We weren't friends. But we shared a bond that surpassed even the fear of a haunted house.
Perhaps, guilt was the reason that Ed suggested we stayed in that house in the first place. It was our tribute to Jesse who always wanted to be a part of a horror story. Even if the four of us weren't friends per se, we couldn't go on without paying our respects. Or perhaps, we were trying to cling to false hopes...
We never hung out together. Not unless it was between one and three in the afternoon on Wednesdays ─ the gap between our lectures. We'd gather in the back of the library, among outdated reference books. Most of the time, we wouldn't even talk. We were just four people who'd spend their time in the same room. And yet, these two hours were necessary for our daily lives. Whenever one wasn't around, the rest would feel the wrongness until the next Wednesday came by.
Sometimes, having nothing better to do, I'd watch them. The bored-looking Andrew, who'd cover his ears with headphones and fold paper planes. Sitting close enough, you could hear the music seep through. Over the weeks, though, I recognised only one song.
Ed would snooze most of the time, a book serving as a pillow, his glasses tilted. Sometimes he'd snore.
Jesse, he'd read horror stories.
He liked those stories too much. When he heard the rumour about the house in Redcrag Street, he was shaking with anticipation. He told us about it. Eyes still glued to his pulp fiction, Jesse spoke in thickly dulcet tones, meant to no one in particular. Anyone else would have thought he was reading aloud to himself.
It was an unlucky house – they said that it was 'haunted'. Given what had happened out there, I couldn't blame anyone for claiming so.
When it was built forty-something years ago, the owner's sick father died in the bed, just a few days after moving in. Only a few hours had passed before he was discovered, but no matter what they did, they couldn't get rid of the strange odour lingering in the room. Some said that the old man's daughter-in-law tried to get rid of him with an overdose of medication, that it was the lingering smell of her deed. The accusations led to the woman fading out herself. She'd sense the smell clinging to her all the time, until, almost driven mad, she had her husband take them both away.
Afterwards, the tenants would come and go, never staying for longer than a couple of months. Some would excuse themselves as unable to maintain a house that needed so many fix-ups, some would think up urgent family matters that would make them move out. But for some reason, none could stick there for long.
So the house earned its reputation as an odd one.
Then, one day, came a woman who lived there for two months, then a year, then three.
She had created a garden that many neighbours envied – wall-climbing flowers, roses that bloomed late into the autumn, thick shrubs... The house seemed to be rid of sideways glances. It lasted until her nephew found the whole pet cemetery in her flower beds. No one talked about how he fared after the find.
After that, no one seemed too interested in occupying the house in Redcrag Street, letting it shrink into a lifeless wooden skeleton.
Was it Ed who suggested we'd visit it? I don't think it was me, but it doesn't matter anymore. We all were equally into the idea, too affected by the dullness of October. Rain, wet leaves, sitting in dark rooms, too lazy to get up and turn on the light closer than the one coming from the corridor – it had left us wanting.
I know for certain that it was Ed who said we should meet up after our lectures.
When we arrived there, the sticky, sweet tang of rotting apples took over all of my senses. My stomach did a barrel roll but eventually settled down, and I could take a look around. Though the pavement we stood on was well-maintained, behind the rusted fence, resided a monument of decay. Surrounded by overgrown bushes and shedding trees, the house itself resembled a shrunken old man staring at us with cataract-shrouded eyes. Dark patches of red peeling paint – the sunspots on his face with cracked lips. He was opening wide, waiting for us to step inside, to be chewed with the chipped teeth of the broken floor.
“Well, that's an abandoned house for you,” Ed said, testing the jammed gates. His usually dull voice had gained a thick undertone. “Rotting well.”
“Do you think the bones are still buried out there?” Jesse asked. He was staring into some spot on the wall, almost unblinking. A gust of wind ruffled the ash brown hair as though in answer – the house sucking in a deep, guilty breath.
“The authorities would have gathered it all up,” Ed answered. “You said yourself that the owner was reported.”
We all stood still for a while, looking back at the house's empty mouth, expecting something we couldn't describe. Andrew was the first to turn away. Burying deeper into his jacket to hide from the wet wind, he tilted his head towards the street. “It's cold. Unless you get a kick out of sniffing those apples, let's get going.”
