The house looked like it might fall over, sending brick rubble and splintered boards on top of us, burying us beneath its secrets like the house’s former inhabitants. It was backlit by the moon, and I was reminded faintly of an old woman smiling, trying to look younger than her actual years as if the house knew this was its best light, this nighttime spotlight.
My courage was waning. I couldn’t recall in detail why I had thought this was a good idea. I silently hoped my younger brother would chicken out and I would be forced to bring him home. He couldn’t walk back by himself at night, that wouldn’t be safe either.
“What are we waiting for?” Braedon asked, reminding me that he was more of a risk-taker.
“The front door is padlocked. We’ll need to figure out another way inside,” I sighed.
“I got this,” he said, giving me a knowing look.
He set down his backpack and dug into the outer zippered pocket before his hand emerged with a paper clip. He swiftly moved the operation to the cement porch and stood at the front door with its two long rectangular panels of glass looming higher than him, two smaller glass panels were perched like sentinels above. He inserted the paper clip he’d contorted into what vaguely resembled a weapon, and moved it around until a click was heard. He disengaged the lock and stood back.
“Am I good or what?” he moved his hands in a welcome motion as if it was his house and he was inviting me in.
“What,” I said. But when Braedon tried turning the door handle, it didn’t budge. “Move.” I grasped the handle and it felt like I was holding a smooth chunk of ice, but the handle turned effortlessly. There was no turning back now, I thought as I slowly pushed the door forward, wincing as the hinges emitted a nearly comical creaking sound.
“Whoa,” marveled Braedon. “That’s so loud.”
“You’re loud,” I jeered.
“Are you talking to me or the door?”
“Both of you now,” I said. I had pulled my flashlight from my backpack and aimed it around the room. Then I took out a small battery-operated lamp that my dad had put in each of our bedrooms in case of a power outage. This I sat near the front door which I had closed behind us.
Braedon feigned coughing. “It’s so dusty in here, I feel like I’m going to get lung cancer just from breathing in the air.”
“That’s stupid. You don’t get lung cancer that way,” I said walking through the first doorway framed with thick ornate wood molding painted black.
“Look there’s brick under the wall stuff,” Braedon shined his flashlight on exposed brick next to a huge black fireplace. He put his finger under the plaster and pulled, sending a chunk of white dust onto the floor.
“Now you’re definitely gonna get lung cancer,” I said as he coughed and wiped the dust from his hands onto his jeans.
“It’s like crumbly chalk,” he said. “They should have just painted the brick.”
“Stop it. Don’t make it worse than it already is,” I told him. “Come on, we haven’t found the stairs yet.”
That was our goal. We’d been told this house had a problem, and our mom had said that’s why it wouldn’t sell. The stairway to the upper floors was missing, making it complicated to view the second story or the attic. We just wanted to see this in person. Take a picture on our phones, and we were hoping for a ladder, although we didn’t think to bring one with us. But we’d speculated that if the owner, or the real estate agent, wanted people to see the upper stories, they’d probably keep a ladder handy. Braedon had said, ‘Or a rope.’ To which I had rolled my eyes. ‘Can you imagine a potential house buyer climbing a rope?’ ‘No, but a rope ladder… they could store one in the trunk of their car, and then voila.’
We walked slowly from room to room, keeping close to one another and shining our flashlights on opposite sides of the room, so that we caught everything; mud smears on the walls, cobwebs, mouse droppings. I thought of a Hardy Boys book cover, my mom had bought me from an antique store. I never read the book, but the picture, the retro motif of two guys wearing turtleneck sweaters as they sleuthed around stuck in my consciousness.
The house was mainly empty, abandoned, but there were random things here and there, evidence of another time when a family occupied the space. A blue plastic hairbrush with black stiff-looking bristles was lying on the floor next to the second fireplace we encountered in the back of the house.
“How many fireplaces does one house need?” Braedon said more to himself than to me.
The house smelled musty, like old books, and wet dirt.
“I guess this was the kitchen,” I announced, pulling open a pocket door wider as I shined my light on an old white electric stove, brown and beige linoleum on the floor. Here the walls were orange or white and it was hard to tell which was the outer layer peeling away to reveal the insides of the walls. The cabinet with the sink was disconnected and scooted at an odd angle away from any wall, its lower cabinet doors open for inspection. Braedon bent down to peer inside.
“Are there any cookies in here? Nope.” He closed the cabinet, although it had been open, to begin with. Our mom’s training at work.
“It smells worse in here,” Braedon said. “Like rot.”
We continued through the doorways, each a portal to another part of the house until we were lured by my lamp set at the front door.
“Duh,” Braedon said. “Of course this is where the stairs should be, where you enter.”
We’d missed this because they were absent, but we hadn’t shone our light at the ceiling upon entering the house, and now our flashlights revealed the jagged edges of the second story floor, an apparent missing wall, and the absence of stairs. On the left-hand wall, there was the unmistakable outline of a staircase heading upward. A shadow of former steps. On the floor where they should have been, a long rectangular box.
