En la Casa de Fantasmas, by Brian Holguin

I.

Everyone knows about La Bruja.

They say she lives somewhere down in the Avenues south of Eagle Rock. She is a tiny thing, short and round. Always dressed in black no matter the weather or time of year. Draped in mourning, they say, like La Llorona. Black wool dress, black coat, black shawl. A black veil that falls like a cobweb over her ancient face. Ask the abuelas in the park and they will tell you they remember her from when they were young, and that she was an old woman even then.

You can spot her from a mile away, carrying that odd little dollhouse of hers. You know the one: it looks homemade, simple and boxy, with a peaked roof and a handle at the top. It is painted in bright candy colors, as cheerful as she is somber: lemon yellow and valentine pink, mint green and robin’s-egg blue. There are those who say the house was made for La Bruja by her father, or perhaps even her grandfather, and that they each bore it for many long years before her. But there is no one alive today who can answer for sure.

Go talk to the vatos who hang out behind the pool hall, the dark-eyed boys with grease under their fingernails and tattoos on their knuckles, and ask them about La Bruja. They will tell you she loves nothing better than to sneak into children’s rooms at night and steal their hearts. She comes while you are sleeping and never makes a sound or leaves a mark. You won’t even know it happened. You’ll just wake up in the morning feeling strangely numb and hollow. You will walk around blank-eyed and shivering, with no notion of what ails you, until you drop dead at the stroke of noon. Later, when they cut you open at the hospital, they will see that your heart is missing and find a smooth, round stone in its place.

They say La Bruja carries the hearts around in that crazy little house of hers, ready to eat at her leisure, like ripe, juicy apples.

But it’s all a lie. Those boys are only trying to scare you.

Everyone knows the house is for the ghosts.

It’s late August in L.A. The last mean stretch of a summer that feels like it will never end. Everywhere are brown lawns and shimmering stretches of black asphalt. Posters and billboards show angry red thermometers reminding you not to waste water. No sprinklers to run through. No inflatable pools to laze in. For children, August is doubly cruel. Too hot to do anything fun, too close to the new school year to waste a single day in idleness.

In the heat of the afternoon, La Bruja beetles her way along York Boulevard. The children outside the corner store shout “Bruja! Bruja!” and drop their Popsicles and soda cans on the sidewalk. They sprint for their bikes and race down the alleyway, daring to look back only when they are blocks away. There is no point, after all, in taking chances or pretending to be brave. If she were to lift her veil, La Bruja could freeze you to the spot with a single glance. You’ll stand there, stone still, until a perfect stranger walks around you three times, counter-clockwise, and says “wake up, wake up, fly away home.” If you are careless enough to let your shadow cross hers, she can snatch it in her hand and claim your soul. She’ll slip into your dreams at night and make herself at home, rummaging through your memories, your fears, your guiltiest secrets. Once she’s there you can never make her leave, no matter how many candles you light at St. Dominic’s or how many Hail Marys you say. That’s a simple fact. Everyone says so.

At the bus stop on York, La Bruja sits waiting, dollhouse at her side. She tosses a handful of sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk in front of her and makes a rhythmic “chk-chk-chk” sound with her tongue. It is less than a minute before the crows come. They descend by the dozens, squawking and flapping. They peck madly at the seeds and then perch silently on the seat beside the old woman, and along the backrest of the bench, until the whole thing is camouflaged in night.

When the bus comes, La Bruja steps aboard. The driver never charges her and she never bothers to ring the bell to call for her stop. The other riders get up so that she may sit in the frontmost seat all by herself. As the bus heads west and turns right onto Eagle Rock Boulevard, the noisy dark cloud of birds follows close behind.

No one knows exactly how La Bruja manages to conduct her business or knows when to show up for her appointments. She doesn’t have a calling card or advertise her services on bus benches. She’s never owned a telephone. But she always knows when she is needed. When you get desperate enough, frightened enough, you will find a way to contact her. Some say it is the crows who carry her messages for her. Others say you must approach her in your dreams and ask her for her help. If she agrees to help you, you will find a simple message—unsigned, unstamped, no envelope—somewhere in your home. In a kitchen cabinet behind the cereal boxes, perhaps, or tucked under your pillow.

