The house was occupied, but no one lived there.
That’s how Malcolm Crow thought about it. Houses like the Croft place were never really empty.
Like most of the kids in Pine Deep, Crow knew that there were ghosts. Even the tourists knew about the ghosts. It was that kind of town.
All of the tourist brochures had pictures of ghosts on them. Happy, smiling, Casper the Friendly Ghost sorts of ghosts. Every store in town had a rack of books about the ghosts of Pine Deep. Crow had every one of those books. He couldn’t braille his way through a basic geometry test or recite the U.S. Presidents in any reliable order, but he knew about shades and crisis apparitions, church grims and banshees, crossroads ghosts and poltergeists. He read every story and historical account; saw every movie he could afford to see. Every once in a while, Crow would even risk one of his father’s frequent beatings to sneak out of bed and tiptoe down to the basement to watch Double Chiller Theater on the flickering old Emerson. If his dad caught him and took a belt to him, it was okay as long as Crow managed to see at least one good spook flick.
Besides, beatings were nothing to Crow. At nine years old he’d had so many that they’d lost a lot of their novelty.
It was the ghosts that mattered. Crow would give a lot—maybe everything he had in this world—to actually meet a ghost. That would be . . . well, Crow didn’t know what it would be. Not exactly. Fun didn’t seem to be the right word. Maybe what he really wanted was proof. He worried about that. About wanting proof that something existed beyond the world he knew.
He believed that he believed, but he wasn’t sure that he was right about it. That he was aware of this inconsistency only tightened the knots. And fueled his need.
Ghosts mattered to Malcolm Crow because whatever they were, they clearly outlasted whatever had killed them. Disease, murder, suicide, war, brutality . . . abuse. The causes of their deaths were over, but they had survived. That’s why Crow wasn’t scared of ghosts. What frightened him—deep down on a level where feelings had no specific structure—was the possibility that they might not exist. That this world was all that there was.
And the Croft house? That place was different. Crow had never worked up the nerve to go there. Almost nobody ever went out there. Nobody really talked about it, though everyone knew about it.
Crow made a point of visiting the other well-known haunted spots—the tourist spots—hoping to see a ghost. All he wanted was a glimpse. In one of his favorite books on hauntings, the writer said that a glimpse was what most people usually got. “Ghosts are elusive,” the author had written. “You don’t form a relationship with one, you’re lucky if you catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye; but if you do, you’ll know it for what it is. One glimpse can last you a lifetime.”
So far, Crow had not seen or even heard a single ghost. Not one cold spot, not a single whisper of old breath, not a hint of something darting away out of the corner of his eye. Nothing, zilch. Nada.
However, he had never gone into the Croft place.
Crow touched the front pocket of his jeans to feel the outline of his lucky stone. Still there. It made him smile.
Maybe now he’d finally get to see a ghost.
They pedaled through dappled sunlight, sometimes four abreast, sometimes single file when the trail dwindled down to a crooked deer path. Crow knew the way to the Croft place and he was always out front, though he liked it best when Val Guthrie rode beside him. As they bumped over hard-packed dirt and whispered through uncut summer grass, Crow cut frequent, covert looks at Val.
Val was amazing. Beautiful. She rode straight and alert on her pink Huffy, pumping the pedals with her purple sneakers. Hair as glossy black as crow feathers, tied in a bouncing ponytail. Dark blue eyes and a serious mouth. Crow made it his life’s work to coax a smile out of her at least once a day. It was hard work, but worth it.
The deer path spilled out onto an old forestry service road that allowed them once more to fan out into a line. Val caught up and fell in beside Crow on the left, and almost at once Terry and Stick raced each other to be first on the right. Terry and Stick were always racing, always daring each other, always trying to prove who was best, fastest, smartest, strongest. Terry always won the strongest part.
“The Four Horsemen ride!” bellowed Stick, his voice breaking so loudly that they all cracked up. Stick didn’t mind his voice cracking. There was a fifty-cent bet that he’d have his grown-up voice before Terry. Crow privately agreed. Despite his size, Terry had a high voice that always sounded like his nose was full of snot.
Up ahead, the road forked, splitting off toward the ranger station on the right and a weedy path on the left. On the left-hand side, a sign leaned drunkenly toward them.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE
That was all of it. The rest of the sign had been pinged off by bullet holes over the years. It was a thing to do. You shot the sign to the Croft place to show that you weren’t afraid. Crow tried to make sense of that, but there wasn’t any end to the string of logic.
He turned to Val with a grin. “Almost there.”
“Oooo, spooky!” said Stick, lowering the bill of his Phillies ball-cap to cast his face in shadows.
Val nodded. No smile. No flash of panic. Only a nod. Crow wondered if Val was bored, interested, skeptical, or scared. With her, you couldn’t tell. She had enough Lenape blood to give her that stone face. Her mom was like that, too. Not her dad, though. Mr. Guthrie was always laughing, and Crow suspected that he, too, had a lifelong mission that involved putting smiles on the faces of the Guthrie women.
Crow said, “It won’t be too bad.”
Val shrugged. “It’s just a house.” She leaned a little heavier on the word “just” every time she said that, and she’d been doing that ever since Crow suggested they come out here. Just a house.
