The story prompt for this episode of the Word Count Podcast was the gorgeous photo below.
“Pretty as a picture” was my first thought when I saw this photo, and that thought made my mind veer off into some dark, strange places…
“Knock knock, who’s there?” I flinch when Emma says it and raps her knuckles on the rickety front-door, but all she does is laugh. “Open it, Eve. It’s just an empty house.”
“It’s not empty,” I say. “It’s haunted. There’s a difference.”
I put down the crowbar I used to pry loose the plywood nailed across the entrance, KEEP OUT spray painted on it in red.
How many times have we walked by this house on our way to school? Seen its crooked gate, the broken glass teeth leering in its windows, its sagging roof. How many times have we made it through the yard, overgrown with old cherry trees and tangled blackberry bushes only to turn back?
People disappear in here, that’s the story. People go in, but never come out. And if they come out, they’re never the same. It happened to a friend of a friend’s brother. It’s all BS of course, but that’s the story.
I think about us grabbing our backpacks and heading home, stopping by the 7/11 for a Slurpee, hiding in my room, pretending to do homework until dinner, but we told each other we’d do it, so we will.
I turn the handle.
Inside, the hallway’s dark. I glimpse a narrow staircase to the upper floor, before the front door creaks shut behind us, and we’re plunged into dusk. I try to open the door again, but it’s stuck.
“Leave it closed,” Emma says. “We don’t want anyone to see we’re breaking in.”
“That’s horror movie logic,” I protest but I scramble for the flashlight in my pocket, relieved when it turns on. Emma’s light works too.
The house smells of dust and mold and something sweet and nauseating, like garbage left too long in summer. I hear rustling and scuttling in the shadows. Rats, maybe.
“Look at that.” Emma shines her flashlight at a picture on the wall.
“I’ve seen that picture before,” I say.
“Of course, you have. Who hasn’t? Cherry trees in blossom and Mount Fuji. It’s a classic vista.”
Her voice echoes through the house, bouncing off the wood, disappearing into the darkness beyond the reach of our flashlights.
“That’s not what I mean,” I say, and I feel something scratching at the inside of my skull, a memory, maybe. “Don’t you have that picture in your room?”
“No way,” Emma scoffs. “Too pink!”
I follow her into the next room. A kitchen. Cupboards, a boarded-up window, a rag stained with something brown on the counter. And on the table, a long knife with a serrated edge.
“Emma, look at this.” I say, but Emma isn’t there. “Emma?”
There’s a tap on my shoulder and I almost scream, but it’s just Emma.
“Where the hell did you go?”
She laughs. “I was right behind you, dummy.” I know that’s not right, she wasn’t there, but she isn’t listening when I try to explain. “Leave the knife,” she says. “You look like you’re about to murder someone.”
Looking down, I see the knife in my hand, but I don’t remember picking it up.
I put it back on the table, and that’s when we hear it.
“What is that?”
Emma doesn’t answer, only listens. Her face is shadowed, and for a moment I’m not even sure it’s her underneath the hoodie. Something cold crawls in the pit of my stomach, but then the glitter of my flashlight beam slips over her eyes.
“The basement,” Emma whispers, and we walk to the door at the far end of the kitchen.
(How do we know this is the door? I don’t know, but we do.)
There are stairs, spiraling down.
We shouldn’t go down there. We should call the cops. We should leave. But we don’t. I don’t even reach for my phone and neither does Emma. (Why don’t I reach for my phone?)
It’s stupid to walk down the stairs, but down we go.
(I know what happens next. Someone’s down there. Wrists bound, mouth gagged, kicking at the pipes. It hurts to kick the pipes, but you have to, to be heard. To be rescued.)
We go down the stairs, but the staircase is too long. We walk and walk until we must be deep below the house, in the bowels of the earth.
At the bottom of the stairs, there’s the smell of earth and concrete, roots crawling in through the cracked foundation, rafters hung with shadows and spiderwebs. I shine my flashlight on a set of old water-pipes, but the tapping has stopped. Someone was tied up here. There’s a dent in the metal where they kicked it, pieces of cut rope on the floor, red welts on my arms.
“Emma…” I show her the rope burns around my wrist.
“It’s OK,” Emma says, smiling, and shows me a knife. A serrated blade. Like the one we left upstairs. “I cut you loose.”
No. (That’s wrong. Isn’t it?)
We look up, listening.
“Someone’s at the door,” Emma says, and now we’re running back upstairs. Emma is ahead. She’s wearing a ripped dress. No. Bloodied shorts and a tank-top. No no no. Jeans and a hoodie.
(Is that what she’s wearing?)
We’re back in the hallway.
Emma isn’t looking at the door, she shines her flashlight at the picture on the wall.
Pink cherry trees. Mount Fuji.
“I know where I’ve seen it before,” Emma breathes and, in that moment, I know it too.
I saw it here. I always see it here, in the hallway.
We look at each other. My hand is on the handle. We both know who’s out there.
“Knock knock. Who’s there?” I flinch when Emma says it and raps her knuckles on the rickety front-door but all she does is laugh. “Open it, Eve. It’s just an empty house.”
“It’s not empty,” I say. It’s haunted. There’s a difference.”
© Maria Haskins 2019
Cover art for this story created by me, using Canva.
Support me on Patreon: