The Mourning House, Page 2Ronald Malfi
A small white house stood before him.
More appropriately, it was the vacant shell of a house, a weathered and ruined monstrosity. It peeled, sloughed, moldered, rotted. There were great mouthlike rents in the peaked roof and the windows were black portals into other dimensions. Half of a stone chimney bent crookedly away from the far side of the house. Loose roofing shingles lay about the bone-gray front porch, having been shed like reptilian scales.
He shut the car down and stepped out into the heat of midday. Despite the beads of sweat that dimpled his forehead and caused his shirt to cling wetly to his chest, he still felt cold. Tossing the car keys through the open window onto the driver’s seat, Sam approached the house, his scuffed boots crunching in the white gravel. The suggestion of a path, now long overgrown with weeds, was still faintly visible leading up to the front door of the house. Sam advanced through the grass and onto the path. Summer crickets rebounded off his shins.
Only half of a sign was posted crookedly across the front door—NO TRESPA. The door itself stood open just a few inches, a vertical strip of darkness and shadow running between the door and the frame. He could see the marks on the doorframe where someone had nailed boards over the entranceway, but those boards were no longer there.
No trespa indeed, Sam thought. Beneath his feet, busted bits of terracotta pottery crunched like seashells. When he reached out to push open on the front door the rest of the way, his hand was shaking worse than it had been earlier that day when the Xanax had worn off. The door squealed open. Instantly, the smell of ancient tombs and dry-rotted mummies infiltrated his nostrils. From where he stood, he could make out the slanted geometry of light within as daylight pressed against the otherwise opaque windowpanes.
The floorboards creaked like old bed springs as he stepped inside. The floor felt slanted and the walls reminded him, in both color and texture, of the cardboard backing of legal pads. They looked insubstantial enough for him to push a finger through the surface. There was no furniture to speak of, unless one considered old egg crates and upturned five-gallon paint buckets to be furniture. Detritus seemed placed almost strategically about the floor—crushed beer and soda cans, fast food wrappers, the spent shells of used fireworks. There was a stack of soggy comic books beneath one of the windows, a fuzzy brown mold spreading across the top book.
He walked around the place, peering into various rooms with inexplicable yet mounting curiosity. There were walls of chipped plaster and exposed beams. A collection of two-by-fours stood braced against another wall like a lean-to. Closets with missing doors. Extensive water damage. A singular gaping hole in the ceiling, beneath which the hardwood floor was spongy and black. The old stone hearth grinned, missing large chunks of itself like a mouth missing teeth. The kitchen counters were nothing more than unfinished planking. Rusted and flaking, the sink basin was shrine to tetanus, and a single spindly vine corkscrewed straight up out of the drain, as fine as a wisp of smoke. Sam cranked the faucet. Pipes bucked and whistled and moaned until a soupy brown sludge oozed from the spigot. Off to his left, fat black flies thumped lazily against the open doors of barren cupboards. Something pulpy and jam-like was smeared on the inside of one cupboard door. To Sam, it looked like blood spatter from a gunshot wound.
Back in the foyer, he followed a rickety stairwell to the second floor, the risers bowing beneath his feet as he climbed. The hallway at the top of the stairs was narrower than standard size. Rooms branched off from the hall, each one similarly claustrophobic in their smallness. Indecipherable graffiti had been sprayed on some of the walls. Someone had pressed a dull bronze coin into the plaster of another wall which glinted in the sunlight that came in through the grimy windows. Sam went to one of the windows and was able to look out in the direction he had come, and could see the dilapidated church far in the distance. From another room, he could see the expansive sea of golden scrubland that yawned out to a thin veil of trees and, beyond the trees, the expansive coal-colored water of the Chesapeake Bay.
It felt like the house could collapse in on him at any moment. Which was why it was strange when, the following day, Sam bought the dump.
