It was the summer after Mrs. Winnie died when we heard the rusty spokes of Jack’s bike clicking towards us. He came to a halt in front of my driveway, sending his shadow sprawling over where Evan and I were playing tic-tac-toe with chalk.
“You know she’s still in there, right?” Jack said.
“Huh?” I asked with my usual eloquence. He nodded towards the house next door.
“Mrs. Winnie,” he said. “Her ghost is still in there. Sometimes I see her face in the windows.”
“Really?” Evan asked with wide eyes and hushed astonishment.
“Really,” Jack said back. And we believed him, because Jack was in eighth grade and all-knowing. We gazed up at the house as Jack and his bike clicked away, searching for a ghoulish portrait of Mrs. Winnie in the clouded windows of her former home.
We didn’t see her, but that didn’t matter. Jack’s whispered suggestion was all we needed to fear the spirit of Mrs. Winnie, who lurked in her precious house ready to haunt anyone who came too close, who hit a wiffle ball into her hydrangeas, or who left skid marks by her walkway with their bike––just like she would’ve when she was alive.
But as the house’s outside appearance atrophied over the years, so did our obsession with it. Soon we were in eighth grade, and it was our turn to know everything. So even though we walked faster by the house at night or when we were alone, we had to pretend we knew it wasn’t haunted. And that Halloween––when the barren claws of Mrs. Winnie’s elm trees were revealed––was when I knew I was too cool to go trick-or-treating.
“It’s sorta like a semi-permanent Halloween costume,” our friend Will told Evan as we were making our usual trek home from school two blocks over. Evan was outfitted with a fresh black eye––a prize he had won from Ross Andrews, an asshole in our year.
“Very funny,” Evan mumbled.
“Wish I’d seen it happen,” I said. The one day I didn’t walk to school with Evan, he gets his shit rocked. “Did he use his fist?” I asked.
“Yes, he used his fist,” Evan said, switching his violin case to his other hand in a huff of frustration.
“I didn’t think he actually ever hit people,” I admitted. I had only ever known Ross to bruise egos and question sexualities. I thought bullies who gave people black eyes only existed in movies.
“Well, obviously he does.”
“He’s never hit me before.”
“Maybe you aren’t worth the effort,” Evan said, turning his face towards me so I could see the purplish mark under his eye. It wasn’t all that impressive––enough to suggest he lost the fight, but not swollen and gross enough to be cool.
“Maybe he knows I could fuck him up,” I decided. Evan didn’t seem to feel that warranted a response.
“I heard during the basketball game against Townsend last year, he told the ref he was going to bite his tongue off,” Will told us.
“That’s, like, kinda gay,” I decided.
“I think he meant it like how you can bite someone’s tongue off as easy as a carrot.”
“That’s fingers,” said Evan.
“People say you can bite fingers off as easy as carrots, not their tongue. It’s not true, though.”
“Why would the ref’s finger be in his mouth?” I asked.
“Why would his tongue be in his mouth?” said Will.
“I don’t know. I don’t play basketball.” We had reached the corner of Will’s street and ours, and Will started walking backwards in a separate direction.
“You guys are still coming to Max’s later to go trick-or-treating, right?” he asked.
“He said Jessica might be there.”
“Oh. Okay,” I said. I could hear Will humming ‘Jess-i-ca’ as Evan and I continued down our street.
It wasn’t long before we were passing Mrs. Winnie’s house one the way to our own. Moss and mold dripped from rotted wood siding and roofing, and the charming picket fence that traced the yard had crumbled to jagged gray stumps. The house drooped under its own weathered age like it was crouched, hiding behind the twisted bouquet of weeds that had taken over Mrs. Winnie’s once-perfect front lawn.
The “For Sale” sign among the undergrowth was a new development. After years of our parents standing on the curb complaining about what an eyesore the place was, Mrs. Winnie’s son had finally put the place up for sale. Evan’s dad was the realtor; his stern face plastered on the bright yellow sign. My dad hypothesized that he was waiting to clean up the yard until after the probable Halloween vandalism occurred.
