But is the house truly haunted?
Of course the house is haunted. If a door is closed on the first floor, another on the second floor will squeal open out of contrariness. If wine is spilled on the living room carpet and scrubbed at furiously and quickly so that a stain does not set, another stain, possibly darker, will appear somewhere else in the house. A favorite room in which malevolence quietly happens is the bathroom. Many speculate as to why this room draws so much attention. One might think that in a bathroom things would be more carefree, in a room where the most private of acts are committed, that any damned inhabitants could let down their hair or allow a tired sigh to pass through their doomed lips.
Perhaps this is exactly what they are doing in the bathroom, and we have misunderstood them. They turn on the shower and write names in the steam gathered on the mirror (never their own names, of course). They tip perfume bottles over, squeeze the last of the toothpaste out of its tube, they leave curls of red hair in the sink. And no one who lives in the house—no one living, that is—has red hair, or even auburn. What’s worse is when they leave the toilet seat up. They’ll flush the toilet over and over, entranced by the sound of the water being sucked out. This is what these restless inhabitants are endlessly committing: private acts.
The latest victims
Always there has been a family subject to the house’s torture. For sixty-five years it was the Addlesons. Before that it was owned by the Oliver family. No one in town can remember who lived in the house before the Olivers, not even our oldest residents. We have stories, of course, recountings of the family who built —— House, but their name has been lost to history. If anyone is curious, of course there is the library with town records ready to be opened. No one has opened those records in over fifty years, though. Oral history, gossip, is best for this sort of situation.
Rose Addleson believed the house was trying to communicate something. She told her husband women know houses better than men, and this is one thing Rose said that we agree with. There is, after all, what is called “Women’s Intuition.” What exactly the house was saying eluded Rose, though, as it eludes the rest of us. Where Rose wanted to figure out its motivations, the rest of us would rather have seen it burn to cinders.
“All these years?” Jonas told her. It was not Rose Addleson who grew up in the house, after all, who experienced the years of closeness to these events, these fits that her husband had suffered since childhood. “If it’s trying to communicate,” he said, “it has a sad idea of conversation.”
Rose and Jonas have no children. Well, to be precise, no living children. Once there had been a beautiful little girl, with cheeks that blushed a red to match her mother’s, but she did not take to this world. She died when she was only a year old. On a cold winter’s night, she stopped breathing, when the house was frosted with ice. It wasn’t until the next morning that they found her, already off and soaring to the afterlife. “A hole in her heart,” the doctor said, pinching his forefinger and thumb together. “A tiny hole.” They had never known it was there.
After their first few months of marriage, Rose and Jonas had become a bit reclusive. Out of shame? Out of guilt? Fear? Delusion? No one is able to supply a satisfactory reason for their self-imposed isolation. After all, we don’t live in that house. If walls could talk, though, and some believe the walls of —— House do talk, perhaps we’d understand that Jonas and Rose Addleson have good reason not to go out or talk to neighbors. Why even Rose’s mother, Mary Kay Billings, didn’t hear from her daughter but when she called on the phone herself, or showed up on the front porch of —— House, which was something she rarely did. “That house gives me the creeps,” she told us. “All those stories, I believe them. Why Rose ever wanted to marry into that family is beyond me.”
Mary Kay has told us this in her own home, in her own kitchen. She sat on a chair by the telephone, and we sat across the table from her. She said, “Just you see,” and dialed her daughter’s number. A few rings later and they were talking. “Yes, well, I understand, Rose. Yes, you’re busy, of course. Well, I wanted to ask how you and Jonas are getting along. Good. Mm-hmm. Good. All right, then. I’ll talk to you later. Bye now.”
She put the phone down on the cradle and smirked. “As predicted,” she told us. “Rose has no time to talk. ‘The house, Mother, I’m so busy. Can you call back later?’ Of course I’ll call back later, but it’ll be the same conversation, let me tell you. I know my daughter, and Rose can’t be pried away from that house.”
We all feel a bit sad for Mary Kay Billings. She did not gain a son through marriage, but lost a daughter. This is not the way it’s supposed to happen. Marriage should bring people together. We all believe this to be true.
Rose heard a voice calling
She has heard voices since she was a little girl. Rose Addleson, formerly Rose Billings, was always a dear girl in our hearts, but touched with something otherworldly. If her mother doesn’t understand her daughter’s gravitation to —— House, the rest of us see it all too clear. Our Rose was the first child to speak in tongues at church. Once, Jesus spoke through her. The voice that came through her mouth never named itself, but it did sound an awful lot like Jesus. It was definitely a male voice, and he kept saying how much he loved us and how we needed to love each other better. It was Jesus all over, and from our own sweet Rose.
