Newlyweds Ashleigh and John get more than they bargained for when they take an interest in the dilapidated house next door.
“What the hell does she even do over there?” Ashleigh asked, pushing the heavy curtain aside to peer out of the long living room window.
“She’s probably just fixing stuff,” her husband, John, replied. He stood in the recesses of the room behind her, more concerned with Ashleigh getting caught looking out the window than what was happening outside of it.
“She isn’t fixing a thing. The kitchen window has been broken for a month. Squirrels go in and out all day.”
Ashleigh watched as their neighbor Janice got out of a small Toyota truck parked in the shared driveway between their two houses. She quickly unlocked the side door to her house, where she disappeared inside.
Well, “neighbor” wasn’t really the right word for Janice, since that implied someone who lived near you, and Ashleigh and John had no idea where she lived. Janice was the woman with spidery gray hair who owned the uninhabited, rotting house next door and occasionally came by to do things there. Sometimes her tasks were obvious, like trimming the large, reedy weeds lining her side of the shared driveway. Often, though, they’d only get small, mysterious glimpses of what she did over there — like the time Ashleigh saw her carry a massive bag of dog food inside the house, even though neither she nor John had ever seen a dog on the premises.
Ashleigh and John had moved to Portland six months earlier, when John started his podiatric surgery residency at Providence hospital. Though they had been a couple for over five years before that, this was the first time they were actually able to live in the same place. They’d met in Omaha the summer before John started medical school, when Ashleigh was still an undergraduate. Because John’s school in Iowa offered a limited array of programs, Ashleigh was forced to stay in Nebraska for her own graduate school, where she studied to be a children’s nurse. That she was in pediatric medicine and he podiatric was something they’d joked about often during the several years they were engaged but living apart. They still brought it up whenever they met someone new, though most people just thought they both worked with children. Eventually, one of them would have to explain that, actually, John specialized in feet and ankles.
After graduation, they were quickly married. Nursing gave Ashleigh the flexibility to find a job anywhere John found a residency, and they’d jumped at the chance to start their new life together in the breathtaking wilds of the Pacific Northwest. They adopted a hyperactive retriever named Arnold, moved into a single-story Victorian on Portland’s eastside, and settled into the next part of their shared plan.
Because, so far, everything had followed the plan that Ashleigh had envisioned when they’d first met back in Omaha, one they’d spoke of often during their years of separation. And now, according to that plan, was the time where they were supposed to do wild things. In two years, when the residency was over, they would move back home. John would begin building his practice. They’d start having children, and their shared life would morph into its final, firmly-rooted shape. This Portland sojourn was the time for them to do the things that they’d never be able to do again, to amass the experiences that they’d think back on so many years later, laughing and no doubt shaking their heads.
And what a town in which to spend that vivid moment of their lives. In contrast to the farms and factories that bolstered the Midwest towns they grew up in, Portland was a place whose major industry seemed to consist of providing the sorts of experiences that you only did while you were young and, even then, that you only did once. A couple of weeks after moving to town, some second-year members of the podiatry program told John and Ashleigh about the annual naked bike ride, where thousands of residents stripped off their clothes and proceeded to pedal around the city. The event was city sanctioned. Police even helped to cordon off major thoroughfares while the fleshy cyclists passed through. Ashleigh was thrilled about participating; this was exactly the kind of thing that they were supposed to be doing during the wild period. Unfortunately, John was a harder sell. After hours of negotiation, Ashleigh got him to agree that they would ride along in their bathing suits. But when the night finally came, John backed out, saying he was too exhausted from a long week at the hospital. Ashleigh was crushed. She began to wonder if she really knew John at all, or if she’d somehow misread him during all the years they’d spent hoping and planning on the phone.
During their first weeks in Portland, the dilapidated house next door had been little more than a fitting backdrop for that moment in their lives. It was a zesty reminder of a wilder time before the neighborhood had gentrified, when many of the old houses nearby must have loomed like something out of a children’s horror story. It provided something to talk about at parties with John’s residency cohort, where the podiatrist/pediatrist jokes seemed to run their course more quickly than usual. But things began to change one early morning when Ashleigh, while pulling her scrubs out of the dryer in the basement, saw a massive rat scurry across the concrete floor. Her scream was so loud that it sent John shooting out of their bed upstairs, even though he was on night rotation that week and had only just fallen asleep. A few hours later, he was standing in the basement, struggling to stay awake as their landlords’ handyman, Hector, examined the house’s foundation for signs of penetration.
“It happens sometimes,” Hector said, all focus behind his bushy mustache. “They come over from next door. The back yard must be filled with them.”
John thought about the massive tangle of plants behind the house next door, and wondered whether there was even grass any more over there, or if lawns reach a certain point of neglect where they morph into some entirely new species.
