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Art & Culture

various essays on, well, art and culture

Bookbinding & Conservation

lessons learned from this profession


ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
but I still have a sense of humor

'Jim Downey' Stories

The Rocket's Red Glare
The Haunted House
The Amazing Hoopie, Part 1
The Amazing Hoopie, Part 2
The Amazing Hoopie, Part 3

Personal Essays

more "it's all about me"


I’m at -7.13/-7.33 on The Political Compass.  Where
are you?


observations on the human condition


take a trip with me

7 April 2005

Jim Downey and the Haunted House

We stood there on the corner, looking up at The House.  Max, Marty, and me.  It sat back from the street on a high corner lot, a classic Midwestern Victorian two-story, with a large porch that ran along two sides.  The lot itself was landscaped in such a way that there was a steep hill of perhaps six feet, rising up from where we stood on the sidewalk on the downhill side.  A set of concrete stairs cut up through the grass, a sidewalk leading from there to the front door.

"So, um, it's haunted, right?" asked Max.  He was tall and thin, as I was, but he had an athlete's natural grace.  I hated him for that since, at the same age of 14, I was nothing but clumsy.  Max played basketball and ran cross-country.  I think he still holds some of the school records to this day.

"Yeah, that's what they say."

"Someone got murdered in there a couple years ago," said Marty.  Marty, shorter and stockier than Max, had a stoner's long hair in contrast to the latter's crew cut.  Marty was a little older than we were, and would be one of the first of my gang of friends to get his license.  But he didn't have it yet.  He had played football in Junior High, didn't think it was cool anymore and so wasn't on the HS team.

It was a few days before Hallowe'en, a crisp Friday night perfect for going out and causing trouble.  Which is what we had been up to.  After a brief escorted visit to the police station (got picked up, cop thought he'd bring us in on suspicion of setting off fireworks but seeing where we didn't have any . . .), we made our way to this supposedly haunted house near the old downtown area of our suburb, not too far from the defunct train station.  The House had been vacant some years, and though someone kept the grass cut, the rest of the property had been neglected, most of the windows boarded up, the doors half off their hinges.

"Hey kid, c'mere," I said, gesturing to a kid on a bike on the other side of the street, watching us.


"Nah, it's OK, c'mere."

The blonde-headed kid, about 10 years old, came across the street, but stopped a few yards from us.  "Whatcha want?"

"This that house that guy got killed in?"

He nodded.  "Yeah.  It's haunted."

"What happened?" asked Max.

"They say some bikers cut this guy's heart out."

"Bullshit," said Marty.

"No really.  There's a cold spot right where it happened.  It's back by the kitchen.  You can feel it."

"You been in there?"


"Yeah, right," said Marty.  "Bet you're just tellin' us what others say."

"Uh-uh.  I been in there," he said defiantly.

"What, you ain't scared to go in there?" said Max, looking at The House with some apprehension.  "Ain't scared of ghosts?"

"I ain't scared of no ghosts!  Me and Billy went in there after school one day last week."

"After school?  Ghosts ain't out durin' the day.  You gotta go at night to see 'em."  Marty laughed.  "You are scared of goin' in there when they ghosts are around."

"I bet you're scared t' go in there right now," said the kid.

"That's what we're here for, kid."  I looked to Max and Marty.  "Right?"

"Uh, yeah," said Max, still looking up at The House.

"Sure," said Marty, looking at the kid.

I nodded, looked at the kid.  "So, what's it like inside, if you've been in there?"

"What'll you give me?"

"I'll give you a quarter."  I held up a quarter in the streetlight so he could see it.

He nodded.  "It's all tore up.  Them bikers been livin' in there again.  They got mattresses on the floor, there ain't no other furniture."

"They in there now?" asked Max.

"I dunno. Ain' seen no one in there lately."  He glanced up at the house.  "But they might be."

"Nah, there's no lights on," I said.

"There ain’ no 'lectricity," said the kid.

"Oh," said Max.

"But they'd have candles or somethin'," said Marty.

"Yeah, prob'ly," I said.  I turned to the kid.  "Thanks, kid.  Go on home."

"Uh-uh.  I'm gonna stay and see if you really go in."

"Get outta here kid, it's late.  Your momma be lookin' for you.

The kid was slowly backing away on his bike.  "Nope.  She's at Bingo.  My dad's s'posed to be watchin' me, but he's playing poker with his friends."

"Well, we don' want no kid watchin' us, so get outta here b'fore I give you a fat lip," said Marty.

The kid kicked the bike into motion, started peddling, hollered "screw you!" over his shoulder as he rode away down the block, then stopped to watch us.

Marty looked up at the house again.  "Uh, how're we gonna look around if there's no lights?"

I smiled, dug into a pocket, and pulled out a small plastic flashlight.  "All set."

"So, uh, you guys think this is smart?" asked Max.  "What if there are still some . . . uh . . . bikers in there now?"

"Kid said there weren't," replied Marty.  "Not that I believe the little prick."

"I ain't worried about bikers," I said.  I reached down and took the small spray can of Mace that I had clipped to the inside of my jeans cuff, held it up.  "This'll fix 'em."

