Years before the divorce, Wayne and Nancy moved into the house that had been the site of the famous Hobson murders. It was a Victorian-style with two upstairs bedrooms and a narrow driveway. The outside needed to be repainted and they’d long planned on remodeling the bathroom, but in the time he lived there, Wayne always thought it was comfortable enough. The back porch was sheltered by ivy-tangled lattice. Hedges lined the backyard and cellar doors opened at an angle from the base of the house. When they moved in, Wayne and Nancy hadn’t known it was the Hobson house. In retrospect, Wayne knew he should’ve been more suspicious of the low price, but he was a person who believed himself to be incredibly clever, and at the time, he’d only understood the price as evidence of own ability to master the housing market; he was pulling a fast one on the sellers, he’d thought, and he’d signed all of the paperwork as quickly as possible.
Wayne and Nancy first learned about the house two months after moving in, when a woman from their daughter’s daycare program came over for dinner. “Forgive me for being gauche,” she said, “but what possessed you guys to buy the Hobson house?”
Wayne and Nancy exchanged a glance. They’d heard of the Hobson case, of course, had seen the sensational reports in the local news: Mr. Hobson, the former owner, had held his wife captive, tied to a chair in the basement, where, after several days, he shot her, then turned the rifle on himself.
“I don’t see why we should care about all of that,” Nancy said. Everything was unpacked and they’d arranged the furniture to their liking; they’d finally begun to feel settled in the house and the insinuation that there might be something wrong with it felt, to both of them, somewhat offensive. “People are murdered every day, all over the place. It’s not so uncommon to be living where something like that’s happened.”
“And technically speaking,” Wayne announced, “there was only one murder. One murder and one suicide. So if we’re going to start talking about ghosts or something, let’s at least get the facts straight. I mean, if you just think,” he went on, “about how long human beings have populated the earth and how many people have been murdered in that time. World War II. I mean, the Crusades, for Christ’s sake. There’s probably not a spot of dirt on the whole planet where someone hasn’t been murdered. Should we all tiptoe around, avoiding every single place where a person was killed?” He leaned forward, his face turning red. “It’s ridiculous to me that, in spite of modern science, we have yet to stamp out this sort of idiotic superstition.” Whenever Wayne got hold of an argument, it became nearly impossible for him to let it go. He and Nancy bickered constantly, though Wayne never felt that their arguments were any worse than the sort he assumed all married couples must have. He was a person who loved to criticize, who enjoyed arguing on some primal level. His conversations often devolved into lectures and he felt the compulsive need to be right in situations where there was absolutely nothing at stake.
Years passed. Wayne and Nancy’s knowledge of the crimes did not affect their lives in any way. Their son, Joey, who was three years old when they moved in, learned to ride his bike in the driveway of the Hobson house. Their daughter, Sam, who had been only an infant, was potty-trained in its upstairs bathroom.
“Ghosts, huh?” Wayne said. Joey made eye contact in the mirror, then went back to reading. “I don’t suppose your mom ever told you about the ghosts in her house?”
It was three years after moving into the house that Wayne began to suspect Nancy was having an affair. The suspicion began as an ambiguous feeling in his gut, a sense of jealousy that had maybe always been creeping around inside him and that gradually swelled as the months went on. She began borrowing what he thought were strange books from the library: self-help books, beginner’s Spanish, romance novels with cover illustrations of muscular men dressed like pirates. They were things she’d never shown any prior interest in but which began to appear in little stacks on her bedside table. She tried out adventurous new recipes that Wayne privately psychoanalyzed: did the sudden introduction of tabbouleh salad mean she was seeing a Middle Eastern man? Why was she learning Spanish? Nancy came home late in the evenings, saying she’d been at yoga or had gone shopping. Once, she came home announcing she’d just redeemed a coupon for a free lesson at the shooting range.
Wayne pestered her relentlessly. “What’s gotten into you? Why are you so bubbly lately? What’s wrong with you?” Lying in bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, Wayne’s mind pulled through images of the two of them—Nancy and the lover he was sure existed—having sex in different places around the house.