“I don’t want to go trick-or-treating,” I declared, thinking about my own Halloween itinerary.
“What?” Evan said. “Why not?”
“Because we’re fucking thirteen. We’re too old. And I don’t care about Jessica. I think maybe I like Mia better. Jessica smells like corn.”
“It’s hard to explain.” Mostly I liked Mia better because I hadn’t had to swear her to secrecy after I cried when she tried to kiss me on the log behind Max’s house at his birthday party two weeks before.
“Jessica already out of your league.”
“Well, she’s definitely going to be out of my league if she knows I still trick-or-treat. We’re doing something else. Something better. Besides, you don’t want to run into Ross somewhere so he can make you even uglier, right?”
It turned out what we were cool enough to do was sit in my basement, like we did every single other night of the year. Evan was sprawled across the futon––the only relic of my father’s college days that my mom allowed in the house––and I sat on the carpet watching one of the less-respected Scream sequels flicker before me on the TV.
“Why wouldn’t they put on a good horror movie tonight?” I asked, flicking a wrapper across the carpet. It was all that remained from the pile of candy we had heisted from the bowl upstairs that my mom had reserved for trick-or-treaters.
“Probably because there’s no such thing,” Evan’s muffled voice answered from above me. I squinted at him over my shoulder.
“Like you would know,” I said. “You only ever watch the back of whatever you’re hiding behind.”
“Shut up,” Evan said back, whipping me in the head with the pillow he had just been using to shield his eyes. “You cried at Will’s birthday party when we watched Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“In first grade.”
“It was third grade.”
“It was second,” I said. “And I was crying because I was sick of you following me around everywhere, bitching about being allergic to the cake.”
“Whatever you say,” Evan hummed.
“God, when did Halloween get so boring?” I said with a performative flop on my back, not at all trying to change the subject.
“When you said you wouldn’t go trick-or-treating anymore. Like, an hour ago.”
“We should do something fun tonight. Something, like, scary,” I said.
“Like, kill someone?” Evan responded in monotone, uninterested.
“Wait,” I said, ignoring him. “Your dad must have the keys to Mrs. Winnie’s house, right?”
“Yeah,” Evan answered, suspicion mounting in his voice. “Why?” All he had to do was look at my
face to know the answer. “No, Caleb. No fucking way.”
Purple twilight had settled over my backyard by the time I had lured Evan out of my basement with a bombardment of insults against his masculinity. He followed several steps behind me in silent protest as we made our way towards his basement door.
“Why do we always do what you want to do?” Evan finally asked.
“Because I’m not the one who carries my violin case home from school every day,” I said back. By then we had reached his basement door. “Ok, where would he keep them?”
“This is a dumb idea.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” I said, referencing my solitary argument on the topic.
“Fine, shit. They’ll probably be on his workbench or in his office. Just––when we’re inside––shut up for once? My dad’ll be pissed if he finds us down here.”
I mimed zipping my lips and Evan rolled his eyes before opening the door and ushering me into the darkness. I went to turn on the lightswitch next to the door, but he swatted my hand away from it.
‘No,’ he mouthed, and then it was my turn to roll my eyes. He pointed toward the office door before he tiptoed towards the workbench. Apparently we were splitting up.
I made my way through the gloom in the only part of Evan’s house that was unfamiliar to me. He lived next door on the other side of Mrs. Winnie, and our houses were the same. They were mirrored, and his didn’t sport the same jungle-green paint job that my dad blamed my mom for, but they were both mid-century ranches with the same floorplan.
When we discovered this in first grade, I bribed my older sister to switch rooms with me so that Evan and I could have the same one––the one in the front corner next to the bathroom. Evan even helped my dad and me paint my room the same color as his, and we arranged our furniture in the same pattern so that our rooms were as identical as we could manage. At school, we called it ‘our room’ so that our classmates thought we lived together. Of course, once we were in middle school we’d rather piss ourselves publicly than admit we had matching bedrooms, so the concept of ‘our room’ was all but abandoned. In appearance, though, they remained the same.
