The Haunted House by Michael Roberts

They found the diary, lost and forgotten, beneath the ashes of a house that had never been a home. Matthew traced a finger over the rough cover, over the spider tooled into its leather surface. Flipping it open, he riffled through the pages, the silly doodles, the intricate sketches, the words as sweet as sugar and as bitter as bile. Even now, a hint of smoke rose from the singed paper and carried him back twelve years.

His little girl had turned into a difficult teen, always finding trouble and always ready for a fight. Karen would have known what to do, but she died the year before. Neither of them handled it well, neither had anyone to turn to. When she lashed out he responded with anger, and there are some things you can’t unsay, can’t undo.

He didn’t blame her when the house burned. The fire chief ruled it an accident. She loved her candles and her naps. She didn’t mean to start the fire, and she ran because she was scared. Kids spook easily, but she would come back. Or so everyone said. She never did, and he never expected her to. Yes, it was an accident, but it was also an excuse to run.

He ran too. From house to house. From the bus stop to the train station. But he never found her. The fire burned, and everything inside him froze. He started running on the inside, where no one could see, where he could outrun the things he didn’t want to face, didn’t want to think about. He managed to keep going for weeks, for months, but eventually, he slowed, and the world caught up, falling on him all at once. He tried to forget the year that followed. He rebuilt. He went on, without the shouting, without the tears, without the laughter. In a house too big, too quiet, too empty.

With care, he placed the dairy back on the mantle and crossed a room full of comically evil witches, bats, and vampires. He flipped on the porch light. His version of bat signal, calling the kids to come, calling her home. The haunted house started small, a few decorations in two rooms, but he bought new ones every year until they filled the house and spilled out onto the lawn. Now he needed help to set everything up. Fortunately, several students from the high school down the street were happy to volunteer if it meant they could hide in the upstairs closets and jump out, screaming at their friends.

He unwrapped a miniature candy bar and popped it into his mouth, savoring the sweet, the crunch, the anticipation. A gentle chime echoed through the house. He hurried, snatching up the giant plastic cauldron as he answered the door. There on his stoop, straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, stood Sally. A red wig flowed down over a patchwork dress, and when she smiled, her stitches pulled tight across her painted blue face. Beside her, a four-foot zombie with messy brown hair and a thick coat of grey-green makeup stared up at him. The woman nudged the boy.

“What do you say?” she asked.

“Trick or treat,” the boy said.

Sally chewed her bottom lip and cleared her throat. “We’re a bit nervous,” she said. “This is his first-time trick or treating.”

“Really?” Matthew knelt down to the boy’s height and pushed the cauldron towards him. “That is exciting. Here, take as much as much as you want.”

“Just one,” Sally said.

The boy’s hand dipped into the cauldron. He grabbed as much candy as he could and stuffed it into his bag.

“What did I say?” Sally asked.

“You said one, and I only took one handful.”

He chuckled at the boy’s logic. Sally frowned but didn’t make him return the candy.

“What’s your name?” he asked the boy.

“I’m Matt.”

He grinned, thinking that sometimes serendipity had a sense of humor. “That’s my name too, and we’re both zombies. Isn’t that cool? Did you want to see the haunted house?”

“Yes, please.”

Sally shifted, glancing over his shoulder and into the house. “I’m not sure. He’s a bit young.”

“We’ll stick to the first floor. I promise everything is very PG, nothing too scary”—he smiled at Matt—”unless you’re afraid of spiders.”

“I love spiders. Mom has a whole terrarium full of them at home.”

“Well then, there is nothing in there that will scare a boy who loves spiders, but it’s up to your mom.”

“Pleeease,” Matt begged, his honey eyes shimmering up at his mother.

Sally smiled. “Okay, but if he has nightmares, I will egg your house.”

Matthew stepped out of the doorway, and the boy darted past, stopping a few feet inside and turning in a slow circle to take everything in. “Wow, you must have bought everything in the Halloween store.”

The young woman followed, staying close to her son and eyeing everything with a tight little frown.

“Not a fan of Halloween?” he asked.

“This”—she gestured toward a jack-o-lantern carved to look like a minion—”isn’t what I expected.”

“Like I said, the scary stuff is upstairs.”

She drifted across the foyer, stopping beside the coat closet to examine the family height chart he had recreated from an old photo he found at his mother’s house. He’d copied each squiggly line and every name. His niece, his daughter, her best friend.

“Where are the spiders?” Matt asked.