But everyone agrees on this: You must take care to follow her instructions precisely. If you do not, she’ll turn right around and go home, and you’ll find yourself in the same dark place you started.

  1. The house is to be completely empty. Take the pets if you have any.
  2. Place the money in a plain envelope, along with the house key, and leave it under the mat. You’ll know how much to pay—after all, how much is it worth to you to live safely and peacefully in your own home? If it’s not enough, she will turn around and go home and you will never hear from her again.
  3. Do not come home until after sunset on the third day. This is most important.

It takes three buses today to get her to the desired neighborhood, and another twenty minutes of slow, steady walking to reach the house itself. It is on a clean, shady street high up in the foothills, so high that the smog doesn’t reach and the sky is a bright, endless curtain of blue. The lawns are all green and neatly manicured, and the swimming pools are full and crystal clear. Everyone knows the rich can afford to be wasteful.

La Bruja doesn’t need to check the house numbers to know which is her destination. The crows have already marked it. She finds them perched on the mailbox, standing sentry on the crest of the roof and along the telephone wires. They strut up and down the sidewalk, across the front lawn, and gather squawking below the eaves. La Bruja looks under the mat and finds the envelope. Inside is a stack of crisp bills and the house key. She unlocks the door and crosses the threshold, but doesn’t bother to count the money.

It is getting late and she has work to do.

II.

If the time ever comes to buy a house, be sure to ask if it is haunted. A house with a ghost is a far worse bargain than one with termites or dry rot or bad plumbing, and much trickier to make whole again.

This particular house is grand and tacky, built in a style the architect imagined to be vaguely Spanish. Clay tiles on the roof, pinkish-beige stucco walls and lots of large, arched windows that look out on palm trees and sprawling bougainvillea. A vague chemical scent greets La Bruja as she steps inside, a blend of lilac air freshener and pine-scented disinfectant.

Chk-chk-chk,” she beckons as she moves through the entry and into the living room. The home is immaculately clean; you’d scarce believe anyone lived here at all. Everything looks expensive and uncomfortable. Lots of heavy glass and wrought iron. Lots of hard surfaces. No comfy armchairs to fall into, no plump ottoman to rest your feet on.

She sets her little dollhouse down on the glass coffee table and looks around.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The back of the house is all glass: floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors that open out onto a tiled courtyard and swimming pool. La Bruja moves slowly towards the glass wall, taking tiny, careful steps. Mustn’t scare anyone.

Chk-chk-chk.”

She can smell chlorine and chewing gum now, and the faintest hint of cheap, stale beer. Her eyes shift back and forth behind the veil, scanning the room carefully. It is a few minutes before she finds what she is looking for: a set of faint, wet footprints on the polished wood floors, glistening in the late-day sun. They are rather small and shimmer slightly at their edges. Right away she guesses that this ghost is fairly old, even if the child itself was young. Children are surely the saddest part of her job, but in many ways they are the easiest. They don’t seek lost loves or plot vengeance. They just get lost easily and need someone to guide them homeward.

La Bruja steps out into the courtyard. She settles into a boxy rattan deck chair and keeps perfectly still. And she watches. From time to time, the little shimmering footprints pace away from the pool, then return. They move from this corner to that one, into the house and then back out again. Like a mouse in a glass cage that doesn’t understand why it can’t escape. She sits without moving a finger or uttering a word. She waits unmoving until the sun drops below the mountains, the first moment of twilight. Then she lifts the veil from her eyes.

The world swims and shimmers before her. Everything seems strange and distorted, like a television viewed through a fish tank. At first it is difficult to understand what she’s looking at. Echoes… memories… past… present… all competing for attention. But soon her eyes adjust and she can see things clearly. She can see exactly what happened.

