Jerry was recently awarded recognition from the Titan Press Masters Literary Awards for an excerpt from his unpublished novel titled Crossings. The excerpt was submitted as a short story titled, "The Empty House." Since the contest allowed him to maintain all rights to the story, Jerry has provided it here for reading enjoyment.
The Empty House
By Jerry Winter
The service elevator opened at Jem’s floor and ended his daydream, but as he exited and nodded to Tom, the old favorite stuck in his mind and he hummed the tune with the words still in his head -- Fee-fi-fiddly-i-oooo. . .
“Have yourself a fine day, Jem.” Tom’s smiling face cheered Jem as the elevator doors closed. He went to his office, saw by his watch that it was 8:30 a.m., and sat at his desk to unwind with his coffee and newspaper before his coworkers bustled in. The printed words on the sports page blurred as his mind drifted back to his childhood again to his old neighborhood in Queens . . . to a time that seemed so peaceful and slow-paced compared with the stress of an hour-and-a-half commute from Jersey – especially after ten days of serenity at the shore.
His mind focused a quarter mile near his family’s home to the most notorious haunted house in town. Although kids needed to protect their local haunted houses’ reputations, all admitted -- the ghosts of old man Hoogesteger, his hunchbacked wife, and two trick-or-treating kids they murdered on Halloween in1929 haunted the gray mansion off Springfield Boulevard. Gossip said the Hoogestegers went nuts when the stock market crashed just days before. Old man Hoogesteger was president of the local bank and, supposedly, lost everything. Which of the Hoogestegers chopped up the two kids in the cellar wasn’t certain, but the old man hung himself in a closet, and the court sent his hunchbacked wife to some loony bin. More controversial than any competitive haunted houses, Hoogestegers’ mansion retained an added attraction -- rumors of missing gold bars the old man stole from his bank and hid in the house -- empty for more than twenty years.
Walking to school, Jem passed Hoogestegers’ twice a day. He always walked on the other side of the street. Just wide enough for one car, Spring-field also lacked sidewalks, so Jem squeezed against the mulberry bushes in front of the vacant lot across the street. Jem never took his eyes off the house without plenty of running room for a ten-yard head start past the spooky place.
After hundreds of crossings past the dreaded empty house, the scary image became fixed in Jem’s mind . . . two round towers separated by the jutting peak of the main roof topped both ends of the fourth floor in the middle. With round, stained glass windows, the mansion looked church-like. With its windows and towers, it reminded Jem of an English castle, but he knew Hoogesters’ was just a huge, frightening house. High privet hedges separated the house from the road, and were so overgrown, kids swung down from the five story maple tree in the front yard and landed on the hedge top without falling through. Jem’s and his brother, Bobby, lay spread eagle atop the hedges and felt suspended in midair, then without a scratch, shimmed on their backs toward the outside edge before riding the bending shoots to the ground.
Other kids broke most of the windows long before Jem was born. On a windy day, the wind whistled through the house, but kids thought they heard ghosts howling inside. Jem’s dad expressed amazement no one ever stole the fifteen foot oak panels of the front entrance. In Jem’s imagination their scary carvings looked like demonic signs and each kid made his own translation of them. The gray paint on the shingles didn’t peel over time, but wore out as if the wind sanded them smooth. With four spruce trees growing high over the black, shingled roofs casting sinister shadows, and the grass three feet tall all around, no kids ventured near Hoogestegers’ -- unless on a dare. When a group of three or more kids got together on an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon, one of the older kids often suggested an assault on the Hoogestegers’ haunted mansion -- just to make the weekend worthwhile.
Bobby said, “Let’s go over to Hoogestegers’, hide in a closet, and listen for the ghosts.”
Younger kids, like Jem, responded, “Nah, that’s no fun. Let’s play red light or ring a leevio. What da ya say? C’mon. Let’s play some more ball or something.”
“What are ya scared, ya little babies?” Bobby taunted. “Nothin’ bothers ya in the closets -- unless old man Hoogesteger ghost still hangs by his broken neck in one of them. Then ya got to run like hell for the door before his crazy, hunchbacked wife snags ya with one of her crooked fingers. Just stick close to me. They walk only at night anyway. Let’s go,” Bobby egged them on. “C’mon. Jem. You, too, Joey.”
“Nah, I’m not goin’, Bobby . . . not me. Joey and I are goin’ to the beach. Right, Joey? We wanna go down the beach?”
Lying on his back with his eyes closed, facing the sky and chewing on a reed of tall grass, Joey betray Jem with, “Nah, I’m sick of the beach.”
