Normally, unlike his
classmates, Ike slowed when he passed the house, and he didn’t hold his breath,
either. Someday, maybe, he might be called brave instead of creepy. But today
Ike was running, and he knew his legs were too short. He reached the iron
fence, but the older boy kept coming. Smiling at Ike, he began to walk, drawing
out the misery. Ike placed his hand on the gate. He had touched the armpit
high, ornamental black metal before, when he really needed to prove he could be
brave, but the boy still approached, unafraid. Trapped, Ike tried to lift the
latch, but it had forgotten how to move. Then he grabbed the post cap, swung
his leg onto the brace, and tumbled to the other side. He heard footsteps
speeding up, and he scrambled toward the house. The front door had long ago
become a plywood sheet with a sign whose warning was sinking under a rusty
scum. Ike prayed that somewhere, at the side or the back, the house would let
He ran left, past
the large pine. He heard screaming behind him as hinges got forced. He chanced
a look just before the corner. The boy, now through the gate, hesitated, and
then lurched uncertainly forward. Ike kept going. Low along the side he saw
only plywood rectangles and peeling siding, and, high above, shut windows with
jagged, biting glass. But then—there, on the ground ahead—he spied the cellar
door open and flopped onto the weeds. Sunlight flooded the spurt of brick
steps. Ike didn’t pull the door shut, more afraid of stumbling into painful
things than of the boy daring to follow.
The room of dusty
shelves, sunlit and small, left him an easy target. He stepped through a gaping
door and edged into the black basement beyond. Ike sensed more than saw the
light behind him flutter, maybe from trees swaying, or a passing cloud, or a
boy. His steps became infantile; his hands wove, conjuring nothing. He took
some comfort that the boy would be just as blind, and he kept swimming through
the darkness until his fingers struck a wall.
He patted along the
bricks and fat mortar until they vanished. He kicked low, stubbed into steps,
and then tapped upwards. The doorknob at the top turned, and a thin, hopeful
gloom greeted him. He slipped through and closed the door, not wanting to offer
The kitchen was
empty and stark. Sunlight slunk around the edges and chips of the plywood, and
filmy white paint reflected the light. Ike remembered how, after they’d moved
in, the things in his dad’s kitchen had blunted the bare angles. He walked
through a space perfect for a table, climbed into the sink, and looked through
a chink in the boards. He could see a sliver of the bushes that hid the road
and the roof of the house opposite, but no hint of anyone. He went into the
next room, a large space, dusty, its corners softened by old cobwebs.
He walked to the
window. An abandoned paint can let him reach a gap between two boards. A
backyard of tall grass and fennel stretched to the woods, and not one person
was in sight. The boy might still be on one of the other sides, circling, or
even crouched in the grass, able to see him even now. Ike pulled away. The
other door took him into the hallway. The front door, down and away, he knew
was safely nailed shut. The window over it, sectioned like an orange slice,
spilled light across the dusty glass and rocks leading towards it. Ike tested
the back door. Locked. But people could pick locks, he’d heard. Had they
boarded up this one, too? He’d never seen the house from the back and didn’t
know. He ran up the steps.
On the landing he
found three closed doors and an open one. Creeping into that room, he found it,
except for rocks and glass, as empty as those downstairs. But here the walls
were spattered with letters and names. He walked closer and read them,
wondering why here and nowhere else. And then he knew: this is where it had
happened. Older people came to this bedroom because it was the famous one, and
they left their names or initials to prove they had been brave, too.
Ike knew the boy’s
first name started with W, and he found several of those, but he didn’t know
the last. He stood, hyper-alert. He thought he heard a wooden tap, but it could
be anything, from an animal to a tree. Ghosts would be quiet—imaginary friend
quiet. An older boy would not.
“Hide me,” he begged
The house did not
reply. Ike prayed to be invisible and silent and beyond hurt. That worked most
times at school or at home, but it also incited certain people, sometimes a
lot. He put his palm to the wall. “Please,” he whispered.
The daughter kept
quiet. Well, maybe she didn’t like this room. He realized he wouldn’t either.
He went back to the landing. The floorboards creaked. He heard an echoing creak
far away in the house. He froze. Another creak. Settling? William? That’s his
name—William. He tiptoed to the wall and crept along it; crossing the noisy
expanse in the middle would give him away. He opened the door next to Eliza’s.
It gave—a crack of expanding wood letting go.
This room held a
heavy desk with no drawers and a window with gauzy curtains. The yellowy-white
fabric made the day seem later, and if he were dead like the girl he would want
to be here, where it was not so sunny and sharp. He crept to the window. He
could see the road. A small group of kids had reached the house and he could
tell they were about to launch into a run. They looked toward the house, the
front, but one girl looked up and at the side. She shrieked and ran before the
Ike realized that
she had seen him, misty through the curtains. He wanted more than anything to
be a ghost, unable to be hurt and belonging somewhere. People said that the
family’s heirs were fighting over the ownership, and probably would until they
too were buried, so he felt the house would be here with him almost forever.
He thought he heard
a sound, as soft and slithery as thread pulled through thick cloth. He held his
breath, not moving, staying Dad’s-asleep quiet. He hoped the girl outside would
tell someone she had seen a person in the house and then adults would come, but
he knew they would not. He should have yelled.
He parted the
curtains, metal rings scraping like a dozen knives sharpening. Maybe someone
else would pass. He scanned for the boy but saw no one. He noticed that the
cellar door was shut. Then, from the other room, he heard, or thought he did, a
He looked at the
scoops and peaks of glass that still clung after the rocks. Beyond them, maybe,
the trees could be hiding someone coming—a helpful adult, maybe several. But he
knew there would be nobody, just him and whatever else wandered the house. He
hoped it was Eliza wanting him to join her, to be a playmate to break her
monotony of being left alone when everyone else she knew had left. The only
company she had now were scared or laughing jerks.
He looked at a
smooth slope in one pane. He was so drawn to it that he hurt deep inside. He
could use it. He could join Eliza. This would be his room, his own room, and
people might come and write on his walls and laugh, but they could not touch
him. Not ever. He poked his hand out the window, over the glass. His fear
flowed up his throat like bile before a dry heave, and stuck. He trembled. His
eyes stung. He was too afraid to drop his arm, but the edge was too compelling
for him to pull back. It would hurt. But only for a little while.
“Do it,” a voice
behind him whispered.