Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Right up until Jackson left I swore the old Walsh mansion got a little grayer every year, like the wood siding was getting tired of carrying on holding the empty place up, like the paint was losing its life force, sort of. Jackson lived right across from the decaying wet-cardboard Walsh place and saw it a lot more than me, so he probably spent way more time looking at it from his driveway or his front porch. I think about him fixing his bike or mowing the lawn, wiping black grease or grassblood from his lawn onto the fronts of his pants, staring at the old Walsh place as if expecting it to try to jump at him, as if the ten feet of badly paved road were a river and the Walsh place was the bear stalking at the edge, so still you’d think it wasn’t alive at all, sniffing its prey on the other side.
I only saw the Walsh place once a year, the night before every Halloween, when me and Jackson and whoever else had drifted into our circle of friends for that year would go out late at night and stand in the overgrown lawn, swapping ghost stories, daring one another to step up to the porch, to touch that ancient house with single fingers, afraid of waking it. We’d go the night before because the next night, Halloween night, high schoolers in masks and tight, gross costumes would come and drink and smoke pot. I heard this lacrosse player OD’d in the living room a while ago after his buddies nailed him to the wall as a stupid prank and no one helped him when he passed out, but maybe parents just said that to freak us out. The rest of the year the Walsh lawn would be littered with beer cans, dirty clothes, remains of upperclassmen, like they were zombies falling apart as they shuffled around the Walsh place, leaving parts of themselves all over.
But this, with us, was nothing like that. We never messed with the house. We just liked to gather in its presence, kind of like a big church. Jackson called it our Halloween Special, some scary stories and a creepy old house to go with it as a backdrop, and afterwards we’d go home and our houses would feel that much warmer and brighter, and we’d feel that much more together. A couple years we even got some girls to come along (I never got any, that was all Jackson) but the last year we ever had a Halloween special it was just me and Jackson and Tariq, who was my new neighbor. Tariq seemed like a pretty nervous guy who didn’t have that many friends, and it was still early enough into the school year that I didn’t feel weird asking him to come along even if I didn’t know him that well. I was being nice. We waited in Jackson’s house till it got dark – it was boring for, like, a full hour, because Tariq still wanted to finish his homework and me and Jackson had run out of stuff to talk about so we just sat on the shag playing COD and not saying anything. Jackson’s dad was home so the living room smelled like cigarettes even though he was all the way in the kitchen putting water for Kraft Mac’n Cheese on to boil. I liked the smell of his dad’s Marlboros, but I didn’t ever tell Jackson. I let him think I thought it was gross too. I liked Jackson’s house. It was just him and his dad, no arguing parents or crying baby sisters like mine. Jackson never told me about his mom, and I never asked, and we both stayed comfortable. The house was tiny and warm and I felt good there, even if the creepy old Walsh place was glaring at us through the front windows and even if the walls were so thin we couldn’t talk about anything serious like girls or beer or use cusswords because his dad might hear. I know Jackson didn’t like it there, that he probably felt the same way about my house as I did about his, and one time when I told him his house was nice because no one fought late into the night or threw things that broke loudly or threatened to leave and take me with them, he laughed, really softly. You just don’t see the fighting here, he said. You don’t see anything, but it’s good. That’s why we’re tight, you know? Because you don’t know anything.
It was late and getting cold by the time we finally left. I ran out after Jackson right away but Tariq just sort of shuffled his feet and Jackson’s dad came in and yelled at him to hurry his ass out. Jackson didn’t say anything – Tariq and me both looked at him, waiting for him to at least apologize that his dad had done that– he just turned and walked out down the street, dead, half-wet leaves popping under his sneakers.
We jumped the iron fence and stood in the big front lawn. Two years ago, right here, this exact spot, where me and Cynthia Simpson sat back-to-back in a big circle of us and I almost touched her hand and asked her for her number, but that was eighth grade, and Cynthia had transferred to the Catholic all-girl’s school across town that next year, and I figured if she’s going there she probably didn’t ever like me anyway. Last year it was me and Jackson and Evan and Will, and both the Calvins. Now it’s just us. It’s weird, how huge the Walsh lawn feels when there’re only three of us to fill it. The grass was cold and sticky and wet, stretching up to Tariq’s knees and my waist. The night made the yard look bluish-gray, like a bruise on the earth, sort of, and for awhile none of us were talking and I looked at the Walsh place expecting nothing. The only sound was the highway, a series of flashing, distantly roaring lights behind the house.
“Looks haunted,” Tariq said, wiping some night-fog from his glasses.
“Yeah. We used to think it really was, too.” Jackson walked toward the porch, stepping over the collapsed staircase and sitting down in an old folding chair we’d played with in other years. He was about a foot above us, on some rusty throne, sort of. He stared at his feet, weirdly quiet. Maybe his dad had pissed him off by yelling at Tariq, but it wasn’t that bad, he just raised his voice a little, and even Tariq knew it, probably. I was almost pissed off but I didn’t say anything to Jackson, just turned to Tariq and kept going.
