House didn’t like the stories. Mink didn’t care. Seemed she had a new story to tell about it every morning while we waited for the big yellow bus to pick us up and take us to school…
|Publisher||The Moonlit Road|
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House didn’t like the stories. Mink didn’t care. Seemed she had a new story to tell about it every morning while we waited for the big yellow bus to pick us up and take us to school.
That’s how I got to know Mink. She lived two blocks away and walked by my house every morning on her way to the bus stop. Sometimes she’d come by early and ring the doorbell. My momma would let her inside and treat her to a bowl of cereal or a couple of hardboiled eggs. “Lord knows, that poor girl’s not gettin’ near enough to eat,” Momma used to say. “And her mother’s working day and night to make ends meet. But the worst part of it is that she has to live in that house.”
One morning I asked Momma what was wrong with Mink’s house. “It’s just a big, creepy house,” she said. “And it’s probably cold and drafty too.” Momma shoved a brown paper lunch bag into my hands and shooshed me out the door. “Now you get to the bus stop or you’ll be late.” Seemed to me that Momma knew something about Mink’s house and didn’t want to talk about it.
“House?” Mink said when I asked her about it. “It’s bad.” She was standing on top of the stone wall that divided the park from the sidewalk. She teetered on the edge and extended her arms. “There’s a dead girl who talks to me too. But I’m not scared.” She stopped talking long enough to stand on her tippy toes before leaping from her perch. Six feet later, she landed with a thump. “Ain’t scared of nothing.” She stared at me for a second. “Now let’s see you do that.”
“Knew you was a scaredy cat,” Mink said with a snicker. “You couldn’t stay ten minutes in my house. An’ the first time you’d see the dead girl, you’d go pale and take a whiz in your drawers.”
“Would not!” I said.
“Would too, scaredy cat!”
I knew that Mink was making me feel all riled up, ’cause she just wanted me to do something dumb like jumping off the wall and breaking my leg. I wasn’t gonna make a fool of myself just so she could laugh at me. And I let her know it.
“I ain’t scared of no wall and I ain’t scared of no house neither. And I’ll prove it. I’m gonna come over to your house after school this evening an’ I’ll stay fifteen minutes. Maybe even twenty.”
“I’ll bet you will,” Mink’s big green eyes twinkled with mischief. “Now prove to me you ain’t scared and jump off that wall.”
I was stuck. Mink knew she’d won. I set my lunch bag down on the concrete and walked to the wall. Just then a low rumble came from down the street. The school bus was on its way. I breathed a sigh of relief. The rumbling sound grew louder. It was followed by the shrill screech of metal on metal as the brakes slowed the bus to a stop. Time to go to school. I picked up my lunch bag and jumped on board. Mink was hot on my heels. “You got lucky this time, Thomas Benton, but you’re sure as heck comin’ to my house right after school.”
“Twenty minutes and then I gotta run home. If I’m late for dinner Momma’ll give me a whipping.” I’d been on the receiving end of Momma’s whippings on more’n one occasion and was anxious to avoid them when I could.
“Just tell her I needed some help carrying home my books, ’cause I scraped my right knee at recess. An’ I did scrape it too, so it ain’t no lie,” Mink said. “Oh, an’ let’s make it official.” She handed me a big, thick science book, a library book about horses and her big red Trapper Keeper notebook that was stuffed with torn scraps of paper and pictures she’d cut from a gossip magazine. “Them books was gettin’ heavy anyway,” she said.
We walked the half-mile from the bus stop to the street where I lived. Then we walked the extra two blocks to Mink’s house. I’d probably walked by it a hundred times or more over the eleven years of my life, but I never stopped t’ look at it. Seemed pretty normal. Wasn’t too much different from my own. It even had a big old porch that was held up by two wooden pillars. But where our porch was all bright and sunny, Mink’s porch was covered in kudzu vines that wrapped around the pillars and shut out the light. The kudzu even covered a couple of the front windows and seemed intent on draping the whole house like a heavy blanket. It made the house seem kinda spooky, like something out of a Halloween story. The feeling only got worse when Mink stopped at the front door to fish around in her pockets and find the key. Before she could get her hand out of her pocket, the front door swung open of its own accord. “Yep,” Mink said, “they’re expecting us. House always knows when I talk about it. Knows I dared you to come over too.” She walked inside. “Well, scaredy cat … are ya comin’ in?”