We do not understand why, at the age of twelve, she stopped attending services.
But Rose also heard voices other than the Lord’s. Several of us have overheard her speaking to nothing, or nothing any of us could see. She’s hung her head, chin tucked into breastbone, at the grocery store, near the ketchup and mustard and pickles, murmuring, “Yes. Of course. Yes, I understand. Please don’t be angry.”
Rose heard the voices in —— House, too. This is why she married Jonas: The house called for her to come to it.
It was winter when it happened. Rose was eighteen then, just half a year out of high school. She worked in Hettie’s Flower Shop. She could arrange flowers better than anyone in town. We all always requested Rose to make our bouquets instead of Hettie, but Hettie never minded. She owned the place, after all.
On her way home from work one evening, Rose’s car stalled a half mile from —— House. She walked there to get out of the cold, and to call her mother. At the front door she rapped the lion-headed knocker three times. Then the door opened and wind rushed past her like a sigh. She smelled dust and medicine and old people. Something musty and sweet and earthy. Jonas stood in front of her, a frown on his sad young face. He was already an orphan at the age of thirty. “Yes?” he asked in a tone of voice that implied that he couldn’t possibly be interested in any reason why our Rose was appearing before him. “Can I help you?”
Rose was about to ask if she could use his phone when she heard a voice calling from inside. “Rose,” it whispered. Its voice rustled like leaves in a breeze. “Please help us,” the house pleaded. And then she thought she heard it say, “Need, need, need.” Or perhaps it had said something altogether different. The walls swelled behind Jonas’s shoulder, inhaling, exhaling, and the sound of a heartbeat suddenly could be heard.
“Are you all right?” Jonas asked, cocking his head to the side. “Rose Billings, right? I haven’t seen you since you were a little girl.”
“Yes,” said Rose, but she didn’t know if she was saying yes to his question or to the house’s question. She shook her head, winced, then looked up at Jonas again. Light cocooned his body, silvery and stringy as webs.
“Come in,” he offered, moving aside for her to enter, and Rose went in, looking around for the source of the voice as she cautiously moved forward.
Mary Kay Billings didn’t hear from her daughter for three days after that. That night she called the police and spoke to Sheriff Dawson. He’d found Rose’s car stuck in the snow. They called all over town, to Hettie’s Flower Shop, to the pharmacy, because Rose was supposed to pick up cold medicine for Mary Kay. Eventually Rose called Mary Kay and said, “I’m okay. I’m not coming home. Pack my things and send them to me.”
“Where are you?” Mary Kay demanded.
“Have someone bring my things to —— House,” Rose said.
“—— House?!” shouted Mary Kay Billings.
“I’m a married woman now, Mother,” Rose explained, and that was the beginning of the end of her.
Jonas in his cups
He had many of them. Cups, that is. Most of them filled with tea and whiskey. Jonas Addleson had been a drinker since the age of eight, as if he were the son of a famous movie star. They are all a sad lot, the children of movie stars and rich folk. Too often they grow up unhappy, unaccustomed to living in a world in which money and fame fade as fast as they are heaped upon them.
Jonas Addleson was not famous beyond our town, but his family left him wealthy. His father’s father had made money during the Second World War in buttons. He had a button factory over in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s long gone by now, of course. They made all sorts of buttons, the women who worked in the factory while the men were in Europe. Throughout —— House you will still find a great many buttons. In the attic, on the pantry shelves, in the old playroom for the children, littered in out-of-the-way places: under beds, in the basement, among the ashes in the fireplace (unburned, as if fire cannot touch them).
This is not to say Rose Addleson was a bad housekeeper. In fact, Rose Addleson should have got an award for keeping house. She rarely found time for anything but cleaning and keeping. It was the house that did this eternal parlor trick. No matter how many buttons Rose removed, they returned in a matter of weeks.
When Rose first arrived at —— House, Jonas showed her into the living room, then disappeared into the kitchen to make tea. The living room was filled with Victorian furniture with carved armrests, covered in glossy chintz. A large mirror hung on the wall over the fireplace, framed in gold leaf. The fire in the fireplace crackled, filling the room with warmth. On the mantel over the fire, what appeared to be coins sat in neat stacks, row upon row of them. Rose went to them immediately, wondering what they were. They were the first buttons she’d find. When Jonas returned, carrying a silver tray with the tea service on it, he said, “Good, get warm. It’s awfully cold outside.”
He handed Rose a cup of tea and she sipped it. It was whiskey-laced and her skin began to flush, but she thanked him for his hospitality and sipped at the tea until the room felt a little more like home.
