You look up just as Tony brakes and makes a hard left off the street and onto a narrow path leading into a grove of citrus trees. The glossy green leaves rush by on each side as the car bounces and shudders over the uneven road beneath it. "Fuck," says Tony, "I just washed this."
Up ahead the grey of a cinderblock wall comes into view just beyond the approaching edge of the trees. There is an opening in the wall, with the rusted and bent remains of a light fixture on each side. No doubt a gated entrance at one time. The space inside is large, at least four times the size of a typical city lot, and in the center is a two-story stucco house.
The road is paved now, and Tony eases the car up and onto the front driveway, and the five of you climb out.
Even though the windows are boarded with plywood and a large portion of the second story appears blackened and charred on one side, you get the sense that the house is not really that old, not as old as your house, at least.
“Now you can give me one of those,” Bobby says, taking the case from you. He tears open one side, passes each of you a beer, and then sets the box on the driveway near his feet. “Bottoms up,” he says, popping the tab and putting the can to his lips.
You do the same, take three good swallows, and wipe your mouth with the sleeve of your shirt before realizing the others, heads back and eyes closed, are still drinking. You begin chugging the rest of yours as quickly as possible to catch up, the cold liquid burning your throat as you try not to gag.
“Woo!” someone exclaims, and you open your eyes to discover it was Ruth. “Woo!” she says again, fanning her face with one hand and blinking her eyes rapidly.
Both Tony and Bobby belch loudly and toss their cans over their shoulders onto the driveway behind them.
Not wanting to imitate them, you attempt to stifle your own burp, but it comes bubbling up your throat anyway, burning your nose and causing your eyes to water.
Then Joanne drops her empty and produces a belch so loud and so long that the rest of you all turn to stare at her.
“That’s my girl,” says Bobby, reaching into the open case and passing each of you another beer. You worry you’ll be expected to chug this one as well, but when he only takes a sip of his, you relax.
Ruth leans back on the car and takes a drink of her beer. When Tony walks over to stand next to her, she leans against him and he puts his arm around her shoulder. Thankfully, you begin to feel the effects of the alcohol, a pleasant numbing of your thoughts, and you turn away from them to get a better look at the house.
There is a variety of graffiti across the front, everything from your typical gang-tags in bold, gothic letters to various detailed and colorful images of male and female genitalia. Even though you do smell the piss and paint Joanne complained about, along with a sour, burnt odor, the sun on your face and the cool air in your lungs feels refreshing.
“You wanna go exploring?” Bobby asks Joanne, who is now sitting on the hood of the car.
“In there?” she asks, looking at the house and scrunching up her nose. “No.”
“What about you, Ruthie? Wanna see the blood stains in the baby’s room?”
She snuggles closer to Tony, takes another sip of her beer. “No. I’m good.”
“Well that just leaves you and me Lil’ Boot,” he says. “Hurry up and finish that beer.”
You put the can to your lips and start to drink, relieved to have something to do with yourself.
“No,” says Tony. “This is Baby’s first time. He has to go by himself.”
“Oh, man,” says Bobby. “That’s right.”
You finish your beer, toss it onto the driveway behind you, and shrug. “Okay,” you say. “I’ll go.”
“All the way,” says Tony.
“Yeah,” adds Bobby. “Upstairs to the baby’s room. Touch the crib.”
“Fine,” you say, emboldened by the beer. “You want proof? Need me to bring something back?”
“Something of the baby’s, Baby,” says Tony. “Or don’t come back.”
Ruth elbows him in the ribs, not very hard, but you appreciate the gesture all the same.
“And if you have, like a cross or something,” adds Bobby as you make your way to the front door, “even better, a Rosary. I’d take that shit out.”
The front knob is missing so you push on the splintery, spray-painted wood until the door scrapes open far enough for you to step inside. You stand there a moment in order for your eyes to adjust.
Tony calls out, “What are you waiting for, Baby?”
You remind yourself that you should be more worried about black widows and rusty nails in here than dead babies, but the beer is making it difficult to overthink anything at the moment, so you step out of Tony’s view and move farther into the darkness.
The partially open door behind you, gaps in the window coverings, and what are most likely bullet holes in the walls are the only sources of light, but as your eyes adjust, the space around you very slowly comes into view.
There is a mattress in the center of the room and empty cans and bottles everywhere. On the floor near the mattress is a board with the melted remains of a candle, a large spoon, and other objects you don’t care to recognize. Except where the plaster is punched and kicked in, the walls are even more layered with graffiti than the outside of the house. The smell too, is much, much worse.
Now you see there is a staircase rising to your left. You head that way, watching where you step and careful not to trust the railing. Halfway up, you hear a sound from above, a creaking of the floor. Maybe someone is up there. You stop to listen, but there is nothing now but the thrumming of your own pulse in your ears. You continue to climb, assuring yourself that the ruined condition of the house is the cause, and not some junkie lying in wait for you.
At the top of the landing there are three doors. The first will only open about six inches before it hits something heavy on the other side. You move on. The second door is open. It leads to a bathroom. You peer down the darkened hallway to the final door. That could be a child’s bedroom, right? That’s where parents would secure their youngest children, safer on the second floor, but not so close to the stairs?
There is less light up here and the air is thicker, warmer. Even so, a sensation, like an icy breath on the back of your neck, sends a shiver down your spine. You don’t want to go in there. You shake it off, this sudden dread, and force your legs to carry you down the hall.
