It was enormous. Its towers scraped the sky. The weather vane disappeared behind pointed, celestial rooftops to circular rooms I knew we’d never need. The shingles were faded. It needed a coat of paint. The windows were coated with years’ worth of dust, grime, and hairline fractures. Balconies splayed from bays high above the treetops. The windows were inky black, as if swallowing the midday sun that shined upon us all.
“It’s perfect,” said Mom.
“Just right for our research,” said Dad.
“It’s creepy,” said Tommy.
I said nothing.
The foundation was too deep. Some people think I’m dumb, but I’m not dumb. As I unloaded plates and towels and cushions while the my parents handled the heavier furniture, I watched them climb up the faded marble steps, across the wraparound porch, and through the overlarge doorway that so ornate and iridescent in prisms of opaque glass in good need of a scrubbing, and I listened intently as their feet echoed too crisply in such a bird-filled, wind-risen environment.
The foundation was too deep.
The house was bigger than it wanted to admit.
“What do you think of it, Lilah?” Dad asked later.
“I’m sorry?” I said nonchalantly, arranging porcelain angels on my shelves. My room was bigger than my last, with sun-faded floral wallpaper, threadbare carpet, and a bed whose canopy was old and frayed.
“What do you think of the house?” he asked again.
I shrugged, turning a plump-cheeked cherub more towards me. “I think it’s cool.”
I think it’s hiding something, I thought.
Like a basement.
Chinese was served for dinner. It felt wrong. It seemed like we needed something more special, like a big fat turkey to commemorate the huge, ancient house we were living in. But the stove wasn’t hooked up yet.
“It’s so huge!” Mom gushed. “Now we can all have our own bedrooms, and your father and I have so many offices to choose from!”
My parents were both horror writers. Dad was a bit more successful than Mom, with his last novel number six on the bestseller list and Mom’s number twenty-eight. There was some friendly rivalry there, but mostly they just helped each other out wherever they could. They’d decided to come together and combine their efforts in search of a gripping paranormal and had dictated that this house would be perfect for their needs. Their main character was moving into a big, old house, too.
“I love it,” said Mom.
“It’s all we could ever hope for,” said Dad.
“It’s scary,” said Tommy.
I held my tongue.
Tommy was out like a light after Mom replaced the sheets on his bed with his Buzz Lightyear comforter. My parents discussed their book in shrill, excited tones over reruns of The Nanny before turning in themselves. I stayed awake, the old satellite TV flickering and casting my shadow in strange, grotesque ways on the walls.
Something didn’t feel quite right.
The couch pressed in all the wrong places. The rug was rough and the hardwood rougher. The windows were high and almost graced the colossal ceilings, inlaid with golden designs that had turned bronze with dust.
But there was something deeper, more sinister, thickening in the air.
“I want to go home,” I said aloud.
The backyard was ghostly, so I lit a kerosene lamp with Dad’s grill lighter. We had no candle or flashlights, so an old lamp perched on a hook in the back of the house was the best I could do.
There was a small pond in the backyard, shimmering like a beacon in the full moon’s glow. A statue of an old lady sat in the middle, her head bowed in what looked like prayer over a baby sleeping by her feet.
The pond was surrounded by cattails that gave way to splotchy grass and skeletal trees with flaky bark. Flowerbeds carpeted the right side of the yard, and I saw very neatly cut rocks silhouetted between plots of poppies.
There was an old bench sitting to the left of the old lady, so I sat on it. It was midnight and I still couldn’t sleep. If my mom were awake, she’d call it “new house jitters”. She’d been warning Tommy and me (Tommy chiefly) of the new house jitters since they’d dropped the Moving Bomb on us four weeks ago.
I looked up at the old lady, bowed into herself over the lake. The eerie light of the moon made her eyes and mouth appear sunken into her face.
My breath fogged up in front of me. It was the middle of August.
Mom and Dad decided to recluse in their chosen office the next day, which ended up being on the fourth, uppermost floor, farthest away from my “loud music” and Tommy’s “never-ending videogames”.
Tommy played Wii while I explored. I was tired, but not tired enough to miss out on an opportunity to inspect the house for cool antiques…or a basement.
“Do you want to come?” I asked him. What protection my five-year-old wuss of a brother could offer was beyond me, but I didn’t feel right searching alone.
“No thanks,” he said indifferently, but there was a tremor in his voice.
Mario didn’t jump in time and fell into the lava. Bowser cackled ominously.
I searched the fourth floor. Unused bedrooms, a bathroom, and a door shut tight. That had to be where my parents were.
I searched the third floor. My brother’s room, my room, a storage closet, and two bathrooms. One room was unused and filled with old books. This caught my interest, but they were all encyclopedias.
I searched the second floor. The soon-to-be laundry room, the family study, the empty sunroom, and two closets, none of which looked suspicious to me.
I searched the first floor. The kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the family room with the TV. There was nothing to be found.