“The least I can do,” he said, shrugging. Then remembering what she’d come for, he said, “The phone. One second. I’ll bring it to you.”
He turned the corner, but as soon as he was gone, the house had her ear again. “Another soul gone to ruin,” it sighed with the weight of worry behind it. “Unless you do something.”
“But what can I do?” said Rose. “It’s nothing to do with me. Is it?”
The house shivered. The stacks of buttons on the mantel toppled, the piles scattering, a few falling into the fire below. “You have what every home needs,” said the house.
“I’m no one,” said Rose. “Really.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Jonas said in the frame of the doorway. He had a portable phone in his hand, held out for her to take. “I mean, we’re all someone. A son or daughter, a wife or husband, a parent. Maybe you’re right, though,” he said a moment later. “Maybe we’re all no one in the end.”
“What do you mean?” asked Rose. She put the teacup down to take the phone.
“I’m thinking of my family. All gone now. So I guess by my own definition that makes me nothing.”
Rose batted her eyelashes instead of replying. Then she put the phone down on the mantel next to the toppled towers of buttons. She sat down in one of the chintz armchairs and said, “Tell me more.”
The first lost family
Before the Addlesons, the Oliver family lived in —— House. Before the Olivers lived in —— House, the family that built the house lived there. But the name of that family has been lost to the dark of history. What we know about that family is that they were from the moors of Yorkshire. That they had come with money to build the house. That the house was one of the first built in this part of Ohio. That our town hadn’t even been a town at that point. We shall call them the Blanks, as we do in town, for the sake of easiness in conversation.
The Blanks lived in —— House for ten years before it took them. One by one, the Blanks died or disappeared, which is the same thing as dying, if you think about it, for as long as no one you love can see or hear you, you might as well be a ghost.
The Blanks consisted of Mr. Blank, Mrs. Blank, and their two children, twin boys with ruddy cheeks and dark eyes. The photos we have of them are black and white, but you can tell from the pictures that their eyes are dark and that their cheeks are ruddy by the serious looks on their faces. No smiles, no hint of happiness. They stand outside the front porch of —— House, all together, the parents behind the boys, their arms straight at their sides, wearing dark suits.
The father, we know, was a farmer. The land he farmed has changed hands over the years, but it was once the Blank family apple orchard. Full of pinkish-white blossoms in the spring, full of shiny fat globes of fruit in autumn. It was a sight, let us tell you. It was a beautiful sight.
The first to disappear was one of the boys. Let’s call him Ephraim. He was the ruddier of the two, and often on his own, even though his parents taught him not to wander. One afternoon, he and his brother went into the orchard to pick apples, but in the evening, when the sun began to set, only Ephraim’s brother returned to —— House, tears streaming down his face.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mrs. Blank. “Where’s your brother?”
But the boy (William, we’ll call him) could only shake his head. Finally he was able to choke out this one sentence:
“The orchard took him.”
Then he burst into tears again.
This, of course, sparked a heated debate around town. We who live here have always been a spirited group of people, ready to speculate about anything that might affect us. The general consensus arrived at was that the boy had been taken. Someone must have stolen him, like the fairies did in the old country. A stranger passing through, who perhaps saw the perfect round ruddy globes of Ephraim’s cheeks and mistook them for apples. It is a dark thought, this possible narrative. But dark thoughts move through this world whether we like it or not.
Mr. Blank died soon after his son’s disappearance. He died, as they say, of a broken heart. Mrs. Blank found him in the kitchen, slumped over in his chair, his head on the table. She thought he was crying again, as he often did after his son’s vanishing. But when she stroked his hair and then his cheek, she found him cold, his heart stopped up with sorrow.
They buried Mr. Blank in the orchard, beneath the tree where William last saw Ephraim. And only two years later Mrs. Blank woke one night to find that she was alone in —— House. She searched every room twice, but could not find her last remaining family member, her young William.
It was the middle of winter, in the middle of the night, and when Mrs. Blank stepped outside onto the front porch, she found a set of footprints in the snow that gathered on the steps. She followed them down and out the front gate, around back of the house and through the orchard, where they came to a stop at her husband’s grave, at the tree where William last saw Ephraim. Mrs. Blank called out for William, but she only got her own voice back. That and the screech of an owl crossing the face of the moon above her.
Suddenly a rumbling came from inside —— House. Mrs. Blank looked at the dark backside of the house, at its gingerbread eaves and its square roof, at its dark windows tinseled with starlight, and shuddered at the thought of going back in without anyone waiting for her, without her son beside her. The house rumbled again, though, louder this time, and she went without further hesitation. Some women marry a house, and this bond neither man nor God can break.
