The House Behind the Hedges

Author’s Note: The following short story, about two young men exploring a haunted house in 1992, takes place in the world of THE GREAT FORGETTING. It appeared as a chapter in an early draft of the novel. I am sharing it, now, to celebrate the Picador paperback release of the book, on January 10, 2017.

The old mansion slumbered in the dark.

It was a four-story Victorian, lousy with shutters and eaves and lightning rods, windows like eyes, doors like mouths. It sat on a slope of Tallmadge Road, obscured by a row of pine trees. Once, the siding had been yellow, but now it was the color of a cataract. Yew hedges had grown so wide and tall they choked away access to the front door.

Jack stood next to Tony, his shoes touching the ground on either side of his bike. They stared at the abandoned home and listened. Jack pictured Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit, sleeping in the basement, waiting. It had been Tony’s idea to break into the Wagner mansion.

It sounded like a fine idea to Jack. He was game for any excuse to fly through the night on his Huffy, especially on nights like this one. The air was so goddamn hot, so goddamn stagnant, the only breeze had to be manufactured. Local journalists had begun to report on an exponential increase in violent crimes. Murder. Rape. People were going insane from the heat.

This adventure was a welcome distraction for Jack. He could not stop thinking about Sam. He hadn’t seen her since that frightening night a week ago when her father nearly killed him. Since then, no one had heard from her.

So Jack had spent the night at Tony’s and they had gone AWOL a little after one in the morning, pedaling their bikes down Tallmadge toward this decrepit mansion, subject of local ghost stories going back decades.

Old Man Wagner, so they said, had been the richest man in Franklin Mills, a lawyer for Akron’s rubber barons. He built the mansion for his young bride after the Great War and she had five healthy children and then a sixth. The last, a boy, had a skull twice the size of a normal human’s. Melonhead, they called him. Wagner was so horrified by his offspring, he locked the boy away in the rounded spire at the top of the house. The mother constructed the most wonderful bedroom for him and filled it with every toy a boy could desire. And there the child stayed. His world became that room and he never knew to want more. What he could see of the world through the window was an elaborate play, they told him, acted out for his amusement. Miasma, illusion.

Eventually the Wagners died off — the circumstances vary from telling to telling — and Melonhead was left to fend for himself, subsisting on the mice and birds that wandered inside the broken home, the rainwater from the gutters. On a quiet night, you could hear him singing lullabies on the wind.

Jack and Tony knew it was just a story. But they wanted to suspend disbelief long enough to scare the bejesus out of themselves. It beat sitting in the heat and watching Big Chuck and Lil’ John’s weekend creature-feature on Channel 8.

“Ready?” said Tony, leaning his bike against a pine.

“Ready,” said Jack.

They tried to push through the yew hedges but the brambles were thick and scratched their arms.

“Lets go around back,” Tony suggested.

“Does the air seem thicker to you?” asked Jack. “Like it might rain?”

“It’ll never rain again. Not here.”

They walked around, climbing over a giant oak that lay upon the remnants of the porch. They walked the length of it and found themselves on the dark side of the house, where a cobblestone patio was obscured beneath a carpet of Russian thistle. A large picture window, miraculously intact, looked into the quiet house. Tony worked a large stone out of the patio, canting it back and forth with his feet until it came free. He lifted it over his head.

“Wait,” said Jack.

Too late. The rock punched through the window with a THUNK-SPOOSH! Glass splinters the size of guillotine blades fell in a crash that would have echoed over all of Franklin Mills. But the air was thick enough to buffer it.

“The melonhead’s awake, now,” Tony said, with a laugh.

They switched on their flashlights. Tony’s was a heavy Maglite, Jack’s a red plastic five-and-dime type. Minding the shards of glass that stuck out from the bottom of the window frame like broken teeth, the two sixteen-year-old boys stepped inside.

Thinly focused beams of light picked up dusty motes that hung in the air like suspended raindrops. They were in a sitting room furnished with upholstered hickory chairs and a chaise lounge. The walls were covered in expensive wallpapering, an oddly-shaped damask pattern the color of seaweed. The pattern looked like faces of fat, hairy dragons. The room smelled of rot and plaster and mildew.

Tony walked to a cherry cabinet set against the westerly wall, covered in a sheet of dust. A crystal decanter of amber liquid sat on top. He set the Maglite down, aiming it up at the ceiling to provide diffuse light and, with some effort, pried the cork stopper off.

“Scotch,” he said.

“Don’t.”

Tony brought the spirits to his lips. He took a tiny swallow, then spit out the rest in a violent spray. “Uck,” he said.

“What’d it taste like?”

“Like gasoline.” He took his flashlight and walked into the darkness through an arched doorway. “C’mon.”

Jack followed. The floorboards protested their intrusion, creaking and snapping like fireworks beneath their feet.

The next room was the kitchen. The marble countertops were covered in a fine black ash that Jack thought might be some sort of mushroom or mold. Moss hung from the pedals of a ceiling fan. Tony opened the door of a tall cabinet beside a rusted sink. The cupboard was stocked with tins and boxes of brand-named food that no longer existed: Fern Park spinach; Soughtafter tomatoes; Royal Dutch coffee; a beige tin marked, Eintopf. A piece of propaganda art was tacked to the inside of the door. It showed Uncle Sam collecting junk from a line of people that extended over the horizon. Large white letters proclaimed: Remember: Everyone must pitch in to secure a better future! Turn in your chronological artifacts today!

“That’s creepy,” said Tony.

“What is it?”

Tony shrugged. “Something from World War II I guess. War bonds or something.”