Feeling defeated, I retreated to the living room, featuring two couches and a big bookshelf that had been there when we bought the place. I leaned against it and decided that maybe I was crazy.
The bookcase slowly slid behind me. I stood upright, confused.
It looked too heavy to be pushed by me. But, without much force, I pressed a hand against it and it slid.
The wall was the same…except for a doorknob sunken into the wall.
I turned it. The door swung in.
This is in every horror movie, I thought to myself urgently. Don’t go down! You’ll die for sure!
I closed the door, pushed the bookcase back, and burned with curiosity for the rest of the day.
“How’s the book coming?” I asked at dinner that night. We were eating McDonald’s. Apparently, my parents hadn’t thought to go grocery shopping today either, despite the fact that all the appliances were finally plugged in and ready to go.
Dad sighed. “We’re having more trouble getting an idea than we thought,” he admitted.
“No, don’t give up yet!” Mom encouraged, eating a fry. “Maybe we should tour the house, how about that, dear?”
I froze, burger halfway to my lips. What if they found the staircase? Would they go down it?
“Nah,” Dad declined. I relaxed. “We’ll think of something eventually. Besides, what haven’t we seen in the house already?”
I bit into the burger before I said something I’d regret.
“I think we’ll pull through,” said Mom.
“You’re right,” said Dad.
“It’s still creepy here,” said Tommy.
My nails dug into my hand.
I remember going to sleep. I remember ending up in the backyard late that night. I don’t remember the events in between.
I sat on my bench again, staring up at that old lady. I watched my breath fog in the warm, sticky August night.
“What’s wrong with this place?” I asked the statue aloud.
I stood up, walked around the lake, and strolled in the rows between the poppies. They were pretty, all kinds of whites and reds and yellows.
My fingers graced the rocks. They were so crisply cut, as though man-made. I wonder what made them that way.
As I brought my hand down, I brushed a cut deep in the rock.
Confused, I rubbed my fingers over the smooth front of the granite, feeling for more ridges.
My heart sank.
When my parents woke up, they seemed to be in good spirits.
“How’s the book?” I asked again, turning away from my cartoons.
“Going well,” Mom assured me. “We’re having some ideas.” Dad nodded along.
“So listen,” I began, twisting uncomfortably in the couch. “Have you guys been in the backyard?”
“Of course we have,” Dad replied, head cocked to one side.
“After all, we had to inspect the house before buying it,” Mom chimed in, chuckling a bit at my foolishness.
“So you know there’s gravestones back there?”
Mom and Dad’s grins fell. They exchanged a look.
“Lilah…,” Dad began. “We know you have a thing with…”
“Dead people,” I finished for him. It’s true. Dead people—and anything to do with them—freaked me out more than the average bear.
“…but the graves are just to commemorate. It’s an old family plot, but nobody was actually given a funeral there. We don’t think there’s any actual bodies buried in the yard,” Mom said sympathetically.
She didn’t think. But I heard the words she didn’t say.
But we don’t know for sure.
Dinner that night was finally a home-cooked meal. Too bad it was tuna noodle casserole. I picked distastefully at the peas and noodles and tried to engage in the conversation, but I was having trouble.
“The book is going fabulous!” Mom said in a singsong voice. “We have all our characters planned out and are almost ready to start our first chapter!”
Dad smiled and clapped Mom on the shoulder in celebration. “It’s a huge step for us,” he agreed.
Tommy shrugged. “Do you think we’ll get to move out soon?” he asked quietly, munching on his crescent roll.
Mom’s grin wilted. “Tommy, this is our home now. You’ll learn to like it.”
I doubted that.
“Trust us, it’ll be great here,” said Mom.
“You’ll love it soon, trust me,” said Dad.
“If you say so,” said Tommy.
I bit hard on the tines of my fork to keep from screaming.
That night, after everyone went to bed, my heart was pounding. I knew I had to do it. I don’t know why; I don’t know what crazy thought had to pop in my head before so I could ever dream that it was a good idea, but I knew I had to do it.
I was going down those stairs.
Staring down that corridor, seeming to swallow light and humanity and all that is good, I almost turned back.
One hand on the too-light bookcase, I pivoted and was poised to leave when something inside me clicked.
Lilah…if you leave now, there is no way in hell you’ll ever come back again.
I turned back around, took a deep breath, and ran down the stairs like the devil was after me.
The light was swallowed away from me by the time I hit the first platform.
Evidently, there were multiple flights of stairs going down.
I walked down a second, third, and fourth, and just when I was wondering if there was ever an end, my foot hit cold, solid dirt.
It was the middle of August, and I was freezing cold.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket with clammy hands and flicked it on. The light barely permeated the darkness, but at least I had something to go by.
I walked slowly forward, wondering fiercely if this was it: the basement. But the walls were dirt and the floor was dirt and the ceiling was concrete, so I didn’t think so.
Just as I was considering writing off the dirt chamber as stupid and going back to bed, I hit something surprisingly hard with both knees.