William’s body was never found, poor child. Like his brother, he vanished into nothing.
But we say the orchard took him.
Everything you need
It took Rose and Jonas Addleson less than a year to make their doomed daughter. Full of passion for one another, they made love as often as possible, trying to bring her into this world, trying to make life worth living. This was perhaps not what Rose felt she needed, but Jonas wanted children, and what Jonas wanted, Rose wanted too. That’s the thing about marriage. Suddenly you want together. You no longer live in desire alone.
What Rose wanted was for Jonas to be happy. She would marry him within a day of meeting him on the front porch of —— House during that fateful blizzard, knowing this was to be her home. The house had told her. And soon it had become apparent that Jonas didn’t want her to leave either. When she went to call her mother, he had interrupted to say, “Would you like more tea?” When she had moved toward the front door, he’d stood up and said, “Would you like to lie down and rest?”
They shared more whiskey-laced tea, and before the night was over Rose found herself sitting next to Jonas on the sofa, holding his hand while he told her his family’s story. How his grandfather had owned the button factory during the war, how his father had killed himself twenty years ago by placing a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. How his mother had worked her fingers to the bones taking care of everything: the house, Jonas, his father’s bloody mess in the bathroom. “I found him,” Jonas said. “I was ten. On the mirror in the bathroom. There was blood all over it. He was lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Mama scrubbed and scrubbed, but it wouldn’t come out. Not until she asked the house to help her.”
He paused, gulping the story down again. Rose watched the way the column of his throat moved as he swallowed. She wanted to kiss him right there, where the Adam’s apple wriggled under the skin. Instead she asked, “What did the house do?”
He looked at her, his eyes full of fear. “She told me to leave the bathroom. So I left, closing the door behind me. I waited outside with my ear against the door, but I couldn’t hear anything. After a few minutes passed, I knocked. Then a few more minutes passed. I was going to knock again, but before my knuckles hit, the door swung open, and there was Mama, wringing her hands in a damp rag. There was no blood on her, not even a speck. And when I looked behind her, the carpet was as clean as ever, as if no dead body had bled to death on it.”
“The house loves you,” Rose said.
Jonas looked at her curiously. “What do you mean?”
“It loves you. Can’t you feel it? It’s trying to tell you something.”
“If it’s trying to communicate,” said Jonas. “It has a sad idea of conversation.”
She held those words close as soon as he said them, she pressed them to her chest like a bouquet. This was why she had been brought there, she realized. In this instant, she knew she would translate for him. She would bring back all that he had lost. She’d be his mother, she’d be his father, she’d be his wife, she’d have his children. A family, she thought. With a family, he’d never be alone.
She leaned into him, still holding his hand, and kissed him. Without moving back again, she looked up through her eyelashes and said, “I have everything you need.”
A child bride
The story of the Oliver family is a sad one. No, let us revise that statement: It is not sad, it is disturbing. We don’t like to talk about it around town anymore. We are all glad that —— House took the Olivers, for they were a bad lot, given to drinking and gambling, as well as other unwholesome activities.
The Olivers moved into —— House just past the turn of the century, after Mrs. Blank died. Our grandparents found Mrs. Blank several weeks after her passing, due to the smell that began to spread down Buckeye Street. It was one of the only times they’d gone into —— House, and we remember it to this day: the hardwood floors, the chintz furniture, the stone mantel over the fireplace, the stairs that creaked as you stepped up into the long hallway of the second floor, the second floor itself, the lower half of the hall paneled with dark polished wood. And the bathroom, of course, where all of the trouble eventually focused its energy. It was a fine house, really, with wide windows to let light in, though even with all of that light the house held too many shadows. Our grandparents did not linger. They took Mrs. Blank’s body to the county coroner’s office in Warren and left the doctor to his business.
Less than a year later, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver came to —— House with their three children: two boys, one nearly a man, one still muddling through adolescence, and a girl about to bloom. At first our grandparents didn’t think badly of the Olivers. It takes a certain amount of time for a family to reveal its secrets. So for the first few years, they welcomed the Olivers as if they had always lived among us. The Olivers began attending the Methodist church on Fisher-Corinth Road. They sent the younger boy and girl to school with our children. The oldest boy worked as a field hand for local farmers. His work was good, according to Miles Willard, who paid the boy to clear fields those first few years, before all of the madness started to happen again.