There are four of them, three boys and a girl, gathered around the pool. It’s the late afternoon of a summer day not much different from this one. The youngest is a blond boy, skinny and tan, who looks to be eleven or twelve. He wears blue swim trunks and a red-white-and-blue tank top emblazoned with “USA ’76.” The other two boys look to be fourteen or so. The taller one is slightly awkward, still unused to his growing limbs. The smaller one is wild and wiry, with long dark hair and lots of coiled energy.

The girl is also fourteen but looks considerably older than her peers, the way teen girls often do. She is wearing cut-off jeans and a macramé bikini top. She is pretty and she knows it, more’s the pity. She is well aware of the strange power she has recently acquired, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. It’s the power to make boys stumble over their words just by looking at them. To make them do stupid, risky things to impress her, like shoplifting cigarettes or breaking into empty homes. She knows for certain it is a power she didn’t have last summer, and she already suspects it will not last long.

The home doesn’t belong to any of them. The tall boy knows this house because it is on his paper route, knows that the owners will be out of town till Monday. It was easy enough to sneak down the side yard to the swimming pool at the back. The four of them splash and swim in the summer heat. They have a cannonball contest to see who can make the biggest, loudest splash. The girl declares the wild boy to be the winner and the tall boy demands a rematch. They listen to music on a tinny transistor radio and take shallow, unconvincing puffs on cigarettes, trying hard to look cool and dangerous.

As evening approaches, they luxuriate in the borrowed sense of freedom they’re all sharing, imagining this must be what it feels like to be grown up, having no rules to obey, no one to answer to.

Once darkness falls, the wild boy gets the idea of prying open a window and raiding the kitchen. In his absence, the tall boy stretches out on a chaise longue and recites a string of filthy jokes he learned from some comedy record. The girl rolls her eyes and takes a slow drag on her cigarette, pretending she is too mature for such things. The blond boy laughs loudly, even though he’s not exactly sure what all the words mean.

The wild boy returns with a bag of tortilla chips, a six pack of cold soda and another of warm beer. They all pretend that beer is their customary first choice, even the blond boy. He quits after less than one can. At first the beer makes them all relax, floating on a mellow buzz, but then it makes them rowdy. The girl has finished her first beer and is pestering the wild boy for some of his.

Suddenly everything slows and the smallest details come into sharp focus. La Bruja’s attention is drawn to the little radio sitting on the patio table. It is blaring some silly gringo rock song, some nonsense about the “Fox on the Run.” The girl, splashing manically in the shallow end, yells to turn it up. The tall boy drains the last of his second beer and fumbles to light a cigarette. The blond boy is on the diving board and shouts to the others, “Look at me!” He attempts to do a front flip off the board, but in the failing light he misjudges the distance. La Bruja hears a crack—loud as the day it happened—as the back of the boy’s head strikes the edge of the diving board. It is a clean blow, like being struck by a baseball bat.

Already the boy is sinking to the bottom, already blood spreads like a plume of ruby smoke, staining the clear blue water. In that instant, the teens all drop their shallow veneer of adulthood, reverting back to the children they are, scared and helpless. They don’t discuss a plan. They don’t say anything at all. They don’t even look at each other.

They just run.

They run all the way home. They say nothing and try desperately to think of nothing, choking back the terror and the tears until they are each safe in their beds where they will sob all night into their pillows and wake in the morning wishing it was all a horrible dream. Not one of them ever says anything about the boy. Each is sure the others will do the right thing, the brave thing, and tell their parents or phone the police.

A week later, at the blond boy’s funeral, they don’t even acknowledge one another. The body, they are told, floated in the pool for at least two days before the homeowners returned. By that time, the water was as red as the sun and the corpse was so bleached and bloated it was difficult to identify. Although they share classes and sports teams all through high school, the three of them never say another word to each other or willingly glance in the others’ direction.

