by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
illustrated by wredwrat
The first thing I thought when I saw Bobby Leonard again was that I had never expected to see him old. The Bobbys of the world followed James Dean’s advice, and his example, I guess; they got shot holding up all-night liquor stores by some clerk who got lucky, plowed their beat-up Camaros through the guardrail out on the point, loaded up their arms with poison medicine for the pain of being crazy in a sane world or the other way around. They had closed-casket funerals with big blowups of their high school yearbook pictures on a stand, decked with flowers. You didn’t expect them back at forty-five. Hell, you didn’t expect them back at twenty-five.
Bobby didn’t look like the kid I remembered, though. He was half-shadowed in the pool of an overhead streetlight, but even from the parking lot I could see the lines ground into his face around the eyes and mouth, and the threads of grey starting at his temples. Most of his hair was still dark, though, and it was too long and caught back in a little stub of a tail behind his neck. His hair had always been too long like that when we were kids, but that was the thing back then. Now it was 1996 and it had just fallen back out of style again — or was just about to come back in, I’m never really sure. I wondered if Bobby’d kept it like that ever since. He was a little thickened in the middle, the way guys get in middle-age — the way I’d only gotten out of by being so goddamned skinny I practically disappeared sideways — but mostly in good shape, smooth trim muscle moving under his clothes. He had on a blazer over a t-shirt, khakis, loafers, a beat-up old brown leather suitcase squatting next to his feet. Still sitting behind the wheel, grinning like an idiot, I tried to decide if the blazer, the khakis, or the loafers seemed more out of place on him, and couldn’t do it.
Canaan Falls still didn’t really have what you’d call a bus station by then, but if a Greyhound had to stop there it could do it at the little shelter outside the CVS on the corner of Main and Queen Streets, the one that’d bought out Pappy’s Drug about eight years back. Bobby looked perfect in it: two artifacts imported from a distant, faster-paced, modern world, dropped down lost and slightly forlorn on a weedy little street about twenty miles from nowhere. There were glossy advertisements on either side, one for a TV show where vapid twenty-somethings took their clothes off, the other for some video game Neil was probably going to want for his birthday in October. It looked like his kind of thing, big guns and guys in body armor. Neil was eleven then, almost twelve. Almost the same, I kept starting to think, and then stopping.
I got out of the car, and at the sound of the door slamming Bobby squinted around, through the light on his face. I lifted my arm, started to call out to him — and then realized I had no idea what to call him. A guy in his forties didn’t still go by Bobby, did he? He’d be a Bob now, or Rob, or even Robert. Christ.
“Pete?” Bobby called instead, though, saving me from freezing there with my hand in the air and my mouth hanging open, looking like a kid who forgot the answer in class a second too late. And now he was grinning, scooping up his suitcase and heading my way with one palm holding the light out of his eyes. “Jesus, look at you.”
Look at you, I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. When he turned my way I could see the thin scar on his left cheek, slicing up from his upper lip and skating off along his cheekbone, narrowly missing his eye — a knife-cut, maybe, that’d missed where it meant to go at first and gone skidding wild. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was beautiful, bright pink-white and slightly raised from his skin. I’d heard he’d been in the army, even went to Vietnam. I’d heard that he couldn’t have, he’d been in jail the whole time. It seemed like I’d heard a lot about Bobby Leonard in the last thirty years, or maybe I’d just always been listening.
Before I could get my hand out to shake, he hugged me; one-armed, the big rough grown-man hug with the three firm pats on the shoulder at the end. He smelled like diesel, road-sweat, laundry detergent and deodorant. And maybe just a little like himself, down underneath.
I saw the old place out on Glentree Road all the time, growing up; it was visible, just barely, from 125 going north, which we’d take to visit my Aunt Jody in Augusta every Thanksgiving and Easter. You could see hints and flashes of it scrolling through the trees, about a mile or two off, down in the valley the road passed over: light bouncing off the glass that was still left in its blank windows, blotches of its peeling paint like dead skin behind the green, shingles thrusting up over the treeline toward the slated-over sky. The first time I saw it from closer up than that, though, I couldn’t have been older than eight. We were leaning on the board fence by the side of Glentree, my big brother David and a couple of his junior high friends and me, looking out at the big lot its driveway cut up through like a brown snake half-hidden in patchy grass and weeds. Out behind the house the side of the valley jutted up, closing off the sky like a shallow cliff, and up top we could see the upper halves of cars going by, now and again. I forget why we were there; maybe just came along on the way home and somebody pointed it out, or else we actually decided to go to the house on purpose for some reason. I suppose it would make sense. Lots of kids did.
“You think it really is?” one of them was asking — a short weedy kid by the name of Jamey Dewar, with thick round glasses that made him look perpetually googly and astonished. He referred to the house with a tone of hushed awe boys tend to have mostly carved out from their range of expressions by the age of thirteen, in favor of a budding teenaged boredom with everything, but the Glentree place was a special case. Dave smiled indulgently.
“Nah,” he said, and everybody seemed to relax at how casually he said it — me most of all, but he was my big brother. Still, he was sort of everyone’s big brother in a way; Dave was tall and good-looking and good at most everything, school and sports and talking to girls, and it was hard not to stand a little shorter when he was around. I didn’t even mind, most of the time. “There’s no such things as real haunted houses. Probably just somebody went in to smoke some grass or Do It one time and scared a cat or something, and told everybody about the scary ghost he saw.” I laughed, dutifully, but also for real: it was a relief, to hear Dave dismiss the idea of real haunted houses with such authority. If there was ever going to be a real one, after all, it was the one out on Glentree Road.
The stories disagreed, crisscrossed, overlapped, swapped details like older teenagers I’d spotted making out at the drive-in swapped spit. In second grade, Chucky Burton had told me behind the side wall, at recess, that his big sister had told him there used to be a house on the neighboring lot to the place, with a family living there, back just after the second World War; then, one day, they’d all just disappeared. Father hadn’t shown up at work; mother had been missed at the beauty parlor and the general store; kids hadn’t come to school. A teacher, worried when calling the house yielded nothing better, had gone to check up on them, and found the car parked in the driveway, and the house empty. There was a bowl of cereal on the table, half-eaten, the milk gone lumpy and sour, and an unfinished cup of coffee sitting cold and undisturbed on the counter. No one could figure out where they’d gone, but the Glentree place had just sat looming and silent a few yards down the road. A couple days later — no one knew how — a fire had gotten started, and the whole neighboring house had burned down, and then it’d been gone too. “Like it wanted to clean up the ev’ddence,” Chucky concluded with superstitious awe, exactly like his sister must have done but probably without wiping her running nose at the end, but that wasn’t the first thing that came to my mind; the first thing I thought, easier for a second-grade mind to grasp but much harder to articulate, was that maybe it was jealous of its space.
The rest were more typical: people staying overnight and staggering out white-haired and vacant-eyed, unable to speak what horrors had changed them; apparitions at the windows and on the staircases; voices in the trees. One, particularly gruesome enough to stick in my mind, had it that a young boy had been found dead in the front yard: sitting propped up with his back against the road-facing wall, staring into forever with an expression of utter, miserable, insane horror. His fingers, supposedly, had been worn to bloody stumps at the tips, with matching streaks of gore on the inside of the front door — as though, even to the very end, he’d been clawing to get out. All, though, just stories, not even secondhand or thirdhand but fourthhand at best, warped and bewildered by reiteration and transmission. As far as I know, nobody any of us knew had actually been inside the house.
“Why don’t you go in and check it out then, Dave?” said Mike Stevens, who was sneering and pimply and afflicted with a perpetual bad case of asshole. As far as I knew Dave just kept him around to remind himself the world was full of those less fortunate. “Bring us back something nice.”
This was met with laughter, too, but nervous laughter, almost shocked: like Mike had just cracked wise in a funeral parlor. Dave didn’t laugh, but smiled, almost politely.
“Darers go first,” he pointed out, to a much warmer response. Everybody liked laughing with Dave more than with Mike, after all. Mike looked affronted, almost stammered for a second, but then seemed to know enough to go silent.
The Glentree place sat on the other side of the fence, indifferent to us, to all our laughter. Its windows were shuttered eyes, cool and regarding. Taking the measure of us, and dismissing.
We left soon, and dispersed, and went home to separate houses and dinners and parents, Dave and me walking side-by-side along the edge of Forest Drive where it turned off of Glentree. He didn’t talk to me, and though normally that was a situation I would have been practically hopping up and down to fix — I’d never admit it but I was pretty much wild for Dave’s attention all the time before the age of ten, when Bobby took his place — today I didn’t mind, just wandering along, thinking about the house. I’d never go inside there, I decided, although it had never really been an issue and I didn’t expect it ever would. Not in a million years or for all the money in the world. Real haunted houses or no, some risks just weren’t worth it.
I didn’t think about it much after that, though; every town has its haunted places, but ultimately they weren’t anything I cared about, apart from an overactive imagination sometimes late at night when the lights were out and I was in bed. Bobby was the one who cared about the house on Glentree Road, the one it stayed with for all those years, even if I was the one who stayed with it. As though I could stand between him, wherever he was, and his obsession, could keep it from hurting him, even now.
I knew of Bobby from the time we were in kindergarten — we both went to the same grade school, after all — but I only started to really pal around with him in the fourth grade. Our friendship started at recess one day that September, when he punched me in the face.
He hit like a ton of bricks, too. I fell down, landed on my ass in the dirt of the rear yard behind school, and gaped up at him from sprawling there like a dumb, gangly fish. My eye and nose felt screamy and bulging and hot, like I’d had boiling water dumped under my skin. “What the hell did you do that for?” I yelled. There was a teacher hovering across the yard, waiting to break us up if boys turned out to be boys a little more than necessary, and she could have heard me swearing but I didn’t care. I didn’t even care that Bobby actually had a reputation for things like this — doing things that didn’t make any sense and then not being bothered by getting in trouble for them. He wasn’t big — not big enough to really count as a bully, anyway — but he was tough, wiry muscle under his scuffed jeans and t-shirts, strong shoulders, shaggy dark hair always in his eyes. He was squinting down at me through it now, frowning, as though he couldn’t believe I’d questioned him, let alone in that tone of voice, but I was infuriated. I’d just been trying to get inside to use the bathroom, for Christ’s sake.
“You bumped into me,” Bobby said finally, truculently, his head down like a bull’s. All I could do for a minute longer was stare at him. I was pretty sure I hadn’t, but I must have at least seemed to, and what would be the point of pointing out the distinction?
There were two possible ways out of this situation without getting hit any more, I knew with all the learned instincts of a skinny, quiet boy who liked to read. I could go meek, diffident, and agreeable, and soothe him into letting me go on my way, or I could test my speed and try to bolt past him, either into the relatively safer building or toward the teacher. Both seemed like the coward’s way out, and while that didn’t normally bother me all that much, this time two things likewise bothered me. One was that it wasn’t fair, dammit. It was complete bullshit, all of it, I didn’t even know what I’d done to make him mad in the first place, and that I should have to be the one to back down in this situation seemed a gross and insupportable injustice. The other — and by far the more terrifying — was that I didn’t have any guarantee that it would work. Bobby wasn’t like other boys who might decide to beat you up one day; he was sort of, well, crazy, and there was no way to be sure he’d be frightened by the ordinary things, like adults and the confined, sacred space inside the school, or that he’d be placated by your showing your throat, for that matter.
And it took me less than five seconds to think through all this, but by the time I had, I discovered to my giddy horror that my mouth had already, without my knowledge or consent, decided on a third option: make a complete jackass of itself. This wasn’t exactly something that happened to me frequently, but it had been known to, and the occasions when it did were always pretty memorable.
“It’s not my fault,” my stupid, suicidal mouth had already decided to say. “You’re so dense you’ve probably got your own gravity.”
There was a soft, sighing intake of breath from the little ring of not-quite-onlookers we’d picked up. Maybe not all of them got the zinger — I liked science class more than was strictly normal — but they knew it just fine for what it was. Bobby, for his part, was taking his turn to stare at me, gape-mouthed, like he had never seen anything quite like me in all the world.
“What did you say?” he asked, at last. He didn’t even sound angry, so much as just fascinated. Completely gobsmacked. I could sense more than see everyone leaning in to listen. I didn’t know what the hell to do.