I finally made it to the door and pushed it open. A single desk lamp spilled harsh yellow light against the wood-paneled walls of the tiny room. I saw a set of keys right away––they were hanging off of a hook above the desk. I grabbed them and was about to leave when I noticed something on the shelf above––a picture of a man in service uniform. I had to squint at it to see that it was Evan’s father, a stranger in his youth.
I could see the outline of another frame behind the first and I reached up and carefully removed it from the shelf. I wiped away the dust clinging to the glass so I could make out the photograph beneath––a much younger Evan sitting in front of a Christmas tree, his father in the armchair next to him, and his mother beside him with her arm around his back. It was strange to see her. I’d almost forgotten what she looked like.
“What are you doing down here?” a deep voice said from behind me. The pulse of fear that ripped through my spine spun me around, the picture still in my hands. I expected to see a figure looming in the doorway, but the door was still mostly closed behind me.
“I was just…looking for something,” I heard Evan’s voice answer. I peeked through the crack in the door to see him and his father outside.
“You’re going to mess everything up down here,” his father answered. I put the picture frame back and noticed a flashlight on the shelf next to it.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Evan said. I grabbed the flashlight off of the shelf and opened the door to announce my presence. His father turned quickly to face me.
“Caleb?” I couldn’t tell what emotion was behind his voice.
“Hi, Mr. Whelan,” I said. “We just needed a flashlight because we’re, uh…” I looked at Evan for help, but his eyes were turned towards the floor. “Because we’re looking for my dog. She got out again.”
“Oh,” he responded, with sudden good humor in his throat. “Well, good luck. Just bring that back in one piece.”
“Yes, sir,” I said as he made his way back upstairs. Once he was out of sight, I let out a dramatic sigh of relief. “Holy shit, I thought you were going to pee yourself.”
“Yeah,” Evan said quietly.
“It’s a good thing your dad likes me so much better than you,” I told him.
We crept through my darkened backyard until we reached the slanted picket fence that marked the border between my lawn and Mrs. Winnie’s. I vaulted gracelessly over it, my shirt getting caught on splintered wood. Once I was over, I looked back at Evan. When he hesitated, I tilted my head to the side with annoyance.
“I know for a fact you don’t have anything better to be doing,” I said to him. He narrowed his eyes in hollow annoyance before he began to climb over the fence. Satisfied, I turned away from him and faced the house. It oozed Halloween spirit even without the flimsy styrofoam gravestones or cotton spiderwebs that adorned the rest of the houses on the street. I clicked on my flashlight and scanned the overgrown backyard with it until Evan punched me in the shoulder.
“Idiot,” he whispered. “Don’t turn that on yet or people will see us back here.”
“Whatever,” I said, shrugging, not wanting to admit he was right. I clicked off the flashlight and began wading through the sea of crackling weeds with only the half-moon and my distant back porch light to guide me. Evan followed in my beaten foot trails.
“You know, if you were hot, you would die first in one of those stupid horror movies,” he cursed from behind. For the first time that night, we laughed. The laughter stopped, though, after a few more steps of bushwhacking brought us to the back door.
“Maybe I’ll just wait out here,” Evan said, embracing himself.
“Are you serious?”
“If my dad finds out I went in here…”
“You’re coming,” I said, putting the key labeled ‘36 Pineview’ in the lock. I twisted it, and felt the thud of the deadbolt retracting into the heavy wooden door. I hesitated. I had forgotten that I would actually be opening the door to Mrs. Winnie’s house.
“You have to turn the doorknob, too,” Evan said.
I turned the knob and the door let out a low screech as it rubbed against the floor while I pushed it open. We looked inside––complete darkness. I looked over my shoulder at Evan.
“Do I have your permission to use the flashlight now?” I asked. Evan nodded. I turned it on again and the beam revealed two sets of stairs: a short one going upwards, and another that descended into a pool of darkness in the basement.
“We are not going down there,” Evan said. For once, I agreed.
I directed my light at our alternative, and we stepped inside the house. At the top of the short flight was an oak door; I tested its handle and made sure Evan was still behind me before I opened it.