Those big kids have me, Jem thought.
“Come on -- babies. We’re all goin’ to Hoogestegers’ mansion to scare the ghosts.” Bobby and his older friends squirmed to their feet and threw stones as they taunted the younger boys. “Let’s go, babies. We’re doin’ it, now.”
The march to Hoogestegers’ began with a lazy, single file through the woods behind the homes along Springfield between the brook and old wooden P.S.161 where Jem attended first grade. Bobby and Billy Kahras led the motley band with big Ted Urtel right behind and Johnny Meinz, the fat kid in the neighborhood, slobbering along beside him.
Jem followed ten paces back, shouting over his shoulder to Joey Amidon still lying on the ground and oblivious to the plan. “Hey, Joey! Let’s go! Wake up, ya idiot! We’re leaving!”
“What? Hey, Jem, wait up!” Joey stumbled to his feet and ran after Jem. With his sneakers untied, Joey nearly fell on his face, but never did. “Hey! Where we goin’?”
“Hoogestegers’, birdbrain. Don’t ya ever listen?”
“Jeez, Joey. Wake up. They’re tryin’ to scare us ’cause they think we’re babies.”
“I’m scared of Hoogestegers’. Why do we have to go there, Jem?”
“If we don’t – we’re babies and they won’t play ball with us and stuff. Just don’t start crying, OK?”
“Jeez, I hate Hoogestegers’. That place is scary. Gives me the creeps,” Joey shivered. The closer to the old mansion, the closer Jem and Joey walked behind Ted Urtel and Johnny Meinz. They could see the old house through the trees, so Bobby and Billy crouched in the bushes to scout the yard. The rest of the boys crouched behind them, none taking ther eyes off the spooky place.
After a few minutes, and no outward sign a danger, they scurried in the crouched position up to the last line of overgrown bushes behind Hoogestegers’ backyard. Bobby led, giving orders. He was always bossy like that, Jem recalled.
“Don’t move,” Bobby whispered. “We go in one at a time. I’ll go first across the lawn to the cellar door. Next Billy, then Teddy, then Johnny, then you little kids. Stay down, move fast, and keep your voices down. Ghosts hear so good they know when you’re blinking your eyes.”
Bobby turned his attention back to the house and the overgrown lawn he was about to cross. After a few seconds, he bolted from the bush and ran as fast as he could in a crouch until he was ten feet from the house. He dove, flipped over, and covered the last few feet, tumbling till he landed right at the foot of the old cellar door. He stood up fast and pressed his back against the side of the house. He didn’t move for what seemed ten minutes to the others, but was a few seconds. Nothing happened, so he gestured to Ted to follow him. Ted repeated the same commando attack on the house with the same result. Johnny, the fat kid, was next, but he couldn’t run and crouch at the same time. Jem figured Johnny was a goner when he lumbered sloppily across the lawn, but somehow he made it, wheezing all the way.
Next came Jem and Joey without waiting for Bobby’s signal. Running for their lives, they choked down a scream the whole way and tumbled into each another toward the end of what seemed like a twenty-mile run. They fell in a pile at the other boys’feet, but the big kids grabbed them by ther shirt collars, yanked them to their feet, and pulled them tight against the side of the house without saying a word. All stood still and silent until . . . they heard them. . . .
Ghosts don’t talk, Jem recalled. They just shuffle around.
First they heard them coming down the stairs. There was a brr-rump sound from inside the house, then a rump . . . rump . . . then silence. Jem pushed his head against Bobby’s chest and heard his heart beating. Jem knew a scared heart when he heard one, and if those noises frightened the big kids, this must be real. The ghosts must have seen them and were coming down the stairs. Jem heard brump . . . bump . . . rump . . . then silence again.
Joey Amidon pinched Johnny Meinz’s fat belly so hard Ted had to pry away his grip. Bobby’s and Billy’s eyes widened scaring Jem even more, thinking -- We’ve fooled around with these ghosts once too often . . . they’re banging around in that empty house something fierce.
Brump . . . Jem heard again . . . then rump and suddenly, scurry scurry scurry scurry scurry. . . like a dog’s paws slipping across a linoleum floor.
“Run for it!” Bobby called to the gang of intruders as he broke and headed across the yard with his head thrown back and arms pumping like a track star.
The others broke after him, but tripped over one another, arms entangled and loosely tied sneakers coming undone. Seeing Joey hopping with one sneaker in hand, Jem thought they looked like Laurel and Hardy in an old comedy short, but he knew this was serious business -- running for their lives -- everyone for himself.
