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When you live in a place long enough, you tend to form a bond with it. You know the entire place inside and out like the back of your hand, and it knows you just as well, if not better. It quietly witnesses you eat your meals, dream your dreams, cry your tears, celebrate your achievements, and live out your life, unaware that everything you do is documented within the cracks and crevices of the structure, just as a human brain documents memory. It has seen the real you. The person that only comes out when you can take solace in the confines of your safe haven, raw and unedited, beyond the façade that is shown to the rest of the world. It knows your habits, the good and the bad. It keeps your secrets hidden from prying eyes without ever passing a judgment. If the walls of our homes could speak, they could tell the true stories of our lives.
The day that we moved, I remember walking around my empty old house with a heavy heart. I walked the entire square footage of the house, room by room, just reminiscing. I lingered in each room for a minute or two just looking around at the bare walls. I could still see indentations in the carpet from where it supported the weight of our furnishings. The cherry Kool-Aid stain that I made in the hallway when I was five still remained, bright as ever, embedded within the fibers of the light gray carpet. I stood in the doorway of my bathroom remembering the many times I would lay sick on the cold linoleum flooring, staring at the green toilet for hours, wondering every time what in the world compelled someone to design a baby shit green colored bathroom. I wandered to the laundry room and traced my finger along my height chart carved into the wood of the wall, remembering when my mother had me stand against it each birthday to record my growth.
I step out of the back door and look out into the backyard. Adjacent to my climbing tree stands the swing set my father built for me when I turned six. My father, my mother, my brother, and I all put our hands in the cement at each of the posts, leaving our prints fossilized in the concrete. Before getting into the car to leave, I stopped in the front of the yard and looked at the tree I planted at the age of two when it was merely a twig. Nine years later, there it stood as tall as the house. Everywhere I looked there was a memory. I stood in the driveway feeling as though at that moment I was leaving my happy childhood behind, etched deep within the soul of the house, becoming a part of its energy. My only hope was that someone would find this warm, cheery looking house and continue to fill it with happy memories.
Since I lived relatively close by, I was able to ride by my old house whenever I was in the area. I was always so curious about the people that took up residency there after my family. For twenty years, I watched the color of the house change eight times. There were different cars parked in the driveway every couple of years. It didn’t seem like anyone stayed longer than 3-4 years at maximum. I caught glimpses every now and again of a child playing on my swing set as I rode past. I imagined that they discovered my family’s handprints and wondered about us as much as I wondered about them.
It wasn't until around two years ago that I began to notice a change. I went from seeing various cars in the driveway to none at all. The grass throughout the front and back yard grew wild and unmaintained. The windows of the house looked dark and full of despair, it made me sad to look at them. My little blue house had become that one creepy looking house on the block that the neighborhood kids dare their friends to run up and touch the door. I never saw a For Sale or even a For Rent sign outside ever. It just looked as though somebody had forgotten about the place. But why? I wanted to know what happened to the home the holds the fondest memories of my childhood. What kind of things went on in this place to cause it to give off such a cold and eerie energy that sends a chill down my spine? What kind of dark secrets are held within its walls? These are the questions that plagued me whenever I rode through the old neighborhood and saw my once happy home sitting cold and alone in the world. I never had the time to stop and satisfy my morbid curiosity… until today.
Now I find myself standing in the driveway, adjacent to the tree that has grown with me for almost three decades. It’s twice the size as I remember. I look up at its highest point, marveling at the fact that I planted this tree. I turn my gaze toward the house and stare into its eerie desolation. The fog of the early morning isn’t helping tone down the creepiness of the house at all. I close my eyes for a moment and imagine what it looked like the day that I moved away, picturing it clearly in my mind: Two toned blue with black shutters on the three front windows, a big concrete slab of a porch with large wooden posts and rails, six blooming rose bushes bordered along the length of the porch, and an overall homey energy flowing through it.
I open up my eyes and step onto the porch, shuddering at the toll that time has taken on the place. The wooden posts of the front porch are now rotted out in at least six different spots. The lattice that my father had installed around the posts to help enclose it still remained with sections missing here and there. Piles of dead leaves littered every corner of the porch along with the remains of a couple of phone books all moistened and torn apart by the elements. The aluminum frame of the screen door remains intact with the upper portion of the screen torn off and hanging down to the cement. I pull back the screen door. “What the fuck?” The words left my lips as fast as they came to my brain. No door knob. Not even a hole drilled into the door for one. Just a deadbolt. That’s gotta be the weirdest thing I’ve seen.
