It wasn’t anything particularly intimidating. An old, L-shaped farmhouse in the middle of what used to be a cornfield. John Davies, the amiable patriarch of our family, had a penchant for old houses with creaky floors and high ceiling. He liked houses with what he called character. But what he meant was mice.
After our parents had been to sign the contracts, he’d boomed about what a bargain the house had been.
“Did you see the littlest boy’s face?” our mother asked. “He was so sad to go.”
“Conjunctivitis of the eye,” John Davies said. “That’s what the mom said. I’m told it’s itchy as hell.”
What was itchy as hell were the fleas that we found in the downstairs rugs. While our father was away giving a keynote speech, our mother told us to take the rugs outside. While she got busy with the clorox and the mop, we set fire to them. She hadn’t asked us to, but one of the things that John Davies prided above all else was problem solving and taking initiative.
We were pleased that the rugs kept burning after the gasoline had burnt off. We ran back and forth through the foul-colored smoke, the grass brittle and golden under our feet. After awhile, we dragged the hose out to soak the ground around the rugs. We wanted the fleas out of the rugs. No sense burning the fleas out of the backyard too.
When our mother came out of the house, her face drawn, the others immediately said that the rugs had been my idea. They might have been.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Our mother stared at me. Then she shook her head. “About the rugs?”
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
“The wall is wet,” she replied.
It was one of those nonsensical phrases where all the words are real words and the structure is fine but when you pull it apart in your head, it doesn’t translate. We had to ask her several times what she really meant, and round and round we went, coughing on the acrid smoke that appears when you burn the rubber backing on cheap rugs. Finally we repeated the sentence back to her and she claimed she’d never said it.
This was why you shouldn’t inhale cleaning products.
When John Davies came back, he didn’t notice the missing rugs. So long as the house still had creaky floors and high ceilings, all was well. He was in high spirits because the world still loved him. He gave us magnets from the city he’d flown into. We hunted for a place on the fridge not already covered by magnets from other cities he’d flown into.
“We already have a Springfield,” said my brother.
“This one is bigger,” John Davies said. “What is that smell? It’s like someone tarred a road.”
We’d dragged off what remained of the rugs and buried them behind the garage, but there was still a faint odor remaining. There was not much wind in this old cornfield.
“I hate this house,” our mother told him.
“Oh, Butter,” he replied, which was what he called her when he wasn’t even trying to suck up, just show her that he was the good guy in this particular conversation, “Isn’t it nice to not have a house payment?”
That night, we lay in our collective beds in our shared bedroom — a house that was paid for was not large enough for us to have separate bedrooms anymore — and discussed what it meant, that our mother hated the house. We debated who would win this argument, our mother or John Davies, although it really wasn’t a debate. John Davies always got his way. It was his career. Outside, crickets screamed. Our perhaps it was cicadas. We’d never lived so far out in the country and insects were more brazen here.
“She’s screaming,” my other brother said.
We all hurried out of the bedroom and into the hall, where we found my mother shaking and incoherent. She was not screaming, but she probably had been before. Or someone had been. Might have been the cicadas. Or the locusts. Something that made sound by rubbing two of its limbs together.
“The clock was weeping,” our mother told me.
She stood before the sole piece of furniture that had conveyed with the house, a tacky grandfather clock that might fetch $20 on Antiques Roadshow. It was dry as a stone.
I repeated what she said to her and touched the dry surface of the clock.
“Well,” our mother said, “Not anymore.”
“Butter,” John Davies said, “That’s crazy talk.” He was in his boxers. I was uncomfortable seeing my father in his boxers. There are certain lines between parent and child that should not be crossed, and seeing my father in his underwear made me feel that much closer to a court case.
“I want to stay in a hotel,” our mother said.
John Davies persuaded her to come to bed and then persuaded us to go back to our bedrooms and then persuaded himself to have a small whisky before turning off all the lights.
The insects kept screaming. It was never quiet at this house.
I was distressed about our mother’s insanity, because mental instability was frequently genetic and I knew they didn’t shoot crazy people up in F-22s, which was what I was planning on doing just as soon as I got old enough that my feet weren’t stuck to the ground in a cornfield. But she seemed to settle down. In any case, she was distracted, as were all of us, by the rain that brought the plaster in the living room down. John Davies was on another speaking engagement, so it fell to us to repair it. Our mother swept the cracked plaster from the floor while I stood on a latter and stuffed spackle and one of my brother’s diecast cars into the hole. I figured a house like this could use all the character it could get, because it sure as shit didn’t have much else going for it.
That was the evening our mother fell down. We just heard a terrific thump, louder than the television, and I went to check on her in the upstairs bathroom. She was curled on the bathroom floor, trembling. I realized, standing in the bathroom, the black cornfield pressing in against the windows, that there was not too much in the room that could’ve made a thump so loud that we would’ve heard it.
“What,” I asked, “was that thump?”
“The mirror,” she whimpered, “it’s weeping.”
I wished John Davies were there to call her Butter and get her off the floor, because I didn’t know how to convince a crazy person to come down and watch Tomb Raider until she felt better. So I stood there, useless, and then I realized that the mirror was wet.
It wasn’t weeping. But there were trails of water down the glass, and I couldn’t quite work out where they’d come from. They were like drips, but there was no drip on this ceiling. The best thing I could guess was that our mother had actually gotten her fingers wet and intentionally drizzled the water down the glass before the thump.
“What was the thump?” I asked again. “Did you fall?”
“He’s seen me now,” she whispered. “He wants out.”
“Did you put this water here?”
The others had come by then, and they looked at the mirror. But all they saw was me, looking into the mirror, and my brother, looking in beside me, water superimposed on both of us.
We debated that night whether or not to tell John Davies when he came home. Something had to be done, clearly. The question was whether or not our mother was crazy. All of our futures rested on this fact. And if our mother wasn’t crazy, was there something really watching us out of the mirrors?
It turned out that we didn’t have to tell John Davies. He and our mother got into a massive kerfuffle when he got home at midnight.
We all heard her scream, “We have enough damn magnets!”
That was probably true. We couldn’t really operate the handle of the fridge anymore, there were so many magnets clustered around it. Places that looked fabulous from 30,000 feet. Then we heard John Davies say, “What did you do to this paint here?”
“He did it,” wailed our mother. “It’s crying. Those are from the tears.”
“Sandra,” John Davies said, “I can’t play this game anymore. This isn’t about the house, is it? I told you, it’s been over a long time.”
The room was cold as a grave. Something blew against the window. There was no wind in this cornfield, though, so I sat up.
My brothers were already sitting up, listening. Their eyes were eerie black mirrors in the dim light.
One of them was weeping.
Author’s Note: On Halloween, I decided I’d try for spooky for my next story. Hope it worked. We lived in several haunted houses growing up, but haunting was in the eye of the beholder.
image courtesy nickwheeleroz