01 Feb The Space Between
Can a house be evil? Is it possible for a structure of wood and stone and plaster and glass to become more than the sum of its parts, in the negative sense? It certainly happens in the positive sense. Fill a house with light and love and family and that sense of comfort and well-being seems to permeate the very walls of the place. But … is it possible to architect a bad place, however inadvertently, through the unwitting intersection of board and beam?
The house on Red Apple Road was a bad place. It was an oversized farmhouse crouched sullenly on a slight rise, overlooking thorn-tangled fields long left to run wild. The house’s peeling paint may have once been white, or grey, but sun and time had long leached the true colors away, leaving the walls a jaundiced, sickly yellow. A single diseased elm leaned drunkenly in the shaggy yard, a rusted chain swing hanging from its single limb. The house’s windows were all intact, and winked in the sunlight like they knew a secret.
The rent was cheap. Bad luck and worse circumstance saw me driving a beaten-down Corolla to a nowhere town, for a stay I hoped was only temporary. The house’s owner, Burcell Lowry, bought the place for a steal at a bank auction. The prior owners had stopped paying the mortgage several years before, and had skipped town shortly afterwards. Lowry was a distant relative, and a call from my uncle prompted Lowry to offer the house for only a couple hundred a month.
I began hearing stories about the house soon after I moved in my few possessions. Lowry had a hard time keeping renters, which explained the cheap rent. Most of his tenants stayed less than six months, and one family only stayed for a single night before fleeing the state entirely, leaving behind their deposit and their dog.
I laughed most of these stories off as small town folk trying to haze a newcomer. I had experienced nothing in the house so far, asides from weak water pressure and a lack of functional air-conditioning, which Lowry had remedied with a new window-mount unit. I became more interested when I heard Jim’s story.
Jim was a manager at the Waffle House in town. He was a drunk, but he maintained through his drunkenness with an iron will and genial good humor that made my night shifts as a short order cook bearable, almost fun. “My nephew died in the front yard,” Jim said, drinking from his coffee mug on a slow Monday night — really Tuesday morning. “Cops said he weren’t wearing a seat belt. Car ran off the road, hit the ditch, and threw him out the front window. They said he was dead before he hit the ground.” Jim drank deeply. “Thing is, Paul wasn’t the only one who died in that house’s front yard. If you’re from around here, and you know where you are and where you’re going, you know to be careful driving on Red Apple Road. And you don’t use your brights when you go ’round the curve.”
Red Apple Road curved to the left around the house, and there was a deep ditch between the road and the house. According to Jim, the house’s windows faced directly opposite oncoming traffic, and would reflect the bright light of a car’s high-beams into the driver’s eyes. Every few years, some glare-blinded driver would misjudge the turn and slam into the ditch. By Jim’s count, that curve had claimed over thirty lives.
“Thirty people? Come on, Jim, you’re pulling my leg. Wouldn’t the state put up a guard rail or something?” I asked.
“State’s broke. County’s worse off. It ain’t a ‘priority’, as they say. So folks just slow down. It gets to be habit, I guess. Until one night, maybe they’s drank some, maybe it’s raining, maybe they’s just not thinking on where they are, then BAM.” Jim wiped smudges from the cash register.
“Surely Mr. Lowry would fix the windows, cover them up or something?”
“People have tried,” Jim said. “Shrubs don’t grow in that yard. A family that lived there in the eighties tried putting up black tar paper over the windows, right after a real bad accident. Didn’t last a week. That tar paper came down, and the family moved away.”
“Wow. No wonder the rent’s so cheap,” I said.
Jim laughed. “You don’t know the half of it. Ask around town.” He said no more afterwards, and commanded me to degrease some vent hoods, which I did willingly, lost in thought about my new home.
When I got back to the house, it was full dawn, the sun shining over the horizon, and morning dew sparkled in the fields. The house on Red Apple Road crouched sullenly in the morning mists, seeming to be resentful of the cheerful light. The bare, scrappy yard and the steep-sided embankment had new meaning, as did the scrapes on the asphalt of the road near the house.
I was slightly spooked from Jim’s story, so I did a quick walk through the house. Most of the rooms were bare, save for the living room, which was piled with boxes. My bedroom had a mattress on the floor and a few open boxes of clothing. I had installed heavy black-out curtains as soon as I was hired for my night-shift job, so the room was very dark. After a quick shower, I fell asleep almost instantly.
Only pieces of the dream came back to me, but it involved grasping fingers, and a terrible screaming sound, and flying feathers. I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed, sweat-drenched sheets twisted around me. I was disoriented at first, blinking into bright sunlight. I looked around, and realized that my blackout curtains were gone. I checked my watch. Noon. I had been asleep for only four hours, before the dream. I got out of bed, and walked to one of the windows, thinking the curtains had simply come loose from the wall and fallen to the floor. They had not; there was no sign of them anywhere in the room. I checked the bedroom door, and found it the way I had left it: locked.
