The House Behind the Oaks
You’ve probably heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, you might as well fix it anyway.” Well I’ve taken that to heart this week and am trying a new format for posting my weekly short story installments. I should note that by “I”, I actually mean my sister, who as mentioned in the past, designed (and continues to tweak) the back end of this blog.
Possibly this modification is one of those things that seems like a really big change to us, but you’re sitting there scratching your head wondering what exactly is even different. If so, great! Continue reading right along and don’t worry about a thing!
Otherwise, you may notice that instead of having separate posts for each story’s introductory comments and the story itself, we’re now posting them serially in the same post. Hopefully the main effect you’ll notice is that you’ll now only get one email per new installment and intro, instead of two. Which, unless you’re the type of person who places a lot of value on how many emails you get in a day, should be nice. But if there’s something we’re missing about the reading experience that this changes in a less great way, please let us know in the comments.
Meanwhile, without further ado, this week’s installment of The House Behind the Oaks!
Recap from where we left off:
My parents seemed to sense something about this house that escaped me, something that left broad, contented smiles on their faces, and expressions of sleepy satisfaction in their eyes, as if the house itself were casting some kind spell over them. They stepped over broken floorboards and around mounds of yellowing linen. And I followed them feeling puzzled, because even if we could somehow insinuate ourselves into this house, with its cracked chandeliers and creaking staircases, and its fancy, crumbling banisters, it seemed clear to me that we could never get this old woman out of it.
We came back on a Saturday two weeks later, when pumpkins had begun to appear in neighboring windows and the oak leaves heaped beneath the trees had changed to a rich golden brown color. They looked to me like masses of slippery gold coins, round and glossy, skidding under our feet like the treasure in Ali Baba’s cave. My brother loved the jack o’ lanterns. He laughed and pointed at them, leering at us from the windows, and my father promised to carve one for each of us later. He did that every year. I can still smell the ripe odor of pumpkin, as I scooped out the innards, and I can taste the silky texture of a raw, white pumpkin seed when I put one in my mouth, too impatient to wait for the ones my mother was roasting in the oven.
There were no jack o’ lanterns in the house behind the oaks. The woman greeted us with her usual, faraway expression, and I doubted she even knew what month it was, much less that it was nearly Halloween. Her hair looked as if she had forgotten to comb it that morning, and she wore the same, wrinkled sweatpants I had seen her in before. Kids who climbed up these steps to trick-or-treat were sure to be disappointed.
“Why don’t you show yourselves around the house today?” the woman mumbled vaguely, and she turned, lurching a little it seemed to me, as she groped for the banister. We heard the slam of a bedroom door upstairs, closing behind her. My mother and father exchanged glances.
But we were free to roam about at our own free will, and that was a benefit. I was tired of plodding along behind the adults, stopping every few paces to listen to yet another polite question, or monotonous observation. My sister skipped away toward the living room, where we had caught a glimpse of a large, wooden rocking horse on our first visit, and my brother toddled along behind her. I slipped into the shadowier region of the hall, moving away from the voices until they faded into silence, and I could fancy myself alone.
I opened a door and found myself peering down a set of old, wooden steps, disappearing into darkness. A string brushed against my face like a cobweb, and I looked up to see a single bulb, screwed into the ceiling. When I tugged it, the bulb cast a glimmer of light across the rough floorboards. They were not like the floor in other parts of the house –silky, old wood, covered in tattered scraps of carpet- but coarse and bare, with splinters sticking out of them. I was wearing shoes, so the splinters did not bother me. I closed the door behind me, and started down the steps.
At first they seemed to vanish before me into utter blackness. But as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to detect a faint, greenish glow, coming from around the corner, at the bottom of the stairs. It lit up the cracked cement floor of the basement, which someone must have painted long ago, for there were places where rusty, reddish flakes curled up from the concrete. At the bottom of the steps, I fumbled for a light switch, but there was none. So I followed the greenish glow around the corner, and gasped.
The dollhouse was the biggest one I had ever seen. It was pale blue. It glowed faintly in the light. There were fuzzy spots on the roof, like patches of moss clinging to the shingles, but when I moved towards it and touched one, I realized that it was mold, growing on the paint. Every part of the dollhouse had been constructed in exquisite detail. A small, brick chimney rose out of the sloping roof. White shutters, on real hinges, framed each of the windows. The windows had real glass in them. It was foggy and smudged, but when I bent over and peered through one of the panes, I could detect small specks of furniture inside: a narrow bed with sheer curtains clinging to it like cobwebs; a small, yellow chair with each, individual leg intricately carved.
Had I been less distracted by the dollhouse, I might have wondered why it was glowing. There were no lights in the basement. No windows let in light from the yard, nor did the weak bulb from the top of the stairs penetrate to these depths. Yet the dollhouse was clearly visible, and even in the dark corners of the room, I could make out the blurred lines of broken furniture, stacked along the walls.
Then a shadow rippled across the blue of the dollhouse. If you have ever looked at the wall opposite a fish tank, at the large rectangle of light it casts upon the wall, and then watched as a fish swam in front of the light, you will understand what I am talking about. But this shadow was much too large to be a fish. With a feeling of sinking horror, I turned around.
The light was coming from an enormous, glass box, just behind me. Inside the box was a snake.
I was not raised in the country. Up until that point in my life, the only snake I had ever seen was the boa constrictor at the Lawrence Hall of Science, where we sometimes went for birthday parties or field trips. I always walked past it on tiptoe, shuddering, and I never volunteered to pet it, like some of my more insane classmates, when the animal handler brought it out. This snake was larger than the boa constrictor. It was coiled up like a thick, engorged garden hose, but if it had stretched to its full length, it could have reached from one end of the basement to the other.
I was so horrified I could not move. I stood there frozen, terrified in the way that only a child can be terrified, with the same kind of blind, senseless awe that a deer must feel, staring into the glow of a car’s headlights. The only thing that registered in my mind at that moment was that the door to the snake tank was open.
Sometimes, the only way to move past one type of fear is to be jolted out of it by another. I had not heard any footsteps, but suddenly a voice addressed me from the gloom.
“What are you doing here?”
I jerked my head away from the snake, and there, beside it, was the boy I had seen in the window. His face was illuminated by the green light, and it glowed sickly pale in the dark, like the wan, white underbelly of a fish. I think I screamed, because the boy jumped and I brushed past him, running for the door. If an exercise machine could be designed to make a person move as quickly as I moved up those stairs, the designer would make a fortune.
I heard my parents calling my name when I reached the main floor. I ran back toward the light and the sound. I was too horrified to tell anyone what I had seen, but I walked directly in front of my parents as we went down the steps toward the street, so nothing would be able to get me.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I thought I saw a tiny face peering up at me from the leaves. I bent over, brushing aside dirt and moss with my hands, and picked up a tiny, wooden doll, no bigger than my thumb.
(To be continued…)