“You’re so — ” I started to say, with an only slightly trembling teacher’s patience, and it was probably more the fact that I was actually about to say it again more than the crack itself that made Bobby burst out laughing, explode laughing, doubling over like he’d been shot and clutching at his gut. He stood like that, howling, for a second, and then teetered over to land with a plop on his own ass, in front of me, streaming from his eyes with the force of his laughter. Nobody in that yard could have had the slightest idea what to think, least of all me, but after a couple minutes of this — mostly out of sheer disbelieving relief that I hadn’t just won myself a death sentence — I started laughing too. And we just sat there, facing each other, billows of dust around us from the summer-dead grass, whooping like loons, while pretty much the whole second and fourth grades at Canaan Falls Elementary stood around staring at us like we’d lost our minds.
And that was me and Bobby from then on: always together, always laughing like lunatics and half out of control, never quite making sense.
The town was a convenient source of small talk as I drove Bobby back to my house: what’d changed, what hadn’t, the old movie theater and the new shopping center, the way the stars still stuck out at night like no place else he knew of — certainly not New York City, where he’d been living most recently. I’d forgotten and left the porch light off in my hurry, and I fumbled with my keys in the dark, much too aware of Bobby standing there, holding his suitcase, looking around at the street. There was a real presence about Bobby, always had been. There was no way to ignore him if he was nearby.
I’d planned the timing — asked him to come up this week because it was Linda’s week with Neil. They were both at her condo in Augusta, probably doing dinner with the lawyer boyfriend whose name I couldn’t remember, and the house was silent. Bobby stepped into the front hall and squinted when I turned on the light. He looked so wrong in this house, the one I’d associated with all the adult banalities of marriage and kid-having and, finally, divorce, that it was almost comical: a cactus in the aisle of a grocery store, a woman’s high-heeled shoe perched delicately in the middle of a bowl of salad. I offered to take his suitcase and he let me.
“Nice place,” Bobby said, smiling. He’d stuck his hands in the pockets of his khakis, and I couldn’t help noticing again how good-looking he was, how the scar on his face only added to it instead of subtracting. I guessed he had been when we were kids, too, but you thought about stuff like that less when you were a kid. Or at least I thought I had. “You lived here long?”
“About fifteen years,” I said. It felt like an admission. “It didn’t used to be just mine, but… well, my wife got her own place after the divorce.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I shrugged, trying not to smile; it always struck me as so weird, the things people thought they had to express condolences for, the grief you were made to feel guilty for not having. Picking the suitcase up while I did to go upstairs with it, to the guest bedroom that had started out meant for a brother or sister for Neil — a hypothetical infant that had never actually materialized and now almost certainly never would.
“I don’t think you did it,” I said, and Bobby laughed, but it still felt awkward — like something I probably should have known better than to say, and I didn’t even know why.
I led him upstairs, and we hovered there awkwardly for a minute after I put the suitcase down before making our way back down again, to the kitchen. I had a bottle of red wine in the pantry that I’d actually spent an hour deciding on last Friday, just for this, but Bobby turned down the offer with an apologetic little smile; he asked if I had a Coke instead, and I did, and gave it to him before getting one for myself. Standing in my kitchen, drinking soda pop bought for my son that’d probably keep me up half the night from the caffeine, with the one friend I’d never expected to meet again, I couldn’t help thinking how time was so heavy, so physical; it was something it felt like you could be crushed under, if you held still long enough to let it catch up, and settle in.
So far we’d managed to avoid talking about the house — about what I’d said on the phone, about what would happen now and what might have to be done. The pause as we shared beverages stretched out long and awkward enough that I thought now we must; now it would come out, one stone in the path at a time, and once they were all laid there’d be nothing to do but walk it down all the way into whatever it led to. But we still didn’t. Bobby drank his soda, and thanked me for it, and we talked a little more about town, who was still here and who wasn’t this time, and he’d excused himself to go to bed after a long day of travel before I quite knew what had happened. I stood in the kitchen by myself a little longer, finishing the damn can now that it was started, and then took myself off to bed too. I lay staring at the ceiling in the dark, on one half of the bed, looking at the shadows of the trees like reaching fingers. Trying not to watch them too closely, or at least not to let myself think about it; trying not to listen to see if, even through the walls and down the hallway and away, I could hear the sound of Bobby’s breathing, piercing through the dark.
Bobby lived with his mom in a trailer park on the far side of town from my family, the Glentree house almost the median point between. On and off he also lived with an apparently endless succession of stepfathers, or at least his mother’s boyfriends. I never knew at any given time whether any of them were married to her or not; I think at least one had been, shortly before I met him, and stayed around for a couple of years, but then he was gone again and the parade marched on. Their trailer was a double-wide, well-kept, without the litter of twisted rusting bicycle frames or sprays of discarded beer bottles glinting back the sun that greeted you at some of the others nearby. His mother was a tight-lipped, thin, once-pretty woman who worked long grueling shifts at the tire plant that sat further up the river, probably dumping it full of poison. She supported Bobby, and probably most of her boyfriends, and didn’t really seem to much notice her son making an ill-fitting new friend at all.
Bobby hated the stepfathers and various father substitutes universally, practically bragging over the ones who cussed him out or ignored him and treating so foully with the ones who tried to be nice that they probably stopped trying pretty quick. Sitting on his narrow fold-out bed after school, he’d tell me over and over about his real dad, the only dad in the world for Bobby, who had died when he was around seven. His dad had driven trucks, had drunk a little and smoked a lot (the opposite was true of most of his successors, as far as I could tell), and to hear Bobby tell it, had taken absolutely zero shit from anybody. He would not, at least, it was strongly implied, have taken any greater quantity of shit than zero from any redneck assholes who came sniffing around after his wife, smelling of Wild Turkey and smoke and hoping for a lay that came with a steady flow of cash, if he hadn’t been stuck in a pine box and therefore unable to do anything about it. On these occasions Bobby usually had out his shoebox, brimming with haphazard sprawls of Dad stuff: yellowing photographs and a keyfob printed with DOUBLETIME FREIGHTING in chipping white and a pair of Army-issue dogtags that said JAMES R. LEONARD. Bobby wasn’t completely nuts about this stuff — not like he already was, and would grow to be more so about the Glentree Road place — but he would end up pulling it out onto the bed pretty much every time I was over, to show me something or point something out. I didn’t mind, either. It was pretty cool, in a weird, almost creepy way: to look into the cardboard shoebox that held everything that was left of a man’s whole existence, apart from the kid who was keeping it. Plus it didn’t hurt that for a long while I was still so in awe of the idea of being Bobby’s friend that if he’d said instead, “Hey, Pete, wanna go up on the hill over the big iron cemetery fence and jump down on the spikes?” I probably would have replied without hesitation, “Sure, when should we leave?”
It was probably mostly for that reason that Bobby got me to break my promise to myself about the Glentree place — four years after I’d made it, two years after we’d made friends, on a dozy mosquito-filled August afternoon where it felt like we were the only two people in town.
I woke up early enough the next morning that Bobby was still asleep — I hadn’t been sleeping all that great lately, truth be told — so I made my way downstairs and fussed around the kitchen, washing the few dishes, wiping up the breakfast table. I found an earring of Linda’s, a scalloped gold hoop, fallen back into the windowsill behind one of the chairs, and dumped it in the little ashtray I’d long since relegated to holding random change. I’d have to call her and let her know it was there, but afterward, I thought. After this was all over.
If you’re still here after this is all over, an ugly little voice piped up in the back of my mind, and I closed my eyes and took in and let out a long breath, my hand closing in a tight cup over the porcelain seashell. No, that was a bad thought, a stupid thought. Those sorts of thoughts were not allowed. I didn’t even know, or at least I was still telling myself I didn’t even know, what it was we were going to do yet. How far it was going to have to go, how far I would have to go for Bobby’s sake and he for his own. It honestly wasn’t even that hard to keep the stupid thoughts back; none of this felt real yet, like it fit into my life anywhere. It was like the plot of a movie I’d seen in a dream.
The earring hadn’t been there long; we’d divorced almost two and a half years previous, and Linda’d moved out very soon afterwards, and I was pretty confident I’d long since found all the scraps and bits of her that might have lingered. More likely it was from lunch Saturday before last, when I’d still been debating with myself whether I was going to call Bobby or not, whether I was going to let this all be buried like all good corpses or not. I’d made us a pasta salad, and she’d brought corn chips and wine coolers. Linda was always an awful cook, something I kidded her about for a long time before realizing it actually bothered her when I did and stopping. Why it took so long I don’t even know. Neil had insisted on staying in the living room to watch a rerun of Power Rangers; he’d fallen in love with it a year ago and not let go of in spite of my best efforts. We talked about her promotion — she worked at a little local insurance agency, one of those with a name that’s three guys’ last names all strung together, which always embarrassed me by refusing to come to mind when I was talking to her — and about how Neil was doing in his new school. We’d compromised on a private one that was about twenty minutes from each of us, and were pretty much agreed that he was still settling in. She told me I looked tired, and I admitted that I hadn’t been sleeping well. I didn’t tell her why.
“You take on too much, Pete,” she said, cracking open one of the wine cooler bottles. I hated the things, but Linda loved them, and I generally didn’t want to drink even one of those wimpy little things in the middle of the day anyway, so I let her keep bringing them. We had lunch most every weekend, and not just for Neil’s sake: we’d been best friends since long before we were married, and had stayed that way afterward. It was just the part in the middle, we were also in agreement, that we never should have tried for. “You always took on too much. Sometimes I think you’re like the human octopus — one leg around everything, keeping everything moving, little suckers stuck on everywhere. Like one thing’s never good enough, you’ve just got to keep grabbing and grabbing and then juggle when you run out.” I was staring at her by this point, with a pretty incredulous grin, but when she looked up and saw it she stayed serious. “I mean it. You think you’re not stressed out because you’re not some corporate hotshot, but you are. You keep yourself stressed out. Probably put yourself in the hospital with a heart attack by the time you’re fifty.”
“Thanks, Lin,” I said, finally, when she’d given me a pause to dish out more of my pasta salad onto her plate, a big fork and spoon as tongs. “You always know how to make me feel better. Do you and Mom have secret meetings to plan out your dual-pronged attack, or what?” She glanced up at me, and then did laugh, and honestly, I thought.
“What. She says to call her, though.” She fussed the noodles around on her plate, then looked back up at me, thoughtful. “It’s just, it’s hard to know what’s going on with you. Or how to give you a hand, even if you wanted one. It’s hard to get in with you, I don’t know if you know that.” I wasn’t sure I did, so I just shrugged. Feeling numb and oddly stung. “I guess octopuses can’t delegate,” Linda said, and then paused. “…Is that ‘octopuses’ or ‘octopi’?”
“Questions for the ages,” I said, trying to smile. It wasn’t easy, suddenly.
Get in where with me, Lin? I thought, but I didn’t say that. What goddamn sense would it have made to her even if I had? Some places it’s just about impossible to get in with me, actually. Unless you’re the right person. Unless you say just the right thing. And even then, how close are you to really, really sure that you want to go at all?
As far as I’d noticed, she hadn’t even been fidgeting with her earring much that day. Maybe the post was just loose.
Bobby came down around 10:30, showered and sheepish, wet curls of hair sticking the the back of his neck and his feet bare. He was dressed more casually today, jeans and a button-down shirt with the top two left undone, and I thought I could see just the edge of more scar tissue underneath it — something that looked like a bad old burn, dull pink and stretchy. What in the hell had happened to him?
“Sorry,” he said, smiling a little, hovering in the doorway like he wasn’t quite sure the kitchen was safe to stand in, at least not barefoot. “Haven’t been sleeping much lately.”
And before I could even think of some sort of witty commiseration with that, he cocked his head on one side, with the serious, down-to-business expression I guessed I’d been both anticipating and dreading. The look that said this wasn’t some kind of private grade-school reunion; we were here for a reason.
It wasn’t until the summer we were both twelve that I heard about Bobby and the Glentree place, although whatever was between them had been there a long time. Longer than whatever it was between Bobby and me, at least. School had let out three blissful weeks ago, and we were over at my house. My mom had made us sandwiches for lunch, with little bowls of cut strawberries. She liked Bobby, I think, although I also think she didn’t really know what to make of him or the position he’d taken up in my life. Once she’d left us alone Bobby wasted no time taking a couple of the smaller strawberry halves, sticking them under his upper lip point-down and hissing “I vant to suck your blud!” in the worst half-whispered Transylvanian accent I’d ever heard. I had to bury my face in my napkin to keep from cracking up loud enough to alert my mom.
