A cool breeze flowed into my room accompanied by the sound of a million frisky birds and the sweet smell of wet, melt and decay. The doorbell rang violently and with a dull fluttering sound, mail was deposited through the slot. I arose, my head ringing with blurry reminders of the night before. Staring at the envelope and package on the floor, I paused with concern before stooping to collect them. Trudging into the kitchen I proceeded to make tea and open mail. As suspected, the much anticipated fudge and a letter from my mother lay before me. Each in their way requested my presence at home. She or more accurately, she and my never-openly-emotional father, desired a visit of at least a few days before the end of the school year and the beginning of my summer work at a resort in the Carolinas.
I had been avoiding a return home for a fairly long time. It was sheer bliss to be away, to have a place where I could be in peace with my thoughts when I wanted and more accurately, to be free of the year upon year of bizarreness that was associated with our home. But I digress. Leave it to say that life at home, was not always pleasant. You see, my home is what one could call, haunted.
Following a long and ponderous debate in the tub and two letters back over the following weeks where I documented my insistence that I should pay my own way, I finally boarded a train. As suspected, a ticket arrived the day prior inside a blank greeting card addressed in my fathers rough handwriting. I made my way up the coast to the city of my birth having been granted a full weeks leave, a result of a deal with my professors involving assisting in the instruction of juniors in the last months of this semester. In truth I looked forward to the visit, as oddly, the quiet was at times disconcerting.
My attendance at the prestigious university in Boston was no easy feat for my not-of-financial-means parents. My high marks, a very good academic scholarship, a flair for track sports combined with a small inheritance assured my placement. It also assured my freedom to not be forced into work throughout the school year however, it did mean travel home was restricted. I had not been since Thanksgiving four months earlier. I even missed Christmas, a holiday I usually relished, which I spent quite hermit like in my dorm till whisked away to the Smyth-Jones estate for the week at the insistence of my then girlfriend Kate. All in all, I was due a return.
Letters had been sent in advance of my visit, informing family and a small group of friends who had either not left yet for college for a variety of reasons, had left and returned following an expulsion, or had yet to decide what to do with their lives. In anticipation of a night of revelry, at the suggestion of good old Thomas Duggan, I smartly misinformed my parents of the night of my return. This would afford one so inclined time to sleep off the festivities at his home then hire a cab to deposit me at their door the following afternoon. All was shall we say, in order.
My home was a tall, three story former office building constructed in the early 1800s by a well to do merchant whose family helped found and settle the original ville. Its limestone exterior, odd brickwork, tall vaulted ceilings in the original residential portion and original windows and doors were an oddity in the city, and drew many an architectural student to view it through the years. Living within its walls was no less odd, there being numerous passages behind walls, hidden cabinetry (locked, though easily opened) bedrooms from days gone by and shelf upon shelf of books, made for much adventure for a young solitary lad. The problem lay with the former residents, who seem to have decided to not move forth to whatever afterlife there may be and instead hang about and interfere in my daily doings. It was not until my teen years, when upon my continual insistence my parents allowed me to have friends sleep over one night, rather disastrously I may add. It was at this point I realized that spectral forms flitting about your room as you slept at night was not the norm.
Generally, the visitors caused no harm, though a few times my dearly devoted tabby Sol nearly lost his life when a shelf would topple inexplicably in his direction or large objects left on counters would roll off such of their own volition and nearly crush him. I was happy for his purported multiple lives as when he was with me, the spectres would avoid entering the same room, allowing me privacy whilst bathing or attempting to read on a dark stormy eve. I dearly looked forward to seeing him again for pets were not allowed in residence and I had not heard of his mousing deeds of late. I wondered how many he had racked up in my extended absence.
The train ride was mostly uneventful, though I missed much of it as I was not bereft of young female company . This came in the form of a coquettish pair of young women from France on an exchange program. I spent the day entertaining them with song and attempts at discussions in mixtures of French and English. Eventually I awoke at promptly eight pm alone in the car content to find a slip of paper in my breast pocket that contained an address sealed with a pair of reddish kisses. Gathering my luggage and stretching my frame after many cramped hours, I bent to see through the window my pal’s car idling beside the rail station. My carriage awaiting, I exited in haste.
I stumbled down the stairs and before I could thank the stern faced conductor I was stopped in place laughing by the sight of two of my more foolish friends. They stood in full view of all, clad in nineteen twenties era fur coats, straw hats and waving various brightly coloured pennants from schools rival to my own. Cheering, waving and rushing forward to grab my bags from me they carries me forth like a football hero to the awaiting vehicle, filled with ridiculously clad compadres. With cheers and much yelling, the overfull car was driven at highly dangerous speeds to the closest pub where we entered to find a full corner of the pub emblazoned with more rival school regalia. Embarrassing as this was, it was a relief to be home among my true friends, in a familiar place.
The evening wore on and eventually the recounting of stories from school became stale and tiring. I had been fully updated on all that had occurred since my last true presence in the city had occurred. In fact, apart from a bit of gossip, a few fires and a few people leaving town, not much was new. My parents had been active as they usually were in the community, my friends worked and drank and planned to escape at some point and as usual, the city barely noticed the passage of time.
