NOTE: Each October I write a ghost story or weird tale for Hallowe'en and post it here. The following piece is 2021's "Ghost Story for Hallowe'en":
Following his mother’s death, a cynical self-love author, long estranged from his family, learns that he has inherited his deceased grandparents’ country homestead. Their Victorian farmhouse has been boarded up and lain empty for years – and he wants nothing to do with it. However, he decides to renovate and flip it with the help of an old mentor and friend, while sleeping upstairs in his childhood bedroom. The isolated homestead is filled with slumbering memories and lurking emotions, however, and the renovation rapidly descends from a simple real estate venture into a reality-shredding, metaphysical crucible – especially when his recurring childhood nightmare, of waking to a strange, feral man slithering into bed with him, returns with a shocking vengeance.
FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T TURN ON THE LIGHT
The drive from Nashville, Tennessee to Alexandria, Indiana was neither terribly long nor terribly boring, but it was terribly quiet. Passing through the steamy Appalachian foothills, he had no lack of scenery – the blue mountains’ heavy shoulders lay to the east, with rolling farmland on either side, teeming with loping horses and ambling cattle – but it was all so quiet and still. The interstate was unusually desolate, even when he drove through Louisville, with the golden sun melting in the western sky, followed by the orange glow of the city lights, and the muddy shadows of the dim, urban twilight.
He wanted to push through without stopping, and the smothering, quiet calm of the road that was taking him home piqued his determination to stay in motion until he had finished the journey. Truthfully, it was his own fault for starting out as late as he did – seven in the evening, just in time to hit the hideous Nashville after-work traffic – but now his focus was on pulling into Alexandria as soon as he possibly could. It wasn’t that he wanted to be there – he didn’t – or that he was expected by anyone – he wasn’t – but he simply couldn’t stand this heavy fog of silence. It seemed to bleed into his car through the air vents, and pool heavily at his feet. It was watchful and intelligent and it was waiting to see what he would do, and how he would atone.
Grace had immediately understood that he would need to go. Not only had the house been his grandparents’ house for half a century, and not only had it been built by his great-great-grandparents 130-some years ago, but he himself had lived there for three critical years in his life. When he was four years old the economy took a massive dive and his dad’s company tanked. His family had moved in with his mom’s parents and they had lived in the upstairs suite for a year. Two decades later, after he was accepted to Ball State University’s doctoral program in social psychology, he lived in those same rooms for two years. It wasn’t long after he moved out and began writing books that his grandparents passed – both suddenly and unexpectedly in the same year – that the house had gone to his mother. Grace knew this and she also realized that she couldn’t go with him: he made enough money off of book royalties that he could afford to pass on teaching summer classes, but she didn’t, and she would be teaching psych classes at Vanderbilt through the next four weeks. So he would have to go alone.
Grace also knew that it would be a hard trip to make. He had loved his family. His grandparents were good to their neighbors, showed up to his school events, and let him live rent free for those two years. But there had always seemed to be issues between them: his distaste for the small-town rural lifestyle, his revulsion at the way they seemed to draw the past into any conversation, and of course there was the way he made his living: his books sported titles like Fugitives of Faith: How to Decode the Psychological Lies of Religion; Seeing the Glory: A Psychologist’s Deconstruction of Religious Mania Past and Present; and Born Again: Restoring Western Democracy to its Secular Roots. Although he had only published one of these before his grandparents’ deaths – a little book called Pearls Before Swine: How World Religions Limit the Pursuit of True Self-Love – it was enough to become a wall between them. His professional focus on deconstructing the wish fulfilments and defense mechanisms of religious fundamentalism seriously chafed his devout, Nazarene family members. His grandma still told him she loved him and still sent him cards and letters, but when she finally passed, no one else in the family seemed to want him at the funeral. Other than his mother, he hadn’t heard from any members of his extended family in seven years. He doubted if that would change.
Pushing on into Southern Indiana he found the quiet even more pregnant with anticipation. The landscape leveled out as he came nearer to Indianapolis, replacing the swelling hills and wooded hollows with wide stretches of fields, black with recent rain and bristling with alert spears of corn. In the darkness the orange windows of distant farmhouses watched his passage like calm but vigilant eyes. He drove by two trucks on the side of the road – one giving the other a jumpstart – and the two men stood in silence with their arms crossed and watched him pass by. He was still one of only a few cars on the interstate that night. To his left he saw the brown glow of a sleeping suburb; to his right he saw a sign that told him he was fifty-seven miles away from his exit. What would his reaction be to seeing it for the first time in seven years? Would there be nostalgia or boredom? Would it be a significant reunion with a cherished memorial or a meaningless homage to a dead idol?