I unlocked the bedroom door and walked out into the rest of the house. The front and back doors were both dead-bolted from the inside, and in the kitchen, every cabinet door and every drawer stood open, and their contents were strewn across the floor. By this point, I was pissed. I called my landlord. “Mr. Lowry, I don’t appreciate practical jokes. If this is the way you make up for cheap rent, fine, but don’t mess with my sleep.”
“… I … I don’t know what you’re talking about, son,” said Lowry.
“I’m talking about how you or one of your friends took the curtains off my windows while I was asleep, and messed up my kitchen!” I yelled.
“I have been at a doctor’s appointment all morning. Just calm down. I’ll be there in half an hour and … I’ll reimburse you for any damages.”
By this point there was no way I could sleep, so after cleaning up the kitchen, I started unpacking. Half an hour later, Burcell Lowry rapped on the screen door. I showed him the kitchen, and some stubborn stains on the white cabinet doors, and he made some concerned noises. He had brought a replacement lock set, and I helped hold the doors as he replaced the deadbolts. “I could have sworn I replaced these after the Hernandez family moved out, but you never know. Might be some kids took it in their heads to give you some grief,” he said.
We looked throughout the house for the missing curtains, but could not find them. In one of the two upstairs bedrooms, I noticed a small square cutout for an attic access. I pointed at it, but Lowry refused. “I don’t have a ladder, and besides, this is an old, old house. I fumigate the house between tenants, but you can’t never get rid of all the spiders in old attics like this. If someone took your curtains and put ’em up there, you don’t want ’em back.” I found a roll of aluminum foil in a box in the kitchen, and Lowry helped me tape the foil to the two windows in my bedroom. He left shortly afterwards, and I collapsed into bed, hoping for a few more hours of uninterrupted sleep before my shift.
I woke to the sound of screaming, and for a moment, wondered who was making the noise, until I realized it was me. I couldn’t recall the dream, only that it was bad. A bright light filled the bedroom, casting my shadow hugely on the wall. I turned, and realized that the foil was gone from both windows. The light was from a car on Red Apple Road, going around the curve. I sighed, got out of bed, and got dressed for work.
The next morning, after work, I walked down Red Apple Road, away from the house, and then I walked back. I could clearly see the deep scratches on the asphalt, and how they aligned with the punched-out gouges on the embankment.
The house continued to taunt me in small ways over the course of the next few days. Lights that I knew I had turned off were on when I came home. Boxes were moved, or knocked over. I was greeted at the door by the smell of baking cookies one morning, and found the oven on, set to bake. There were no cookies. The house developed a gradual sense of wrongness that existed more at the corner of my eye than straight ahead. When passing doorways into other rooms, those rooms would seem, from a casual glance, to be much larger, and to contain more furniture, or other things. The stairway in the front hallway did not exist, yet I could feel it behind me as I walked out the front door every night, stretching up to the second floor that wasn’t there, and down to a basement that never was. I could hear the echoes of my footsteps against the hardwood steps, and feel the draft from the basement, but only when I had forgotten to firmly believe that the house had only a single floor.
On my day off, I went shopping at the town’s small supermarket, which was a filthy Piggly Wiggly that had seen better decades. At the checkout counter, the red-haired, morbidly obese woman fluttered her canary yellow eyelids at me. “How’s living in the haunted house?” She asked. I looked at her. “Everyone knows it’s haunted. That place has been bad luck for as long as anyone remembers. I bet that old queer Lowry didn’t tell you what happened to the last people, did he?” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, piggy little eyes gleaming under the fluorescents. “The father went crazy, like in that movie with the hotel? Killed all the kids, ‘cept for the one that was with the mother. He died in jail, and she’s out of state. You know what’s the worst? They never found the bodies of those kids. He said the house took ’em. The cops dug up all the fields around there, had dogs out and all, but they never did find those poor babies.”
I swallowed, and grabbed my bag of groceries. “Well, uh, thanks for the info.”
“No problem, honey! And don’t let me make you nervous. It’s just small town gossip. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts!”
The late evening sun reflected like blood, or fire, in the house’s windows, when I returned. I put my groceries away in the kitchen, and put my other purchases in the bedroom, in front of the windows. I walked through the rest of the rooms of the house, holding a battered old flashlight like a club. The grocery-store lady’s story had spooked me more than I cared to admit. After finding no ghosts in the closets, or demons in the bathroom, I gave myself a mental shake and went to the living room to read. After so many night shift evenings, I knew I would be awake for a long time.
The loud cracking sound jolted me awake, heart hammering in my chest. I looked around the room, unsure of where I was. I realized I had fallen asleep in my chair. My book was on the floor, and I decided that it had woken me when it fell. I laughed to myself, shook my head, and stood up to stretch. Mid-stretch, I heard an answering laugh, from upstairs. I looked up, and my heart began to race again. Footsteps from above. I grabbed the long metal flashlight from beside my chair, and cautiously stepped into the foyer. I pushed the button for the hall light, and tightened my grip on the flashlight.