“I think you need to go to the dentist first, Dracula,” I muttered back, still giggling. Strawberries really don’t make the best vampire fangs. He looked more like a lumpy beaver that’d been in the Kool-Aid. Still, he made a thwarted, puzzled face so apt — the hell, you say! — I got laughing even harder. It didn’t help when he bent down and began attempting to puncture his sandwich with his “fangs,” finally knocking one of them loose when he started laughing.
“What’s going on in there?” my mom called from the living room, though she sounded friendly enough. I tried to discipline my voice.
We finished the rest of lunch as fast as we could, in snickering silence, and escaped upstairs to my room. I was just over the cusp of old enough to feel awkward about my house, big and tidy and up on middle-class Poplar Street, compared against Bobby’s trailer, but he never said anything. My dad was a sociology professor at Bowdoin — not exactly big bucks, but okay, and good for a little bit of prestige in a hick town like Canaan Falls — and my mom had an English B.A. and was a part-time copy editor at the Canaan Falls Record, not that I could imagine they’d ever need a full-time one. I guess I operated under the curse of the Smart Kid, but I know Bobby was just as bright, if not brighter, in his own way. In spite of his terrible grades, he’d never been held back, and he frustrated teachers more than anything else. The better ones tried to draw out his brightness, to turn it into a real applied intelligence, and over and over again Bobby just refused. Bobby didn’t want to be smart; Bobby wanted to be tough. Bobby wanted to give the world a kick in the ass just to let it know he could take the worst it could dish out, and he wasn’t scared of it.
But he was scared, and I never even began to guess — at least not before that afternoon up in my room, when Bobby asked me if I knew about the haunted house over on Glentree Road.
I was sitting on my bed, Bobby cross-legged on the floor in front of my big wooden dresser. We’d been reading my Spiderman comics, and heaps of them were scattered around in front of both of us. The window was open, a warm July breeze blowing in the curtains and giving us flashes of the bright, sunny day outside. It hadn’t been that hot so far this summer, but the weather man kept saying the worst was yet to come. I looked at Bobby, half of a smile twitching on my mouth, like he’d been joking. I guess I was sort of hoping he had been.
“‘Course I do,” I said. “Everybody does.”
“You ever seen it?”
“Yeah. We drive by it sometimes, plus Dave and I went out one day.” I shrugged a little, trying to give off an air of boredom I didn’t really feel. I didn’t want Bobby to think I was chicken, but I didn’t even like talking about the place, somehow. It felt like if it heard you, it might start paying attention. Stupid thought, but hard to shake — even in the warm daylight with the breeze blowing in, and especially with the way Bobby looked suddenly, his eyes dark and impossible to read under his screen of hair.
“Did you go inside?” Bobby asked. I stared at him, but he still didn’t seem to be kidding. Sometimes it was hard to tell with him, but there was an intensity to him now, somehow, that convinced.
“No,” I said, still trying to laugh a little. I crossed my arms hoping it would hide the little knobs of gooseflesh that had popped up on them just at the thought. “Nobody goes in there. It’s really old, it’s probably dangerous. The floors all rotting out and stuff.”
“You think it’s really haunted?”
I didn’t want to be having this conversation anymore, but I couldn’t think of a good way to change the subject. It felt all wrong, pointed in the wrong direction down a very bad stretch of road. “…No.” Trying to sound brave, bored, but not really knowing why anymore. Nothing about the way Bobby was looking at me suggested he would laugh, or call me chicken. He looked a little like a haunted house himself. Ghostly figures standing at his eyes, maybe some bloody scratchmarks on the inside of his head. “It’s just an old house, I guess. Dave said there’s no such thing as real haunted houses anyway.”
“Sure there are,” Bobby said, with a dismissive frown that finally broke his look of intense concentration. The casual, certain way he said it filled me with a dismayed excitement. If Bobby and Dave disagreed on something, I already knew whose opinion I had to give more weight, but the prospect of actually doing so was as terrifying as it was oddly magnetic, for such a small thing. It was an old decision to have to make, a growing-up decision, and dark with an emotion not yet familiar enough for me to recognize. A sexy decision, I suppose, although now that sounds ridiculous. But I guess on some level all sexuality manages to be at least a little bit ridiculous. It represented a level of commitment to Bobby more intimate than just friendship: to me it was almost like marriage, although I didn’t think that then. I was only conscious of my heart speeding up in my neck and wrists, my mouth going dry. Bobby and I were already close in spite of the vastness of our difference, but consciously or not I knew we were about to cross a line over which we might not be able to return.
“Sure there are,” Bobby said. “I read a bunch of books about it at the library. There’s a big hotel in Colorado that’s got tons of ghosts, and this weird huge house in California… there’s even supposed to be, like, science reasons for it. Rocks and stuff.” I couldn’t quite see the connection there, but the invocation of science had gotten my attention just as much as it was intended to. I trusted science. It had rules. Of course, at twelve my conception of what those rules were was plastic enough to include radioactive spider bites causing superpowers, but I didn’t really see the inconsistency there; if anything it probably just increased my capacity to believe that science could explain ghosts as well. “I don’t think that place is a haunted house, though,” Bobby said, and leaned back on his hands, frowning. “I think it’s something different.”
“Something like what?” I said. I’d given up trying to sound bored; my voice had gone as hushed as if we were actually telling the ghost stories for real, instead of talking what were supposed to be just hypotheticals.
“Dunno.” Bobby scratched at his nose. There was a large pink scab across the back of his hand, where he’d skinned it falling on the concrete block steps of his trailer two weeks ago. I knew because I’d been there, and helped wipe it up with Bactine at his tiny kitchen table, while he laughed hard through tears of pain and called me “Doctor!” in an eyelash-fluttering, soap opera heroine’s falsetto until he made me laugh too, slopping disinfectant over the neck of the bottle. Looking at it made me hope, very calmly and rationally, that he wouldn’t ask me what I thought he was going to, because I knew I would go anywhere with him he wanted. “Are you scared of it?”
From anyone else it probably would have been a teasing question — ooh, is the baby scaaared? baby doesn’t want to talk about the big bad houuuse? — but not Bobby, not right now. His eyes were as dark and serious as ever. They looked like an animal’s eyes. Still, I knew enough of the unwritten laws of twelve years old to know what the answer to that question always was. “Nah,” I said at once, sure and scoffing. “It’s just a house.”
“I am,” Bobby said. When my shocked glance hit him he wasn’t even looking at me; he was staring down at the scar on his hand. “Can I tell you something?”
No, I wanted to say, instantly. The urge was so sudden and strong at first that I almost did, and then what might have happened? Almost certainly I would have lost him; but what else might I not have lost? No, don’t, I don’t want to know, jeez, come on, let’s just laugh it off and pretend it’s no big deal and forget it and go back to talking about Doc Ock and — “Okay,” I said. “What?”
He looked up at me suddenly, sharply, almost glaring. “Are you gonna laugh?”
Yeah. Like hell. And I’m gonna call you a chicken and a baby and a sissy, so quit it, okay? “No. ‘Course not.”
Bobby started to say something, then hesitated. “Can we shut the door?”
I did. The house seemed very quiet, afterward, the whole day very quiet. Down the block the Delaneys’ dog Stuart was barking at something and there were very faint kids’ voices raised in a game somewhere, but these noises seemed incredibly distant, like they were on another planet. The sunlight even felt less bright, like it had farther to travel to reach us.
“I have these dreams,” Bobby began. “A lot.”
And he told me about them, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, staring at the scar on his hand. How his father stood, a long, lean, wiry Maine man in a Red Sox cap pulled down low over his hollow-cheeked, deep-lined face, in the open doorway of the house on Glentree Road. In the dreams Bobby was standing at the end of the dirt drive, just at the edge of where it turned onto the road, and he always thought, clearly and often enough that he could remember, That line is the equator. If I cross it I’ll be in the jungle. Bobby’s dad was smiling faintly, waving, like someone setting off on a boat trip, but something was wrong. The quality of light inside the house behind him was not right. It looked like daylight — smoky, hazy daylight, like the top of a hill above a forest fire. It was dusk in the dream, and he didn’t want to be in there when it got dark, but —
“But he’s waiting for me,” Bobby said, now looking entirely at his hands. Their fingers were interlaced, tightly. “He wants me to come in and find him.”
Sometimes Bobby only woke up from this dream, sweaty and shaken, before anything could happen. Other times, if he waited there too long, he glanced away only to look back at the door of the house to find it shut, the windows of the house dead dark. And then the sun was down, and it was terrible to be there. Something would catch him. He didn’t know what, but that only made it harder to get away from.
He didn’t tell me all of this, and what he did tell me was halting and rough, almost painfully crippled by how much he just didn’t have the words for what he meant. It wasn’t a question of his intelligence or his vocabulary; the ideas were just impossible to frame, like describing any dream after waking. You can’t explain the immediacy of it, the way things felt. When you try, the other person just glazes over and nods sometimes. It’s a river you just can’t reach across.
But some of it got through to me, at least, because by the time he finished telling me about it I was more than uneasy about this whole conversation. I was fucking terrified.
“I guess it’s not that big a deal,” Bobby said after a pause, shaking back his hair in a way that was probably supposed to be brave and just came out angry and bullish. “I mean, they’re just dreams, right? Everybody has weird dreams. I’ve been having them forever, but still, you know, so what. But, um.” He folded in on himself a little more, his crossed arms across his belly, his eyes downcast. “…There’s other stuff.”
I would have asked him what other stuff — he seemed to expect me to — but I couldn’t make anything come out of my mouth. Everything just seemed frozen there, like there’d just been a cold snap behind my teeth.
After a while, though, he kept going without me. “Stanley had these alphabet letter magnets.” Stanley was a prior mom boyfriend-maybe-husband, a constantly greasy little man with a big gap-toothed smile. He pumped gas down at the station on Queen Street and had a sixteen-year-old daughter with a baby who lived upstate. “From when his kids were little, I think. He put them all over the fridge. One time…” He paused again, giving me another troubled, half-hidden look as if to read how I was taking this. “This one time I came home from school, and — they were all gone except a few of them. In the middle of the fridge. It said my name. Three times.” He put his hand out, setting it down in the air three times across in front of his eyes, as he spoke. “BOBBY BOBBY BOBBY.” He let his hand fall down on his knees again. “He didn’t even have that many Bs,” he said, with a bleakness that creeped me out more than the story did. It was like just the act of thinking about it exhausted him. “All of Stanley’s ones were red, but he only had five Bs. Four of them were blue instead. Like they came from a whole nother set. We couldn’t find the other ones, and I looked everywhere. I was really scared and I just felt like — if I could find them, I — But they weren’t anywhere. In the kitchen or anywhere. Then, after he finally moved out, we — ” He swallowed. He seemed to be having a very hard time getting through talking now. I had never seen Bobby so scared. “We got a different fridge ’cause it hadn’t really been working, and my mom got some money from him for a while after, and — when they took it out, all the letters were under there. They weren’t just like swept under the fridge, they were stuck. Onto the bottom. And they — they spelled things. Not things that made any sense, but — words.” He held his forefinger and thumb in front of his eyes, so close to touching that only a paper’s-width sliver showed through. “That’s how far off the floor the fridge was. Nobody could’ve done that.”
“That’s,” I tried to say, but my voice was dry and squeaky and he didn’t seem to hear me.
“There’s just stuff like that. Sometimes. Once, last year, I was gonna go over to your house for dinner and I went to call Mom from the payphone around the corner, to tell her I’d be late. And I put it up to my ear and I heard somebody say, totally clear, ‘Step on up to the plate.’ S’what my dad always said when he wanted me to come over and talk to him. Step on up to the plate, champ.” He actually laughed a little. It was a glassy, skittering sound that made my arms bump up again. “It even sounded like him. And then I hung it up and backed off, and I thought I must’ve just imagined it, but I know I didn’t. I picked it up again, and it was just dial tone. I don’t know, maybe somebody was even calling the phone and I picked it up right before it could start to ring. I don’t know. It could happen. But.