One weekend, while Nancy was visiting her mother in Harrisburg, Wayne decided to take action. There was a closet in the upstairs hallway with a shelf that had been broken for some time. The wood that held the shelf in place was rotted and Wayne had resolved to fix it—something to busy himself with while Nancy was gone. As he worked to remove the old wood, he noticed that the back wall gave way a bit with each nail that he pried loose. He removed the shelf and pushed into the back wall only to discover that it was actually just a piece of wood paneling painted to resemble the rest of the interior. A lazy patch job that he’d never before noticed. Behind the loosened panel was the dusty space inside the wall. Wayne got a flashlight and poked his head inside. The space inside of the wall ran the length of the upstairs hall, from the children’s room at one end of the house to his and Nancy’s room at the other.
An idea struck Wayne. He moved the panel away and slipped into the wall. Inside, he hammered flat the protruding nails, pawed away the cobwebs, and drilled a tiny hole so that, from inside the wall, he had a limited view of the bed where he and Nancy slept. He tied a string to the closet’s inside doorknob so he could pull it shut from within the passage. Behind the panel, he tucked a cache of the fancy granola bars that Nancy bought for the children’s lunches and hung a small keychain flashlight from a bent nail. On the morning after Nancy returned, he waited until she left to drop the children off at school, then drove his own car around the block, parked, and ran through the neighbors’ hedges into his own backyard. He entered through the back door and made his way into the passage, edging slowly until he was stationed at the peephole. He didn’t have a good view, but he could see the dark blue of the comforter on their bed, and when Nancy returned, he could hear the sounds of her moving around the house—the thrumming of pipes while she showered, the whine of her blow dryer. He caught little glimpses of her walking around the bedroom in her towel and moisturizing her legs before dressing and going downstairs. The air inside the passage was dry. Wayne could taste dust on his lips. His knees grew tired. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed and wondered how long he should wait. He regretted not having thought to stow a bottle of water inside the passage. He ate several granola bars, opening the wrappers slow so they didn’t crinkle too loudly, then letting them fall to his feet. When he finally heard Nancy leaving through the front door, he exited the passage as quickly as he could, spitting dust and cursing as he tore his pant-leg on a forgotten nail. Leaving through the back, Wayne returned to his car and drove around the block, parking where he could see the driveway, sure he’d catch Nancy returning with her lover. But when her car reappeared a short while later and she began unloading groceries from the trunk, Wayne slammed his fists against the dashboard, angrier now over the idea that he might be wrong than he was over the possibility of Nancy having an affair.
The truth, however, is that Nancy was seeing someone, and though Wayne hid twice more inside the walls during the following months, he never found any evidence of her infidelity—not until, finally, after putting the children to bed one night, Nancy asked him to sit down at the kitchen table, where she calmly made her confession, explaining that she was sorry and that she wasn’t sure she’d ever loved him and that she couldn’t see anything to do but get a divorce.
They agreed to split custody of the children: Wayne had them Mondays, Tuesdays, and the second and fourth weekend of every month. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment inside a six-unit complex about thirty minutes outside of the city. In the first month after the divorce, Wayne’s thoughts were a running script of imaginary arguments with Nancy—demands for apologies, pleas for devotion—but without her present, there was no one upon which he could unload these arguments, and Wayne moved through his days in a state of manic preoccupation. He wandered the grocery store for over an hour only to end up at the checkout with nothing but tortilla chips and a brick of cheese. He forgot to unhook the gas pump from his car and nearly tore it loose when he drove away from the station. At night, he stayed up sipping beer and watching television, unable to sleep, unable to be alone with his thoughts. He discovered that he could get onto the roof of his building by way of an unmarked access door and he made a habit of going up there at night, pacing and mumbling, staring out at the surrounding night. The building was flanked on either side by parallel highways, beyond which parking lots and small access roads knotted around strip malls and gas stations. From the roof, Wayne watched the highways on either side, the red brake lights disappearing in one direction like jeweled fragments of his shattered life, white headlights rushing toward him in the other lane like the constant, oncoming uncertainty of the future. In the distance were twinkling city lights and he sometimes imagined he could zoom in on one of them, his old house, where he’d see Nancy standing at the window, the mysterious silhouette of her new lover looming behind her. One night, with all this running through his mind, Wayne found himself standing at the edge of the roof and it occurred to him that he wanted to jump. The thought bubbled up with some mix of desperation and amusement. He snickered at the thought of Nancy having to deal with the guilt of his suicide. But then, shifting his weight, the toe of his shoe sent a few pebbles skittering over the edge and Wayne was overcome with an enormous feeling of terror. He stumbled backward, suddenly aware of the three-story distance between himself and the pavement.
