The tree root caught Michael—again--sending him and his skateboard flying. He landed hard on the old concrete sidewalk, and sat for a moment, breathing heavily before pushing himself up. “I hate those freaking maples,” he muttered as he scrambled to his feet, rubbing his painful rear.
The gentle downward slope of the street might have made a perfect ramp for skating, but the century old sidewalk was lined with big leaf maples whose roots cracked and created ridges in the concrete. An unwary skater could find himself thrown off balance and off his board if he didn’t pay attention—like today.
There was a hidden advantage to the sidewalk conundrum. The damaged sidewalk could provide a perfect launch for jumps and flips, but if he wasn’t careful, like this time, the consequences could be painful. This was not the first time Michael found himself the victim of a maple. These days, in spite of his best efforts, in the war of Michael versus the maples, the maples seemed to be winning. Fortunately, the damage seemed minor: he would probably wind up with a few bruises, but more painful than bruises was a blow to his ego. He hated it when anyone saw him fall.
He gathered up his pack and retrieved his board, replacing his cap brim backwards on his blond head. At fifteen he had hit a long awaited growth spurt and reached five eight, finally taller than his mother. Maturing, however, had come with a price--his voice had a tendency to crack, and his natural athletic grace sometimes gave way to awkwardness. His agility on the back of a rolling skateboard had thankfully not left him. It was the one place where he felt truly free. Maple roots aside, something he loved had not abandoned him, when all else seemed to.
It had been a year of loss. Watching his parents sell the home they could no longer afford, and having to move to an old, rundown neighborhood had caused an otherwise outgoing adolescent to withdraw into himself. “Depression”, the therapist his parents sent him to said and suggested medication. “To hell with that”, he replied, surprising the therapist and embarrassing his mother. As far as he was concerned, all he needed was his friends, his school, and his skate board. When they left the therapist’s office, he repeated what he had said in the doctor’s office: no pills. His mother knew better than to argue, if he found himself overwhelmed, she knew he would come to her.
Sometimes in the battle of Michael versus depression, he reluctantly admitted that depression, like the maples, seemed the more likely winner. Like today for instance. For reasons he did not understand, and out of character, he hadn’t felt like going to the skate park. He didn’t react to his friends’ disbelief when he told them he was going to go home to do his homework. Something seemed to be pulling him, however reluctantly; to the hated house his parents bought in the shabby neighborhood he despised.
“Don’t worry, it’s a fixer-upper, it’s just going to take time,” his parents had promised when they first showed him the old, rundown Victorian they intended to purchase. The house had been on the market a long time, and they were getting it for a song. “These old houses have character that new ones don’t. And I’ve checked it out,” added his father, “This house has good bones. And look at the yard—our old house didn’t have a yard even half this big.” Michael tried to understand for his father’ sake, but he could not share his enthusiasm.
They were doing their best, Michael admitted; the exterior had been painted a light grey, and the trim and columns which graced the large front porch were painted white. Old climbing roses had been trimmed back and placed on trellises. The blackberries, which seemed to grow everywhere, had been killed, and the lawn mown and re-seeded. His father built a new fence, following the design of the original, and painted it the same white as the trim. To an outsider’s view, maybe, their efforts to transform the old house were succeeding. To an outsider the house stood proud and tall as it had when first built. Inside was another story, but little by little the work his parents put into it was beginning to show.
For all his parents’ efforts to make their new house a home, he missed their old house in the comfortable middle class neighborhood they had been forced to abandon. His parents arranged for him and his sister to stay in their old school, but it didn’t compensate for leaving the familiar suburb where he and his friends had grown up. Watching his dad lose his job and search for weeks before finding another hurt. Though his mom made a decent salary as an RN, they fell further and further behind on the mortgage payments, no matter how much overtime she worked. When his dad did find a new job, it didn’t pay as much as his old one, so his parents still had trouble keeping up with the bills. When the realtors started coming, he braced himself for the inevitable.
