The Hole in the Middle of the Block
1255 words long
No one goes inside. No one even goes near. No really one knows why.
Notes from the author:
To start with, two words: Dust. Abandon. The classic image of a house in dusty abandon is, of course, the banquet hall of Miss Havesham's aborted wedding dinner. But it's a cliche. When a writing prompt points too readily at a cliche, my instinct is to twist some part of it good and hard, then write about the twist. So: Remove the rotten feast and the disappointed bride. Time-jump to a modern-day setting. Change the soundtrack until you can hear kids at play in the background. Then have someone walk in.
There's probably a bit of Davies- or Moffat-era Doctor Who in here somewhere, too.
The house is dark and quiet. A thin patina of dust lies upon the lace antimacassars, covers the upholstery, coats the candlesticks. But it is a pristine state of abandon. No rot has taken hold, nor wet begun creeping in. It is simply that no one has been here for a long, long time.
Outside, the street bustles with life. Sunlight dapples the green grass into a picture of suburban bliss. Children play at ball, race on bicycles and roller skates, sit in the crooks of trees. Those of their parents who are currently at home keep a benevolent watch over their games, intervening rarely and with loving purpose.
In their midst, this one house stands lonely and untouched.
It's not even at the end of the block, this house, where its position might impose a natural boundary on the children's explorations. It's right in the middle, with Mrs. Peterson on the right and the Baksten family on the left. And not a soul will go near it. When young Peter Baksten visits Mrs. Peterson in hopes of milk and cookies and a chance to feed spinach leaves to her two rabbits, he walks in the street rather than along the sidewalk in front of the empty house.
The house is never mentioned in conversations or warnings. No parents tell their children not to cross its shadow nor peer in its windows. It's simply ignored, generation upon generation (for the house stood empty when Mrs. Peterson was a girl, riding her bike in circles round the block, timing her revolutions on a Mickey Mouse watch). Even visitors keep away, in thought and in deed, without seeming to be conscious of doing so.
You might think the house were part of a different reality entirely. Yet no one in this reality tries to knock it down and build on top of it.
You might think the house exuded some malign miasma by the force of its presence. Yet the people who live around it are perfectly cheerful and healthy.
You might think the house were a predator, lying in wait. If so, its trap is set for a very specific sort of prey. Only a particular person will do, a unique visitor, someone who will at last see it and turn its front door knob.
Here she comes now.
The Baksten siblings have an out-of-town cousin, Olga Cottonwood, who will be visiting the block for the first time. The Cottonwoods, whose backwoods mansionette can easily house all their far-flung relations, have always hosted the family's Thanksgiving get-together. But this year is different. This year, young Peter Baksten, who has always frustrated his older sister with his shrinking disinterest in sports and roller skates and risk-taking, has nevertheless managed to break his femur so that he must be towed around in a wagon. As this makes it impossible for the Bakstens to travel, they are hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year.
Becky Backsten is impatient with this development as she is with everything that slows Peter down. She desperately needs a playmate who can keep up with her, maybe even push her to keep up with them. That might not be Peter, but it describes Olga Cottonwood to a T, so you can imagine how pleased Becky is to have Olga come and visit.
Olga is game for anything, really anything. Olga suggests the grandest adventures. Olga pushes sports to their furthest limits. Olga eats the weirdest foods in the most impossible combinations. And if Becky asks her, "What's behind that fence?" or "How long would it take us to walk to the mall?" Olga says, "Let's find out." Becky and Olga have gotten into a lot of trouble together during Becky's Thanksgiving visits.
Home again, Becky always resolves to be her neighborhood's Olga. But something about her house, her front lawn, her school, maybe just the weather in her part of the state--it dissolves the Olga within. It makes Becky hesitate where Olga would have said, "Let's find out." It's as though Olga's presence is proof against all boundaries, which reassert themselves in her absence so that Becky can't cross them. When Olga visits this Thanksgiving, Becky is sure things will be different.
The Cottonwoods fly in late Wednesday evening and check into a nearby motel. Becky wants to go visit, but her parents just want an early night. "You'll see her tomorrow. Be patient." And of course she does, but at first they're all tied up in the rituals of Thanksgiving day. Every aunt and uncle and grandparent must have their say, pinch a cheek, get a hug and kiss, comment on how tall the boys have grown and how long the girls' hair is getting. Everyone must stand for the saying of Grace, then line up for food in the prescribed family order, and every grandchild must take at least a small spoonful of the mirliton stuffing, it's delicious and good for you, stop playing with your food, eat up, don't eat so fast, we're not savages here.
But after dinner, the grown-ups slump in front of the TV, full of turkey and wine and eager to have the kids out from under their feet. "Go play," they say, and the kids do, out on the block in the brisk autumn sunshine where neighbors are shooting hoops and playing tag. Becky wants to know if Olga roller skates. "Never tried," Olga says. "Got a pair I can use?" But Becky's old skates don't fit her, and she knows better than to send Olga out on eight wheels in ill-fitting boots. So they walk.
Olga scans the houses, an evaluating look in her eye. Finally she says, "Why's there a hole on your block?"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you mean? You live right next to it."
Becky follows Olga's pointing finger, expecting to see a pot-hole or a dug-up tree stump at the end of it. Her eyes squint, water, slide away from the indicated direction. Finally she says, "Mrs. Peterson's house is not a hole. What a nasty thing to say, Olga."
"Wrong house. Look--" Olga stands behind Becky and forces her head into a line with the empty house.
Becky resists her friend's hands. "I don't know what you mean. I don't see anything."
"That's because your eyes are closed." Olga lets go of her cousin and faces her with a worried expression. "Becky, the house between yours and Mrs. Peterson's is dark and has no cars in the driveway, and it's got frisbees and things on the lawn like kids are afraid to go get them, and you're totally refusing to look at it. That's weird."
Becky wants to cover her ears pand run away because the sounds coming out of Olga's mouth are wrong. The words feel twisted. "Stop talking gibberish, Olga. You're scaring me."
"You're starting to scare me." Olga takes her hand. "Come on, Beckster Baksten. Come on. Roger dodger, ten-four, good buddy. Car 54, where are you..." She continues babbling at Becky, bits of old black-and-white TV sitcoms and songs from her parents' record collection. "Close your eyes, give me your hand, darlin'--" Becky does close her eyes. She lets Olga tug her along. She can't entertain the thought of the empty house as a destination, but she trusts Olga to lead her anywhere.
When she opens her eyes, they are standing on its front porch. And the world looks very different from here.
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