The House with the Red X
BY NICK MCLAUGHLIN
The gravel crunches underneath my mother’s minivan as she pulls off the road, bearing for the three houses. The buildings are rotting and long-abandoned, and it seems that some darkness lurks behind the peeled siding and boarded-up windows. The van slows to a stop and I step cautiously onto the gravel, clutching a tiny green suitcase in my hand. The house is a ruined husk, with vines of moss snaking up its sides and a bright red X painted crudely on the door. The blood drains from my face and I grip the suitcase tighter, my knuckles taking on the same ghostly hue. My mother sits behind the wheel of the car, staring away from me. As I walk towards the door it slowly slides open, revealing the house’s gaping maw. I am drawn towards it. As I struggle to scream, the house swallows me whole.
I would not argue that I was a model child. My memory is admittedly a little hazy, but I’ve been told that I was “a real little shit.” I would do my very best to make everyone’s life a living hell. I’m half-convinced I was intentionally malicious. I wasn’t a monster all the time, but I was definitely no angel.
My parents, understandably, needed to devise some kind of plan to keep me in check. Threats of punishment were always weak, as my parents were never terribly strict in enforcing them. The love for their children was their weakness – they were never truly disciplinarians, but something had to be done. The houses on that long woodland stretch of Livingston Street served as the inspiration they needed.
I never knew what the three houses were. As far as I know they were always abandoned. They always seemed mere days from collapsing into great rotting piles of termite-bitten timber and asbestos. The houses seemed to be a part of a different world, separated by a large stretch of woods. There was something ethereal about them and the silence that enveloped them. At night there were no crickets chirping around the houses. Even the wind seemed to fall silent in their presence. The short gravel driveway and the three houses lived in a void of sound and life.
I always was terrified of them.
It was a blistering July day when my mother first brought me to the houses. I couldn’t have been more than four, old enough to comprehend the world around me, but not yet old enough to stop making a fool of myself.
We went to the supermarket to pick up the food for the week, and I was sitting in the little seat on the carriage. I’d been wrestled out of bed early and was already of a foul temperament. As we passed through one of the aisles I spied a large bag of candy and immediately decided I had to have it. I reached out and swept the bag into the cart with a clumsy heave of my arm, laughing in delight. My mother turned and saw the huge bag of candy and put it right back on the shelf. When she ignored my protests I cried out in a blind fury and began tearing things off the shelf. Had I not been so focused on my destruction, I might have seen my mother’s expression change as the idea took root. She wheeled the carriage around and, after hastily paying for what she’d managed to buy, strapped me into my seat and drove the opposite way from home.
“Where are we going?” I asked, my mighty rage replaced by confusion and worry.
“To the Bad Boy House. If you’re bad, this is where they make you live,” she told me as we pulled up to the houses. “All the bad boys end up here. You get to bring a suitcase with one thing and you can only eat moldy bread and drink warm water.” She fixed me with a pointed look. “Is this where you want to live?”
I stared up at the abandoned central house in horror, taking in the decay and the overgrown vegetation and that single fearsome red X. I imagined I saw faces in the darkened windows, pressed against the remaining shards of glass, peering between gaps in the boards. In the absence of sound all I could hear was the idling engine of my mother’s van and my own racing heartbeat. Beyond that, there was nothing. It was a dead zone.
There is an unearthly chill in the air as I ascend the creaking steps to the second floor. Everything is silent and still. It looks washed out, like an old photograph. I don’t hear my mother’s car leave, but I know she is gone. I never hear the residents of the house move or speak, but I know that they are there. The shades of those who’d been left here before, watching from the shadows, wordlessly welcoming their newest tenant.
I enter a long hallway – impossibly long and crooked, like the house is leaning forward and sagging under its own weight. My footsteps and shallow breathing are the only sounds that penetrate this suffocating fog of silence. I come to a door with my name scrawled above it and I step inside. From the black, a pair of elongated, corpse-like hands unfold like wings and spread outward in a gesture of welcome.
The Bad Boy House proved an effective deterrent to my awful behavior, and my brother’s after me. Even a whisper of the dreaded building’s name was enough to shut down whatever tantrum I planned. My parents even purchased a suitcase for me. I still remember it in detail, a small green faux-alligator-skin suitcase with a gold clasp. It sat waiting inside my closet for the day I’d carry it to that door with the red X. I brought it with me on a few harrowing drives to the house, where my mother would merely leave the threat open and drive me back home again. Every time I expected it to be the time I stayed. Everything I did carried with it the lingering fear of the house, knowing that if I stepped too far out of line, that would be it. I’d join the ranks of the lost boys trapped behind those boards, staring hollow-eyed at the world beyond the flaking walls.
In time, I reformed myself into a relatively decent human being, and the Bad Boy House threat was retired. But as I left childhood, the three houses were torn down, seemingly instantaneously. I never saw any construction vehicles; one day the houses were there, and the next they were gone. It was as though the houses vanished as I grew up, confined to the world of children whose imaginations fueled their power. In some strange, dreamlike way, I felt that they were still there, hidden from my view but still menacing the unfortunate children who passed them by. They disappeared before I could ever confront them.
Although it has been years, I still feel their presence when I drive by the empty gravel lot where they’d once been. I still experience the old nightmares of the house with the red X on the door, haunting my mind long after its death. The Bad Boy House once held power over my brother and I. Despite knowing that it was ridiculous, some part of me still wonders what was truly inside one of those houses. My brother maintains that he saw the door begin to open on one occasion. But I will never know. The houses are gone from my world. They remain trapped inside my memories, a half-forgotten nightmare.
I walk into the embrace of the open hands and I am pulled into the choking darkness. There is a cold peace about it, and I do not fight.