Those three children will all be grown up by now, and parents themselves. Perhaps grandparents. But none of them will ever see a single day pass without thinking of their young friend. About the things they did, and the things they didn’t do. They’ll carry that memory around with them forever, dragging it like a ball and chain. It follows them to school, to work, to Christmas parties, on honeymoons and vacations. It’s with them at the grocery store, at the movie theater and at their children’s school plays. Each of them is every bit as haunted by the past as this house is. But there is no sure remedy for their curse. They will bear its burden until the day they die. Only then will they be in a position to ask forgiveness, even though they don’t honestly expect to receive any.

Looking closer, La Bruja can see that traces of blood still linger in this pool. You can’t miss it once you know to look for it. Let your eyes soften and look below the surface. Pints of blood. Buckets of it. Vast oceans of blood, churning and roiling in the moonlight. No matter how many times it has been drained and refilled, no matter how many gallons of chlorine have been poured in over the passing decades, it is still tainted, still infected.

Some blood, you must surely know, never washes away.

It’s well past dark by the time La Bruja begins her working. To start, she removes a number of items from the pockets of her coat and from the leather bolsa she wears around her neck. She takes three votive candles and places one each along three sides of the swimming pool. She lights the first candle and blesses it in the name of San Jeronimo, patron saint of abandoned children. The second she lights in the name of San Alejo, who looks after those who are imprisoned. The third is for San Cristobal, patron saint of travelers. Now she takes a larger candle and sets it at the far end of the pool, the end with the diving board. This last candle is for blessed Madre María, who watches mercifully over all of us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

La Bruja stands over the pool and begins to chant in an odd sing-song voice. She takes a small crystal vial and removes its silver cap. It contains holy water, again blessed in the name of the virgin Santa María. She sprinkles it over the surface of the water and counts slowly to nine. Then, she takes a golden sewing needle and pricks her own ring finger. Three perfect crimson drops fall into the pool. They mottle the surface for a moment, but are quickly diluted and subsumed, and the water appears clear as glass.

Blood for blood. No fairer trade.

The second part of the working requires no blood, but it does require patience. She takes eleven tea candles, one for each year of the boy’s short life, and spaces them in an arcing trail from the pool, through the French doors, and into living room. Once each is lit, she sets the dollhouse on the floor in front of the last candle, the one furthest from the swimming pool. She squats on the floor next to it and waits.

Chk-chk-chk,” she intones, tapping the wood floor with her finger nails.

Chk-chk-chk.”

After a few minutes the first tea light goes out, sending a little gray wisp of smoke trailing in the air.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The second candle goes out a few minutes later. Then the third. But the fourth candle lingers. Its flame flickers from time to time, but it does not extinguish. La Bruja is patient. She knows the boy must take each step in his own time, cross each threshold and close each invisible door behind him. This is his path to walk and he cannot be rushed.

It is more than an hour before the fourth candle finally goes out. But it is quickly followed by the fifth. And the sixth.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The little house is hinged at one gable end, and there is a bright pink padlock in the shape of a heart at the other. As the ninth candle goes out, La Bruja takes a key from around her neck and unlocks the padlock, but leaves it dangling in place.

Chk-chk-chk.”

Again the procession stalls. It is nearly another hour before the tenth candle dims and dies. Very carefully, very slowly, La Bruja removes the padlock and opens the front of the house just a crack.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The eleventh candle fades slowly… slowly… and then grows. It grows brighter and brighter until at last, with a blinding flash, it goes out. La Bruja quickly shuts the dollhouse and snaps the lock in place.

It is too late now to catch a bus back to the Avenues, so La Bruja will sleep here tonight. She will help herself to cold beer and whatever palatable thing she can find in the fridge to eat. In the morning she will rise early and burn a wand of sage leaves and smudge all the rooms in the house. She will throw wide the curtains, open up all the windows and leave the front door wide open.

She will place the key back under the mat, gather her things and head back down the hill.

III.

In La Casa de Fantasmas, there are many mansions.

True, there are only four windows on the exterior of the little house and those are merely painted on. But inside there are countless doors and windows. There are cozy libraries, suffocating closets and tight, bricked-up tunnels. There are comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms. There are endless dim corridors to wander down, lost in romantic torment, if that is your preference. The dollhouse is small, but the spirits take up so little space. Even La Bruja has lost count of how many ghosts presently dwell inside. But there is plenty of room for all of them.