Seven years since he had been home. Seven years. And now he was the last one who could possibly decide what to do with his grandparents’ house. He had no siblings; his mom’s only brother was declining in a nursing home, and his ex-wife lived in Virginia with her second husband; of the three cousins, one had O.D.’d on pills in 2016, one lived off the grid with his husband in New Hampshire and was even less likely to come home again, and one had committed suicide in his garage after losing his custody battle. There were no other relatives left: the great-aunts and great-uncles had all died in the past decade, he barely knew their children or grandchildren, and since his own mother’s death he didn’t know a single person who would so much as be interested in accompanying him to the old farmhouse.
The farmstead had been in his mom’s name since grandma died, but it had been unoccupied for at least four years. Prior to that, his mother had used it as a rental (always to large families – foster families, homeschoolers, blended families – but the last two had done incredible damage to it, and after the last one, she had decided to board it up and save up for the repairs before renting it out again. The last family had attempted a series of unapproved modifications – turning the attic into a spare bedroom, blowing out the wall of grandma’s bedroom to make an “open concept” downstairs, and pulling down the plaster in the dining room to make way for shiplap – and none of them had been seen through to completion. Now the old windows were boarded up and the mutilated rooms had been sleeping in four years of darkness, with only the faint, red crack of sunlight piercing through the creases between the plywood slabs.
He passed the exits to Muncie and Anderson and continued on down a particularly dark and quiet stretch of Interstate 69 that would terminate for him at Exit 245. He would get off there, turn left, continue down SR-28 for a quarter of a mile, turn right – at the site of a burned-out house – on County Road 500 E, take that north for half a mile – driving parallel with the interstate, which would be glowing and humming a quarter mile off to his right – and then make that final left turn onto CR 700 N, which he would follow between two cornfields for less than 500 yards. And there it would be: a white, Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch, half-hidden from the road by an enormous, old oak tree, and sitting just on the edge of four acres of thick woods.
Before he knew it, he saw the sign for Exit 245, back-lit by the somber glow of the Petro truck stop that crouched in watchful stillness at the intersection between I-69 and SR-28. His grey eyes narrowed into cold, dark slits, and he rubbed the first two knuckles of his left hand rhythmically along his smooth jawline.
There was one last brick in this particular wall that he had fought to forget and roll out of his mind. That was the dream. Only Grace knew about this. He had never mentioned it to his mother, and had cunningly hid it from each of his therapists (and knew full well that he was hiding it). It was a dream that he had first experienced when he was five years old. A dream that he had again when he was thirteen, and again when he was eighteen – and twenty-one and twenty-five. It came so rarely that it hadn’t truly ever bothered him until the night that his mother died. This was for two reasons: firstly, because he had had it minutes before he got the phone call about her car accident, and secondly, because he had noticed, for the first time, a change in its predictable script. But this was the last place he wanted to think about the dream: just as he was flipping on his turn signal to leave the orange glow of the interstate for the purple-black gloom of the countryside.
He took the exit, made the left turn, and saw the blackened chimney of the burned-out house on his right. It was here that he would need to turn right. He imagined the house as it must be right now, gathered up in the deep purple gloom of the trees pressing against it, with its two, large upper-story windows. In a micro-second he had a vision of driving down CR 700 N in December, seeing the ranks of milk-jug luminarias that his grandpa would put out at Christmas, glowing down either side of the driveway like a landing strip. When the corn was harvested and the fields were laid low, you could see their soft glow from two miles off. He wondered what he would do if he turned the corner and saw the distant pinkish glow waiting for him. Without hesitation he maintained his speed and drove on down SR 28, towards Alexandria proper. He would find a room for the night at the Budget Inn. He did this without trouble: before twenty minutes had passed he had taken his rucksack and suitcase into the lobby, was given a key-card, had collapsed on the bed, and was swallowed in sleep. It was deep and long and dreamless.
SUNDAY, JULY 23.
By the time he awoke, it was well after nine in the morning, and he wasted no time in showering and hurrying off to find some breakfast. He realized that he hadn’t texted or called Grace to let her know that he’d arrived safely. It was very unlike him to forget to text her when he was travelling – her parents had died in a highway accident while on vacation, and he knew that this formality was one of her strictest pet peeves. As he rushed outside to his car, he balanced his cell phone between his ear and shoulder and tried to reach her, but she was unquestionably in the middle of a class by now, so he left an apologetic voicemail and headed off to Rachel’s Hi-Way Café for a plate of eggs and sausage. For some reason he felt incredibly hungry, and even though his usual breakfast consisted of a pair of cold, s’mores-flavored Pop-Tarts washed down with almond milk, he felt as though he couldn’t do anything else before he had eaten a large, hot breakfast, and he knew that Rachel’s would give it to him.
He ordered the largest breakfast plate and a whole carafe of coffee, and before the waitress had even left the table, and began plunging into it. His stomach was icy with hunger, and relief radiated down his spine as the eggs, bacon, and sausage warmed it. His education kept telling him that this freakish hunger was a psychosomatic defense mechanism – regarding the devil-knows-what exactly – but it didn’t stop him from eating everything on his plate and draining the carafe. He knew that he had to examine his choices, but he also knew that – in his mind anyway – there wasn’t any choice. Had his mom been there, this would have been more balanced and complicated, but he knew in his heart that he wanted nothing more than to be rid of the old house and everything – living, dead, or in between – that came with it.