“I’ve been by the house tons of times, but nothing ever happens there. It’s just sitting there and nothing happens. But it’s like it won’t do anything while I’m looking at it, and as soon as I turn my back — ” He smacked the side of his fist into his other open hand, making a dull slap. “But I always know what it is. It’s him.” He looked up at me, pale and pathetic, looking both exalted and terrified, and for the first time ever I really felt sorry for Bobby Leonard. I had always been in awe of him and in the years of our weird friendship I had come to find I loved him, too, and I knew in a vague child’s way that his life hadn’t been easy, but I had never pitied him before now. He looked like a lost little kid, sick with fear and just about to give up and start bawling, made only more tragic by the thin sliver of hope caught in his despair. “It’s my dad. Like in the dream. He’s in there. I mean, as a ghost or something. I guess. But it’s him. He wants me to come find him.”
So then why are you so scared? I thought, but already I understood that was a question I could not ask.
“Pete,” Bobby said, all childhood seriousness and gravity, and I knew what he would ask me. I’d known from the beginning. It took all my effort to keep from closing my eyes, swaying on the precipice of the decision I couldn’t even know would chart the course of both of our entire lives, maybe even be what smashed them to pieces at the bottom. But Bobby was crazy and wild-eyed and beautiful, and I wanted him to love me too. In the end I knew that was the only factor that would matter; if he wanted me to crash with him, then my fate was already waiting for me at the gruesome end of everything.
“I want to go in there,” Bobby said. “Will you help me?”
And I said, “Sure. When should we leave?”
The first thing we did was to go out to the house. Not to go in — we weren’t ready for that yet — but just to check it out, remind ourselves of everything we might have forgotten in the intervening years since we were kids. I pulled the car over by the side of Glentree when we got within sight range, trying to laugh it off. “Guess I should just turn in the drive,” I said, “not like anyone else is using it.” But I put the car in park anyway, and glanced over at Bobby, and he wasn’t laughing. His scar stood out even stronger against the pallor of his skin.
We walked up to it, Bobby’s hands in the pockets of the worn-rough leather bomber jacket he’d put on, mine stuffed into the ones in my long dress coat. It was my only light one, and I sort of wished I’d just taken something heavier. It had been a short summer, and it was cold.
The place looked different with the trees barer, and what was left on them turned all picturesque reds and golds. Drifts of leaves surrounded it and blew past. Halloween wasn’t for another month and a half, but it looked so perfect, short only a couple jack-o-lanterns and paper skeletons, that it was almost corny. The roof had sagged in deeper under the heavy snows the past ten winters or so; it was probably only a matter of time before it caved altogether, letting daylight into whatever the place had for an attic. The thought wasn’t much of a relief, somehow.
Bobby and I stood at the end of the drive and looked. The cars whizzing by on top of the hill went a lot faster now; 125 had gotten to be a bigger road down here since 1963.
“Christ almighty,” Bobby muttered, and I looked over at him, but he didn’t look at me. He was just staring at the house, and the look on his face gave me an eerie, nasty, almost crippling bolt of deja vu: it was exactly the look he’d had when he told me what he thought was stalking him from inside it, more than thirty years ago. That exact same look of excitement and terror, of miserable hope. I couldn’t know that — memory isn’t just a box you drop things in and can pull them back out of again unchanged, they twist and turn around on you and sometimes make themselves into completely new shapes — but somehow I did know it. I felt like I’d forgotten very little of what had happened that summer, inhumanly little. Something had fixed it in my mind, glued it up all over the walls and the floors, and insisted on keeping the real estate my entire life long. The look made his adult’s face into a kid’s — but his posture was hunched and exhausted, as if he were a very old man.
Then he passed a hand over his face, wiping the expression away, and the moment had passed. “Christ, Pete,” he said, and laughed, shakily. “It’s like seeing a ghost all by itself, isn’t it?”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think what I would.
“I’d almost forgotten,” he said, so low it was more like a murmur. Almost too low for me to hear. “I mean, I never really forgot, but I…” He trailed off, seeming to forget that he’d even been talking out loud (or maybe he hadn’t even known it in the first place), and let his hand drop back to his side.
“What are we going to do?” I asked him, quietly. I could have made some suggestions, had actually even thought some things through well ahead of time — nice thing about being a librarian, it makes research so easy — but I knew that wasn’t ever my decision. If the house on Glentree Road was a ghost itself, then Bobby was the house it haunted.
“Go in,” Bobby said. Almost at once. I’d known he would, again, but that still didn’t make it any easier. He turned to look at me then, though, with a small, sheepish smile on his lips. The house might not have changed that much, but Bobby had. There was more confidence, more control, more self-awareness in that smile than I’d seen in him his entire preadolescent life. “Don’t you think we’re going to have to go in?”
I looked at the house again. “Yeah,” I said, after a long moment had passed with no sounds but the high wind through the valley, the leaves shaking on each other with a sound like rain. “Probably.”
“So let’s make a plan,” Bobby said. At some point he’d gone back to staring at the house again. I didn’t like to see him hypnotized by it like that — like it was the headlights of a car and he was about to get mowed down — and I reached out and touched his arm, just lightly, above the elbow. Without turning to look at me, he brought his hand up and gripped mine with surprising strength. It was done so quickly and neatly that I hardly spared a thought for it, for that gesture that had passed so completely out of my vocabulary of touch, outside the small circle that for a while my wife and son and I had made. Bobby and I were two grown men, standing in front of an old house and holding hands, and somehow none of it was strange to me at all. Maybe because I’d never felt less like a grown man in my life.
The house looked back, as if to say that was fine; that it was where all plans ended.
Not right away, was the answer Bobby and I finally agreed on; we’d need time to get ready, to make sure we had everything. Just in case it was dangerous, whether for mundane or otherworldly reasons. Both of us kept saying “just in case,” or variations on it, but I think we both knew it was silly to even doubt. Of course it would be. People who stayed the night in the haunted house rarely came out okay.
One night about a week after that initial conversation — long enough at twelve to put it almost completely out of my conscious mind — I had a dream about the Glentree Road house. As in Bobby’s dream, I was standing at the end of the long dirt drive, but dark had already fallen. Not total darkness, which would have induced immediate panic instead of just a vague, uneasy dread, but the cool blue darkness just after the sun has gone down, when half the sky is still burning orange and the other half purple and star-spattered. There were fireflies lighting in the yard, and a light wind shifted the trees uneasily against each other. It was the most vivid dream location I’d ever been in, I remember that even now: there was still that thin grey veil of sleeping distance to keep me from feeling like I was really there, but every detail was alarmingly real and present.
The door to the house was closed, though. There was no one standing in the doorway, no wrong unsettling light outlining the long rangy frame of Bobby’s dad, who I’d only know from photographs anyway. The windows were dark. It wouldn’t open for me; I wasn’t the one it wanted. The house had no use for boys whose dads were alive college professors, who wisecracked their way out of punching situations, who liked numbers and rules and building models and watching science fiction movies were lizards grew gigantic and men talked soberly about What The Science Of Man Was Not Meant To Meddle In. It only wanted Bobbys: crazy and seductive and somehow fragile inside. It wanted cut hands and knees and shoeboxes of bewildered grief, and strange darker things, underneath the skin. Dizzily, even in the dream, I thought I could sympathize. It seemed like lately I didn’t want anything else either.
But not all of the windows were dark, I noticed after a moment, with a jolt. There was a dim flicker of bluish light coming from one around the near side, by the house’s east corner. I couldn’t quite see what it was, and I started to go nearer — but with my foot still hovering over the dirt of the drive I remembered what he had said, what he had thought in his dreams.
That line is the equator. If I cross it I’ll be in the jungle.
No. I steeled my resolve, firmed my dream-self’s mouth. The line didn’t apply to me; the jungle belonged to Bobby. He was the one the trap was laid for. I set down my foot in the dust, and waited.
So I went closer, down the drive, between the whispering trees. The house seemed to grow larger as I got nearer, to lean in and loom over me, peering curiously — boy? not the boy. boy? — but there were no consequences; no voices, no ghosts. My hair stayed brown. Closer up, I could see that the flickering light from inside was the light of a television screen in a dark room. The light making patterns as the pictures on the screen changed. Holding my breath a little (in the dream and maybe outside it, too, my sleeping body closing its lungs), I came all the way up to the downstairs window, and peered inside.
The inside of the Glentree house was the inside of Bobby’s trailer. An inexact mapping of it, certainly, the way dream places are always distorted, but still recognizable, and still too narrow for the space that should have been in there, like a trick in a carnival mirror-house. I didn’t think anything of it then; at the time I barely noticed. The TV was the black-and-white, rabbit-eared one that perched on a card-table in the scant space that passed for Bobby’s den. Sitting on the loveseat in front of it, watching whatever show was on that I couldn’t see, were Bobby and his dad. Bobby’s dad’s arm was around Bobby’s waist, and Bobby’s arms were folded around his own middle, his body leaned slightly into his dad’s shoulder. It was true, then. It had been done. Bobby had gotten inside, and he’d found him.
Still, something seemed wrong — hell, it didn’t just seem wrong, it practically screamed it. The whole scene seemed to set off a volley of klaxons and swooping alarm lights in my mind. All Bobby’s body language contradicted the relaxed pose: it was stiff, and tense, and anxious, as though he were preparing to run as soon as he got an opening. And there was something about the large, vein-runneled man’s hand resting low on Bobby’s side that I didn’t like. Something about that hand was wrong. The fact that Bobby’s trailer was somehow inside the house, the fact that Bobby’s dad was dead and this whole surface-happy resolution was completely impossible, the fact that the Glentree house itself was not a safe place for either of them, all skated off my mind without leaving an impression, and yet it was that touch, of all things, that stood out and bothered me. I just didn’t like the way Bobby’s dad was holding him.
As I watched, Bobby blinked at the TV suddenly, seeming to come out of whatever he’d been paying attention to (from the look of him it hadn’t been the TV program, to say the least). His eyes darted to where I was at the window. His expression was set and tight, those cables of tension holding it in place, but his eyes were as expressive as they normally weren’t; they registered alarm but not surprise. His gaze darted back to his dad, to see if he had noticed. He hadn’t, and Bobby looked back at me, this time daring to turn his head ever so slightly in my direction.
Go away, he mouthed at me, so emphatically his lips peeled back to show his teeth.
I jolted wide awake all at once, and found myself shaking and sweating, staring up at the ceiling of my bedroom. The trees outside cast patterns in the faint light from over our neighbors’ door. I sat up, breathing fast, and then fumbled until my sweat-slick fingers would hang onto the pull-chain of the lamp by my bed and turn it on. When light flooded the room, I found I could breathe a little better.
My face felt wet, and not only in the sweaty spots. Only when I put my hand up to my cheek did I realize that I’d been crying.
It was nearly dawn before I finally went back to sleep, the book I’d been staying up with tented open on my chest, the light beside me still on against the night.
We went back to my place, the time getting close to noon but neither of us really hungry. We sat at the empty kitchen table instead, and started to talk about what we’d need. When it came up in the course of the conversation, I got up to get the other thing to show Bobby, the thing besides the light.
I was working as the senior of two archivists at the library at Bates College. The hours were pretty flexible, and it helped on the weeks when I had Neil. It had been an off week when it happened, about a month prior, and I was working late in the evening — the drive back from Lewiston wasn’t great but it wasn’t a killer either — on an indexing project for a new collection we’d just had donated earlier that summer. When I came back from the documents storage, the arm of the electric typewriter I used for typing labels had moved.
My mouth dried, and I froze in the doorway, staring. It wasn’t my imagination: I’d left a sheet of paper the printer had mangled sitting on top of the typewriter earlier, and now it was tumbled in a sad heap on the desk blotter. Nobody could have been in here. I’d locked the door to the office when we closed at 6. I’d just had to use my key to get back in, for Christ’s sake.
Did I already know? I guess I must have, after seeing that light on in the Glentree house on my way home from dropping off Neil that past weekend — the light in the second-floor hallway, the hallway where the door was. The hallway where Bobby had nearly died.
I walked around the desk, very slowly, my keys frozen into my clamped fist. There was a sheet of labels in the typewriter I didn’t remember rolling in there, but that could have been just my faulty memory. There was a single line of typing marching across the very top of the sheet; and then another, much further down, in all caps, right before where the ball had come to rest.
The first one said:
tell my boy to come home now.
STEP ON UP TO THE PLATE
The edges of the labels on the sheet interrupted the lower set of letters where they crossed them, jarring them slightly uneven. The arms of the E in STEP did not quite fit onto its body, and the two halves of the T in PLATE were uneven. I think that was the only thing that made it seem real.