How to tell about that madness. We suppose we might as well start with Mrs. Oliver’s murder. Two of our children found her body in Sugar Creek. They had been going to catch crayfish, but found Mrs. Oliver’s body tangled in the roots of a tree that grew out of the bank instead. She had been severely beaten: her face covered in yellow-brown bruises, her skull cracked on the crown. Dark fingerprints lingered on her throat, so we knew she had been strangled. We still do not forgive her murderer for leaving her for us to find. People should take care of their own dirty work.
Since they had a murder on their hands, our grandparents called on the sheriff to deal with the matter. They marched him right up to —— House expecting trouble. But what they found was the front door open and, inside, Mr. Oliver’s body spread out on the dining room table, a butcher knife sticking straight up out of his throat. The sheriff asked several of our grandfathers to back him up as he explored the rest of the house. And so they did, each carrying a rifle as they descended into the basement, then up to the second floor, finding nothing suspicious. It was when the ceiling creaked above them that they knew someone was in the attic.
They tried opening the attic door, but it had been locked from the inside. So they busted it down, only to be met with a blast from the rifle of Mr. and Mrs. Oliver’s middle child. The sheriff took the shot in his shoulder. He fell backwards, but our grandfathers caught him. Several of them returned fired at the boy. He left a smear of blood on the wall as he collapsed against it.
They found the oldest boy and the girl bound and gagged in the attic. They were wild with fear. Their brother had killed their parents and was going to kill them, too, they said. This was all over a fight the boy had had with his parents about a debt he’d run up over in Meadville, playing poker with older men who knew how to outwit him. He wanted his parents to pay his debt, but they wouldn’t. They insisted he work to pay for his debts and his drinking, just as their oldest son did. After he killed his parents, he wasn’t sure what to do with his siblings, so he tied them up, and there they still were, alive and none the worse for wear, and we thought perhaps we had salvaged something from that house’s evil.
The oldest Oliver boy and his sister stayed on at —— House. They had nowhere to go, no people. Just each other. The boy kept working as a field hand, the girl continued her schooling. But soon her attendance dropped off, and then she stopped coming altogether. She started working to help with the keeping of the house and the paying of her brother’s debts. She took in wash if people gave it to her. She mended stockings. She raised chickens, selling eggs at the general store to make extra money. Anything she could get her hands on she turned into cash.
At first she seemed awfully hard-working and a good girl, but we soon discovered not only was she working to pay off her brother’s debts, but to prepare for the child growing inside her. When her stomach began to round out the fronts of her dresses, we knew what was going on up at —— House. This was something our grandparents could not abide, so they stopped giving the girl work. They stopped buying her eggs, and the farmers released her brother from his duties. In no time at all, the brother and the child bride packed up their things and left. Without the aid of our grandparents, they could not live among us. This is the way all of the families that lived in —— House should have been dealt with all these years, maybe. Without mercy. But Lord knows we are a merciful lot.
Word came several months after the siblings left that they had been seen in Cleveland, living together, posing as a married couple.
The baby’s room
Here it is, in the same condition as when the baby was living. The crib with the mobile of brass stars still spinning in space above it, the rocking chair near the eastern window, where sunlight falls in the morning, the walls painted to look like the apple orchard in summer, the ceiling sky blue, as if the baby girl had lived outdoors forever, never inside the confines of —— House.
We know the room is still like this because Mary Kay Billings has seen it. Twice since the baby died, she has gone to visit her daughter, and both times the baby’s room was as it was during her last visit. Two years after the child’s death, it begins to seem a bit odd, really. She suggested changing it into a sewing room maybe, but Rose shook her head. “No, Mother,” she said. “That’s not allowed to happen.”
Mary Kay Billings has no patience with her daughter. We all understand this. If our daughters had married into a family that lived in —— House without our permission, we’d have no patience either. Poor Mary Kay is one of the pillars of our community. She is one of our trustees, she sings in the church choir. At the elementary school, she volunteers her time three days a week, three hours each of those days, to aid in the tutoring of our children. Mary Kay Billings has raised her daughter, has lived through the death of her husband, God rest his soul (for he would roll in his grave to know what happened to his child), and yet Mary Kay still gives to others for the good of her community. This is the way a town works, not how Rose would have it. We all think Rose is a bit selfish, really, leaving her mother to struggle alone, leaving Hettie without any warning (we liked her flower arrangements better than Hettie’s and better than the replacement girl’s, so it’s even more selfish of her to have done this). Leaving the community altogether, to go live in that place.
We must mention that not all of us think she is selfish, but only has the appearance of selfishness. Some of us (the minority) believe Rose is noble. A bit too noble, but noble nonetheless. Who else but a self-sacrificing person would take on —— House and its curse? We say a crazy person, but some of us say Rose is doing us a favor. If it weren’t Rose, who would the house have brought to its front door when it needed another soul to torment?
