IN AUGUST, THE AIR CLICKED ON IN THE MORNING AND STAYED ON ALL DAY.The walls and floors vibrated to it as if it were music, buzzing through underground subwoofers. That morning the house smelled of paint and cold bacon; at 9, the already-too-hot light came in through the curtains colored dull orange and fuzzy. In a back room, the TV played cartoons to a chaos of Barbies lying felled like a stand of pines after a volcanic eruption. The Corvette was parked on one of their heads and the house was tilted over hard. No one heard the knock, not the first one, though everyone was expecting it.
The police officer standing on the porch shifted his weight to his left foot and settled his hat under his arm more securely. He had a sweaty red mark above his eyebrows and a gold wedding band new enough it still glittered. He shifted his weight once more, cleared his throat, knocked again. The door, when it opened, opened outwards as doors on all Florida houses of a certain age do, outwards so that the policeman had to take a few steps back. The edge of the porch was just behind him.
"Hullo, Jeff. How's your mother doing?"
They didn't shake hands.
"I tell you," the policeman said, "I tell you, Stan, boys will be boys. But this, you know."
Stan passed a hand over his forehead and gathered one of his daughters up next to him. They stood just inside the threshold. She wore a sundress that dropped one tie over her left shoulder; he was dressed for a Saturday morning in the clothes he wore for painting. His t-shirt was yellow under the armpits, torn around the neck. Though the hair on his suntanned forearms looked freshly scrubbed and damp, the bandana over his eyebrows, navy blue with little flowers, was paint-splotched and sweaty. On weekdays, he was a suit man, gray suits normally, with ties his wife picked out for him. He drove the Buick five miles to work, came home for lunch, or went to a local restaurant to do business. He had an office in Tampa, too, but he didn't go there often.
This morning, this late morning really, he'd already had his bacon and eggs and toast, read the paper, been on the phone, and begun painting the ceiling in the kitchen, waiting for the police to come by. He stood in his doorway with his young daughter tucked into his thigh, sucking her thumb, her mouth stained already this early into a circle of cherry Kool-aid. He nodded, leaned out to look at the cruiser in the driveway.
"The boys are here in the car, but they'll have to show up next week at JD."
"Can you keep it out of the papers?"
"Well, you see. I don't know." Jeff shifted the hat again, rubbed its bright plastic brim with his thumb, looked away from the door at the shrubbery.
"Well, really, Jeff. As you say, boys will be boys. Why would this be any different?"
Jeff looked at the air just in front of him, said nothing but "You know, Stan, this is--this is something else entirely," then handed him a piece of paper with directions to juvenile detention. He knew the way already, and Jeff knew he knew. He used the sidewalk to get back to his cruiser though it would have been shorter to cut across the wet lawn, less respectful, but a shortcut. He put on his hat before opening the back door and letting the boys go. They said nothing at all, didn't even look towards the front door. They rose out of the backseat from behind the headrests and glass like blackbirds neverminding anything. They went inside, through the garage and into the kitchen with its wet ceiling, the floor covered over in drop cloths. A door slammed, and another television came on, muffled.
They had been taken home, having been booked, released, and told never to go back to where it happened--down to the water, to the old houses, the vacation places abandoned for summer and used by the local kids as haunts and hangouts. The bay was wreathed around with palms and mulberries and stunted mangroves mixed with Australian firs brought in as breaks in the 1940s or 50s but already, twenty or so years out, they were nuisance trees. Eruptions of anonymous brush filled in all the gaps. At odd intervals an old oak with long branches parted the jungle and dangled its resurrection ferns dangerously over the water. Spanish moss softened everything like rain; hibiscus blooms glowed like sequins. At low tide each day the bottom rose out of the bay, thick with salt muck. In the summer, it cooked in the sun, the reek of overheated sewage and rotting fish summoning the crabs--hermits, blues, rocks, fiddlers. They fought viciously over the spoils until the gulls came up, scattered the flies, ate the crabs that didn't skitter off, and claimed the carcasses, each one, all the while squalling into the stink. They settled in clouds, lifting and rising like steam from a stew, their wings curved and precise, beating each other in haste. They conquered everything, even sound.
