanced at his brother. “We’ll go tonight, huh Johnny?”
Johnny glanced quickly at the girls, then me. “Sure. Tonight’d be better. Joe an’ me got chores in the morning.”
I stole a glance at Bobby, who was almost pale. “Whaddya think, Bobby? Wanna go up with us?”
“We get to come too, don’t we?” Susan turned to Darlene. “I’ll just die if we don’t get to come too.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Of course we get to come too, Susan. Besides, it isn’t like Nick owns the place. We could even go up by ourselves if we wanted.” She crossed her arms and turned to me, her lips pursed, a smile tugging at the corners. “So when are we going?”
Did she emphasize we? Maybe not. I tore my gaze from her eyes, got stuck for the longer half of a split second just below her shoulders, then glanced down at her dress and her shoes. “You guys— You might want to change into jeans or something first. It ain’t exactly clean in there. Dress might get torn— It might tear. You know, I mean catch on something. I mean, there’s a lot of jagged edges up there. Well, not a lot, but some, and—”
Mary said, “We’ll meet you on the edge of town at six. That big clump of scrub oak and elm on the right?” She glanced at the other girls. “You guys comin’? We don’t have a lot of time.”
I swear they swayed more walking away than they had coming up the sidewalk. But then, ain’t that always the way?
Bobby said, “Well, that tears it. Won’t be much fun with them along. I’m not goin’.”
Joe shoved him on the arm. “Whaddayou, nuts? It’ll be a lot more fun with them up there than we could have by ourselves.” He glanced at me and shook his head, jerking a thumb over his shoulder in Bobby’s direction. “You believin’ this guy?”
Then he turned back to Bobby. “You moron, girls are scared of everything. We’re gonna have a blast.” He glanced at me again. “Right, Nicky?”
I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Okay, look guys, I’m gonna head home, get some things together. See you at the trees, okay?”
Bobby took a step backward. “Well, maybe.”
Johnny looked at him. “You’re comin’, Bobby. Just be there.” He shook his head. “Jeez.”
The three of them turned right as I continued up the street. I had plans to make.
* * *
I hadn’t told my friends everything about the old Jenkins place.
I went in the first time because it spoke to me. It set tests that I could pass, and it urged me on.
It was the only place in town with a walled-in yard. The wall was only about seven feet high but it looked formidable, fortress-like. It was made of old railroad ties stacked horizontally with some kind of mortar between them, and they interlocked at the ends like logs in a cabin.
There was a gate, also substantial, made of heavy wood planks. From the hasp hung a heavy, solid iron key lock of the kind you might see in a 19th century prison.
Something about that gate and lock and the vines growing up it looked right, like it all belonged and shouldn’t be disturbed. That was all right with me. I didn’t want to bust the lock anyway.
But I did almost ache to get into the place. I didn’t want to tear anything up. I just wanted to see it. I had to see it.
I’d been past the place plenty of times, but there was always someone else around. Most of the time I was with one or more of my friends. A couple of times Mr. Dobbins from down the road was just getting in from work, and once or twice the spinster twins, Joan and Janie Dinwitty, were out for a stroll. I always imagined the two of them were joined at the hip. They walked the same pace, turned exactly the same direction at exactly the same time. Very strange. And when they looked at me— Well, I didn’t like the scrutiny.
Finally, I guess it was three months ago, I was alone. At first I couldn’t believe it.
The wall was there, and the gate and the lock and the vines.
And me. And the house, beckoning to me.
I drifted left as I walked so I’d be close to the wall when the time was right.
I glanced behind me to make sure nobody was watching.
Then I reached up as far as I could and hoisted myself over the wall. It was simple. Getting into the yard wasn’t really satisfying because it was much easier than I expected.
Anyway, I knelt in the yard for a moment, just looking at the front of the house. The front was about thirty feet wide. The narrow double door was centered. It was of heavy wood planks, like the gate. Each side of the door had a small window, about a three-inch square, at about eye level. And then there was one normal window in the wall to the left of the door.
Well, there I was. I was in. I settled back on my haunches, my back against the wall around the yard.
And the house spoke to me for the first time.
There wasn’t a voice or anything. It came to me almost as a realization, but it was crystal clear. Getting into the yard, getting over the wall, was only the first trial. The wall existed only as a way for me to prove I was serious about getting inside the house. How many others had wanted to go in but stopped at the wall?
And that told me something important was in that house.
Something I had to see.
But if it was easy to scale the wall, it was far more difficult to enter the house than I thought it would be. And if the first obstacle was the wall around the front yard, the second obstacle was me.
By the time I had looked long enough and run out of reasons to wait, a half-hour had passed and the day was on the darker side of dusk.
I rose unsteadily, my calves and ankles numbed a bit from having been in one position too long. I convinced myself that waiting so long had been part of the plan. After all, breaking and entering seemed more appropriate an activity for dark than light. I conveniently pushed aside the fact that nobody could see me anyway because of the seven foot wall around the yard.