By ten we were singing, by eleven we were stumbling, by twelve we were but three. It became obvious much earlier that I was destined to find my way home and collect my luggage tomorrow as my good pal Thom had skedaddled with a nice young thing from the diner he knew. This was of course well within reason. We decided to call it a night and in doing so ordered coffee, if only to warm ourselves before the long cool walks to our respective homes. Silence took over and topics turned as cold and uninteresting as the coffee. It was at this point that I wanted nothing more than to return to home and visit Sol while I sat by the fire in the den. Eventually I would fall asleep to be found in the morning by my parents to much surprise and delight. With such a thought in my mind, and acceptance that the remaining time in the pub would be less and less stimulating , I made my way home in the cool spring air, my remaining two friends wandering off into the moonlit foggy streets in their own directions.
I passed through Cortage Park, its skeletal rose bushes and flower plots unkempt since the previous autumn. Sitting briefly on a bench, I leaned back to stare at the full moon, its silver rays spilling forth. The earthen mounds which will in a few short months be full of colour and joy at present resembled only small graves. Arms crossed to keep some of the heat within my coat, I tipped my head to the left and right, soaking in the starlight and the quiet of the small town, so unlike the metropolis I had been living in for months. I began to drift, weariness from travel, food and gaiety overcame me, when a constable on foot patrol awoke me with a soft poke of his billy club. Making my groggy apologies, I recognized him as one I had seem around town when I was younger. He ushered me on my way with a smile and a firm “sleep it off son, good to see you again”.
Trudging along, I passed homes of childhood friends, former schools I attended, parks where we played, the ice cream shop, the harbour. I walked along the river on the cobblestone pathway behind the shops, ignoring the sleeping hobos and occasional odd noises that came from nearby alleys, damn and cryptic. By the time I reached my parents home I was dead tired. I opened the gate and walked to the front door with due quiet in mind when an unexpected creak emitted forth like the screech of an banshee into the quiet of the night. Tentatively I removed a loose brick from the side of the waist high wall along the porch, and delved inwards to find the key that had been secured there since I was a boy. It was not to be found. Only a spiders web, a scuttling beetle and a small whisp of misty noctilucence that circled me once then shot over the roof out of view.
Squatting low I lit a match to see into the small rectangular hole and found within a folded piece of paper, Opening it and moving into the moonlight I read what my mother had written:
“Good morning dear. If you have made it home before we have been to the train station to pick you up, we are very sorry. Leave your things on the landing and meet us at the restaurant. We have gone to your aunts for the evening and yes, the key has been missing for a few weeks. Mother.”
The realization that I had given them an inaccurate return date was a slap in the forehead. It was too chill to sleep on the porch and I was not so inebriated as to think it acceptable to walk to a random friend’s home and rouse their families at this time of night. After a brief bout of thought, I decided to return to the ways of my youth and enter through the back window above the garage.
Leaving my bags on the landing behind the railing, I rounded the gate and returned to the street whereupon I walked around the corner of the block, past Mrs. Murphy’s house and the Lilac Parkette. A pair of whisps blew about within a small cyclone of leaves blocking my path briefly, then dispersing into the night followed by distant trilling laughter, I made my way to our driveway that due to the odd urban planning of the 1800s made its way to the street through a travel allowance two properties west. A cold wind blew out of the north again lifting leaves into the air that until recently had slept beneath a blanket of snow. I walked along between the park and the restaurant my parents owned, passing the empty lot behind it, and entered the familiar wooden fence enclosed yard.
The large garage attached to the rear of our building was dark and forbidding as usual. Chock block with miscellanea and vehicles, it was really simply a storage location for things best disposed of for the past forty years. A small covered walk led from the yard to the back door, though I knew it and the door to the breezeway to be firmly latched as always from inside. Beside it stood a two and a half story addition to the building, constructed sometime in the late 1800s, covered in parging and painted off-white. A single window was all that existed on its south facing side, too small to gain safe entry, too high to reach safely. A series of windows at the rear of the main structure that could only be reached from the garage roof was another potential access. Though again, upon inspection, these were deemed sadly inaccessible. The ladder had sadly been moved from its usual position along the wall and into the garage at some point this past winter. I remembered then that a single window existed at the rear of the dining room. Covered by heavy curtains year round and forgotten by most all, it faced the dirt alleyway on the north side of the addition.
I walked slowly and tentatively in the darkness, past the tall ominous black locust trees between our old camping caravan and the back wall. Darkness prevailed in this section of the yard where sunlight only ever touched a small portion of the ground at sunsets in the latter days of September. Upon passing the visibly decaying trailer, I was overcome with a waft of warm, stagnant, breath-like air from the alley. The gravel and disjointed, irregular cobblestones ended as one passed the edge of the wall. I saw the sad attempt at a flower garden my late grandmother tried to grow year after year along its base and remembered how nothing would grow, planted or transplanted in that spot. Rounding the corner, I was faced with the debris of many years of small renovation projects, a rapidly rotting wooden boat, and residual snow at the base of the walls that in some years would last well into late May. The alley was a good forty feet in length and half that in width, leading up to the back wall of the main structure. The window, long forgotten, was half covered in dead tendrils of ivy that appeared to have skirted the soil and grown around the corner from the North side of the house.
