Mina parks the beat-up truck a block away and together, we follow the winding sidewalk to the front steps of the old Rochester house, sweater hoods pulled low over our heads. One of the porch columns is sagging, taking the roof with it. It’s a testament to laziness that the house still stands in a bougie development like The Providence, especially in its run-down state.
A motion sensor light kicks on when we try the front door, announcing our existence to the world. McMansions and actual, real mansions dot the street, spread out among massive, multi-acre plots, but still I wait for a neighbor’s door to fly open, for someone to shout for us to stop or for sirens to blare. Instead, curtains remain drawn, doors locked. Inconspicuous in the open.
At the heavily vandalized side entrance, a screen door hangs uselessly from a single hinge, the mesh ripped and torn from years of abuse. The frame wears similar scars: nicks from pocket knives and screwdrivers expose rotting wood underneath. Mina retrieves a silver tool from her jacket pocket and fiddles with the deadbolt.
Mom used to say that a house exists within two realities. There’s the house you want it to be – the ideal of what-ifs and daydreams – and the house that it is, defined as much by its history as its faults. Standing this close to Rochester, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a failure of time and poverty. To Mina, it’s an adventure. A low-stakes, low reward Saturday night: cheap thrills in pursuit of a shoddy urban legend.
But for me, time spent with Mina is its own reward.
“Elle, give me a hand,” Mina calls.
With a solid push, the door swings open.
Inside, the stench of rot and urine assaults us. I clap a hand over my nose, but the burning taste settles in the back of my throat. Before my senses have time to adjust to the level of disgust I’ve subjected them to, Mina clicks on her flashlight and scans the room.
It’s impossible to tell what’s trashed this place worse: squatters or the sweltering Georgia humidity.
Piles of blankets line the walls, each bedroll surrounded by glass bottles and empty snack containers. Soggy cardboard boxes and trash bags fill the remainder of the floor, their contents spilling over. Wallpaper peels away from the wall, exposing patches of black mold. It’s no wonder the place has been abandoned for nearly a century.
Mina takes a step, and the floor creaks, long and low. A devilish smile spreads across her face.
I roll my eyes. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Why, you scared?” Mina bounces on the squeaking floorboard, sending the beam of light jittering. Shadows dance, casting elongated grimaces on the smudged walls.
“You wish,” I say, crossing my arms in a way I hope reads as bored. “This place is a total dump. How do we know there’s not someone coked out in a corner, waiting to attack us?”
“Someone like…a ghost?” Her foot drops on the floorboard one last time for good measure.
Before I can respond, a figure darts across the floor.
I wheel around, training my flashlight on the far wall. Finding nothing, I sweep the room. Old newspapers, cellophane bags. A collection of glass jars.
Mina holds a finger to her mouth and leans forward. A few beats pass and I hear it; a sharp scrape coming from the heap of trash in the far corner. It takes me a second to realize she’s waiting for me to investigate.
I shrug. See, not scared.
I move toward the mound of junk. Slowly, I aim my flashlight above and peer inside. The light hits and a swarm of roaches scatter. I jump back, yelping. Behind me, Mina snorts.
“Definitely not scared.”
I can see her grin even through the darkness.
A long hallway funnels us deeper into the house, a faded plaque above the open arch proclaiming, “Welcome Home.” Mina points her flashlight, the beam dissolving into nothingness. The house, like all houses in this part of town, is huge. In the original blueprints Mina found online, the hallway barely registered. In person, in the dark, it seemed endless.
We plunge through. The void opens up and swallows us whole. My light lags behind, a yellow buffer. But just as soon as the path is illuminated, darkness creeps in on all sides. A prickle runs up my spine. The feeling of watching eyes sits on my shoulder, whispering taunts in my ear.
It’s just dark and gross, I tell myself. The only danger is a bad trip.
I trip over my feet, nearly bumping into Mina’s back. A door appears to our right, the brass doorknob a shining beacon out of this narrow corridor.
According to the blueprint, this room served as a parlor. Blue-silver light pours in from a bay window, refracting dazzling shapes from a chandelier miraculously still intact on the vaulted ceiling. Threadbare furniture is arranged haphazardly; the remains of a patterned wingback chair juts out from the fireplace in the corner. Piles of ash and discarded joints litter the low table. Mina clears a path through the discarded hypodermic needles strewn across the floor. It’s hard to imagine this place as welcoming for guests.
“Looks like a party,” I say. My cheeks burn.
Mina is too wrapped up in her exploration to notice. “Whoa, check that out.” She points to the wall behind us. A gilded mirror looms over the room, the edges of the frame spiraling outward in an intricate pattern that stretches across the width of the wall. Cracks spider across the glass, distorting our reflections. A deep horizontal slice lines up perfectly with the tops of our torsos, detaching heads from bodies.
“Creepy. I hate mirrors.” I cringe. So far, I’m doing poorly at maintaining calm and collected. “I mean, why would they need a mirror that big in here, anyway?”
Mina strikes a pose beside me, her purple braids whipping dramatically behind her. “Who knows. Rich people are eccentric, right?” She poses again, exaggerating the long arch of her neck. “Probably used it for sex.”
“Who doesn’t like to watch themselves have a little fun?” She reaches out and strokes my arm playfully. A new chill races down my spine, hot and burning.