The Haunted House sat on a bluff above the bay, thickly crowded in with jungle. It was built sometime around the turn of the last century by snowbirds as a winter vacation place for people who vacation six months of the year to stay warm. The house was squat, square, a single-story clapboard-sided bungalow deeply overhung all around with eaves like eyelids over half-closed eyes. It had two gables with windows for ventilating the attic; they reflected the water and the trees and seemed more like mirrors than transparent. The windows on the veranda cut to the ground and opened outwards, as did the shutters that stayed closed all summer to keep the carpets from fading in the sun. The shutters had been painted a mossy green over and over again. They were crusted with ages of paint, thick with it, even where it was peeled away. In spots you could see all the layers of green, all the years of painting, like looking into an onion cut away just in once place. The furniture that filled the veranda from Labor Day to Easter had been stacked in a shed by the old black caretaker; it was visible, ghostly like an orphan in bed, through the shed's one grimy window.
The house was made to be entered, to be explored. It was strange and dark and empty like a dusty alcove in an abandoned church. Children would collect in the morning on the patio behind it to play rock-paper-scissors. The eldest, almost an adolescent though his voice was still young and high like a girl's, was Hugh. His mother cut his blond hair once a month with clippers that sounded like angry bees close to his head. It seemed like she'd always just done it and you could see his scalp, pink and tender, and his ears stuck out almost unnaturally, but it was the haircut that made it seem so. He was tall for his age, had a thick neck, and brown eyes that looked a little girlish until you saw them in the context of his face, which was all planes, heavy jawed, and powerful. Hugh was smart, quick, clever with words, more clever with strategy. He wore tank tops and cutoffs like all of them did, only somehow his seemed better, cooler, more with it.
Hugh won everything more often than not and on a day just before his arrest, he won again by smashing a rock on another boy's scissors. Then he chose his agents: his younger sister and two other children near her age. Those he didn't choose made sounds of relief, barely or not at all hidden, one boy hooting off into the palmettos like a monkey in faked disappointment. His sister raised her hand like in school, but didn't wait to be called on. "What am I supposed to take?" The other two were moving through the window already, barefooted. The girl's shorts were lime green terry cloth.
"Dunno, anything I guess. Take a chair, maybe. We could sell it."
"A chair? Which one?"
"I don't care, take one from the bedroom."
"Which one from the bedroom?"
"I don't care . Just take a chair."
"How am I going to get it through the window?"
They were inside, waiting for her, their faces floating above the horizontal of the sill. One of them poked his head back out. He looked sweaty and annoyed. "Hey. Hey," he said.
"I'm coming ."
Quick as anything, she slipped off her flip-flops and was through the window with the others, looking for a chair to take, one small enough to hoist out the back, and valuable enough to impress her brother, though she knew she'd never take it. No one ever took much of anything, really.
They went in through the kitchen window, moved quickly into the house proper. In the pantry just outside the kitchen door were stacked cases of Campbell's soup, tomato or chicken noodle, and boxed-up cans of Pepsi. Down a short hall was the bathroom and further on, a pair of dark bedrooms, mattresses bare, lamps and chairs sheeted over against the dust. The hall floor was old and creaky, each footfall snapping and groaning through the crawlspace under the house until it echoed in another room, like a conversation. The house smelled of something unidentifiable, probably the scent of bodies and mildew and things used to clean up. In the bathroom, under the claw-foot tub, a congregation of upturned palmetto bugs lay in perpetual preservation--always the same three, their antennae simply collecting the dust and detritus that fell or blew under there, growing rimy or hoary like old men's beards. The cool white porcelain of the tub and john were stained brown with well water; the floor felt cold all summer long; the vines grew through and over the window screen, their tiny saucer feet pressed into the mesh. The light in there was dimmer and somehow greener than elsewhere in the house. Nothing dripped though it seemed something should have.