I didn’t want to, but I remembered my boast and realized that if I didn’t live up to it, Mink would tell everybody at school that I was a coward. So against my better judgement, I crossed the threshold and stepped inside.
Mink closed the door behind me. It felt like she’d switched off the sun. One moment, I was standing outdoors on a warm autumn day, the next moment it felt like I’d stepped into Antarctica.
“Chilly, ain’t it?” Mink asked. She must have seen me shiver.
“A little,” I lied.
“I’ll show you around.” Mink headed up a flight of stairs and motioned for me to follow. “My bedroom and Momma’s room are upstairs. So’s the door to the attic.”
“The attic?” I asked.
“You’ll see,”Mink said.
She made it to the top of the stairs and then turned to her right and disappeared around the corner.
I didn’t want to be left alone, so I started up the staircase. But when I put my weight on the first step, the antique wood creaked and moaned. It scared me and I jumped back. The noise it made sounded unnatural. It wasn’t that sharp, high-pitched squeal that happens when a couple of dry pieces of wood rub against each other. It sounded more like one of the old folks in the rest home where my grandmother lives. Sometimes when we’d visit, I’d walk past an old man sitting on a couch in the common room. He’d be sound asleep, but when he breathed, he’d make the awfullest creaky, creepy noises that sounded like his soul was all worn out and trying to escape. That’s what those stairs in Mink’s house sounded like. I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
I was still standing at the bottom of the stairs when Mink peeked her head around the landing and called out, “Where you at, scaredy cat?”
“Down here,” I said. “I … uh…” I had to think of something quick to cover up my fears. I looked down and realized I was still holding Mink’s schoolbooks. “Where do you want these?”
“Up here,” she answered. “I gotta do my homework.”
I started back up the steps while Mink looked on. The stairs were mostly quiet this time. Only one creaked, but it was a normal creaking sound. Wood on wood. No dying old man noises this time.
I followed Mink to a little room on the left side of the hallway. “This is mine,” Mink said. I was surprised by how normal it looked. Sunlight streamed through a single window and landed on an old green army blanket that was draped neatly across her bed. A photograph of Mink atop a brown and white pony was tacked to the corkboard above her desk. A small lamp and a pencil sharpener on the desk were the only other decorations.
“It looks nice,” I said.
“Bet you expected a dungeon with bars on the windows.”
I nodded. “You said the house was bad and there was a dead girl. I just figured…”
“Well,” Mink said, “You ain’t seen the rest of the house. Set them books down an’ I’ll show you somethin’ else.”
I placed the books on the corner of Mink’s desk and followed her to the door. We walked a few steps down the hallway and Mink pointed out three doors. “That’s Momma’s room, that’s the bathroom and that’s the little door to the attic.”
As soon as Mink mentioned the restroom, I realized that I needed to use the facilities. I mentioned it to Mink and she said, “Anything to keep you from whizzin’ in your drawers, I guess.”
Two minutes later, I was washing my hands at the sink and looked into the mirror. That’s when I saw the girl standing behind me. At first, I thought it was Mink playing a prank. The girl had the same raggedy brown hair and wore an old floral print dress. “Hey” I yelled. “What are you doin’ in here?” That’s when I noticed the girl’s eyes. They weren’t emerald-green and filled with mischief like Mink’s. They were jet black and filled with evil.
I was too scared to move, but Mink must have heard me call out because she knocked at the door and hollered, “Y’all ok in there?”
I looked up in the mirror again. The bathroom was empty, except for me. I must have imagined the scary-looking girl. “Yeah, I’m alright,” I said. I dried my hands and stepped out of the bathroom.
“Saw her, didn’t ya?” Mink said. “She likes to sneak up on people in there.”
“Who does?” I tried to sound normal, but I guess my voice was a little shaky.
“Dead girl,” Mink said. “She knows you’re here.”
