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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Dark · #2293023
The neighborhood hermit's house holds secrets no one should explore.
Anything green died long ago, even the weeds were only crispy skeletons dotting the front yard. The one tree hunched in the corner hadn't grown a leaf on it in at least four years. Its branches clawed at the sky like spiky fingers. My neighbor wasn’t known for the maintenance of his property.

His yard, a dusty graveyard for vegetation, didn’t hold a candle to the disrepair of his house. The two-story house was the kind that kids dared each other to go ring the doorbell, but never followed through. The paint on the wood slats might have been a light blue, or maybe even white at one point, but now it was an odd shade of peeling gray. Shutters perched here and there for the windows, but only one window’s shutters still clung to both hinges; the eastern window on the second floor.

The rumors floating about his house revolved specifically around that window. People said that they sometimes saw Mr. Grump’s dead daughter standing there, watching the neighborhood. Some said it was Mr. Grump, but that he would dress like his daughter, pretend she was still there.

Even odder rumors spread between adults when they thought kids didn’t listen, but personally, I preferred the cross-dressing grieving father. It was the least scary theory.

We moved in seven years ago when my father’s job transferred, but Mr. Grump was already a broken man. Many years before, his daughter, only sixteen, was found in her room with her throat cut. While the neigbors always had their suspicions, the police cleared Mr. Grump of any involvement. With his wife out of the picture since his daughter was born, he became a hermit. He didn’t deal with anyone and he didn’t care whether we liked the appearance of his house or not.

We’d never been brave enough to sit in front of the decrepit house before, but we saw Mr. Grump drive away. I perched on my bike, in front of his house, with my two friends, Evan and Michael. We drank kool-aid and chewed on Snickers, discussing the possibilities of what lay in the dark house.

“What do you think really happened to his daughter?” Michael asked.

“Maybe he killed her!” Evan suggested.

I nodded in agreement, taking another sip of my cherry drink. Movement in the second-story window caught my eye. A set of yellowed lace curtains hung in the glass and I’d watched them shift.

“Did you guys see that?” I asked, pointing my plastic bottle at the window.

“No, what did you see, Maddie?” Ethan asked. He held a hand over his light brown eyes, trying to see better.

“I saw the curtains fall back in place. Someone, or something, was watching us.”

“No way.” Michael shook his head. “Only the old man lives there and we saw him leave.”

I put on my best ‘imitation mom’ look and said, “Are you calling me a liar?”

“No, I just think you’re crazy.” He raised a red eyebrow at me.

My eyes narrowed with the effort it took to resist punching the smug expression off his freckled face. My hands twitched, aching to curl into fists.

“If you’re so sure she didn’t see anything, why don’t you go check it out?” Evan dared him.

I didn’t know Michael could get paler. It was almost shocking when the color bleached from his face.

“No way!” He scoffed at the idea and turned his green eyes on me. “Hey Maddie, since you’re so convinced you saw something, you go check it out.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the one who saw it,” he explained in a matter-of-fact tone like I was stupid for not understanding.

The urge rose again so I popped the last bite of my candy bar in my mouth to distract me. It may have not been the right choice cause now my fingers curled up against the palm of my hand. The fist was armed and ready.

Evan smiled, ran a hand through his dark blonde hair, and said, “Sure, leave it to you to dare a girl to do something cause you’re too chicken. What a wuss!”

“I am not. It’s just breaking and entering and I’m not a criminal.” Michael put his hands on his hips and spilled dark purple liquid down the side of his jeans.

We laughed, but I put my kickstand down and carefully got off my bike.

“What are you doing?” Michael asked.

“I saw someone in there. I’m going to check it out. I’m not too scared,” I replied, delighting in the way he looked like he swallowed something tart. Almost as good as punching him.

“You don’t really have to, I was just teasing Michael,” Evan said.

I was already halfway up the sidewalk. I turned around and waved, I was going in.

When I tried the doorknob, I was shocked it actually opened. The inside of Mr. Grump’s house smelled like old beans and putrid meat. I covered my nose with my shirt. Most of the windows were covered so it was dark and hard to see, but I found the stairs.

Every step creaked when I stepped on it. Testing each one before I put my full weight on it, I tried not to imagine falling through them at any moment. When I reached the top without incident, I opened the first door to my left. The recognizable yellowed lace curtains hung in the one shiny window.

My heart thumped too fast in my chest. I shouldn’t be in the room, but I needed to see what made the curtains move. Examining the well-lit, surprisingly maintained room, my shoulders drooped. Michael was right, it was empty.

I walked around the bed to the window so I could wave at the boys. But, something creaked behind me and I turned around to see the closet open. A woman stepped out. She wore a full-length dress and long brunette hair fell across her face.

“You died!” I blurted, stumbling backward and hitting my hip on the windowsill.

“No, that was twin sister, silly.” Her cheeks spread too wite with a toothy grin and she took a step towards me. “Daddy said she was the good one.”

She lifted one hand and I saw the knife, glinting in the sunlight.

I turned to the window with a scream already pouring out of me. They never made it in time.

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