Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
2 Jun 2016Posted by on
The old Morley house was haunted. Every kid in town knew that. Stepping inside the ramshackle old dwelling alone after sunset was a rite of passage we all went through at some point. Our mates would wait outside, giggling behind a wild hedge, for us to come barreling out, our faces inevitably blanched white and eyes agoggle with fear.
When my turn came I was as skeptical as anyone. We were playing ball in Rust Park—me and the Dixon brothers whom I had befriended on my first day of school—when the subject came up. I had told them about a ghost story I’d seen on late night TV long after I should’ve been asleep in bed. That’s when they told me about the ghost of Meredith Morley. “There aren’t any ghosts,” I declared with youthful defiance. The brothers exchanged infuriating grins. And they convinced me to set foot in the Morley house. “Lead the way,” I believe were my fearless words.
Behind the park was an undeveloped stretch of woods. I followed them along an overgrown path. Somewhere in the midst of the woods was an ancient car, long abandoned, its doors missing, wildlife sprouting through cracks in the casing. We passed two older kids sitting in the shadow of a cluster of trees, smoking. They silently watched us go by, which made me anxious until we were out of their sight. I remember thinking the cigarettes smelled funny.
Emerging from the woods we met with a road which crossed a stream over a rustic stone bridge and ended at a turnaround. A pebbled driveway rose up from here, twisting under the reach of a demonic-looking box elder. The narrow drive reached the crest of the hill where finally I set eyes on the old Morley house, looking forlorn and forgotten. It was a dilapidated Victorian house with aching roofs, its exterior a faded purple and its gardens overtaken by weeds. Broken dormer windows watched our approach like suspicious eyes.
Fear was not an issue until I reached the porch. As soon as my sneaker set down on the rotting wood I felt a quiver of terror shoot through me, as if I had been struck by a falling icicle. I glanced back at the brothers but they were concealed behind the hedge at the far end of the decaying garden, watching me intently. I grasped the doorhandle in a clammy hand, slowly turned it and pushed in. It was like entering a mausoleum. Dust and cobwebs everywhere. A great stairway rose up, flanked by a banister of dark wood which looked like termites had been at it for a while. A chandelier-shaped bundle of cobwebs hung from the high ceiling. Dark green spidery wallpaper lined the edges of the room. A gloomy seascape hung on the far wall. Rat tracks crisscrossed in the puddles of dust. On a pedestal below the stairs sat an imposing plaster bust of a man with furrowed eyebrows. I wondered if this was Mr Morley. He didn’t look at all pleased I was there. I felt his alabaster eyes accuse me of trespassing.
I stood in the entryway, my heart smashing against my ribs. I was inside. The brothers hadn’t specified how long I had to stay so I figured I had done my part. Just a quick look around and then I’d split. At a deliberately casual speed, of course, so I’d later be able to gloat that I had gone into the old place without fear. My strategy failed the moment I caught sight of her.
I learned the full story later. The young and fetching Meredith Morley was to be wed in the parlor of her father’s house. A jealous former suitor got it into his head that if he couldn’t have her no one would. The fiend slipped into the kitchen on the eve of the wedding and poisoned her tea. She died horribly, it was said. The former suitor was never seen again. It is presumed her father, Mr Morley, had gotten his hands on him. Others say it was Meredith Morley whose ghost had spirited him away. Either way, the grieving Mr Morley became a recluse and shut himself away from the world in his house. After his death a family bought the house with the intention of moving in. They didn’t last the night. No one else was willing to live in the place so it slowly went to ruin. All while the legend of Meredith’s ghost spread.
What I saw while standing just inside the foyer was a figure draped all in white at the top of the stairs. I’m not sure if she materialized before my eyes or if she had already been there and my eyes were slow to notice her. In any case, she descended the stairs towards me, not taking steps but somehow gliding smoothly as if floating on air. Her face was deathly white, with hollow sunken eyes. A tangle of black hair hung limp past her lacy shoulders. Blood streamed from the corners of her mouth. Her bloodstreaked jaw hung slack like it had lost its elasticity.