But the baby’s room is a bit too much really. We asked Mary Kay Billings what the rest of the house was like and she said, “Buttons! Buttons everywhere, I tell you! I said to Rose, ‘Rose! What’s the matter with you? Why are all these buttons lying about?’ and she says to me, ‘Mother, I can’t keep up with them. I try, but they keep coming.’ And in the baby’s room, too, I noticed. Right in the crib! I said to Rose, ‘Rose! In the crib even?’ and she says to me, can you believe this, she says to me, her own mother, ‘Mother, I think it’s best if you go.’”
“And Jonas?” we asked, leaning in closer. Mary Kay narrowed her eyes and sucked her teeth. “Drunk,” she told us. “Drunk, as usual.”
Life during wartime
In the nineteen-forties, most of our men had been taken overseas to fight against the devil, and our women stayed behind, keeping things about town running smoothly. All over America, women came out of their houses and went into men’s workplaces. We still argue about who was made for what sort of work, but in the end we know it’s all a made up sort of decision. Nothing fell apart, nothing broke while the men were off fighting. In fact, things maybe went a bit smoother (this of course being an opinion of a certain sector of our population and must be qualified). In any case, the factories were full of women, and in Pittsburgh, just across the state border, James Addleson, the grandfather of our own Jonas, had his ladies making buttons for the uniforms of soldiers.
The Addlesons had bought —— House several years before the war had broken out, but we rarely saw them. They were a Pennsylvania family and only spent part of their summers with us. Occasionally we’d see them in autumn for the apple festival. The Addlesons had money, and —— House was one of their luxuries. They had passed through our town during their travels and Mrs. Addleson had seen the house and wanted it immediately. James Addleson didn’t argue with her. Why on Earth she would want to buy a house in the country, no matter how stately and beautiful, was beyond him. But he had gotten used to giving the woman what she wanted. It was easier. And it soothed any guilt he might have felt for other, less attractive activities in which he participated. Especially later, after the war started.
Now, Mrs. Addleson was a beautiful woman. She had a smooth complexion, high cheekbones, and a smile that knocked men over like a high wind had hit them. She wore fire engine red lipstick, which we must say is a bit racy but something to look at. Occasionally she’d come to town without Mr. Addleson. She’d bring their children, a girl in her teens and the little boy who would later grow up to be Jonas Addleson’s father. During the war, we started seeing her and the kids more often. We’d find her shopping in the grocery store, or coming to church on Sundays, sitting in the last pew as if she didn’t want to intrude on our services. Eventually we got used to her being around, and some of the women even got to be something like friends with her.
Mr. Addleson often stayed in Pittsburgh to look after his factory. We felt bad for the Addlesons. Even though James Addleson didn’t go to war since he had a business to manage, his family suffered like anyone’s. Whenever we asked Mrs. Addleson how her husband fared, she’d say, “Buttons! Buttons everywhere!” and throw her hands in the air. She was a strange lady, now that we think about it. Never had a straight answer for anyone.
For a while we thought perhaps —— House had settled into a restful sleep, or that even the spirit that inhabited the place had moved on to better climates. We hoped, we prayed, and during the war, it seemed our prayers had been answered. Finally a family lived in —— House without murdering one another or disappearing altogether. We thought perhaps we’d been foolish all those years to think the house haunted. We shook our heads, laughing a little, thinking ourselves to be exactly what everyone who makes their homes in cities considers us: backwoods, superstitious, ignorant.
But then our peaceful period of welcome embarrassment broke. Like a cloud that’s been gathering a storm, holding inside the rain and lightning and thunder until it bursts forth, flooding the lives of those who live below it, so —— House released its evil upon our town once more.
This time, though, we realized its hand reached further than we had previously thought possible. This time we knew something was wrong when detectives from Pittsburgh began to appear on our doorsteps, asking questions about the Addlesons. How long had they been living in our town? How often did we see them? Did they go to church? Did they send their children to school with our children? What were they like? What did we know about their doings? In the end, we realized we knew little about the Addlesons. As we have said already, it takes time for families to reveal their secrets.
They found the first body in the basement, the second in the attic, the third buried in the orchard, and the fourth stuffed in a defunct well on the property. All women. All girls from Pittsburgh, the detectives told us. All pregnant with James Addleson’s babies.