Crow fumbled for a comeback that would chip some of the ice off of those words, but, as he so often did, he failed.
It was Terry Wolfe who came to his aid. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Val, you keep saying that but I’ll bet you’ll chicken out before we even get onto the porch.”
Terry liked Val, too, but he spent a lot of time putting her down and making fun of whatever she said. Though, if any of that actually hurt Val, Crow couldn’t see it. Val was like that. She didn’t show a thing. Even when that jerk Vic Wingate pushed her and knocked her down in the schoolyard last April, Val hadn’t yelled, hadn’t cried. All she did was get up, walk over to Vic and wipe the blood from her scraped palms on his shirt. Then, as Vic started calling her words that Crow had only heard his dad ever use when he was really hammered, Val turned and walked away like it was a normal spring day.
So Terry’s sarcasm didn’t make a dent.
Terry and Stick immediately launched into the Addams Family theme song loud enough to scare the birds from the trees.
A startled doe dashed in blind panic across their path and Stick tracked it with his index finger and dropped his thumb like a hammer.
Val gave him a withering look, but she didn’t say anything.
They rounded the corner and skidded to a stop, one, two, three, four. Dust plumes rose behind them like ghosts and drifted away on a breeze as if fleeing from this place. The rest of the song dwindled to dust on their tongues.
It stood there.
The Croft house.
The place even looked haunted.
Three stories tall, with all sorts of angles jutting out for no particular reason. Gray shingles hung crookedly from their nails. The windows were dark and grimed. Some were broken out. Most of the storm shutters were closed, but a few hung open and one lay half-buried in a dead rosebush. Missing slats in the porch railing gave it a gap-toothed grin. Like a jack-o’-lantern. Like a skull.
On any other house, Crow would have loved that. He would have appreciated the attention to detail.
But his dry lips did not want to smile.
Four massive willows, old and twisted by rot and disease, towered over the place, their long fingers bare of leaves even in the flush of summer. The rest of the forest stood back from the house as if unwilling to draw any nearer. Like people standing around a coffin, Crow thought.
His fingers traced the outline of the lucky stone in his jeans pocket.
“Jeeeez,” said Stick softly.
“Holy moley,” agreed Terry.
Val said, “It’s just a house.”
Without turning to her, Terry said, “You keep saying that, Val, but I don’t see you running up onto the porch.”
Val’s head swiveled around like a praying mantis’s and she skewered Terry with her blue eyes. “And when exactly was the last time you had the guts to even come here, Terrence Henry Wolfe? Oh, what was that? Never? What about you, George Stickler?”
“Crow hasn’t been here either,” said Stick defensively.
“I know. Apparently three of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are sissies.”
“Whoa, now!” growled Terry, swinging his leg off his bike. “There’s a lot of places we haven’t been. You haven’t been here, either—does that make you a sissy, too?”
“I don’t need to come to a crappy old house to try and prove anything,” she fired back. “I thought we were out riding bikes.”
“Yeah, but we’re here now,” persisted Terry, “so why don’t you show everyone how tough you are and go up on the porch?”
Val sat astride her pink Huffy, feet on the ground, hands on the rubber grips. “You’re the one trying to prove something. Let’s see you go first.”
Terry’s ice-blue eyes slid away from hers. “I never said I wanted to go in.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m just saying that you’re the one who’s always saying there’s no such thing as haunted houses, but you’re still scared to go up there.”
“Who said I was scared?” Val snapped.
“You’re saying you’re not?” asked Terry.
Crow and Stick watched this exchange like spectators at a tennis match. They both kept all expression off their faces, well aware of how far Val could be pushed. Terry was getting really close to that line.
“Everyone’s too scared to go in there,” Terry said, “and—”
“And what?” she demanded.
“And . . . I guess nobody should.”
“Oh, chicken poop. It’s just a stupid old house.”
Terry folded his arms. “Yeah, but I still don’t see you on that porch.”
Val made a face, but didn’t reply. They all looked at the house. The old willows looked like withered trolls, bent with age and liable to do something nasty. The Croft house stood, half in shadows and half in sunlight.
It wants us to come in, thought Crow, and he shivered.
“How do you know the place is really haunted?” asked Stick.
Terry punched him on the arm. “Everybody knows it’s haunted.”
“Yeah, okay, but . . . how?”
“Ask Mr. Halloween,” said Val. “He knows everything about this crap.”
They all looked at Crow.
“It’s not crap,” he insisted. “C’mon, guys, this is Pine Deep. Everybody knows there are ghosts everywhere here.”
“You ever see one?” asked Stick, and for once there was no mockery in his voice. If anything, he looked a little spooked.
“No,” admitted Crow, “but a lot of people have. Jim Polk’s mom sees one all the time.”
They nodded. Mrs. Polk swore that she saw a partially formed figure of a woman in Colonial dress walking through the backyard. A few of the neighbors said they saw it, too.
“And Val’s dad said that Gus Bernhardt’s uncle Kurt was so scared by a poltergeist in his basement that he took to drinking.”
Kurt Bernhardt was a notorious drunk—worse than Crow’s father—and he used to be a town deputy until one day he got so drunk that he threw up on a town selectman while trying to write him a parking ticket.
