The first time I saw the house, when I was pledging for my fraternity, I fell in love with it. I’d been stuffed with stories about how haunted it was. They’d told me about the pledges who couldn’t even set foot on the porch, about the ones who had walked through the door and practically flown back out. They’d told me about the guy who spent the night there and had to be retrieved by daylight, white-haired and babbling, never sane again.
Ha, ha. Typical.
Now we were parked at the curb in front of it, two frat members and two pledges. Jonathan’s challenge had been last night; he had opened the door, closed the door, and sauntered back to the car, but somebody else had had to light his cigar, because his hands were shaking.
“It was cold in there,” he had said. “And it smelled like dead things. Like when a squirrel got between the walls in our house in the Hamptons and died.”
Tonight was my turn.
The house was beautiful: tall, red-brick, trimmed in white gingerbread, with a flirty little window in the attic.
“There it is, bro,” Maxime said, clapping me on the shoulder. “Think you can handle it?”
From the back seat, Jonathan said, “You don’t have to open the door, just because I did. Touching it is enough, isn’t it, Maxime? Willoughby?”
“Sure,” the others said, and Maxime clapped me on the shoulder again.
It didn’t matter. They weren’t going to accept me into their fraternity. They were what they called “old money,” meaning their great-grandparents had made a pile and their grandparents and their parents had increased it. I was “new money”, meaning my parents had started a real estate business in their garage that could buy and sell all their families put together.
I picked up the case I’d brought with me, and they snickered, not even waiting until I’d closed the car door behind me.
“Ghostbusters, assemble!” I heard Maxime say, muffled by the car window, and all three of them laughed.
My feet gritted on the old cement of the walkway. The streetlight made the silica in the old paving glitter as I walked.
Up the steps and across the porch, each step a solid thunk. The screen screeched on its hinges; naturally, the frat-boys liked the hellish screech. The door was a hollow-core replacement, probably a last-ditch, low-cost attempt by the previous owner to make a house he couldn’t keep up properly livable.
I didn’t even look back as I entered the house and closed the door with a click.
Sure enough, the house was haunted.
I felt the cold as soon as I opened the door. It intensified once the door was closed. My breath huffed out in clouds.
That smell Jonathan had made so much of rolled over me in waves. If I had eaten anything before I came, I would have lost it right there.
Flashes of movement and looming shapes of darkness pulled at the corners of my vision.
Then the whispers started. Incomprehensible, but somehow filled with menace.
I opened my case and took out an incense burner and a cone of rose incense. The smoke curled up, and the deathly stench slacked off.
“For the ladies,” I said, and lit it. I set it on the hardwood floor in the hall. While I was down there, I knocked on the floor. Solid.
In the front room, I lit a cone of sandalwood. “For the gentlemen.” The stench disappeared.
The whispers turned to gibbering, laughing, screaming. Unseen hands plucked at my clothes.
Time to use my secret weapon. I wondered if it would work. My mother claimed it would, not that she had ever envisioned me in this situation.
“Jeremy,” she would say, “you could talk a superhero to death!”
Let’s see what it could do to ghosts.
“So there was this one time,” I began, and went on from there. Just turned my mind off what I was saying and rambled while I worked, using the tools I’d brought in my case.
Gradually, so gradually I didn’t even notice it happening, believe it or not, the manifestations faded. By the time I’d covered the house from attic to cellar, I was alone in the house.
I sat on the bottom step of the entry staircase — hand-carved banisters; they knew how to build when this house went up — and lit my contained camping stove to boil water for coffee. While I waited, I pulled out one of the snacks I’d brought with me and hit speed-dial on my cell phone.
“Mom? Tell Dad the house is in great shape. Needs to be rewired, but the plumbing looks like it was redone maybe in the 50s.”
I went through the checklist, just like Mom and Dad had taught me, just like I’d done on summer vacations since I was old enough to toddle after them on house inspections.
When I came out in the morning, Jonathan and the frat boys were sleepy and lock-jaw furious that I hadn’t played along. If there had ever been any chance that I would get into their upper-crust club, that chance was gone.
I would imagine they were even more furious when they heard I had bought the house and moved in to fix her up. No more making pledges pee their pants on the porch — boo hoo!
Every time I go in or out of her, I pat her on the door post, kind of as a pledge to keep her strong and beautiful and safe.
I love this house.
Thursday doors is the brainchild of Norm Frampton, photographer extraordinaire. Visit his site, enjoy his wonderful photographs, follow his directions, and enter a world of doors.