Pain searing in my eyes, I stumbled back and shined my phone on the culprit.
It was a coffin.
My parents were right. There were no bodies under those gravestones.
The bodies were right here.
My fingers were visibly shaking as I reached slowly forward to feel the mahogany.
What are you doing?! my conscience screamed. What the hell are you doing?!
The coffin was long and ornate and inlaid with cold beauty. It was antique in its own, demented sense, and the overwhelming urge to touch it silenced (or at least muffled) my sanity’s attempts to wrench my hand back.
A normal person would have just graced the coffin with her fingertips, if they was stupid enough to touch it at all. But no—I was beyond that. I pressed my entire hand—every inch of skin—on its surface.
Two things happened very quickly.
One, my hand turned horribly, shockingly cold, cold enough to burn the skin off my bones, the moment it hit the coffin.
Two, despite my very deep vantage point far under the house, I clearly heard Tommy scream.
I ran blindly up the stairs in the dark since I’d dropped my phone back in the chamber. It didn’t matter anymore. Tommy’s wails were rising in volume and intensity, and he had to be screaming at his absolute loudest—possibly even of superhuman strength—for me to hear it so sharply down below.
I burst into the living room, panting up a storm, covered in sweat despite being so, so cold. My hand had regained none of its former warmth and was currently stinging fiercely enough to make me wonder if it was being mauled by wasps. I didn’t want to look at it as I ran upstairs.
When I got to Tommy, it was like a horror show.
His nose was bleeding like a tapped faucet, but he didn’t seem worried about that. He was thrashing in bed, fine blonde curls tossing every which way, slashing through the air at things only he could see.
His scream was deafening. It almost seemed to blow me back when I got his door open.
“Tommy!” I cried. My voice was lost and completely covered by his siren wail. Somebody would surely call the cops. Somebody would probably need to.
“Tommy, Tommy, what is it?!” I tried again, knowing it was futile. I dropped by his writhing frame, his legs getting all tangled in his Buzz Lightyear comforter—the one he thought would protect him—and used my good hand (the one that didn’t feel like a solid block of searing, unbelievably painful block of ice) and pressed a hand against his forehead to stabilize him. His entire face was absolutely drenched in his nosebleed and I wondered if he’d fall unconscious soon.
“Tommy! Talk to me!” I cried in his ear.
“They’re after me!” he shrieked. “They’re after me! They say they’ll take me! I don’t want them to take me!”
My parents burst in.
“What’s going on?!” screamed Mom.
“I’m calling the police!” screamed Dad.
“Help me! They’re gonna kill me!” screamed Tommy.
I was crying too hard to say much of anything.
The firemen arrived just as we were trying to get Tommy out of bed. His flailing arms and biting jaws did nothing to help us get him to be still, and specks of blood were flying everywhere: down his neck, across his hands, and all over the walls.
“How did this happen?” they demanded as they straightjacketed him and put him in the back of their car. “What happened to this boy?”
Mom was sobbing too hard to say anything.
Dad was too busy alternating between comforting Mom and crying himself to say anything.
Tommy wasn’t going to be saying anything coherent for a long time.
“I’ll tell you, but you won’t believe me,” said I.
After Tommy’s nosebleed was somehow quenched, he was given a transfusion and a sedative, and I was given a pot of hot water to dunk my near-frostbitten hand into and was paid a short visit by the hospital psychologist to make sure I wasn’t suffering from some kind of mental disorder that might cause me to have such bizarre, otherworldly delusions like coffins in a dirt chamber. My parents finally concluded I was having a nightmare about the gravestones and was awakened by Tommy’s screaming, whatever that was about.
“It must’ve been the book,” said Mom.
“It must’ve been the house,” said Dad.
“I don’t care what you think. It’s true,” said I. “And at least I’m finally telling you.”
We moved out.
Tommy was discharged from the hospital two days later, after exhibiting no signs of a repeat performance. He and I quickly suggested we leave, and Mom and Dad quickly agreed.
“It’ll be best for everybody,” said Mom.
“We’ll stay with Grandma until we find a new house,” said Dad.
“That place was scary,” said Tommy.
I said nothing. They wouldn’t believe me anyway.
The moving van rumbled to life behind us. I sat in the backseat of our minivan, studying the house.
“I guess you were right about the house,” Mom sighed, putting the key in the ignition.
“Sorry we dragged you kids into this,” Dad agreed.
“It’s okay. At least we’re leaving now,” Tommy said brightly, playing with his action figures next to me.
As the car began to move forward, I kept my eye on the statue of the old lady, visible in the backyard from where the car was parked. I wondered what she was doing there. Was she a former owner? Was she the last person to live there?
I never got my answer. I felt a wave of dizziness crash over me and I squeezed my eyes shut until it passed. Five seconds later, I opened my eyes again, wondering what the hell that was about.
When I looked back, the statue was gone.