It opens, the last door, easily, and you step inside. An empty dresser frame, much like the one in your own room, stands against the wall to your right, two of the drawers lie upside down on the floor, the others, smashed, or simply missing. A bedframe with no mattress is pushed against the far wall beneath the boarded-up window.
There it is, that chill again. There is a presence in this room, you feel it on your skin. Maybe they’re not just stories, maybe someone really died in this room. Every part of you wants to turn and run. But no. You made it this far. You need something, something that says you were up here.
You take another step into the room, turn to your left and someone is standing there.
The sight of him is like an electric shock, you flinch and gasp in the same instant, and then, just as suddenly, you realize it’s only a mirror. You are looking at yourself in a mirror, the same blue plaid shirt and worn jeans, the same feathered bangs falling into your eyes. You breathe a slow, deep sigh of relief.
And then the mirror speaks. “Matthew, what the fuck, man?”
You stagger backwards, stumble, and fall on top of one of the empty drawers, crushing it beneath you.
He moves toward you, hands reaching. “Matthew,” he hisses. “Listen to me!”
Desperately, you try scrambling to your feet, but the broken pieces of drawer slide sideways from under your hands and you fall again, hitting the back of your head on the dresser frame.
Now he has you, fists twisting into the front of your shirt as he lifts you from the floor and pulls you to him. “Pretty soon,” he says, the tip of his nose pressed against your own. “You’re going to have to run, Matthew.”
You cry out, tear his hands from your chest, and rush through the open door into the hall.
“Do you hear me?” he calls after you. “It’s your only choice!”
At the top of the stairs, you look back. He’s standing in the hall. “Run, Matthew,” he says, and then, in a blink, he’s gone.
And that’s exactly what you do, run. Down the stairs and out the front door.
The guys explode with laughter the moment they see you, but you don’t stop running until Tony’s car is between you and the house.
“Oh shit!” shouts Bobby. “Dude’s fucking terrified!”
You lean forward against the car to steady yourself, but your eyes remain fixed on the front door.
“Matthew,” says Ruth, pushing away from Tony and coming around to your side of the car. “Are you alright?”
You nod, try to say, yes, you’re fine, but you’re breathing so hard you can’t speak. Out here in the sun with everyone staring at you and now Ruth coming to your rescue, you suddenly feel ridiculous. You close your eyes and rest your head against the top of the car.
“Aw, leave him alone, Ruthie,” says Tony. “He’s fine.”
“No, he’s not, Tony.” she says, gently touching your arm. “He’s bleeding.”
A few minutes later, you’re sitting against the back bumper of Tony’s car with no shirt on, holding a blood covered two-inch shard of broken beer bottle in your hand while Tony prods the back of your arm with his fingertips. “Looks like that’s all of it,” he says.
“Are you some kind of paramedic or something?” you ask. As soon as Tony saw the glass in your arm, he took charge, opening his trunk and producing a black duffle bag filled with first aid supplies.
“This?” he asks, reaching into the bag. “Athletic trainer stuff. I like to keep my own supplies on hand."
You toss the glass into the dirt near your feet. “Oh.”
“Hold this,” he says, handing you a package of gauze and a roll of white athletic tape. “The school doesn’t always have what I need, when I need it, so most of the time I have to take care of myself, and sometimes my teammates.”
“Probably not many glass injuries though, right?”
“You’d be surprised,” he says, spraying some kind of aerosol antiseptic on your arm. “People leave a lot of dangerous shit on a ball field.”
He takes the tape from you, tears off two pieces about six inches each, and sticks them lightly to the back of his hand. Then he removes the gauze from its package, places it against your arm, and tapes it in place.
As he works, you can’t help but notice the size of his arm next to yours and the snug way the sleeves of his blue polo fit around his biceps. Your own arm is pale and skinny in comparison.
“All done,” he says, handing you your shirt.
“Thanks,” you say, pulling your injured arm stiffly through the sleeve.
He zips his bag closed and then reaches up to take hold of the open trunk lid, but instead of closing it, he asks, “What did you see up there, kid? We heard you scream.”
“And you were saying something. Were you talking to someone?”
You shake your head, continuing to fumble with the buttons of your shirt. “No, of course not. I thought I, uh, I guess I just psyched myself out, let the whole ghost thing get to me.”
He smiles, nods his head. “See, now the next time you bring your own friends up here, you’ll know what to do.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Listen kid, my girlfriend, Ruth?”
“She’s a nice person,” he says. “Nice to everyone, too nice sometimes. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
You don’t want to hear what he’s saying. You don’t want to look at him. But you do.
“Don’t be falling in love with her, you understand? You’re only going to get hurt.” He brings down the lid he’s been holding, slams it firmly shut. “She’s mine.”
You look toward the front of the car where the others have been hanging out, see Ruth come hurrying over. “All better?” she asks.
You try to focus on the bloodstained slash in your sleeve, at the white tape beneath it. “Yeah.”
“Bobby,” you hear Tony say as he walks away. “Put that bologna down. It’s not for you.”
Ruth touches your sleeve. “Should I be sorry, Matthew,” she asks, “for bringing you? Do you regret coming?”
You look at her standing there, biting the corner of her lip, eyes searching your face. “No,” you lie. “Not at all.”
And then she smiles at you and something stalls, sputters, and then starts up again in your chest. The voice from upstairs continues to ring in your ears, it’s your voice and it’s saying, Run, Matthew. Run, but you ignore it.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.