Down the Hall and Up the Wall
Travelling to the old house was pleasant. Barry had realized as soon as it was posted, that the corporate retreat was only a short drive from his hometown, and the home he grew up in. The idea was to see it, maybe it would give him a new perspective on the person he’d become.
The car was a rental, and the sound system was the best he had ever heard. The radio was loud and the windows were down. The coolness of the rushing air was welcome on a hot, sunny day in California.
Barry knew he was only a few miles away. Long stretches of interlocking straight roads contrasted between golden fields of tall, dry grass. He could see the identical houses in his memory, feel the anxiety and excitement of youth could be felt again.
He recalled long days spent alone. Making stories for each lego starship. Or the murals he drew on the sidewalk, the stick figures bustling with activity. At that age he could have made anything into a story.
Somewhere before high school the legos and drawing stopped. His life had become dreadfully dull.
Pangs of regret swept over him. His jaw clenched.
He had just started to play the guitar when they left the house. That stopped.
Barry had never written a book, or even a short story. For how many ideas he had, there were no results.
As a child his parents had told him that his grades needed improving. His teachers had warned him about keeping his head in the clouds. Over time he did better in school, he graduated college and landed what his parents described as, “A nice, respectable career.”
There had never been support for anything creative. Each time he was describing a space battle or idea for a song, their faces wore only worry. Everyone around him had squelched any grand idea. Every endeavor was met with obstruction, and a conversation that ended with, “You need something to fall back on.”
“Ugh!” he said out loud.
Barry recalled saying this exact sentence to his oldest daughter within the last month. She had spoken to him about being a dancer.
With heat rising all over his body he realized that he was perpetuating the cycle. His brain roiled with uncomfortable thoughts.
Barry’s vision snapped back into reality. The area had turned unfamiliar.
There was construction going on. Orange plastic warnings and dust clouds billowing up around heavy machinery. Groups of men and women in reflector vests and construction caps working in various projects around the skeletons of buildings. It looked like the houses were getting torn away for some kind of large industrial complex.
He passed the action and pulled up to the entrance he remembered the gate. Anyone coming into the community had to know a code to get in which changed every month. The gate was not there.
Barry went down through the extra wide roads with the 5mph speed limit, noting the front yards. Most of them had begun to fade into dry, dead grass. The populated houses were easy to spot. The comical, lush green of their lawns ended abruptly at their absent neighbor’s place.
Barry pulled up to the house with a large stump in the yard, passing slowly by, taking it all in. His father had planted a tree there, and fought to keep it there. He still told everyone about his valiant struggle against the housing board to keep it standing, despite the damage its roots caused to the road and plumbing. To chop the exposed roots with a machete was a chore or a punishment…..or both. Frequently in response to bad grades, Barry would take the looks of bewilderment from neighbors while working up a sweat, machete in hand.
His hand shot to his left temple where the machete had left a two-inch long, indented scar from a clumsy swing. A huge supporter of the, “It’ll be fine”, mentality of wound care, his father had seen fit to let it heal on its own.
Barry saw no cars in the driveway so he felt confident that there was no one home. His head instinctively looked around to make sure he didn’t spy disapproving faces. He pulled into the driveway and in his mind’s eye he saw the old station wagon that took him to school, the left tires on the lawn. He stopped the rental and Barry emerged from the car in a stupor, feeling like he was in someone else’s dream. Before he could close the door a voice called.
“It’s already bought!” an angry voice called from behind the front screen door.
Barry’s head whipped to the front door. The human shaped silhouette made it clear that there was someone behind the screen door.
He observed the shape, confused. One foot still in the car.
“Vitra already signed the papers. I’m moving outta here in three days, so you’re too late,” he spoke with annoyed speed and a slight rasp.
“No, no! I’m not here to buy it. I used to live here when I was a kid. Sorry to disturb you, I thought no one was home,” Barry squinted against the sun, holding his hand over his eyes.
“Oh,” the man stepped out onto the small cement porch in front, “Sorry about that. Had a lot of competing companies try and one-up the other ones. Lotta people pulled up like you. Real assholes,” the man grimaced.
Barry nodded, not sure how to respond.
“You wanna take a trip down memory lane?” the old man smiled.
Barry smiled back, “Thank you! I’d love to take a look inside.”
He closed the driver’s door, going around the hood with a grin.
“C’mon,” the man shuffled back in, waving Barry inside.
He made his way inside and the man closed the door behind him. Goosebumps rose up on his skin immediately. It was far cooler than outside, the AC must have been about to break. The old man reached out his hand to shake Barry’s.
“I’m Ted,” he nodded with an almost adolescent awkwardness.
“Barry,” he shook back, making sure not to grip too hard. Ted looked to be over 80.
A worn baseball cap held tightly to the old man’s skull with gray, buzzed-length hair peeking out around the perimeter. He wore a forgettable, plaid, button-down shirt tucked into ancient jeans. In between the shirt and pants there was a large brass belt buckle that looked new, tilted under a bulging stomach it read “NRA”.
His face was neither round nor angular, but his face was sagging. The hair on his eyebrows was longer than the hair under his hat. It blocked off his eyes a bit, Barry noticed, but the old man didn’t seem to mind.
Barry’s let his gaze drift across the living room, Ted drifted from his mind and vision. He laughed, it all seemed so different, so…
“It’s smaller than you remember, ain’t it?” the old man jabbed, letting his weight fall into the only piece of furniture in the place: a gray, leather, overstuffed recliner.
“Yeah. How’d you know I was thinking that?” Barry smiled.
“I did the same thing you’re doin. Visited the home I grew up in too,” Ted smiled and grabbed a beer out of the cooler next to the chair. It creaked and groaned the way old leather does against jeans.
“I see,” Barry said as he walked around the house, leaving Ted in the living room.
The sounds of old western shows echoed through the bare single-story manufactured home. Ted did not feel the need to stop watching television in the circumstance.
Barry analyzed everything. Holding his arms out in the hallways he was able to touch both sides. The floor creaked under his weight; light switches remained where they had been in his memory. Colors of certain walls had faded. Not much had been moved, Ted had not been one for home improvement.
Barry stepped into his childhood bedroom, feeling ill to see it barren.
The blinds were closed, and Barry hurried to open them. Sunlight poured into the room. He stepped back to see the view from where his bed used to be. The house was across the street just like he remembered. A mirror match of the house he stood in. But it had not been lived in for years. There were roof tiles missing, the cement porch was wearing away, the lawn was dead. It saddened him to see it like this. A girl used to live in that house. They would play sometimes in the summers. He made a mental note to attempt to contact her, to see how she was doing.
Instead of wonderful feelings of nostalgia Barry felt only like he had abandoned something to a negative fate. There was an air of guilt and longing in every room.
Through the house he went, doing what he had seen people do in movies when they revisit sentimental places, hoping it would spark some new wonderful emotion. Is this how people are supposed to feel when seeing their childhood home? He was compelled to see the rest only because he was there, and because the house would soon be demolished.
Bathroom, sister’s room, kitchen, laundry room, parent’s bedroom and their bathroom. Nothing welled up like he had wanted. He walked slowly to the living room, hoping to make a quick exit.
“Y’all set?” Ted turned in his chair towards him.
“Oh I think so,” he rubbed his neck.
“Oh hey!” with much effort and noise Ted rose from the old recliner, “There was something left here from someone that lived here before.”
Barry’s mind snapped to a pile of old junk that the old man refused to deal with. He held up his hands preemptively, ready to say no.
“No no! It’s not junk, I just didn’t like it that’s all. It’s an old painting left from a while ago. Couldn’t sell it,” Ted raised his voice as he gallumped into Barry’s parent’s old bedroom, out of eyesight.
He waited for the old man in the living room, racking his mind for any painting he could remember. One came to mind.
“Shit!” he mouthed, recalling sleepless nights as a child.
He covered his mouth, relishing the tingling that ran down his spine.
“I never liked it. Gave me the heebie-jeeebies,” Ted shouted from the bedroom.
Barry nodded to himself, there was no doubt about it now.
There were things being moved, the closet door sliding open and closed. Ted came into the living room with a painting covered with white cloth. He set it on the floor leaning against the wall next to the doorframe. With a couple quick motions he unveiled it.
“You recognize it?” the old man asked, crumpling the white cloth in his hands.
It was an oil pointing. A 14th century girl sat next to a broken jug and a water spigot. The colors were dark and faded with age. The girl’s hair was slightly unkempt and she looked haggard and sad.
His eyes snapped from the painting to the blank spot on the wall where it rested his entire childhood. Many nights he could see the dark outline of the girl from the end of the hallway. His imagination would torture him using the morose image. A black snake would emerge from the spigot, winding its way down the hallway towards his room. Barry had been frozen with fear multiple times, unable to breathe under the covers. Only when his lungs were burning, and his body was shaking could he break free. It would take him a long time to recover; especially since he refused to lift the covers for fear that the snake-shade was right there.
Barry smiled at the painting remembering how overactive his imagination had been. How visceral the emotions were, and how much it drove his parents crazy.
He would wake up in the morning with only a couple hours of rest. His mother, over the course of a year or more moved from a helpful attitude towards one of frustration. Both his parents eventually told him simply to close the door to his room, for everyone’s sake. Young Barry told him he couldn’t, that with his door closed he got even less sleep. If he moved the bed it was too close to the windows, if he turned the way he slept it was unnerving to not see the hallway or the windows. The list of excuses mounted, and his parents had gotten more and frustrated.
Barry didn’t blame them, even then.
“Oh I recognize it,” Barry said as he stooped down to get a better look at it, “This thing gave me nightmares all the time.”
“Gave me nightmares too! Nothing too bad, but something about how that girl looks at you. Like you did something wrong. Got to me too many nights.”
Everything culminated in that girl’s eyes. Barry got close, letting her eyes penetrate his psyche. Ted cleared his throat and Barry ignored it. The room was still as the two men lingered in silence.
After his excitement faded, Barry stood and turned.
“I don’t know if I want it. But it seems a shame to throw art away,” he gestured towards the painting.
“Alright, well I’ll just leave it for one of the construction guys. There’s gotta be somewhere for this thing.”
Barry could almost see the dim hallway, and the snake. His legs started moving before he thought about it. He stepped away from Ted, towards his old bedroom.
“It used to hang just above where you set it down. I could see it from my bed right here,” Barry called, pointing his arm.
With his bedroom doorway in view the fear was stirred up with the memories. The eyes of the girl seemed to be locked onto his. It felt like being intensely judged.
“Does that mean you want it?” Ted sounded confused in the living room.
Barry closed the blinds in the bedroom, refusing to answer Ted. He slowly approached the doorway, looking down the hallway, waiting for the black shade to slither out of the spigot. He stared at the painting like a hidden picture. Ted scrutinized him from the living room.
After what seemed like a minute, Barry gave up on anything happening. “Could it be recreated?” he asked himself? He had to try.
“Ted,” he called from the bedroom, “Could I stay here for a night? I’d pay you for your troubles.”
The old man became more confused than before. Barry was hesitant to push it.
“I’m not in the habit of sharing my house with strangers, mister. Why would ya want to stay here, anyway?” he demanded.
For Barry, the idea of recreating a nightmare of his own imagining was a symbol of vitality. If he could do this, he could take charge of his life. But he doubted Ted would understand.
“It’s uh,” Barry started, “There are a lot of feelings left….in this house. I’d like to fully experience them. You said they’re coming soon to demolish the house, anyway, right?”
“I know this is strange, Ted,” Barry’s confidence was dwindling the more he spoke, “I’ve never asked anything like this from anyone. But it’s a strange situation.”
“Well I suppose,” Ted scratched his head.
“Would you be willing to stay at a hotel for a couple days?” Barry’s eyebrows raised in apprehension.
“This is an awfully strange request.”
“How much?” Barry’s arms lifted in a question.
Ted’s face changed to consideration.
Any other time Barry would be squelching the thought of spending money on a whim. But the experience was too enticing; he could feel a powerful need to revive his long dead imagination.
“Let’s say 50 bucks a night. And you clean up afterwards,” Ted looked happy.
Barry stopped himself from sighing.
“100 dollars?” he knew it was a terrible use of funds, “Sure.”
He reached into his back pocket and drew his wallet. The adult in him screamed inward, telling him it was a waste, but he grinned back in spite.
“Who am I to get in the way of nostalgia!?” Ted proclaimed happily as he pocketed the money.
With Ted packed and ready to leave, Barry shook his hand. He was eager for the old man to leave.
“Alright,” Ted nodded at him, “enjoy your stay.”
“Thanks Ted, I know this is strange.”
The old man smiled at a thought, “Look out for the snake!” he burst into hoarse laughter.
“The snake?” Barry was suddenly unsure of his decision to stay in the house.
“Oh it’s an inside joke. Any time my grandkids visited they had nightmares about a snake comin out of the painting.”
He moved his arm in a wiggling wave, smiling.
Barry stared at the comical gesture. His heart beat faster at the thought of the same nightmare plaguing different children. He could see the black shade slithering down the hallway towards another terrified child.
He feigned laughter at Ted’s display.
“I’ll watch out for it. Thanks again, Ted,” Barry’s hand rested at his hips.
“Alright, I’m goin,” Ted took a deep sigh.
The old man got into his car and waved. Barry waved back with minimal effort.
Ted’s wooden sided car rolled down the road at a snail’s pace, dust swept up into a great cloud that obscured the car. When he could no longer see the car Barry shot back into the house.
He knelt down to the painting and placed his hands on either side.
“Tonight,” he said to himself.
With a rush of movement he clapped his hands together, standing up.
“Ha HA!” he exclaimed with glee.
Barry got into his car and drove to the nearest hardware store. He leisurely picked up a wall hanging kit and a cheap hammer. The clerk had given him a look. Barry found himself smiling too much over his basic home improvement tools. If only anyone else could understand. Driving with the windows down, Barry alternated between singing along with the radio and seriously considering if he truly wanted to attempt summoning the nightmare again.
“His grandkids too,” he pondered to himself.
But even when he was full of doubt, telling himself this endeavor was futile and childish the words “Fuck You” urged him on with an arousing tenacity.
In his childhood home over the next hour Barry hung the painting, went down the hallway to see it from his old bedroom and adjusted it on the wall to be more-or-less where he remembered it. He had nothing else to do, and boredom soon turned to obsession. He lowered the shades, turning off all the lights and lying on the cot that Ted had been nice enough to leave him.
The painting stared back in the darkness, but there was no imagination in him, only anticipation. He lay there in the cot pretending to sleep for a bit, keeping his eyes closed. Opening his eyes as if he was waking, he stared at the painting like a hidden picture again. Barry tried repeatedly, but the snake did not appear. He checked his watch and felt foolish. It was only 6pm.
Barry waited, played games on his phone and sent texts to some people he had been meaning to contact. The periodic banter was less than ideal. Time passed slowly.
Finally, after getting something to eat from the nearest convenience store, Barry lied back in the cot and felt his eyes close involuntarily. After briefly falling asleep his eyes shot open with excitement. He sat up and dimmed the small office light on the floor. Slowly and dramatically he turned to the open door, leading down the empty hallway.
In the dark, shapes and flickers of sight moved in a soup of static. Molding the palette of sensory absence, he formed the image of a creeping, oily tentacle.
It faded into the dark just as soon as it formed. He was trying too hard. He tried again, and still it faded. The paradox infuriated him. Try for it and it faded, if he stopped caring he might not see it at all.
The thought of explaining this to his wife seemed impossible. His face grew hot with embarrassment. The house around him suddenly seemed alien and uncomfortable. He observed the walls and gray shadows in the room with a new perspective. Barry rested on his back with his head on inside of his linked hands. A frown came over his face.
He woke up, realizing he had been asleep for some time. In the half-haze waking state a sound too slight to hear made his eyes dart around. Excitement roused up into his chest. He wormed his body to face door.
The black snake emerged, dripping down from the spigot, caressing the painting and wall. Pausing at the floor briefly, it slithered silently down the hall in dramatic curves. Slowly contouring against the right wall, then the left. Right. Left. It neared the room.
The fear came back, and Barry was so excited that he had not lost his imagination. He watched with a tingle down his spine and a smile on his face.
And with a sudden change in tone, the oozing shade peeked into the light of the room. Pure weightless blackness floated onto the brown rug. The notion that this was his imagination vanished. Barry’s heart stopped, he froze. His tongue was nearly swallowed as he inhaled sharply.
It seemed to eat the light as it neared his cot. The room grew darker.
All the feelings from his youth rolled into his throat. Out of instinct he yanked the covers over his face, around and under his head. He sealed himself from the nightmare, pulling the blankets tight around his body.
Under the smoke-smelling blanket he hyperventilated. His breathing could not keep up with the demand. The image of the black shade filling the room was all he could think about. It was there, watching him, waiting for him to reveal his face.
But his adult brain took over.
Why would a blanket protect me? There’s no such things as ghosts. It is a waking dream. Or maybe I’m dreaming right now.
Realizing that he was suffocating, he unfurled the covers in exasperation.
Two days later Ted returned to his house just to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything behind. Barry’s car stood in the driveway. As he pulled next to the car his brows lowered, and he felt concerned. The windows were dark; covered with anything to block out the sun.
The old man shuddered to think what kind of bizarre acts had gone on while he was away. And the man was still in his house. Ted prepared for the worst as he clambered out of the car. He meandered to the front door with a heavy sigh, opening the screen door and giving the front door three knocks.
After ten seconds of silence he decided to open the door.
“Hmph!” he snorted, wrangling his keys.
Getting angrier at Barry’s behavior with each failed key, Ted finally opened the door.
It was pitch black inside, but aside from that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. No odd smells, no signs that anything had been damaged.
“Barry?” he called out.
“Barry, it’s Ted. You said you’d be out of here by 10. It’s 11:30,” he huffed.
Ted opened the shades on the window on the living room, flooding it with light. His eyes fluttered. The painting that he had brought out was hanging on the wall. Ted gave it a fleeting thought: Why would he hang a painting for only three days?
Ted moved on towards the bedroom.
“The construction team’ll be here in two hours, Barry. If you’re here when they’re here I’m calling the police,” he said reluctantly.
One glance into the master bedroom and Ted saw it hadn’t been touched. He went to the kids bedrooms down the hall.
The door to the one on the left was open. The room was too dark to see inside. He moved towards it, pondering if Barry was alright. The man didn’t seem like the vagrant type, or the drug user type.
“Barry?” he voiced into the hallway.
The floor creaked as he walked. Ted stopped. It was pitch black in the room. He grabbed his keychain again, jangling it to find the little flashlight. The single LED revealed the cot, barren, sitting against the far wall with a light sitting on the floor next to it.
“Barry, are you alright?” Ted called out.
He wondered if he was going to have to call 911. He approached the doorway, and just as his eyes were adjusting to the dark a sound too soft to hear made him turn around. His eyes snapped to the painting hanging on the wall. There was something different about it, but he couldn’t place what. It was too far away, and Ted’s vision was not that good to begin with. For a few moments he studied it. Against his intuition, he turned and entered the bedroom.
The old man scanned the room with the small flashlight and found his phone and a pile of blankets thrown into a heap near the window. He hurried to open the window, tearing away the dark cloth blotting out the sun. There was a sense that he was being watched, a dread that came on suddenly. He dropped his keys to more quickly remove the shades. The light broke into the room in small bits as Ted neared a confusing frenzy.
“C’mon, c’mon!” he muttered.
At last the room was lit, Ted whipped around feeling as if he would encounter an assailant. Nothing new had appeared. The cot, the blanket, and the light. The closet doors were open with nothing inside. Barry was nowhere to be found.
“Jesus," he said, gripping his chest.
Ted took some breaths to calm himself and walked to the doorway. The painting caught his eye again. He followed it, staring into the eyes of the figure. It was still too far away for him to make out what was strange about it.
The closer he got the more he felt ill and the more he thought about leaving the house without a second thought.
Feet away, the blurred painting came into view.
The figure in the painting was no longer a woman, it was a man with a scar on his left temple. It was Barry.