If this was a grotto, the enormous dining room was a museum full of antiques and old glass. The floors were laid in some dark wood, hard and cold as stone, patterned with the sunlight that came through the shutters and into the dining room not in streaks but in horizontal patches, as if it were peeking through fingers. Under the immense black table lay a wool rug with elephants on the borders, monkeys, tigers, giraffes, a whole African zoo cavorting in riots of flowers, not the kind outside the windows, but flowers from the real jungle, flowers from elsewhere. They looked like they might smell gorgeous, like they grew on trees high up into the canopy, high enough that they were just shadows against the bright light of the African sun. Three bow-front china chests stood in a row along one wall, filled with everything transparent, cut, shining in the dim light. Another ancient chest took up nearly all the opposite wall. Its doors were worm-marred and carved all over with fruit polished nearly to reality--the grapes virtually grapes, the apples dangling from branches with actual weight, the pomegranates something understandably enticing. It held china, almost innumerable plates and bowls and serving pieces in two patterns, one very old with blue edging, one much younger, with fat peonies hand painted on all the borders. On the bottom shelf crouched two old teacups from some other pattern, set there and forgotten.
When the children left, they went out the window, the way they came in. The eldest crawled out first, Pepsi stuffed in his shorts; the second one emerged with a tie tack shaped like a baseball diamond with a little red stone where home plate would be--it had a brass chain with a wicked-looking pin at the end. Hugh's sister had picked up a postcard from the long buffet in the dining room, out of the top drawer with the paper napkins in it. The postcard showed the ocean and a wide beach with a couple of striped umbrellas in the background. In the foreground an alligator flashed his huge red smile, teeth like a crooked mountain range, mouth full of bloody colored tongue. He looked like he might wink. The caption read: Send more tourists. The last ones were tasty . Only a handful of kids were still waiting when they came out of the house. Hugh stood by the window. He'd taken off his shirt and his ribs showed when he moved. His legs looked stronger than any of the other children's, his knees not knobs anymore, but real knees, adult knees, with only the shadow of a scab on the left one.
Since he had won the game, he got whatever they brought out: that was the rule. He could keep it, sell it, give it back or away. So once they'd all assembled on the deck again, they turned over their things, the tie-tack, the Pepsi, the postcard. Hugh didn't say anything about the pop or the tie tack or the postcard.
"No chair?" he asked her, scratching the back of one hand. She couldn't tell if he was mad or just joking with her.
"Weren't any," she said. She brushed her feet off against her ankles and shrugged. He looked at her once, sort of under his brows sideways, then pocketed the tie tack, peeled the tab off the pop and gave it to one of the girls, who sipped it gratefully. He left the postcard on the windowsill and started walking down the path to the bay, the other kids following like a wake.
"Hey, Hugh. They were all too big, I swear." His sister didn't move off the deck.
"Wasn't anything else you could take?" This over his shoulder.
"Like what? I got a postcard. Hey, Hugh. Hugh." She was shouting. But he was already done talking, so she picked up her flip-flops, and went walking after him, down the sandy track through the palmettos. They scratched her legs but she didn't care. She tucked the postcard into her halter-top. An edge bit near her armpit. She thought for a minute that she'd sail it into the bay.
Though Hugh had named it the Haunted House, it was the younger boys who wanted to believe in the ghost. They insisted that they had seen ghosts, or maybe something moving, something whispering in their ear, something that sounded like the scraping of footsteps or the passing of a last breath in the closed space of the closed up house. It wasn't a breeze. It was a ghost. They had heard somewhere, who knows where, that a child had been stowed in the attic until it had been forgotten and died there, only to be discovered years later curled into the corner like a snake, a squat mound of dusty bones in clothes from another era. The ghost was angry and mournful, it wandered the house crying for its parents, for something to eat, for someone to feed it, to love it. It was always looking for parents or if not that, siblings who might join it, come to play until lunch, which never came. There were steps to the attic, a door, with a padlock, at the top of them. The boys, piqued to a pitch of competition, would run up the stairs, slap the door, run down and head straight out the kitchen window vaulting like professional gymnasts. They bent flat doubled over once they made it outside, panted hard into the deck. Sometimes, with their breath almost caught, they'd look up, squint into the light, point at the small airing window under the eave-peak and say, "Look, look, there it is. Can you see it? It's watching. Look." They'd all look, the boys nodding to each other, the face in the panes like stained glass in a cathedral, like just so many shadows in motion it seemed, or maybe not, maybe there was something there in the house that wanted them to stay.