“Dad used to go over to the Bernhardt place a lot,” said Val, “but he never saw any ghosts.”
“I heard that not everybody sees ghosts,” said Terry. He took a plastic comb out of his pocket and ran it through his hair, trying to look cool and casual, like there was no haunted house forty feet away.
“Yeah,” agreed Stick, “and I heard that people sometimes see different ghosts.”
“What do you mean ‘different ghosts’?” asked Val.
Stick shrugged. “Something my gran told me. She said that a hundred people can walk through the same haunted place, and most people won’t see a ghost because they can’t, and those who do will see their own ghost.”
“Wait,” said Terry, “what?”
Crow nodded. “I heard that, too. It’s an old Scottish legend. The people who don’t see ghosts are the ones who are afraid to believe in them.”
“And the people who do see a ghost,” Stick continued, “see the ghost of their own future.”
“That’s stupid,” said Val. “How can you see your own ghost if you’re alive?”
“Yeah,” laughed Terry. “That’s stupid, even for you.”
“No, really,” said Crow. “I read that in my books. Settlers used to believe that.”
Stick nodded. “My gran’s mom came over from Scotland. She said that there are a lot of ghosts over there, and that sometimes people saw their own. Not themselves as dead people, not like that. Gran said that people saw their own spirits. She said that there were places where the walls between the worlds were so thin that past, present, and future were like different rooms in a house with no doors. That’s how she put it. Sometimes you could stand in one room and see different part of your life in another.”
“That would scare the crap out of me,” said Terry.
A sudden breeze caused the shutters on one of the windows to bang as loud as a gunshot. They all jumped.
“Jeeeeee-zus!” gasped Stick. “Nearly gave me a heart attack!”
They laughed at their own nerves, but the laughs died away as one by one they turned back to look at the Croft house.
“You really want me to go in there?” asked Val, her words cracking the fragile silence.
Terry said, sliding his comb back into his pocket, “Sure.”
“No!” yelped Crow.
Everyone suddenly looked at him: Val in surprise, Stick with a grin forming on his lips, Terry with a frown.
The moment held for three or four awkward seconds, and then Val pushed her kickstand down and got off of her bike.
She took three decisive steps toward the house. Crow and the others stayed exactly where they were. When Val realized she was alone, she turned and gave them her best ninja death stare. Crow knew this stare all too well; his buttocks clenched and his balls tried to climb up into his chest cavity. Not even that creep Vic Wingate gave her crap when Val had that look in her eyes.
“What I ought to do,” she said coldly, “is make you three sissies go in with me.”
“No way,” laughed Terry, as if it was the most absurd idea anyone had ever said aloud.
“Okay!” blurted Crow.
Terry and Stick looked at him with a Nice going, Judas look in their eyes.
Val smiled. Crow wasn’t sure if she was smiling at him or smiling in triumph. Either way, he put it in the win category. He was one smile up on the day’s average.
Crow’s bike had no kickstand so he got off and leaned it against a maple, considered, then picked it up and turned it around so that it pointed the way they’d come. Just in case.
“You coming?” he asked Stick and Terry.
“If I’m going in,” said Val acidly, “then we’re all going in. It’s only fair and I don’t want to hear any different or so help me God, Terry . . .”
She left the rest to hang. When she was mad, Val not only spoke like an adult, she sounded like her mother.
Stick winced and punched Terry on the arm. “Come on, numb-nuts.”
The four of them clustered together on the lawn, knee-deep in weeds. Bees and blowflies swarmed in the air around them. No one moved for more than a minute. Crow could feel the spit in his mouth drying to paste.
I want to do this, he thought, but that lie sounded exactly like what it was.
The house glowered down at him.
The windows, even the shuttered ones, were like eyes. The ones with broken panes were like the empty eye-sockets of old skulls, like the ones in the science class in school. Crow spent hours staring into those dark eye-holes, wondering if there was anything of the original owner’s personality in there. Not once did he feel anything. Now, just looking at those black and empty windows made Crow shudder, because he was getting the itchy feeling that there was something looking back.
The shuttered windows somehow bothered him more than the open ones. They seemed . . . he fished for the word.
No, that wasn’t right. That was too cliché, and Crow had read every ghost story he could find. Sneaky wasn’t right. He dug through his vocabulary and came up short. The closest thing that seemed to fit—and Crow had no idea how it fit—was hungry.
He almost laughed. How could shuttered windows look hungry?
It wasn’t until Stick turned to him and asked what he was talking about that Crow realized he’d spoken the words aloud.
He looked at the others and all of them, even Val, were stiff with apprehension. The Croft house scared them. Really scared them.
Because they believed there was something in there.
They all paused there in the yard, closer to their bikes and the road than they were to that porch.
Crow wanted to shout and he wanted to laugh.
“Well,” said Val, “let’s go.”
The Four Horseman, unhorsed, approached the porch.
The steps creaked.
Of course they did. Crow would have been disappointed if they hadn’t. He suppressed a smile. The front door was going to creak, too; those old hinges were going to screech like a cat. It was how it was all supposed to be.
It’s real, he told himself. There’s a ghost in there. There’s something in there.