The options were simple, and they both began the same way: open it back up and pay for some basic repairs. After this he could either sell it or rent it out. He was massively in favor of selling. Either way he needed to survey the damage – to see whether he could manage it by himself or whether he needed to hire out a contractor – and this was his first task. He finished the last of the coffee, paid his bill (the hostess wished him a “blessed day,” to which he grinned back weakly), and hopped back into his car. Pulling out onto the highway, he drove east – back into the country – with the mid-morning sun shining warmly on his face and chest.
Looking back on the long weekends they had spent there while he was growing up, it was surprising to realize – as an adult – how much it had been like slipping back into a different century, although he hadn’t known any better at the time. Of course, the house had running water and lights, but it had no air conditioning, no cable, and no furnace. In the winter, the downstairs was heated by an iron, woodburning stove and the upstairs was heated by a pair of radiators. In the summer it was cooled by opening all of the windows, and most of the evenings were spent on the south-facing porch. Even with the electricity, there were many nights when the dining room was illuminated by a pair of hurricane lamps, which sent the acrid tang of kerosene curling through the air.
If he had been a romantic he may have been charmed by the memories of spending those steamy, summer nights on the porch, with the curtains bowing and reaching in the open windows with every slight breeze. He may have seen it as a rare gift – to have been a child growing up in the neon-colored commercialism of the ‘90s, and yet to have spent long winter evenings sitting beside a wood-burning stove while his family members shared stories from the olden-time. But he wasn’t a romantic and he hadn’t enjoyed it. He had resented the sweaty, outside summers and stuffy, indoor winters. His only pleasures there had been time spent alone: reading books of adventure and heroics – like Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and Robin Hood – or spending hours upon hours prowling his grandparents woods, or killing time at the campsite he had made in a clearing at its center, where he could play out his fantasies with his favorite family member – himself. Otherwise it had always felt stifling and forced. But now he had to come back to it all and bring it to some sort of final conclusion. A real adventure in which he would either play the hero or the villain.
He wasn’t interested in improving the amenities: none of the families who had lived there since 2006 had complained about the lack of heat or air conditioning. The six acres of land that the farmhouse sat on had apparently been sufficient to attract them, and four of those acres were, as I have mentioned, made up of dense woodland, which meant free heating, as long as you were willing to cut it. Window A/C units had come with the house since it was first rented out, and were still stored in the attic. All he needed to worry about was making sure that it was weather-tight and clean, and he was hoping that he could manage this by himself.
As he grew closer, he remembered the dream again. It came as suddenly as if someone sitting beside him had begun humming a love song that he associated with a particularly savage break-up: the reaction was instant and visceral. It probably the thought of the A/C units in the attic. The attic…
Like most true dreams, its details were muddled up in a vague mist, but their rudiments were always the same: he is sleeping alone in the upstairs bedroom that shares the attic door. The house is shaded by tall trees, and at night the room is so dark that if you were to wake up in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t immediately be sure of which way you were facing, or where the door was. It must take place in the fall: there were no sounds – no frogs or cicadas or crickets – but it is still warm. Somewhere in the blackness he hears the thick, raspy clack of a handle turning, and the tired creak of a door opening. It is either the bedroom door to the large, upstairs sitting room where his parents are sleeping, or the closet door to his right, or the attic door to his left. He knows instinctively that it is the attic door opening. A low, narrow door to a low, narrow room – or pair of rooms – that remained unfinished and haggard-looking, with heavy, grey beams studded by rusty nails, and the bare floor joists stuffed with pale yellow insulation, made navigable only by a series of boards nailed onto the joists to act as a stepping path. He had always been so terrified of stepping off the boards and falling into the insulation: he wasn’t sure where he would go, but he knew that he would be lost. And what was even in this attic? Bookshelves, tables, chests, bureaus, and trunks. All heavy and dark and closed up. All hiding things that he couldn’t understand, things connected to dead people he had never met, with stories that he couldn’t relate to, but which somehow were more a part of him than his own two hands.
And from this dark, chilly cell, something is deciding to exit and join the world of the living – his world. What it is he can never say, but he hears its feet creak on the floor as it comes over to his bed. He feels the bed sag to the left as it slithers in with him. He feels the covers rustle as it slides between them. With his left hand he touches cold skin with light hair on it, but no clothes. In spite of his deepest, most convicting misapprehensions, he slides it up what appears to be a shriveled human stomach, across a set of bony ribs, along a throat and jaw bristling with what his grandma called “whiskers,” and finally onto a face. It is the face of someone who is awake. Their expression concerns him. He feels clenched teeth, though he can’t tell if they are clenched in pain, or a frown, or a smile. He touches a gelatinous, unblinking eye.
