One you’re at the yard . . .
The burned house stood at the back of a scrubby lot. If a house could be said to glower, then glower it did: rising from the ashes which were all that was left of its south face, sitting back on its haunches, its wooden front porch inexplicably wrapped in chicken wire (to keep out trespassers? to keep something in?), its second floor rearing up and threatening to topple.
The For Sale sign had been there forever — whoever had first put it there was probably dead by now — and punctuated the scene like a particularly unfunny joke. Nobody was ever going to buy the burned house.
Agnes Swithin, jogging through the chilly dusk, her breath steaming, slowed and then stopped before it. Her kneecap had begun to throb again. She clutched at the splintery fence with hands that looked older than she felt, the skin translucent over knots of prominent blue veins, and willed the pain to move up through her body and out her fingers. The doctor said running made it worse, but Agnes couldn’t bear being sedentary. Why don’t you try swimming or walking, the doctor had said helpfully, a fresh-faced young woman Agnes might have taught just a few years earlier, who clearly (Agnes imagined) thought that she, Agnes, ought to be engaged in a more geriatric form of exercise. Afternoons in the pool at the Y surrounded by soft fleshy women wearing bathing suits modestly trimmed with skirts. Yoga for the ancient and decrepit. Agnes had never actually been to the senior yoga class, the pool, or even the Y itself, but she felt she could picture it all the same.
She caught her breath, then, not from exertion, nor from the pain in her knee.
A girl in a white dress had emerged from round the south side of the house. The girl was thin — too thin, transparently thin, head and hands and feet like bough-breaking burdens on the ends of twig-like neck and arms and legs. The legs were bare, the dress stark white against tanned skin. Or it might have been a nightgown. She could have been twelve, fifteen, older; her frailty lent her an ageless quality. Agnes, who resolutely did not believe in ghosts, imagined for a bad moment or two that she was looking at precisely that.
Two you’re through the gate . . .
The truth about the burned house was that if you thought about it too much, you realized it was an enigma, only nobody thought about it much at all. The house had stood in its dilapidated state for as long as anyone knew, including Agnes, who had just entered her seventh decade. The house had neither been condemned nor selected for restoration; it simply was. Yet over those decades it could not be said to have deteriorated further, not in any significant sense. The roof ought to be gone, the walls collapsed, the house reduced to a pile of boards over its long years of neglect, and it was not. A gutter might have unhinged itself, a pilaster might have crumbled, but overall it aged with an enviable and impossible grace, apparently ticking along in its very own timestream.
People rarely noticed, because they rarely thought about the burned house. Sometimes it was remembered in the manner of a dream that returns moodily and incompletely to consciousness: “Oh! I wonder if the burned house is still there?” Rarely did anyone venture to find out. Just as dreams never make sense as the conscious mind tries to catch hold of them, neither did the burned house.
The lots on either side of it were empty, and an old bungalow sat on the one just behind it, a bungalow perpetually for rent because it never kept its tenants long. A weather-beaten Big Wheel waited forlornly in the weeds of the neat brick ranch house just across the street.
The dead-end street itself had bad associations: people tended to avoid it, although nobody could really say why. There was little reason to turn down it unless you were unfortunate enough to live there, for however short a time, and if you were tempted to do so — perhaps you had followed confusing and incomplete directions and needed to turn the car around and start over in the opposite direction — well, there was a more agreeable cul-de-sac a block away that would do. Agnes rarely if ever had gone for a run down the street on which the burned house stood. Earlier, as the evening was creeping in, she had been on the phone with her brother, and something he said stirred old memories, and she thought as others had done before her — oh! the burned house! — and now she was here, just before the gate, like the old jump rope rhyme they’d recited as children.
Three you’re at the window . . .
The girl raised an arm in greeting, and Agnes raised one back, reassured. It seemed unlikely that a ghost would proffer a friendly hello.
The girl said, “You look cold. Why don’t you come in and have some coffee?”