The children were staying with him that weekend and when he returned to his apartment, he found Sam, standing in the darkened living room.
“I thought you left,” she wept. “I thought you were dead.”
The children hated Wayne’s apartment. There was no backyard and none of their toys, aside from whatever they stuffed into their backpacks each week. The apartment had come pre-furnished and had the sterile look of something from a magazine, entirely without personality except for the crumpled beer cans that Wayne hurriedly cleaned up whenever the children were coming. He forbade them from playing outside—a sensible idea, he thought, considering the constant streams of high-speed traffic on the surrounding highways. There was only one bedroom and the children had no space of their own. They spent their time sprawled on the floor in front of the television, moaning and sighing.
“I hate this,” Joey complained. He was seven years old, a first grader at H.W. Smith Elementary School. “There’s nothing to do.”
“Next time, you can remember to bring something,” Wayne responded.
“I wanna go home,” Sam whined, and moments later, she broke into a tantrum, screaming and crying over boredom and exhaustion and the strangeness of her new life split between houses.
“Fine,” Wayne shouted. “Fine.” He jerked the children into their coats, crammed their shoes over their feet, and marched them outside, to the edge of the highway. Cars rushed past in violent blurs. The children whimpered. Wayne squeezed their tiny hands. He waited until there was a break in traffic, then pulled them across the highway and through the long parking lot toward the strip mall, where there was a toy store. “Pick something,” he said. “Go ahead. You’ve won. Get yourselves some stupid toys.” The children stood sobbing for a moment, then set off uncertainly down the aisles, their teary eyes roaming over the brightly colored dolls and action figures, the board games and remote-controlled cars. The cashier watched as Wayne paced the front of the store. Joey eventually came bearing a set of walkie-talkies. Sam picked out a plastic Tyrannosaurus. By the time they were walking back across the parking lot, the children were smiling. They raced across the highway, all three of them giggling with excitement, Wayne shouting “Go, go, go!” as a truck zoomed toward them.
Back at the apartment, they ordered Chinese food and ate happily in front of the television. Later, when it was bedtime, Wayne tucked the children into the apartment’s only bed, then cracked a beer and settled onto the couch. When he got up to brush his teeth, he stood at the doorway of the bedroom and watched them sleep, and felt, if only for a moment, a sense of joy—or maybe just normalcy—that had long been absent from his life.
Two months after he’d moved into the apartment, Wayne received a letter from a man who identified himself as Nancy’s lawyer stating that she was filing for full custody of the children. Wayne immediately called Nancy, demanding an explanation.
“Where should I begin?” Nancy asked. “Joey says you’ve been marching them back and forth across highways. Sam told me you left them alone in the middle of the night. She says she woke up in the middle of the night looking for you. You were gone and they had no idea where you were.”
“I didn’t leave,” Wayne huffed. “You’re exaggerating. Let’s at least get the facts straight. I was on the roof, Nancy. The kids were right below me.”
“On the roof,” Nancy said. “You were on the roof. Great. Anyway, it’s not just that you left them alone, Wayne. You haven’t bought them beds yet. It’s been, what, two months?”
“They sleep in my bed,” Wayne said.
“Oh, come on. You remember how they used to complain about sharing a bed whenever we visited your parents? And Sam says you don’t even keep food in the refrigerator. They’re children, Wayne. You have to feed them. She says they ate pretzels for breakfast last week. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding. Pretzels?”
A light rain began to fall and the inside of the mask grew hot and moist with his breath. He knocked on the window.