“What’s the story with that place?” John asked.
“The woman who owns it — Janice — she raised her family there.”
“Really?” John tried to shake off his sleep. “When was the last time anyone lived there?”
“It’s hard to say. I’ve been working at this place for over ten years, and the house has been empty that whole time.”
“Why doesn’t she sell it? The lot alone must be worth half a million dollars.”
Hector shrugged. “Memories, maybe.” He gestured toward a line of shelves in a dark corner of the basement. “They’re getting through back here. I’ll patch it up and lay some traps. Hopefully you won’t see another live one.”
After that, Janice’s visits became impossible to ignore. About a week after the rat incident, Ashleigh and John were watching TV in the high-ceilinged living room when they heard the Toyota’s tinny engine rumble up the driveway, sending Arnold into an erratic barking fit. Ashleigh sighed, “It’s ten-thirty on a weeknight, what the hell?” Several nights later, while walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water, John was overcome with a strange feeling in the dining room, like someone had suddenly turned up the volume on his life. He soon realized that Janice had somehow arrived unheard by anyone, the unsettling feeling nothing more than the result of the work-light shining in the driveway disrupting the atmosphere of the dining room. John kept Janice’s arrival to himself, and by the time they went to bed an hour later, Ashleigh hadn’t noticed. But the following morning, they woke up to find Arnold gone, having escaped out of the carelessly unlocked side door sometime in the night. Given the way Arnold nearly ripped John’s arm out if its socket during walks, they feared he’d already made it halfway across the city by the time they noticed his absence. Ashleigh and John were then shocked to find Arnold sitting stock-till in the driveway, staring up at Janice’s darkened upstairs window. Ashleigh swore that this was proof that Janice was up to something. John downplayed it in the moment, insisting Arnold probably just saw a squirrel on the roof, hoping the conversation would end there.
And for John it did. By the time he drove to his rotation later that morning, Arnold’s escape and Janice’s house had both left his mind entirely. But that night in bed, just as John was about to fall asleep, Ashleigh suddenly turned to him, wide awake:
“I want to see inside that house.”
“I don’t know, Ash,” John said over coffee the following morning. “That’s breaking and entering.”
“What if she has someone chained up in the basement, like that guy in Iowa? We need to know if there’s a murderer next door.”
John squinted dubiously.
“Ok, she’s probably not a murderer,” Ashleigh continued. “But there’s definitely something weird going on over there. Aren’t you even curious?”
“No one lives there. Who are we hurting if we just go take a look around?” A sly smile rose at the corners of Ashleigh’s mouth. “And wouldn’t it just be — fun?”
“I don’t know if that’s the word I’d use.”
“Come one, secretly getting inside?” Ashleigh took the coffee mug out of John’s hand and placed it gently on the table. John’s brow furrowed; an objection stammered out of this mouth. Ashleigh slid onto his lap, quieting him. “Creeping around somewhere we’re not supposed to be? Seeing things we’re not supposed to see?”
Ashleigh kissed him softly and fully.
“Now she has a hose. She’s just wrapping it around two oil drums filled with god-knows-what.”
Ashleigh was looking out the living room window later that night, this being a night when Janice’s arrival had interrupted their TV watching. Ashleigh turned to John, her eyes bright and wild. “Go take the garbage out and see what she’s doing.”
“But the garbage isn’t full,” John said.
“She doesn’t know that.”
John turned back to the television. On the show they watched, someone had been murdered, but the person they thought the likely killer had just been proved innocent. John felt Ashleigh’s eyes rest like a heavy hand on the back of his head.
“Fine,” he said, standing up from the couch. He crossed the living room toward the kitchen. “Just, you know, be subtle about it,” Ashleigh called after him.
John stopped in the middle of the room. “Do you want to go talk to her?”
“Absolutely not,” Ashleigh said. She then returned to her post at the living room window.
Outside the air was crisp and smelled faintly like smoke. John slowly walked across the house’s side porch, pointedly ignoring Janice’s work in the driveway below so he could act surprised to see her after depositing the trash in the can on the side of the house. As he approached the stairs leading down to the driveway, he noticed some foggy brown liquid dribble out of a corner of the garbage bag and onto his shoe. His strategy immediately evaporated and he scurried down the wooden steps. By the time he closed the plastic garbage lid, he remembered his purpose out there and turned to see Janice eyeing him with amusement. Her whispy hair looked like a foggy halo in the bright work-light glare.
“Nice night,” John said, stiffening himself into something like composure as he halved the distance between them.
Janice nodded, still wryly smiling, “It is.” Up close, she looked much more presentable than John had expected. She maintained good eye contact and her pale eyes were devoid of any obvious signs of crazy. In fact, she didn’t seem that weird at all — maybe just slightly dazed, like an old Deadhead or a scientist.