By the end of that summer, the last one with the Haunted House in it, they were bored and hot, and taking pencils seemed like small business, particularly since the ghost had gotten braver. One of the boys swore he saw it, swore it took the stairs two at a time, ran him and his friend into the bathroom, and soaked them with the shower hose. They were so frightened they didn't scream once, he said, just watched the water fall on them in sheets like so much dirt into a grave. When the ghost boy was finished washing them, he mimed a chase, went out the bathroom door, waited in the hall for a while. They could hear him whistling as he went away finally into the TV room. He clicked the knob on the TV, twisted it to something so loud they could hear it outside, and sat down heavily in one of the recliners. It made a solid chunk as he pushed the back flat. But Hugh said that when he came in after them, he found nothing like that, just the two of them behind the bathroom door, crouched in a corner over a small puddle that he said was piss. He got a towel from the kitchen, sopped it up so no one would know they'd been there, shoved the towel under the tub beside the bugs when he was done. The TV was on, but the recliner was upright, the velvet undisturbed, a little dusty. No handprints. No footprints. No scary sounds. Hugh turned off the TV, picked up the dirty towel, ushered the two boys out. Out on the patio, he tried to get them to say who it was turned on the television like that to scare the other one, but they weren't talking about it, then. Only afterwards, when they could tell the story how they liked it.
The younger children went into the Haunted House only during daylight, but by the end of the summer the older boys had other plans. They were bored, they wanted to be really scared, to stay the night in the dark. Hugh led them. He and his brother and another boy from down the street, a boy nearly in middle school, with white-blond hair and alarming blue eyes, decided to sleep over. They weren't afraid. They left their respective houses by backdoor or window on the last day of August after it was good and dark, after ten. Their parents never heard them, never really expected them to do anything like this, not after the last time. They believed in reform, in the essential goodness of their sons, particularly in the effectiveness of discipline. As they watched television in the living room, the ice clinking in their Manhattans, their voices and the television rising and falling out of sync with each other, their sons headed out towards the bay.
They went in the window in one great stride, over into the house all together, all at once, like a tide over bridge or a ridge of sand, like soldiers to an ambush, and went straight to the bathroom, straight to the medicine chest. They'd never explored that before: it wasn't in their frame of reference really, not the way the TV was, or the soda or the bedrooms or the kitchen. But they were bored with everything, with the other rooms in the house, and it would be an adventure. One of them pulled the chain on the light over the sink. It flickered a few times, then came on bright, too bright in that small space. It buzzed more like a timer going off in another room, across the house with the door closed, than an insect. It insisted on buzzing. The three boys showed up in the mirror without looking at themselves.
One of them pulled open the mirrored door, their faces sliding away to the right and out of the reflection. He picked up the razor and Barbasol from the top shelf, put the razor down but shook the can to see how much was left. It had rust in a ring around the bottom that matched the rusty ring on the shelf it had come from. There were some prescription bottles about half full of something old people took and some bandaids and a bottle of Mercurochrome gone crusty around the lid. They couldn't decide what to do with any of this, so they took everything out, balled it up in the bottom of their t-shirts and headed for TV room. They put everything from the bathroom on the coffee table, then allotted sleeping space, one boy in each recliner, one draped over the sofa. They waited for something to happen, to do something, anything. They counted the pills in the bottle, thought about taking them all, just to see what might happen. Thought about spraying each other with shaving cream, thought about writing on the walls in mercurochrome that they imagined would look like splotches of blood--"Die, pigs, die!" or "Kilgore was here" or just big peace symbols, but they couldn't somehow decide what to do now that they were there and nothing was happening, nothing at all. They talked about what they would do when the ghost came, who would run, who would stay, whether, if they tried to punch him, their fists would go right through him like he was just air. They fell asleep scaring each other with stories about the man with the hook-hand caught in the car door, the hatchet lady from camp coming up the stairs, the phantom dog that howled and wouldn't stop.
The TV was on when they woke up in the dark, in the quiet middle of the night. Outside crickets and frogs sang, one bullfrog insistent. It had rained and the scent of wet came in through the open windows. The TV played a snow pattern, horizontal bars of snow falling nowhere in the screen. Hugh got up to change the channel, but it was after 2 in the morning and nothing was on, not even "The Star Spangled Banner," or the flag, or Johnny Carson. So he left it on, the three of them sleepily watching the white noise as if it were narrative, something to see. None of them knew who was first to catch the smell, the heavy, hot scent of candles and burning sweet-scented candlewax, like something from church only scarier because it was dark but for the television, and this wasn't church at all and they were tired, dead tired, and slow. It was just that someone said, "Do you guys smell something burning?" And they realized they all did. None of them moved for what seemed like a long time.