As Nancy went on, Wayne had the urge to argue. He thought about the roof, about how he’d wanted to jump, about how it would have been her fault if the children spent the rest of their lives fatherless. He felt certain that he hadn’t actually wanted to die, that it had just been a sort of fantasy and that nothing in his body had truly wanted to send him over the edge. But the feeling still lingered—the strange vulnerability, the fear of impulse—and he realized that the thought of killing himself still came to him with some regularity, usually at night, when he was alone. He felt cornered by Nancy’s accusations, and with no other ground to stand on, he found himself describing that moment on the roof.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Nancy said. “What do you mean, you were going to jump?”
“I mean that I’m fragile, Nance.” His voice was high and pleading, but his mouth lowered into a mocking frown. She had to sympathize, Wayne thought. After all she’d put him through. “The kids are all I’ve got left. If you take them from me, I don’t know what will happen. I very well might kill myself.”
There was a pause, as if Nancy was deciding whether or not to take him seriously. “You wouldn’t,” she said, finally. “You think too much of yourself.”
“Nancy,” Wayne said, and he was fully prepared to begin outlining all of the reasons why the possibility of his suicide should be treated with dignity and respect, but she cut him off before he could get another word in.
“Besides,” she said, “if this killing yourself thing is real, then it’s even worse than I thought. You should see someone, Wayne. You really should. You’re in no condition to make sane judgments about the children’s wellbeing. I mean, shouldn’t you be required to take care of yourself before you can be expected to take care of other people? Anyway,” she sighed, “I’ve already filed the paperwork. It’ll take a few weeks to go through. At least a month, I’m told, before they can schedule a court date. I’m assuming you want a court date? I know how you love to argue your case.”
Wayne was driving home with the children when, glancing in the rearview, he noticed Joey was flipping through a picture book of ghost stories. Wayne watched the boy trace a finger across the page, silently mouthing the words as he read.
“I’m concentrating,” Joey said.
Wayne let out a snort. “No,” he said, “I doubt she’d tell you the truth about that house. She doesn’t like to tell the truth. Not until it’s too late.” Wayne peered into the rearview. He could tell Joey was listening; the boy stared down at his book, but his finger had stopped moving and he was no longer mouthing words. “Anyway,” Wayne said, “you guys are probably too young for that story.”
“I’m five!” Sam cried.
Wayne chuckled. “Some stories are too gruesome for five-year-olds. But if you really want to hear it . . .” The children were not used to their father telling stories—it wasn’t something he ever did—and the novelty captured their attention. “People were killed in that house,” he said. “With a gun.” He paused, as if that was the end of the story, letting the children’s curiosity stew before he went on. “Mom really never told you guys, huh? Well, okay. The people who owned the house before your mom and I, they were crazy. Old Man Hobson and Old Lady Hobson.” Wayne tried to remember the details of the crime as he’d heard them in the news so many years ago. He wasn’t someone with much imagination and he didn’t have a good idea of how to piece the story together. “The neighbors say it was dark that night. There was a storm—the biggest storm you ever saw!—and the power went out in every house on the block. All the neighbors sat in the dark, listening to the storm, until they heard a scream. It was loud enough that everyone on the whole street heard it. It was Old Lady Hobson. By the time the police arrived, it was too late. Old Man Hobson had taken her down into the basement and tied her up. Then, he’d taken out his gun and . . . Blam! After he killed his wife,” Wayne said, “Old Man Hobson sat down against that cold cement wall down there, pointed the gun at himself, and . . . Blam! The neighbors said the whole basement had to be repainted. To cover up all the blood! Old Man Hobson’s been dead for years now, but his ghost is still walking around down there. He and his wife, both.”
“Daddy,” Sam said earnestly, “a ghost is not real.”
“Are you telling me you’ve never heard the footsteps on the basement stairs? You’ve never heard the screaming and moaning that happens down there at night?”
The children were silent, frowning.
“When your mom and I were still together,” Wayne said, “I used to wake up in the middle of the night and hear ghosts tramping up and down those basement stairs. Up and down, up and down. I tell ya, I’m glad I left that house. I’m glad your mom and I split up. It was only a matter of time before Old Man Hobson was going to get me, too.”