He doesn’t dare turn the light on – he knows that this would be the worst thing: to see it and know what it is – so instead he bolts for the bedroom door handle that he instinctively knows is two feet from the right side of his bed and four quick strides to make it there. He rushes for it. Something rustles on the left side of the bed, and the sound is coming towards him. He gains the door and rushes towards the break-neck stairs. Miraculously he makes it down them and around the hairpin turn at the bottom without tripping, since he is bounding as quickly as possible – two steps at a time – and all in pitch black darkness. He has passed his parents in their bed. He doesn’t even consider going to them. He enters the dining room below, which is dimly illuminated by two oil lamps. He runs past the door to his grandparents’ bedroom. He doesn’t think to knock on their door. A cheerful song is being wrung from the dry lungs of the old organ behind him, but he doesn’t dare turn around to see who is playing it anymore than he would have reached over to turn on the light switch.
In the living room he sees sleeping forms bundled up on the couches and slumped in the chairs. His cousins must be spending the night. He jumps over two of them in pursuit of the front door: he must get out. He has heard the steps crashing behind him – thin, naked feet slapping on the hardwood floors – and knows that his only hope is to make it to the center of the wood on his grandparents’ property.
His little campsite hemmed in by soaring ash trees and fat beeches. He must make it there if he is to find protection – far from his family, far from their past-obsessed lives and their stories of dead great-aunts and great-grandparents, of people his own mother never met: of his mother’s 13 year old cousin Jerry who was messing with a cow in a way that was wrong and shameful, and of how he got its halter tangled around his throat, how he was strangled by the cow who dragged him for a mile into a neighbor’s field, and how the newspapers had said that he died falling from a treehouse (but his mother told him the shameful truth). He must run far from the frozen world of dying relatives and their dead gods. He knew that if he found the heart of the wood, he would be safe – he would live – and as he leapt from the porch, felt his feet crunch into the leaf-covered grass, and raised his eyes to the black mound of trees silhouetted against a purple sky flecked with flickering stars, he awoke.
And this has been his dream – at five, the week after they moved from the house to a place of their own, at thirteen, the age that Jerry was when he was strangled on the cow halter, at eighteen, when he first left for college, at twenty-one, when he decided on his career, and at twenty-five, the week before his grandmother passed away. And then there was the most recent one, now that he was thirty-three and his mother had died. But that time it was different; he thinks this to himself slowly, as he glances at a derelict barn in an overgrown field, with one great, black rent in its splintered, grey face – like the dead socket of a once all-seeing eye.
Looking ahead he saw the old ruin’s blackened chimney jutting like a signpost just ahead of him, with the wide, morning sun hovering directly over it – as if it had been speared on its jagged masonry. Obediently he turned left and found himself engulfed on either side by cornfields. It was already late July, and the season – so he had heard – had been a very wet and warm one. The cornstalks were already over six feet tall, and obscured what might otherwise has been an instant view of his destination. As it was, he had to wait to make the turn on CR 700 N before he could catch a glimpse of it.
He continued down the green corridor, hemmed in by barbed-wire fences and bordered by ditches half-filled with brown water which was slowly steaming off as the sun climbed higher and burned hotter. Here was a turn, then, and with a sigh of relief, and caught his first glimpse of the house where it watched him from beneath the shade of the massive oak tree. Here, he smiled to himself, in all of this white heat, under the glaring watchfulness of a July sun, he saw that the illusion was shattered.
This was no ancient family manor or grim country seat isolated in a rain-flogged moor: it was a simple, eight-room farmhouse dozing comfortably in the season of its retirement. It came with no curses, no dangers, and no appetites.
Best of all, it came with no occupants. Just the basic responsibility – in the memory of his mother who loved it and grandparents who had lived and died there – of doing it justice and selling it for a decent price. With the money from his last royalty check he would easily be able to cash flow up to $18,000 in repairs without putting a dent in his August living expenses, and – if need be – he could easily finance a further $50,000 or so. Now, as he grew near enough to see the individual slats of the siding, he would just need to make an assessment, plot out the repairs, and hope to have it all wrapped up and on the market by September.
The farmhouse was, as I have said, a Victorian. It had been built in 1893 and had the conventions of the era: from overhead you will think it looks like a Swiss cross: it is a squarish building composed of two intersecting wings; there were gables on all four sides – each steeply-pitched – and girded around the front-facing cross-arm by a wrap-around porch, done up in what is called “gingerbread” detail. In the front, of course, you see an immense oak tree – which was a good twenty feet taller than the house itself, with a trunk a bit wider than ten feet. Behind it, as you as the garage and walk around its side, you can see three shabby outbuildings: a grey barn with great, black gashes torn in the dry wood, a rusted storage shed tucked away amongst a protective grove of hickory trees, and a long, sagging chicken coop, studded with small, black windows. At the far corner of the property, just beyond these, you will find a shaggy cluster of apple and pear trees, whose low-hanging branches are already heavy with swelling fruit. It will be understandable if you eye one of these and – although they are sweetest in September – decide to pluck one and eat it as you make your way back towards the road.
Nothing is to the left of the house (the direction from which he approached it) other than a tangle of grape vines and a long strip of overgrown yard which had once been his grandma’s vegetable garden, which you will walk through to regain the front yard. As you cross this and move towards the far side of the property, you will see a heavy clump of woodland that you will feel a disinclination from exploring. If you do want to examine it, however, you will find that it is transfixed by one long trail which bulges in the middle, in a wide clearing – the grandchildren’s old campsite – which is at the woods’ geometric center. You will also find that it is darkened by the restless canopies of beeches and ash trees, and that its ground is treacherously tangled by wild vines and brier patches. You will be unlikely to spend much time in it.
Pulling into the driveway, he didn’t waste any time looking at the scenery, but went directly to the front porch and began examining the boards on the windows. These were now bowed and weather stained, but all of them seemed to be in place, and removing them would be his first task. The porch was in good order, at any rate, without any signs of rot, and although the front yard was wildly overgrown, he saw nothing out of place or worthy of concern. Walking around the sides was equally relieving, and other than some damage to the chimney piece (presumably from lightning, based on a white scar that scored the pink bricks) and the sight of an uprooted old paw-paw tree (which could be conveniently translated into firewood), the back was also perfectly in good order.
But now he had to steel himself for the interior. Whatever awaited him there would be infinitely more complicated. He remembered the conversation with his mother as she tearfully described the damage done by the last tenants, and mentally opened up a calculator for the damage assessment. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the brass key that had been in his mother’s safety deposit box and climbed back onto the porch. Without hesitation he inserted it in the storm door and felt it roll snuggly through the pin-tumblers. For a moment he pictured the dark interior and wondered if he was being fool-hardy in rushing into it without someone else there to accompany him. But, strangely perhaps, he didn’t feel alone at all.
He had a spontaneous vision of noticing something low and hunched waddle across the floor and defensively scurry into a corner to watch him from. A wild animal? A coyote? He shook his head and looked back to the aquamarine sky, where the sparrows flitted over the rustling cornfields. No, no animals would be inside. How would they have gotten in? But what if they had never left? What if he was letting them out? He clenched his face. An odd, stupid thought. He wrenched the key home, gripped the knob, and – with a bitter shove – forced the door open.
He was immediately hit by the thick, earthy stench of dust, and perhaps something else, but was more overcome by the taste that it left in his mouth: sour, seemingly, and moldy. But as to his eyes, he could see nothing. He took a ginger step forward and found his footing. There was the carpet, and it felt as though the floor was solid. Another step. Now his eyes were conditioning to the thick shadows around him, and he began to see the room come together in dense, brown shapes. Other than the front door, which had allowed in a sheet of sunlight, he began to detect – as he had earlier imagined – the amber slits of light coming through the taller windows between the creases between the plywood. These glinted wakefully at him from the far side of the dining room and all along the walls of the living room which he now stood in. The feeble sunlight which they emitted could now be seen glowing in thin shafts through the dust that hovered in the air around him like sugar crystals stirred up in a glass of sweet tea – rising in wispy flurries and floating carelessly back down, as though returning to an interrupted dream.
Before he took a single step forward, he determined, he would have these boards taken down and these windows thrown open. This dust must be cleared out and the air cleaned before anything else could be done. Without glancing to either side he slammed the door behind him and rushed outside to his car where he had a cordless screw gun and a prybar. The muggy air seemed cool and delicious to his lungs, and he was surprised to involuntarily gulp it up in a few raspy gasps. No, no, he couldn’t get a single thing accomplished until those boards were down and the windows had been left open to air the place out.
One hour’s work was all it took to draw the screws from the thirteen windows on the lower story, and once the slabs of plywood were all leaned up neatly against the garage, he felt comfortable going back inside to open the sashes. This time, as he moved from window to window, he once again felt the relief that had flooded him when he rounded the corner for the first time – the shattering of an illusion. It reminded him of the time as a child that he had run screaming to his mother in terror of a monster – like the monster from his dream – the monster that he had finally uncovered in the attic, the monster that had turned out to be nothing more than a dress form covered with an old fur coat. He had found “it” in this very house, up in the attic with its unfinished beams and flickering lights. They had journeyed back upstairs together to corner the huge, furry thing, only for his face to burn with embarrassment when she pulled back the coat and spun the dress form around with a laugh. How much like that same five year old child he had just been!
And yet, the removal of the plywood had truly made a difference: clean, warm light gushed into each room, burning away the damp and eating up the shadows. This did not fix the smell or the palpable taste of silent years, though. For this he still needed to open each window – using the crowbar when necessary – to let out the sour atmosphere. Muggy and still as the outside air was, it still stirred about the rooms, bringing with it the clean odors of warm grass and cornstalks.
