There are places on this earth that one must never go. One of those is the old duplex on Marigold Crescent, in my hometown of Hinkley, South Carolina. One Halloween my best friend and I did anyway.
I suppose we got the idea while we were out looking for dead animals in the meadow, the two of us in our cheap costumes. I was the Batman and William was something the name of which escapes me, a creature from the African folk tales his grandfather had brought with him across the ocean, and had told William about and helped him in making a costume. I couldn’t name it but the getup involved much straw, and a wooden mask that he propped on top of his head since it didn’t have eyeholes.
We couldn’t find anything out in the thickets, and then William suggested it.
“Let’s go lookit the Moss place,” he said. A curious tightness wrapped around my chest and I didn’t look up, at first.
“You reckon?” I suggested.
“Yeah,” said William. “My dad says no such thing as monsters and shit. Probably nothing’ll happen.”
Probably? I admit I was intrigued. Though the sun was dipping behind the hills and the sky had tinted orange, it was still light out. Surely nothing awful could happen to us in the daylight. I tightened the straps of my plastic mask and we set off towards the suburb’s far end, where the Moss place waited like the silent ruins of a forgotten civilization.
I say that we got the idea while we were out there scraping around in the dirt and grass instead of trick-or-treating with the other kids, but it would be more apt to say that the germ was formed over several years. My parents had never told me to stay away from the place, and neither had William’s, but we supposed it must have been common knowledge, the way that the warning trickled down from the adults to the school kids and spread around the playground each October like a bad cold.
“Don’t go near that big house at the end of the road near Roger’s place,” warned Harry Stockton, as he did every year. “It’s haunted.”
“No such thing as haunted houses,” William would answer, and Harry would come back with a ‘Is so’, or ‘Yeah-huh’. The year previous he’d called William a vicious word that he must’ve learned quite recently, and they had it out on the blacktop to our classmates’ baying. I am sure it was in keeping with that grudge that William decided this year would be the year we went and saw this big house near Roger’s for ourselves.
The Moss place was an apt name, for the thing loomed like a massive gravestone covered in twisting vines, to say nothing of the dirt and sun-bleaching from too many years in disrepair. On the way there I’d consoled myself with the assumption that if anything harrowing were to occur, surely a neighbor on the street would notice and come to our rescue; but as we closed in on our destination a sucking, black emptiness surrounded me. It was a dreadful feeling, as though the neighbors, if in fact there were any, would sooner feed us to whatever lay within the Moss duplex, speed us to our fate rather than try to pull us back.
I heard an owl hoo somewhere near us, but couldn’t see it. Time seemed to dilate on the walk to that place, for by the time we reached it the sun was gone and all the light’s protection had drained from the world.
“I’m kind of scared,” I told William. He frowned, but I could see from the contour of his round cheeks and the way his gangly neck gulped that he was too.
“I’ll knock on the door,” he said. “Just walk up with me.”
Nailed boards covered one entrance to the duplex, and so we chose the other, a beaten white monolith with chipped brown lines and cracks like spider-webs on its face. The path was soft, strong with the scent from weeds that scraped and brushed our shins as we walked.
When we reached the door I gripped tightly the hem of my sleeve, like a sailor holding fast to a rope in a storm at sea. My heart thumped so loud I wondered how William couldn’t hear it, and he brushed the door with his fingertips.
“Just an empty ol’ house,” he said.
He took a deep breath, one so quiet he must have been trying to hide it from me, and knocked.
Nothing happened. Relief washed through me like a broken dam. William rolled his eyes, and laughed, then lifted his fist to knock again.
The door flew open on a phantom wind, and where there should have been shadow it was only white. A flowing ivory curtain shaped like a madman’s parody of a person, with two sockets as deep as death that must have been its eyes; it brandished its nub limbs and menaced us, chanting hatred in some ancient forgotten tongue.
William shrieked and fled in an instant, but I was shocked to the spot, warm urine flowing down my gray cotton trousers. I was almost driven mad in that couple of seconds, locking eyes with the white thing for an eternal moment before finding my legs and tearing off screaming from those tomb-like stairs.
I chased after William. He was much further out than I, already halfway down the street, sandals clapping on the pavement in his flight. I made to follow, but was stopped by a creaking hand on my shoulder, covered in cobwebs and bleached to the yellow of rotten teeth. A smirking skull loomed over me and parted its teeth to guffaw, every breaking ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ buffeting me with fresh horror that sent agony and strain through my knees. I collapsed, and knew that I had soiled myself again as I tumbled into an inky abyss.
I did not know when I caught sight of William running away from the house that it would be the last time I ever saw him. None of the other schoolkids seemed to know for sure where he had gone, only that his family had moved away less than a month later— when it was repeated, they never quite clarified that William had in fact gone with them when they did.
I have not gone near the Moss duplex again, nor do I ever intend to. To say that I am content to stay inside each Halloween would infer that I am happy, and I am not; when I seat myself by the window, staring out at the waist-high ghouls and goblins, superheroes and characters from old films, I would rather say that I endure. I endure every season of jack-o-lanterns and leaf-yellow sky, in a cresting cycle of nightmares where the specters of that place threaten to visit me again.