It was the second of those two thoughts that felt correct. Not right exactly—but correct. There was something in that house. If they went inside, they’d find it.
No, whispered a voice from deeper inside his mind, if we go inside, it will find us.
“Good,” murmured Crow. This time he said it so softly that none of the others heard him.
He wanted it to find them.
Please let it find us.
They crossed the yard in silence. The weeds were high and brown, as if they could draw no moisture at all from the hard ground. Crow saw bits of debris there, half-hidden by the weeds. A baseball whose hide had turned a sickly yellow and whose seams had split like torn surgical sutures. Beyond that was a woman’s dress shoe; just the one. There was a Triple-A road map of Pennsylvania, but the wind and rain had faded the details so that the whole state appeared to be under a heavy fog. Beyond that was an orange plastic pill bottle with its label peeled halfway back. Crow picked it up and read the label and was surprised to see that the pharmacy where this prescription had been filled was in Poland. The drug was called Klozapol, but Crow had no idea what that was or what it was used for. The bottle was empty but it looked pretty new. Crow let it drop and he touched the lucky stone in his pocket to reassure himself that it was still safe.
The yard was filled with junk. An empty wallet, a ring of rusted keys, a soiled diaper, the buckle from a seat belt, a full box of graham crackers that was completely covered with ants. Stuff like that. Disconnected things. Like junk washed up on a beach.
Val knelt and picked up something that flashed silver in the sunlight.
“What’s that?” asked Terry.
She held it up. It was an old Morgan silver dollar. Val spit on her thumb and rubbed the dirt away to reveal the profile of Lady Liberty. She squinted to read the date.
“Eighteen-ninety-five,” she said.
“Are you kidding me?” demanded Terry, bending close to study it. He was the only one of them who collected coins. “Dang, Val . . . that’s worth a lot of money.”
“Really?” asked Val, Crow and Stick at the same time.
“Yeah. A lot of money. I got some books at home we can look it up in. I’ll bet it’s worth a couple of thousand bucks.”
Crow goggled at him. Unlike the other three, Crow’s family was dirt poor. Even Stick, whose parents owned a tiny TV repair shop in town, had more money. Crow’s mom was dead and his father worked part-time at Shanahan’s Garage, then drank most of what he earned. Crow was wearing the same jeans this year that he wore all last season. Same sneakers, too. He and his brother Billy had learned how to sew well enough to keep their clothes from falling apart.
So he stared at the coin that might be worth a few thousand dollars.
Val turned the coin over. The other side had a carving of an eagle with its wings outstretched. The words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA arched over it and ONE DOLLAR looped below it. But above the eagle where IN GOD WE TRUST should have been, someone had gouged deep into the metal, totally obscuring the phrase.
Terry gasped as if he was in actual physical pain.
“Bet it ain’t worth as much like that,” said Stick with a nasty grin.
Val shrugged and shoved the coin into her jeans pocket. “Whatever. Come on.”
It was a high porch, and they climbed four steep steps to the deck. Each step was littered with dried leaves and withered locust husks. Crow wondered where the leaves had come from; it was the height of summer. Except for the willows, everything everywhere was alive, and those willows looked like they’d been dead for years. Besides, these were dogwood leaves. He looked around for the source of the leaves, but there were no dogwoods in the yard. None anywhere he could see.
“What?” asked Val, but Crow didn’t reply. It wasn’t the sort of observation that was going to encourage anyone.
“The door’s probably locked,” said Terry. “This is a waste of time.”
“Don’t even,” warned Val.
The floorboards creaked, each with a different note of agonized wood.
As they passed one of the big shuttered windows, Stick paused and frowned at it. Terry and Val kept walking, but Crow slowed and lingered a few paces away. As he watched, the frown on Stick’s mouth melted away and his friend stood there with no expression at all on his face.
“Stick . . . ?”
Stick didn’t answer. He didn’t even twitch.
“Yo . . . Stick.”
This time Stick jumped as if Crow had pinched him. He whirled and looked at Crow with eyes that were wide but unfocused.
“What did you say?” he asked, his voice a little slurred. Like Dad’s when he was starting to tie one on.
“I didn’t say anything. I just called your name.”
“No,” said Stick, shaking his head. “You called me ‘daddy.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
Crow laughed. “You’re hearing things, man.”
Stick whipped his ball-cap off his head and slapped Crow’s shoulder. “Hey . . . I heard you.”
Terry heard this and he gave Stick a quizzical smile, waiting for the punch-line. “What’s up?”
Stick wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and stared down as if expecting there to be something other than a faint sheen of spit. He touched the corner of his mouth and looked at his fingers. His hands were shaking as he pulled his ball-cap on and snugged it down low.
“What are you doing?” asked Terry, his smile flickering.
Stick froze. “Why? Do I have something on my face?”
“Yeah,” said Terry.
Stick’s face blanched white and he jabbed at his skin. The look in his eyes was so wild and desperate that it made Crow’s heart hurt. He’d seen a look like that once when a rabbit was tangled up in some barbed wire by the Carby place. The little animal was covered in blood and its eyes were huge, filled with so much terror that it couldn’t even blink. Even as Crow and Val tried to free it, the rabbit shuddered and died.
Scared to death.