I was frozen to my spot at first, unable to make sense of the ghoulish vision in front of me. But as she drew closer she let out the most hideously mournful wail I have ever heard, before or since. I spun around and involuntarily tore out of there as fast as humanly possible, having forgotten all about my attempt to appear dignified to the awaiting brothers.
I didn’t notice until I crossed back over the stone bridge that I had pissed myself.
The Dixon brothers laughed at me for the next two weeks straight. Every time they saw me they burst into fits of laughter and amused themselves with imitations of my terror. But they also empathized because they had each been in my place. They assured me that eventually it would be me taunting another kid into entering the house, and when I did I would laugh just as hard as they did. And they were right.
Years went by and I eventually went away to school. Following graduation I scored an internship at a radio station in Dallas, which ended badly. I bummed around for a while after that, eventually ending up stranded in Baton Rouge with no money. When I finally returned home I was shocked by how much the town had changed in my absence. The Whistlestop Diner was now a Burger King. The deer park in front of the former WWII tank factory had been torn out and replaced with a strip mall. The old arcade with the go-cart track in back was now a Chuck E Cheese. And where the Morley house once stood was now a giant supermarket. I barely recognized the town. Everything unique about it was gone. The streets were lined with all the same big name stores and restaurants as any other town in the midwest. As if someone had come along one night and stolen its identity right out from under it while the inhabitants slept.
I met up with the Dixon brothers for lunch. Both now worked for their father’s construction company. They admitted to being the ones responsible for bulldozing the old Morley house. The ghost of Meredith Morley had not been at all happy about the house’s destruction. She attempted to haunt the construction site, but the workers were under strong pressure from the developer and simply had no time for her otherworldly protests. The roar of jackhammers drowned out her sorrowful wails. Once the supermarket opened Meredith attempted to haunt it too, but shoppers found without the decaying Victorian setting she was little more than some strange lady lurking in the produce aisle. Shoppers rushed by with their carts, in too much of a hurry to be frightened. She proved troublesome for the cleaning staff though, who constantly had to pick up the stray zucchini she would knock onto the floor in frustration.
That evening I took a gloomy walk around town, past all my shattered memories, and ended up where the Morley house had once stood. The once-lonely road leading to it now splintered off into subdivisions of identical houses, like eggs in their cartons. The rustic old stone bridge was gone, replaced by a blocky concrete structure, more of a storm drain now than a bridge. The hill had been shaved down to a level plain. The overgrown garden was replaced by a parking lot. The supermarket which stood in place of the old house was a great big grey cinderblock. The climate-controlled foyer made me feel like I was stepping inside a decontamination chamber. A sizable display of saltines greeted me under the antiseptic glow.
Meredith Morley’s ghost was sulking over by the toiletries, visibly disconcerted by her surroundings. I watched as she attempted to frighten a beehived woman with a shopping cart filled with turkey breasts but the woman steered her cart in a wide berth as though avoiding a panhandler and continued on towards the dairy section. I approached cautiously. Meredith met my gaze with her sad hollow eyes and a sense of genuine pity came over me. I remembered the terror I had once felt by her presence and felt ashamed for having run from her so long ago. And yet I wanted so badly to be terrified by her now, for her sake, but I just didn’t have it in me. The supermarket was simply too sterile an environment to be frightening. I felt sorry for future ghosts. Humankind was no longer building spooky places for them to inhabit. What would they do when all the Victorian houses were used up? What fun is it being a ghost in a tract home with vinyl siding? I felt I had to do something.
I let out a terrified yelp. All heads swiveled in my direction, beehived and otherwise. I whirled and streaked towards the entrance. “A ghost!” I cried, dodging startled shoppers who had frozen in their tracks. My foot accidentally struck a corner of the display of saltines and it toppled over in slow motion. Before the boxes had settled I was out the electric eyed door. I didn’t stop until I crossed the concrete storm drain.