We were in the kitchen. The faded green linoleum floors were cracked and some of the white cabinets were ajar. I opened the dented fridge and was greeted by a sour fog of fermentation. “Hey, this smells like her breath,” I said to Evan. He ignored me in his trance-like procession into the next room. I followed, and without a thought, flicked the switch on the wall and almost screamed when the ceiling light blinked on.
“Wait, the fucking lights work?” I said. The room was empty with off-white walls––hardly the hell-scape I had expected. Just a room with some water damage above one window. “I can’t believe we were so scared of this place.” The version of the house I created in my head had been swallowed with the shadows as soon as the lights were turned on.
“I was never scared of this place,” Evan said softly, slapping the light off. I scoffed, as if to say ‘yeah right,’ and waited for him to defend himself. But he didn’t. He ran his hand along the barren wall next to me. “The violins are gone,” he said. It didn’t feel like he was talking to me.
“She used to hang her old violins on the wall. She was a music teacher,” Evan said like he was somewhere else.
“Mrs. Winnie? How do you know that?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Evan whispered as he finally turned away from the wall. “We shouldn’t have come here.”
“Wait, you’ve been in here before, haven’t you? With her? And she didn’t, like, eat you or anything?”
“No, Caleb, she didn’t fucking eat me.” His voice was suddenly hard. “She wasn’t a bad person.”
“What do you mean? All she ever did was yell at us.” I was thrown off by his sudden mood shift.
“And what did you do?” he asked. He was yelling at me now. “You just made fun of her! You didn’t even stop after she died. You decided everyone had to be afraid of her. Why didn’t you ever try to see what she was really like?”
“Fuck, Evan, I don’t know––I was probably busy, like, eating grass or peeing in my bed or something. We were seven!” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t understand what we were fighting about.
“Sometimes you still act like you’re seven,” Evan said. He sat with his back against the wall.
“Why are you so mad at me?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” he said. It wasn’t an insult––it was logical. “Did you think about what stealing those keys could do to me, or did you just want to make fun of Mrs. Winnie more?” I knew the answer, but I didn’t say it. I sat down next to him.
“How did you know her so well?” I asked. He was silent for a while, his eyes still and forward.
“My mom,” he said finally. “She used to bring me over here for music lessons and stuff. Mrs. Winnie had a piano upstairs. And sometimes I’d stay over, too. She said I reminded her of her son.”
“You’d stay over? Why?” I asked. Evan folded his lips.
“My mom would bring me here when my dad got angry. And sometimes he’d stay angry. So I’d stay over. Until she died, obviously,” Evan told me. “Then my mom got sick. And then it was just me and him.” He stopped, his hand drifting to the side of his face, below his eye. “He just gets so mad sometimes. It can be scary.”
“Yeah. But it’s not a big deal,” Evan said. He looked over at me with a closed-mouth smile that was meant to reassure me. The bruise beneath his eye was exaggerated in the shadowy room.
“You didn’t get that from Ross Andrews, did you?” I asked. Evan took a careful breath.
“No,” he said with quiet simplicity. “It’s never happened before like this, though. And he said he was sorry.”
I felt my eyes blur with the salt of tears. I hated that I was the one crying––I shouldn’t have been the one crying. I put my hand over his on the floor next to me. It didn’t feel right at all, but I kept it there.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he said. I sucked the mucus up my nose.
“I’m sorry that…I could’ve got you in trouble. And that I made you go to a haunted house with me, and that I always make you do things that you don’t want to.” I paused. “You probably don’t have to say sorry for yelling at me.”
“This house isn’t haunted, Caleb.”
“Can I sleep at your house tonight?” Evan asked. But not the way he would usually ask, like when we were up late watching a movie in my basement, or deep in the trenches of a high-stakes Monopoly game. This time he asked like he was actually afraid I would say no.
“You can whenever you want,” I said back.
And he did. Whenever he wanted he would sleep on the floor of our room; the one in the front corner next to the bathroom at the end of the hall. Except I knew then that our houses weren’t the same, because the house next door to mine was haunted––just not the one I had thought.