“I’m John, by the way. I live next door.”
“I’ve seen you.” She continued wrapping her hose around the large tin drums.
“What are you doing there?” John’s heart sank as soon as the words were out of his mouth, remembering Ashleigh’s plea for subtlety.
Janice stopped what she was doing, but thankfully seemed unfazed by the question. “If you run a hose around active compost like this you can get hot water.”
“You need hot water over there?”
“Sometimes,” Janice shrugged. She was still wryly smiling. Or was that just her face?
An uncomfortable silence grew between them.
“Well, nice to meet you, Janice.”
Janice nodded farewell, and John started walking back toward the house.
“You should take a pressure washer to those stairs there,” Janice called, stopping John at their base. “All that grey covering them is a kind of moss. The way you come roaring down you could get seriously hurt once the rains come.”
“Thanks. We’ll do that,” John replied.
It was only when he reached the back door that he realized the ridiculousness of taking maintenance advice from a lady with a house like that, even if it was her second home.
Ashleigh stood in the kitchen, waiting for him. “Compost hot water?”
“Ok, we can do your break-in,” John said.
The next day, they spent a long time deliberating how to best approach getting inside Janice’s house. Ashleigh swore the simplest thing was for John to find a way through the same broken kitchen window the squirrels used. John suggested they pick the lock instead. He often told the story about the time when, as a twelve-year-old, he taught himself to pick a Master lock with nothing more than a screwdriver and safety pin and instructions from the internet. He always ended the story by saying it was the first moment where he knew that he wanted to be a surgeon. Unfortunately, Ashleigh didn’t believe that story anymore. She brought up the sheer number of unfinished house projects which had accumulated since they’d started living together as proof that, if a project wasn’t graded or didn’t involve someone’s health being on the line, John wouldn’t finish it. Plus, they’d agreed to go into the house just around sunset, neither of them really wanting to deal with the added creepiness of full night. They couldn’t risk someone spotting them while it took John who-knows-how-long to trick that deadbolt into turning.
They argued through the afternoon. When it came time for their mission to begin, Ashleigh and John finally decided to just go take a look at the place. Once outside, they saw that the side door contained a single broken pane of glass, just large enough for someone to carefully stick their hand inside and unlock the door. They both laughed at their good luck, most of animosity from their argument suddenly melting away. John took of his button-down flannel and wrapped it around his right arm, and in the span of one held-breath, they made their way inside the house.
Ashleigh and John took in their surroundings, wide eyed, as their trespass filled them both with an intoxicating airiness. The side door brought them to a mud room that looked to have once contained a washer and dryer, but now seemed only to serve as a repository for old tools and coffee mugs and so much dust. Cheap particle-board bookshelves covered with these things lined the walls on two sides of the room. A small stack of rotting floor boards leaned in the far corner, covered with a dense and complex array of cobwebs.
“It seems like no one has been here in years,” John said.
Ashleigh just smiled and walked through the doorway leading to the rest of the house, now vague in the slowly fading daylight. John switched on his phone’s flashlight and followed.
An old oven lay on its side against the far wall of the kitchen. Another wall, separating the kitchen from what looked like the dining room, had been partially taken down to the studs. John walked over to the ancient ceramic sink and turned on the faucet. As the frigid water rushed over his fingers, he looked through the infamous broken kitchen window at his own house across the shared driveway. He thought about how scary it would be to see someone in there now, looking back at him. Thankfully, at that moment, he and Ashleigh were the only ones occupying someone else’s kitchen.
“What are you doing?” Ashleigh asked from the other side of the half-demolished wall, startling John from his hazy thoughts.
“Seeing if there’s any hot water. There isn’t.” “Come look at this.”
John shut off the faucet and joined Ashleigh in the dining room. She stood in the middle of the room shining her phone’s light on a sturdy credenza standing against the wall. A line of several figures were evenly spaced on top, all standing upright; some were made of wire, some carved out of wood, others looked like dried clay. They were different sizes, frozen in different positions, but all of them clearly people.
“I don’t like that,” was all John could muster.
“Right? You’d think Janice would have brought them with him if they were her kids’ old toys or something. And if she did just forget, wouldn’t some have been knocked over? I mean look at the rest of this place!”
“I think we should go back.”
“What are you talking about? We’re just getting started.”
Without another word, Ashleigh turned away. John reluctantly followed her into what looked like the former living room, now cleared of any furniture. In fact, all they saw in the quickly dimming space were several knee-high piles of sepia-colored newspapers, haphazardly stacked on the moldering gray carpet. Ashleigh trained her phone’s light on the closest pile.
