Truth be told: the place looked creepy. Sarah simply couldn’t believe that anyone she knew--let alone some-one from her very own family--could have anything to do with such a house. Never in her life had she seen such a disaster. The puke-green paint was peeling. The lawn (what there was of it) was more brown than green. The flower beds were overrun with weeds. The roof was missing so many shingles it looked like a checkerboard. The driveway was cracked. The steps were sagging. It was awful, made even worse by the fact that they would be celebrating her twelfth birthday in it. Even though they had just spent an entire week in the car, driving here from California, Sarah would have gladly turned right around and gone back home.
“This is it?” she asked, just to be sure, hoping they had somehow made a mistake, that they had turned onto the wrong street and this wasn’t really Grandma Winnie’s house at all.
In the front seat, Mom and Dad exchanged a long look and then Dad said grimly, “Afraid so.”
Sarah’s younger brother, Billy, meanwhile, was wearing a huge smile, which got even bigger when Dad confirmed that this was indeed where they would be spending the summer. “Awesome!” Billy said, with a reverence that thoroughly annoyed his sister.
“What could be awesome about this?”
“Look at it,” he said. “It’s like a haunted house.”
“Billy,” Dad said. “Don’t say that.”
“But it is!” he insisted.
“I’m sure it’s just because Grandma wasn’t feeling well the last few years. She couldn’t keep the house up.”
“No, honey,” Mom said. “It’s always been like this. That’s why the bullies called me Creepy Carol in school. Now can you understand why I wanted to leave as soon as I could? And get as far away as possible?”
Dad tried to put his arm around Mom, but she opened the passenger door and got out of the car quickly. Dad gave Billy one last sour look and then got out with her.
“What’s wrong with them?” Billy asked.
“This is where Mom grew up,” Sarah said. “Her mom died in there. Do you think she liked hearing you say it looks haunted?”
“Oh,” Billy said, his smile suddenly evaporating into a look of timid shame. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Of course not,” Sarah snapped. “You don’t think of anyone but yourself.”
“That’s not true.”
“Prove it,” Sarah said as she grabbed her backpack and opened her door.
The air outside the car was hot and humid. Where they were from in Southern California, it was hot, but not wet like this. Sarah felt as if her mouth were pressed against a damp towel.
Billy got out of the car behind her and went over to where their parents were standing. “Sorry, Mom,” he said. “I didn’t mean it the way it came out.”
Mom patted Billy on the head. “It’s okay,” she said with a sniffle. “I understand.” She faced the house, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand. “In a way, I’m glad you like it. At least one of us does.”
Mom and Dad turned away and started toward the front door. Billy faced his sister and stuck his tongue out at her. She rolled her eyes and joined their parents on the steps.
Mom fished in her purse until she found a yellow envelope. After Grandma Winnie had died, Mom had gotten a whole bunch of these yellow envelopes in the mail. When Sarah had asked about them, Mom had explained that they were from lawyers telling her about things she had to do to settle Grandma’s affairs. The biggest of all these things was selling the house. That was why they were there. Mom and Dad had decided they would do what they could to fix it up before they sold it. But now that Sarah had actually seen it, she didn’t think one summer would be enough time to fix the house. Not unless they rented a bulldozer and just pushed it flat.
Mom opened the envelope and took out a key. While Dad held the squeaking screen door, she put the key in the lock, turned it, and pushed the front door open.
A gust of cool air came out of the darkness beyond and swept over all of them. To Sarah it felt like running through the sheets hanging on the laundry line in their backyard at home. In fact, it felt so much like something--or someone--pushing past her that Sarah gasped a little and stepped back. Was Billy right? Was Grandma’s house haunted?
Mom and Dad looked at each other again and Sarah could tell they had felt it, too. Mom just stood there, as if she were frozen in place.
“Honey?” Dad said. “Are you okay?”
Mom nodded slowly, then turned around. “Sarah?” she said. “You want to go first?”
Sarah shook her head quickly. The cool air wasn’t the only thing spooking her. Maybe it was because the June sun was so bright, but the darkness beyond the open front door looked as thick as a pool of swirling oil.
“I will!” Billy shouted, and pushed his way past Sarah and up the steps.
Dad couldn’t help but laugh as Billy went in. Sarah didn’t think it was funny at all. Instead, she was seized with the desire to grab her brother by the shoulder and pull him back. She was afraid that once he touched the darkness, it would suck him in like a whirlpool. She had to stop him.
But it was too late. He was gone.