That night, as Wayne was putting the children to bed, Joey cleared his throat and asked, “Did all that stuff really happen? With the lady getting shot in our basement?”
Wayne smiled, held up one hand. “Scout’s honor.”
“Why did you scare me with that ghost?” Sam asked. “Can you leave the light on?”
“Don’t worry,” Wayne said. “The ghost is only at your mom’s house. He doesn’t come out here. Wouldn’t know how to get here. They don’t make roadmaps for ghosts. And ghosts can’t drive. Why do you think I moved so far away? You’re safe here. This is the safest place in the world.”
The sky was overcast. Wayne was driving home after dropping the children off at Nancy’s. He pulled into the parking lot of a party supply store and walked past the aisles of balloons and novelty party hats until he found a small shelf of out-of-season Halloween masks. The options were limited. He selected a green rubber devil face with a long tongue curling past yellow fangs. He paid for the mask, threw it into the back seat of his car, and drove back to the city. He parked on the block behind his old house and waited until it was dark and he knew the children would be in bed. Then, he stuffed the mask inside his coat, crept through the neighbors’ backyard, crouched in the bushes, and watched the flickering light in the living room window, where he knew Nancy must be sitting in front of the TV. He walked across the lawn and peered in through the window, expecting to see that mysterious lover there with his arm around Nancy. But she was alone, scrolling absentmindedly through her phone. Wayne climbed up the lattice and onto the roof of the back porch. He moved slowly, careful not to make any noise.
“For Christ’s sake, I don’t want them thinking everything is just cream puffs and roses.”
When there was no discernible movement, he knocked again A moment later, he heard the sound of his daughter screaming. Wayne made a menacing gesture with his hands, then turned and scrambled down the lattice and across the backyard. He dashed through the hedges to his car, where he ripped the mask off and sat cackling until he was out of breath.
The next week, when Wayne picked the children up from school, they both reported having seen Old Man Hobson at their window.
“I know it was the ghost,” Sam said seriously. “Daddy, it was Old Man Hommon, I just know.”
“Hobson,” Wayne corrected. “Old Man Hobson.”
“Dad,” Joey said, “were you telling the truth? You really used to hear footsteps in the basement?”
“Oh, yeah,” Wayne bellowed. “Practically every night. Footsteps in the basement. Chains rattling in the attic. One time—I swear!—I saw a giant eyeball floating around the backyard. It even blinked at me! I don’t think I even told your mother about that one. I was too scared!”
In the morning, Wayne took the children to see a movie. They all shared an extra-large Coke, and in the afternoon, they took out Joey’s new walkie-talkies and played hide-and-seek in the tiny apartment, Joey crouching under the bed or in the closet, whispering “warmer” or “colder” into the receiver while Wayne and Sam giddily searched the rooms.
“Why the hell did you tell them that stupid ghost story?” Nancy demanded. Wayne pressed the phone to his ear. “Do you have any idea how much trouble I’ve had getting them to bed at night?”
“Nancy, Nancy,” Wayne clucked. “I was only being honest with them. You want me to be honest with our children, don’t you? They ask me about that house and I’m going to tell the truth. A woman was murdered in that basement, Nancy. Tied to a chair and shot in the face. You remember those news stories. It’s my job as their father to be honest with them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children growing up with some false idea of the world. For Christ’s sake, I don’t want them thinking everything is just cream-puffs and roses. I mean, if you think about it, that’s probably how Old Lady Hobson landed herself in that whole situation to begin with. I’ll bet she didn’t want to admit to herself that something was wrong with her husband. I’ll bet she didn’t want to admit to what was happening right there in front of her. Not until it was too late. I don’t want my children ending up like that.”
“Wayne,” Nancy pleaded, “you sound like a nutcase.”
“You can take the kids away,” Wayne went on, “but I won’t let you shelter them. I won’t let you send my Sam down a path in life that ends with her tied to a chair in a basement with some lunatic pacing around, ready to blow her brains out. Is that what you want, Nancy? Huh? Is that what you want?”
