The gothic-lettered sign outside says the house is called Marisol, but it doesn’t look like a Marisol to you. If anything, it looks like a Morticia. It’s the type of house that, if it went to house highschool, all the other houses would steer clear of, different enough but too scary to bully. This house would carry a knife in its backpack. It would not be small.
It’s not a dare, they tell you, unless it’s hard. It’s also not a dare unless it’s illegal and secret, and you’ve already betrayed its clandestine nature by telling your parents where you’d be tonight, not that your friends need to know that.
(Your father laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed, and then laughed some more, remembering himself, aged fifteen, doing the exact same dare. Some things, he said shaking his head, some things just never change.)
Originally upon abandonment the house’s doors were padlocked shut and secured with chains. Many generations of intrepid young people have wearied the chains and loosened the padlock, and you wriggle and twist and worm through the small space between door and doorjamb, and find yourself at last in the kitchen, breathless and dust-streaked.
(You don’t know this, you’ll never know this: while you were away this afternoon your father came here, and made sure himself that it was safe. The dare amused him; your safety in danger did not.)
All the windows in the kitchen are boarded up securely, and it’s cold and silent inside. You stand for a moment in the stillness, catching your breath. A cold slither of fear climbs up your spine, making your hair stand on end. You watch your own breath escape your dry lips, long streams of white fog barely seen in the dark.
(It’s so dark. You can’t see you’re standing on an old and dried stain, rust-red.)
You fish out your flashlight and turn it on. You drag the beam across the kitchen at eye-height, from your left to your right. The wall to your left: cabinets and a long narrow table. The wall in front: a door into the living room, a tall wardrobe, a wine cart. The wall to your right: sink, fringe, countertop. The wall behind you: cabinets, windows, the door through which you came. Between you and the far door stands a table and four chairs one of them pulled out and inviting.
You do not sit. You round the table and go through the door to the living room, a mausoleum of sheet-covered furniture. The great iron chandelier has become a city of spiders, boasting layers upon layers of silk in intricate patterns the likes of which a mathematician could not easily devise.
You stare at it for a long moment, wary of throwing the light upon it. You follow in the darkness the long sweeping arcs of metal rising aggressively into gothic spikes draped in shimmering spider silk. The bulbs have long since burned out. One of them, broken, is a nest of eggs.
(They watch you, but it’s alright. So long as you stay down there and they stay up here, a truce is held.)
You sweep the flashlight across the room to map out the path to the stairs beyond.
You could pass between the couch and the low coffee table. It is the straightest way, the fastest. The dust there, you can tell, has been disturbed a great many times. But the couch faces the table, and beyond it two armchairs, and beyond those, two more armchairs, all facing your way.
You pass behind the couch. There is nothing at your back but the wall.
(You chose wisely.)
You pass by a half-covered mirror and ignore your transient reflection on its dusty surface.
(All is well. You never saw that it was not you in the mirror, or that the person there lingered in your absence. Its breath fogs up the mirror, from the inside.)
The stairs creak under your sneakers. You take hold of the banister and test each step carefully before risking your weight on it.
(Your father did the same, twenty-five years and five hours ago.)
Halfway up the stairs your flashlight blinks and goes out. You accept this development with an irritated sort of resignation. Your peers might not enjoy this as much as they do, you imagine, if the odds were not so thoroughly stacked against you. You turn off the flashlight in hopes of conserving its battery and wait until your eyes adjust to the darkness before continuing forth.
You reach the first floor. To your right: two doors. In front of you: another door. To your left: the hallway stretches out into a great dark room. You turn left and follow it to what seems to be another living room, this one more intimate, less formal. You don’t try any of the other doors along the way.
(Good choice. They’re not locked, but they should be. They would be. Once you were inside.)
No spiders have built architectural wonders in this room, but there are noises and the shadows shift just out of sight. Rats, you think with disgust.
(They’re not rats.)
You look around you for a long time, examining the room, the covered-up sofas and tall-backed old armchairs, until you spot the metal-pipe ladder in the far wall, leading up to a dark mouth near the ceiling.
You shove the flashlight into a pocket and test the ladder, trust it enough to climb up the rungs. It settles beneath you with a small whine, and its higher end rasps against the wall, smears red-brown rust into the plaster.
(A sharper side of metal cuts into the wall. It bleeds black. But it’s dark, and you don’t see.)
The attic is not as dark as the rest of the house. The small round window in the front has not been boarded up. The small room is packed full of old mementos, trinkets of all sizes, camouflaged and muted by a thick grey layer of dust. As you travelled through the house the sun has set, and the shadows, long at the start, and now short and pitch-black.
(Here is something you father doesn’t know, will never know: that you went in at the close, in twilight. The death of day is the birth of night, and at the juncture, the world is not one world, but several. But it’s alright. He’ll never know.)
You do not pick up anything, though some things call out to you. Stacks of old books; a music box; toys of many sizes; closed chest of drawers and boxes; bags; plastic covered mannequins with hairless faceless heads and no limbs.
The air is clogged with old dust and something spicy-sweet that catches sticky in your throat and coats the inside of your nostrils. You can’t place it. It feels familiar.
(It’s death. Possibly your own.)
You go to the window and tread on shards of glass. You spot a heavy rock lying on the floor not far away. Some dares, you know, are simply vandalism. You’re glad you got this one instead.
(You should be glad. The boy that threw that rock has grown to regret, though what he regrets exactly he could not tell you.)
You pull out the flashlight and turn it on. When it blinks you slap it against your palm, and huff, amused at yourself, because you know that slapping it will not help. You flash the light out the window and wait for the reply.
(Behind you the shadows shift and writhe and inch ever closer. They’re not rats. They’re not spiders.)
(The house waits with you.)
You see the flash of light from a friend’s house and turn back to the door. You go down the ladder, through the living room, hallway, down the stairs. You wish your flashlight worked, but it’s alright, you don’t mind. You know the house, now.
(And it knows you.)
Once outside you turn around and look up, ground floor, first floor, attic. The house stands as silent and dark as when you first laid eyes on it. You shove your hands in your pockets and pause.
You’re not quite sure why, but you smile and wave.
(Well done. The house smiles back.)