We were disgusted. Oh, but we were disgusted. Never had the house erupted with such evil before. Never! We thought the Oliver family massacre and the decline of its surviving children to be the worst, the worst possible manipulation the house could imagine. And here we were faced with something even more despicable. While Mrs. Addleson raised her children in the quiet of our country town, James Addleson had been manipulating his women workers into sleeping with him. At first we assumed the women were a bad sort, and possibly their lust had gotten them into this trouble (as any of the great sins will surely do) but then we heard the news that seven other girls in the button factory had come forward. He had threatened to take their jobs away from them, they said, if they wouldn’t give him what he wanted. They had been lucky, they said. They hadn’t gotten pregnant. “It could have been us,” one of the girls said in an anonymous interview. “It could have been any one of us.”
It took the police a week to find the bodies of all four girls. The one in the well was the hardest to locate. We all prayed for their poor families back in Pittsburgh, for their poor husbands at war, off fighting that devil while another devil pursued their wives at home.
We had a notion to burn down —— House then, and were going to do that. We were gathering, the old and the young and the women left behind by their husbands. We were gathering to destroy the place when word came that Mrs. Addleson would not be leaving. She was going to stay and raise her children here among us. Her husband’s factory would be closing; he’d be going to prison. She needed a place for her children. The children, we thought, oh what sacrifices we make for our children! This we understood all too well.
So we left the house alone, and her in it. And even after her daughter grew up to be a fine, respectable woman, graduating from our very own high school, and went off to college to marry a doctor, even after Mrs. Addleson died and left her son, the heir of James Addleson, alone in —— House, we allowed him to live there without any interference as well.
He was smart enough not to court our daughters. He went to college like his sister and came back a married man, his wife already expecting. This was in the nineteen-seventies, mind you, and such things happened among our children, it seemed, without them thinking much about it. We said nothing. We scolded ourselves and told ourselves it was not our business, and to stop caring.
But if it is not the business of one’s community, whose business is it?
If we’d have intervened, if we’d have tried to get the Addlesons some other living arrangement, perhaps poor Jonas would not have walked into the bathroom at the age of ten to find his father’s dead body, the blood spilling out of his shattered skull.
Why did the son of James Addleson kill himself? You are probably wondering. The answer is simple. It was those girls his daddy murdered. We have seen and heard them ourselves on occasion, wandering through the orchards, climbing out of the well, beating on the windows of the cellar and attic. We have seen and heard them, and continued on our way, ignoring them.
James Addleson’s son was not so lucky. He lived with them. He heard them day and night, talking about his father’s evil. In the end, they convinced him to join them.
But not our own sweet Rose! How could this have happened? We often wondered where we went wrong. Through all the years of that house’s torments, never did our own children go near it. We taught them well, or so we thought. But that house would get what it wanted. Our own sweet Rose. How we have fretted these past three years she has been gone from us. How we pray for her and for Mary Kay Billings nightly. And how Mary Kay suffers. How she holds herself together, never mentioning her daughter unless we ask after her. Never wanting to burden us. And how we all have our crosses. Which is why we did what we have done.
We had let the Addleson family linger under the spell of the house’s evil, and because of that Jonas’s father took his own life, and Jonas himself became the wreck he is today. We thought we were doing best by them, leaving them to their own choices, trying not to interfere with the lives of others. But we saw how wrong we were when —— House took our Rose, when it took our Rose’s little girl. And then, recently, when Mary Kay Billings mentioned to one of us that Rose had been asking after her cousin, Marla Jean Simmons. “Could you send her on up here, Mother? I’m sort of lonesome. And I could use some help around the house.”
It was then we decided to take action. Not one more of our children would we let that house ravage.
We approached Mary Kay Billings with our plans, and tears, buckets full of them, were shed that day. Poor Mary Kay, always trying to be the tough woman, the one who will not be disturbed, yet when we came to her and said, “We shall make that house a visit,” she burst, she broke like a dam.
“Thank you,” she told us. “Oh thank you, I can’t do it alone any longer. Maybe with all of us there she’ll let us talk some sense into her.”
So we selected representatives. Mr. Adams, the town lawyer. He inspired fear in his opposition, so we chose him hoping the house would fear his authority. Mrs. Baker, the principal of our elementary school, who Rose once respected as a child. Pastor Merritt, since a man of God in cases such as this is necessary. Tom Morrissey, the undertaker, who has dealt with death long enough not to fear it. And Shell Richards, one of our school bus drivers, because she is simply a force to be reckoned with, and we all of us stay out of her way, especially when she’s been drinking.
Together, led by Mary Kay Billings, we trudged up the road to —— House on a cool spring evening when the buds were on the trees, the sap rising. At the gate, we hesitated for only a moment to look at each other and confirm our convictions by nodding. Then Mary Kay swung the gate open and up the path we went.
