“Hey, sis – whatchya doin’?”
“You wanna go play outside with me?”
“No, Owen, can’t you see I’m reading?”
“But Aaron and Kelsey aren’t home todaaaayyyy….”
I looked up at my whiney, blonde-headed, six-year-old little brother. He probably saw a face similar to his own when he looked up, except that my hair was long and I was nine years old with glasses and a halo of frizzy blonde hair confined in a ponytail. I was laying on my bed in my room, my personal room, my space which I had warned the little twerp was a no-trespasser zone. He never listened to me.
“Siiii-iiiiiisssss!” he moaned after I feigned a reply and went back to reading Eulalia, one of my favorite Brian Jacque’s books. The hares were just getting ready for a battle…
“Whaaat?” I exploded.
“Hrrrmph! Fine! But you’re doing the bunnies tonight for me.”
I slammed my book shut and got off of my bed. I stood probably a head taller than he did. Those were the days. Later in life he would grow to be just as tall as I was and more muscular. I never knew then that we would be so equally matched later in life. Otherwise I wouldn’t have picked on him as much.
It was a quiet Saturday evening in October. Our little house’s gardens in Forest City was flush with vines and late summer blossoms on their last leg. Already the corn in the far back-yard, where my dad hosted his biggest garden, was beginning to shrivel up and turn that husky off-white color that it always gets after the first frost. Memories of hot, sweet corn on the cob drenched in melted butter still hung in my mind from last month’s supper.
I don’t remember where Mom and Dad were. Mom was usually around the house tending to laundry, dishes and cleaning and Dad was probably out in his vast expanses of garden, plucking baby pumpkins and plowing up the stretch that used to be tomatoes before they got all buggy. Our Halloween decorations were already out – the life-size scarecrows of a little girl and a little boy that PawPaw had given us. We had already licked the window-cling decorations and set them up on windows all over the house, most notably the big mirror in the bathroom, where we had made little stories out of the ghosts and monsters around the haunted house.
I wasn’t completely against going outside to play with Owen. He was the only little brother I had – the only sibling I had – and although I didn’t often relish the idea of going out to play all the time, I figured at that point in my development that it was still important for me to set a good example and promote his interest in the outside. He was an intelligent little fart when he was still only six years old – always asking questions about “why’s this happen?” and “what’s that?” and “how did it do that?”, to which I normally replied, “Go ask Dad. I dunno.”
Honestly (and I wouldn’t admit this to him when I was nine or when I got a little older), I still enjoyed the outdoors. While I had found great thrills in the worlds of reading, I still liked playing outside and hearing the birds chirp in our apple tree, watching Lottie, our Scottish Terrier, chase the tennis ball with great enthusiasm, and watching the goldfish dart around in the little pond my dad had made in the backyard.
But today, we were going to explore. The Halloween spirit was upon us, and it was probably a full moon. I don’t know how the full moon affects most people, but for Owen and I, we found it hard to sit still and we often left the house seeking adventures in play or finding a mystery to solve. We wanted that eerie, sometimes uneasy feeling of the unknown to touch us, at least just a little bit. At school, all of our friends had started bragging about all the cool costumes they would be wearing for Halloween. Owen was going to be a Power Ranger, I think. I pushed him to be the pink one, but he wouldn’t do it.
That day, Owen remembered something that I had forgotten I had told him. You see, Mom and Dad were very protective. They had set boundaries for us on the premises. If we felt like obeying, we did, but I often led Owen in breaking the rules and crossing the back ditch to explore a dilapidated two-room house that had probably been there since before Forest City was founded. It was founded in the 1850’s. It was pricelessly old. It was also really disgusting-looking. It was hunched over, barely standing, with two huge gaping holes in the roof and shaded by a grove of big mulberry trees. The windows were punched out and there was a welter of honeysuckle vines growing in front of it and up it’s front side. To any grown-up, the place probably looked like a rat factory or a snake apartment complex. But Owen and I didn’t care. We loved getting to see rats – they were so big and interesting and ugly!
Anyways, Owen remembered that I had promised to take him across the street to see it and actually go inside of it (even though that was breaking about a million of Mom and Dad’s rules). We wanted to see what we could find. I was excited about it, but I was also a really nervous child. I didn’t want to get caught. And Dad was right in the back end, raking up a pile of dark brown vines that had once been the snow peas.
“Hey sis….Hey, hey sis.”
“Can we go over there?”
“Uh, sure… keep your head down in the ditch this time. I’ll tell you when Dad’s not looking.”
“I mean, inside, too?”
I gulped and jumped down from the apple tree I had climbed. He was stirring a ‘potion’ for our ghost bar, which was comprised of three tomato wire-frames with an old plank-board balance on top of them. He had taken some of Dad’s old plastic cups from the shed and mixed rainwater and frog poop and dirt and goodness-know-what-else in it with a stick, preparing to served the mixed sludge to an imaginary ghost customer.
“Hey, are you coming in?”
“Yeah.” I said.
“Gotta check your pulse.” he replied officiously. He had to make sure I was dead before I could come in. He grabbed my wrist and made it look like he was actually checking my pulse, but he had his fingers up on my palm.