County land records showed the property had been willed to a woman named Constance Ballantyne in 1992. Ballantyne was a buxom widow in her late sixties who apparently had no compunction about driving down from Baltimore on short notice to meet Sam at the Kent Island county clerk’s office. Presumably under the assumption that Sam was a prominent land developer, Ballantyne came dressed to impress, her neck adorned with large colored stones housed in silver links of chain, her knobby, arthritic fingers bejeweled. Heavy on the makeup, her face looked like something out of a child’s nightmare about cannibalistic clowns; the image was only underscored by her hair, which was dyed bronze and clung to her scalp in tight ringlets, resembling a motorcycle helmet. When Sam explained that he was not in fact a wealthy land developer, he could actually see the older woman deflate as she sat across from him at the tiny table in the county clerk’s office.
“Then why in the world would you want that property, Mr. Hatch?”
“To be honest, I’m not really sure. I guess it just called to me.”
She eyed him curiously from behind false eyelashes gummy with mascara. Then she slid the property deed over to him. “It’s six full acres, you know,” she said. “It runs from the main road—that would be Tar Road, the one that runs in front of the property—all the way back to the tree line at the end of the east field, just before you reach the water. The property has been in my family for years. When my mother died in ninety-two, God rest her soul, it fell into my lap.”
“Did you grow up in that house?”
“In the house?” She seemed insulted. “Lord, no. No one ever lived there, at least not all year round. My grandfather built it with his brothers when they were young men. They used to come down from Baltimore and work summers on the water, so they needed a place to stay. Back then, it was just the one floor. The second floor was added some years later, after hunters started renting it for weeks at a time. After my grandfather passed, the ownership of the house just got shuffled around through my family in a weighty sort of roulette. We’ve had the occasional renters—hunters, mostly—but they never stay more than a season, and even they don’t come around asking about the place anymore, probably because it’s gone to pot. I guess I would have sold it sooner but, to be honest, Mr. Hatch, I hadn’t thought about that property in nearly a decade. A few years ago my tax attorney asked why I hung onto it just to pay the property tax and, I swear it, Mr. Hatch, for a couple seconds I hadn’t the foggiest clue what he was talking about. It’s like it didn’t exist for all those years and it took my tax attorney, of all people, to summon it back into existence.”
“You have no problem getting rid of it now?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it doesn’t hold any…sentimental value for you?”
“Oh, heavens.” She waved a well-manicured hand at him. “Sentimental? Lord! It’s better I get rid of it before some kid breaks his leg playing out there and I get slammed with a lawsuit.” She leaned closer to him, and for one bizarre moment he thought she might kiss him. “My cousin Howard made me an offer to buy it a few years ago, and I was more than happy to let it go to him. He packed up and went out to the property and, from what I understand, he stayed a few days at the house, most likely checking out the place to see what he could make of it—I have a vague recollection of his wanting to turn it into a bed and breakfast or some such nonsense—but by the end of the week, he fled. When I finally tracked him down and asked about the purchase, he said he’d changed his mind.”
“You say ‘fled’ as though someone or something chased him out.”
“I just assumed his financing or whatever had fallen through. If you knew my cousin Howard, you’d know what I mean. A dreamer, always with his head either in the clouds or buried in the sand.” Her eyes narrowed but she grinned like a Cheshire cat. “
Since you’re not a developer, or so I take your word on that, can I ask what you plan to do with the house, Mr. Hatch?”
“I’m going to live in it,” he said.
“Ah. You can do well by tearing it down and building a palace on all that land. Six acres, remember. If you have the means, of course.”
“No, I’m not tearing it down. I’m going to live in it.”
“As it currently stands?”
Sam shrugged. “I’ll clean it up a bit, do some repair work. There’s a pretty big hole in the ceiling.”
“You understand that place should probably be condemned, correct? That it isn’t even wired for electricity? There are probably rats in there the size of small dogs.”
“And the plumbing spurts brown water,” he added. “Yes, I’m aware of its current state, shortcomings and all. Are you trying to talk me out of buying it?”