As soon as our feet touched those porch steps, though, we felt the life of whatever lived there coursing beneath us. We shuddered, but continued. Since it was not a social visit, we didn’t bother knocking, just opened the door and went straight on in. “Rose!” we called loudly. “Rose!” And soon enough, she appeared on the landing above us, looking down at us with a peculiar glare, icy and distant.
“What are you all doing here?” she asked. Her voice sounded far away, as if she were speaking through her body, as if her body were this thing that came between her and the rest of the world. Her hand rested on the newel post of the landing, massaging it as she waited.
“We’ve come to help you, darling,” Mary Kay said. We all thought it best that she spoke first.
“I don’t need any help now,” said Rose. “What help would I be needing, Mother? Why didn’t you send Marla Jean like I asked?”
We immediately saw Mary Kay’s resolve fading, so Mr. Adams spoke up. “Dear,” he said. “Come down to us. We’re taking you out of this place. We’re taking you home this very instant.”
Rose cocked her head to the side, though, and slowly shook it. “I don’t think so,” she told us. “I’m a grown woman. I can make my own decisions. And my home is here, thank you very much.”
“Where’s your husband?” asked Mrs. Baker. But Rose didn’t answer. She only looked at Mrs. Baker suspiciously, as if a trap were being set.
“We’re going to help him, too, dear,” said Pastor Merritt. “But we need to get you both to safety. We must ask God to help us now.”
“God?” said Rose, and we shivered. We’d never heard a word so full of goodness said in such a way that it sent chills up and down our spines. “God?” she said again, then started down the stairs toward us. “I haven’t heard Him in a long time,” said Rose. We nodded. We remembered. She hadn’t come to church since she was twelve.
“He is always listening,” said Pastor Merritt. “All you have to do is ask for His help, and He will provide.”
“I don’t talk,” said Rose. “I’m the one who listens.”
We didn’t nod this time. We weren’t sure what to make of what she was saying.
“Enough of this,” said Shell Richards suddenly, and we all, even Rose, looked at her, puzzled by her outburst. “Enough dilly dallying,” said Shell. She stepped right up to Rose, grabbed her arm, and said, “You’re coming with us, little girl.”
Mary Kay ran up the stairs to gather a few things for her daughter while Rose fought to free herself from Shell’s grip. “Stop struggling,” Shell warned, but Rose struggled. She slipped, and as she fell, buttons poured out of her sweater pockets, scattering across the floor.
Then a scream spilled down the staircase and we knew Mary Kay Billings was in trouble. We abandoned Rose on the floor and rushed up the stairs, one after the other, the steps creaking beneath us, until we came to the baby’s room with the mural of the orchard painted on the walls and the sky on the ceiling. Mary Kay stood in the center of the room, near the crib, staring apparently at nothing. We followed her stare, and in the mural we saw the Blank boy, Ephraim, sitting in an apple tree, looking out at us. You could tell it was him by the dark eyes and the ruddy cheeks.
We took Mary Kay Billings by the arm and led her back down the stairs then, only to find that Rose had disappeared on us. “Who saw her last?” we asked each other, but no one had stayed with her. We had all gone running to Mary Kay when she called.
We searched the house from top to bottom, shouting for either of them to come to us. “Rose!” we called. “Jonas!” But all we found were buttons, and all we heard were the screams of dead mothers, and all we smelled was the house’s evil circling us like a dark cloud.
We were too late. Our chance had come and we had failed her. The house had taken her and Jonas before we could free them, and so we left, defeated, not bothering to close the door behind us. Let the wind have it, we thought, let the rain flood it, let it all fall down in ruin. For that was the last family that —— House would take, we decided at that very moment. Never again would we allow anyone to go near it.
If walls could talk
And they do talk, if you know how to listen. If you know how to pay attention to the way a roof sighs, or a window slides open with relief, or a step creaks its complaints out. If you know how to hear what those walls are saying, you will hear unbearable stories, stories you would never imagine possible, stories we would rather turn away from. But we cannot turn away, for they will only follow us. They will find us, one by one, alone and frightened, and tear us apart if we try to stop our ears up.
The Blank family is still with us. The Olivers, too. And those poor dead girls from Pittsburgh still linger, howling through the night as we try to sleep. And Jonas’s father, the gun cracking his life open like a pocket watch, to let all of the time spill out of him. And now Jonas, too. Wherever he is, we hope he’s restful. And Rose. Poor Rose. We don’t hear from Rose, though. She never talked to us. She only listened.