“In the kitchen. Not everyone is as brave as you, so I keep them all in one room.”

He led Matt across the living room, through the zombie-infested dining room, and into the kitchen full of cobwebs and candy spiders. The boy ran to the table and the massive orange cake. He stood on his tiptoes and leaned forward to inspect the giant daddy longlegs on top and the dozens of smaller black widows stuck to the sides.

“Is that a real cake?” Matt asked.

“It is. All the spiders on the table are made from candies and cookies.”

The boy’s hand floated over spiders made from cupcakes, Oreos, and licorice. He picked up a chocolate truffle with pretzel legs. “Can I have one?”

Mathew glanced behind him, expecting Sally to answer, but she hadn’t followed them into the kitchen. “Just one,” he told the boy, “and not one handful, one spider unless your mom says you can have more.”

He stepped back into the dining room as Matt bit off a pretzel leg. Sally stood at the mantle and, as she turned to face him, he caught a glimpse of the diary in her hands. He sucked in a breath, but his lungs constricted.

“Put that back,” he snapped.

She jumped, slamming the book shut and pulling it toward her chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wincing at the tone of his voice.

“No, I’m sorry.” She fumbled the book in her haste to return it to its stand on the mantle. “I didn’t mean to snoop. I thought it was part of the haunted house.”

The doorbell rang, but he didn’t move, couldn’t move. Her fingertips lingered on the cover, only pulling away when an impatient trick or treater hammered at the door.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated.

One deep breath in and out, and he could forget. He could smile. “Don’t worry. I left Matt in the kitchen. You might want to make sure he doesn’t eat too many cupcakes and feel free to explore.”

He wove back through the decorations and answered the door. This group of kids was happy to grab fistfuls of candy but too busy to brave the haunted house. They shouted thank yous and ran off. A few minutes later Sally and Matt wandered back into the living room, just as a streak of black dove off the chair and attacked a paper mache skeleton.

Sally stopped mid step. “Mr. White?”

The cat turned its silver-eyed glare on her then darted under the sofa. They both froze. Her, staring after the cat. Him, wondering how she knew its name.

“This is all for her, isn’t it?” she asked.

His brow creased. “Who?”

“The girl in the book.”

Her face mirrored his, smile falling, the corners of her eyes crinkling.

“Sorry,” she said. “I saw the name in the diary. The cat she always wanted but never had. Now you have it and all these decorations for her favorite day.”

He swallowed, nodded.

“Did she…” The woman trailed off as her eyes drifted to the window and the half-buried coffin on the front lawn. “I mean, is she…”

“No, she ran away.”

Her smile returned, soft and sad. “I’m prying again. I don’t mean to, but I wanted to say thank you. The whole neighborhood talks about your haunted house. It’s a lovely way to remember her.”

“It’s one night, and I do it for me as much as the kids. You should thank the people who are there every day. If you want to thank me, call your dad or your mom.  I’m sure they deserve your thanks more than me.”

She shifted, taking Matt’s hand and pulling him close. “We’ve not spoken in years, but maybe I will. Thanks, and I’m sorry about the diary.”

“Don’t worry about that. Just promise to come back next year.”

“Yes!” Matt said. “I’ll be old enough to go upstairs then.”

He chuckled, tempted to ruffle the boy’s hair. “I don’t know about that, but I will have lots of spiders downstairs. Even more than this year.”

The boy pursed his lips and stared up at him with the kind of serious only a six-year-old zombie can muster. “Good. You need to. There are pirate spiders and ogre spiders and unicorn spiders. All you have are black widows, tarantulas, and boring old granddaddy longlegs.”

“Mathew! Apologize.”

“But it’s the most boring spider ever.”

“Now, Mathew.”

“I’m sorry,” Matt muttered as he stared down into his bag of candy.

“Those sound like excellent spiders for Halloween. I’ll look them up.”

The boy nodded his approval and yanked at his mother’s hand, eager to move on to the next house. She hesitated for a moment before letting him drag her out the front door.

The next trick or treaters giggled as they walked up the driveway, three little witches with black hats and bright hair. He let them inside, let them upstairs. Footsteps pounded overhead as he drifted back to the mantle. A door slammed, someone shrieked, and everyone laughed, filling the house with laughter, with shrieks of joy, with tears and fears and everything that made a house a home. He picked up the diary, thumbed to the end, to the last entry about wishing she could go back, that things could be different. Fresh ink shone at the bottom of the page, written in shaky hand. Nine digits and three words. She’s still wishing.