By Bobby Mathews
I believe in haunted houses. I guess I have to believe in them, after living next to one for so many years. Hidden House is a hulking wreck now, shrouded in weeds, kudzu, and trees that have grown up in the yard. But I remember when it haunted my dreams every night, and when the sounds of a man’s screams could be heard in the eerie stillness of dusk.
As far as I know, there has only been one murder at Hidden House. On August 9, 1979, Jerome Baxter took a shovel and caved in the back of his stepfather’s head. Jerome was arrested, tried, and convicted of second-degree murder. The court shipped him off to some prison or other, and I’ve never been able to find out exactly what happened to him after that.
But I know what happened to Hidden House. Two weeks after the murder, Mrs. Baxter and her other children moved out of the place. To be more accurate, they abandoned it. But I didn’t find that out until later that year. I had always been afraid of Hidden House, and now that no one lived there, I was doubly so. It was a small frame house, unpainted and splintering along the wooden eaves. The windows were blank, expressionless eyes. A railed porch ran the length of the front of the house; the roof was gray shingles hung at an awkward angle. The front door was slightly askew, and it gave the place an appearance of eternal hunger. Often I rode my bicycle past Hidden House, speeding up as the watchful, restless windows came into view. None of the neighborhood kids would go inside, even though the door was unlocked.
One morning Tim Hutcherson came by. He was one of the few kids my age in the neighborhood, and we had become close friends. “I’m going to go in there today,” he said. I didn’t need to ask where. Hidden House crouched low in a bend of the road, almost impossible to see from more than ten yards away — but it seemed to send out a homing beacon: whenever I went outside I would find my gaze drawn in the direction of the ugly, graying house. Tim was wearing cutoff shorts and a t-shirt, his hair done up in exotic little cornrows held in place with beads. “You want to come?” Neither of us had ever been inside the house, even though Jerome had sometimes baby-sat for our mothers. My curiosity overpowered my sense of fear.
“Yes,” I said.
And that was how I found myself straddling my secondhand bicycle, staring at the gaping maw of Hidden House not twenty feet away while Tim checked around to see if anyone was watching us. I dropped the kickstand on my bike and hoisted my leg over the seat as Tim came back around the house.
“No one’s around.” Tim’s voice was almost a whisper. “Come on.”
He stepped up onto the porch and rested a hand lightly on the doorknob. I stood beside my bike, one hand absently fingering the duct tape that crisscrossed the handlebars. Tim looked back at me expectantly. I joined him on the porch, the boards beneath us groaning a welcome. He pushed the door open and we got our first look at Hidden House. All was quiet and dark within. The front room had been a living room or den. A Zenith console TV sat against the far wall, its picture tube impaled by a coat rack. A love seat was overturned and the stuffing ripped out. Pictures of the Baxter family still hung crookedly on the walls. There was a bunched-up throw rug in one corner. A three-dimensional portrait of Jesus sat on the fireplace mantle. Quickly, we went through the whole house.
In addition to the sitting room, there were three bedrooms, a bath, and a kitchen-dining room combination. The story was the same in each room. The Baxters had left everything: furniture, photos, bed linen, silverware, dishes. There were some old comic books in one of the bedrooms, and then we found Jerome’s room.
“Check this out!” Tim kept his voice low, even though there was no one around. He handed me a framed photograph. It was Jerome’s senior portrait; he was good looking, his skin the same shade as a coffee bean. His tightly-curled hair was cropped close to his skull, and his smile showed prominent, even teeth.
A bureau stood upright in one corner of Jerome’s room. Tim began opening the drawers.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
“Jerome wouldn’t like it,” I said, “you looking through his stuff.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tim said. “He’s in jail, remember?”
I nodded slowly. Somehow it did matter to me, but I didn’t have the words to express that to Tim. I walked out into the hallway without saying anything else. I still had Jerome’s photo in my hands. He looked so happy. Young. Free. I wished I could reach the boy that was in that photo, shake him and tell him, “This summer you’re going to get into a fight with your stepdad, and you’re going to do something really terrible. Whatever happens, don’t pick up that shovel. You’ll go to jail if you do.” I hung my head and concentrated on not crying; I had liked Jerome.
I stared at the floor for a long time before I realized what I was looking at. It was a stain on the bare wooden floor, making the boards slightly darker than the ones around them. The stain was rust-colored, and I thought I knew what it was. That’s it, I thought. I’m looking at where it happened. And then a hand closed on my arm.