“They said that the lady who built the house, Bobbie Walsh I think, went crazy after her kid went missing. This electrician found a rotting body in the walls, like, turning green rotting, and it was her kid’s body, still in overalls and a diaper. Then she drowned herself in the basement.”
Actually, according to the story me and Jackson had invented in fifth grade and had been using for every Halloween Special ever since, Bobbie Walsh got arrested and no one ever saw her again – that was the part of the story two years ago where Cynthia almost touched my hand nervously – and I waited for Jackson to correct me, but he wasn’t looking at either of us right now.
“Damn, so, like, is it the kid or the lady?”
“The ghost. Or is it both of them?”
“I mean…usually just the kid. See that window, the tiny circle, fourth floor? Sometimes he appears there, waving at you.”
“You ever been inside?”
I swallowed something dry. I was about to say no, we were too scared, that every year we hyped ourselves up and only got as far as the porch Jackson’s sitting on so bored and blankly now, but then Jackson cleared his throat and said, all at once, without breathing: “I’m moving. Military school. Dad’s making me go next year and then he’s leaving this house and going to Philadelphia.”
Then it got really quiet. Jackson’s fists were clenched and his head was almost touching his knees. Tariq shuffled backwards, not sure what to say. I tried to remember how to talk for at least a minute. My voice didn’t sound right when it came back. “Military school?”
“Not my fault,” Jackson said, quickly and rough, “but you get it, don’t you? I’m leaving. This is it, no more Halloween Specials. It wasn’t like they were any good the past couple years anyways. Everyone else comes here tomorrow with the older kids.”
“How long have you…”
“Dad made me apply three months ago. I’m sorry. I’m more angry than you, believe me.”
“I can’t…” I spat. “I can’t say anything.”
“You don’t have to,” Jackson said. “I just figured I’d bring you out here to tell you. Since it used to matter so much. Sorry, Tariq.”
“It’s cool, man. I…I’m sorry too, by the way. That sucks.”
“Yeah,” Jackson said, right before he got up and took his chair into his hands and threw it through the big old stained-glass front window. Shards of it went everywhere, and wood splinters, and there was this awful cracking sound, and as Jackson stormed off the porch and ran back out to the street with his face in the crook of his elbow I was just standing there, frozen, staring inside the house for the first time in my life. There was nothing there, just dust and wood and holes in the walls where there used to be lights, little lost kids, nails for hanging paintings and lacrosse players. A couch sat covered in a sheet like a fat and sleeping ghost and the floors were smeared with rotting beercans and yellowing socks that looked like mounds of flesh and old teeth where the zombie upperclassmen had fallen apart. The cold air rushing into the house made a giant half-eaten curtain flutter and I thought of a pair of lungs. I imagined I was a boy, three years old, trapped in there and shouting and beating on the sides of the walls for help. Tariq followed Jackson back out to the street, and it was several minutes before I thought to move again and leave the Walsh place behind.
I go back still, now that Jackson’s gone, but only sometimes. The last time I was there – summertime, in the afternoon – I saw the lawn had been mowed and the window fixed up and a SOLD sign, red and obnoxious, was pushed deep into the grass. The siding was repainted, white and gross. Tariq and me hang out sometimes still, but he’s found some other guys cooler than me and I’m cool with it but it’d be nice if he at least told me he missed me.
One day a couple weeks ago Jackson texted me and asked about the Walsh mansion. He’s only allowed to use his phone on weekends, but it’s not like he calls me much now anyways. I sent him a picture of the mansion. It’s ugly, isn’t it? They made it all nice now. I watched my phone for a good five minutes, breathless on Jackson’s old street, between the Walsh place and the house that used to be Jackson’s, boarded up and going gray. Jackson started typing something, three tiny gray dots spinning horribly beneath my thumb, but then the dots disappeared and he never sent me a text back.
Sam Bowden is a freshman at Kenyon College, where he also attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop. He wants to double major in neuroscience and creative writing, but we'll see how that goes. A six-time novelist and a two-time decent novelist, he spends most of his time researching fictional slang, teaching beginning piano to elementary-age kids through his local fine arts center, or playing cello. He was recently honored as a Gold Medal Portfolio winner in the 2020 National Scholastic Writing Awards.
Helen Liu is a seventeen-year-old Chinese-American from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. When she isn't swamped in schoolwork, she likes writing late into the night, playing piano, trying her best at watercolor, and spending time with friends. Also, at any given time, it's more likely she's listening to music than not. Though her stories and poems are often focused on her personal passions and struggles, she also takes inspiration from her favorite pieces of literature and important current issues.