For my wife--love 'ums

And special thanks to LeeAnn Doherty, Karla Herrera and Scott Nicholson

"Down there, the house keeps its secrets."

PART ONE—1984

CHAPTER 1


The boys stood together at the end of the gravel driveway with their jackets flapping in the October breeze and the sun setting behind them. Tommy Pomeroy snorted and spat a clump of yellow phlegm onto a patch of crab grass. Eric Hunter and Ed Forlure turned from the looming house, glanced at the spit. They didn't say anything—the spit summed it all up.

Eric stepped forward, actually onto the driveway. Tommy snorted behind him and spat again. Eric knew what that meant: Hurry up.

Brushstrokes of sunlight painted the front of the house in orange and red; a crimson blade streaked across the second floor windows like a bleeding gash. Those windows were the house's dead eyes and the porch its rancid mouth, the four pillars its rotting teeth. To go up the front steps onto the porch was to walk onto its tongue and smell its moldy wood breath, to enter the front door . . .

"Are you fagging out?" Tommy asked.

Eric's mother said Tommy was a smooth-talker, but sometimes Tommy's voice made Eric cringe; it was like when his brother Steve called him "a little shit." Eric shook his head.

"Then go," Tommy said.

His feet did not want to. If the house were a monster then the two third-floor windows that protruded from the roof were extra eyes that grew from the house's forehead like tumors. Sometimes things moved in those windows. Sometimes things swayed back and forth.

A girl had hanged herself up there. She used a few of her father's neckties twirled together, wrapped one end around a roof support beam and the other around her neck. Her father didn't even know it happened until late that night when the knot broke and her body dropped to the floor. People said she did it because the house made her do it.

Eric took another step toward the house and Tommy applauded. "This is really exciting, Eric," he said. "Great show, buddy."

Eric bit his lip and continued walking. He heard his mother's warning: Stay away from Hudson House, Eric. Don't go near it. It isn't safe.

A sheet of wood covered the first-floor window as did sheets for the second-floor windows and, presumably, the ones on the side and in back—but not the windows on the third floor, the ones that stretched out of the roof like frog's eyes. The gravel driveway petered out into the overgrown lawn. From the driveway, a slate walkway led out into the yard and then turned at a right angle toward the porch steps. The other houses in the neighborhood were not like this; most houses had garages behind them or attached, and if there was a walkway to the porch, it started at the sidewalk.

Eric paused at the edge of the slate path. Evergreen trees lined both sides of the property continuing behind the house, completely blocking the neighbors. A maple tree towered in the front yard like a giant sentry. Its gnarly arms swayed and orange leaves wafted down.

A serial killer had lived here. Hox Grent. Years ago, he terrorized the neighborhood, stealing kids, dragging them back here and slaughtering them. Most of the bodies were never found, only occasional pieces.

Eric stepped onto the slate walkway. Blades of grass stuck out of jagged cracks like the fingers of people buried alive who had managed to break the surface before choking to death on dirt. Somewhere a dog barked; it sounded like a warning.

"Wait."

Eric had been holding his breath and now released it. Ed ran up the driveway and stopped next to him. He held out a flashlight. "Here."

"I don't want to do this," Eric said.

For a moment it seemed that Ed might respond, perhaps offer some encouraging words or even tell him not to go through with it. Instead, Ed nudged him with the flashlight until Eric took it and then Ed ran back to the sidewalk. Eric hadn't brought his own flashlight because part of him hadn't accepted he'd be in this position; the other part of him knew that a flashlight wouldn't protect him anyhow. Despite that, the weight of the two D-batteries inside the plastic casing reassured him. He turned it on.

"Any day," Tommy said.

The front steps sagged in the middle like they were made out of cardboard and the color ranged from white on the edges of the steps to dry, peeling tan in the middle where thousands of footfalls had fallen before him. And of those people, how many had stepped here for the last time? How many times had Hox Grent's feet scuffed these steps?

Strong wind beat around the house and made it groan in a million places like the joints in an old man's body. Perhaps the house was waking up. Maybe the girl was upstairs, too, swinging. Maybe she'd come down and say hello.