I jerked my arm back and barely stifled a scream. It was Tim. “Scared you,” he said. He grinned widely, his teeth very white in the gloom of the house.
“No you didn’t,” I whispered hoarsely. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck were standing on end, a million tiny lightning rods. “Look there.” I pointed at the stain on the floor.
Tim recognized what it was at once. “Blood,” he said, and I nodded quickly.
“Do you think it happened here?” He said. “Or do you think it happened in one of these rooms and they fought out here?”
“No way to know, I guess.”
Tim looked around. “Which one was her room?”
I pointed across the hall. “In there, I think.”
He paused, as if making up his mind. “Let’s go take a closer look.”
We went into the bedroom, Tim a little ahead of me. The bed was rumpled and dusty. Rats had chewed at the stuffing, gathering materials to build a nest. In the bedroom it seemed the coppery, dank smell of blood overpowered every other sensation. There was broken glass on the floor, and the drapes had been torn down and left in a tangle on the floor. We looked around for a few minutes, and then Tim spoke.
“What?” I said.
“Look over there.”
Pushed against the far wall was a cheap pine dresser that sat low and humble, almost penitent. A mirror ran the length of the dresser and reflected the whole of the room.
There was a woman lying on the bed.
I turned and looked at the bed, its sprawled and chewed mattress hanging half off the bed. There was no one there. I looked at Tim, and he shrugged as if to say, “I don’t know how it did that either, but it’s there.” We looked back at the mirror.
The room was suddenly dark, and the woman on the bed was a mere shadow. Her dark brown skin melded with the shadows in a sinuous dance. Her body was Rubenesque, and she was naked. It was Jerome’s mother. Dimly, I was aware of a man standing in the doorway, coming toward Mrs. Baxter. He had a thick leather belt in one hand, and he kept wrapping the belt around his fist until only about twelve inches dangled loose, the large metal buckle swaying loosely at the end.
“Gon’ git it now, bitch.” His voice was slurred and sluggish, and he weaved like a boxer in the twelfth round of a hard fight, and I realized he was drunk.
Mrs. Baxter lay very still on the bed. “You don’t gotta do that, baby. I’ll be a good girl.” It was a little girl’s voice, pleading and frightened. The man came closer, and I recognized him as Jerome’s stepfather.
“Damn right you will,” he said. It seemed I could smell the rancid grapes of cheap wine on his breath. Jerome’s stepfather slapped the bed with the whip of belt he held in his hands. It made a flat whap, an understated harbinger of violence. Mrs. Baxter cringed and drew her feet tight against her body, curling into a tight ball. And then I remembered the scars on her legs. I had seen them that summer when she had come up to check on Jerome while he was playing with Tim and me. They formed an ugly zebra pattern up her calves, which I had seen beneath the floral-print housedress she always wore. The scar tissue was puckered and pink against her otherwise smooth skin. Had there been new welts on her legs when I had seen her? I believe there were.
So this was nothing new for Mrs. Baxter, or her husband, whose name I can never remember. He started by caressing her with the edge of the leather strap. He ran it up her calves, across her thighs and belly. That’s when I saw the scars patterned all over her body, even her arms. I had never noticed them there before.
He kept on, lightly at first. A teasing smack against her rear, a little harder on her shoulders. Jerome’s stepfather continued to hit Mrs. Baxter, moving the belt in time to his own private rhythm. I began to wince as the blows grew harder and harder, and still he beat her. Mrs. Baxter began to writhe against the bed, her body helplessly torn between two imperatives. She wanted to submit to her husband, and yet the need for self-preservation had taken over. Mrs. Baxter whirled off the bed, her hands up to shield her face.
“No more, Ronnie,” she said. “No more. I ain’t done nothin’.”
She backed into one corner of the room and sat down, as if her body was suddenly to heavy for her quivering legs.
“I know you ain’t done nothing,” Ronnie said, his brown eyes nearly glowing in the fever-pitch of his violence. “I work all damn day at the chicken plant an’ come home, you ain’t go no dishes washed. You ain’t got no supper cooked. You a goddamn lazy whore.”
The belt came down again, this time landing on Mrs. Baxter’s back while she hunched in the corner. When Ronnie ripped the belt back toward him, there was a thin line of blood along Mrs. Baxter’s shoulder blades and a hint of blood on the buckle of the belt.