Jack shined his light over the room and discovered a narrow set of carpeted stairs leading to a second floor. The carpet had been gold, once, but it was almost brown, now. There were dark splotches baked into the fabric. It could have been mud or Ragu. But Jack was sure it was blood. Tony stepped around him and motioned for him to follow.

The steps protested, yelping loudly under their feet, worse than the floorboards. Larger men might have fallen through the moldy planks but the boys each weighed less than 140 pounds and so they were granted passage. Jack bit his bottom lip. He was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of vertigo, as if he were standing outside his body, looking in. His nerves warned him of an unseen danger. Every instinct told him to run. He savored it all and followed his friend upstairs.

The paper pattern on the walls of the second-floor hallway showed the white reliefs of aspen trees and starlings against a periwinkle sky. The heads of the starlings were tilted as if the birds were listening to the sound of their footsteps.

Tony opened the door to their immediate right. It made no noise and Jack wondered, distantly, if it had been oiled.

The room was devoid of furniture. Tony’s flashlight illuminated shelves set into a corner where knicknacks were displayed, ceramic figurines, the sort you’d find in tea tins. A menagerie, as it turned out. Animals, two-by-two. A recreation of the passengers of Noah’s ark, in miniature. Jack was walking toward the far corner where another row of shelves held similar treasures when his shoe stepped in something squishy.

He shined his light down and recoiled instantly. He let go a meager scream.

“What?” said Tony.

“Look!”

A mound of brownness grew from the floor. A heap of organic muck without smell or, if it smelled, a smell waylaid by the overpowering stank of the house itself, the plaster and time and dust.

“It’s shit,” Tony whispered.

“It’s human shit,” Jack corrected.

And that’s when they heard it: the groan of the stairs as something larger than themselves approached. Instinctively, they shut off their lights and backed against the wall. Jack grabbed at the air and found Tony’s hand. He clenched it tightly.

The sounds stopped.

Jack could hear Tony try to quiet his breathing, his fearful panting slowing. He tried to do the same. But he was frightened beyond reason. The best he could do was shut his mouth and breath through his nose.

Jack listened. With all his will, he listened.

CREAK!

Something was in the room with them.

Tony pulled his hand free and a second later his Maglite clicked on.

A ghost-man stood before them. Rail-thin, dressed only in a pair of white briefs the color of grime, it’s stomach distended under ribs that stretched its mottled skin. The man was not simply old, but ancient. Hairless. Liver-spotted and cancerous. And his skull twice the size of a normal human’s.

At first Jack thought it was a demon. He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. He couldn’t push air from his lungs. He was so terrified, he couldn’t breathe. The monster grabbed his arm and pulled him forward.

“My house!” it screamed. It’s breath was noxious, compost gas.

“Leave him alone… asshead!” Tony yelled. He brought the Maglite down on the ghost-man’s arm. It cried out and let go. “Run, Jack, Run!”

Jack dove around the melonhead and staggered to the door. When he looked back, he saw the old man silhouetted in the light of Tony’s flashlight.

“My house! You’re in my house!”

That was when Jack noticed the object in the man’s right talon. A wide metal mallet, the sort used for tenderizing chickens and busting skulls.

In a sickening, paralyzing panic, Jack watched, helpless, as the old man brought the hammer up and back, readying an arc that would connect with Tony’s head. Tony seemed transfixed, too, hypnotized by the strangeness of the moment.

And then the room was filled with a blinding light, a light so white and hot that it hurt Jack’s eyes. His first thought was that a nuclear bomb had detonated over Franklin Mills, this light the harbinger of a shockwave bringing destruction and fire. A shockwave did come, slamming against the house, shaking it back and forth, and with it, thunder.

The old man dropped the mallet and clutched his ears. Tony ran, pushing Jack forward and down the stairs. They heard the flood begin. Rain hammered on the house like gravel dumped from a truck onto a sheet of metal. They leaped from the hole in the picture window, a shard of glass scraping Jack’s leg, drawing blood. It missed the major artery but he would have a scar the rest of his life.

It was like stepping under a waterfall with no borders. They were soaked through in a second. Again, Jack found Tony’s hand. He could not make out the shape of Tony’s body, so thick was the falling water. Another bolt of lightning broke the sky, connecting with the ornate rod atop the mansion, which was still occupied by a melonhead or some vagrant, forgotten by the world.

They located their bikes using sense memory and pushed through the rain, down the road a quarter-mile before giving up and ducking under a row of thick pine trees beside the ditch. They took shelter under the thick boughs and collapsed onto a bed of nettles. The world was ending in a Biblical flood that brought a cool wind from the North. Jack would later listen to Dick Goddard explain how the storm dropped nearly two feet of water on one hour that night. In the valleys, homes and trailers were washed away, into the Cuyahoga, claiming the lives of forty-seven souls.

Jack was laughing, hysterical laughter, the kind you can’t control even if you try. “Leave him alone, asshead!” he said, between such bursts.

Tony laughed, too. “I couldn’t think of anything else,” he said. “My mind went blank.”

They laughed until their sides cramped up and still the rain raged beyond the trees. They had Tony’s Maglite for comfort. Jack had lost his flashlight somewhere in the house.

For a long time they said nothing more. Then Jack turned to Tony and said, “I’m in love with Sam Brooks.”

Tony looked up into the dark branches. “My dad’s going crazy and I’m afraid one day he’s going to kill my mom,” he said. “Or me.”

An hour before dawn, the rain let up. They rode their bikes back to Tony’s family’s apartment over the convenience store and they slept till noon.