Eric's skin prickled with freezing gooseflesh. He stopped at the foot of the steps. The house had probably been white or tan but it now radiated in splashes of red, yellow, and orange. The colors swirled across the wood like drops of paint in a bowl of water. Heavy gashes in the screen door made it sag like a limp body about to fall over dead. Someone had spray painted an upside-down star on the storm door behind the screen. Why were the windows boarded and not the door?

It won't be open. There's no way it'll be open. And then we can all go home. He'd sleep with his Ghostbusters nightlight on—he would not tell that to Tommy.

"If you don't get in the house before dark, it doesn't count," Tommy yelled.

He was making this up as they went along. In any trio of friends, there's always a leader and theirs was Tommy. He was probably hoping for a really good laugh, one that would make him fall down with cramps in his sides and tears bursting from his eyes. For that to happen, someone usually had to get hurt. Eric would have to play his part for Tommy's amusement and then they could get back to playing with action figures.

"This isn't so bad," Eric whispered.

The first step squeaked beneath his foot. Shadows from the fractured spindles in the porch railing stretched up the house like mangled fangs.

The moan of the next step screamed for Eric to run back to the sidewalk and beg Tommy not to do this to him. Tommy would only send him back to the house and up the steps again.

Eric took the next two steps rapidly and stood on the porch with the backs of his sneakers hanging off. If he fell backwards, he'd descend into endless darkness. He would fall forever or maybe into hell.

He shivered, rubbed the sleeves of his jacket. He immediately felt stupid. It wasn't the middle of January. He was being a baby about this. He just had to enter the house, grab something, and leave. Yes, it was stupid, pointless even, but that didn't mean he shouldn't have the guts to do it.

He stepped toward the door. A fist-sized hole lay between him and the door like someone had dropped a heavy rock through the wood. Or something had tried to break free from beneath. Inside the hole, light glinted off the cat-shaped eye of a troll.

He stumbled back a few steps to the edge of the porch again—fall off into the darkness—and stopped. There hadn't been a troll or anything else demonic. He had caught the reflection of a beer can left by a teenager; that was all.

The flashlight beam focused on the curved metal handle of the screen door and Eric went to it. He was mindful to spread his legs wide over the hole without looking at it. Then he was at the door and all out of space.

The screen door handle froze his fingers. The door opened with a squeal. Eric's heart thudded into his throat and his hands numbed; undigested hotdog from lunch roiled in his stomach. He wanted to vomit and cry and run away and never look at this house again but he knew he couldn't do that—running away would label him a coward forever and, even worse, he'd have to admit it was true.

The screen door bounced off his shoulder when he reached for the knob of the storm door. The spray-painted star (a "pentagram," it was called) grew larger, stretching across the door in all directions to become a mammoth star, the upside-down legs now gnarled horns. A face emerged inside the star. Eyes blinked open. Eric closed his own. Just my imagination. He opened his eyes—the image was a spray-painted star once more.

He grabbed the doorknob and turned—be locked, please be locked—and the bolt slipped easily back into the door. He instructed his arm to push forward but it refused. He had gone this far and yet his body wouldn't allow him to go the next few steps needed to prove his bravery.

"Sun's almost gone," Tommy yelled.

The quicker he did this, the quicker he could be back in his room, away from this house. He willed his arm forward again and this time the muscles cooperated to nudge the door open a sliver with a sucking ooofff sound—the sound of a sealed coffin breaking wide. Stale air teased his nostrils; it reminded Eric of the way the boxes of Christmas supplies smelled every year when his father brought them down from the attic.

When the door opened all the way with a faint rusted squeak, red sunlight broke through the opening and turned the floating motes of dust into levitating drops of blood.

Eric gripped the flashlight with both hands and scanned for something to grab; anything would do, anything to appease Tommy. To his right, just past a boarded window, a staircase ascended half a dozen steps to a landing and more stairs continued upward at a right angle. He would never go upstairs. No matter what Tommy might call him or how he might threaten him, Eric wasn't going to search the second floor—that was one floor closer to the dead girl.

Just find something and grab it.

Straight ahead, a narrow hallway ended at a shut door that led, presumably, into a room, maybe the kitchen. To his left lay a large empty room which Eric could only partially see because of the jutting wall. The stale smell floated all around him like invisible mold.

Somewhere something creaked like a really large finger cracking its knuckle. Nowhere did Eric see anything he could grab as proof of his visit to Hudson House.


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