Regional folktales are a touchy business, but this one has stewed at the back of my mind ever since I heard it. I took some creative liberties for narration and framing, but the skeleton is there.
The three boys piled their bikes behind the dead maple in front of the abandoned house. The bikes would be hidden from anyone driving by, but the boys doubted anyone would care.
The empty house sat on a small clearing which the county mowed every few weeks. The house had sat empty for so long that it sort of blended into the weeds and trees. The three boys had noticed it.
Two were brothers, Mike and Andy, and both had the same wide shoulders and tall build. In two years, they’d be running suicides on their high school basketball court, but at twelve years old, two years might as well be next decade.
The third boy, Jay, was slighter and shorter than the brothers. and had a boxy, plastic Polaroid camera dangling from his neck. He lifted the camera, squinted and snapped a picture. The camera’s distinctive whine sounded like someone stuttering out the word closet.
“Seven photos left in that pack,” Mike said, “at fifty cents a photo. Don’t go snap happy.”
Jay muttered something without looking at him.
“What he say?” Mike asked.
Andy shrugged. “Setting, I think.”
Andy smiled. Jay was a weird kid, but not weird in a window-peeking way. Weird in a day-dreamy, smart-stupid way. He could ace a math test in ten minutes and then mix up his right and left hands the next. Or walk into a wall. And when you talked to him, he always seemed half present, unless he was really interested in the topic. Like this house.
Mike huffed. “That film was my week’s allowance.”
“The Wizard has to have his Oz,” Jay interrupted. “Stories need settings.”
Mike shrugged. Jay was…being Jay.
All three boys stood in front of the old house, closer than they’d ever been in their entire life. From the road, the house seemed menacing, with broken windows like jagged, venomous teeth.
Up close, it was just an old, rotting pile of wood and paint. Even calling it a house seemed too generous. Twenty feet on one side and forty on the other, cottage was better.
Scrappers had taken most of the aluminum siding, leaving wide gaps that exposed the rotted plywood beneath. Occasional streaks of baby blue paint remained, hinting at a house that, once upon a time, was probably well-loved. Weeds as thick as tree saplings guarded the house’s perimeter, but pink-yellow clumps of yarrow flowers and Black-eyed Susans peeked out among the mess.
A screen door dangled off the front porch, flapping in the late summer breeze. Beneath the screen was a heavy piece of not-ancient plywood, with at least a dozen thick screws anchoring it to the door frame. Once upon a time, someone had cared enough to board it up.
The three boys walked around the entire house slowly, watching the ground beneath them for loose nails or broken glass. There was broken glass everywhere, some shards the size of axe heads.
Jay paused at one corner and looked back at the glass covering the ground beneath the side windows. He squinted, then raised the camera and snapped another picture.
The two brothers looked at him and Jay said, “It’s weird. The glass broke out, not in. If you break a window from the outside, it falls in. Not out.”
“Windows were broken from the inside,” Jay said.
“Oh, we got it,” Mike said. “Well worth fifty cents to memorialize that tidbit.”
Andy punched his arm. “Don’t be a cheap ass,” Andy said.
They almost made one full loop of the house when they saw what they wanted. Along the concrete foundation of the old house, a single basement window yawned open. Vandals had broken its glass cleanly, leaving behind a simple, safe entryway.
“Here,” Jay said. He raised the camera.
Now Jay squatted and fished out a small plastic flashlight, the kind kids carry while backyard camping. He switched it on and peered into the basement’s darkness, with Mike and Andy squatting behind him. The basement’s old, musty stink rolled out like a fog. Both Mike and Andy sneezed from the dust.
The yellow beam fell on a dusty, dry floor. Jay worked it slowly across, the cone of light finding an ancient iron nail, a penny, and the lower half of a cobweb. All three boys held their breath.
Their systematic search was as serious as an Irish cathedral. This wasn’t for adventure or a rite-of-passage. It was for treasure, and the only kind of treasure that could motivate three, twelve-year-old boys to explore such a creepy old house. They had been told—no, assured—that somewhere in the dark and dust of the old house’s basement stood a stack of nudie magazines. To three twelve-year-old boys (in the age before the Internet), no better motivation was necessary. And that information had come from Benny, the trusted fourteen-year-old cousin of Mike and Andy, who had spotted them through a window only last summer. A very trusted source.