For just a moment, Stick looked like that, and the sight of that expression drove a cold sliver of ice into Crow’s stomach. He could feel his scrotum contract into a wrinkled little walnut.
Stick pawed at his face. “What is it?”
“Don’t worry,” said Terry, “it’s just a dose of the uglies, but you had that when you woke up this morning.”
Terry laughed like a donkey.
No one else did.
Stick glared at him and his nervous fingers tightened into fists. Crow was sure that he was going to smash Terry in the mouth. But then Val joined them.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
Her stern tone broke the spell of the moment.
“Nothing,” said Stick as he abruptly pushed past Terry and stalked across the porch, his balled fists at his sides. The others gaped at him.
“What—?” began Terry, but he had nowhere to go with it. After a moment he followed Stick.
Val and Crow lingered for a moment.
“Did they have a fight or something?” Val asked quietly.
“I don’t know what that was,” admitted Crow. He told her exactly what happened. Val snorted.
“Boys,” she said, leaving it there. She walked across the porch and stood in front of the door.
Crow lingered for a moment, trying to understand what just happened. Part of him wanted to believe that Stick just saw a ghost. He wanted that very badly. The rest of him—most of him—suddenly wanted to turn around, jump on the bike that was nicely positioned for a quick escape, and never come back here. The look in Stick’s eyes had torn all the fun out of this.
“Let’s get this over with,” said Val, and that trapped all of them in the moment. The three boys looked at her, but none of them looked at each other. Not for a whole handful of brittle seconds. Val, however, studied each of them. “Boys,” she said again.
Under the lash of her scorn, they followed her.
The doors were shut, but even before Val touched the handle, Crow knew that these doors wouldn’t be locked.
It wants us to come in.
Terry licked his lips and said, “What do you suppose is in there?”
Val shook her head, and Crow noted that she was no longer saying that this was just a house.
Terry nudged Crow with his elbow. “You ever talk to anybody’s been in here?”
“You ever know anyone who knows anyone who’s been in here?”
Crow thought about it. “Not really.”
“Then how do you know it’s even haunted?” asked Val.
It was a lie and Crow knew that everyone read it that way. No one called him on it, though. Maybe they would have when they were still in the yard, but not now. There was a line somewhere and Crow knew—they all knew—they’d crossed it.
Maybe it was when Stick looked at the shuttered windows and freaked out.
Maybe it was when they came up on the porch.
Maybe, maybe . . .
Val took a breath, set her jaw, gripped the rusted and pitted brass knob, and turned it.
The lock clicked open.
A soft sound. Not at all threatening.
It wants us to come in, Crow thought again, knowing it to be true.
Then there was another sound, and Crow was sure only he heard it. Not the lock, not the hinges; it was like the small intake of breath you hear around the dinner table when the knife is poised to make the first cut into a Thanksgiving turkey. The blade gleams, the turkey steams, mouths water, and each of the ravenous diners takes in a small hiss of breath as the naked reality of hunger is undisguised.
Val gave the door a little push and let go of the knob.
The hinges creaked like they were supposed to. It was a real creak, too. Not another hungry hiss. If the other sound had been one of expectation then the creak was the plunge of the knife.
Crow knew this even if he wasn’t old enough yet to form the thoughts as cogently as he would in later years. Right now those impressions floated in his brain, more like colors or smells than structured thoughts. Even so, he understood them on a visceral level.
As the door swung open, Crow understood something else, too; two things, really.
The first was that, after today, he would never again need proof of anything in the unseen world.
And the second was that going into the Croft house was a mistake.
They went in anyway.
The door opened into a vestibule that was paneled in rotting oak. The broken globe light fixture on the ceiling above them was filled with dead bugs. There were no cobwebs, though, and no rat droppings on the floor.
In the back of Crow’s mind he knew that he should have been worried about that. By the time the thought came to the front of his mind, it was too late.
The air inside was curiously moist, and it stank. It wasn’t the smell of dust, or the stench of rotting meat. That’s what Crow had expected; this was different. It was a stale, acidic smell that reminded him more of his father’s breath after he came home from the bar. Crow knew that smell from all of the times his father bent over him, shouting at him while he whipped his belt up and down, up and down. The words his father shouted seldom made any sense. The stink of his breath was what Crow remembered. It was what he forced his mind to concentrate on so that he didn’t feel the burning slap of the belt. Crow had gotten good at that over the years. He still felt the pain—in the moment and in the days following each beating—but he was able to pull his mind out of his body with greater ease each time as long as he focused on something else. How or why that distraction had become his father’s pickled breath was something Crow never understood.
And now, as they moved from the vestibule into the living room, Crow felt as if the house itself was breathing at him with that same stink.
Crow never told his friends about the beatings. They all knew—Crow was almost always bruised somewhere—but this was small-town Pennsylvania in 1974 and nobody ever talked about stuff like that. Not even his teachers. Just as Stick never talked about the fact that both of his sisters had haunted looks in their eyes and never—ever—let themselves be alone with their father. Not if they could avoid it. Janie and Kim had run away a couple of times each, but they never said why. You just didn’t talk about some things. Nobody did.
Certainly not Crow.