He just didn’t understand why they had picked this neighborhood. Some of houses were well kept, while others had fallen into a state of disrepair and left that way. In some, lawns were mowed, leaves were raked, gardens lovingly tended, porches were kept repaired and there was no sign of peeling paint. If the neighborhood had been a living person, it would have suffered from a split personality disorder.
There were even a few kids his age; but they went to a different school and didn’t seem very friendly. Though he saw a few BMX’s like his, he hadn’t felt like asking anyone if they’d like to go riding—and they hadn’t asked him either. His long blond hair and his skateboard seemed to set him apart. The hostile stares he received made him feel unwelcome, an alien, something to be avoided and shunned.
He came out of his reverie when he reached the house. He looked at the door and experienced that overwhelming feeling of sadness that always seemed to greet him every time he looked at the porch with its two white pillars, although he didn’t know why. When he’d gotten his first glimpse of the house, his heart had sunk, and in spite of himself he’d asked his parents why they were considering this one. He still didn’t like the house, though he respected the fact that the work they put into helped distract his parents from dwelling on the loss of their former home. Sometimes it was fun to help, but smashing a wall to pieces with a sledge hammer and pry bar turned out to be harder work than he’d anticipated.
The house could be warm or cold by turns, like any house; but sometimes, inexplicably, a bone chilling cold would permeate the rooms and make the hairs on his arms stand straight up. When he looked at his parents and sister, and nothing seemed to be affecting them, it was as if he knew he had been singled out.
He hadn’t told anyone about this or the something strange about this house--something so strange it made him wonder why his parents and his younger sister Kit couldn’t feel it. His parents put their energy into remodeling and repairing, slowly effecting a transformation; but the changes in the appearance of the house didn’t seem to change the fact that something just felt wrong.
He sighed, took out his key, and opened the door. The day was warm, so he left the front door open, and went upstairs to his room. When he put his board down and threw his backpack on the bed, he noticed his favorite poster had fallen again. He really liked that poster, but since they moved here it never stayed on the wall. His parents hadn’t gotten around to re-finishing the upstairs rooms yet, and were still replacing the old “Christmas tree” wiring, meaning a lot of the walls would be re-built. To compensate, he covered the old, peeling wallpaper in his room with posters.
This particular poster was a Japanese anime drawing of two girls on skateboards. They were dressed in torn white t-shirts and black shorts; their clothing gently suggestive, but not revealing. It wasn’t the sort of poster some parents might allow, but his decided the scantily clad cartoon girls were covered enough to be acceptable. Michael got good grades, didn’t get into any more trouble than a normal teenager might, and if he had a vice, it was his obsession with “skating”. Kit liked to tease him, saying that as long as he had his skate board, he wouldn’t need a girlfriend. His parents would shush her, knowing that she was trespassing on forbidden territory.
He picked up the poster and re-hung it. It was a good thing that his walls would have to be refurbished—he had to keep finding different places to position the poster because of all the holes he made in his attempt to keep it up. None of the other posters fell. Not his skating posters, his bike posters, his movie posters—just this particular one.
He sighed and sat on his bed, turned on his laptop and pulled up the geography assignment that was due the next day. He was deep into the river system in the eastern United States when he heard a crash. He ran downstairs and saw that the he door he left open was banging against the wall. He stepped outside to see if the wind could have caused it, but there was barely a breeze. He turned, walked back into the living room and felt that icy, unnatural cold. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck were standing straight up and he could the familiar chill.
“I’m out of here”, he said to no one in particular. His homework could wait. He ran up to his bedroom, grabbed his bike and helmet, and fairly flew out of the house. He rode, jumped, and did every trick he knew until it started to get dark, trying to drive what happened out of his mind.
When he got home, he saw mother unloading groceries from her Mazda. He remembered when the older model Mazda had been a Lexus, then pushed the memory away. Promising to help, he carried his bike upstairs to his room.
He could not believe what met his eyes: his anime poster had been torn into four pieces, which lay scattered across the floor. He stared at the wreckage, reluctant to touch it. He ran out of his room, leaving his BMX, and went to help his mother.