When I showed the sheet of labels to Bobby he didn’t say anything, but both his brow and mouth were keyed tight when he looked up. “Just doesn’t give up, does it,” he said, sounding like he might be trying to find it funny. And mostly failing. I didn’t really know how to answer, so I didn’t. Bobby glanced down at the sheet again, then set it down on the table, wiping his hand off on his jeans in a motion that looked unconscious. “I wonder why it went through you instead of me.”
“Didn’t get your new address?” I tried, trying to make it funny too, but failing too, and we sat in silence for a few seconds. I took the moment to look at him — really look at him. “Bobby — we don’t have to do this, you know. If you’re not… if nothing’s bothering you, I don’t mind. I can put up with spooky notes in my typewriter. It’ll make a good haunted-library story to put in the college paper, nobody’ll know the difference.”
Bobby smiled, wanly, and finally tore his eyes back off the sheet to look at me. “You will,” he said. “And it bothers me just knowing it’s there. It’s — coming back here was insane, you don’t even understand. It was like I never really left to begin with. Like I dreamed the whole thing on the bus — my job, my life since then, leaving in the first place — everything.”
“I understand,” I said. Bobby looked at me for a very long time, and then nodded, just slightly. As if to say, okay, yeah, maybe. “But I just want you to realize — I just called to give you the option. That’s really all.” And to see him again, and find out how gray he’d gone and if he’d gotten married and had kids too and wasn’t just a total figment of my twelve-year-old imagination, but that wasn’t here or there. That was just high school reunion bullshit, or so I told myself; the house was the centerpiece. “If you don’t want to — ”
“It doesn’t matter,” Bobby said, and shrugged when I looked at him sharply. “It doesn’t. It still wants me.” He pushed back from the table, leading with his body and stretching his arms out long, as though to put maximum distance between himself and that secondhand note. “If I don’t do it right this time, I might as well never have left at all.”
“Okay,” I said, after a minute. “Let’s go shopping.”
We hadn’t ever really talked about our scrounging operation, but it proceeded anyway: old wind-up flashlights nosed out of basement cupboards, a ratty-edged Bible swiped from the FREE table in the church basement, the lock-back knife Bobby’s dad had left behind for him to own much too young. Other odds and ends, some of them bordering on the ridiculous — a bulb of garlic out of Bobby’s tiny trailer kitchen, for one — that one or the other of us had some vague association with for slaying horror-story monsters. These items made their steady way into a pillowcase, kept under my bed since I was the one with more room. The similarities to Bobby’s shoebox of his father were not lost on me.
We didn’t talk about much of anything to do with our impending trip to the house, to be honest. Sometimes if we were left alone for long enough in a secure enough area, we would start to hedge around the question of when, but not much planning ever really went into it. Mostly it wasn’t something for discussion between us. When we were together, we talked about comic books and the movies and who was the biggest jerk at school. I don’t know about Bobby, but it was mostly when I was alone when I really started to think about the house, and what we were about to do, assuming neither of us chickened out. Mostly at night, when the lights were off and the shadows of the trees outside were on the ceiling and I was supposed to be falling asleep.
The summer trudged on. You never believe you’ll ever get bored of summer vacation when you’re a kid, but eventually, you always do. The heat the weatherman had been promising finally sank down on us like a heavy wet blanket at the end of July, and by August the town felt like a ghost-town, everyone holed up inside with the lights off, trying desperately to keep cool. Flies and mosquitoes hovered like all of Canaan Falls was a corpse. It felt like time itself was running away, like a river. Bobby and I hung out at each other’s houses almost every day, sluggish and listless. He slept over at least one night, a weird, uneasy summer night with heat lightning flicking out now and again to lick the top edge of the valley, and we both spread out sleeping bags in the living room and told stupid jokes and sneaked glimpses of late-night movies on the TV with the volume down, until my mom finally came back downstairs to admonish us into sleep. In the dark, after I thought he had gone to sleep, I lay awake and listened to the dim, steady rasping sound of his breathing. Thinking, calmly and rationally now, somehow eased by his presence, about what I would do if the house tried to take him from me. How I’d burn it to the ground and drag him free, coughing and dazed, and be his hero like he was already mine.
When we finally went, it was an accident. It just happened, as senseless and sudden as a whim taking us up to Pappy’s for a malted. Except something about it wasn’t like that at all, really; what with all our planning, conscious or unconscious, together or not, I couldn’t exactly say it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Maybe something more like a storm: whose clouds have been a long time gathering up, purple and ominous, on the horizon, and one minute for no good reason at all, the whole thing just breaks open and drowns the streets.
I was in the kitchen of my house, about to head out the back door; I was thinking of getting on my bike and heading down to the public library. It was usually a good chance of finding Bobby there on days when calling his house didn’t do any good. I’d no sooner started to put my shoes on, though, than the doorbell rang, in three short double-blips, like Bobby always did. Grinning, I jogged over in stocking feet, and threw the door open — and then the grin died off my face all at once, like a landslide. It was Bobby, sure, but he looked like a complete wreck. His hair was all over his face, a crusted rind of blood had dried around one nostril, and his eye on the same side was swelling up black — not unlike mine had that first day when he’d punched me, but never mind that. He was holding his upper arm, although his t-shirt kept me from seeing if that was damaged too.
I just gaped at him for a long time, and probably too long, because finally he said thickly, “I can’t go home.”
“Jesus Christ, Bobby!” I managed to croak, when at last I managed to find my voice. Sunday-school admonitions of the dire consequences of taking the Savior’s name in vain were forgotten; desperate times called for desperate measures. “What happened?”
Bobby scowled at the ground but said nothing, and I didn’t think he was likely to. It was pretty clear what had happened; his latest stepdad — Doug something? I’d thought he was actually an ex-minister, of all things — had beaten him up. Rightly or wrongly, I couldn’t imagine anyone our age could have taken Bobby on like that, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else grownup who would have taken the time. Nor could I imagine that it had been exactly unprovoked, for that matter; Bobby was frankly obnoxious to all of them, he’d always seemed to sort of relish the idea of one of them taking a swing at him. Judging from the look of him, though, the real thing had been more than he’d bargained for.
The silence was getting awkward, and I was just starting to wonder if I should try asking him again when he burst out, his teeth bared in an unconscious snarl (I had the vaguest sense of deja vu I didn’t even think to connect to my dream), “I hate them. I hate all of them. They’re a bunch of fuckers.”
I had a moment to reel in shocked reverence for this use of the ultimate in profanity. Then Bobby sniffed, and I saw his nose was leaking a little red again; my stomach clenched, and I took half a step back away from the door. “Hey…” Everything I could think of seemed unbearably stupid, weak and insubstantial against the reality of his wounds. “Hey — come in. I-I’ll get you some ice, okay?”
Bobby’s head snapped up, and he glared at me so fiercely I almost took another step backward. “I don’t want ice,” he snapped, fingers clenching in his bicep so they disappeared into thin red fabric. They caught my eye so much I missed the start of his glare collapsing, his snarl trembling, his face sagging into from anger into something new and unspeakably more horrifying; but I caught enough of it. His mouth worked, grimaced, parted, and then the words came forcing out of it, cracking and breaking all the way, like poison vomited out at last: “I just want my dad.”
And then he burst into tears. Bobby was crying: hunched and exhausted, at the end of some rope I couldn’t even fathom, standing on my doorstep with the tears on one side welling uncomfortably over the swollen circle of his eye. I had never seen Bobby cry before in all our time of friendship. Anger, frustration, depression, a brooding dark misery like a cloud hanging around his head, yes, but not this: not Bobby snuffling and weeping, like any other kid who was just beaten and sick of everything. It was more than I could possibly begin to stand; I wanted to go to my knees and beg him to stop. I wanted his problems to be something simple like being about to be eaten by alligators, so I could just swoop in on a vine, like Spiderman on his webs, and save him. But in the face of this I couldn’t even reach out six inches and pat him on the shoulder. What could I even say?
“I want to go,” Bobby was saying, sobbing it, scraping snot from his nose with the back of his clutched-up hand. “I wuh-want to go, Pete, I don’t care anymore. Please can we go today, please? I just want to go.”
What could I even say?
We left the bags from the hardware store in the back of my car, and stopped into the deli just up Main Street for a couple of sandwiches; I didn’t think either of us really wanted them even still, but we’d killed the whole afternoon in there, debating one thing or another, and I was determined we weren’t going to miss two meals in a row. God only knows what the store clerk made of us. I suggested, only half-joking, that the liquor store ought to be our next stop, and Bobby smiled in a polite way at his turkey sub and said nothing in just the right way to make me finally stop and think.
“Would you rather I stop offering?” I said, in a rather more quiet voice, after a moment’s pause, and Bobby glanced back up at me with another rueful little smile. I blew out a long sigh. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t even think.”
“It’s okay,” Bobby said, reaching for the red pepper flakes. Nice to see he was still a weirdo, although under the circumstances I didn’t comment. “I mean, I’ve got it under control, as much as you ever can.” He shrugged a little. “To be honest, the booze was never really more than a back-up band for the heroin anyway.”
I took a very long, hard look at him to figure out if it seemed like he was joking, but he really, really didn’t. Then there was another long moment where I couldn’t even think what to say. “…Jesus, Bobby.”
That small, rueful smile showed up again. “It was a long time ago,” he said, and took an unenthusiastic bite, more fidgeting with the bread than anything else. He chewed and swallowed before going on, but I didn’t really have much I would have interrupted him with. “I ran away from home when I was about seventeen and never really went back. Picked up a lot of bad habits. I don’t remember a lot of my early twenties, but I guess it’s just as well.” He put the sandwich back down, and met my eyes again while he wiped his fingers off on his napkin. I didn’t get the sense he was uncomfortable talking about this, either, which was pretty damn amazing to me considering how uncomfortable I was. “When I was about twenty-five something happened — something bad. Something really, really bad. I’m not even going to tell you what, because honestly I don’t want you to have to know, but it was serious. I pretty much came as close to dying as I ever have, except — ” But he broke off there, and this time we both looked away.
“And it just hit me, as soon as I got out of that. It was like this little voice talking in my head, and it said, ‘You can’t do this anymore, Bobby. You’re dying. You can’t die like this.'” He glanced at me, and smiled, wanly. “Sounded a little like your voice, I think.” I actually started a little at that, a senseless clench of my muscles. “And I knew it was right. I had to fix things up, or I wasn’t going to make it. And let me tell you, there were definitely easier things than getting off drugs in the Bowery in the mid-seventies.” I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to laugh at that or not, not even when Bobby did. “But I had some friends by then, who helped me get to the right places and see the right people, and make sure I had places to stay — I was pretty much out on the streets before then — and pull me back every time I started sliding. It took a couple years to really beat the seriously shitty worst of it, but I got there.” Bobby shrugged, as if this were a source of mild embarrassment, instead of something I personally found almost unfathomably amazing. “Then when I was about thirty, all my old friends started getting sick, and dying. And I was fine.” He picked up his sandwich, put it down again, and laced and stared at his hands. “It was about the creepiest, ugliest fucking miracle I ever saw in my life — like those stories about a guy waking up with a bad feeling, cancelling his flight, and the next day the plane goes down and everyone else dies. It was like I dodged a bullet, and instead it hit everyone I knew.”
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, not knowing what else to say. Bobby waved it off, looking suddenly embarrassed.
“No, it’s — it was just weird, is all. But it’s another story. Never mind.” He made another stab at his sandwich before going on. “Anyway, I got some odd jobs making deliveries and carrying things, and finally I went back to school. Got a state job once I had my bachelor’s, and then ended up working for this place I’d stayed a couple times when I was still a big mess — not exactly a wet shelter or anything like that, but just sort of this independent place, this safe place run mostly by people who know how it is, and who know you can’t always just quit when you need a place to sleep. We try to take mostly kids and teenagers. I think at first I was on the books as their ‘receptionist’.” He snorted faint laughter. “They didn’t even have a phone back then. I checked people for weapons and broke up fights, mostly. I got this — ” and here Bobby gestured — finally — at the scar running up his face — “taking a knife away from a girl, trying to pick a fight with another kid. Must’ve weighed 90 pounds soaking wet. She did a lot of crack and when she was high, she just…” He made an expressive gesture with his indicating hand, whooshing up and away.
I guessed I was pretty much gaping by this point, because Bobby glanced at me again and smiled, shifting his position in the booth. “I even went back to grad school a couple years later, got a social work license. I’m on the clinical staff now. One of the guys who used to make big disappointed faces at me every time I rolled in. Funny how things work, huh?”