You must know that ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. For some it is the trauma of a violent death. For others it is love for the ones they left behind. For a great many it is guilt: Guilt for letting down their family, for not making more of their lives, for all the wicked things they may have done but still can’t bring themselves to truly regret. Guilt is a great anchor that holds spirits earthbound.

Still, most spirits don’t move on because they simply aren’t ready. They haven’t said their piece or made their mark or danced one last dance. But all have one thing in common: They hate to be reminded they are ghosts.

At the front of the house is the large salon, where the walls are lined with bookshelves and heavy chandeliers hang from the wood-beamed ceiling. It is one of the oldest rooms. A wood fire burns in a stone fireplace, and there are leather sofas and armchairs nestled around well-worn Persian carpets. The more gregarious of the guests gather here, to swap stories or gossip, to play chess or try to cheat one another at cards.

Standing by the fireplace, puffing on a cigarillo, is the one they call the Fox, an over-the-hill gentleman with a watch fob in his waistcoat, Cuban heels on his shoes, and a ludicrous beard he keeps waxed and styled like a cartoon devil. He loves to dance the tango and the tarantella, and pesters all the ladies until one of them acquiesces.

The Irish Tinker scrapes out a Romani ballad on his fiddle while Sister Agnes plays a game of backgammon with the Quiet Man. The Doctor watches from a corner. He sits sipping brandy, his smooth bald head hovering over the pages of a Thomas Mann novel he’s never managed to finish. He mutters under his breath how one day they will all be sorry. One day, they will regret underestimating him.

Darla sits by the front door waiting for her gentleman caller. She is wearing her best dress, the one the color of summer apricots. She can’t help but worry. There are no clocks in the house, but surely he should have been here by now. If you asked her, Darla couldn’t tell you the gentleman’s name or how they met. But she knows he is a kind, handsome man and knows in her heart that they are truly made for each other.

Her mother never approved of gentleman callers. Darla doesn’t care to divulge her age, but her mother was quite fond of reminding her that if a woman hasn’t hooked a man by this stage of the game, she had best give up the ghost. Better an old maid than an old floozy. The minutes pass and Darla grows certain that something bad must have happened. An accident or an emergency. Or maybe he just decided he doesn’t want to see her. She tries to hold back the tears, but it isn’t long before her mascara runs in black rivulets down her cheeks.

She gets up and checks herself in the mirror. She looks a fright. You’re such a silly thing, Darla. Always letting your imagination get carried away, always making things a bigger deal than they really are. Take a deep breath. Stand up straight. Think good thoughts, and good things will happen to you. She dries her eyes, reapplies her mascara and touches up her lipstick. Darla wants her smile to be the first thing he notices.

She can hardly contain herself now. He’ll be here any minute…

The blond boy has been living in a tree fort. He knows his parents must be worried, but he’s not ready to go home yet. Besides, the fort has everything he needs: a sleeping bag and flashlight, a stack of old Marvel comics, and a transistor radio that only ever plays his favorite songs. He gets hungry sometimes, though never enough to make him want to leave. He likes the quiet and the cool breeze that smells of jasmine. He looks at the stars and listens to the radio. He naps for long stretches at a time. He’s not sure how long, but when he wakes up the sky is always dark.

He knows if he went home now, his parents would be furious. The boy has a cousin, Darren, who is three years older than him. Years ago, Darren ran away from home and was gone for the better part of a week. For the first couple of days, Darren’s folks were in a rage. His dad promised take his belt and thrash that boy to within an inch of his sorry life. But the days dragged on and phone calls were returned from friends saying they hadn’t seen him, flyers were posted around the neighborhood and the police kept asking more troubling and embarrassing questions. By the time Darren finally was found—sleeping in an old camper parked in a neighbor’s driveway two blocks away, living off Pop-Tarts and RC Cola—his parents were so relieved they forgot they had ever been angry. That’s the trick of it, the blond boy reasons. Stay away long just long enough for your folks to stop being mad and start being afraid.

