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Since Anybody Lived Here

Since Anybody Lived Here ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The Heaton house was down the street from the school, on a corner lot, high above the street. It was a big house, three stories, but the most interesting aspect of the house was that it was unoccupied; nobody had lived there for a long time.

The yard of the Heaton house was a mass of dead tangled weeds. A dead tree lay diagonally across the front yard, having pulled part of the front porch down with it. The house had once been painted white, but most of the paint had peeled off, revealing underneath the ugly gray of decaying wood. Windows on the first floor were boarded up, to discourage anybody from climbing through, but most of the higher-up windows still had glass in them, through which remnants of curtains, like ghostly apparitions, were visible from the street.

My friends and I passed the Heaton house going to and from school every day. We had heard the stories about the dead bodies in the house—some in coffins and some not—and about the old woman with the ax who would cut your head off if she got the chance; about the sounds of moans and clanking chains coming from the house late at night that nobody had actually heard but only claimed to have heard.

We longed to see the inside of the house, to see firsthand the dead bodies and whatever other horrors it held. It would be difficult to get inside, but not impossible. There’d be a certain amount of risk involved. We’d have to be careful and not get caught. If I got caught, I might go to jail but, worse than that, I’d be in all for all kinds of trouble at home, not the least of which would be months and maybe years of bitching and yelling.

On a gusty Saturday night in the middle of October, I told my mother that I was going to walk to the show downtown with my friend Alonzo Ficket. I had already seen the picture that was playing and knew all about it, so I was covered in case I was questioned about it later.

“Be home by eleven,” she said.

I met Alonzo on the corner by the church and we walked over to Carl Duffel’s house. Carl’s parents were gone for the weekend and he was left alone with Gwen, his older sister. She was a teenager, so she didn’t care what Carl did or how late he stayed out. Reggie Tolland was already at Carl’s house when we got there. Reggie didn’t have a father and his mother was always drunk, so he could stay out all night if he wanted to and nobody would even know it. We had all the bases covered.

After Carl showed us his small flashlight that fit into the palm of the hand and his pack of cigarettes and box of kitchen matches, the four of us set out for the Heaton house, about six blocks away.

Near the Heaton house, a dog started barking but, except for that, the neighborhood was quiet. The nearest streetlight was pretty far away, so it was dark enough where we were that any nosy neighbors wouldn’t see us from a distance and alert the police.

We walked all the way around the Heaton house two times, crunching leaves under our feet but trying to be as quiet as possible. There was only one small window on the ground floor that wasn’t boarded up. It was higher than our heads, but we figured that would be the best way to get inside.

We didn’t have anything as practical as a crowbar, but Reggie had a screwdriver in his coat pocket. Alonzo gave him a boost so that he could stick the screwdriver under the bottom of the window and try to pry it open.

He got the window up high enough with the screwdriver to be able to replace the screwdriver with his fingers and push up. It took a lot of effort and he was showered with old paint fragments, but he raised the window high enough to crawl through, which he did without hesitation. In two minutes we were all inside, standing in what had once been the kitchen.

Carl shone his flashlight around the large room. Against the wall were places where a refrigerator and a cook stove had been. The kitchen sink was pulled away from the wall and dangled at an inhuman angle a couple feet off the floor.

“I don’t like it in here,” Alonzo said. “It smells funny.”

“Go wait outside, then!” Reggie said.

“I think it’s interesting!” Carl said. “Let’s go this way!”

Carl had the light, so we all followed him into the next room, which would have been the dining room. The windows were boarded up from the outside, but there were still remnants of curtains hanging over the windows. From the middle of the ceiling hung part of a shattered chandelier suspended from a single wire.

“This must be where they had parties,” Carl said.

“I think I heard something!” Alonzo said, turning around quickly.

“It’s probably that old woman with the ax,” Reggie said. “She’ll come up behind you and cut your head off before you even see her!”

“Shut up! You’re not scaring me!”

“This way!” Carl said.

The next room was the front room, what would have been the living room. It was a long, rectangular room, with three large windows boarded over.

“Look!” Carl said. “There’s the stairs that go up!”

“Are we going up there?” Alonzo asked.

“Of course we are! Isn’t that what we broke in for? You can wait down here if you want to.”

Carl led the way with the light, fearlessly, and the rest of us followed.

Halfway up the stairs was a landing and then a turn to the left to go up the rest of the way.

“Don’t lean on the banister,” I said. “It’s coming loose in places.”

“The stairs are strong enough!” Carl said. “I like it here! I could live here!”

“That’s because you’re really a ghoul!” Alonzo said.

“Thanks! I like ghouls! I’d rather be a ghoul than a baby!”

“I’m not a baby. I’m not even all that scared.”

He may not have been scared, but he was holding on to the back of my jacket as if he was.

At the top of the stairs was a hallway with four doors leading to other rooms. Two of the doors were closed and the other two partly open. Carl shone his light on the walls in all the rooms, but there was nothing to see. One of the rooms was a bathroom from which the fixtures had been removed. In one of the rooms was a dusty pile of boards and a barrel with a rat’s skeleton in it. If  we had been hoping to see skeletons hanging from their necks or ghosts or dead bodies, we were disappointed.

“This is so great!” Carl said. “I’ll bet there were lots of murders that happened here!”

We proceeded down the hallway cautiously, our footsteps resounding on the bare floor. We would have had to take our shoes off to be really quiet and I don’t think any of us wanted to do that.