The three boys knew someone had to slide down into that basement and gauging the size of the slim window and the size of the boys, all three knew Jay had to be it.
Jay slipped the camera strap off his neck and set it in the grass. Then he combed his fingers through the grass in front of the glassless window, checking for shards or nails. Clean enough. He lay flat on his stomach, slowly swishing the flashlight around the basement.
Jay inventoried what he saw in a calm monotone, like reading a grocery list.
“…some file boxes, saggy, but I don’t see any mold. A rake. A shovel. Shovel’s got a broken handle. There’s a doll down there, an old Barbie, but she’s got no hair. A stack of old dry cleaning bags. Desk drawers but no desk. Geez—look at that typewriter. That thing could be a ship anchor. A lot of dust. I’ve going to be sneezing this shit out for a week. We shoulda’ brought dust masks.”
Mike and Andy exchanged a glance. Unlike Jay, their nerves felt like dowsing rods, stretched further the closer they were to the house. Nervous turned to fear to the first wisps of terrors. Mike didn’t want to show it, but Andy didn’t give a damn. This house could give that demon from the Exorcist the creeps.
Andy said, “Maybe we should get masks then. I know my dad’s got some at home. A big stack. We could come—”
“I see them,” Jay said. “I see them right there. Other side of the basement, next to some stairs. I think stairs. Easy to get anyway.”
Jay was really going in. Andy stopped the pretense. “I don’t like this. This house. This basement. I don’t care if there’s a stack of Penthouses or Playboys or whatever.”
Jay rolled on his back and looked up, shining the light in their eyes. “It’s an old house with an old basement.”
“I don’t like it,” Mike said. “This place feels, I don’t know, feels off.”
Jay flopped back to his belly, spun in a quick circle and then pushed his feet through the window. He held out his hands. “Just put me down and pull me back up when I ask. I’ll be quick as a bunny.”
Mike and Andy each grabbed a hand. When Jay’s waist passed over the window’s threshold, they each felt the weight of his body tug them forward. They guided him down to the floor. Their arms slipped past the window into the basement for only a few seconds, but even then the cold dust seemed to massage their skin.
They backed away from the window.
“The camera?” Jay called up.
“Come on, man. Just get the magazines,” Mike said.
“Camera,” Jay repeated.
Andy lifted the Polaroid and, holding it by housing and strap, pushed it through the window. He let go of the housing and the camera dangled down. The dank basement air felt like used mummy bandages wrapping around his skin.
Jay took the camera.
“One minute,” Andy said.
“Yep,” Jay said.
The two boys waited. They heard Jay’s shuffling steps going across the basement. Then a heavy ruffle of paper which had to be the magazines.
“Oh shit,” Jay said and his voice echoed dully. The Polaroid flashed.
“These stairs, guys,” Jay called out. “They go down.”
“Jay, come on, man,” Andy said, and his voice trembled near tears. This was bad, bad. This place was bad. Not an F on the test bad or getting caught plucking a loose dollar from Dad’s pants bad, but bad in an elemental way.
Jay said, “I’m—”
Mike and Andy sat, pushing themselves back from the window with their heels. Not another sound came from the basement. No steps, no pictures, no talking. They waited. A minute passed. Two. Ten. They waited.
Mike burst into tears and clumsily stood up and tumbled to his bike.
Andy’s self-control lasted a moment longer. He was closer to Jay then Mike was, and that friendship let him try one last time.
He kneeled before the window and, swallowing painfully, he whispered, “Jay?”
No sound, but a hot and heavy expulsion of wind floated up from the window. Not wind, he knew, but breath. It dug itself into Andy’s nose, filling his sinuses. Andy stood up coughing, trying to hold down his lunch.
The smell of rotted meat and decay and dust and shit. It was the smell of a grizzly bear’s breath when hibernation season ended. It was the smell of something very alive and very hungry.
The two boys pistoned their pedals, not sparing Jay’s bike another glance, and made their way to town for help.