We agreed. Only Jesse's gaze remained glued to the building.
“Someone's inside,” he whispered, “watching us. I thought it was vacant.”
It was Andrew's smack on the back and a “Hey, Halloween is in a week. Wait until then,” that made him stumble forward and turn our way.
I did look back, to tell the truth, tried to see what Jesse had seen. But the house was as empty as before – a rotting cavity that sucked out the fresh air.
“No, I-- he--” Jesse offered us a smile as an apology. “I'm heading the other way.”
That was the last time we've seen Jesse.
Later that night, Andrew got a message from him saying 'I was right.'
That was the last time we've heard from Jesse.
The police couldn't find him either. And now... Now, we stand in front of that gate again.
I can feel its empty gaze, the vacuum that's trying to suck us inside. Andrew gives in. He slams the gate open and steps on the rotten apple. The smell thickens, making him swear and cover his nose with a jacket sleeve.
Ed and I follow. We rise up the slanted stairs to the porch and step through the broken door. It's dark inside, and just as cold as out in the open. The rotten fruits no longer make us feel sick, as the musty odour takes over.
While the other two light up their torches, illuminating the narrow hallway with a broken coat rack and a torn carpet, I can't help but glance back. Something moves in the shadows of the trees. A stray cat gives me a stink eye. Perhaps, it knows how many of its kin has been fed to the plants out there.
We move further in. We step over the gaps in the floor, and some boards creak under my feet. Ed glances back. When our eyes meet, he gives me an awkward smile. He's tense. I can see the finger of his right hand twitch.
There's dust everywhere. It has settled in a thick layer that hasn't been disturbed in years. I brush my fingertip over the kitchen table, and it stays black. Wiping it over the back of my jeans, I can't help but wonder aloud, “He's not here. No one is.”
“You've read Andrew's message. Jesse was around,” Ed replies. He is frowning, but that doesn't last long. Pushing his glasses up his nose, he adds in a calmer tone, “Even if he wasn't, we can still do this much for him.”
“That's not what I meant. Jesse could have wri--”
“Shut it, you two.” It's Andrew whose voice cuts through mine and makes us hush. “Listen.”
We do. We wait for something, still looking at each other. And inevitably, somewhere, we hear it. A dull rasp comes from inside this room and mixes with the slow, but painful pounding of blood in my ears.
The beams from our torches slide along the walls, along the table, empty cabinets. Shadows stretch, but they hide nothing, and the sound eventually stops. Only the hammering inside my own skull remains.
And a sharp clank.
“Ed, you damn pri--!”
I laugh. It's better than to admit the painful thuds of my heart.
Andrew joins in. Ed has rested his hand on the oven door, making it fall open. A rat scurries out and rushes to the safety of the darkness. At least we can explain the sounds. The animal had made its way through the hole in the corner of the old, rusted appliance.
We need to stop and gather our wits again. Perhaps it's the night. Perhaps it's Jesse's voice still whispering, “someone's watching” that keeps the hair on our necks bristled.
I'm not superstitious.
I don't believe in ghosts.
But Jesse did.
We settle on the second floor, in a bedroom where the draft is the weakest. The torches light up a dusty circle on the moth-bitten carpet.
Andrew passes a can of beer. “For Jesse,” we say as we share it. “For our guilt,” we whisper deep inside.
We hear the rasp now and then, but we don't look at the walls anymore. The house sucks in the foul air, its empty gaze and the cold fingers land on our necks, but we push the feeling aside. We drink instead; until the can empties and we drift into slumber.
And so, when the grip tightens, squeezing my breath out, and my eyes snap open – when I see him – I don't have the strength to shout.
The old man clings to me as though he's drowning. His broken nails dig into my skin. His shadow falls over Andrew, and he shifts in the sleep.
I struggle. I rustle. I take a gasp and cry for others.
And all the while, I wonder.
Will they wake fast enough? Will they see what I see? Will they hear the yowls of the strangled cats and the cry of this sick man?
Will they, just like me, hear the silence of Jesse?
Because he's not here.
But if that's the truth, where did Jesse go?
- - -
A second place winner in "THE 'SCREAMS!!!' HALLOWEEN CONTEST!"
Word count: 1785