“There ain’t no dead girl,” I said. But my own words failed to convince me. They didn’t convince Mink either. So I said a few more words. I accused her of being mean. “You’re just making up stories t’ scare me, just ’cause you wanna make a fool out of me at school tomorrow.”
Mink didn’t say nothing. Instead, she made a fist with her right hand and knocked on the wall three times. She waited a second and then looked over at me. She raised a finger to her lips to tell me to be quiet. I stood next to her and listened. A second later, I heard something that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It was a faint, but clear, sound that came from the ceiling above our heads. Knock … knock … knock.
“What the heck?” I said in a whisper. Mink put one hand on my mouth to shush me while she used her other hand to knock on the wall again. And this time, instead of three sharp raps, she tapped out the old ditty, “shave and a haircut.” We stood still listening for an answer. It didn’t take long. A second later, we got a response: “two bits.” But that wasn’t all we heard. Right after the knocks, we heard the sound of footsteps – like a girl’s footsteps – running across the attic.
I turned pale and my jaw flopped open. I didn’t want to believe what I’d just heard. Mink saw how shocked I was and her eyes sparkled with mischief. She leaned real close and whispered, “Do you wanna go up in the attic an’ see what’s happening?”
“N-no.” My voice trembled and I made no attempt to hide my fear.
Mink smiled and pushed a loose strand of hair over her left ear so’s it didn’t hang down and brush her face. “I went up there once,” she said. “Betcha can’t guess what I saw.”
“What’d you see?” I asked.
“I saw…” she paused for dramatic effect, I guess, and glanced up and down the hallway to see if anyone was nearby. Nobody was around, of course. “I saw … absolutely nothin’. But when I come back down the stairs and shut th’ attic door, I heard footsteps again. They must have run back and forth for a good quarter-hour.”
“What’d you do?”
Mink shrugged her shoulders. “Told it to shut up.”
We stood in silence and listened for a few seconds more, but nothing else happened. No footsteps. No noises. Nothing.
“Well, Thomas Benton,” Mink said, “you’re braver’n I thought. You lasted twenty whole minutes at my house, so I can’t make fun of you no more. Guess you can go home now.”
We walked down the staircase and out the front door. It felt good to stand in the late afternoon sun.
“You gonna be ok by yourself?” I asked Mink. “You can probably stay at our house until your momma comes home.”
“I’m good,” she said. “Besides, I got a can of SpaghettiOs t’ warm up on the stove. An’ I eat ’em straight out of the pot. Saves me doin’ extra dishes.” She turned and walked back inside, but before she closed the front door, she peeped out and said, “See you at the bus stop in the morning.”
I wave goodbye and took off toward home. Momma was a little cross because I was late, but I explained that Mink scraped her knee at recess. “So I carried her books home.”
“Thank you for being a gentleman,” Momma said. “Now go wash up for dinner.”
I poked at the chicken and dumplings on my plate. Didn’t really feel like eating.
Momma noticed. “You feelin’ ill, Thomas?”
“No ma’am,” I said.
You’re normally asking for seconds by now,” Momma said, “so if you’re not ill, something must be bugging you. Bad day at school?”
I nibbled on a bit of chicken for a bit before I answered. I needed a moment to think. “Guess I’m worried about Mink. She’s in that big house all by herself and it’s kinda … well,” I struggled to find just the right word so’s Momma wouldn’t be upset at me for going inside. “It’s … strange.”
Momma wiped her hands on the red and white checkered apron she always wore when she was baking dinner. She furrowed her brow and stared off into the distance. I figured she was counting to ten like she always told me to do when I got angry, but when she finally spoke, her voice sounded sad. “That poor girl,” she said. “Poor, lonely little girl.”
“You talkin’ ’bout Mink?” I asked. Something in Momma’s voice mixed with that faraway look she had made me wonder what she was thinking.
“I need to talk to your father when he comes home tonight,” she said.
Now that phrase worried me more’n any dead girl or creepy sounds. “I’m not in trouble, am I, Momma? I didn’t mean to do nothing bad. I was just helping Mink.”
