“He snickered disagreeably. ‘Me, no,’ he said, ‘me, I don’t hang around here after dark.’ Grinning, satisfied with himself, he stood away from the car … perhaps he will keep popping out at me all along the drive, she thought, a sneering Cheshire Cat, yelling each time that I should be happy to find anyone willing to hang around this place, until dark, anyway.”
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
There will always be a Dudley the caretaker dispensing unwanted advice, undermining your resolve to go on that year-long safari, or ignore those travel advisories from the State Department, or explore that haunted house—give up your job, your apartment, and just take off without telling any friends. Maybe you consider your friends much too cautious, or have no friends you care about. You’re drawn to the dark. You crave the unknown, the thrill of finally leaving the ordinary behind.
You’ve been invited to Hill House by some paranormal researcher you don’t know, your monstrous mother’s finally dead, you’re free to go. You’re haunted too. You’ve been having dreams where you run up and down stairways, out of breath, corridors twist and turn and you’re completely lost, no way to retrace your steps. You quicken your pace and your heart begins to pound. Whispers from the empty elevator shaft are getting louder. Is it your mother, come back from the dead? You peer down into the darkness, swaying on your feet.
When you accepted the invitation to spend a week with strangers, you were thinking a real haunted house might dispel those dreams and memories. Or maybe you weren’t really thinking, just obeying your instinct to escape now that the door to your cage was open.
Your car’s idling at the gate. Dudley’s telling you, “Don’t go any further,” and you’re thinking, this guy’s kind of an asshole but he looks like James Dean, and that’s definitely a plus.
“You don’t want to go to that house. Really. Let’s hang out, baby,” he says. “I’ve got a bottle of Jack in the gazebo.” You think but don’t say it. Get some new lines, Dudley. Better yet, don’t talk, just stand there looking like James Dean. And take off that wedding ring.
Generally you ignore advice, especially from guys you’ve just met. Your mother was full of stupid advice too. He’s right, though, this trip might turn out to be a very bad idea. You can see the house at the top of the hill and it’s not giving off good vibes, not at all.
It’s not too late to change your mind. Dudley’s leaning in the window, too close. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and smells faintly of sweat. You can see the edge of a tattoo on his neck and you’d like to see the rest of it. He really does look like James Dean, and your plans were up in the air anyway. So far he’s the only guy around. You’re starting to like that sexy Cheshire Cat sneer and slicked-back hair. His eyes are blue and deceptively sincere. “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” The phrase has been in the back of your mind for days. Is it from a song? A poem? Maybe he’s the lover.
You’re about to say, “Yeah, let’s hang,” when something perverse presses your foot down on the accelerator, the car leaps, and you’re headed toward the house.
Which turns out to be a mistake, there’s no doubt about that.
It’s obvious from the very first. Dudley’s wife, the housekeeper, is fucking weird. She keeps repeating the meal times as you follow her up the stairs. “I leave before dark,” she says over and over. Your room isn’t exactly inviting. It’s a little better when one of the other guests moves in with you, but you can’t decide whether you love her or hate her. And the house is a freak show, every angle off, all the doors banging shut no matter what you do to prop them open. Half the rooms have no windows, so you’re groping in the dark. You’re constantly lost. You hate sleeping alone. Then you hate sleeping with someone else in the room. For a while you hope for an opportunity to dally with Dudley in your off time, but in fact you don’t see him again. Everyone pretends they don’t know where he is. Things happen, mostly after dark. Cold spots. Thunderous knocking. Blood splattered on your housemate’s clothes. Babbling and shrieking and a child’s plaintive cry. One night you grip your roommate’s hand so tightly you think your bones will snap but when the lights come on the hand’s not hers. The terrifying dreams of your mother are back, you’re swaying on your feet again, standing at the top of a rickety iron stairway, drawn to the darkness. Okay, you’ve been sleep-walking, your behavior’s becoming erratic. But is everything your fault? You didn’t make this all happen, did you? You can’t get your mother’s voice out of your head. She’s sneering at you, again.
Then your two-faced new friends agree—the paranormal researcher, his interfering wife, the other guests—it’s time for you to leave. Is there anyone you can trust? Something’s propelling you forward and holding you back at the same time. The house is waiting. You can feel something watching you, a cat’s glowing eyes high in a tree. Journeys end in lovers meeting. Where’s Dudley? Your mother’s watching, eyes narrowed in a malevolent glare. You’re sure of it. They’re all standing at the front door as you load your suitcase and get in the car. “Good-bye.” “Good-bye.” A nightmarish chorus of good-byes. Your mother’s laughing. You fumble with the brake handle, release the emergency brake, and the car begins to move, first slowly, then faster. You round the downhill curve in the driveway, push down on the accelerator much too hard, and just as the car’s hurtling toward the massive oak tree, you think, “Wait. Isn’t this how James Dean …?”
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash chapbook The Missing Girl was recently published by Black Lawrence Press. She has flash published or forthcoming in The Café Irreal, Wigleaf, matchbook, threadcount, and Hotel Amerika, among others. Her story “Zig Zag” just won the 2017 “Under 1000: Poetry and Flash Prose Contest” at Midway Journal, judged by Michael Martone. Find her at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and @doylejacq.