3. November: Fusty

There is a haunted house at the end of my street.

Not haunted the way that everywhere is haunted, though. Haunted in the way that even people who can’t see ghosts know there are ghosts there.

I live in a pretty small town. The houses are far apart and the yards are big, and there’s forest all over the place, more than I’ve ever even managed to explore, so there’s always somewhere to go and get away from all the people. There are old stone walls in the forest, no higher than my knees. They used to be houses a long time ago, before they fell down and the trees grew back. I have a favorite tree that I love to climb, right at the edge of the woods. The bark is smooth and the branches are strong, so I know I won’t fall down. When I get up to the third branch, I’m behind the leaves, so I can see out and watch all the neighbors out on their lawns, but they can’t see me. It’s great for playing secret agent.

One day my head was foggy so I went outside to go hide in my tree for a while. It was a nice day in the fall, bright and sunny, the perfect temperature to wear a windbreaker. The leaves were changing to bright, beautiful colors, but they weren’t falling down yet, so I could still hide behind them. Granpy was talking on the phone and making lots of noise, and I wanted some Peace And Quiet, so I put on my dark blue windbreaker and my shoes and I went out the back door and marched straight over to my tree.

When I got to the tree I was very unhappy, because there was someone already in it. It was a girl, a few years older than me, with light brown skin and long braids of black hair. She was wearing old-fashioned clothes, and she was sitting on my branch, right in my spot. She was crying very loudly with her hands over her face, sobbing like a little baby.

I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes when people are crying, they want you to ask them “what’s wrong?” and try to take care of them. Sometimes they want to be left alone, especially if they’re up on the third tree branch out in the woods. I didn’t know what she wanted, and I also didn’t know if I wanted to give her what she wanted, because she had taken my spot. So I just stood there and looked up at her and waited to see what would happen.

After a few minutes, a few things happened all at the same time. She stopped crying. She took her hands away from her face and looked straight at me. Her mouth was making a big smile with lots of teeth, but her eyes looked angry. They were open wide like big O’s, and the irises were bright red. Her head kept getting bigger for a few seconds, and then I realized it was because it was getting closer to me, and her neck was stretching out longer and longer while her body stayed up on my branch.

It was really strange. I’d never seen a ghost do anything like that before. I wondered if maybe she had some kind of terrible illness before she died, that made her body mutate and grow in strange ways. While I was trying to figure out what it might be, she jumped down from the branch and stood right in front of me. She put up her hands, and her fingers started to grow long, yellow claws, and her teeth were getting longer at the same time. Just when it was starting to scare me, everything snapped back to normal shapes and sizes. Only her eyes stayed red, but the angry look went away, and her whole face looked sad again. She was actually a very pretty girl.

She was still looking at me, and starting to cry again. I decided I’d better say something to her. “That’s my tree,” I said, wanting to make that point first and foremost. “You can use it when I’m not here, but don’t start thinking it’s yours.”

Her eyes flashed angry again, just for a second, then right back to sad again. “Please help me,” she said with a croaky voice from all the crying. Her accent was a little funny, but I could understand her just fine.

“What do you need help with?” I asked, but before I finished the question, she turned and ran straight away from me.

I realized that maybe this was a chance to work on my Unfinished Business list, by helping this girl with something, so I ran after her to see what she needed help with. We ran through the trees, parallel to the street, heading right for the haunted house.

The haunted house is at the very end of the street. It’s a dead end, and people like to joke that the ghosts live at the dead end. Sometimes I try to point out that the ghosts don’t “live” anywhere, because they’re not alive, but that just makes people roll their eyes because they were trying to be clever, which is not the same thing as trying to be correct.

The house is pretty big, but not really any bigger than the rest of the houses on our street. It’s old, of course. Granpy says it’s abandoned, which he said means that no one owns it. I asked him if that meant we could just use it ourselves, or maybe if I could take it and fix it up and make it my very own house, and he said It Doesn’t Work That Way. Eventually I found out from one of the teachers that someone does own it, they just don’t take care of it, and maybe they don’t even remember that they own it anymore. Granmy told me that maybe the person who owned it died, and no one knew about it, so it got forgotten.