Momma must have realized her mind had wandered off, ’cause she looked over at me and assured me that I wasn’t headed for a whipping. “No, sweetheart, you ain’t in no trouble. It’s just that sometimes I get worried.” She walked to the kitchen sink and started washing the big pot she’d used to make dinner. “Now you finish up dinner and go do your homework.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
I worked on my history lesson for a half-hour, but couldn’t concentrate. After fussing with it for a few minutes more, I put a period at the end of a sentence about George Washington. If folks didn’t know by now that he was the Father of Our Country, there was little my report could do to teach them. But enough was enough. I couldn’t stop thinking about Dead Girl and the footsteps at Mink’s house. Then there were Momma’s mysterious musings. I decided to ask Mink what she knew about the spooky stuff inside her home.
Mink didn’t want to talk about it. “I didn’t get no sleep last night,” she said while we were waiting for the bus. “Dead Girl snuck into my room and kept wakin’ me up. Sometimes she’d poke me. Other times, she’d hiss and whisper mean things to scare me. She’s like House – don’t like it when I tell stories about it. She’s ‘specially angry that I brought you in and you saw her. She wants t’ keep me all to herself. Says I’m a regular live wire what brings energy to House … whatever that means.” Mink stopped talking just long enough to yawn real big. “Now don’t bug me no more, Thomas Benton, ’cause right now I’m tired an’ just wanna take a nap.”
She slept on the bus ride to school and she slept again on the way back home.
“Do you wanna stay at my house until your momma comes home?” I asked Mink as we were walking home. “I don’t think my Momma would mind. You could even stay for dinner.”
Mink stopped walking so’s she could think about it. “I might could do that,” she answered. “My Momma ain’t gone grocery shopping yet, so food’s a little slim.”
Momma was more’n ok with it. And she did more’n just serve a meal. She made a second meal for Mink’s Momma to enjoy later. Then she called Mrs. Jackson to say that Mink could come to our house every day after school. Mrs. Jackson hesitated and said she wasn’t asking for charity, but allowed that Mink somebody needed to keep an eye on Mink.
Me and Mink smiled when my Momma told us what her Momma said. But Mink’s smile wasn’t quite as big and I noticed that she had big, dark bags under her eyes. Momma saw it too. “Goodness, child,” she said, “are you feeling ill?”
“No ma’am just tired. Ain’t slept well the past couple a’ nights.”
“Well,” Momma said, “you get up to the guest bedroom an’ you get a nap. I’ll wake you up later so you can do your homework.”
“Yes ma’am,” Mink said. She yawned and trudged upstairs.
“And you, Thomas Benton,” Momma said to me, “help me do the dishes, then get working on your school lessons.”
Momma and Mrs. Jackson talked for a long time. I knew it wasn’t polite to listen in, but I was curious because they spoke in low tones and sounded serious.
“Thank you for taking care of my girl,” Mrs. Jackson said.
“Ain’t no trouble,” Momma said, “I just wish I’d stepped up sooner.”
I heard Momma and Mrs. Jackson walk across the hardwood floor in the living room. The couch made a soft squishy noise as they sat down on its cushions.
“Mink’s a good girl.” Momma spoke in that reassuring tone she usually reserved for funerals.
“I know,” Mrs. Jackson said with a sigh. “But I still worry about her. I’ve had to work longer shifts than usual and she’s cooped up by herself. All alone in that big house. And I fear she’s been having a difficult time of it. She’s been telling me wild stories about the house. Strange things ’bout people that ain’t here.” Mrs. Jackson sighed again. “Sometimes I almost believe her stories, what with the noises and floorboards creaking all night long. And then, there’s the shadows.”
“Shadows?” Momma asked.
“Oh, it’s silly. Ain’t nothing really. I think I’ve been working too much. Sometimes, though, I swear I see shadows moving on their own. Walkin’ ’round by themselves.” Mrs. Jackson chuckled at her fears. “Reckon I just need a good night’s sleep.”
“Most likely,” my Momma said.
I heard Mrs. Jackson stand up. “Speakin’ of sleep, I better get Mink home so’s she can get t’ school in the morning.”
Momma and Mrs. Jackson started up the stairs t’ get to the guest bedroom and get Mink. I ducked back into my bedroom and got myself back in bed and pretended to be sleepin’, but I was still listening.