I turn back around and walk over to the living room window at my immediate left. I notice a black haze covering the glass making it difficult to see through. Is that dirt? I wipe my finger across the glass and pull it back clean. Whatever it is, it’s not on the outside. I step closer and press my face against the glass, cupping my hands around the sides of it, and peer inside. I am able to make out a t.v. tray with a bottle resting on it. The dining room can be seen from here. I spot the backing of a chair, presumably belonging to the dining set, against the window. Above it, I can make out the linings of the half-drawn blinds attached to the window. I step back and walk over to the opposite end of the porch to the window of my former bedroom. The glass isn’t stained. I can clearly see a tall bookshelf standing in the middle of the room, an overturned filing cabinet, about a dozen boxes, and a barrage of papers strewn about the room, as if someone trashed the scene in a fit of rage. That’s what it resembles to me, anyhow. I can see through the doorway of my bedroom and am able to catch a glimpse of the toilet in my old bathroom. Still that same old baby shit green color after all this time. Clearly a remodeling job was never in the landlord’s agenda.
I stepped off of the porch and walk over to my car, still trying to wrap my head around what I have seen. It looks like someone just up and left one day, abandoning the place. I lowered myself onto the hood and pulled a pack of Newports out of my jacket pocket. I slid out a cigarette and started tapping the filter against the pack, staring into the darkened living room window completely lost in thought. Any other person would just walk away right now and not even try to find out what happened. Not me though. I’m that oddball chick that gets off on exploring the strange and unknown. I snicker and light up my cigarette. I just sit there, puffing away carcinogens while envisioning my seven-year-old self sitting on the front step, trying like hell to pick the pebbles out of the concrete. To this day, I still don’t understand what purpose they served. All I knew is that it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch when you stepped on one with your bare foot.
I was brought back to reality by the sound of an impact gun pulling lug nuts off of a tire two houses away. I hop off of the hood and walk to the rear of the car to get a better look. Dude got himself a new set of twenty two inch rims. Nice. Kinda flashy for this side of town. Before I even realized I had started walking, I found myself standing at the bumper of the Nissan while he went on removing the nuts one at a time, unbeknownst to my presence. I figure I should make myself known before I scare the shit out of the poor guy. I patiently waited for a break in the noise so he could hear me speaking.
“Excuse me, darling,” I said as loudly as I could.
The mechanic looked up from his tire at me and squinted. A bead of sweat dripped down the end of his nose and fell onto the rim he had just removed.
“Ma’am?” he replied with an upward inflection.
“Please forgive my interruption but I wanted to see if you could spare me a couple of minutes of your time so that I may ask you a few questions?” I said politely.
He sat there for a moment as if he were trying to process what I had just said into his brain. He sized me up one good time and then finally spoke.
“Well I s’pose I could spare you some time if you could spare me one of them there smokes ya got there.”
He gestured toward my right hand that held the short end of my cigarette that had burned out. I smiled and reached into my pocket and pulled out my pack. He took my motion as a “yes” quickly made his way to his feet. I offered him my opened pack and he slid one out, bringing it to his lips along with this lighter.
“Thanks,” he says mid-drag. “So now what can I help you with there, pretty lady?” he asks me with a big toothy smile. I notice he has three missing in the front. Goes splendidly with his tattered flannel shirt and grease covered NASCAR trucker’s cap.
“Have you lived in this neighborhood for a while?” I asked him.
“Betcha. Almost seven years now,” he replied with little bits of smoke escaping out of his mouth as he formed his words. The look on his face told me what question he was going to ask next so I went ahead and beat him to it.
“The reason I am asking is because I would like some information about the house two doors down from you,” I motioned toward my sad looking house. “It’s my childhood home. My family lived there for nine years. I have come by many times over the last twenty years, just to take a gander at the old place… ya know, for nostalgia.”
He nodded and puffed away on his cigarette.
“Having said that, I noticed now that the house looks completely abandoned and I wanted to know if you happened to know the story behind it?”
“It’s condemned,” he replied, dabbing his damp forehead with a dirty rag.