His cousin is easily the coolest person he knows. Darren can do a handstand on his skateboard for nearly half a mile straight, swear to God, and is always smooth when it comes to talking to girls. When he is older, the blond boy wants to be just like him.

The radio plays a song by Paul McCartney & Wings. The one about Venus and Mars: red lights, green lights, strawberry wine… The boy finds himself drifting into sleep again. Funny, he can’t even remember why he left home in the first place. It’s not like things were ever that bad. Still, give them a little more time to worry before heading back. One more day should be enough.

Tonight he will dream strange dreams about an empty beach on a crystal blue sea, and a dark red sky rolling above. And a weird little house that could hold everyone in the world if it had to. Tomorrow he will go home. Just as soon as the sun comes up.

Tomorrow.

Always tomorrow.

IV.

Tonight is Halloween. The eve of All Souls’ Day. A night for revels and mischief. When the veil between this world and the next is thin as gossamer. Tonight is the night the ghosts come out and play.

All along the Avenues, pumpkins grin from porches, and paper ghosts and witches hang in windows. Little kids are already out tricking and treating, even though the sun hasn’t gone down yet.

Every year, La Bruja sets out a plate of pan de muerto—a sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon and anise seed—on the stoop of her little house at the end of her crooked little street. These goodies are free for the taking, but no one ever comes to her door. They won’t even walk past the front her house. Not even the adults, not on a dare. But that’s all right. By morning, every last morsel and crumb will be gone.

Behind her house, La Bruja has set up for a party. Streamers are hung and luminaria are lit. At one end of the little yard stands a lopsided table decorated with brilliant sprays of marigolds, colorfully painted miniature skulls and scores of candles. Two figures stand at the back of the table: a two-foot porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary, smiling beatifically in blue and white robes, and the carved wooden figure of Queen Mictecacihuatl, skeletal empress of the underworld.

Once the sun sets, La Bruja will remove the heart-shaped lock from the little dollhouse and open it wide. All those inside are invited to join the festivities.

It is an unruly scene: La Bruja sits on a wicker settee, smoking a fat cigar and drinking whiskey from a communion chalice. She claps along as the Tinker plays a wild Irish reel on his fiddle and Crazy Bobby, who was once this close to being a rock ’n’ roll star, strums along on a battered guitar. The Fox and Darla manage to dance a lively tarantella to the rhythm.

There is music, laughter and toasts to absent friends. Grudges and worries are put aside for the evening. The guests allow whatever burdens they carry to slip from their shoulders. Even the Doctor puts down his book and dances the foxtrot with Sister Agnes.

After a time, some of the ghosts desert the party and venture into the wider world. From sundown to sunrise, they are free do as they please. And they are not alone. Countless ghosts from centuries past walk the earth tonight. They come to stand watch over their children or grandchildren, to comfort a spouse they left behind, or to simply remind themselves that they too were briefly among the living. But the ghosts in the care of La Bruja are bound by a particular rule: They must return home to the little house before the sun comes up or be forever banished.

The Fox drifts to a favorite haunt near Olvera Street and sits at the end of the bar, boasting of the beautiful women he has danced with. Sister Agnes will wander back to a little nowhere town in Montana, sit on the steps of the house she grew up in and marvel at how much her street has changed, and how little. She will reminisce about a tall, blue-eyed man she once knew and how she almost gave up everything for him. Funny, she can’t even remember his name now.

Every year there are some who choose not to come back. They find their graves and lay themselves to rest. They walk into the sea at daybreak, glitter upon waves for a brief, golden moment, and then are gone. Or they simply drift away like smoke on the breeze. Most, however, will return home, to the comfort of old patterns, and resume their strange half-life. Many don’t even step outside the little house in the first place, not even for the party. And that’s all right. It’s just not their time. They simply aren’t ready to let go.