The big kids jumped through the bushes to safety. Before Jem and Joey caught up, they skinned their elbows and scratched their faces as they crashed through the thick brush. They ran another hundred yards into the woods along Springfield until they spotted the older boys, winded and wheezing with laughter where they sat under a gnarled, old elm tree, which in Jem’s piqued imagination, reflected a twisted mouth and scary express- ion in its bark with limbs hanging ominously over them.
“You little kids OK?” Bobby asked between breaths as they sank to their knees with their heads hanging ready to barf. “Scary, huh, Jem?”
“Scared you, too, Bobby,” Jem whined breathlessly.
“Surely did. Those ghosts almost got us. If they start movin’ that quick, just get the heck out of there. Remember that. There’s just no tellin’ at that point.”
Jem didn’t sleep well that night, he remembered. Who could after an attack on Hoogestegers’?
That June, a new kid named Tommy Milligan moved into the neigh-borhood. After his father died in the city, Tommy moved in with his aunts, Mrs. Stellingwerf and Mrs.Milligan, elderly widows across the street from Jem’s home. Jem figured the widows were rich because they owned a big, black car, hired an Italian gardener, and always dressed up – even in the morning.
At twelve, Tommy was two years older, and seemed sophisticated to Jem because he’d lived in the Manhattan. Tommy wore slacks, ironed shirts, and short pants that seemed a little too long to Jem. Tommy even read the papers in the morning, The NewYork Times. Even Jem’s dad didn’t read The New York Times, but preferred The Springfield Sentinel and The Daily Mirror for important topics -- sports and the funnies.
Jem liked him because Tommy was smart with good manners that make Jem feel good. He didn’t put on airs, but acted polite all the time. Jem learned that city kids go to museums and libraries regularly -- and to the theater, not the movies, but live shows on Broadway. They dine out and meet many important grown-ups, like Arthur Godfrey or Duke Snider. Tommy came over in the morning and sat on Jem’s front porch and told Jem about his seeing Victor Mature walking through Central Park.
“I saw the Shah of Iran going into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel,” Tommy told Jem, but Jem had no idea what a Shah was or Iran’s location. Tommy said the Waldorf was grand with gold ceilings and crystal chandeliers the size of Jem’s bedroom. Though Jem’s mother called that talk bragging, but Jem didn’t think Tommy was a braggart. He just behaved differently in an interesting way.
Jem made it his job to show Tommy around town. Tommy was older and smarter, Jem thought, but a new kid needed someone to show him the ropes.
They began each day that summer with a city story on Jem’s front porch before Jem gave Tommy tour of the neighborhood to meet other kids. They played ball up on Hecht’s vacant lot, visited Kaplan’s candy store, so he could meet Mr. Kaplan and Stanley, his idiot brother. Sometimes they went down to the bay where Jem taught Tommy the difference between a horseshoe crab and a blue claw. They picked blueberries behind Jem’s house and raspberries near Vanderwall’s farm. Jem even convinced Tommy to swim naked one day in a hidden cove -- just to get the feel. Tommy acted patiently with Jem, considering he was an older, sophisticated, city kid.
Tommy followed Jem everywhere for a few weeks in the beginning of the summer and always appeared interested and grateful, no matter what Jem showed him, until their daily adventures inevitably led them to Hooge-stegers’ mansion.
“See that empty, old house – ghosts haunt it,” Jem told him as they crouched in the mulberry bushes across the street. “Old man Hoogesteger and his hunchbacked wife went nuts and killed some kids on Halloween right there in that house a long time ago.” Jem lowered his voice to a hushed, conspiring tone. “Sudden death . . . gruesome violence . . . spirits stay where they’re killed, and they’re all still in there -- even the kids.”
“What makes you think so?” he asked so offhand Jem took offense.
“Everybody knows it, Tommy. No kidding. I’ve heard them myself. They’re in there, really.” Jem remained calm, but sensed a challenge coming on.
“All kids think empty, old houses are haunted,” he continued so calmly Jem fumed beneath his façade of patience. “Kids’ imaginations run wild, like on Halloween, Jeremy.” He called him Jeremy, not Jem, like the other kids because his aunts were so formal. “Halloween isn’t be much fun if you didn’t believe in ghosts and goblins. I think haunted houses are the same -- we just imagine it in our minds to make it more fun. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
This is a new kid. What does he know? Jeez. What a dumb way to talk after I’ve been so helpful to him. Jem grumbled internally, but fought the urge to argue. Still, Jem had to defend his honor and that of the neighborhood ghosts.
“Ya wanna sneak in there? Look yourself. You’ll hear them. They’re in there, believe me.”
“OK. I’d like to see inside that big, old place.”
Jeez. What a cool customer, too sophisticated for his own good -- and mine, Jem thought.
“I dunno,” Jem mumbled, staring at Hoogestegers’ mansion. “We can’t just go walkin’ in there. We’ve got to wait for the right time. You have to sneak up on the place when the ghosts aren’t expecting ya and take’em by surprise. Otherwise, they know you’re comin’ . . . that could be trouble.”
I’m weakening and losing respect, but what am I supposed to do?
You don’t just go whistling and licking a fudge sickle as you stroll into Hoogestegers’. You need to mount an assault. I can’t go by what some new kid says. What could he know about it?
Tommy started to stand up and said nonchalantly, “Let’s go have a look.” He squeezing through the mulberry bushes when Jem caught his pant leg.
“Wait! You can’t just go walking in there,” Jem insisted.
“Why not? Is it private property or something?” he asked, looking back down at me through the edge of the mulberry bushes.
Jem knew it was private property, just as the faded, broken sign used to say on the front lawn, but older kids chucked the No Trespassing sign into the hedges earlier that summer he assured Tommy. “Ya can’t just walk in. We always sneak in.”
“OK. The heck with ya. Go ahead. Walk right in -- serves ya right.”
“Come on,” he said, nonchalant as before.
He squeezed through the rest of the mulberry bushes. Fully erect and in full view of the house, he crossed Springfield toward Hoogestegers’. It seemed like suicide to Jem.
Here’s the new kid I’m responsible for, walking to his certain death , head up, strolling along with his arms swinging at his sides as if he’s gonna buy the place.
“Tommy,” Jem hissed. “Tommy. Wait.”
Tommy didn’t hear him and walked right into the mansion’s front yard. Jem watched him, but he couldn't move. Jem’s eyes burned, straining to catch a glimpse of Tommy – any sign that he was still breathing – that the ghosts didn’t get him yet.
The kid’s dead. Jeez, he must be nuts. Look at him, Jem thought, just walking right up to the front door. He did just that, much to Jem’s disbelief. Then disappeared for a few minutes behind the house before reappearing through a broken window from inside.
“Holy Jeez,” Jem said under his breath. “He’s in there -- walking around as if he owned the place.”
Through the broken windows, Jem could see Tommy meandering around the front room. He’s looking at the architecture like a termite inspector, Jem thought.
As Jem remained frozen in his crouched position behind the mulberry bushes, he didn’t know how much time passed. He couldn’t see Tommy anymore, and with trouble breathing and Jem’s legs cramped. He figured he saw the last of Tommy. No sounds came from the house -- no movement at the windows.
Jem needed to straighten up, but stayed safely hidden behind the bushes. What will I tell his aunts? Jeez, the kid’s dead. What will I tell everybody? Mom will blame me -- like murder -- letting a new kid wander into Hoogestegers’. Poor guy. I liked him, too. What can I do?
Jem shuffled nervously, side-to-side. “Come on, Tom boy,” he whispered. “Come on out, huh.”
Suddenly, there he was -- standing right in the front doorway, carefully inspecting the carvings on the big oak doors, swinging one back and forth with his arm as if he just hung it and tested to see if it were plumb. Jem crashed through the bushes onto Springfield and, even in his excitement, kept carefully to his side of the street.
“Tommy! Get the outta there!” Jem yelled and waved to him.
Tommy casually waved back. “Jeremy, come here!” he called with an annoying, calm voice. “Come look at these neat carvings. They’re interesting. I think they’re Byzantine.”
What do I know from freaking Byzantine? I can’t believe this kid. “Who cares?” Jem shouted desperately. “Get the heck out of there, will ya!”
“Come here!” he called again. “Look at these designs, Jeremy.”
“I’ve seen ’em a dozen times, Tommy. Let’s go, huh?” Jem felt exhausted from Tommy’s confounded calmness, and turned up the street toward his house. Resigned to any fate that might befall Tommy. Jem thought -- the kid’s ridiculous. Heck with him.
Tommy caught up to Jem. “Jeremy . . . what’s wrong? There’s nothing in that empty house, but old, interesting stuff . . . no ghosts . . . nothing scary. So what’s wrong?”
His manners and calmness made Jem crazy. Speechless, Jem kept walking and looking straight ahead.
“Jeremy, what’s the matter? Are you mad at me for going into that empty, old house? I thought you said it was OK, not private property or anything. Jeremy?”