“Owen… was that there before?” my brother was suddenly touching me, trying to grab at my arm. I swatted him away.
“We didn’t shine our lights here before... is why we didn’t notice the ceiling,” I told him. This was true. But a chill went through me as I recognized what the box symbolized.
“Is that what I think it is?” Braedon asked me.
“I think it’s a coffin.” But why it would be in this house, which was abandoned many years ago, I couldn’t say. “The former owners, I mean the original owners… owned a furniture store and they also sold coffins. Dad said that.”
“How does Dad know that?”
“He was reading an article about the house and its history. They were Jewish, the family, so it got his attention.”
“This?” Braedon developed his more typical bravery. “This is not a Jewish coffin.” He walked closer to it and pointed emphatically. He was right though. It was too ornate, with curlicues carved into the wood, and fancy metal hinges. Jewish custom was to bury our dead, immediately, in a plain pine box.
“Probably, because there weren’t many Jewish families in Hannibal, he made the coffins for non-Jews. So they were more casket-like. Not so plain.”
“Good point,” Braedon now lifted the coffin or casket lid to examine the inside. “Cushiony,” he pushed at the insides covered in what looked like a yellowed satin-like fabric. “Well, sort of.” He knocked his knuckles against it demonstrating that it wasn’t so soft and cushiony and just barely concealed the hard surface underneath.
I was shining my flashlight overhead at the edges of the second floor, the outline of the former stairs on the wall, maybe not paying Braedon enough attention. He was ten, but clingy sometimes, and annoying, and maybe he just wanted me to look at him.
“Dare me to climb in there?” I heard him say.
“No, I don’t.”
And then, “I’m going to climb in.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said and the next thing I knew, the coffin lid was slamming down trapping my brother inside and I felt panicky. I imagined having to explain this to our mom and dad as I rushed over to the side of the box, which I was relieved to find, lifted back up easily. Revealing my stupid brother, who had made me flinch. His eyes were closed, his hands folded across his chest, but he had a smirk on his face. And he broke into uncontrollable giggles as he slowly sat up, reaching his arms in front of him.
“Did I scare you?”
“No,” I lied. Man, he was so annoying.
To my left, the wall seemed to close in on us.
Something wasn’t right, something had changed with the opening and closing of the coffin lid. We were now situated underneath...
“Braedon?” my flashlight dropped into the coffin with him, adrenaline flooded my insides, raced up the back of my neck, as I fumbled to pick up my light. “Braedon… the stairs,” I was now the one grabbing for my brother. He became serious, as he could see my fear, and he grabbed my shoulders as he climbed out of the coffin and stared hard at my face, afraid to see what I was seeing. I grabbed his arm with my left hand, and held my flashlight in my right, as steadily as possible, as we walked around the edge and I slowly shined the flashlight beam on the stairs. The wooden, ornate, fully formed staircase, wider at the lower level, curving slightly as they wound upward toward the wall of the second story, stairs that had previously not been there.
I could feel Braedon holding the back of my shirt, while I gripped his arm, and we walked a wide berth around the balustrade, toward the battery lamp, toward the front door. Braedon reached for the doorknob but as before, it wouldn’t budge for him. I thought of how there was glass everywhere, and if needed we could break a window to escape, but as I grabbed the doorknob, this time it was warm as if sun-baked although it was still dark out but starlit and moonlit. The knob turned easily for me, and we ran out, Braedon fumbling with the padlock.
“Leave it!” I yelled, nearly crying. I was too old to cry but this was freaking me out.
“The lamp?” Braedon looked equally scared, and now younger. He no longer exuded courage like when we’d first began on this porch.
“It doesn’t matter - leave it,” I said and Braedon appeared relieved. But the lamp was revealing, the staircase was illuminated and I randomly thought of how we might get in trouble, not for trespassing but for the stairs.
We edged away from the house, the yard, we turned and walked swiftly in the direction of our house, down the hill.
“What just happened?” Braedon glanced up at me, he was still holding tightly to the back of my shirt. I’d only just let go of his arm.
“You think I know?” I said, probably too angrily. I was just scared, and kind of pissed at myself for being scared. I was three years older than Braedon but I didn’t have a clue what had just happened.
“Owen,” Braedon pulled on my shirt now and had stopped walking. He’d ventured a glance back at the house. The stairs were no longer illuminated, because the light it seemed, had moved upward. The attic window, which was hexagonal and displayed a Star of David, a bold statement for a business-owning Jewish family in the 1870s in Hannibal, Missouri which had few other Jewish residents, was lit. It was as if someone had taken our battery-operated lamp and walked it up the stairs to the attic and set it in the window. The window light was like a beacon as we turned and ran down the hill toward home grasping at each other periodically to make sure we were both still there.
View from the attic window.