Her voice was not ghostly, either; in fact, a south Georgia twang flattened it, same as most everyone in those parts. She pronounced coffee “cawfee.” Agnes, whose curiosity had nearly been her undoing on more than one occasion, said that did sound tempting.
“Come on round the back,” said the girl.
Agnes said, “No, I couldn’t, really,” or maybe it was, “No, I shouldn’t;” or she intended to. Yet even as she thought to say it she picked her way through the knee-high weeds of the front yard, and heard herself not declining the invitation, but describing the scene to an acquaintance later: It was like some unseen force had taken hold of me. That didn’t seem quite right. If an unseen force had you in its grip, would you necessarily know what it did or did not compel you to do? Would it move you bodily, or would it nestle in the folds of your brain, induce you to actions even as you continued to believe that you were in charge of yourself? She thought this even as she rounded the corner to a backyard more overgrown than the front, as she observed the broken windows, the scattering of dead leaves across the concrete steps of the back porch, even as she knew when the girl took her hand that she took the hand of a ghost.
Four you’re tempting fate . . .
More than fifty years ago, as children, Agnes and her brother and their friends had dared one another to go near the burned house — to pass through its wooden gate, to run and touch its crumbling chicken-wire porch — but Agnes, at least, never got that close. Her brother, an important (by his account) Los Angeles entertainment attorney, had not returned to town since their mother’s untimely death from breast cancer thirty years earlier. Don’t know how you do it, Aggie, he would say with false heartiness over the phone. He never said what he meant by “do it;” staying in one place, she supposed, years of teaching science at the local high school. Her life must have seemed impossibly dull to him.
I dare you; I double dare you; I double double dare you; I double triple dare you! With such linguistic improbabilities they raised the stakes so high that somebody had to give sooner or later. They’d conjured shapes at the window of the burned house, and shadows of the dead lurching through the ash. And when they jumped rope or played hopscotch or wanted to scare their smaller siblings, they had the jump rope rhyme. Agnes could no longer remember all the words but it was a piece of silly counting doggerel. The words and cadence kept her awake as a child as she invented superstitions to accompany them; if she spoke without errors, she could pass another night safely.
Five you’re past the doorway . . .
“Coffee,” the girl said again, as if to remind her.
The kitchen was an old-fashioned one, which only made sense, Agnes supposed. The neat gas stove with its quaint cupboard-sized oven bore the name “Magic Chef” in script-like letters. In the corner stood an icebox, its wooden doors fixed shut with heavy metal clasps. The room stirred a memory of her grandmother’s kitchen. But a fine undisturbed ash covered the countertops, the range, the large wooden table flush against the far window, the chairs and the sink. Agnes trailed one finger through the cinders along the counter nearest her. When she looked again at the mark she’d left it was gone. As if I am the ghost, not her.
The girl thrust a steaming cup of not-ghostly coffee at her. “Milk? Sugar?”
“Black,” said Agnes. She sipped. The coffee tasted eighty years old.
The girl was not drinking any coffee herself. The house was as cold inside as it was outside, but the girl looked flushed. As Agnes watched, little blisters appeared on her upper lip, then the bare skin of her arms, and then, as her lips blackened, she said, “I’m sorry,” and fled through the adjoining blue door.
Agnes waited, but the girl did not reappear. She put down the mug of coffee and followed the girl through the door.
Six you’re in the hall . . .
Agnes and her brother were not, had never been, close. They did not reminisce fondly about the past. On the rare occasions that they did speak, they talked about nothing: his latest wife, the antics of his spoiled children, which of his hot new clients she might have heard of. (None — he did a lot of work for West Coast hip hop artists, whose names Agnes only recognized through the occasional overheard student conversation.) They never really discussed Agnes’s life, and they both preferred it that way; he didn’t like to listen and she didn’t like to share.
But earlier that evening she’d phoned because she thought she remembered that one of her nieces had a birthday coming up soon. She had a vague, unrequited sense of obligation toward the lot of them, although she had trouble keeping names and numbers straight (having never met them, for one thing). And it turned out she had just missed Cameron’s birthday — a nephew, not a niece — and he was out, anyway, so that left Agnes and her brother exchanging uncomfortable pleasantries.
