As a child, William’s visits with his grandmother caused him great anxiety. They left the city on the train, his grandmother sitting regally against the plush upholstered bench of their first-class compartment. Her hands were gloved, her hair pulled in a bun beneath a delicate straw hat, her eyes sharp and blue beneath the rim. She told him to sit up straight, don’t slouch, mind his manners, and use proper grammar when addressing her. Most of the time he didn’t speak for fear of being reprimanded. He had overheard his grandmother talking to his mother on one occasion when he was safely hidden in the shadows behind the kitchen door.
“He’s such a quiet child, Rachel,” his grandmother had said. “Really, he’s too soft. He needs to learn to be aggressive, to speak his mind.”
“Perhaps you frighten him, Mother.” William’s mother had stated in a rare display of defiance.
“Nonsense,” his grandmother had replied, turning and calling him to her side. She always pinched his cheeks, brushed the hair from his forehead, and pulled his shirt neatly into the waist of his pants. He held his grandmother’s hand as she led him into the house she shared with her older sister, Sylvie. Nearly twenty years separated them, yet Sylvie seemed much younger and carefree at seventy-five than his grandmother. William always enjoyed her company. She was a giddy older woman who served him lemonade and cherry cobbler with a warm smile. She wore the most outrageous costumes of flowing satin and scarves in all varieties of color, reminding him of a butterfly every time she moved. She didn’t walk, she scuttled.
One day when he was twelve, he escaped the house and walked down the country lane with his Polaroid camera. It had rained for three days and he had not been allowed out. Now, the Southern air was thick and humid and clung to him like an outer garment. The sun was low in the sky and the clouds were gorgeously plump. Although he was sweating profusely, he loved the feeling of being outdoors. He dragged a stick along the ground, stirring up dirt and pollen, occasionally looking through the lens of his camera at the tall grass, hanging moss, and wisteria and yellow jessamine that grew along the side of the road. He walked for so long that the familiar path was soon shrouded with trees and foreign to his eyes. As he turned a bend, he realized he was walking into the heart of the woods he had only glimpsed from upstairs windows of his grandmother’s home. He was engulfed in the cool shade from the canopy of leaves, and all sound seemed to cease.
He stopped and narrowed his eyes. He tried to see through the thick branches and grainy light, but only darkness lay ahead. He could no longer hear the birds that sat along the chipped wood of the fence, their little chests bloated with song as they chirped and tweeted. The cows and sheep that grazed in the open field had grown silent. The air was so still and expectant that his pulse began to race.
William considered the path ahead. His better judgement told him he should turn around and go back. Surely his grandmother and great-aunt were wondering where he was. But suddenly he walked forward, moved by some other force that whispered gently in his ear, “Come.”
Pushing aside tree limbs that hampered his course, he finally found himself standing before the ruins of a dark home, a blackened skeleton rising from a wild landscape. The yard around the structure was overgrown with wildflowers. Staring at the abandoned dwelling, he remembered the fairy tale of the three little pigs. The voice of the fictional wolf sounded in his ears. “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.”
The windows of the first floor were boarded with old planks of wood, rotten and termite infested. The whole outside of the house was charred black. Columns which had once supported a verandah roof were burned to nothing but stumps. The plaster and drywall were swollen and bulbous from years of rain. The upstairs windows were free of glass. A tall chimney rose on one side, its brickwork intact. It stood out like a sore thumb. Altogether, the place looked dangerous, but boyish curiosity overruled his better judgement. He jumped the useless fence which surrounded the property, ignoring the “Danger! Keep Out!” sign.
Stepping over glass and other debris, William walked toward the dark gap that had once been the front door. He climbed the sagging porch steps and leaned through the entrance. Inside, sunlight played tricks on his senses. Shafts of light crisscrossed and intersected through breaches in the second-story floor and walls. He saw spider webs glistening from every surface. The house had lost the symmetry that most homes possessed, so that the walls seemed to slant and the floors seemed to rise like those of a carnival fun-house. William walked through the ruined rooms of the lower floor, avoiding parts of the floor that had caved in. The remains of a massive staircase rose from the main foyer. He turned, putting his hand on the banister. It only supported the stairs until the sixth step.
William took the first step lightly, pausing when he heard it creak beneath him. Then the second, third, fourth, fifth. At the sixth step where the banister ended, he leaned toward the wall. The plaster caved in where his shoulder touched like putty. William glanced back and thought for a moment that he couldn’t continue. The stairs behind him seemed too steep and weak for his retracing steps, and those above him seemed to sway perilously. Closing his eyes, he braced himself and lifted his foot, managing to climb the remaining steps with his breath held.
In the upstairs hallway, furnishings were still recognizable. A tall chair stood to his right beside a table sporting an old-fashioned gas lamp. The small chimes of the lamp’s shade tinkled as he stepped up to it. Dust covered his fingertips as he traced his initials on the table’s surface. As William stood there, listening to the silent house around him, he heard a sound, soft and distant, yet very distinct. The sound of someone laughing. A female.
He turned quickly on his heel. The sound had come from the far end of the hallway. There were open doors all around him, leading to ravished bedrooms, but the very last door was smaller than the others and closed. “Hello?” William called. He was surprised at how small his own voice sounded in his ears. Something akin to fear had taken hold of him. He tried to shrug off the feeling. There was nothing to fear in this open sunlight, in the middle of the day. Monsters only lurked under dark beds at night.
He slowly approached the closed door at the end of the hallway. Above his head, he thought he heard the soft pounding of running feet. He followed the sound with his head thrown back, eyes on the ceiling. It stopped directly above him. As he stood there, breathlessly waiting, he heard a girl laugh again and say, “Come up, William.”
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.