I look over toward the house confused. “What classifies it as being condemned? I took a look around and it appears to be structurally sound from the outside,” I asked.
“That’s because you’ve only been outside. There is a bunch of fire damage inside,” he said.
“Yes, ma’am. A fire broke out inside bout two years back.”
“I see.” The darkened windows make much more sense now. Soot from the fire.
“Uh huh. The old lady that was livin’ there at the time died in it,” he said nonchalantly.
My mouth fell open. “Are you serious?” I had to ask.
He nodded, "afraid so."
“Oh it gets worse,” he warned, taking a long drag.
I raised my eyebrow. “How much worse can it get?”
“Ain’t nobody found her for bout a week and a half. The sheriffs department got calls from a couple of the neighbors complaining bout a bad smell that just wouldn’t go away. That’s when they found her.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Was there anyone else in the house with her?” Please don't say there was a child involved, I thought to myself.
He shook his head. “Nah, she lived there by herself. Sons used to stay with her ‘til they couldn’t take her shit no more.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She had a severe drinking issue. Her recycling bins used to be full of whiskey bottles. She’d be out there on the porch most nights, drunk as a skunk, bottle of whisky in hand, all hootin’ and hollerin’ for no dang reason.”
“So they abandoned her just like that? They didn’t even try to get her help?” What wonderful children she had.
“Oh, they tried alright. She wouldn’t cooperate. Even bit her own son on the hand so hard that he needed to get stitched up,” he explained, flicking the butt of his borrowed cigarette into the yard.
“Yeah. She lost her husband and replaced him with a handle of Jack," said my interviewee.
I breathed a heavy sigh. To die alone and not be found for days? I couldn’t even think of a more horrible ending to a life.
“I just have one more question for you and then I won’t bother you anymore,” I said to the mechanic stranger.
He flashed a smile. “No bother at all,” he assured me.
“Would you tattle on me if I went and got a closer look at the place?” I asked. I didn’t think he would care but I had to make sure.
He chuckled. “Shit, ain’t nobody paid no attention to that place for years. I’d say it’s free game at ‘dis point. Be my guest,” he said as he plopped back down to continue with his project. I thanked him for his time and made my way back over to the house.
When I used to sit and wonder about the people that moved in after my family, I often imagined that happy families with children and pets lived here and filled the house with laughter and joy. Never did I think that it would end up becoming a tomb for a lonely old widow. No wonder it looks so dismal. There was no happiness here. The miserable life this woman led along with her last agonizing moments have been absorbed into the woodwork and now taint the soul of the house.
I walk through a break in the privacy fence, leading to the backyard. I see my swing set, looking a little weakened, but still standing as sturdy as ever. My climbing tree stands next to it. It’s much shorter than I remember with leaves growing out of it uncontrollably. A power line drapes over the top of the swing set and dangles down, disappearing into the two feet of grass. Well, that’s one way to keep the power from flowing, I thought to myself as I stroll over to the back door of the house. I stand at the base of the step in the sand pit that my brother and I used to play in as kids. Many Matchbox cars and G.I. Joes went missing in action here. My mother even broke her ankle here one night when she stepped off of the porch to grab the laundry off of the line, expecting for her foot to meet the ground… which it did… after about another two and a half feet into a hole that my brother forgot to fill back in. He got his ass whooped for that one.
I stand there idly, scanning over the back of the house. The dining room window is as black as the one for the living room. I’m assuming that the fire started in this general vicinity. What I didn’t understand about all of this is how come the entire house didn’t go up? I have witnessed a structure fire involving a house exactly like mine before and I know that it only takes six and a half minutes to engulf the entire house in flames. The only logical explanation I can come up with is that someone put it out. But who though? If the fire department had been called they definitely would have found a body inside of the house, right? According to the mechanic, it was the smell of decomposition that lead to her discovery so obviously they were never called to the scene. I hardly think the woman spontaneously combusted. This makes no sense to me at all. I wish I could see just how much of the house is damaged. I instinctively reach for the handle of the door and turn the knob. The door breaks free from the frame and cracks open. “No shit?!” I chuckle aloud. I look around to see if the coast is clear and immediately feel stupid for doing it. Like anyone really cares about what I’m doing. I laugh off my nonsense and open the door wider so I could fit myself inside.