At the other end of the hallway was another smaller stairway going up to the third floor.

“Are we going up there?” Alonzo said. “There’s no telling what might be up there!”

“If there’s anything good to see,” Reggie said, “we’ll see it.”

On the third floor were three small rooms without doors. In one of the rooms were dusty bookshelves, empty except for a beer bottle with a cigarette butt in it.

“Somebody’s been here!” Carl said.

“Yeah, that’s real scary!” I said.

“No dead bodies and no old woman with an ax,” Alonzo said. “It all turned out to be a hoax!”

“Hey, if we had some beer we could have a little party!” Carl said. “We’ve already got the cigarettes!”

He took his cigarettes and matches out of his pocket and, sitting down on the floor and leaning against the wall, lit up. The rest of us sat down, too. After Carl had his cigarette going, he generously passed around the pack and the matches and we all lit up. Soon we were all huffing in a cloud of smoke.

“Isn’t this great?” Carl said.

“This is the best thing we’ve done since summer,” Reggie said.

“If my mother knew I was smoking, she’d just die,” Alonzo said.

“You’d better not to go home tonight, then,” Carl said. “She’ll be able to smell it.”

“I don’t think so. She smokes herself, so she’s used to the smell.”

“If the police came in now, we’d all go to jail,” I said.

“That’s not going to happen,” Reggie said. “Nobody knows we’re here. If we died here, it would be a long time before they found our bodies. They’d have to call in the FBI.”

“How long has it been since the Heatons lived here?” I asked.

“A hundred years,” Reggie said.

“I don’t think it’s been that long,” I said.

“How do you know so much about it?” Carl asked.

“My grandma remembered the family. She said they were odd. One of them committed suicide.”

“In this house?” Carl said. “I’ll bet it was in this very room!”

“Another one went insane.”

“That one probably murdered the whole family.”

“You know,” I said, sucking on my cigarette like a grown man, “we can’t ever tell anybody about this, no matter how much we want to brag about.”

“Why not?”

“If we tell one person at school, before you know it everybody will know. You know what people are like.”

“I think he’s right,” Alonzo said.

“I won’t ever tell,” Carl said. “On my word of honor.”

“I won’t ever tell anybody,” Reggie said.

“You know I won’t ever tell anybody about it,” Alonzo said. “I don’t want to go to jail. It would just about kill my mother.”

We smoked three or four cigarettes each. While we smoked we sat around talking and laughing about some of the ridiculous people at school, forgetting for the moment that we were in an unlawfully breached house.

It was after ten-thirty, so we decided it was time to go home. We each of us slithered out the same small kitchen window by which we had entered.

“We’ll have to do this again sometime soon!” Carl said.

Walking home, we all felt smart and resourceful, that we were able to see the inside of the fabled Heaton house without anything bad happening to us. My mother asked me how the movie was. I said it was a good movie and I had a wonderful time.

The next day was Sunday. My mother asked me to go to church with her in the morning, but I said I was sick at my stomach and needed to work on a book report for English class, so she relented.

I spent most of the day in my room, listening to the radio, reading the book I was supposed to write the report on, and doing plenty of nothing. I took a nap in the afternoon and woke up right before dinner.

That evening we were sitting in front of the TV watching the usual Sunday night fare, when we heard sirens. Not just one, but many.

“What in the world is going on?” my mother said.

We went out on the front porch. There was the unmistakable smell of smoke in the air.

We went back into the house and mother went into the kitchen, where I could hear her babbling on the phone. I knew she’d call one of her gossipy old friends and get the scoop without too much difficulty.

When she came back into the front room, I asked her what was burning.

“It’s the old Heaton house,” she said. “It’s been empty for years. Just a matter of time.”

“Do they know what caused it?” I asked. “It must have been lightning.”

“It’s probably some old drunken bum that went in there and started a fire to get warm.”

“I hope so,” I said.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

That night I had trouble sleeping. All night long I could hear sirens and smell smoke. Every time I went to sleep, I woke up with a start, thinking I had to get up and put out the fire before anybody knew I was the cause of it.

In the morning I walked the long way around so I wouldn’t have to walk past the Heaton house. When I got to school, I saw Alonzo first thing. He had a worried look on his face.

“Did you hear the news?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Do you think they’ll know we did it?”

“Did what?”

“Caused the fire.”

“You have to stop thinking that way!” I said. “Maybe we didn’t cause it!”

“Of course we caused it! It was the smoking!”

“Don’t say that where anybody can hear you!” I said. “Do you want to go to jail?”

“No, I really don’t want to go to jail!” he said.

“Then you don’t know anything! You didn’t see anything! You were nowhere near that house! Don’t even think about it! Got it?”

“I got it!

After lunch we saw Carl and Reggie and were able to have a private conversation with them outside the school building where nobody would hear us.

“I’m not worried,” Carl said. “Nobody saw us unless it was a ghost.”

“Nobody can prove anything,” Reggie said. “We didn’t do anything. The fire was caused by faulty wiring. It was just a coincidence that the fire started the day after we were in the house. We all know what a coincidence is, don’t we?”

“Sure, that’s a fourth grade word,” I said.

We all turned and looked at Alonzo, who looked not only doubtful but sick.

“I won’t tell anybody!” he said. “What kind of a fool do you take me for?”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp