Footprints in the Dust
You walk into the abandoned house. The rodents rustle behind the walls. You leave a footprint in the dust. The floor sags under your weight. As you examine the gentle curve of the staircase, you see a darkness thicker than any before. The door behind you slides shut, with a sound appropriate for a ghost, but doesn’t catch. A knife of moonlight, weak and blue, cuts through the crack in the doorway. You stand in the abandoned house that had produced rumors since childhood. You tell yourself that every small town has an abandoned house on the edge, but you know that’s not true. You go home, to your parents asleep.
The next night, they sit in the same seats at the kitchen table, in the same room, with the same Dutch porcelain on the walls. You wander the outer edge of the room while they laugh and talk about their day. Mom mentions Mrs. Inman, and how she ran into her at the market—at the market, not at the store or out shopping—and how they got to talking. Dad leans back and talks about Mr. Inman and how long has it been since he died. Three, four years? It feels longer than that. You don’t correct them. You remember the wake and you remember seeing Shane Inman with his wife, whom you didn’t meet because you wallowed away the wake in the corner opposite the projected slideshow memorial. You’ll never meet her.
Dad leans back farther and asks whatever happened to that Inman boy. Mom shakes her head. She never liked that Shane. He was always such a little snot. Bad upbringing. Not to speak ill of your friend or of the dead. You sit on the step to the next room. Through the window behind your parents, you see a darkened sky above the neighbor’s property. The house, its tree, and its fence appear flat and black. You tell them Shane wasn’t bad, just a little odd.
The three of you sit in silence. Dad leaves for the dry bar and returns with two cocktails. He gives one to Mom. They sit and sip. You look out the window until you stop. The ask if you’ve met that special someone yet. ‘One’ echoes in your thoughts with the same rhythm and cadence of school yard taunts—“Fatty, fatty two-by-four,” you had joined in the chorus, “couldn’t fit through the bathroom door.” Sophomore year, you had met Steven Piper, who could’ve been the one. You giggled about it with your friends because you had seen twenty-somethings on television, pretending to be sophomores, do the same. Steven was a senior and mature in that playful way.
You shrug and stand. Elbows locked, you lean on the table equidistant between your parents. The table creaks. Your parents hold their respective glasses. You ask them what was wrong with Shane Inman. Dad says he was weird; Mom says he had no spine. Didn’t respect his mother. Probably got that from his father. Not to speak ill of your friend or of the dead. You laugh through the right side of your mouth. Well, look at him now. He has a job and a wife and a house. Don’t know if it’s a good job or a good wife or a good job, but it’s something, at least. Silence returns. You drum your fingers on the table before leaving for the front door.
You sit on the stoop. Behind the neighborhood, the old abandoned house waited somewhere. You pull your knees together and wrap your arms around your shins. You lower your cheek. They, everybody, used to tell stories about the house. They had talked about a man who murdered his wife, a wife who poisoned her husband, bodies under the floorboards, bodies in the walls, a graveyard under the flower garden. You had joined in. You had spent the nighttime school functions around the chaperoned campfire. You had held a flashlight under your chin. You didn’t make up the stories. They existed before you. They existed since the house had been abandoned.
Driving by the house, spring break, you pointed out the house to June Park, the studious roommate with whom you joked about experimenting because those TV twenty-somethings had joked about girls experimenting in college. June looked up from her chemistry book, which sat atop her astronomy textbook, and squinted at the block and squat form. She shrugged, returning to her textbook. You told her how kids used to, and probably still, tell ghost stories about the place. You tell her how you had been dared to spend the night in the house but chickened out, but everybody chickened out. Even if there weren’t ghosts, rabies-positive rats probably infest the place. With the house fading in the rearview, you told her how the house used to represent something. You tried to explain but couldn’t. She turned a page. You studied her profile hanging over a lesson about acidity. You had and would study her profile, in the other bed, with an attachable book light illuminating textbook pages and darkening her eyes, and you had and would question whether people really experimented in college the way they do on TV.
June looked up when you told her all that happens in the house is teenagers having sex. You said that the football team and the cheerleaders had a rotating schedule. She joked that ghosts aren’t the only thing that moan. She asked if you were a cheerleader. No. Well, then how do you know? You shrugged and continued driving. You introduced your roommate to your parents. They liked her because it meant you were making friends.
On the stoop, with your dad’s laughter rushing through the open front door, you remembered June. You remembered her question. You remembered the end of your sophomore year, the end of Steven’s senior year. He had driven you to the house. You had gripped your knees the whole ride so that when he killed the engine and jiggled the keys, you couldn’t bend your fingers. He held the car door for you, the third time he had done so—the first time being when he had picked you up on the first date, and the second being when he had returned you home after the first date. He took your hand and pulled. You hesitated at the front door and said that the placed has to be full of rabies-positive rats. He shrugged, said it’s fine. It’s alright. Other people have done this. People do this all the time. He slapped the door. The hinges sustained a singular, ear-aching note for half a minute. He smiled, nodded, and led you.
You stood just as Dad’s laugh hit a high note. You stamped a foot and turned around. Without closing the door, you returned to the kitchen. Mom and Dad had fresh cocktails. Mom smiled, dimpling her red cheeks. Dad rubbed his red nose. Even though you hadn’t had to, you had called them and asked if it would be okay if you, maybe, could crash at their place, if it’s not too much trouble, if it’s not too much an imposition. Of course not, Mom had said. She said that you’re always welcomed. You chuckled and she chuckled. You hung up without telling her about June’s boyfriend and his invitation for June and only June. You hadn’t pushed your luck since he hadn’t gotten the joke when you told him how you and June almost experimented in college. He stared without changing his expression, and you laughed. It must’ve been a phase. He said that was offensive. It’s not a phase. It’s never a phase. To simplify the identity struggles of individuals is offensive. You chuckled and told him you’re going to vote for Bernie. He scoffed. A real intellectual would vote for Hillary.
