The House That Wasn’t
“Think not because no man sees, such things will remain unseen.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There is precious little to suggest the house ever really existed. We did not see it until midwinter that first year, so thick was the copse of trees which had sprung up around it. Spindly oak, tatty elm, and bristling cedar formed a barrier around the abandoned dwelling to rival that of Maleficent’s briar roses. There was the suggestion of a dark shape behind the boughs, some smudge of murky color, but this was too easily mistaken for the gloom that exists beneath thick tree growths, and which at night was indistinguishable from the shadows around it.
The house revealed itself first to my husband in the early hours of the morning. It was that still, cold portion of the year when those who work and attend classes must move about in the dark, and it was not apparent to him at first, even standing only thirty yards away from it. He had taken the dogs out that morning while I was preparing breakfast, and when he came inside as the sun was rising he announced the discovery of the house to me over the oatmeal and sausage.
I did not believe him, of course. There wasn’t a house. It was a game to us, sometimes, to see who was “gullible” and would believe the outlandish stories we could spin out of thin air. He invited me to go outside and check for myself, but I was in no hurry. I finished my breakfast, washed the dishes, and gathered the trash to take outside to the bins.
There was, indeed, a house. It was directly across the road from the duplex we rented, and only now, when the withered leaves had begun to drop away from the trees that shielded it and the shrubs had died back, did we begin to take notice of it. It was a single-story dwelling, done in a simple Craftsman style, with pale blue vinyl siding and navy shutters sitting on either side of boarded-up windows. Branches and leaves wove a thatching over the dark gray shingles, and I imagined the house had hidden itself from airplanes flying overhead as easily as it had from us. The door was wooden, peeling at the base, and had been painted the same color as the shutters. The three tiny windows near the top of the door, at one time considered decorative, now glittered across the street like the black eyes of a spider.
I cannot tell you how long I stood there and stared at the house, only that my nose and fingers were numb with cold when I went back inside. I did not question the existence of the house, now, but instead questioned myself, and what it said about me that I should miss something so large and in such close proximity to my own home. One may fail to observe a new flower in the yard, or perhaps a bird’s nest perched in a neighbor’s tree, but it’s an entirely different thing to overlook a house. It was not just noticing the house that birthed an irrational fear in me, however, but what it might mean now that I was able to see it. It disturbed me in some deep way I was unable to understand or give voice to, and I could not put it entirely out of my mind.
We enjoy games, my husband and I, and we’ll play them to distract ourselves when something has upset us. He’s best at trivia and complex board games, while I’m a fair hand at poker and games requiring duplicity. The closet in our library has shelves packed with games, some of which are unopened, and others which have been played so much we’ve had to replace some of the broken and missing tokens with odds and ends. The best games have no pieces, however, and can be played wherever we are. “Would you rather…?”, “If you were going to die tomorrow…?”, and “Which three people…?” are some of our favorites, but the best is “What if…?” It’s rather like a writing prompt, and has inspired more than a few short stories for me. We were playing “What if…?” late one night, just a few weeks before my birthday, when the source of my discomfort became apparent.
“What if…” my husband began, “No one else but us can see that house? What if it shows itself, then disappears, and makes people forget? What if everyone thought you were crazy?”
I do not think I had considered, until just then, how much questioning my own sanity would disturb me. It’s something I suspect had been simmering in the back of my mind for years, from the first time I heard the relatives at a family reunion discussing who in the family had been committed, and who had seen what, and whether life was worth living if even your mind was taken away from you. Further back, maybe, from the times I would see things as a child and understand, instinctively, that seeing these things was a mistake, and that talking about what I saw would be even worse. Seeing things that others couldn’t was never, in my experience, a good thing.
It is far, far better, I think, to be thought a charming liar than a pitiable mad woman. Liars are celebrated in our society, after all … we make them politicians, lawyers, actors, and writers. Liars add color and flare to lives that can be ground down by monotonous dullness. The mad, on the other hand, are seen as dangerous. They are locked up in little rooms, kept sedated to the point that staff must be employed to empty their diapers, and visited on holidays by relatives who spend the rest of the year pretending they don’t exist. My memories were not as easily pushed aside as unwanted relatives. If I had only seen the thing once, maybe, but several times? Multiple sightings were much harder to explain.
“Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back.” — Dario Argento
Every few years, it happened. It had begun when I was five, living in Virginia Beach. My parents had bought a house in an older neighborhood, and were able to get it fairly cheap because it had been left empty for so long and needed repairs. There were bats in the chimney, holes in the walls, and cabinets missing doors, but my dad viewed all that as a challenge and set to work fixing it up. As had been the usual since she was born, my little sister and I would be sharing a bedroom, but in this house it was a converted attic at the top of the stairs, while my parents would be sleeping in their bedroom downstairs.
My sister and I were madly in love with the bedroom, at first. It was easily three times as large as any room we’d had before, and our parents bought us two enormous bears to sit and have tea with us at a little table they found in the house’s storage. I can’t say for certain whether it began as soon as the table was brought out, but it seemed that the more work my dad did on the house, the more strange things seemed to happen.
Things refused to stay in their place. Keys would disappear from tables they were left on, then reappear hours later inside shoes. The oven would turn itself on, cabinet doors would swing open, and window blinds would lower themselves. My parents also began arguing, and my sister and I would retreat to our room, to drown out the sound of their yelling with “David the Gnome” and “The Muppet Show”. At night, the visitations had begun.