I don’t know if she bought it. I’ve never been much of an actor and she probably saw right through me. But I like to think my little performance restored some of Meredith’s confidence. That night the supermarket burned down in a mysterious fire. Investigators were puzzled as to what caused it, no source being evident. From what I understand the owner of the property is having trouble finding someone to take it off his hands. I hope it sits there, vacant and charred, until we are all long forgotten.
[Originally published in Scrutiny Journal, Mar 2016]
13 May 2016Posted by on
Nearly all music that joins the ranks among my favorites typically does not make sense to me on first hearing. At first it sounds like a sky of indistinct clouds. Ambiguous, with little to latch onto. But on repeated listens my ear starts picking shapes out of the shapeless. That’s not a cloud, that’s a centaur. That’s a castle crumbling to dust. That’s an unsent love letter wedged behind the wainscoting. That’s a determined boy building the mother of all blanketforts. That’s an injured collie limping 200 miles to find its way home. That’s a man slitting his wife’s throat in the dead of night to collect the insurance. That’s a little girl gaining her sight after an operation and setting eyes on her mother for the very first time. And then it’s impossible to remember a time when I couldn’t see these images.
16 Apr 2016Posted by on
Please to enjoy my piece of rainy day whimsy entitled “The Umbrella” over at Funny In 500.
1 Mar 2016Posted by on
“The Bride with the Hollow Eyes,” in which I ponder the effects of gentrification on ghosts, is now up at Scrutiny Journal.
21 Jan 2016Posted by on
A kooky little tale of mine called “The Ghost Was Groping For His Head” was featured in the November 2015 issue of Bitterzoet Magazine.
10 Jul 2015Posted by on
Say, that looks an awful lot like my story “Solitaire” up at the Eunoia Review.
31 May 2015Posted by on
19 Feb 2015Posted by on
We were taking an awful chance, going out in public that day. But I was going stir crazy in that confined apartment and needed a respite. Holly tried to talk me out of it but she understood how claustrophobic I had become. We counted on the vastness of the city to keep us anonymous, strolling along the rainslick streets, inhaling the heavy air like it was a precious commodity. I almost felt normal again. We headed down to the edge of the park where I could look out over something green and alive for a change. Then, all too soon, we turned back.
We passed a couple leaning against the wall of an insurance building, arguing over something ridiculous, like whether to take the subway or a taxi to wherever they were headed. I felt a twinge of envy. They could yell their heads off and not care who saw them at it. I remembered that sense of freedom, the kind you take for granted until it slips away.
Holly tugged my arm. I looked in the direction she indicated. A gaunt woman with solemn eyes, her dark hair pulled into a rigid bun, held a strange box close to her chest. It took me a moment to realize it was a camera. She had been taking a photograph of the quarrelers and we had stepped into the shot.
Without hesitation I strode over to confront the woman. “I’m going to have to ask you for that film.”
She looked startled. It occurred to me that she was accustomed to being an observer and didn’t know how to react when the attention shifted onto her.
“I said I want that film,” menace creeping into my tone.
She shook her head firmly. She was frightened but determined. With a swipe I grabbed the box out of her hands. She fought back but I shoved her away and she fell against the curb. I couldn’t figure out the mechanism to open the back panel. Angrily I smashed the camera against the pavement. It was sturdily built and didn’t break easily, but I can be persuasive when necessary. I pulled the spool of film from the wreckage and shoved it into my overcoat pocket. The woman looked at me like I had thrown her newborn from a high window but she had sense enough not to make a move.
Holly and I hurried along the sidewalk. We had to get away before the cops were summoned. We turned at the end of the block and soon were safely back in our building.
“We can’t take any more chances like that,” Holly said. “From now on you don’t leave this apartment. Anything you need I’ll bring back here.”
I nodded, glancing around at the stifling walls that once again were to hold me captive. It had seemed so easy at the time. But now, nearly six weeks since my funeral, I felt my sanity fraying. No amount of grift was worth this anguish.
[Written for PEN Center USA’s “That Day” contest]