You told your parents you were going for a drive. You jiggled the keys like one placating a toddler. Mom looked about. She asked where are you going, and you told her around. Dad wished you well. Drive safely. Mom asked where are you going. Around. They nodded. Mom’s shoulders slumped. She rested her chin in her hand. Dad asked if she wanted another drink. After a few seconds, she answered. You sighed so that they would notice, but they didn’t. In your car, at the end of the driveway, you saw the kitchen light through the windows. It lit some of the side of the house, but not enough.
When Steven Piper had brought you to the house, you thought about you and the other girls, in your pajamas and sleeping bags, gathered around a flashlight. He headed for a room, following footprints in the dust, and you wondered how many different feet left those prints. When he opened the door, you saw the mattress and the unlit candles. He entered, retrieved a box of matches off the floor, gave it a revealing shake, and asked what you think. You ready? You wanna do this? It’s, like, a rite of passage or something. You thought he was mature even if he made bad jokes because he knew this was a rite of passage. You nodded and took his hand.
That night came back as the house came into view. Your hands shook. You clutched the steering wheel. You turned off the paved road onto the unpaved one. In front of the house, you remembered how he, with the candle flicker shadows over his mature features, explained that this is why children think the place is haunted. They see the lights in the windows, and the brave ones who get close enough hear strange noises. They’re not old enough to understand those noises. Kids are stupid. Yeah, kids are stupid. When the engine stopped, the world went silent. You sat in the car, doing nothing.
As you and June had arrived at your house, you held your arms open. Well, here it is. Probably what you expect. She shrugged. You asked her if there were any haunted houses where she grew up. She shrugged again. She grew up in the suburbs. The only things haunted were the standard disappointments. You tilted your head to the side. You asked if it was weird to bring your roommate to meet your parents. She didn’t see why. At the back door, you asked her what type of rumors they had as kids. She said it was all just gossip and immature drama. You said Shane Inman—you’ve talked about him before—asked you out once. You turned him down. He didn’t go to school the next day.
The door opened with a slight push. You stepped in, like you did that one night, and like you will in the future. You don’t know when, but you know you’ll come back sometime, just like you knew, pulling into your parents’ driveway for the first day in a series of days, that you would visit the abandoned house. You knew after your second visit, when you came home and found your parents asleep and every light between the kitchen and their bedroom left on, that you would make a third visit. After you slid your shoes, brushing aside dust, you knew you would return again and again.
Walking to the back room, you thought about how, at the time with Steven Piper, you had thought about the kids with their ghost stories. You had wondered, as he dropped onto the mattress, if any kid had ever chanced a look through the window and found the star quarterback and the head cheerleader embracing and sweating and grunting. You wondered how close you came as a child, on those sleepover dares, to finding teenagers downing beers and groping. As he placed one hand on your thigh and the other around your shoulder, laying you flat, you wondered if soon you would be embracing and sweating and grunting.
You opened the door. You saw the mattress—probably not the same one but it had become ‘the’ mattress—in the middle of the room. To the left, you looked out the window onto the blackened landscape. As you approached the glass, some of the scenery coalesced into being. You thought and, because you were alone, stared to talk to yourself: This window was made for candle light. This window needs some person, no, some figure standing behind it with a flickering candle in hand. To keep the kids away. Because the candle only works and the figure is only a figure if you’re far away, at the right distance. You turned from the window and continued your soliloquy: I could be that figure. I could hide in this house, scare the kids, scare the teenagers. When they talk about the lady who poisoned her husband, they’ll be talking about me. I’ll be a graveyard under the garden. You extended your arms and spun. Your laughter mixed with the creaking of the floorboards. You laughed until you ran out of breath. The room slowed. The spin stretched into a meandering circle. You watched your feet, avoiding the mattress.
When June had asked about your love life, you told her about the senior who was funny in a mature way. June, at her desk, had looked up from her textbook, gooseneck lamp causing glare on the glossy pages. You had sat on your bed. You had told her how he had dumped you after high school, how he went to college and never called, how your friends never brought it up in conversation, and how your parents asked about him once or twice a week. June returned attention to her textbook, turned a page, and said all guys are jerks. You remembered her saying this after meeting her boyfriends and again as you drove toward your parents’ house.
You leave the room. You leave the abandoned house. Footsteps crackle in the dark on the way to the car. The engine comes alive and the headlights shine on the house, revealing that it is just a house. After you turn onto the road, you decide, with a knock on the steering wheel, that tomorrow you’ll do something. You’ll begin the planning phases of a documentary about the house. You’ll focus on the folklore and engender it within a greater folklore tradition. The documentary will explore the history and gather personal testimony. It will be small but ambitious. It’ll be taken seriously. You’ll call it “Footprints in the Dust.” Streetlamps pass over head. At intersections, the red lights glow down empty streets. You’ll do it just for yourself, just for fun.
Bennett Durkan is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin. His fiction has appeared in Into the Void, Route 7 Review, and Sediments. His poetry has appeared in Ikleftiko, Five 2 One, and The Red River Review.