“Jesus,” I said again, low, and Bobby laughed. “I heard stories, you know, but…”
“Oh, I’m sure. Anybody tell you I went to jail?” I nodded, and he laughed again. “Well, it’s true. Not for very long, but longer than I would’ve liked.”
I thought about asking him what for, but it seemed like a pretty personal question, somehow. “…Were you really in Vietnam?”
Bobby blinked at me, gaping — and then burst out laughing. “Christ, no! Are you kidding? Even if I wanted to, a recruiting sergeant would’ve taken one look at me and chucked me out on my skinny needled-up ass.” That managed to surprise us both into more laughter. When we had calmed Bobby took another bite, presumably to declare the matter closed, and finally I mustered the courage to go after my hot ham and cheese myself. We chewed for a moment, and then Bobby seemed to shake himself slightly, smiling as he napkined mustard off his face. “Enough of Bobby’s Horrible Memory Lane, anyway,” he said, making me smile in spite of myself. “Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“Well,” I said, and paused for a long considering moment. “I’m, uh, a librarian.”
And then I got no further because both Bobby and I had burst out, both at once as though on a signal, into gut-busting laughter.
So we stood at the equator, looking out at the jungle.
Bobby crossed it first, heading up the drive with a firm, determined stride. I had to run to catch up with him; I was carrying the pillowcase of supplies under my arm, and it banged on my hip at every step. The day was murderously hot, coffin-still, and the back of Bobby’s shirt ahead of me was already soaked with a long dark V of sweat from the walk over. Mine undoubtedly looked the same way, and the thought made me glance automatically over my shoulder. Nothing there but trees and the relative safety of Glentree Road, already looking a thousand miles away.
When we got close enough that we should have been able to see in the windows, I still couldn’t, apart from some vague pattern of bleary whorls, and I realized with a sick swooping lurch that they’d been painted over from in there. It was mid-afternoon outside, but inside the house it would be dark. Maybe very dark.
“What if it’s locked?” I blurted as Bobby put his hand on the doorknob. A stupid, girl’s protest even to me, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted an excuse. Bobby didn’t even look at me, didn’t even pause.
It wasn’t. The knob turned.
We went inside.
The open door let a wide swath of daylight into a rubbly, dusty front hall. A narrow wooden staircase led straight up right ahead of us; parts of its banister had caved and collapsed, and support bars lay strewn in the hallway that stretched past. Doorways opened to the left and right, into other downstairs rooms. A glistening spiderweb spanned the near top corner of the one on the right, huge and malformed. Beyond the reach of the light, these other rooms disappeared entirely into darkness.
Bobby turned back to shut the door behind us, and I bit back a protest — I knew it was what had to be done, it was why we had the flashlight, but I still nearly panicked at the thought of the house shut up and dark. And then as I watched him closing it I saw something that made all other protests freeze, clammy and heavy, in my throat.
Long, rusty brown-red marks, down the inside of the door. Scratch marks. Blood marks. Three or four sets of them, overlapping and zig-zagging and frantic.
Oh jesus oh christ the kid it’s true it’s true it’s all true —
But then the door was shut with a heavy wooden clunk, and I couldn’t see anything at all.
I reached out, panting for breath, scrabbling, and found Bobby’s hand, and was only a little surprised when he gripped it back quick and strong. “Turn on the flashlight,” he whispered, and I clanked frantically in the bag one-handed, desperate. My hand had only just closed around its thick barrel when we heard the voice — and then it dropped again, from my numb, stupid fingers.
It had come from up the stairs. My eyes had adjusted a little by now — the paint on the windows kept out most of the light but there was still a dim, grey glow outlining the shapes of things — and I could see faintly where they rose into darkness. Except not darkness — because I could see up there, and I assume Bobby could see up there, the shape of a man. Long, and lean, and tall, with a deformity at the top of his head that could only be a baseball cap.
And some light behind him, dim and distant but still picking him out for us, showing him to us in the dark. Some terrible, wrong light.
“Hey, champ,” Bobby’s dad said. He didn’t sound like a ghost. His voice was perfectly clear and human, deep and gravelly with years of smoking, faintly amused. “Finally made it, huh?”
Bobby’s hand jerked in mine suddenly. Pulled.
“Dad?” Bobby whispered.
Panic flooded me. It came out of nothing and everything. It was wrong, it was wrong, it was all completely fucking wrong. I could feel the house leaning in on us, peering, leering, waiting to see; it felt like a crazy old man at the side of the road coming too close to you, a man who stinks of shit and poison, and there’s no way to know if he might be dangerous. If this was a place where the dead could walk then it was not a place where they loved and forgave the living. Any ghosts here would be rotted out with the house’s own insanity.
“Come on up here,” Bobby’s dad said, from the top of the stairs. Where we could only see his silhouette in the ghost of that awful light. “I want to show you something.”
I clamped my hand around Bobby’s hand as tight as I could, but it was no good. He pulled away from me before I even had a chance; his sweaty fingers squirted through my grasp like soap. “No!” I screamed, huge and loud in the echoing darkness with my horror and desperation. “No, Bobby don’t, it’s not him, it’s — ”
Too late. The light was gone. No matter how I put my hands out I couldn’t find him, and I could hear the sound of his sneakers pounding up the crumbling wooden stairs; up and away from me.
By the time we drove back to my house it was dark, and the roads were almost empty. Again the sense of deja vu was eerie; it was as if the whole town were going dormant, quiet, holding its breath for our work to get started.
We were almost home when it happened, just turning the corner where Queen Street branched off to the bit of Forest Road where I’d ended up. Even though my eyes were on the road, Bobby saw it first, somehow — but once he yelled, I did too, at once.
There was a man standing in the road in front of the car, careening into dangerous closeness as I took the turn. Not just a man — the man, the man of the hour. Tall, lean, and lanky, baseball cap pulled low. A moment’s flash of his grinning leathery face, his hands both raised as it to say hallelujah at the tent revival —
I slammed on the brakes. My poor old Chevy squealed to a tire-smoking stop, at a crazy angle in the intersection. No sooner had the car stopped moving than Bobby was out — out of his seatbelt, out of the door, running up the dark street in the glow of my headlights to where there was absolutely no one. Not anymore.
By the time I caught up to him he had stopped, collapsed down so he was almost doubled over his legs. As I hovered, helpless, he slid all the way down into a drunken, leaning crouch, his arms up around his shoulders. Folding in on himself. Again deja vu hit me, coming on strong and fierce; it was like being hit with a truck made of memory. Thinking of Bobby, hunkered in the grass outside the house, crying. In the glow of the headlights that picked us out I could see his face was even wet.
“Oh Christ,” he said in a whooping, breaking gasp. “Oh, Jesus, I. I didn’t. I thought. I didn’t.”
I knew. I knelt down beside him, carefully, one knee at a time in the roadside dust and leaves. I put my arms around him, gingerly, and he grabbed my forearm in a hand like a vise.
“Don’t leave me, Pete,” Bobby said, all in one mangled rush. Every sound in the words sounded strained. They were like a fight that he was losing. “Stick with me. Please. I can’t, I.”
I pulled his head onto my shoulder. If somebody came around the curve in Queen Street too fast they’d probably smash both my car, with its lights on like spots and its doors standing open, and their own into scrap metal, but I couldn’t care. Bobby pressed his face into the fabric of my coat, and scrabbled his hands up to my upper arms, hanging on. I held him by the side of the road, and let his shoulders shake.
“I can’t,” Bobby said again, into my shoulder, but the hell of it was I knew he could.
I crashed into what was left of the banister, shattering it into dust. I fell over the stairs, and mashed my lip open on my bottom teeth where it hit one of the risers. Stars bloomed briefly in the dark in my eyes, and then I was clawing with my hands, pulling myself back up, running, running. Hands flailing out for purchase, screaming Bobby’s name into the dark.
When I got to the top of the stairs I found, with a sick sort of misery, that I could see the light again. It was fainter now, but back, finding the shadows and shapes of a long hallway, more mouthlike doorways disappearing into gloom. As I whipped my head around to the left I saw its source: it was coming from the cracks under and above and around a door, at the very far end of the hallway; a door that, if I had paused to consider the geography of the house, I might have realized could lead nowhere but outside. Nowhere but into thin air. But I wasn’t thinking about geography. I wasn’t thinking at all.
Bobby and his dad were standing in front of the door. In the dim glow from its edges I could see that Bobby was slumped and moveless, his head hanging down, and that Bobby’s dad was half-hunkered so he had his arm around Bobby’s waist, like in my dream. And just like in my dream, it made every instinct in my brain screech with alarm: Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
“Bobby!” I yelled again, trying to make my voice come out as more than a pitiful winded croak. It almost succeeded. Bobby started, whipping his head back to find me, and when he did the hand on his waist clamped down tight. It was a reptilian movement somehow: like a claw.
“Go away, Pete,” Bobby said. He sounded beyond miserable: like a hole all light had left. Comparing it to my dream was now unnecessary: it was my dream. My entire body broke out in goosebumps.
“Open it,” Bobby’s dad urged him, for what sounded like not the first time. His voice was kind, but that very kindness was horrible. It seemed to go very deep, and worms crawled at the bottom. “Just open it up for me.”
And I didn’t even have to think about why that was wrong. If that door was opened, it was all over. I didn’t have to think; I just knew. “Bobby, don’t — ”
“Jeez, champ!” Bobby’s dad laughed, fondly, or at least seemed to. Privately to Bobby, ignoring me. “Wha’d you bring that little pussy in here for?”
“He’s my friend,” Bobby said. I imagined I could hear a tiny sliver of defiance back in his frail, beaten voice, and even under the circumstances, my heart couldn’t help but swell.
Bobby’s dad smiled. He leaned in, bending down, close to Bobby; I could see the edges of him but not the details, but I could see the way his lips pressed close to Bobby’s ear, like they were a pair of older kids necking at the movies. My stomach clenched. “You think he’s your friend?” he said, barely above a murmur. I had to strain to hear him, even though I didn’t really want to. “You think he’d still like you if he knew about you, Bobby-o? What about what you did in the car on your birthday that one time? Should I tell him that, Bobby?”
Bobby seemed to shrink. It was terrible: his shoulders folding, his face compressing and disappearing under his hair, the knobs of his spine prodding out through his shirt as though for protection. My chest squeezed at the sight of him, and even though I didn’t understand anything, I knew that was it. He wouldn’t fight anymore.
“Open the door, champ,” Bobby’s dad said, and smiled. And slowly, he turned that smile back over his shoulder, to me. I could see him for the first time — and I stumbled back a step, almost pitching myself back down the stairs, squeaking out an involuntary yelp. The face that grinned at me had human features, but it was not human. It was something like the bottom side of a rock covered in beetles, just under a thin skin of man. “Step on up to the plate.”
And before I could lunge or yell or even speak, Bobby opened the door.
When I got him home, I took Bobby straight up to the master bedroom, sat him down on the bed that had been Linda’s and mine, once. I wanted him somewhere he could lie down and I could get a blanket over him, and I didn’t want him out of my sight. He was still shaking, his eyes dark shocked holes in his face, and I got him some Tylenol from the bathroom and yanked an old Amish quilt from my mother around his shoulders. The look he gave me at all this was faintly amused, but still hurt and hollow down underneath. He looked like he’d been shot.
“I’m okay,” he protested, trying to smile at me, and then when I looked at him too long he gave up and dropped his eyes away. “…No. Okay. I’m not. I thought I was okay.”
I hunkered in front of him, catching my hands around his shoulders. “You don’t have to be, you know. I’m sure as hell not.”
“No, I — ” Bobby scraped at his face with the palm of his hand. His eyes were still red-rimmed. “I mean, it’s all crazy, I know, but the main thing is I’m just so scared.” He made a sound half like a laugh, half like a sob, pulled his gaze back away with a shake of his head when his eyes started to get bright again. “I’ve been trying not to but I’m just so fucking scared. I haven’t been scared like this since I was a kid, and I thought it was over, you know? Christ, does it ever get to be over? And I thought I was over, I thought I was on top of it, and I come back here, and I just, I — ”
…I didn’t really mean to kiss him. We were just close, our faces and mouths close, and when I moved and he moved there was a space in the middle that we erased. A sort of warm conduit formed, and then our lips were touching, and then interlocked. I could feel the fragile, prickly line of scar in his lip and up along the edges of my cheek, where it just barely brushed.