“Oh my God, shut up.” I stumble over the words and swat her hand away, but my arm glides through empty air. In the mirror, Mina smiles back at me, her hand still tracing circles on my skin. I reach out a hand, grasping at the place she should be, but never touching her.
Confused, I tear my eyes away. Mina crouches over the broken wingback, her body contorted to look up the chimney.
“What?” she says when she catches me staring.
In the mirror, I am alone.
“Did you just…”
Mina cocks an eyebrow.
A few swift steps bring Mina to my side once more. This place is getting to my head.
“Welp, I’m bored. Let’s move on,” she says, but her eyes are full of concern.
A crash rings out in the distance, the sharpness rattling through the walls.
Mina inhales sharply and grabs my hand. For a moment we are hearts and breaths in unison, a collective point of heat. I am still, afraid of being discovered, afraid to break this bond. Afraid to acknowledge it, too.
Another crash. Closer this time.
Blood pounds in my ears. The walls bend around us, a cage closing over our heads. One exit. Two, if you count the bay window.
“Maybe it’s rats instead of roaches.” I offer a weak laugh. Mina withdraws, creeping toward the door. I hold my arms, hands shaking as her head disappears around the corner. I can still feel her pulse throbbing through my veins, her terror, her closeness. When she turns back, her eyes are wide. Frantically she motions toward the direction we came, her mouth screaming a silent go!
Our footsteps rattle the floors, sending shockwaves up the walls. My foot catches a fold in the rug, and I stumble, dropping my flashlight. It skitters across the ground, the bulb blinking. I duck down and scoop it up, but the flickering continues, nearly causing me to lose my footing once more.
In my periphery, shadows twist long fingers, clawing, scrambling. My legs ache as though I’ve been running for miles, but still the hallway stretches on. We must be close. Must be.
A woman shouts – Mina. Too far away. I slow to a stop and chance a glance over my shoulder.
Nothing. I wait, my eyes searching for anything in the haze, and then…
Two glowing punctures of white swim into view.
Mina’s name comes out a shriek. Beside me, she answers back from an open door – how did we miss this room before? I duck inside, slam the door shut, fiddle with the tiny twist lock. We’re trapped now, but at least we’re trapped together. I smack my busted flashlight and call for her as I creep around the room. My shin slams into something solid and I drop to the floor, a curse on my tongue. White-hot filaments of pain shoot up my leg as my knee bears the brunt of the impact.
Somewhere close, a floorboard creaks.
Silence. I draw a shaky breath, the pounding in my chest burning my lungs. The floor creaks again.
“Mina, I swear to God if this is your idea of a joke…”
The air stirs, a burst of cool rushing over my arms, standing my hair on end. The flashlight clicks on from where it landed on the floor. Haze and dust dance in the beam like falling stars, soon followed by whorls of shadow pulling together. A miasma taking shape, absorbing the light for itself.
No. It can’t be.
I stand up, never taking my eyes off the growing shadow. A trick of light.
Two eyes open in the dark, white as snow.
My back slams into the wall.
Another creak as the eyes move closer. A shining set of teeth joins them.
My knee throbs as I scramble across the wall, ready to buckle under my weight. My hands search for the knob – where is it? – the phantom steadily progressing. It opens its mouth wide and a low, rattling moan pours from its cavernous maw, flooding the room. The cold of metal meets my fingertips, but they glance over the lock, too slick with sweat to work the contraption. I wipe my hands, try again. The phantom reaches out a hand.
The lock clicks and I fly from the room, legs pumping hard. Every other step sends an explosion of pain to my knee, but I grit my teeth and push on.
Soon, a square of light comes into view—the door where we first entered. I dodge piles of trash and burst through the screen door, letting it slam behind me.
“Where were you?” Mina yells, rushing toward me.
“What?” I manage between gasps.
“I thought you were behind me the whole time. I’ve been waiting out here so long I almost called the cops.”
Back in the truck, Mina takes a long pull from the whiskey bottle and offers it to me. The liquid leaves a trail of fire down my throat, doing nothing for my shaking hands.
“You were right,” she says after a while. “I think there’s a hobo living there.”
Hobo was an understatement.
“Sorry it was lame. I promise I’ll make It up to you.” Her smile is tinged with defeat, but it spreads all the way to her eyes. For the briefest of moments, I want to reach over and cup her face in my hands. Tell her how she can make it up to me.
Over her shoulder, the darkness shifts. Long tendrils reach across the seat.
“Are you okay?” But I can’t hear her. Can’t think of anything else besides those eyes, that mouth.
I run from the truck, pounding pavement until my leg finally collapses.
Tears flow hot and free down my face. A shadowy face emerges, a mere hair’s width from my own. I keep my eyes on the ground, refusing to look.
Gentle as a breeze, it whispers in my ear.
I can’t help myself. My head snaps around, looking straight into those horrible pinpricks of blinding light. Mina’s face looks back at me. She’s smiling and oh God, it’s so beautiful and horrifying at all once.
The shadow slithers over—no into—my skin, driving a chill through my bones. It envelops me, wraps me in its suffocating embrace until, at last, we are one.
By Amanda Duncil – she/her
Amanda is an awkward bi residing in northern Louisiana. She is fond of all things dark and surreal and wishes she had more friends to binge horror movies with. Her prose has appeared on The Rumpus and the Toast.