That night he lay awake for a long time. He had no explanation for what happened. He didn’t think his sister had destroyed the poster; now that they were older they had an unspoken agreement to they leave each other’s things alone. The feeling of wrongness that he felt in this house seemed to grow stronger and by a strange instinct he did not understand, knew the destruction of his poster was connected to it. He felt the icy chill rush through the room like a breeze, ruffling the pieces of the poster on the floor, and he pulled the covers over his head, attempting to make it all go away.
Gradually he drifted off to sleep. As the dreams slowly began to come, he saw a girl standing in front of his closet. She wasn’t much taller than his sister, but looked closer to his age. He recognized Kit’s jeans, along with her t-shirt and red jacket, and wondered absently why this girl wore Kit’s clothes. He struggled to wake, to sit up, but sleep kept its spell on him and all he could do was mutter, “Who are you?”
“You can’t hang up that awful poster again, can you?” Her voice seemed like normal girl’s, but lighter, airier. She seemed corporeal; flesh and blood, then she laughed and shimmered, and slowly disappeared.
He woke with a start, and sat up. The girl was gone, along with the pieces of the poster. He burrowed down in his covers, “What the hell was that?” he asked himself, “No way. Not real. Not real. Just a dream—a bad dream. And it just looked like she was wearing Kit’s clothes, they weren’t really hers.” He lay curled up in fetal position until his alarm went off, jolting him back into reality which had now had taken a sudden shift, and the disappearance of his poster, along with the events of the day before, made him wonder if his life would ever truly be the same.
Michael grabbed his clothes and went into the bathroom to take a shower, the hot water soothing the stiff muscles caused by the fall the day before. He brushed his teeth and combed out his hair and tied it back, finding safety in the routine that made his life feel normal, made his life make sense. Dreams were only dreams; they came and went but were not reality. This was.
He went back to his room to grab his backpack and cap, but stopped, frozen in his tracks. His bed had been made—he never made his bed, he wouldn’t even allow his mother to do it. His dirty clothes had been picked up from the floor and put in the laundry hamper he never used. His BMX was balanced carefully against the wall, his backpack and cap, along with his jacket, lay on his bed.
He walked into his bedroom cautiously, afraid that at any moment he’d be swept into a vortex and whisked away from this world forever. “I don’t believe in spooks,” he said out loud. He went to the laundry hamper and pulled out his clothes and dumped them in a pile on the floor. He turned around, grabbed his pack and skateboard, put on his jacket and cap, then turned again, only to find to his dismay that the dirty clothes had vanished into the hamper.
“What the…oh god, no.” What could he do, call “Ghost Hunters”, or something? This was anything but funny. Michael didn’t scare easily, but his heart was racing, and his breath came in gasps. These things only happened on phony television shows and people who believed in ghosts were flakes. It was this house; it was all the house’s fault. His parents should have stuck it out and stayed where they were.
He ran down the stairs to the kitchen to grab something to eat before school, something he could take with him so he could leave quickly and avoid talking to anyone. He opened and closed cupboards, looked in the refrigerator, then went back to the cupboards finding nothing he wanted. All right, he decided, he’d skip breakfast.
He turned around and collided with his mother. “Honey, are you all right?” she asked, her cobalt blue eyes, exact mirrors of his, were full of concern.
“I can’t find anything to eat. I gotta run.”
“Now I know you’re not all right,” she laughed, “Bagels and cream cheese. Peanut butter and jelly if you want it—since when are you in such a hurry to get to school? I find that hard to believe.” She didn’t wait for an answer but sliced a bagel and spread it thickly with cream cheese. She wrapped it in plastic wrap and stuck it in his backpack, along with an apple. “Go catch your bus.” She gave him a quick hug and kissed the top of his cap.
It was not one of those mornings where Michael was in the mood to hug back; but he made sure to tell her he’d see her when he got back from the skate park. Though it wasn’t necessary, he ran to the bus stop as if it would help clear the memories of the morning out of his head. He was torn between wanting to tell someone, but afraid of how it would sound. His friends were sure to give him a hard time and make “Exorcist” jokes if he tried to tell them. Forget it, he told himself.
A note to my readers:
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