With these changes, he felt capable of assessing the downstairs, at least. The carpet, he warranted, was spoiled. Encrusted and discolored with animal waste (from the last family’s dogs, he supposed, although he had heard that they were outdoor dogs), they needed to be replaced at once. The damage done to the walls was indeed serious and infuriating, but it would be quick work to repair with one or two other workers. The windows were all in good shape, the stove seemed fine (although he would burn a chimney sweeper log in it that very night, to burn out whatever might be living in it), and the plumbing was in surprisingly good condition. Everything needed reconnected, though, and he had already scheduled appointments for the power company and plumber to come by the next day. As for the repairs, he would definitely need to contract out at least one other person to help with the repairs – ideally a professional contractor.
He was repeating all of these findings to Grace when she called him during her lunchbreak.
“Didn’t you say that your thesis advisor became a contractor when he retired?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Dr. Demian was a residential carpenter before he went into academia. His brother is the one with the contracting business, but I do think that he became his brother’s partner after he left Ball State.”
“So you’ll reach out to him today?”
“No doubt, yeah, I’ll message him as soon as we wrap up.”
He did, and – as it turned out – Dr. Virgil Demian was indeed a partner in his brother’s Muncie contracting business. He wrote back to his former student within an hour and agreed to come over in the morning with one of his young assistants.
In the meantime, he drove over to the Petro truck stop where there was an Iron Skillet restaurant, had a heavy lunch of mashed-potatoes, turkey gravy, and fried chicken, and washed it all down with two glasses of lemonade. He savored the second one as he sat by a window and watched the cars passing over the nearby overpass. They seemed to drive at frantic speeds, rushing up and plunging down the other side of this hump in the road like desperadoes leaping over stone walls with their horses, barely glancing behind to gauge how long it would be before the posse finally caught up to them.
He finished the lemonade and paid his bill before heading back out to the summer heat. The sun was in its peak of power now: the air over the highway smoldered and curled with heat, and the humid air was so thick that the ratcheting chants of nearby cicadas seemed to come to him from a distant room. He slid back in his car and drove the mile or so back to his house (his grandparents’ house: he had to correct himself). Once again, as it rose into sight, he felt the psychological defenses melt away in the heat: it was just a building that he could profit from – a property to be tidied and sold.
Having inspected the downstairs, he now knew that he must explore the upstairs. This would have an even stranger feeling, he knew, because it was this suite of rooms that he had lived in as a child and as a grad student. During those two, frantic years he would slip down the stairs in the morning, say goodbye to his grandma – without pausing to share the breakfast that she always offered him – speed off to Muncie, and spend between nine and twelve hours on campus before returning, usually well after dark, in time to re-heat the meal that his grandma had made him. After supper, though, he was quick to slip back upstairs and spend his evenings poring over textbooks and homework.
The door to the stairs was in the large, high ceilinged dining room, just on the other side of the antique, Victorian organ that had been left in the house after his grandparents’ deaths because it was too big to move. It opened to a stairway that almost immediately made a sharp turn around a corner and ran steeply up to the upstairs suite: a large sitting room and landing, with a comfortable, old bedroom off of it to the right and a narrow, children’s bedroom straight ahead. He had used these rooms as an office, bedroom, and storage space, respectively. The bedroom had one closet and a door which opened to the vast, drafty attic where his mother had helped him uncover the fur-draped monster.
He wondered what damage had been done here, and without a pause he opened the door and started up the stairs. He immediately turned the sharp corner and gripped the stair rail, which he noticed was dangerously loose. Up ahead he could dimly make out the dark brown shapes of the sitting room, and by the time he came to the top of the landing he could recognize the open door – straight ahead – to the children’s bedroom, and the closed door – just off to the right – of his old bedroom. The light was even darker here, because the only window in the landing looked straight into the foliage of the great oak tree, and any sunlight coming through it was heavily filtered by the shaggy leaves and twisted branches.
Relying on the silver gleam of his cellphone camera, he confirmed that while the rooms were not in excellent shape, there was nothing that a cleaning detail and some basic carpentry couldn’t fix. Then he moved on to the bedroom. He turned the handle and opened the door to the room where his mother had grown up… where he and his parents had recovered… where he had slept and studied by himself... He tried to shine the flashlight around it, but it seemed even darker than the rooms facing the oak tree: the shaggy blackness appeared to leech power from the white beam, and although he could recognize individual parts – the bookshelves where he had kept his novels and DVDs, the bed where he had slept and studied, the closet where he had quietly hidden his gin bottles, the back wall where he had hung a Caspar David Friedrich print – they struggled to coalesce into a manageable whole. And there was the open door to the attic, small and dark like a weather-stained tombstone. The smell was different up here, too. Damper, moldier, sourer. He passed the light over the back corner and dropped the phone. For a ludicrous moment – just the flash of a moment – he thought he had seen the figure of a person, perhaps wearing some pale-colored, sitting on the edge of the bed and facing the wall, slumped over in heavy grief – or was it in repressed laughter? He knew that it was impossible, so he didn’t rush to pick the phone back up out of fear, so he told himself, quite as much as he did to make sure that he didn’t become disoriented in the dark and accidentally fall down those break-neck stairs.