“I hope you don’t think none the worse of me for saying silly things about the house,” Mrs. Jackson said. “I’m just weary. Been a tough year, what with Mink’s daddy passin’ and me trying to cover the bills and such. Lord knows I’m trying.”
Momma didn’t say nothing. She just knocked on the door of the guest room. “Mink?” She said in a soft whisper, “Mink, your momma’s here.” All was quiet for a second or two, and then I heard the sound of bedsprings creaking followed by two little thumps as Mink’s feet hit the floor.
“Momma is that you?” Mink asked.
“Yes, baby,” Mrs. Jackson said, “I’m here to take you home. Now get your shoes on.”
Mink rustled around the room, tying her sneakers and putting on her jacket. “Thank you Mrs. Benton,” she said. “I slept real good.”
Mink, her momma and my Momma walked down the stairs. Momma went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. I heard a crinkly noise and knew that she was pulling out the dinner she’d made for Mink and Mrs. Jackson. Momma had wrapped it in tin foil so’s they didn’t have to wash a dish and bring it back. She was always thoughtful about stuff like that. Mrs. Jackson thanked Momma and then she and Mink walked out to their car. I listened to the car doors close and the engine start up. Once they pulled out of the driveway, Momma shut our front door. She stood still for just a bit and then sighed. “Please don’t let it be happening again,” she said. I could hear her footsteps as she walked across the living room and up the staircase. She made her way to the guest room and fixed the covers on the bed where Mink had been sleeping. After she stopped fluffing the pillows and straightening the covers, she sat down on the edge of the bed.
She sat there so long that I wondered if she’d fallen asleep. I almost went in to check on her, but before I could get out of bed, I heard Momma stand up and walk out of the guest room. She walked to the door of my bedroom and peeked in on me before heading back downstairs. She walked across the living room and flopped on the couch. A few minutes later, I heard her snore ever so quietly. She always rested for about an hour or so before my Daddy came home from his factory job. I was determined to stay awake and listen to know if Momma told him anything about Mink’s creepy old house. But I never did discover what was said, ’cause I fell sound asleep long before Daddy came home.
We walked home from school and sat down on the porch swing. A crisp autumn breeze rustled through the oak tree in my front yard and sent some red-brown leaves scurrying across the sidewalk. We sat quiet for a couple of minutes before Mink spoke up. “House don’t like it when I stay at your place,” she said. Mink had been coming to our home every afternoon for two weeks and it had been about that long since she’d talked about her house. I asked her if things were calming down. She shook her head. “Not a bit,” she said, and for the first time since I’d met her, I noticed something different in the way she talked about it. She sounded scared. “Ain’t just House neither. Dead Girl’s gettin’ angry ’bout it too. An’ she’s brought some friends.”
She nodded and then looked away. “Bad ones. Real bad ones.”
“Do they stomp in the attic an’ keep you awake?” I asked.
Mink nodded. “Sometimes more’n that.”
“Shadows,” she said, “an’ such. But I can’t talk ’bout it much. House knows when I say stuff and it makes it all worse.”
I frowned at what Mink said. Somethin’ wasn’t making much sense. “How does a house know stuff?” I asked. “Houses ain’t nothing but bricks and wood and wallpaper. They can’t make bad stuff happen.”
Mink turned and snapped at me. “I don’t know how House knows or how it does stuff! But you try livin’ there an’ you see if it don’t try t’ come after you! Now I don’t want t’ talk about it no more, so don’t ask me nothing else.” Her eyes watered up and tears rolled down her cheeks.
I didn’t know what to do. Never had a girl cry near me before. “I’m sorry, Mink,” I said and then I sat quiet.
Thank the Lord I didn’t have to sit there all awkward and squirming for too long. Momma interrupted the silence by hollerin’ out from the kitchen, “Thomas! Mink! Fresh cookies! Hot out of the oven!”
I looked at Mink. Mink looked at me. She wiped away he tears and got a ornery sparkle in her eye. “Last one in is a rotten egg,” she said. We jumped out of the swing and ran full-tilt to the kitchen. I won’t tell you who won, but I will say that I behaved like a perfect gentleman.