She offered him a timorous smile. There was lipstick on her teeth. “No, Mr. Hatch. Quite the opposite, though I want to make sure you don’t regret your decision and decide I…let’s say, swindled you on it.”
“Of course not.”
“In that case, to each his own.”
“Well, then,” she said. “Good luck to you.”
And she signed the paperwork over to him.
There was a Walmart down by the highway where he found everything he needed to do repair work on the house. At the cash register, he paid for the supplies with what cash he had remaining in his wallet. Aside from some pickup jobs during his cross country jaunt, he hadn’t held a steady job in about eighteen months. The check he wrote to Constance Ballantyne took a sizable bite out of what savings he still had.
“Shit,” he said, pausing as he handed the young female cashier a wad of bills.
The cashier snapped her gum and looked instantly distrustful of this long-haired, bearded bum in filthy painter’s pants and a tattered T-shirt. “Is there a problem, sir?”
“My wedding ring. It’s gone.”
“It must have happened here in the store.” Though he couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d noticed it. Since the wedding, it had become a part of him, and it wasn’t something he was constantly aware of, the way some men are. “Could I leave this stuff back—”
“Why don’t you—”
“—here while I—”
“—take a look around the store,” she finished for him.
“Yes,” he said. “I will. Thank you.”
He searched for over an hour, creeping up and down the aisles of the superstore, but could not find his wedding band. And the longer he searched, the more he started to wonder if he’d lost it in this store at all, that it was just as plausible that it had come loose and fallen off his finger in any of the myriad cities in which he’d stopped over the past year and a half, anywhere in the country. Or even on the floor of some stranger’s pickup truck while hitchhiking. He’d lost a lot of weight, and he had noticed that the ring had gotten looser and looser on his finger over the past several months.
“Can I help you, sir?” An overweight man in short sleeves and a necktie glared at him. He held a clipboard in one meaty hand.
“Goddamn it,” he muttered to himself then smiled weakly at the man who must have been the store manager. “I’m sorry. I lost my wedding ring.”
“We’ve got a lost and found. You can fill out a slip at the customer service desk and we’ll notify you if we find it.”
“Yeah, okay. Thank you.”
At the service desk, he filled out the form but did not have a phone number to leave in the appropriate box. Instead, he assured the woman behind the counter that he would check back in at a later date to see if they’d found the ring. The woman looked as though she couldn’t be more disinterested.
Hauling his purchases out into the parking lot to the rusted old Volkswagen, Sam Hatch felt sick to his stomach.
When he returned to the house, he was accosted by the unsettling notion that the house had changed in his absence. It was nothing specific he could put his finger on but rather an indefinable twinkle of certainty at the very cortex of his animal brain. He thought of optical illusions—pictures of birds that were simultaneously also of rabbits, of stairwells that spiraled in on themselves and led to nowhere and everywhere at once—and how sometimes the harder you stared at something the less you actually saw it. Yet the longer he stared at the house the more foolish he felt. It was not an impossible stairway. It was not a rabbit that was also a bird. It was just a house.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon loading his newly purchased items into the house. By the time night had darkened the sky, he was overcome by a fatigue so profound he nearly wept. Unrolling his sleeping bag on the floor in the main room, he planned to spend his first night in the new house. But as he lay there he found the room too stuffy and the air difficult to breathe. He attempted to open the windows but they were stubborn with age. He considered propping the front door open just for the breeze…but the thought of something creeping into the house while he slept—a wolf or wild dog or something similarly bold and hungry—troubled him. In the end, he opted to sleep in the one place to which he’d become accustomed: windows down, the summer gnats tickling his face, he slept in the car.
* * *
The following day, just as he finished repairing the holes in the roof, a police cruiser kicked up plumes of dust as it lumbered down the dirt road toward the house. Sam paused to watch it, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of one hand. The sky above was dark and threatening; Sam had been sensing the storm’s arrival for hours now, coming in off the Chesapeake Bay and charging the air with electricity. Out beyond the trees and from his rooftop vantage, he could see the sky had turned the color of wet newspaper, pressing down heavily on the origami shapes of sailboats dotting the gray waters of the bay. What remained of the sun was just a narrow sliver of blazing white light cleaving through the great roiling thunderclouds at the horizon.