More shuffling from upstairs, and a tittering, wheezing laugh. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, and tried to see through the darkness at the top. I placed my foot on the first step, and another crack! reverberated through the house. I glanced behind me to the front door, and saw a light dusting of plaster falling from the ceiling in front of it. I climbed the stairs, riser after riser of old wood so brown as to be nearly black. The upstairs hallway was short, and thankfully empty. I hit the light switch with a sweat-slicked palm, fumbling at the unfamiliar two-button style, until the bare bulb turned on, shining its wan yellow light flickeringly onto peeling wallpaper and three brown wooden doors.
I yanked open the door closest to me, across from the stairwell, to find a shallow linen closet, stuffed with old quilts and blankets. I shut the door, and listened for sounds. The house was silent, as if it was holding its breath before revealing a surprise. I turned to my left, and walked to the door at the end of the hall. The plaster was arched here, as was the door, which was smaller than the other doors in the house. The black iron knob was very cold, when I grasped it, and squealed like something unpleasant when turned.
The small door swung wide into the room, and darkness spilled out into the hallway, like the lolling tongue of a hanging victim. My flashlight did little to dispel the gloom. I walked a step forward, and another, and another, and as I crossed the threshold of the little doorway, I noticed two lighter spots in the murk. Two spots that disappeared, and reappeared. A low chuckle burbled up from my left.
“Welcome, stranger,” said a high-pitched, childlike voice. “You’re in time for dinner.” A dim, red light began to filter into the room, revealing a scene from a charnel-house. The walls and floor were caked and coated with gore, dripping in clots that gleamed black in the strange light. A rough wooden table dominated the center of the room, cluttered with the rotting ruins of a cannibal feast, limbs and entrails draped in disarray across the blood-drenched wood. Crouched at one end of the table hunched a nude, haggard man, grey-black hair greasy and limp against his pocked and disfigured flesh. His jagged teeth bit and gnashed as he cracked a small, delicate bone and sucked at the marrow. He rolled flat and somehow fishlike yellow eyes at me.
“That’s my Papa,” the voice said. “Not my real Papa. My real Papa’s dead. It’s ok.” I looked to the left, and saw her. The girl was small, with unhealthily white skin and black hair that glinted redly in the light. She could have passed for ten, or twelve, save for her eyes. Her eyes were nothing human, gaping black bottomless wounds in her small delicate face, two holes gouged through the skin of the world. “My new Papa raised me himself, from when I was a little baby. He raised me to be a queen.”
She had been slowly creeping towards me as she spoke, one stuttering step after another, as if she was unfamiliar with something so mundane as walking. “They are coming. This is their place. You can join us. You can be with us to welcome them.” Another step. “This is the between. They come from outside. They were here before. They want in.” Her foot came down on a small bone and as it snapped, I realized she was right in front of me, so close that I could smell the reek of corpseflesh from her breath, I could see the rags of it in her teeth, I –
realized there was no second floor. There had never been a second floor. I ran, turned and ran, pounding down the hallway that was far longer than before, far too long, down a flight of stairs that had two more turns and two more landings than it had when I climbed them, feeling her small childish hands grasping at the nape of my neck. I hit the front door with full force, knowing it would be stuck firm, but hoping, and it burst open wide, sagging from one hinge.
I continued running until I reached the car. I flung the door open, and jumped in. I slammed the door shut, locked it, and glanced at the back seat. There was nothing. With a deep sense of dread, I slowly lifted my gaze to the house. The single-story structure stood black and silent, its front door hanging askew from broken hinges. I passed a shaking hand through my sweat-slicked hair. For a moment, my view doubled, and I saw a different house. One with a second, and a third floor. One with a shadow in front of an upstairs window. I revved the little car’s engine, and drove away from the house as fast as the car would go.
The car idled in a church parking lot a few miles away. I pulled out the cellphone I had stashed in the center console, and dialed the one number that I had programmed in. It rang the other prepaid cellphone I had bought weeks ago. I rubbed my face, feeling the slightly raised skin of the long-healed scars that had been itching and throbbing for the weeks that I stayed in that house. “I believe you. I’ll do it.” I pulled the SIM card out of the phone, snapped it in half, and threw the pieces out the window.
I cracked a rib or two when I bounced off of an old wooden fence post. I had to guide the car far enough off the road to avoid the embankment, but close enough to hit the windows dead-center. That meant being inside a burning car for far longer than I was comfortable with. I had strewn several liquor bottles around the front of the car, and wedged the accelerator with a brick and some rope. Just in case, I wore a BMX off-roading jacket and an old motorcycle helmet. At the last moment, I lit the rag protruding from the small jug of kerosene I had belted into the driver’s seat.
The car hit the side of the house with a satisfying crunch, shattering those hateful, murderous windows, and rupturing the cans of kerosene I had stored in the bedroom. I lay on my undamaged side in the field, wheezing into the silence for a few moments. Then, with a sound like a shocked inhalation, there was a huff, and a WHUMP, and the fuel caught. Within moments the side of the house was in flames, and in half an hour, the place was a pyre. I watched it burn from a slight distance away, under the boughs of an oak that was older than the state in which it stood. The fire roared and screeched like bitter, thwarted rage.
Lowry was good to his word, though it took almost a year for him to get the money to me. When his insurance company finally settled, he made quite a profit. I promised him I would put the money to good use. There’s always something else out there, waiting to be put down.