“Dead Girl and Shadow Man and Red Eyes,” Mink whispered to me while we waited for the bus.
“Who’s Red Eyes?” I asked.
“Shhhh,” Mink said. Don’t talk about it out loud.” She looked over her shoulder as if she feared someone might be lurking about. “House might hear you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I just never heard you talk about … you know.”
“That’s ’cause it ain’t showed up until last night,” Mink said. “It’s got eyes that glow and long, pokey fingernails. I pulled the covers over my head’s so’s I wouldn’t have to see it, but it reached out an’ pulled the covers right off my bed.”
“What’d you do when that happened?” I asked.
“Shut my eyes and told it to go away.”
“Kinda,” Mink said, “It didn’t bother me no more, but it didn’t leave the room either. Just stood in the corner and stared at me for a long time.”
“You’re pretty brave, Mink Jackson,” I said. “If it’d been me, I guess I’d have probably hollered and wet the bed.”
“I ain’t surprised by that in the least,” she said. By the look in her eyes, I guessed she was teasing me. At least I hoped she was.
The morning was chilly, but Mink pulled up the sleeve of her jacket and pointed at some red marks on her arm, “Count ’em,” she said, “One, two, three.”
“Did you scratch yourself while you were sleeping?” I asked.
“Nope. I didn’t scratch myself. And I wasn’t sleeping,” Mink said. “I wished I was.” She shivered and looked around the bus stop before leaning in close and whispering in my ear. “It was Red Eyes.”
“Red…” I blurted he word out before I realized I shouldn’t be saying much of anything. Mink didn’t let me finish though. She clamped her left hand over my mouth and got all angry.
“Don’t you dare say it, Thomas Benton,” she said. “Don’t you say nothin’.
Mink’s eyes were all red and puffy like she hadn’t slept in about four days. Her cheeks were flushed, but the rest of her face was that kinda pale color folks get when they have a real bad fever.
“You don’t look so good,” I said.
She didn’t say nothing. Instead, she grabbed the bottom of her blouse and pulled it up to just over her belly button.
I’d always thought of girls as skirts and shirts and arms and a pair of legs that started mostly around the knees and ended in a pair of sensible Buster Brown shoes. Guess I knew girls had a belly button, but it was still a surprise to see. That wasn’t what kept my attention, though.
“Thirty three,” Mink said as she pointed at all the scratches. “They burn somethin’ fierce.”
“Cat?” I asked.
“With three claws an’ red eyes? Uh-uh.”
I didn’t say nothing about the thing what scratched her. I knew better than to speak aloud.
Mink didn’t speak for a bit, but when she did, it chilled me to the bone. “They’re gettin’ meaner by the day,” she said.
“Why do they keep bugging you?”
“Dead Girl keeps sayin’ that House likes th’ energy I bring to it. But I think she’s lyin’. I think House is full ‘a evil and it don’t want nobody knowin’ it, cause it wants to pull people in so’s the bad things livin’ inside of it can keep doing mean stuff to people. I think the evil lives off th’ good people. An I think that’s what happened t’ Dead Girl. She was once’t an innocent, but got pulled in. Over all these years, she eventually turned evil too. But that ain’t all…” Mink’s stopped talking and just stared off in the distance.
I waited a second to se if she’d say anything else, but when she didn’t, I had to ask. “What d’ya mean ‘that ain’t all’?”
“I think House wants more,” she said. “Wants t’ keep branchin’ out. Keep growin’ the evil an’ eventually take over everything in th’ neighborhood so’s it can live off th’ fear. That’s what I think. An’ House is gonna punish me for sayin’ all that.”
Mink got punished all right. She showed up at the bus stop the next morning all covered in scratches from head to toe. Her face was bleeding and she was crying.
“Good Lord, Mink!” I said. I was pretty shook up by the way she looked. “What happened?”
“House,” she said and then she hung her head and sobbed. “It’s angry. Angrier’n it’s ever been before. An’ it don’t want to let me go.”
“Let me take you to see my Momma,” I said. “She can help. And my Daddy can keep you safe.”
