by Bill Mullis
Maybe it was the dark paneling in the den, or the way nobody went into the living room, or the long dark hallway that led to the bedrooms. Whatever it was, I hated Aunt Margie’s house. I couldn’t stand to be alone in any part of it, especially the hallway. On our annual visits, I would lay awake at night in Joanne’s room, watching the headlights from the highway play against the walls and ceiling, making monstrous shapes that never, ever were still.
On one of these visits – I must have been eight or nine – Grandma and Aunt Margie went into Columbia to do a little shopping, leaving Joanne, six months my junior, and me in the care of the two older boys, my heroes, while they cut what passed for grass.
The very air was baked, caught between the sunlight beating down from above and its reflection flailing from the white sand below. Jimmy and Bobby were covered in sweat and dust as they struggled with a machine that knew it was built for fescue and resented the scrub grass it was being applied to.
But it was cool on the porch, shaded as it was from the oppressive July sun. I played some silly game with Joanne, who was pretty cool for a girl. The game was interrupted by the sound of insulted machinery and teenage voices. Jimmy, who was old enough to drive a car, had a date, and had to know what time it was.
“I don’t know!” I yelled back.
“Go in and look at the clock!”
The door stood blank and incomprehensible. Beyond it lay an unfathomable dread that I had no words for. And my heroes had ordered me into that wrongness. They didn’t know. If they had ever felt what I felt, they had kept it very quiet. And so had I.
“I can’t tell time!” It was a blatant lie, and Jimmy knew it.
He turned off the lawnmower and leaned on the handle. “Fine. Go with Joanne and get the clock in Mom’s bedroom.”
Down by the bank Bobby was whipping a sling blade through waist-high scrub. Joanne put her doll down. “C’mon,” she said.
And because no boy wants to be called baby, I opened the door and crept into the den.
It was dark and cluttered, the single window having long since been replaced by an air conditioner. The dark paneling was interrupted by framed photographs and an ugly painting on the wall. Light from the kitchen window seeped through the gloom. I tiptoed through the den towards that light, afraid to disturb the darkness. Joanne followed sullenly behind.
Past the kitchen was the center of the house, where dining and living rooms met the bedroom hallway. I would have to go down that hallway. I paused to listen to the house breathe.
I’ve been in a lot of houses, some occupied, some empty. There’s a special feel about an empty house, a waiting expectancy, a space to be filled. There’s another feel in a lived-in house, where the very walls take on the personality of the occupants. This house had neither. There was a whole complete family here, and the house, built expressly for that very family, cared not a whit for any of them. It was dead. And a dead house is fundamentally wrong. I stood there in its very center. The air was thick, pressing around me like hatred, and I hated it back.
I tiptoed down the middle of the corridor, unable to breathe in the absolute stillness. As I passed the room the boys shared I peered into the open door and saw little except a teenagers’ mess and the translucent white rectangle of the curtained window beyond.
The short stretch between that bedroom and the end of the hallway was the longest distance I ever had to creep. The mean little bathroom stood off to the left, in an alcove perfect for lurking. Then there was the end, a dead end, and Aunt Margie’s room on the right.
My hand closed around the portable alarm clock by the bed, and what little thought I had left disappeared. I had a visceral need to be quit of the place. Not caring if Joanne was with me, I quick stepped out into the dark oppression, held my breath, and headed toward the kitchen light.
As I passed the boys’ room I glanced into it for the comfort of the white-curtained rectangle of sun.
The window was still there, but in front of it now was a shadow, a deep miasmic darkness that was worse than if the window had not been there. Through it I could make out the dim sunlight, and around it the curtains glowed with the sun. And though I saw no head, arms, or legs, there was the unmistakable, deep-rooted conviction that it was a man. The malevolence was palpable and threatening.
I screamed again and broke into a full, flat-out run. Behind me I heard Joanne scream and felt her rushing behind me.
I was still screaming when we hit sunlight. Jimmy stopped the mower and caught me, and Bobby came up from the road, still clutching the sling blade. He took the sling blade and went in to see what was there, while Jimmy calmed me down. Joanne said she didn’t see anything; she’d screamed because I’d screamed.
Bobby came out and swore there was nothing in the window. They carried me back in, to show them; and all I could see in the window was curtains.
Forty-five years later, the house is still there, and Aunt Margie still lives in it. Her family still gathers there on holidays. Nobody ever died there; no curse follows its occupants.
A few years ago I drove past it on the way to somewhere else.
I didn’t stop.
Bill Mullis lives in the South Carolina Upstate, in a house devoid of wee ghosties, perhaps because it’s overrun with Labs. You can keep up with him on the Captain’s Log feature at Mind Over Mullis.