Helen Chappell October 09

 

Haunted House

by

Helen Chappell

   You know that little voice in the back of your mind that warns you that something is a very bad idea, but you open your mouth anyway and “Oh, that sounds like fun” comes out?
    Of course you do. Sometimes I wish I could think faster on my feet when someone suggests something that they think sounds like fun, when I know good and well I’m not going to think it’s one bit fun at all.
Which is how I ended up, on one of the hottest nights of the year, in the hottest haunted house in the history of haunted houses.
   “Come on, you like this stuff, it will be fun!” Someone who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty had told me earlier in the week. “It’s supposed to be a real haunted house, with a ghost and everything! We neeeeed you. Pleeeeeeeeease! It won’t be any fuuuuun without yoooooooou!”
    Flattery will get you everywhere with me, so there I was, in the middle of some godforsaken woods in the tri-county area, sitting in a lawn chair in the former living room of a derelict and abandoned firetrap, waiting for something, anything, supernatural to happen.
    The house was in the middle of a cornfield about a half mile off the road. If you screamed, no one would ever have heard you. The battered two-over and two-under sat in a grove of overgrown black walnut trees, covered with vines and weeds, a testament to nature’s ability to take back its own. Doors and windows were long gone; nightshade and Virginia creeper were coming through the empty eye sockets of the windows and growing up between the rotting floorboards. It seemed to me that the only thing load bearing in the house was the honeysuckle keeping the old place upright.
    Judging by the shattered glass, empty beer cans and spray painted graffiti on the wall (RAW DOUGH KILLS; SATAN 666; FRANK IS A CRANK), at least three generations of teenagers seemed to know about the place. And probably two generations of them were conceived on the rotting mattress in what had been the kitchen. As we approached the place in the fading twilight, I reflected that no self-respecting ghost would ever haunt this place.
    But my companions assured me it really was haunted. Friends of friends had told them about the crazy old man who had lived here and killed people with an ax when they stumbled onto his property. The story was that he’d used their remains to bait up his trotlines. My friends promised me there would be eerie lights and strange sounds, maybe we’d actually see the spirit of the crazy old ax murderer himself.
    So, I took a lawn chair and sat down in the circle we formed in the living room, waiting for full darkness to fall.
    Everyone was trying to be quiet, but every once in a while, perhaps from nerves or boredom, someone would make a remark or laugh and be shushed by everyone else, because this was serious. And we didn’t want to scare the ghost away, did we?
    Well, yes. I did, anyway. This was silly.
    I settled down in the chair. I’m really good at sitting. I can sit with the best of them. Being mildly annoyed at being kept up past my bedtime and my TV shows didn’t help my mood. This place was about as haunted as a supermarket, I decided, and wondered when my young friends would get bored with the game so we could all go home.
    As it grew darker, the only light came through the hollow windows, and long shadows skulked across the floor. It was one of those nights that was so humid the air was like raspberry Jello. You could have cut it with a knife. From time to time, the thinnest breeze stirred through the snaking vines, making them rasp and rattle. Outside, the sullen breeze whispered through the leaves of the trees. From a distance you could hear the sound of the traffic on the highway. Closer by a dog barked and then was silent.
    I could feel my clothes sticking to my skin. The sweat was running from my scalp down my face. Insects buzzed, making me glad I was covered in Cutter’s; otherwise I would have been eaten whole by mosquitoes.
    The lack of anything even vaguely resembling something supernatural, combined with the short attention span of youth started a few muffled giggles. Then someone had to go outside to relieve themselves, and didn’t want to go alone, so several other people went with them. There’s a good reason women always go to the bathroom in groups. Mutual protection.
    Outside it was less hot, but more spooky. Things like trees and old sheds and rusty tractors that looked normal in daylight took on an ominous shadow by moonlight. The empty windows of the house seemed to be staring at us. Something rustled through the cornfield near us and one of the girls almost screamed. It was a raccoon, intent on it’s own business, as startled by us as we were by it. We all laughed nervously.
    When we went back inside, people began to talk in normal voices. They were telling jokes and gossiping about their friends, none of whom I knew. I started looking at the back of my eyelids, and my chin started to drop towards my chest.
    BOOM!!
    It sounded like someone had dropped a cannonball on the roof.
    It was loud enough to make the house shake, and it echoed off the empty, peeling walls. Boom, booma, booma.
   “What the hell?!” One of the guys said, rising to his feet, throwing his chair back in his haste.
    We all looked toward the ceiling.
    I could feel my heart pounding, as if I’d just avoided a head-on collision with a semi on Route 301. I hate surprises. Hate them.
    The same girl tried to scream, but all that came out of her mouth was a little squeak like a mouse.
   “Wow,” I said, which is pretty much my reaction to everything, only I used another word I can’t use in a family publication.
   “We gotta go up there and check this out!” One of the braver guys said. “I’m not lettin’ any ghost scare me!” Knowing about those two tours in Iraq, I believed him.
   “I’ll go with you,” one of the other guys said.
   “Me too. I don’t want to miss anything,” a girl added.
   “Be careful on the stairs,” I advised. “They’re probably rotted through.” I sounded a whole lot calmer than I felt. This was genuinely creepy stuff, and not what I had signed up for.
   “Oh, don’t leave me here alone,” pleaded the other girl, clinging to me. I’m good for clinging to, especially since it would be a cold day in hell before I’d climb a set of rotting stairs, even if Jack the Ripper were at the top, ready to reveal his true identity. Not even if he were holding a winning lottery ticket.
    We watched them climb the rickety stairs, disappearing onto the second floor. We could hear them talking up there, in what sounded like normal voices. Then, a dead and ugly silence.
    After what was probably a minute but felt like a minute on the treadmill, they came downstairs again, tight lipped and pale.
   “Let’s get outta here,” my friend the vet said.
   “What did you see?”
   “Nothing. That’s what’s wrong. Let’s go.”
    So we left. And I was home in time to watch Letterman in the air conditioning.
    Later, I asked my friend what they’d seen up there, really. No, really.
    The man who had dodged IED’s and bullets in the Sandpile just looked at me. “If we’d seen something, anything, a corpse, a ghost, a tree branch, that would have been something I could deal with. But the fact that we didn’t see anything, anything at all, well, that’s when I got scared.”