There were times I thought I must be asleep, that it must be a terrible nightmare I was having. During these times, very slowly, I would move my hand under my blanket and pinch myself. In the morning there would be bruises from this, but I needed to prove to myself I was awake.
It was something darker than a shadow, as large as a man, and it sat at our little tea table. It wore thick, dark robes, and from the narrow slits of my open eyes I would watch it rock back and forth on one of our yellow plastic hairs. It seemed very important to me, at the time, to pretend to be asleep and not attract its attention. I would continue to pretend to sleep until one of my parents came up to check on us before they went to bed. When I saw the light spill out of the open doorway, I would risk opening one eye a little more, and always find that the plastic chair was now empty.
I thought I was the only person who could see this thing, and decided that it was a horrifying version of the “imaginary friend” my classmates had been telling me they had. I resented that I didn’t see anything like the wonderful, colorful beings they described, but rather menacing, shadowy shapes that took over corners of my bedroom. Within a few weeks of these visitations, however, my sister (just on the cusp of turning three) began to refuse to sleep in her own bed. She insisted on sharing mine, saying only that she was scared and refusing to sleep on the side of the bed closest to our tea table. I did not argue … I was glad for the company.
My parents divorced a few years later, and I found myself in Arkansas. I had long since forgotten about shadowy figures and was much more concerned with mastering multiplication tables. We stayed for a short time with my father’s parents in a beautiful farmhouse, and my sister and I played with our cousins in the woods, building forts and catching crawdads in the creek. When my parents began talking about trying to get back together, however, it was decided that we would need a new house to be a family in.
My parents settled on a small home on the outskirts of Conway, far down Harkrider, past all hint of pavement and off a dirt road. Like our home in Virginia, this one needed a good bit of patching up, but dad knew a bit about construction and had made some friends who were willing to help. Best of all, I would be getting my own bedroom for the very first time.
My room was down a long hallway, with a bathroom separating it from my sister’s room. Once again, my parents shared a room at the opposite end of the house. Thick blackout curtains hung from every window, even my own, because my parents believed they were better at keeping out the cold and because they had some doubts about how well insulted the old windows in that house were. My room, then, was pitch-black on that first night, with only a small bar of light coming from under the door, spilling down the hall from the living room where my parents were watching television.
I was laying in bed, staring up at the ceiling and trying to sleep, when I became aware of a figure on the ceiling. It had the appearance of a man, but one stretched too thin, and darker than the rest of my room, like a figure cut from the blackness between the stars. He was crab-walking above my bed, and I found myself wondering what sort of thing in my room could possibly cast a shadow like that.
Then it began to step down off the ceiling.
I could not bring myself to move until I felt my bed push down under its weight. Then I flung myself from my bed and ran towards the door, violently trying to pull it open. No matter which way I turned the knob, no matter if I pushed or pulled, the door was as solid and immovable as a wall. Over my shoulder, I could see it standing in the center of my bed, the mattress buckling impossibly under his slender frame. I screamed, then, and tore at the door with my nails.
After what seemed like an eternity, the door burst outward, sending me stumbling and flailing down the hall. I continued to scream, right up until my parents leapt from the couch and grabbed me. I insisted that there was a man in my room, and my father tore down the hall to check … but of course, there was nothing there. Only a slight fold in the corner of my blankets suggested I’d ever been in bed, and besides that the top of my covers was unruffled.
I was babbling, demanding to know why my parents hadn’t come to help me. Confused, they insisted that there hadn’t been any sound coming from my room, that I hadn’t made any sound at all until I was halfway down the hall. When they went to tuck me back into bed, however, they saw the tiny scratch marks on the back of my door, and consented that maybe I should share my sister’s room, and they should move their bedroom into mine.
Sometime later, we moved. Again, my parents seemed to be drawn to houses that needed to be patched up, houses that had sat empty for years between occupants. Always, always I would see the shadow people, a sort of horrific welcoming committee that followed me from home to home.
I learned that after a certain age, none of my classmates spoke about imaginary friends, ghosts, or things that moved in shadows. That there’s only so long you can share a bedroom with someone, only so many times your parents will tolerate your hesitation to go to bed or turn all the lights in the house off. What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy? Why are you acting like this? They would never say these things out loud, but I couldn’t bear for my parents to look at me the same way they did our “crazy” relatives. They would glance between us during visits, and the unspoken question hung there: Is this where you want to end up?
The Things We Remember
“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.” — H.P. Lovecraft
There has always been an abandoned house, just before. In-between the times that it happens, I have halfway convinced myself that it never did, but that is almost as frightening because it suggests that what I do remember is suspect. In-between the times that it happens, I do everything within my power to avoid being in or near an abandoned house.
That is the fear that lives with me, now. The house has been torn down, its very foundation dug out and trucked away, as erased as any ill omen can be. And yet … and yet …
That day, my husband and I played the “What if …?” game. “What if …” my husband said, “No one else but us can see that house? What if it shows itself, then disappears, and makes people forget? What if everyone thought you were crazy?” I told him, then, about my memories from when I was younger. About the things that moved in the dark, and the people who were stretched too thin. “I wouldn’t tell. Not ever. Because I’m not crazy.”
It has been six years since I have seen a shadowy figure slink along the edges of my wall, lean over the foot of my bed, or peer over my shoulder. It has been seven years, and now, I’m afraid I am long past due for a visit.
[Ashley Nicole Hunter is a founding editor and regular contributor of ev0ke. She also serves on the board of directors of Bibliotheca Alexandrina.]