Her brother was the one who brought it up. “The damndest thing,” he said. “One of my client’s houses almost burned down the other night, and it got me thinking about that burned house, the one we used to play in. You remember it?”
She remembered it, but they never went inside; she was sure of it.
“No,” he said, “no, I did. You weren’t there, maybe. I remember I was with some older kids.”
She asked what it was like.
He barked out a little laugh. “Scary as hell,” he said. “I wonder if kids still play around it. Kids there still play outside anymore? They don’t here.”
“I can’t imagine it’s still there any longer,” she said, even though she knew better.
“Maybe not.” He sounded regretful.
“How’s Veronica?” she said. Veronica was his new wife. He told her, but she wasn’t listening anymore. He’d unlocked the jump rope chant in her head, at least a few lines of it, and those lines kept running circles till they ran her right down to the burned house itself.
Seven on the stairway . . .
No one waited in the hallway beyond. No footsteps, no sounds of life at all. For one moment Agnes thought it was snowing inside; then she realized it was fine cinders, swirling and falling all about her. Her footprints vanished as she made them, buried by the ash.
Framed photographs hung along the wall, covered in blackened, melting glass. She wondered then where the light source lay; it could only be glowing embers of the fire itself, but she saw no actual flames. Agnes passed several closed doors on her way to the staircase at the front of the house. She knew that stairs in a derelict house were likely to be dangerous, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave after having seen so little. All along the stair runner, a blue carpet woven with gold threads, little burning rings formed and re-formed. She was sorry she hadn’t asked the girl her name, so she could call for her.
Top of the stairs, and another corridor. She followed the crackling sound, and the smell of smoke.
Behind her, a child’s voice said, “Hello.”
The small boy was dressed in blue striped pajamas.
“Have you come to rescue us?” the boy asked.
Eight you feel the pall . . .
“No,” Agnes’s mother had said. “No, I don’t want you playing around that old place. Wasn’t it condemned?” It was not.
“What happened?” Agnes asked her mother. “Do you remember? Who lived there? Did anybody die when it burned?” She was so young that she still believed herself immortal, and thought those capable of dying a different species altogether.
“Oh, it’s a terrible story. They couldn’t get the children out in time. Some people said it was the mother, that she’d drugged the household so she could run away with a man that night.” Her mother paused significantly. “A Negro man,” she said. “It happened in the evening, just before nightfall. The husband was out of town on business. Some people said those children weren’t even his.” Her mother kissed the top of her head. “You shouldn’t think about it, Agnes Swithin. It happened a long time ago, before you were born. Even I was just a baby. Who’s been filling your head with stories?”
Agnes, wondering who the children could belong to if not their father, said, “No one.”
Nine you’re walking slowly . . .
Agnes could not say why she felt some time had passed, but she was certain of it. She looked at her watch, the expensive Garmin she’d bought to train for a 10K before the knee injury, but its face had melted.
“I don’t know. Do you need rescuing?”
“My sister says so. Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” Agnes said. “She asked me and then . . .” She had almost said she vanished, but it seemed rude; was it wrong to remind a ghost that it was, in fact, a ghost?
The boy said, matter-of-factly, “No one ever helps us.”
Agnes wondered what kind of help she could possibly render. To the south, the corridor was lost in darkness. The burned wing. “What’s down there?”
The boy, who had come to stand beside her, replied in the same matter-of-fact voice. “That’s where we died.”
They walked toward it together. Agnes had begun to shiver with the cold, but as they neared the south wing, although she could still see nothing, she felt the heat of the flames. She hoped the boy would not begin to blacken and char beside her as the girl had done downstairs.
He came to an abrupt stop long before she could see the corridor’s end. He said, “You’re not a kid.” She didn’t answer, and he added, “I can’t keep going.”