"Damn, where’d you get that?" asked Marty.

"My uncle.  He's got a bunch of 'em from when he did cable repair outside, for dogs 'n stuff."

"Wow," said Max.  "How come the cops didn't find it?"

"All they asked was for us to turn out our pockets, lookin' for firecrackers, right?"

"Oh yeah."

I started up the stairs.  When I got to the top I turned to look at the two of them.  "You guys comin', or are ya scared?"

"I ain't scared," said Marty, trying to look fierce.  He started up the stairs.

Max just nodded & followed, face pale.

We went up the sidewalk slowly, looking around to see if anyone was watching us.  Just the kid, from across the street, standing up on his bike to get a better look.  As we got to the porch, I turned on the flashlight, shined it at the door.  My friends were both just right behind me as I stepped up the couple of steps and crossed the porch to the door.  For a moment we just stood there, looking at the old wooden door (the screen door was hanging off to the side, half crumpled and out of the way).  I could feel my heart race.

"Um . . . maybe we should knock or something," whispered Max.

Marty looked at Max like he'd lost his mind.  "Knock?  You kiddin'?  That'll just give the ghosts more time to get ready for us."

I took a deep breath and grasped the doorknob, turning it and pushing the door open with a raspy squeal.  Sticking my head in first, I shined the flashlight around, then turned to Max and Marty.  "C'mon."

I stepped into the room, flashlight shining dully.  First thing I noticed was a strong smell of mustiness, of decay.  The room looked the part, too, with pieces of broken furniture scattered about, carpet pulled up here and there, wallpaper sagging off the walls.  I heard the sound of my two friends coming in the door behind me, the floor creaking under them.  I turned to the left, to where a wide archway lead to another room.  "This way."

Max half-whispered, "Wait for us."

The flashlight wasn't very powerful, but as I walked into the second room I pointed it up at the ceiling, and a general illumination almost cut the gloom.  This room was about as bad as the first room, with water stains visible on the walls, one window covered from outside with boards, the other obscured by heavy, rotting drapes which hung askew.  "I guess who ever's in here don't want their lights to shine out."

"Or they're afraid of daylight," said Marty.

"You mean, like vampires?" asked Max glancing into the dark areas nervously.

"No, dipshit, like junkies.  Junkies can't take bright light.  Makes their eyes bleed or somethin'.  Ever'body knows that," answered Marty.

"Oh, right."

"This place is pretty messed up," I said, pushing a battered old chair out of the way, kicking a bag of trash and scattering its contents.  There were several other half broken and abused chairs in the room, presenting an obstacle course we had to wind through.

"Let's get outta here," said Max, voice quaking.

"Gettin' scared?" I turned, my flashlight hitting him and Marty right in the face.

Blinking and shielding his eyes, Marty growled.  "Hey idiot, careful with the light."

"Oh, sorry."  I headed across the room and towards another doorway.  "C'mon, looks like the kitchen's back this way."

Marty and Max weren't too far behind me, only a couple of paces, stumbling a bit over the busted chairs and trash as their eyes recovered.  As I reached the doorway, a figure suddenly stepped from behind the wall.  For a moment my flashlight slid across his chest, revealing wild eyes and long white hair on the hideous, twisted face of an old man.  Then I screamed, dropping the flashlight as arms reached from the other side of the doorway grabbing me, pulling me through.

"RUN!" I hollered, as I flipped the cap on the can of Mace and found the spray button.  Pointing it at the floor, I cut loose a blast as I saw Max and Marty turning and fleeing.  Max, disoriented, the acrid smell of Mace in the air, the flashlight shining weirdly across the floor, only turned halfway and ran straight into the wall between the two windows, hitting it so solidly that the whole room shook.  Marty, the former football player, was clearing a path through the chairs and junk, kicking stuff out of the way, body slamming the bigger pieces as though he was charging the line of an opposing team.  He was making remarkable time, but even so Max, after having bounced off the wall, caught up with him and passed him before they reached the front door.

I screamed again, this time nothing more than an incoherent yell of fright and pain, and watched as my friends disappeared out the door.

"Man, that was great!" I said, my heart pounding, as I turned to look at my Uncle Don, who was peeling off the latex old-man mask.  My Uncle Rich, who had been the one to snatch me into the other room, was leaning against the wall, laughing so hard he could barely stand.

Yeah, it was a scam.  I'd set the whole thing up with my two uncles the night before.  The kid on the bike was my cousin.  Don had this scary mask, and I knew exactly where he and Rich would be stationed.  Even being picked up by the cops earlier in the night had been arranged with a buddy who was on the force, in order to keep my two friends off balance and on edge.

I ran to the door, intent on calling Max and Marty back, letting them in on the joke.  As I got to the door I saw Max, runner that he was, well in front of Marty, bookin' for home with such speed that he cleared the limit of the front lawn where it dropped 6' down to the street level, and didn't just go down the hill but ran out into empty space like some cartoon character, legs pumping and arms flailing . . .

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
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