“No he can’t,” Mink shouted. “Your Momma can’t help me. My Momma can’t help me neither. Nobody can!”
Just then a low rumble came from down the street. The school bus was on its way.
“At least let my Momma take a look at those scratches,” I said.
“I can’t,” she whispered, “I gotta get away.”
I didn’t like what Mink was saying. “What you gonna do?” I asked.
She got a wild look in her eyes. “I’m gonna run,” she said. “I’m gonna run far away where House can’t find me.”
“What about your Momma? Won’t House try to hurt her?”
Mink stopped to think. “Didn’t think about Momma.”
“We can tell her when she picks you up tonight,” I said.
Mink’s eyes went wide with fear. “No,” she said, “It’s Thursday an’ my Momma comes home between jobs on Thursdays. She takes a few minutes to rest an’ change her clothes. I gotta find a way to warn her.” She threw her schoolbooks on the ground and scrounged through her Trapper Keeper until she found a blank piece of paper. “I’m gonna leave her a note on th’ door. Tell her not t’ go inside.”
“You can’t go now,” I said. “The bus is almost here.”
Mink wouldn’t listen. She scribbled something on the paper and took off running.
“Mink!” I hollered, “Mink! Come back here! We gotta get on the bus! An’ it ain’t safe to go by yourself!” But Mink was out of sight before I could finish my sentence.
I rode the bus alone.
Daddy’s car was in the driveway when I got home from school. That was unusual because he usually went to work about a half-hour before the bus dropped me off.
The two police cars parked outside our house were unusual too. I don’t think I’d ever seen police in my neighborhood, let alone near my house. Wished I could forget about it, too. ‘Cause as soon as I stepped foot on the front porch, I heard Momma and Mrs. Jackson crying.
I stepped into the house and saw Momma and Daddy and Mink’s momma talking to the policemen. Well, Mrs. Jackson was trying to talk. She mostly just sobbed and said a few words between the tears and sniffles. “I … should … have … listened,” was all I could make out.
I stood still and tried to figure out what was going on. Daddy saw me standing by the front door and motioned for me to come and stand near him. Something didn’t look right about Daddy, though. He looked white as a sheet and trembled a bit. When I got close, he put an arm around my shoulder.
“Daddy,” I asked, “What’s going on?”
One of the police officers looked up from the notepad he was writing on. “This your son, Mr. Benton?” Daddy nodded. The policeman looked at me. “Do you know Mink Jackson?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“When’s the last time you saw her, son?” The officer’s words sent a shiver of fear down my spine.
“Is Mink in trouble?”
The officer looked hard at me, then looked at Daddy. Daddy squeezed my shoulder and said, “Just answer the officer’s question, Thomas.”
I felt really confused. Nobody wanted to tell me what was happening, but it must have been something bad.
“Did you see her today?” The police officer spoke to me again. I figured that if I told him what I knew, he might tell me what was going on.
“Yes, sir,” I said, “I saw her at the bus stop this morning.”
“About what time?”
“Seven-fifteen. Maybe seven-twenty.”
“Did she say anything? Was she upset?”
“Yes, sir. She was all covered with scratches and was crying.”
The policeman cocked an eyebrow and asked me another question. “What was she crying about?”
“She was scared.”
I told him everything I knew.
I walked by Mink’s house the day after her funeral. Momma and Daddy didn’t tell me much except that Mink’s momma found her body just inside the front door.
I stood across the street from House. It was as close as I dared to go. I tried to imagine what Mink saw and what happened to her in those last couple of minutes, but it was too much for me to figure out. All I knew was that my friend wouldn’t be coming back to my house no more and that made me incredibly sad.
I turned to walk away, but stole one more look at House. It was completely covered in kudzu. Windows, walls and sides. The kudzu had grown beyond the house and wound its way across the power and phone lines. The vines had even started to reach the houses on either side of Mink’s home. It reminded me of what she said not long before she disappeared. “House wants to branch out … keep growing the evil and take over the neighborhood.”
A gust of cold autumn wind whipped through my hair and set me to shivering. I started back toward my house, but another gust of wind blew something into my face. I grabbed at it and saw it was Mink’s handwriting. Must have been the note she wrote her momma, cause all it said was, “Beware of House.”