They came back an hour later, this time in the back of a police car. A dozen people had swarmed the house now, and the front door had been ungraciously battered in.
Through the basement window they saw searing light of a propane lantern.
The house was searched top to bottom. There was a staircase, but it went up, not down. Police told them Jay’s footsteps led to the center of the basement and no further. No footsteps showed him turning around. No trace of anything, man or monster, was there. Not even the camera.
Five years later…
The two brothers were still tall and slim, but the hoop dreams of Mike and Andy had long since faded away. Now in their senior year of high school, both boys looked much older than seventeen. Gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes. Both puffed away at cigarettes.
Mike had pulled his Dodge Omni to the road’s shoulder. Although the tiny car didn’t stand a chance of being hit by motorists. He flicked the hazard lights and both boys made their way down to the old house, like they did every year on this day. Jay had never been found, despite the efforts of police and his parents. Police now assumed Jay had not disappeared in the basement but in the wooded area behind the house. Five years later, the story had faded and faded.
Andy and Mike remembered. Their nightmares feed that memory like gas feeding a flame, burning just hot enough to hurt, not to kill.
The brothers didn’t say anything. What did they have to say? They stood where their bikes had been piled up five years ago, next to the dead maple, each puffing hard on a Marlboro Red, the Cowboy Killer ones. They only glanced at the house, looking at it just long enough to see it hadn’t changed in the intervening years. The broken door had been fixed and it stood as hollow and haunting as it had half a decade ago.
When they finished their cigarettes, they pushed their hands deep in their pockets, the silent ceremony over. Mike turned first. Andy followed, daring to look over his shoulder for the barest second at the basement window.
A pair of pale hands jutted out and up from the window. The fingers clasped at the empty air. Reaching.
Andy’s air left him. His heart pounded with a jack hammer’s speed, and he felt the world dim to gray just a little. His throat froze like an iron straw.
“Mike,” he finally heaved out. “Mike…”
Mike turned then whimpered.
One hand held out a flashlight and tossed it up and out. The other lifted a Polaroid camera, THE Polaroid camera, and gently placed it in the grass.
Then the two hands clawed for purchase in the ground and went bone-white with the effort of pulling. A boy’s head and body covered in dust.
Jay just as he had been.
Jay saw them standing by the road ten yards away, staring. He gave them the finger.
“You guys couldn’t wait by the freaking window for a minute. What a couple…of…” Jay trailed off. He back and forth between Mike and Andy.
It was them, but it wasn’t.
They were taller and skinner, but their healthy American tan had been replaced by a cadaverous paleness. They looked exhausted and older. Much older.
“Andy?” Jay said.
Andy sobbed and cried out only once, his vision swimming. Mike wouldn’t look any more. He expected Jay to disappear again, maybe followed by another belch of putrid stink, but he didn’t. Jay stood right there, as real as rain.
“I’m sorry, Jay,” Andy said.
Mike turned and slid into the Omni, twisting its key. The car reeled then started. Andy walked around the rear and then opened his door. That wasn’t Jay. What it was he didn’t know. A ghost. Madness.
He glanced up and now Jay was crying. He had dropped the camera and flashlight to the ground, and his twelve-year-old body trembled and shook. A flutter of glossy pages fell from beneath his coat.
The curled and twisted pages of the nudie magazines fell forgotten at his feet.
“Andy? What is this?” he cried.
Andy slid into the Omni and the tiny car pulled onto the road and puttered off as fast as the four cylinder would go.
From guilt or friendship, Andy looked back as they drove away. It wasn’t long, but long enough to see Jay slouching obediently back to the house and twist his body to slid back down into the basement window.
Well, I added more than a little for dramatic purposes, but the central parts of the story—the old house, the basement, three boys, nudie magazine, footsteps in the dust, and the five years later sighting—were all in the story as told to me. That story had throbbed like a bad tooth ever since I heard it, and those stories, even if painful, are the best kind.
“Central Indiana” is as specific as I will get. Any house, historic or not, that sits empty long enough gains a reputation for being haunted, which brings explorers, which eventually results in busted windows and broken doors. Best to leave it be.
After all…maybe the story’s true.