So he had no point of reference for discussing the stink of this house. To mention it to his friends would require that he explain what else it smelled like. That was impossible. He’d rather die.
The house wanted us to come in, he thought, and now we’re in.
Crow looked at the others. Stick hung back, almost crouching inside the vestibule and the wild look was back on his face. Terry stood with his hands in his pockets, but from the knuckley lumps under the denim Crow knew that he had his fists balled tight. Val had her arms wrapped around her chest as if she stood in a cold wind. No one was looking at him.
No one was looking at each other. Except for Crow.
Now we’re inside.
Crow knew what would happen. He’d seen every movie about haunted houses, read every book. He had all the Warren Eerie and Creepy comics. He even had some of the old E.C. comics. He knew.
The house is going to fool us. It’ll separate us. It’ll kill us, one by one.
That’s the way it always was. The ghost—or ghosts—would pull them apart, lead them into darkened cellars or hidden passages. They’d be left alone, and alone each one of them would die. Knives in the dark, missing stairs in a lightless hall, trapdoors, hands reaching out of shadows. They’d all die in here. Apart and alone. That was the way it always happened.
Except . . .
Except that it did not happen that way.
Crow saw something out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see a big mirror mounted on the wall. Dusty, cracked, the glass fogged.
He saw himself in the mirror.
Himself and not himself.
Crow stepped closer.
The reflection stepped closer, too.
Crow and Crow stared at each other. The boy with bruises, and a man who looked like his father. But it wasn’t his father. It was Crow’s own face, grown up, grown older. Pale, haggard, the jaws shadowy with a week’s worth of unshaved whiskers, vomit stains drying on the shirt. A uniform shirt. A police uniform. Wrinkled and stained, like Kurt Bernhardt’s. Even though it was a reflection, Crow could smell the vomit. The piss. The rank stink of exhaled booze and unbrushed teeth.
“Fuck you, you little shit,” he said. At first Crow thought the cop was growling at him, but then Crow turned and saw Val and Terry. Only they were different. Everything was different, and even though the mirror was still there, nothing else was the same. This was outside, at night, in town. And the Val and Terry the cop was cursing at quietly were all grown up. They weren’t reflections; they were real, they were here. Wherever and whenever here was.
Val was tall and beautiful, with long black hair and eyes that were filled with laughter. And she was laughing—laughing at something Terry said. There were even laugh lines around her mouth. They walked arm-in-arm past the shop windows on Corn Hill. She wore a dress and Terry was in a suit. Terry was huge, massive and muscular, but the suit he wore was expensive and perfectly tailored. He whispered to Val, and she laughed again. Then at the corner of Corn Hill and Baker Lane, they stopped to kiss. Val had to fight her laughs in order to kiss, and even then the kiss disintegrated into more laughs. Terry cracked up, too, and then they turned and continued walking along the street. They strolled comfortably. Like people who were walking home.
Home. Not home as kids on bikes, but to some place where they lived together as adults. Maybe as husband and wife.
Val and Terry.
Crow turned back to the mirror, which stood beside the cop—the only part of the Croft house that still existed in this world. The cop—the older Crow—stood in the shadows under and elm tree and watched Val and Terry. Tears ran like lines of mercury down his cheeks. Snot glistened on his upper lip. He sank down against the trunk of the tree, toppling the last few inches as his balance collapsed. He didn’t even try to stop his fall, but instead lay with his cheek against the dirt. Some loose coins and a small stone fell out of the man’s pocket.
Crow patted his own pocket. The lucky stone was there.
The moment stretched into a minute and then longer as Crow watched the drunken man weep in wretched silence. He wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. Not because the image was so compelling, but because when Crow actually tried to turn . . . he simply could not make his body move. He was frozen into that scene.
The cop kept crying.
“Stop it,” said Crow. He meant to say it kindly, but the words banged out of him, as harsh as a pair of slaps.
The cop froze, lifting his head as if he’d heard the words.
His expression was alert but filled with panic, like a deer who had just heard the crunch of a heavy footfall in the woods. It didn’t last. The drunken glaze stole over it and the tense lips grew rubbery and slack. The cop hauled himself to a sitting position with his back to the tree, and the effort winded him so that he sat panting like a dog, his face greasy with sweat. Behind the alcohol haze, something dark and ugly and lost moved in his eyes.
Crow recognized it. The same shapeless thing moved behind his own eyes every time he looked in the mirror. Especially after a beating. But the shape in his eyes was smaller than this, less sharply defined. His usually held more panic, and there was none at all here. Panic, he would later understand, was a quality of hope, even of wounded hope. In the cop’s eyes, there was only fear. Not fear of death—Crow was experienced enough with fear to understand that much. No, this was the fear that, as terrible as this was, life was as good as it would ever be again. All that was left was the slide downhill.
“No . . .” murmured Crow, because he knew what was going to happen.
The cop’s fingers twitched like worms waiting for the hook. They crawled along his thigh, over his hip bone. They found the leather holster and the gnarled handle of the Smith and Wesson.
Crow could not bear to watch. He needed to not see this. A scream tried to break from him, and he wanted it to break. A scream could break chains. A scream could push the boogeyman away. A scream could shatter this mirror.
But Crow could not scream.