One of them went carefully out the door of the TV room into the dark hall, and then into each bedroom, snapping on a light quickly, but only keeping it on long enough for the blue flash to fade so he could see nothing was on fire there, no one was there in any of the bedrooms, and not the bathroom either, and not the kitchen. The smell--and then he noticed the light, the quavering light--was coming from the dining room on the other side of the dark kitchen, past the pantry. In the dining room there was light everywhere, candles burning on the china chests, on the tallboy, against the baseboards where there was room. And everything shone back little tongues of flame, multiplying all of them by two or three, mirrors in the varnish on the floor, mirrors on the walls, the mirrors of silvered glasses reflecting the candles and each other, until it seemed the room was a contained fire, the inside of an incandescent lantern. He stood in the doorway for a moment, his mouth agape, then shut his eyes, then called the others and simply pointed at what he saw, the room full of candles and light and fire, the light haze of smoke over it all like a veil.
"He found us," the towheaded boy said, standing in the doorway. "The caretaker, he found us and did this to scare us. We're screwed."
"I don't know. Wouldn't he wake us up?" The youngest started blowing out candles on the floor, spraying wax on the baseboards and walls without realizing it, leaving popcorn marks of wax on everything to dry like spit balls, for scraping off later.
"Depends, I guess he could've done this without us hearing. We were way over there." Hugh pointed back through the kitchen. In comparison, it looked like a dark mouth, and the dining room was the sun, or an open eye.
"Yeah, but how long did this take?"
"I dunno." Hugh shrugged, scratched a bite on his foot. He was wearing shorts and no shirt, and the mosquitoes had come in, in a cloud. Two moths battered themselves against a window pane, the sound like fingers patting on glass.
"Where do you think he is, the bastard? We should get him." The towheaded boy was digging a fingernail into the doorjamb, flaking away the white paint in little bits that fell like snow on the floor.
"We shouldn't leave it like this, right?" the youngest said.
"Why not? The old bastard did it, let him take care of it." The towhead leaned against the doorframe, casually, his arms crossed as if he were talking to family at Thanksgiving. But the youngest one was already working his way around the room, around the floor anyway, using his fingers now to pinch the flames out, using saliva on his fingers to keep them from burning. Each extinguishing made a tiny, audible hiss that seemed to echo into the kitchen. The room was hot, hotter than anywhere else in the house with all this flame, and the window in the kitchen let in cooler air that passed through the dining room and out along the floor through the front windows. The candles flickered, but none went out on its own.
That was when they noticed the table. The caretaker or someone had been there certainly, while they slept maybe--had laid a beautiful tablecloth over the dark wood on the table, ironed out the creases so you couldn't tell even up close that it had been tightly folded only the week before, tucked into the tallboy with a high stack of others almost like it. It flowed over the table thick like melted ice cream, puddling occasionally into little clusters of brocaded white flowers, white on white and only the texture varying to show what they were. Two heavy silver candlesticks held the cloth down in the middle of the table. They looked like extensions of the fat, heavy candles burning in them, melting in waxy runnels of silver on silver. The table had been set for an elaborate dinner, all the china set out as if for a state dinner, all of it emptied from the china cabinet that now stood bare in the corner. Not bare exactly. It was opened so fully that its doors looked like outstretched arms. They cut across the windows on either side of it, as if barring some exit. The shelves had been filled, all of them, with tiny tea candles that sent light into its interior, usually so dark. None of the boys had seen a table dressed like this, no one they knew had seen anything like this. It was posh, horribly posh, strange and rich and exotic. It was more frightening in its way than the candles were, since these were utterly familiar: the boys had been using them since they first set fire to their GI Joes and sent them paratrooping down an old clothesline from the roof into enemy territory in the backyard. But china in graduated stacks at each chair, more carefully arranged stacks of it beside and around rows of glasses, the silverware heavy and brightly polished, seven or eight forks at each setting, two or three spoons at the top of the plate. It was as if they'd stumbled into the Orient.
The caretaker found them next morning huddled in the bathroom, asleep on the floor, all three of them cramped and cold. They had the impression of tile pressed into their cheeks and stretched innocently as they woke up, like children. The police were already by the porch in two cruisers, lights off. They hadn't used their sirens, hadn't needed to, and they tucked the boys into the back seats without any of the kindness you might have expected, any of the kind of camaraderie generally expressed when adolescents pulled harmless pranks. As the cars left the driveway, tires crunching on the oyster shells like they were crushing so many bones, the house stood staring, the shutters thrown back fully, the windows open like startled eyes. It was like this, the caretaker explained at the hearing, when he got there about six in the morning, open like this, staring like this. At first, he thought maybe the tenants had come three weeks early, but then, quickly enough, he realized it was probably a burglary of some sort, so he turned around, and called the police from the nearest house, then waited at the street for them to come.
"Is the house on fire? I don't know why we did it," Hugh said, when they woke him.
"What did you do?"
"I don't know, I don't know. I'm hungry. I want to go home now. Can I go home?"
The TV was blaring somewhere in the back of the house, some cartoon with animals that talked and chased each other, and never did die no matter how high they were when they dropped to the pavement. The flies were thick as pudding everywhere, on the ceilings, the lights, everywhere. One tried crawling into the policeman's eye, but was winked away, then brushed away. It persisted. The boys got up off the floor and seated themselves on the edge of the tub. The two policemen stood with their hands on their hips, waiting. The bathroom was sickeningly crowded.
"Can we go home now, sir?" Hugh asked.
They passed the dining room on the way out the front. They'd never been out that way before and it disoriented them. The youngest wandered a little, in the back, and had to be guided by a hand on his shoulder. The TV cut off suddenly, and the metallic sound of policemen walking met the high, excited sound of buzzing, the flies everywhere in thick coats on the walls and ceilings, lazy and fat and iridescent. At the door of the dining room, the men and boys paused for a moment, unconsciously: none of them intended to, but it was as if there was an eddy there that caught them. The thousand candles, some burned down to the nubs, were out now, the daylight coming in like kliegs through the open front windows. It lit the table set for a feast, the plates and bowls in stacks at each place setting, the glassware, some tipped over as if there had been a great party in the night. The silverware, the many forks and spoons and knives, were all in their correct places, and the napkins, but for one that lay crumpled on a chair, were undisturbed. But it was almost impossible to see the tablecloth. The flies lay on it, hovered over it, jockeyed and tussled on it, as if it were their living room floor and they all family together. There were hundreds of them, thousands, hanging like circus performers from the chandelier.
They were there to eat, as guests. An oblong platter rested under the chandelier, full of something meaty and dark, only half-visible, alive with flies. It hadn't been there in the night, none of the boys remembered it. The candlesticks had been moved to one end, their candles guttered down to nothing. It looked like the room they had all seen many times in the dimmed daylight, had remembered in the uncanny heat of the candles in the night, only it was brighter now, dustier, and smelled repulsive. It confused them, this smell: they knew it was entirely wrong for somewhere you'd eat. They expected the scent of roast or potatoes or turkey, or something else they couldn't know about, like caviar, or roast lamb, or boar. In his deposition to the judge, the caretaker said it smelled of hog-pen, a sty, of slops; when asked to be specific, the word he used was faces ; it smelled of faces. Standing in the doorway for the one second, they took it all in--the flies, the table, the one napkin, the platter--and passed on out to the porch and into the car where they at last realized what they'd seen. It was then, the dour backs of the policemen's heads obscuring the dizzy green of the bay with its bridges and greener fringe, lit pinkly all of it in the morning light, it was then after the doors were shut against them, that the night became like a memory they couldn't quite recall, as if they'd been someone else in another place, watching.
Emily Hipchen the author of an adoption reunion memoir, Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption. Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Northwest Review, Poem and elsewhere. Her essay, “Sight-seeing,” was a finalist for the 2007 Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize for the Essay at New Letters, and another essay, "Transportation," won the 2007 Open Windows prize for creative nonfiction. She is working on a novel entitled Rice, and a collection of short stories, entitled The Citrus Wars. She teaches creative writing at The University of West Georgia.
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