But Agnes could. She remembered as she walked that the burned wing was nothing but ash now, and wondered what she must look like to an observer: two stories high and floating on air.
Ten watch where you tread . . .
The child’s game said you were “getting warmer” as you approached the source. Agnes never saw the burned south wing until she was in it. One moment the corridor lay dark before her; the next, she stepped into the flames.
Agnes gasped. She walked on flames; they could not touch her but they billowed out before her like a grand cascading carpet. The fire roared in her ears, and beyond that lay only silence. The smoke rose about her but she did not breathe it. She reached out to touch a doorknob licked by fire, and passed her hand through the flames without injury.
The door swung open at her touch. She passed through another doorway, where the room was engulfed, as was the four-poster bed in the center. As she drew nearer, she saw the boy and his sister there, looking for all the world as though they slept peacefully.
The boy’s eyes snapped open. “You’re not a kid,” he said again. “It’s only kids who can come here. Why are you here? Who are you? What’s wrong with you?” His face had turned dark, and angry.
Agnes tried to speak, to tell them something, but when she opened her mouth, smoke wafted out instead of words.
Eleven bid goodbye now . . .
Agnes is ten years old. Someone has just told her that after you’re dead, your nails and hair keep growing. For some reason, Agnes has understood this to mean that if she removes her nails and hair, she will never, ever die. She trims her nails too close to the quick but cannot yet bring herself to go any further; she has already chopped her hair close against her scalp when her mother comes across her sobbing at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Later her mother will take her for her first-ever hair appointment at a beauty shop downtown, where a girl will valiantly try and fail to make sense of the butchery Agnes has inflicted upon her own locks.
Agnes is sixty-one years old. Someone has just told her it’s always cold where the dead sleep, even the dead who have burned to death. Who would tell her such a thing? Maybe it was a thing she dreamed. In this gloaming, in this dying of the day, the burned house is burning down and the dead are dying all the time. Soon, dying is all the dead know how to do. But this time is different. And time is different here. This time is sirens; someone has seen the flames leaping from the burned house, and called the emergency numbers. But the fire will be fought from the outside. No one will risk themselves racing into the burned house, because they imagine there will be no one inside to save.
Twelve you’re here instead . . .
“One thing,” said her brother. They had said their goodbyes already. Agnes had one hand on the front doorknob; she was ready to drop the phone on the counter and head out on her run. “One thing,” he said again. “Don’t go near the burned house. Or the place where it used to be, at least.”
Agnes said, “Why on earth would I do that?”
Thirteen now you’re dead . . .
Agnes Swithin dreams in flames. Yellows, oranges blues and reds, blazing, writhing, birthing sparks that flare into new and bigger fires, blackened wood and charred flesh and all transformed, gone to cinder, gone to ash.
She can see shapes of people gathering, lining the sidewalk outside. She will run to them. She is a good runner, and she will join them easily. She leaps to her feet, but something is holding her back. They have her by the arms, the girl and her brother, and when she looks at them their faces are not the smooth umblemished faces of childhood, but burned and ravaged horrors. Surely she can shake them free; she will tear their arms from their sockets if she has to. She staggers forth and she can hear the murmur going up from the crowd. “Someone’s in the fire.”
She tries to call out to them, to tell them yes, someone is in the fire, it’s Agnes Swithin, the biology teacher from the high school. They will know her. They will save her. She can even see some of their faces, some she recognizes: students, and parents of students, some of whom she taught as well. And yet the two are still tugging at her, and all of them are weeping. A large burning chunk of the second story roof plummets before her, throwing up more flames and black, choking smoke and cutting off the rest of the world. The faces, the crowd itself, are lost to her now. Now she clutches the hands that restrain her. They are all she has, and she holds on tight. They whisper as they draw her deeper, telling of a house with a thousand and more rooms, of corridors you could walk forever and a day, telling of things born of fire, born of infernos, born of boredom, born of loss. The house is still burning, they are passing into secret and febrile places, and outside the burned and burning house, the late winter dusk is falling, falling into night.
Spread the word!