Instead he watched as those white, trembling fingers curled around the handle of the gun and pulled it slowly from the holster.
He still could not turn . . . but now his hands could move. A little and with a terrible sluggishness, but they moved. His own fingers crawled along his thigh, felt for his pocket, wormed their way inside.
The click of the hammer being pulled back was impossibly loud.
Crow’s fingers curled around the stone. It was cold and hard and so . . . real.
He watched the cylinder of the pistol rotate as the cop’s thumb pulled the hammer all the way back.
Tears burned like acid in Crow’s eyes and he summoned every ounce of will to pull the stone from his pocket. It came so slowly. It took a thousand years.
But it came out.
The cop lifted the barrel of the pistol and put it under his chin. His eyes were squeezed shut.
Crow raised his fist, and the harder he squeezed the stone the more power he had in his arm.
“I’m sorry . . .” Crow said, mumbling the two words through lips bubbling with spit.
The cop’s finger slipped inside the curled trigger guard.
“I’m so sorry . . .”
Crow threw the stone at the same moment the cop pulled the trigger.
The stone struck the mirror a microsecond before the firing pin punched a hole in the world.
There was a sound. It wasn’t the smash of mirror glass and it wasn’t the bang of a pistol. It was something vast and black and impossible and it was the loudest sound Crow would ever hear. It was so monstrously loud that it broke the world.
Shards of mirror glass razored through the air around Crow, slashing him, digging deep into his flesh, gouging burning wounds in his mind. As each one cut him, the world shifted around Crow, buffeting him into different places, into different lives.
He saw Terry. The adult Terry, but now he was even older than the one who had been laughing with Val. It was crazy weird, but somehow Crow knew that this was as real as anything in his world.
Terry’s face was lined with pain, his body crisscrossed with tiny cuts. Pieces of a broken mirror lay scattered around him. Each separate piece reflected Terry, but none of them were the Terry who stood in the midst of the debris. Each reflection was a distortion, a funhouse twist of Terry’s face. Some were laughing—harsh and loud and fractured. Some were weeping. Some were glazed and catatonic. And one, a single large piece, showed a face that was more monster than man. Lupine and snarling and so completely wrong. The Terry who stood above the broken pieces screamed and if there was any sanity left in his mind it did not shine out through his blue eyes. Crow saw a version of his best friend who was completely and irretrievably lost.
Terry screamed and screamed, and then he spun around, ran straight across the room and threw himself headfirst out of the window. Crow fell with him. Together they screamed all the way down to the garden flagstones.
The impact shoved Crow into another place.
He was there with Val. They were in the cornfields behind Val’s house. A black rain hammered down, the sky veined with red lightning. Val was older . . . maybe forty years old. She ran through the corn, skidding, slipping in the mud. Running toward a figure that lay sprawled on the ground.
“Dad!” screamed Val.
Mr. Guthrie lay on his stomach, his face pressed into the muck. In the brightness of the lightning, Crow could see a neat round bullet hole between his shoulder blades, the cloth washed clean of blood by the downpour.
“No!” shrieked Val. She dropped to her knees and clawed her father into her arms. His big old body resisted her, fighting her with limpness and weight and sopping clothes, but eventually Val found the strength to turn him onto his back.
“Daddy . . . Daddy . . .?”
His face was totally slack, streaked with mud that clumped on his mustache and caught in his bushy eyebrows.
Val wiped the mud off his face and shook him very gently.
“Daddy . . . please . . .”
The lightning never stopped, and the thunder bellowed insanely. A freak eddy of wind brought sounds from the highway. The high, lonely wail of a police siren, but Crow knew that the cops would be too late. They were already too late.
Crow spun out of that moment and into another. There were police sirens here, too, and the flashing red and blue lights, but no rain. This was a different place, a different moment. A different horror.
He was there.
He was a cop.
He was sober. Was he younger or older? He prayed that this was him as an older man, just as Val and Terry had been older.
But the moment was not offering any mercies.
Stick was there. He was on his knees and Crow was bent over him, forcing handcuffs onto his friend’s wrists. They were both speaking, saying the same things over and over again.
“What did you do? Christ, Stick, what did you do?”
“I’m sorry,” Stick said. “I’m sorry.”
On the porch of the house a female cop and an EMT were supporting a ten year old girl toward a waiting ambulance. The girl looked a lot like Janie and Kim, Stick’s sisters, but Crow knew that she wasn’t. He knew that this girl was Stick’s daughter. Her face was bruised. Her clothes were torn. There was blood on her thighs.
“What did you do, Stick, what did you do?”
“I’m sorry,” wept Stick. His mouth bled from where Crow had punched him. “I’m sorry.”
Crow saw other images.
People he did not know. Some dressed in clothes from long ago, some dressed like everyone else. He stepped into sick rooms and cells, he crawled through the shattered windows of wrecked cars and staggered coughing through the smoke of burning houses.
Crow squeezed his eyes shut and clapped his hands over his ears. He screamed and screamed.
The house exhaled its liquor stink of breath at him.
Crow heard Val yell. Not the woman, but the girl.
He opened his eyes and saw the Morgan silver dollar leave her outstretched hand. It flew past him and he turned to see it strike the mirror. The same mirror he’d shattered with his lucky stone.
