It was the late 60s. The Beatles had washed across America like a British tsunami, Vietnam was a grainy, green and black dose of unreality on the evening news, a bunch of hippies had taken over San Francisco, and there was a heck of a rainstorm pouring down on Max Yasgur's farm. But I didn’t know all that then. I was a little bit lost, looking for something. I swear I didn’t go looking for a ghost…well, okay, maybe I did. But I didn’t expect to find one. Heck, I was just a kid. I didn’t expect much of anything.
I was twelve years old, standing knock-kneed in pigtails and ripped denim in front of a haunted house, trying to dig up enough courage to go inside. But I was terrified. I’d read the books and I’d seen the movies on Shock Theater. No matter what, you don’t go inside the spooky old house. No matter who dares you, no matter what lures you. You do not go in.
Hand trembling, I opened the door.
The warped wood screeched when I pushed it. I expected that. But I didn’t expect the dusty floorboards to moan with my every step. I tried not to think about it. I was in. I’d lived around the corner from this house all my life and today I’d finally garnered enough willpower to walk inside.
The light was dim, murky with dust motes and cobwebs. The curtains were little more than yellowed rags hanging in tatters. The windows themselves were so filthy the light coming through was leached of its goodness by layers of grime.
I’d been in the grocery store buying a loaf of bread for supper. The store was only a block from our house. They knew me there almost as well as they knew my Gramps. On my way to the check out, I saw old Mr. Pearcy in the frozen food section, reading labels. Probably trying to figure out which one might taste the most like his wife’s cooking. It had been only a couple of weeks since I’d seen Mrs. Pearcy’s obituary in the newspaper.
I read the newspaper almost every morning over breakfast. I loved reading of any kind. As a joke, Gramps once wrapped my new cereal box in duct tape so I couldn’t read it at the kitchen table. I could tell you the nutrition information for almost every kid’s cereal known to mankind. Reading’s just my thing. It always has been.
“Get the smothered steak,” I whispered as I walked by Mr. Pearcy. “It’s yummy.” I hurried on and got in line to pay for my bread.
“Thanks, Stevie-girl,” I heard him reply.
When I glanced back over my shoulder, I saw that he’d stuck his head back inside the stand-up freezer. The open door facing me had fogged over, but I could make out his silhouette. As I watched, he backed out and held the flat rectangular box in front of his face so that I could see it. He’d replaced the turkey and dressing with the steak. I raised my hand to give him a thumbs-up as he lowered the box into his shopping basket.
All the breath suddenly drained from my body. Mr. Pearcy was gone. On top of his plaid shoulders sat an oozing skull. Wisps of thin gray hair clung to the patchy flesh.
I closed my eyes and sucked in air. When I looked again, it was just Mr. Pearcy standing there with his hand raised, looking at me as if I’d slipped a cog.
“You okay, honey?” The voice came from the woman next to me in line. “You look awfully pale.” She laid her hand on my shoulder as if to steady me. It was obvious she hadn’t seen anything unusual except for me pale and shaking.
“I—I’m okay,” I replied. “Dizzy for a second.” I smiled my best white-liar’s smile. “Just got over an inner ear infection.”
She nodded the sympathetic nod of a grandmother.
I paid and hurried toward home keeping a sharp eye out for Mr. Pearcy, but I didn’t see him again. Must’ve been my imagination. Or a trick of the light. Maybe it was just a reflection off the frosty door.
Now, looking at the steep, dark staircase in front of me, I inhaled slowly, feeling my lungs expand all the way down, moving my diaphragm just like Mr. Morrow, the music teacher, said we should. The image of Mr. Pearcy’s raggedy skull kept trying to creep into my mind, but I wouldn’t let it.
“Lalalalala,” I sang under my breath. Singing always calmed me down and made me feel better. Besides, I knew I hadn’t really seen anything. Stopping here on the way home had been in the back of my mind ever since Gramps had asked me to run down to the store. Just the idea of going in the haunted house was probably the reason I’d seen that awful thing. Over-active imagination, that’s what Gramps always said.
I started forward again. The house was deserted. No one had lived here for ages, and that made it spooky, as if it were holding in a breath, waiting for something. But what if someone else was here? Someone, or something, living upstairs where no one could see? A bum, or a bandit hiding out from the law? I knew it was possible because my Gramps was a semi-retired cop. He said the worst monsters were not under the bed or in the bedroom closet. Instead, they walked among us. I believed him. Gramps was all I had left. I had to believe him. Guess that’s why I didn’t really put much stock in things like ghosts. I was too smart for that, too worldly. But man, was it spooky!
Whaaaa. The floor cried like a baby as I put my foot down a little too solidly. I jerked it back up to balance on one leg like a blue-jean clad flamingo. Carefully, I lowered my foot and inched backwards toward the door. That was enough. I’d proved to myself that I was brave. Besides, the landing at the top of the stairs was wreathed in shadows and even the creepy light from the windows was fading fast. Thinking of bums and bad guys had convinced me I shouldn’t be there.
Dark streaks wafted across the room. That’s nothing but the shadows of trees outside the window, swaying in the breeze. That’s all. I might not believe in ghosts and monsters, but I did believe in intuition, that feeling that tells you when it’s time to book, and right now, my intuition was strong. It took all my will power not to turn and run, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this without panicking, so I held my breath and continued creeping backwards, afraid to take my eyes off that stairway. That’s when I heard it—a sliding sound. Like shoes across a sandy floor.
That was it. That was my undoing. My willpower was all used up. I twisted around to run and crashed right into a tall figure in a soft blue shirt.