Out of excuses, I approached the window. The screen was long since rusted out. Only the wood frame remained, bits of the metal screen clinging to the edges.
Many of the tiny nails that held in the narrow frame of the screen itself were protruding. Even in the semi-darkness their rusty heads contrasted against the chipped and faded white paint.
I reached through and unhooked the hook-and-eye latch at the bottom. I tugged the screen frame loose from the sill and swung it upward. Then I lifted it from the broad hooks overhead and set it to the side.
The window was of the old double-hung variety. The panes, top and bottom, were intact. I slipped my fingertips under the top of the frame of the bottom window and pressed upward.
The window stuck, and I thought maybe the latch was engaged. I didn’t want to look, see that it was latched and have another decision to make, so I pushed again. Again it stuck, but it seemed to give a little.
I started to turn away, telling myself I should get home and that I could come back another time. But I knew if I left, I wouldn’t come back.
So I left the decision to fate. I pushed one more time, fully expecting it to remain stuck.
The window slid upward as if it had been listening to my thoughts. A draught of dank, warm air rushed over me.
In the left side of the frame through a short vertical space was a narrow cord. It would lead up to a pulley and then down to a counterweight. The house was older than I thought. Cool.
I glanced around as if there might actually be anyone else in the yard, then turned back to the window. I took a deep breath and held it, then grinned. Did I think there wouldn’t be any air inside?
The dusk had slipped fully into darkness and the moon wouldn’t be up for a couple hours. More confident that I wouldn’t be seen, I grasped the edges of the window frame and pulled myself up.
A form, something about a foot thick, was backed up to the wall beneath me. I felt with my right hand. Cloth upholstery. Cotton batting poking through here and there. A couch. I pushed down on it in a few places. It felt pretty solid. That would make it easier to get in and out.
The fresh, ancient smell of mildew predominated. Farther inside it would smell better, I was sure. I twisted a bit, put my right knee on the back of the couch and—
It gave way. I fell, rolling to the right, hit on couch springs on my back, then continued off the couch onto something soft. Well, something that used to be soft but was now both stiff and pliable, like jerky. I pushed back a bit, raised my head.
And came face to face with a human being. Well, technically, what was left of a human being. Even in the dark, the white of the skull above the eye sockets was recognizable.
I shoved myself up harder, trying to get away, and tripped over jeans that were still wrapped around what used to be hips. As I stumbled farther into the house, I stuck my hands out in front of me, but I didn’t want to touch anything. I went through an arched passageway into a short hall.
There, finally, I brought myself under control.
Not believing what had just happened, I bent over, put my hands on my knees and breathed for a moment, mostly to make sure I still could. While I was still bent over, I turned my head to look back toward the thing on the living room floor. Whatever else happened, I was not going back out that way.
I shook my head. What in the world was I thinking, coming into this place? My breathing and nerves mostly under control, I straightened and put my hands on my hips.
The front door should be around to my right. Only a few feet to go, and I’d be outta there. The air would be fresh and new and clean. There was a wall, and then the street, and then home and my bed. That was the best feeling I’d had the entire day. Maybe the best in my whole life.
I turned to head for the door.
Someone grabbed my left shoulder, hard, alongside my neck, and my right side up under my arm. He shoved me against a wall I didn’t see even after the right side of my face smashed against it.
The fingers of another hand lay along the right side of my throat and I was unable to speak, to yell. In a soft, distant voice, someone said, “Hold him.”
A darkness came out of the darkness. It was behind me but I still saw it somehow, maybe in my mind. It spread across my back, a shadow of a shadow. A cool breath descended across the right side of my neck and two searing hot needles pierced my skin.
Then there was only a dreaming kind of ecstasy. I remembered the body in front of the couch. Soon I would be there too, but I didn’t care.
A moment later I was on the road, walking toward my house.
My perceptions of dark and light. My concept of who I was. My life. My girl.
Mary was after me for a week, wanting to know what had happened. I was different, somehow, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
I finally told her.
I expected her to call me crazy, to dump me, to at least ask for proof.
But she didn’t. She grinned. Then she twirled a strand of hair near her right ear. “Could you come over tonight? Say around 7?”
I did. I even took a small cake I picked up at the bakery to give her parents.
But they weren’t home.
When I got there, she was waiting at the curb. “Let’s go,” she said.
“To the old Jenkins place.”
That first time I stayed all night? That was the night.
When we left in the pre-dawn morning, we were holding hands, both in a dreaming kind of ecstasy. It was nice to know we’d be together forever.
Mary was my first, in more ways than one.
Our new papa has thousands of children. Millions maybe. And tonight Mary and I will help our new papa add Johnny and Joe Wilkins to the fold. And Susan and Darlene, of course.
And Bobby Boyd? He will serve a different purpose.
Hey, Papa gotta eat.
* * * * * * *