For just a moment he caught that same image of her kneeling in the rain, but then the glass detonated.
Then he was running.
He wasn’t conscious of when he was able to run. When he was allowed to run.
But he was running.
They were all running.
As Crow scrambled for the door he cast a single desperate look back to see that the mirror was undamaged by either stone or coin. All of the restraints that had earlier held his limbs were gone, as if the house, glutted on his pain, ejected the table scraps.
And so they ran.
Terry shoved Stick so hard that it knocked his ball-cap off of his head. No one stooped to pick it up. They crowded into the vestibule and burst out onto the porch and ran for their bikes. They were all screaming.
They screamed as they ran and they screamed as they got on their bikes.
Their screams dwindled as the house faded behind its screen of withered trees.
The four of them tore down the dirt road and burst onto the access road, and turned toward town, pumping as hard as they could. They raced as hard and as fast as they could.
Only when they reached the edge of the pumpkin patch on the far side of the Guthrie farm did they slow and finally stop.
Panting, bathed in sweat, trembling, they huddled over their bikes, looking down at the frames, at their sneakered feet, at the dirt.
Not at each other.
Crow did not know if the others had seen the same things he’d seen. Or perhaps their own horrors.
Beside him, Terry seemed to be the first to recover. He reached into his pocket for his comb, but it wasn’t there. He took a deep breath and let it out, then dragged trembling fingers through his hair.
“It must be dinner time,” he said, and he turned his bike toward town and pedaled off. Terry did not look back.
Stick dragged his forearm across his face and looked at the smear, just as he had done before. Was he looking for tears? Or for the blood that had leaked from the corners of his mouth when the older Crow had punched him? A single sob broke in his chest, and he shook his head. Crow thought he saw Stick mouth those same two terrible words. I’m sorry.
Stick rode away.
That was the last time he went anywhere with Crow, Val, or Terry. During the rest of that summer and well into the fall, Stick went deep inside of himself. Eight years later, Crow read in the papers that George Stickler had swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills, though he was not yet as old as he had been in the vision. Crow was heartbroken but he was not surprised, and he wondered what the line was between the cowardice of suicide and an act of bravery.
For five long minutes Crow and Val sat on their bikes, one foot each braced on the ground. Val looked at the cornfields in the distance and Crow looked at her. Then, without saying a word, Val got off her bike and walked it down the lane toward her house. Crow sat there for almost half an hour before he could work up the courage to go home.
None of them ever spoke about that day. They never mentioned the Croft house. They never asked what the others had seen.
The only thing that ever came up was the Morgan silver dollar. One evening Crow and Terry looked it up in a coin collector’s book. In mint condition it was valued at forty-eight thousand dollars. In poor condition it was still worth twenty thousand.
That coin probably still lay on the Croft house living room floor.
Crow and Terry looked at each other for a long time. Crow knew that they were both thinking about that coin. Twenty thousand dollars, just lying there. Right there.
It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
Terry closed his coin book and set it aside. As far as Crow knew, Terry never collected coins after that summer. He also knew that neither of them would ever go back for that silver dollar. Not for ten thousand dollars. Not for ten million. Like everything else they’d seen there—the wallet, the pill bottle, the diaper, all of it—the coin belonged to the house. Like Terry’s pocket comb. Like Stick’s ball-cap. And Crow’s lucky stone.
And what belonged to the house would stay there.
The house kept its trophies.
Crow went to the library and looked through the back issues of newspapers, through obituaries, but try as he might he found no records at all of anyone ever having died there.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise him.
There weren’t ghosts in the Croft house. It wasn’t that kind of thing.
He remembered what he’d thought when he first saw the old place.
The house is hungry.
Later, after Crow came home from Terry’s house, he sat in his room long into the night, watching the moon and stars rise from behind the trees and carve their scars across the sky. He sat with his window open, arms wrapped around his shins, shivering despite a hot breeze.
It was ten days since they’d gone running from the house.
Ten days and ten nights. Crow was exhausted. He’d barely slept, and when he did there were nightmares. Never—not once in any of those dreams—was there a monster or a ghoul chasing him. They weren’t those kinds of dreams. Instead he saw the image that he’d seen in the mirror. The older him.
Crow wept for that man.
For the man he knew that he was going to become.
He wept and he did not sleep. He tried, but even though his eyes burned with fatigue, sleep simply would not come. Crow knew that it wouldn’t come. Not tonight, and maybe not any night. Not as long as he could remember that house.
And he knew he could never forget it.
Around three in the morning, when his father’s snores banged off the walls and rattled his bedroom door, Crow got up and, silent as a ghost, went into the hall and downstairs. Down to the kitchen, to the cupboard. The bottles stood in a row. Canadian Club. Mogen David 20/20. Thunderbird. And a bottle of vodka without a label. Cheap stuff, but a lot of it.
Crow stood staring at the bottles for a long time. Maybe half an hour.
“No,” he told himself.
No, agreed his inner voice.
No, screamed the drunken man in his memory.
Crow reached up and took down the vodka bottle. He poured some into a Dixie cup.
“No,” he said.
And drank it.
© 2012 Jonathan Maberry.