A hastily lit match was extinguished immediately by the gusty winds that whipped back and forth through the alley, again, breath like. More carefully, I lit another attempting to shelter it within my hand then another before I accepted it as a lost cause. I decided instead that I would make my way by the indirect light of the moon reflecting off of the neighbours window.
As a child I had not been fond of this part of my yard. Regardless of the time of year, it was always mouldy, cold and damp, prone to unsettling breezes and shadows of indeterminate origin. When a pet died, the soft ground within was where my grandfather interred the remains. Oddly though, , when a much love pet cockatiel passed , my mother took it upon herself to follow suit and a small coffin made of a shoe box was lowered into a shallow hole. My grandfather came forth from the breezeway shovel in hand, insisting we stop and re-bury it in a nearby abandoned garden for reasons un-given.
I tentatively walked forth, around debris seen and unseen beneath the residual ice and snow. I paused briefly as at my feet, an abandoned baseball lay in the rubble, green and blackened, discarded for many years. The window before me, I examined its middle sill and saw the latch to be as I remembered it, broken and askew with screws beside it awaiting a repair that had never occurred. Looking about, I found a thin piece of metal within the debris and began to use it to remove the many layers of paint that had over time sealed the frame. Standing precariously on a pile of bricks, I tried in vain to throw away childhood fears and focus on the job at hand. Gripping the ledge I attempted in vain to lift the window open without ripping away the slightly decayed trim. A growl, low and forbidding erupted behind me. I turned far too quickly on the precarious pile, immediately losing both my footing and the metal strip. Crashing to the ground and twisting as I fell, I caught a glimpse of a huge feral cat standing upon a snowy mound before my head, fur raised, tail the size of a racoons. My head connected with the wall as I fell and briefly, I lost consciousness.
A painful reawakening was overshadowed by a nearby cacophony of innumerable cats and dogs growling, mewling, snarling and barking. Scrambling backwards into the rock and ice strewn corner, vision returned and brought forth a scene from a nightmare. I was faced with semi-translucent spectral beasts, growling, pacing and stalking me, in various states of decay and disrepair. The distance being closed rather too quickly for my tastes, I rose and grabbed a nearby plank, waving it before me to no avail as they began to run and pounce and leap, claws out and teeth bared. They connected with my form, over and over as I swung. Icy and sheer, was the pain, like that one feels if you falls upon the ice, gloveless on a winters day. I swung wildly, trying to swat the semi-transparent animals away as pangs of coldness from scratches and bites from beyond our living realm overcame me. Falling to my knees, I gave in, covered my head as they closed upon me, ready for death.
A howl unlike any I have before or since erupted from my left, from the small passage between our building and the next door structure. The attacks stopped abruptly and the spectral forms slid back into the darkness, half regarding my weakened, squatting form, half upon my cat Sol who moved with purpose and speed between me and they. Standing his ground, ears lowered, fur on end, he blocked their path, answered each growl with one of his own, each movement with a threatening counter. I half crawled towards him, some strength returning, reaching forward to briefly touch his fur and sadly found no resistance to my fingertips. He too was not of our world.
Standing, with mixed emotions and fear, I stumbled to the passageway and with only a brief glance back to he and the others. I slid into it and worked to force my way past twenty years of dried overgrown bush to the street beyond. The beasts made a move in my direction and the battle began. Sol expanded to half more his normal size and blocked their path, slashing into one after another of the attackers with flashes of unnatural light and sounds one cannot readily describe. I shoved, climbed, crawled and dragged myself through the bushes and briars and broken sticks, to the street where I collapsed at the side of the building, bathed in streetlight. Injuries and exhaustion overcame me and I fell unconscious again, cold and shivering. I partially woke only once before morning to the familiar sound and feeling of Sol purring as he pressed against my chest, under my arm to sleep.
With light came the laughing of children and I stood to find myself caked in dirt, bleeding from a minor wounds with both clothing and skin torn. With due embarrassment, I knocked at the door of my neighbour, and acquired from her the second emergency key that she maintained since I was old enough to be out after dark. Explaining away my look as the result of a scuffle with a drunkard at the pub the night before, I thanked her for the key and made my way home. I bathed, dressed my wounds and slept until I was awakened by the familiar of my mothers voice and her hand on my forehead.
After doting over my wounds, complaining about my damaged pants and suit jacket as well as my lack of accurate transmission of my arrival time, discussion turned to my cat. Sol had passed on a few weeks previously and he had been buried him in the front yard under the crabapple tree where he often skulked and hunted birds. I went forth to pay my respects to my savoir and long time friend.
When I returned, I wandered the house, knowing that I still had the protection afforded by my small familiar. I walked to the then to the main floor dining room window and looked outside upon the alley. A pair of yellow glowing eyes leered at me from the shadows and I stared back through the dirty glass. Removing my pocket knife from my jacket, I proceeded to finish the repair to the latch.