The blond boy doesn’t bother with the party. He’s never felt comfortable around grown-ups, especially those he’s never met. Besides, it’s been forever since he felt the ground beneath his feet and he wants badly to stretch his legs. He wanders out into the street and is delighted to find that it is Halloween, his favorite night of the year. He snatches a piece of sweet bread from the plate on the door stoop and wolfs it down in three quick bites. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry. He grabs two more pieces and heads out into the night.

He joins the throng of children going from door to door. It would be nice to have a costume, but he doesn’t mind. He is too absorbed in the wildness of the night, awed by the sounds and scents, the garish, lurid colors. He doesn’t have a bag or pillowcase, so he stuffs candy into his pockets or, more often, eats it on the way to the next house. He’s only gone to six or seven houses when he hears voices calling out to him:

“Hey! Kid! Over here!”

He sees them standing at the end of the block. A pack of boys, a half dozen or so, all about his age, give or take a year. Their hair is shorter than his and some of their clothes are so old-fashioned he mistakes them for costumes. They in turn have mistaken the blond boy as one of their own, just another departed soul playing hooky on All Hallows’ Eve. Back for one more run through the candle-lit streets, one more night of mischief and abandon. They don’t bother with introductions, yet right away they all feel like old friends.

“Are we all here, now? Let’s go!”

They move with single purpose, like a flock of crows, crossing the city side to side and back again in less time than it takes to think. They throw eggs at police cars and run hooting like the madmen. They set off firecrackers in the underpass below the freeway, so they echo like thunder. They find a carnival at the YMCA and go through the haunted house three times in a row without paying once. They eat cotton candy until their tongues are blue and their fingers stick together. At the face-painting booth they all have their faces made up to look like skeletons. They are a tribe now, a band of merry pirates. Drunk on the mad, wild joy of youth that doesn’t think even a minute ahead or waste one moment’s thought on the past.

In the park, they run like wolves and howl like devils. They do handstands and back-flips off the picnic tables. They race and they wrestle. They laugh till their sides ache and eat candy till they are sick. By now, their make-up streaks bizarrely down their faces from all the sweat, tumbling and roughhousing.

Late into the night, when the city has fallen silent, the boys gather in a circle on the grass. They pass a flashlight around, counter-clockwise, and swap spooky stories. They tell the one about the hitch-hiking axe murderer, and the one about the teenagers and the bloody hook. They tell that old story about the Weeping Woman, the ghost mother who steals lost children away, believing them to be her own.

A little before dawn, when they can’t hold their eyes open a moment longer, they stretch out in the grass and lie side by side, like a neat row of graves. No more playing now, or even talking. They just lie there too tired to move, but still too alive to sleep. This is the happiest the blond boy has ever been. The best night of his life. The world could end and he wouldn’t even notice.

There is no other thought in his head when the sun finally rises.

Ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. But surely it could never happen to you. You are too sensible and too clever. You know to go to bed each night fully content with how you spent the day. You do not leave important things unsaid or undone. You never wait for tomorrow—always tomorrow—to speak your piece, make your mark or dance as much as your heart desires. You know to live without fear or regret, unburdened, so that any day may be a good day to die.

It’s simple, really. But simple and easy are hardly the same thing.

Anyway, everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts. There is no crazy witch woman with a funny little dollhouse full of lost souls. How could there be? They’re just stories. They’re only trying to scare you.

Remember that, should the shadows ever come for you. When your life slips from your control and you wake one day feeling strangely numb and hollow, like a faint echo of yourself. Lost in limbo, treading the same old ground in ever tightening circles. When fear turns your heart to stone and freezes you to the spot. Remind yourself that it’s all pretend. It’s just your imagination getting carried away with things. You can always move on, as soon as you are ready.

Wake up, wake up, fly away home…

Brian Holguin has been a professional writer of comics and prose for more than two decades. Highlights include the award-winning urban fantasy series Aria, the ground-breaking independent comic book series Spawn, and the Dark Crystal graphic novel prequel, Creation Myths. He lives in Southern California.

Other Strange Houses:

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport
It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

A July Story, by K.L. Owens
Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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