When they arrived in front of Jem’s house, Jem turned to go in without saying a word and left Tommy standing in the street and looking after him. Then Jem stopped to say over his shoulder, “I’m goin’ in. I’ll see ya tomorrow . . . and stop callin’ me Jeremy. My best friends call me Jem.” He took his porch steps two at a time and slammed the screen door behind him.
During that summer Jem and Tommy visited Hoogestegers’ many times together. They figured out where old man Hoogestegers’ bed used to be and found pieces of broken china they must have used back in 1929. There was a curled section of a sallow black-and-white photograph with a woman’s head cut in half along the jagged edge. She stood in front of a sapling which became the big maple tree in Hoogesters’ yard over the past decades. They found pieces of bottles, a lot thicker than current bottles, and a sterling silver fork. Tommy guessed the Hoogestegers used the big room along the back of the house to play billiards because they saw leg marks the size of a billiard table on the floor and holes from racks that must have held the billiard cues on the wall.
Tommy was smart about stuff like that -- being from the city and all, Jem thought.
Late in the summer when Jem and Tommy became comfortable with their secret expeditions into the Hoogesteger mansion, Jem remained edgy if they stayed too long, and the sun set, creating long, creepy shadows cast by the waning sun’s angled rays through broken windows. The most frightening experience at Hoogestegers’ came so unexpectedly because -- for one brief moment -- even sophisticated Tommy believed in ghosts.
Calmly shooting the breeze, Jem and Tommy expanded their courage in late August to the dingy cellar’s depths where hearsay placed the murder. Tommy discovered the entrance and, without hesitation, told Jem to follow him down the rickety stairs.
“What do you suppose this is doing down here, Jem?”
Anxious, Jem turned to see a pillow case. Tommy shook it to show him something heavy inside. They stared at each other perplexed.
“Maybe it’s the gold old man Hoogesteger stole from the bank?” Tommy grinned with an enthusiasm he quickly transferred to Jem.
“Let’s see,” Jem said, grabbing the pillowcase and opening it. When he stared inside, Jem momentarily froze. The images from the rumors about the murders passed vividly through his mind.
“What is it, Jem? Let me see.”
“It’s . . . oh, jeez -- hard candy . . . old candy, all dried out, and--” Just as Jem was about to finish his revelation, the inside door at the head of the cellar stairs swung open and a long, creepy shadow of a hunchbacked figure cast against the damp, cellar wall. “It’s Halloween candy!”
A raspy voice called down the stairs, “Whatcha doin’ in my house, dearies? Find what ya lookin’ for, ya nosy, little creeps?”
“Aaah!” both boys shouted, and Jem felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck with a shudder.
They scrambled for the outside cellar hatch doors that led to the overgrown garden, but as they did, the hunchbacked woman came ambling down the stairs. The boys peaked over their shoulders as they dove into the mulberry bushes and saw the old, homeless woman known in town as “Humpback Hattie”. Everyone knew she was a little crazy, and suspected of finding shelter at night in empty houses. Jem knew from his mom that Hattie was crazy, but essentially harmless. Tommy’s terrified expression convinced Jem not to tell him the truth for several weeks. Jem promised Tommy they were going into the haunted house only in early daylight with no chance of getting caught inside near sundown.
“From now on, Jem, the cellar is strictly off limits.”
Sometimes, Jem and Tommy hid in the upstairs bedroom when they heard little kids coming along Springfield Boulevard. They made ghost sounds by howling and scraping a dried out tree branch along the wooden floor. The kids stopped and stared for a second, then ran away, looking over their shoulders to make sure nothing followed them from Hoogesters’. Jem and Tommy laughed, but it made Jem feel sad inside, so he stopped when Tommy moved back to the city and school started.
Since Tommy’s dad died, Tommy’s mom got her “affairs in order” over the summer and seemed happy to have Tommy returning to Manhattan with her. Jem missed Tommy after that summer. He wrote to Jem every month or so, and Jem enjoyed answering his letters with some adventures of his own to tell. Jem’s parents talked about moving to Jersey the next year, so Jem stored up memories of what he liked most about the old neighborhood in Laurelton and Springfield Gardens.
Up to the last day of school Jem walked the same route to P.S.161 along the Long Island Railroad on Higby Avenue. In spring, tulips and daffodils peaked through fences along the way. When Jem passed the empty Hoogesteger mansion he saw a For Sale sign on the overgrown lawn. The maple tree, the hedges, the overgrown lawn, the broken windows, and the two round towers looked the same. The empty, old house remained, but it was no longer haunted, except in the mind’s eye of a child quickly crossing over to adolescence.
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