Mrs. Baxter screamed and arched her back away from the wall. I could see the ugly rip in her flesh, and turned my head away for a moment. Tim swayed beside me, mesmerized by the mirror. His mouth hung open and his eyes were blank. I didn’t want to see any more, but I had to see what happened. I couldn’t make myself turn away. When I looked in the mirror, I was consumed once more.
Ronnie pulled the belt back for another swing and the buckle caught in the drapes. They came down with a crash, and Mrs. Baxter scooted back toward the bed. She was sobbing loudly now, her breath hitching in long, awful gasps. Mrs. Baxter made it halfway under the bed before Ronnie caught her. His callused brown hand caught her by one ankle, while the other hand flailed away with the belt. He began to beat her bare buttocks, bringing blood with every strike. The buckle caught the back of her thigh and ripped down her leg. The wailing was horrible, and she thrashed her feet wildly to free herself from the killing frenzy of her husband. One foot caught Ronnie in the groin, and he backed away, his howls joining those of Mrs. Baxter.
“I’ll kill you for that,” he said. His voice had dropped an octave, and a slow grin spread across his face. In all my years before or since, never have I seen murder written so plainly across another person’s face.
Ronnie crawled toward her. Mrs. Baxter was mostly under the bed by this time, but he simply caught her by the foot and began to drag her into the open. Ronnie’s hands were large, with thick yellow nails that seemed luminous in the dim room. The nails were long and almost pointed, and he dug them into Mrs. Baxter’s skin as he pulled her from underneath the bed. There were bloody little half-moons where his hands touched her.
Finally, he tangled his fist in Mrs. Baxter’s hair and pulled her to her feet. He slung her into the far wall next to the window, and the house shuddered on its foundation. Ronnie held Mrs. Baxter against the wall and began to punch her. Jerome’s mother tried to ward off Ronnie’s hands, but he was too strong for her.
“No,” she said, over and over. I heard her front teeth shatter after one vicious punch, and I saw the fragments of bone hit the floor and scatter.
“Please,” Mrs. Baxter said. “Please, somebody help me.”
For a moment, I thought she saw Tim and me, standing there in her room, two innocent tourists who had stumbled on an ugly scene of death. Her hand reached out toward us, pleading.
And then Jerome was in the doorway, and there was a rusted shovel in his hands. His mouth was open wide, his scream an unintelligible howl of rage. The shovel swung in a high arc, and the blade split Ronnie’s skull the way a good cleaver can split an apple. Jerome’s stepfather turned and staggered to his knees. The belt was still wrapped around his right hand. He howled in pain. Ronnie tried to struggle to his feet, and Jerome hit him again. Only this time I didn’t see Jerome’s face in the mirror. I saw mine. I brought the shovel down again and again, until there was blood and gore splattered across the floor, until my arms were heavy leaden weights attached to my shoulders. I could feel the handle of the shovel crack and splinter. Perhaps I held the shovel, but Jerome’s strength swung it. I kept chopping away at Ronnie until he stopped moving. And then I hit him some more. Exhausted, my eyes cleared, and I saw Jerome again, dragging the shovel behind him into the hall. He left a smear of blood across the floor, a red badge that would mark him forever.
He came back in a few minutes and walked over to his mother’s dresser. He fumbled around in it for a few minutes until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he said to his mother. “Put this on.” It was a pink housedress; he held it out to his mother at arms’ length and did not look at her. Ronnie’s body lay unmoving on the floor. As I watched, a fly settled on it and buzzed serenely.
Then the mirror cleared, and I shook my head. Tim swayed beside me, still drunk with the vision we had shared. “What did you see?” I asked.
“I saw Jerome’s mom and stepdad,” Tim said. “And I saw Jerome kill him, but it wasn’t really Jerome, you know?”
“I know,” I said.
“He looked like. . . me.”
“Me too,” I said.
Tim’s legs were weak, and he started to sit down on the bed, then changed his mind. “No way,” he said. “We can’t stay in here. We gotta get out.”
We left Hidden House the way we had found it. The other kids in the neighborhood finally got the nerve to go inside, several years later. I never asked them what they saw, and they never told me. But I know no one ever went in twice. Someone came by one night and threw rocks through all of the windows, so now the house doesn’t watch anyone anymore. It sits in a bend of the road, its blind eyes staring straight ahead. Through the years, it has shifted forward on its foundation so that it almost leans into the road, a blind beggar reaching for scraps of food. Sometime last year, the roof of Hidden House caved in. I can no longer bear to look at it. It looks too much like Jerome’s stepfather did as he lay dead on the floor of Mrs. Baxter’s room.
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