“Yup. You’re dead. Come on in. You want something to drink?”
This game was actually a lot more fun when the neighbor kids, Aaron and Kelsey, were around. It was a lot more boring with just Owen bossing me around.
“No. I’ll take the worm spaghetti with eye balls and blood sauce – and don’t forget my bone cheese this time!”
Huh. What an act.
“Hey, Owen – if we’re gonna get over there, we’d better go. The sun is gonna go down before long, and we can’t be out after dark.”
He served me my imaginary meal (an unscrupulous lump of dirt with probably a couple of real worms in it and some rotten apples for eyes with a splash of rainwater on top) with an old cup full of pieces of corn husk (hey, it looked like cheese…).
“So we can go?”
“Yeah, we just have to be really quiet about it. And you have to hold my hand when we go inside.”
“Uh! What? Why?” He huffed. He hated always being too little.
“Because there might be broken boards and nails and stuff. I went in there once and almost tripped over a broken board. You gotta help balance me and I’ll help balance you.”
“Okay. Here, let’s close down the bar. Sorry, folks, you’ll have to go haunt the woods tonight. We’ve got business.”
We scampered through Dad’s gardens, keeping our head low, and crouched in the ditch at the end of our property. The sun, just behind us, was starting to sink toward the treeline off to the west. It was getting a little cooler, probably in the sixties, but Mom had dressed us both in these gaudy (but warm) Halloween sweaters and jeans.
Owen tried to see what Dad was doing, but I pushed his head back down and sunk lower into the grasses. He had just turned around to get his wheelbarrow. As soon as he had his pitch fork and had turned his back to us to scoop the old tomato vines into the wheelbarrow, I nudged Owen and whispered,
We slithered out of the ditch and across the street into the foliage of the grove of trees and honeysuckled vines before Dad had his first pitchfork full in the wheelbarrow.
We were practiced at slinking around – we had done this lots of times before. We just hadn’t gone as far as we were intending to go tonight.
“Okay… Okay. When can we go in?” he asked, his cheeks red. He caught his breath.
“Hold your horses. Let’s look around the outside first.”
“Aw, what? Come on!”
We snuck around to the side, where Farmer David’s loud, big dog was chained to the ground and had a fence around him and was still intimidating us. See, this dog wasn’t just a dog, it was a bear. It used to climb up on top of it’s metal house and bark at us, and it’s claws would make the most horrible sound on the metal.
Coming around to the other side, we noticed a strange pile of bones… BIG bones, laying on the ground just outside of the west window.
“Whoa, sis! Do you see that?”
“Don’t touch it!”
“I won’t. What do you think it goes to?”
Okay, I was nine years old. It was a big bone and it was a chilly evening in October, suspiciously close to Halloween. Of course I thought it was a human thigh bone.
“Shhhh! Shut up, Owen, you’re gonna get us caught!”
“Someone was murdered over here?”
“Maybe. Maybe it’s the bones of Farmer David’s great-grandparents. Danny told me they used to live here. They might’ve been buried here.”
“Come on, let’s get inside…”
We crept around the other side, where the rotten threshold was, and I grabbed his hand.
“Whatever happens, you can’t scream.”
In we went. The place was strung up with cobwebs and rotten wood. The furniture was even there, rotting along with everything else. I pointed this out to Owen as we balanced on the few floorboards which were still good and had a look at all the neat old junk on the floor.
“Maybe they – they had to get out all of a sudden. Something happened.” he suggested.
We kept going. We could hear the bird chittering and flapping away and the light was getting dimmer. We had to hurry, or we were going to get our butts whipped. I found a neat emerald-glazed pottery dish for one of my bunnies to eat out of. Owen picked at odd little things, too. I can’t remember what he picked up, but I know he went back with something.
The front room was probably the kitchen and dining area, while the second room was probably the bedroom. The most prominent piece of furniture was the rocking chair in the corner.
That’s when I decided to tell him about something the neighbor kids had told me, having heard it from their parents.
“They say Old Lady Hatchet lives in this house.”
“A ghost. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but Kelsey says that it’s a ghost of an old woman who sits in this rocking chair with her hatchet and when the moon goes down, she is free to roam and hatchet off the heads of kids who aren’t in their houses yet.”
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Mmmm, I dunno. Seems kinda silly. But I guess it could be true. If so, this is her chair.”
Owen looked at me with fire in his eyes. The fire of adventure. He wanted to ask more, but before he could, the chair started rocking.
On its own.
Creak… creak… creak… creak…
We were suddenly very cold and uncomfortable and we had goosebumps.
There was no wind tonight.
Creak… creak… creak… creak…
We didn’t stick around. We screamed all the way out of the house and across the street back into our yard. We caught our breath in the ditch and peeked out just as the sun disappeared behind the trees.
“Is she there? Do you see her?”
I couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe I had an over-active imagination and it was a week away from Halloween. Maybe it was the circumstances. Maybe I just wanted to freak Owen out. But as I peered back out of the grasses of the ditch, I thought I saw a shiny white figure in that rocking chair (which, by the way, was still rocking).