At first, Bobby didn’t move — so still he was almost stiff, and when I noticed I panicked, was about to yank myself back — and then he was in motion. Surging, swarming me, his tongue between my lips, his hands caught up in the shoulders of my shirt, pulling it into fists. Terrified adrenaline, still pounding through both of us, did one of its famous 180 turns, switchbacking into a dousing, nearly adolescent horniness. Just the soft puffs of his sour frightened breath into my mouth made me feel about to come in my pants. It was like a switch flipped on: that sudden, electric and unreal.
We broke on a shared gasp, and he let out a short, shuddering sigh. “Jesus, Pete,” he hissed, half-laughing jaggedly. “I mean yes, but — ” I tried to say something — no doubt something utterly stupid and uncomfortable that would have ruined the whole thing — but he shut me up with more kissing, making me dizzy and sweat-slick and moan embarrassingly against his mouth. When we pulled back again his hands were dug into my hair; mine were gripping his upper thighs, thumbs digging in the jeans’ seams on their inner planes.
“I love you, Pete,” Bobby said, fast and all breath, like he was afraid of losing his chance. He pulled my head in, putting his cheek along mine. “You know that?”
“No,” I admitted in a creaky half-whisper, driving us both into shaky laughs. Bobby put his mouth against my ear, while it was close; his lips were still wet from my tongue, and slick, and I shuddered.
“I do. You’re the best friend I ever had.” His breath stirring in my ear, making me crazy, making my old kid’s heart swell up with the glory of everything it had ever craved. Well, and then some. But we don’t know when we’re kids; we think we know everything, but we don’t know any of it, nothing. Some of us don’t. “You saved my life. I never forgot.”
“You didn’t want me to,” I said, and tried to pull back. He only let me go a little ways, but I couldn’t look at him, the taste on my tongue going sour. Although not even this could do much to quell my raging hard-on. “I just couldn’t let you go. It was just — selfish, kid stuff. Don’t make it out like it was — like it mattered.”
“Do you know how much it means, sometimes,” Bobby said in my ear, gripping my hands on his thighs, “to know somebody wants to be selfish with you?”
I didn’t, but I didn’t want to say so. But Bobby seemed to understand.
“Is it even worth asking if you’ve got condoms around here?” he asked, a moment later, the perfect non sequitur, and this actually held the hint of a smile. I hesitated, then laughed, high and nervous all over again.
“If I do, they’re probably old enough to vote.” That made Bobby laugh, hard and surprised, and he leaned back enough to fumble and dig in his jacket. …Christ, he was still wearing his jacket.
“Good thing shelter reps never leave without them, then — ” He tossed a little square of foil out on the bed, fumbled out of the jacket as an afterthought and tossed it away on the floor. “Lotion — ?”
There was a bottle by the bed, and of course I didn’t bother pointing out of course there was a bottle by the bed; I had been divorced for more than two years, after all. Bobby went after his clothes with a professional speed that sort of scared me, naked on the bed before I’d done much more than stumble my way out of shoes and socks. When I turned back he was smiling at me, heavy-lidded, hands behind him and legs out on the bed, his cock jutting up at the juncture of his thighs from a thatch of dark curls. He was thick and short and as hard as I had ever seen, although I really only had myself for reference. I’d always liked sex just fine, liked Linda’s naked breasts and thighs more than just fine, in fact, but nothing had ever been… quite like this. I guess I’d never loved anyone quite like Bobby. His torso was laced with a number of occasional scars, the burn I’d seen before, a long cut along one side, others just as bad and worse. What looked like a prison tattoo up along the line of his shoulder, and a nest of pale little pockmarks up the inside of each elbow, making my stomach ache just looking at them. He was a mess. He was Bobby. He was beautiful.
“I’ve never done this before,” I managed to confess, while I was trying to gather up the wits and grace to climb over to where he was. I realized what I’d said after a second, and laughed, feebly, ducking down my head so the sight of him would stop confusing me. “I mean, I have, but not. This.” His smile didn’t falter exactly, but it gained a certain depth of emotion at that — almost a shadow.
“If you don’t — ” he said, almost uncertainly, and I interrupted him at once.
“No. I want to.” I found steel for my voice from somewhere, reached across the bed for him, to come to him. “God, Bobby, I want to.”
He took my hands, and reeled me in. In proximity to his nakedness I began to shake; I couldn’t help it, and not all from excitement. He was hot as a furnace and the smell of his skin seemed to rise off him like steam, dark and male, wrong and right. I didn’t know what to do with him.
“I have,” Bobby said, bluntly. “Probably enough for both of us.” He let my hands go with one of his, ran it up along my cheek, into my hair. I closed my eyes. “Pete,” Bobby whispered. “Fuck me.” I could feel his air just barely on my face. Air puffed, gut-punched, out through my teeth. “I want you, I want your cock in me.”
“Help me,” I said. Gasped. Drowning.
I don’t know how he got me standing again, or kept me there long enough to get my slacks and shorts off — not even bothering with my shirt. He wrapped his arms around my waist and put his mouth on me, sucking my cock into it. My knees gave and I bruised my knuckles banging them on the bedside table, trying to grab it. My upper body folding down over his. I could still feel his scar on his lip on my cock and it was only seconds before I was clawing at his shoulders, trying to pull him in or get him away, but he was already pulling back, maybe tipped off by ominous twitching of muscles in my shaft and my upper thighs. I ached where he left me. My balls felt like lead. I couldn’t open my eyes, and he was gone for a minute, and then back, with the condom and then the lotion, what felt like a gallon of it. I’d never liked condoms much, and right then I couldn’t possibly imagine it fucking mattered in the slightest, but I’d trust whatever he said to do. He’d get whatever he wanted from me, like always, and I couldn’t even resent it.
He dragged himself on his knees with his back to me, kneeling in the mattress where he’d shoved the pillows aside, draping his arms over the headboard to grip his fists around the wood. He put one arm back again to guide my cock when I followed, but by then I already pretty much had the idea. I found him, and pushed, and then pushed in, and he let out a long exhale, arching his back forward, clenching his hands on the headboard again. “Slow,” he said, almost calm. The voice he’d found again was guttural and low, and it was the last he said to me for a long while. “Slow going in. Make it last.”
I did what I could. Everything just felt so raw; close to bursting through my skin, catching fire that would take us both.
In the end it was nothing like making love to Linda had been, and I was glad. I had wanted, still wanted it to be different; it was different. There were so many wrong thoughts I could be having about this — what it meant, what it would mean, with my life, with Bobby, with Linda and Neil — and I didn’t want to have them. I loved them, but as guilty as it made me feel, right then they might as well have been on the moon, for all they mattered to me. Bobby was here; and Bobby was the truth of things. Bobby was the white at the heart of the flame.
It was only a few steady strokes after I found a rhythm that Bobby groaned through his teeth, his face turned to the side so I could just see the sliver of his profile through his screening hair. He unlocked his hand from the headboard and clamped it on mine on his hip, dragging it to his cock and squeezing it there. It was the first time in my life I’d ever touched a man’s cock that wasn’t mine, and it felt totally bizarre and exactly right all at once. He jerked it for me a few times and then I was doing it myself, slick with sweat and pre-come and easy, and he dropped his head down nearly to his chest and then shouted — a roaring sound that seemed like it should have shook the walls. The bed shuddered, the headboard smacked hollowly off the wall, and Bobby came hard arching into my hand, snarling a strained something that might have been my name.
And there seemed to be no point hanging on after that, so I didn’t. Muscles inside Bobby clamped on me through that thin rubber skin, and then my mouth was in his shoulder, my body a shaking shuddering mess. Everything lost to white, and nowhere in the world but home.
And it was done.
Much later, as we lay together in the dark, Bobby said quietly, “Pete. I need to tell you — ”
“I know,” I said, and found his larger hand with mine. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I know. Most of it, anyway.”
He took a deep breath, and let it out again on a sigh. “It’s not even what it’s about anymore,” his voice came, slowly, out of the darkness. “And it’s sure as hell not what this was about.” His hand around mine tightened, just slightly, on this. “I just…”
“I know,” I said again, patiently. After a moment’s pause I found his mouth again in the dark, and kissed him. “It’s okay, Bobby. Go to sleep.”
He did, I think; and at some point, so did I, wrapped up in his body in a bed no longer too big. We both slept long and soundly that night, and as far as I know, without dreams.
The light behind the door was not quite like daylight, and that quality to it Bobby had observed was not quite like smoke. More like, if anything, steam; there was a wetness that curled out of it like fingers: pushing hair back from your forehead, squinting your eyes half-shut, making your mouth curl down at the corners.
What happened seemed to take hours, but happened so fast I never registered more than instantaneous impressions, like shutterclicks in my eyes. I had the instant’s knowledge of the light, of how badly I needed not to look straight into the light, even as I made myself keep running toward it and where Bobby stood fixed in its frame. Whatever was through that doorway should not be seen. The sight itself would leave ruined wastes; it would kill; and then it would devour.
I was aware, even as I was trying not to look, of being looked at — of being considered, slowly, with a salivatory, ruminating deliberation. Looked at, and then rifled through, as though I were a card index at the library, the pages of a magazine. Images spat up by the turning of phantom, violating fingers — burning jealousy of my brother as our parents cheered him at a Little League game; teasing my three-year-old cousin once, at seven, just to see if I could make him cry; a weird but powerful emotion for which I had no name, that had come up in me at the way a slip of hair curled on the nape of Bobby’s neck as he slept over one night and left me confused and guilty; that blaring, sick sense of wrongness at the sight of Bobby’s dad’s hand on his side. All hurled up out of the darkness of my mind, and then discarded again, just as quick. Nothing substantial, no meat on the bone. No more than gristle edging the succulence of Bobby’s self-destruction.
Understanding, more there all along than dawning, that this was not a door we were looking through. And beyond it, that light did not mean day, and that heat was not fire. Bobby was the meal it wanted, not me; and when it closed behind him, he would be worse than dead. He would —
He would be in the jungle. And he’d be there forever.
I didn’t even think. There was no time to think. I just reached out, as I came to the door — and covered Bobby’s hand, on the doorknob, with mine.
Bobby screamed instantly. It was as if I had burned him with hot tongs. His entire body seemed to twitch and writhe inside his clothes. I looked around wildly to see if his dad would stop me, or if — somehow worse — I might accidentally brush that hand around his waist, but there was no one there. Bobby’s dad was gone, if he had ever actually been real. It was just me, Bobby, and the door.
Bobby began to pull — to twist, and pull, trying to pull away from either me or the door, I wasn’t sure. I clamped my hand on his fingers, hard enough to bruise them on each other; I wasn’t going to let him get away. And as he moved, and I held on to him tighter, the light in the door began to falter. It flickered, even — as if it really were a fire, something so harmless as the heart of a furnace. As though Bobby’s hand and its entrance had formed an energy conduit, and my interfering flesh had disrupted the flow.
And then it was gone. Not slowly, but all at once. The awful light was gone, and whatever unseen horror had lived at the heart of it, leaving only a nauseating afterimage printed in a rectangle on my eyes. It had been replaced with true daylight: the light outside the house, afternoon August sunlight pouring into the hallway of the house and showing it as nothing but a hallway after all. Dusty, dry, empty.
Bobby’s eyes cleared slightly. He’d stopped screaming, but his mouth yanked open again now, and worked silently. Some dim, horrified understanding seemed to fill his eyes. “No!” he shrieked, and started beating at my hand, hard and wildly, with the heel of his — as though it weren’t already too late, as though it were still there somehow, and if he could just shake me off — “No, bring it back, bring it back bring him back! Dad! Daaaa — ”
But that wasn’t all. There was still something in here with us; I could sense it, that peering, insane eye from earlier, now not peering but narrowing. Burning. Focusing in on me, on both of us this time. There was still something in here with us — and it had just been denied a meal.
It didn’t like to be denied.
There was a sense of rushing, swooping something — the house contracting inward, as though to push, as though to give some kind of abominable birth —
I grabbed my arms as tight as I could around Bobby’s waist, and with all my strength, I pulled him with me out the door.
The fall couldn’t have taken more than seconds, but it, too, seemed to last forever. I felt like I had time to notice everything, the wind rushing up into my face and catching back skin and hair, Bobby struggling in my arms, whatever it was behind us in the house swarming with a press of displaced reality —
And then we hit the ground.