“Never goin’ back there,” Daddy was talking to Momma when I got back home. I slipped in real quiet so they wouldn’t hear me. Daddy had been helping Mrs. Jackson move out of the house. She said she couldn’t live there no more.
“I was taking boxes out of Mink’s room,” Daddy said, “when I looked in the mirror on her wall and saw a little girl standing behind me. She had rough-chopped brown hair and wore a floral-print dress. I thought at first that it was Mink … but then I looked at her eyes. They were jet black and all full of evil. It gave me a good start and I nearly dropped the box I was carrying. When I looked back in the mirror, though, I didn’t see nothing. Just me an’ a cardboard box. But let me tell you,” Daddy said, “that house sure is creepy. There’s an evil feeling there.” He paused to let out a long sigh. “I don’t know … maybe it’s cause of what happened to Mink. Or maybe I’m crazy.”
“No,” I heard Momma say. Sounded like she was trying not to cry. “You ain’t crazy,” she said. “When I was young, I had a friend who used to live in that house. She had chopped brown hair and always wore a floral-print dress. She used to tell me stories ’bout the things she saw and heard in that house. One day, she just up an’ disappeared. First time I heard Mink’s momma tell about shadows and noises, I feared something bad would happen. I should ‘a said something. But I didn’t want to cause no fears. Now … I wish I had.”
I lay awake thinking about the things Momma and Daddy said … about Mink and Dead Girl. And I wondered if we could ‘a helped Mink and her momma. And then I wondered ’bout the things Mink told me. Especially about House. Was House really evil? Why? House don’t do bad things on their own. They’re just bricks and boards and wallpaper. Somebody must’a started it way back long ago. Maybe that somebody brought the evil and thought they could control it, but the evil got to be too much and it swallowed ’em up whole … and now it needed more. Maybe that’s what Mink meant about House stretching out and taking over. Or … maybe it was nothing. Just spooky stories and a friend whose time was up. I rolled over and punched my pillow a couple of times to make it comfortable. And that’s when I heard it. The wind rustled through the vines outside my bedroom window. The sound made me sit up straight.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “Ain’t no vines growin’ on this side of the house.” I tiptoed to the window and saw the moonlight shining off a mess of vines with broad leaves. “Kudzu,” I whispered to myself, “and it wasn’t there this morning.”
The wind puffed against the side of the house again. I heard the vines and leaves rustle. I also heard something else. A little thump followed by the sound of footsteps. Footsteps in the attic. The footsteps moved across the entire attic and stopped just above my head.
I stood stiff as a statue until I heard another noise from above. Weren’t no footsteps though. It was the sound of one foot tapping. An impatient-sounding tap. Whatever it was wanted me to do something to acknowledge that I knew it was there. And like a dummy, I did, even though I knew that acknowledging it would make it stick around. I made a fist with my left hand and knocked three taps on the wall. A split second later, three taps answered my knock.
I shut my eyes and tried not to be scared. But I knew what was happening. House was trying to get to me. It knew about me and Mink being close friends … and now that Mink was gone, it was looking for someone new to consume and since I knew it’s secret, it was coming after me.
The impatient toe tapping started up again. I wondered if this is how it had happened with Mink. A cat-and-mouse game. One little tap at a time. Maybe so. And after what happened to Mink, I knew I’d better be very cautious.
The thing above started shuffling around, so I stood quiet to see what might happen next. Didn’t have to wait too long before the thing tried to get my attention again. Tap … tap … tap. Three knocks on the wall. But I didn’t do nothing. Didn’t tap. Didn’t talk. Hardly even breathed. Tap … tap … tap. The knocks sounded again, but I stood just stood there. And then it tried once more. It tapped out the little ditty that Mink did in her home: shave and haircut…
I knew I had to do something. I could stand and fight or I could run screaming down to Momma like a little sissy girl.
Shave-and-a-haircut. The knocking noise came once again.
I knew what I had to do. And I did.
I ran screaming down the stairs and straight to Momma.
We moved out of the house that very next morning.
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