However it became abandoned, it’s been empty and falling to pieces for at least twenty-five years now. Granpy says it’s dangerous to go inside, because the wood is probably all rotten and it might fall apart if you step on it. Wood rots if you don’t do the Upkeep on it. I’m not sure what kind of Upkeep you have to do. I’ve never seen Granpy do anything to the wood in our house. Maybe it’s something he does when I’m at school.

There are lots of holes in the outside of the building, and all the plants are growing up the side. I guess that when humans abandon a house, other humans can’t take it back for their own, but the plants don’t care if it has an owner or not. Plants can do whatever they want.

I’d never gone inside the haunted house before that day, partly because Granpy said I wasn’t allowed, and Rules Are Rules, but partly because even though the house is falling to pieces, the big iron fence that goes all the way around it is strong and sturdy, and there’s a great big chain on the gate so no one can open it. Anyway, I’d never had a reason to go inside before, and people don’t do things for no reason.

This time, though, I had a reason. The strange girl went around to the back of the house, where there was a tree just like mine. She hopped right up the first few branches, and one of them went right over the fence. She jumped down on the other side, and then she stopped and turned around and stared at me. She wasn’t making the scary face. She was still pretty and sad, and she was waiting for me to follow her.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m stupid, I didn’t just jump right over the fence without thinking. The first thing I did was check that there was a way back out. Luckily, there was a table on the other side of the fence right underneath the strong tree branch the girl had used to climb over. I squinted at it and turned my head to the side, like Granpy does when he’s thinking really hard, and I figured out that it would be easy to stand on the table (which looked nice and sturdy) and grab the tree branch and climb back over. And anyway, Worst Case Scenario, I had my phone with me in my pocket and I could call for help. It’s a deal me and Granpy have, that I can go outside whenever I want, as long as I don’t leave the neighborhood without asking and I always have my phone with me. That way, Worst Case Scenario, I always have a lifeline.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to use my phone, because that would probably mean getting in big trouble with Granpy. I felt bad about breaking his rule about not going into the haunted house, but Granpy also says that sometimes you have to take a risk to do the right thing. I was trying to help someone, so finally I decided it was the right thing to do, and I climbed up the tree and hopped over the fence and put my feet down on the table and tested that I could reach the branch (I could), and then I got down on the ground, and the girl was gone.

Before I had time to wonder where she went, I heard the back door of the house close. It was a screen door, a really light one with a metal frame, and it made a thwack sound as it closed, not a thump or a thud like a big, heavy door would make. I glanced around the yard and saw some rusty old tools and a few broken pieces of things I couldn’t identify, plus lots and lots and lots of plants. Mostly it was really tall grass, but there were vines, too, and some poison ivy along the fence (which I was very careful not to touch), and a few baby trees, and in one area, there was even a pumpkin patch with a few little pumpkins growing on it. I guess that used to be somebody’s garden. Anyway, I didn’t want the girl to get too far away from me, so I gave up on looking at the back yard, and I opened the back door and stepped inside the house.

Dusty. That was the first word I could think of. I had thought that maybe it would be moldy inside, which would be Bad News because mold is dangerous and I have allergies, but I didn’t smell any mold at all. The air was Bone Dry, and where beams of sunlight were shining in through the windows, there were great big pieces of dust floating everywhere. Dusty, musty, fusty, dim. I whispered that to myself a few times while I looked around and got my bearings.

I was standing on a sort of porch. The outside walls were thin and made of the same metal as the door, with big screened windows in them, but there was so much dust on the windows that you could barely see outside. On the floor was a mess of old magazines and broken flower pots, and a few dented wooden chairs that didn’t match, and a small table made out of one of those giant wooden spools that they use for electrical cables. There was an old man sitting on one of the chairs, with a straw hat, reading a magazine and frowning at it. He didn’t look up at me, so I decided not to bother him for the moment. I know I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m reading. It wouldn’t be good manners.

There was a door leading further into the house. This one was a big wooden door, the kind that would go thud if you closed it fast, but it was wide open. I took one step inside, and that’s when I heard the screams.

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