He recovered the phone, and – much to his shame – he immediately shined its light into the far back corner. There was a large, white body pillow sloping over the side. This answered the question that his brain had been screaming, and he quickly turned and clamored down the stairs and into the light. He must air the upstairs out, too. But tomorrow. He would wait for tomorrow.
MONDAY, JULY 24.
The morning saw him rise with the sun, eager to get back to the work he had started the day before. Before he returned to his hotel for supper, he had unlocked the garage and gassed up his grandpa’s old Cub Cadet riding mower. It took him just two hours to hew away four years’ worth of overgrown grass in the front and side yards. He spent another hour mowing paths through the backyard and towards the woods and chicken coop before calling it quits, with the wet shanks of green and yellow grass laying steaming in heaps on the ground. He had left the windows open to air overnight – if any thieves wanted to try their luck in the derelict, they were welcome to it – and by the time he opened the front door, the house was flooded with the sharp, clean fragrance of new-mown grass.
The first thing to tackle, he decided, was the carpet, and he immediately got to it. He was half finished with prying up the molding and peeling back slabs of stained carpet when Dr. Demian and his assistant pulled up in a rusted, silver truck. The old man had changed very little since the last time he had seen him seven years ago. He was a rough-cut, broad-shouldered man with a sharply defined silver beard and cropped, iron-colored hair. His eyes were a shadowless blue, and his cheeks and nose were browned from the sun. In his flannel shirt and denim he cut a slightly different figure than he had in Dockers and a tweed jacket, but it was still Dr. Demian. He swung out of the driver’s seat like a thirty-five year old and smiled crookedly at his old student.
“Good to see you, Haller!”
“Even better to see you, Dr. Demian. Thanks so much for coming on such short notice,” and they shook hands warmly. “Like I said over the phone, you were the first person I thought of,” he lied with a tight mouth.
“Well that’s just fine. And you can call me Virgil from now on. Let’s take a look at the place. Oh, and this is my best guy, Pablo Osorio. Pablo, this is Haller. Like I said, he was a student of mine once and is now something of a celebrity in his field.”
Pablo had quiet, dark eyes and a serious, watchful face. Or at least he did at the moment, for as soon as he exited the truck he seemed clenched and nervous. He smiled professionally and turned to the truck bed where he pulled out two plastic buckets filled with tools.
“Celebrity is a bit much, but I’m certainly loving my work, and it pays off.”
“I’ve read all of your books, you know. You’ve done a good job all in all, and I’m not surprised that your readership rewards you.”
His forehead puckered at these words, but he nodded appreciatively and showed them inside. It is certainly not important to detail everything which they saw or said, least of all what Demian decided needed to be changed and how it would be done. In short, they agreed to an up front fee of a few thousand dollars, and Demian estimated that the critical work would take less than four weeks between the three of them, with two apprentices and a joiner needing to make occasional appearances. Pablo’s expertise was in foundations and structural integrity, so he left them after the initial assessment to explore more of the house by himself. Meanwhile, Demian and his former student walked to the back of the house and waited for a carry-out breakfast to be delivered from Rachel’s Hi-Way Café.
They caught up on each other’s personal lives – Demian had married off two of his three daughters, had welcomed three grandchildren into the world, was writing a spy novel, and was tasked with organizing fishing trips with his retired colleagues each summer – and discussed national politics, baseball, and Netflix series. He had forgotten how much he loved the old man, and how releasing it was to have these sorts of rollicking conversations. Most of his friends in Nashville were focused on their careers and the literature, culture, and fashions that were directly tied to their areas of expertise. But Demian was flexible and open-chested, easily yawing between favorite BBQ restaurants, most underrated Classical composers, and laughably obvious solutions to the country’s social problems.
The car from Rachel’s pulled up and the two men came up to the driveway and brought the food back to the porch. Pablo quietly appeared in time to grab a quick coffee, but his wife had already made him a hot breakfast, and he returned to his study of the house. Demian leaned back and drank deeply from the iced coffee before looking out over the field across the road from them where a stately hawk was making smooth, ascending circles between the glinting green of the cornstalks and the searing blue sky.
“It’s a good view. It must have been soothing to kick back here and let your mind breathe when you weren’t stuck in my classes.”
“I would have rather been with you. I didn’t spend much time out here, on the porch, when I lived here. Mostly I was upstairs. Sometimes I would go for walks in the woods, though.”
“It’s a decent little wood by the look of it. Ash and beech, it seems.”
“And some white oak and paw-paws. Hickories, too. But yes, mostly ashes and beech. It’s quiet there. I used to spend most of my days there when my parents would bring me up this way. A great place to be a little boy.”
Demian’s eyebrows pinched and he looked intently at the dark green mass. He nodded his head three times, slowly, as if he was deeply considering that last comment.
“What do you think of this place now? Selling it for sure?”
“No question about it. My life is in Nashville.”
“My work is there.”
“You can write anywhere. I thought you said that you were going to give up teaching once you felt comfortable with it. Why not now?”
He swirled the ice in his coffee and looked down at the porch floor.
“I’m not quite there yet. Besides, I enjoy teaching. Or at least the faculty culture: I like the conferences and the symposiums and senate meetings. I’d rather spend an afternoon in a faculty longue working on next year’s curriculum than out here on a porch in corn country… But that’s just me.”
“Yes,” Demian smiled, patting him on the back, “that’s you. You have always put work before pleasure. The results are undeniable: I heard you on Joe Rogan last year and I saw your last two books made the New York Times’ Bestseller List. Someone told me that you were going to debate Tim Keller in November.”
“Yeah, in Philadelphia. I’m trying to get a debate set up with Ben Shapiro, but that might all be a waste of time; I don’t know if I want to feed into that bullshit. But I am definitely filling out a panel with Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Daniel Dennett for the Secular Student Alliance next February. I’ll let you know when you can get tickets if you’re interested in coming. I think it’s supposed to be in Evanston.”
Demian smiled and nodded and looked back up at wood. It was creased with shadows which moved restlessly with the wind, but the trunks of the trees stood firm and inflexible like iron posts submerged in a frozen lake.
“I would appreciate that. You’re busy as ever, Haller.”
“I know you don’t exactly share all of my beliefs,” he said quietly, sincerely, “You are perhaps a bit less closed off to those ideas than I am, but – “
“You don’t have to share beliefs to listen. And I enjoy listening to you. It’s important to you that things been seen objectively. It seems to me that you study what you study and write what you write because you don’t want to see people be given false hope.”
“You don’t think it’s always false hope though, do you?”
“Yes. The – the existence of something immortal. After death, that is.”
“I have lots of thoughts on that and, better yet, I’ve heard and listened to lots of thoughts on that. My conclusion is that hope is powerful.”
“So is delusion. My family was deluded. They believed in all of that kind of stuff, but where are they now? Rotting in coffins. Filling up urns. It’s ridiculous what kind of a life some people will let themselves lead if they are that deluded.”
“What kinds of lives did they lead?”
He wrenched his mouth to one side and his eyes swam wetly around in their sockets.
“Quiet lives. Small lives. Never leaving this town. Never wanting anything else. Never asking for more.”
“You think they wanted more?”
“How could you not? How could you not look around at this sort of puny, wilting life and not wonder if there’s something more out there for you?”
“Based on what you’ve said about them, I think they did just that. I think they hoped for more. And I think you have more in common with them than you thought. Good things, too.”
He stared out into the grass at the base of the wood. In the shadow of the trees he watched something pale-colored – well, he didn’t know exactly what he watched, or what it was doing, but it was gone now. Demian looked over at him sadly. He slapped a hand on his knee.
“Well, break’s over. Let’s get the rest of that carpet up and get the scrapers out of the truck.”
Five hours later, the floors were bare and clean, soaking in mineral spirits and picked clean of staples. Pablo had helped with most of it. He was largely quiet, but no longer seemed to care for going off by himself. He stayed close to Demian, or else spent his time outside, close to the road and always in the sun. From time to time Demian noticed his glance straying watchfully to certain areas: the seat in front of the old pipe organ, the doorway leading to the staircase, the bathroom off of the kitchen. Once he stared mutely at the kitchen sink while his chest rose and fell perceptibly. He wouldn’t stop or slow what he was doing, but he would look up at these things slowly without turning his head, and then look deliberately and painfully back at his work. Demian decided not to bring this up today. If there was something that Pablo didn’t like, he would tell him.
Towards the end of the day, before they headed out, and while his former student was dragging a load of the old carpet up to the dumpster he had rented, Demian asked for a report on the foundation.
“You haven’t mentioned anything about it, so I’m assuming it’s in good shape. Nothing to worry about?”
Pablo didn’t meet his glance. His eyes were calmly fixed on something in the stairwell. But the lights were off in the house and with the sun beginning to set, Demian could only see a bank of dark blue shadow.
“Nothing expensive. There are some minor concerns. Some strange things... Some very strange things.”
“With the foundation?”
“This too, yes. With the foundation, too.”
Pablo looked away from the stairwell and looked out towards the porch.
“Tunnels. There are tunnels dug under the porch in the crawlspace.”
“By moles? Woodchucks?”