“Oh my god,” she said gravely.
John stopped in the middle of the room, his heart jumping through his throat. “What?”
“This paper is from 1978. There’s an article here about all those horse rings from the early twentieth century that are still attached to the curbs.”
“It’s just crazy that there wasn’t more going on then. Like this was front page news.”
In that moment, John saw that what, for him, had so far been a scary, or at the very least uncomfortable experience, was for Ashleigh a mostly joyful one. He began to feel an itch somewhere deep beneath his skin. “Let’s go, Ash. We’ve seen enough.”
“We haven’t even been upstairs yet!”
John traced his flashlight across the room toward a black gap in the wall at the far corner. “Well, those are the stairs.”
John took the stairs two at a time, hoping to get this last part over as quickly as possible. The landing at the top opened up into what looked like a single open room, cloaked in dark. John probed the side of the space with his phone’s light and saw a window covered with blackout curtains. At that moment, Ashleigh stepped onto the landing beside him.
“Oh fuck,” she said.
Only then did John notice the gaunt face staring back at them from the middle of the cavernous room. It was a man’s face, so pale it looked overexposed in the harsh light of Ashleigh’s cellphone.
John’s breath caught in his chest. “You were right,” he said with fast-growing disbelief. “This whole fucking time you’ve been right.”
Ashleigh just stared at the scene in front of her, saying nothing. The man could have been in his 40s, but looked so frail and lifeless that it was impossible to tell, his skin the color and texture of some deep undersea fish. Slowly, Ashleigh painted the area around him with her flashlight, revealing the man’s long-out-of-fashion pajamas, the clean bare mattress on which he sat, perched on a glimmering brass frame. The wooden floors around the bed were littered with small pellets. Kibble. And those other things on the floor, those small mounds looking like scraps of old shoe leather, they must be —
Rats. Dead so long the liquid drained right out of them. Like mummies in a museum.
Ashleigh’s stomach flipped.
“Sir?” John now shined his own light on the man. “Sir, are you alright?”
“So bright.” The man’s voice was a dry whisper, his eyes two blinking drops of ink. He raised a hand in front of his face.
“Sorry.” John lowered his phone, resting his light on the man’s clothes. Ashleigh now saw that in spite of their obvious age, they were somehow still crisp, oddly new. “Sir, I’m a doctor. Do you need medical attention?”
“Help me up.”
John stepped into the room. Ashleigh watched him step over a line drawn on the floor. A perfect, meticulous circle traced around the room with the bed at its exact center. Ashleigh crouched, touched the circle. It was made of salt.
John stopped a couple of steps from the man and turned toward her.
“Let’s just call the police,” Ashleigh said.
“Help me out of here,” the man said. “Please.”
“He needs our help,” John said.
“I just have a bad feeling about this,” Ashleigh continued.
“Yeah? Well, me too. Because this place is fucked up.”
John turned and extended a hand to the man on the bed.
Ashleigh froze. She waited for the glimmer of slicing steel or jagged glass. But all that the man reached out with was a trembling, bony hand.
“Thank you, friend. True and endless thanks.”
John helped the man out of the bed, his bare feet scattering kibble across the wooden floor.
Slowly, they made their way across the room. The man looked so fragile, so small compared to John that Ashleigh wondered how she could have been afraid of him only a moment earlier. As they approached the stairwell, the man suddenly stopped, pointing at the line of salt in front of them. “Can you brush that away. My feet are bare, and this place is so filthy.”
John nodded with compassion, then did as he was asked.
Downstairs, Ashleigh followed the two men in a kind of daze, her focus locked on the floor in front of her, watching the two sets of footsteps shuffle in and out of the small disc of carpet illuminated by her flashlight.
“Do you remember when she brought you here?” John asked.
The man’s bare feet, shuffling stiffly from lack of use, but otherwise just as free as those of the younger man beside him.
“It must have been a long time ago.”
“She didn’t bring me here. She only kept me.”
Feet unbound by ropes or chains. Free down here, just as they had been upstairs.
“It’s my house,” the man continued.”
Ashleigh froze. “John.”
“This is your house? I thought Janice raised her family here.”
What was it that had kept him in that dark room upstairs?
“Are you Janice’s son?” John asked.
“I’m her husband.”
What had they done in setting him free?
In the time it took for John to turn around, Ashleigh had her answer. It was only a brief moment, the space between two breaths, but it was just long enough for a withered man to become something else. Just long enough for Ashleigh to watch that thing move from beside her husband to clear across the room. And long enough, before it disappeared from the crumbling house, for Ashleigh to see the vampire’s fleshy wings unfurl.
ALEX MORRIS is a writer and filmmaker. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, he currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their massive, clingy cat.
For all inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org