As the police car came to a stop in the gravel drive, Sam made his way to the edge of the roof then began slowly descending the ladder. With the exception of one very large hole, the roof itself was in better shape than he’d originally assessed; he easily patched the gaps with sheets of weatherproofing and panels of new shingles, then lathered the whole menagerie with hot tar. His muscles ached from the work.
“Officer,” Sam said, dropping down to the dirt. He wiped his hands on the thighs of his work pants.
The police officer was young and fresh-faced, in a pressed khaki uniform and gun belt that looked too big for him. His head was cleanly buzzed and Sam could see the nicks along the officer’s chin and neck where he’d cut himself shaving.
“Got a few calls about someone messing around back here,” said the officer. “You’re aware this is private property?”
“Yes,” Sam said. “It’s mine. I bought it.”
The officer stepped around the front of his cruiser and surveyed the house, pausing to look at a clump of dirt that clung to one of the ladder’s rungs. “Is that right?” He seemed unimpressed.
“I’ve got the deed, if you want to see it.”
“Might as well.”
Sam went to the Volkswagen, leaned in the open passenger window, and pulled the deed from the glove compartment. He handed it to the officer who glanced dispassionately down at it before handing it back.
“You doing construction? Got a permit?”
“No construction. I’m just repairing the roof before the storm hits. Fixing up some stuff inside, too.”
“Whatcha planning to do with the place? Fix it up and sell it?”
“No. I’m going to live in it.”
The look the officer gave him was no different than the one he’d received from Constance Ballantyne.
“This place used to give me the wet shits when I was a kid,” said the officer. His candor and vulgarity caught Sam off guard. “Used to think it was haunted.�
� The officer turned and grinned at him. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-two years old. “That’s kids for ya.”
“Sure.” Sam extended one hand. “I’m Sam Hatch.”
“Jake Kilstow.” The officer shook his hand. “Place needs a lot of work, that’s for sure. Where’re you staying in the meantime, Mr. Hatch?”
“In the place?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks.”
Kilstow shrugged. He peered into one of the murky windows. “You own any weapons? Handgun, maybe?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Old places like these, people think they’re vacant. They come out here to drink beer or fuck or smoke dope or whatever. You know how it is. A couple of fool kids break in one night and scare you outta your sleep, next thing I know I’m out here responding to a…well, a bad situation, let’s say.”
“I don’t own any weapons.”
“Used to get the occasional drifter who’d take refuge for the night, maybe stick around for a few days at most when the weather turned cold,” Kilstow said. “Down at the station we call ’em boogiemen. They don’t do no real harm and they pretty much keep to themselves. You’d think they’d stay longer, seein’ how it’s at least a roof over their heads, but they never do. It’s like they’re just passing through on their way to somewheres better.” Kilstow hocked a wad of phlegm onto the ground, just barely missing his shoe. “Or like something scares ’em off before they can get too comfortable.”
Sam merely nodded. He was reminded of the comment Constance Ballantyne had made about her flighty cousin Howard. By the end of the week, he fled.
“Last year, though, some wild-eyed bugger who’d been hitching his way up the coast plonked down for a few nights. Next thing you know we get a call from a motorist who happened to drive by, said there was some fool stripped down to his birthday suit standing in the front yard, trying to set fire to the foundation.” Kilstow shrugged disinterestedly, as if naked pyromaniacs were a common occurrence in his line of work. “I came out to the house with Johnny Dubay, another officer, and we found the fool trying to light a mound of dry twigs and dead leaves he’d piled on the front porch. He was all bent over, his nuts dangling between his thighs like a little pink punchin’ bag, and he didn’t even turn to face us when we called out to him.”