The yard outside the Glentree Road place was an overgrown mess, especially around the sides, choked thick with weeds and grass and flowers. The ceilings inside were low; the fall couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve feet. We didn’t land hard, but hard enough to knock the wind out of me and probably Bobby too, and there were brambles in the grass that cut us on impact with some dozen small scratches each. Worse — my left arm, around Bobby’s waist, came down at an angle with his weight all solidly on top of it, and there was a terrible vertiginous snap inside me that I knew without having to wonder was the bone breaking. It didn’t hurt yet, though; I was too poisoned with adrenaline and blind panic to feel much of anything.
I rolled away from him, barely registering the first burst of screamy bad-hurt pain, just panting and frantic to see what was going on. But there was nothing. We were alone, lying in the flattened grass. The day was heavy and hot, full of mosquitoes, empty. We had been inside the house no more than fifteen minutes.
Still unable to believe it, blood rushing like rivers in my ears, I looked up at the house. Sure enough, there was a door set in the wall, what seemed like an impossible height up from where we lay. It was certainly high enough to be on the second story. And it was closed.
Bobby struggled up to a sitting position, which I hadn’t known would be a relief until he was off my arm. I was starting to be able to breathe, and as I did, pain seemed to begin to be able to find me; I had a feeling there was going to be a lot of it before it was done. The expression on Bobby’s face was too hard for me to look at, but I looked anyway. He looked betrayed, desolated, heart-murdered. He didn’t look at me. After a long moment, he put his hands up over his face, and then put the whole thing down on his propped-up knees. Folding in.
“Bobby,” I tried to say. My voice came out as no more than a hoarse, collapsed whistle.
“Shut up, Pete,” Bobby said, toneless, muffled into the circle of his arms.
I sat next to him for a long time, holding my broken arm stiff against my side while pain crashed into it like the tide, turning into agony and then finally vertigo, while he sat in the grass with his head buried in his arms. I thought he might be crying, but I couldn’t tell, and less so the longer we were there. Several times I thought I might faint, but I stayed. His pain seemed much more real.
Eventually he helped me get home, but he didn’t say a word to me the whole way there. My mother screamed, and cried, and took me to the hospital, and they put my arm in a cast and sling, and I slept for a long time. Much of the rest of August is a blur in my mind, even to this day.
Bobby and I didn’t hang around at all the end of that summer, even after I got out of the hospital; in the fall, we were in different classes at school. He didn’t talk to me, and so I didn’t talk to him. In the spring his mom moved away, to go live with her sister in Albany, and of course Bobby went with her. And I didn’t see him again for thirty-three years — until finally I spent months following slim leads and tracking him down, after that one night I was driving along the edge of the valley on 125, thinking of nothing but home and dinner and sleep, and I saw the lights on upstairs in that goddamn house on Glentree Road.
My alarm woke us at six, just before dawn. We drove out to the house in blue half-light, without saying much.
The pillowcase had been replaced by a heavy-duty backpack I’d gotten for Neil for the fall, before finding out that his new middle school didn’t allow them on the actual grounds. Bullshit, sure, but at least it meant I didn’t have to worry about ruining or leaving it. We started with flashlights out and on; it was near daylight as we came up the drive, making gritty footsteps in the loose summer dust, but not near enough.
The knob still wasn’t locked, and the windows, still painted over inside, peered out like dark eyes. Seeming to register surprise at how old we’d grown; how old all three of us had grown. I wish I could say it seemed smaller now, but it didn’t. Nothing did. Both of our breath showing in the early morning air, I stood behind Bobby’s shoulder, and he opened the door.
It creaked open on the same hallway, dark and dusty but ordinary, empty. We swept it with our flashlight beams, making looping trails of light, and then went in with the boards groaning under us. Bobby shut the door and I tried, for all I was worth, not to turn and look to see if the scratch-marks on the inside were still there, were actually there and hadn’t just been my crazed kid’s imagination. But I couldn’t help myself, and they were — even dingier and more faded with age, a dim and almost harmless brown on the ancient peeling white paint. But there, as heavy with meaning as ever.
As we came in further, my beam crossed the pillowcase that we had taken in the last time; it was still where I had dropped it when I ran up the stairs after Bobby, what right now felt both like a hundred years ago and about five minutes prior. My back tightened in a helpless stupid shiver, and I went over to it to investigate, every footstep creaking. The fabric was moth-eaten, dust-soaked, streamered with fragments of spiderweb. I bent to try to pick it up and then recoiled, grimacing, once I’d touched it: the surface was also slimed with mildew, and at my disturbance a few fat, blind-looking white beetles lumped and stumbled away from underneath.
A hand touched my elbow then, and I bit on a yelp. But it was only Bobby when I whirled: his flashlight turned down to keep from blinding me, his face dim and pale.
“Let’s hurry,” he murmured, and I straightened up and went with him, because that sounded like a damn good idea.
No one appeared at the top of the stairs, although I waited. There were no voices, no apparitions, no welcome. The house was silent and unremarkable. But of course, at the same time, it wasn’t: I could still feel its presence, its insanity, perhaps diminished by time and my own adulthood but still there, still tangible in the dark. Its waiting, predatory, peering eyes. It was at least as ready for us as we were for it. I held on to the sleeve of Bobby’s jacket, trying to stave off the thought, and he took my hand, hard, instead.
We went up the stairs; slow, together, and uninvited. Our steps stirred dust and more rickety moans. This time I had time to actually be afraid our combined weight would be too much for the risers, that we’d go busting through the wood, one of us would get a leg trapped or, worse, fall right through — and then we were up, on the landing of the second floor, facing down the hallway and the door at its end. It was all dark up here, too, the doorways disappearing beyond the reach of our flashlights; no light escaped around the cracks of the door. It was dark and closed and didn’t look a bit otherworldly at all.
“Do you think — ” I began in a whisper, but the grim, set line of Bobby’s mouth made me falter and stop. I guess I was still looking for excuses, even then.
“It’s there, all right,” he whispered back. “Open the pack. We’ll have to move fast.”
I did, pulling the zipper apart to leave a wide gaping hole. And then we edged down the hallway, step by creaking step, to where the impossible door stood closed.
When we finally stood in front of it, I found I could finally really believe Bobby was right. It seemed like just a door — until you were close enough to feel the faint thrum inside it, just beyond it, like unspeakable machinery was pistoning on behind it in some vast dark room. An energy that said this door, when it opened, did not just open; it tore.
Bobby glanced over at me, still clinging on to my hand. “Are you ready?” he whispered.
I wasn’t, but I nodded anyway. I might as well. I was never going to be ready for this.
Bobby opened the door.
The first thing I registered was that it was worse than I had remembered — and then all thought and sense of comparison was blown away, into the vacuum of the light. The light was huge, blinding, world-filling: a mouth inside a mouth, to devour and rend with its own teeth once the eating was already done. Inside that light there could be no life, no sanity, no sense, no sleep; if it ate you it would digest forever, without consuming, throwing you shrieking and lunatic through an eternity of instantaneous annihilation. I didn’t want to know, couldn’t possibly stand to know, what shed the light — but if I went inside its core, I knew, I would. And oh, God, what then? Was it even possible to imagine?
I had no way of knowing how long it took me — minutes, hours, days — to realize why it was so much worse, and then the sour horror of the knowledge slapped me back to myself a little, at least. Just enough to get going. Because I wasn’t just standing aside this time, you see — considered, then dismissed, set aside to be ignored. I stood in the full force of its hunger, just as Bobby did. Where once there had been no meat on the bone, now there was something like a meal… and worst of all, somehow, the meal was the shadow it itself had cast on me. In my mind’s eye I saw myself standing in this hallway, clamoring with fear at the way Bobby’s dad held him, putting my hand over his on the knob and feeling the weight of my own choices, how far they would follow me. How much of them I would come to take on, and be unable to delegate away, even to parents, friends, wife. I don’t even know why that was so deeply, incomprehensibly horrifying, but it was: that it had planted its own food in spring, and now autumn had come, and it meant to reap.
If this doesn’t work, we’re both fucked, I thought, very clearly.
There was a dim sense of scrambling at my back, weight shifted and pulled, and then Bobby had a thick rectangular shape free from the backpack, in his hands. “Now!” he screamed, the second he did, practically in my face over the not-quite-heard roar of the awful world beyond the door. “Pete, now!”
And even as he screamed it at me, he threw his old shoebox through the doorway. Into the heart of the light.
It had everything in it that had been there when we were kids, of course — photographs, fragments, detritus shaken out of an absent life — everything that had still been when he had collected it from his mother’s meager things, after going back up to Albany for her funeral. Plus a few things he had added from the same collection, the Elma Leonard Collection, donated in February of 1989: a plaster mold of his kindergarten hand with DADDY finger-lettered in the bottom; another photograph of himself, six, gap-toothed, and grinning, in Jim Leonard’s wiry arms; a letter, sent home to his son by a trucker out on the road. All Bobby’s childhood and lingering adult love for his dad, in other words; all the proof that whatever else there might have been between the two of them, there had also, always and possibly even first, been love. Whatever price he had been forced to pay for it, then and later, that love had always been real. Did that make it better? Worse? I don’t know. But it was true — and it was strong. It had been the lure to bring him here, after all; and what had been the house’s weapon might just as well serve it as a poison.
The light flared when he threw the box in, like a star going supernova. He didn’t have to yell Now! at me again; his voice and the flare had galvanized me, made me able to move again. With fumbling, stupid hands I struggled the gas can out of the backpack; uncapped it, upended it, and started to dump it even as we ran.
I don’t think we can hurt it unless that goddamn door is open, was what Bobby had said at my kitchen table the day before, staring down into the backs of his hands. Without the door open I think it’s really just a house; we could wipe the whole thing off the map and whatever’s wrong there, whatever’s hungry there — it might stick around. Get into the air or the side of the valley or something, but not go away. I’ve… spent a lot of time thinking about it — how when you grabbed my hand, whatever was behind the door went away. It could just as soon have eaten us both, whether it wanted you or not — but I think you scared it, Pete. I think it knew you were mad, and you didn’t want to let me go.
And the more I think about it, the more I think it must have known, with that thing open, you could hurt it.
When we got to the top of the stairs, we stopped, just for a second, and turned back — and I lit the match, and threw both it and the empty gas can behind us. The wood was old, and dry, and there wasn’t much of a wait. The whole thing went up like a fireworks display.
I honestly don’t remember how we got out. Snatches — Bobby just vaulting over the banister to the floor instead of trying to take the stairs, me following him much more clumsily, smoke already making it impossible to breathe — my eyes streaming and the force of the impact as I landed clumsily in the first floor hallway. Bobby gripping my hand, shouting, running, dragging me along — something behind us, something huge and neither smoke nor fire, hurling us both ahead of its invisible hand like an explosion and then sucking back — How we hit the door at the hardest run of my life, coughing and streaming from the eyes, and somewhere in our last mad lunge to get free my arm struck wood and exploded into a blinding white nothing of pain. I would not be surprised, later, to find that it had broken, and along the very same old fracture-line in the bone.
But I’ll never forget the flaring, splattering light from the door as we were running away. Like maggots deserting a corpse, like an explosion born of putrefaction: a death at the end of death.
And then we were out, sprawled on the front lawn, coughing and crying and gasping. The house on Glentree Road was burning in the dim morning light, with alarming speed; flames were soaring off the roof, and it had already caved, the weakness ice had made now exploited by fire. By the time the fire had been noticed and the nearest volunteer fire department arrived, almost three hours later, it would be little more than cinders.
But for that moment, Bobby and I just lay in the grass, panting, and watched it burn.
Nobody owned the property for that lot on Glentree Road anymore, as it turned out. It was clear it had been arson, but not a lot of effort went into solving the case. The last I heard, the file with the local police had been pretty much shit-canned.
Linda, it turned out, had actually always wanted to move to New York; but she didn’t want to put too much distance between us for Neil’s sake, and she figured I was married to my job. She didn’t know, and never would, about what job I’d actually been married to in Canaan Falls, and what it had taken to quit. It only took one trip to Manhattan for Neil to be totally sold on the idea; and furthermore, it only took that one trip for him — even in the worst depths of early adolescent disdain for everything — to declare Bobby, later and in confidence, “totally cool.”
I had to agree. He is totally cool. Always has been.
Just as an aside, it’s hard as hell to move house with your arm in a sling. But then again, I guess it’s easier than some things.
The house on Glentree Road is gone; the ghost stories, as far as I know, have stopped, and I put my ear to the ground for them every now and then, just to make sure. But there’s nothing left there that I want. I’ve never been back.