It became a bedtime routine for the children, when they stayed at Wayne’s apartment, to ask about the ghosts. They developed a morbid curiosity about the violence that had occurred in their mother’s basement and, wriggling beneath the blankets of the apartment’s only bed, they’d kick and squirm, sitting still only after Wayne began his story.
“Did you ever see the blood that runs down the walls at midnight?” Wayne asked. “Some say that when she was dying, Old Lady Hobson thrashed around so much, her blood splattered all the way up the stairs and onto the walls.
“Did you ever hear that banging sound that happens in the basement? Your mom will tell you it’s just the pipes, but that’s because she’s afraid of the truth. The truth is that it’s the echo of the gunshot from when Old Man Hobson killed himself. It’s still reverberating off the walls down there.
“Did you ever hear the laughing skull that lives in the closet downstairs? If you’re real quiet, you can hear its teeth chattering. Cha-cha-cha-cha-cha!”
Wayne looked forward to telling these stories perhaps as much as the children looked forward to hearing them. By the time they were asleep each night, Wayne’s imagination would already be buzzing with ideas for the next night’s tale. Whenever the children were at Nancy’s, he’d go up to the roof of his building and pace around, rehearsing new bits. He took a keen joy in inventing the details and he was amazed at how they seemed to spring from his mind as if from nothing.
“But when the cops arrived, that was how they knew what happened. The bird was the only witness to the murder, see? And it was a parrot. So when the cops got there and all they saw was blood everywhere and two dead bodies, they were confused, right? That is until the bird flew down from the rafters and started talking—he told them all about it! The bird gave them the whole play-by-play, and since Old Lady Hobson was dead and there was no one else to take care of the bird, the cops decided to put him to work. They gave him a job and he became the first ever bird detective. He’s out there now, driving around, solving crimes. You wouldn’t believe it!”
Wayne dropped the children off at their mother’s house and when they knocked on the door, there was no answer. Nancy’s car wasn’t in the driveway. Wayne looked at his phone and saw that he’d arrived almost fifteen minutes early. He tested his old key and it still worked, so he let the children inside. He didn’t want to leave them alone, so he thought he’d wait in the foyer until Nancy returned. The children raced upstairs and Wayne stood alone, unsure of how to occupy this space that no longer belonged to him. He put his hands in his pockets, took them out, stuffed them back in. He noticed that the front hall had been repainted—a thin blue that covered the eggshell color it had been during the years he’d lived there. Wayne took a few steps inside and could see there was a new dishwasher in the kitchen. Another step and he could see that the furniture in the living room had been rearranged, space made for an exercise bike that now stood in one corner. Wayne walked a slow lap around the first floor, wondering over all these changes that had been made in his absence. Without thinking, he walked upstairs. He stood for a moment at the entrance of the children’s room, watched them playing with action figures. Then he walked to the hall closet. In spite of the changes made to the house, the closet was as he’d left it. The shelf was still on the floor, propped against the back panel from the last time he’d entered the space behind the wall. He pushed the panel back just enough to see one of the granola bar wrappers that he’d left shining in the dark.
Wayne was halfway down the stairs when Nancy appeared in the front door.
“You’re early,” she said. “Why are you early?”
“She had a big pet bird that would fly all around the house. Some people say that’s what finally drove Old Man Hobson over the edge. He hated that bird!”
Driving home, Wayne felt something slide beneath the gas pedal. He reached down and found one of Joey’s walkie-talkies. The children had been playing with them in the back seat on the way over. Wayne pulled over and searched the rest of the car, but the other walkie-talkie was nowhere to be found.
The next night, half-drunk and possessed with a giddy, panicked feeling, Wayne drove back to Nancy’s house and parked on the street where he could see the children’s window. He wasn’t sure what sort of distance the walkie-talkies had, but they’d been expensive and he trusted that he’d be able to get through.
“Joey,” he whispered in a low, guttural voice. He held the walkie-talkie close to his mouth, his breath dampening the speaker. “Jooooeeey . . . Joooooooeeeey.” He waited. “I’m coming to get you,” he hissed. “I’m coming.” Nothing happened. “I’m coming to get you, Joooooeeey.” He waited a while longer, then began to wonder what he was doing. He sat in his car, feeling desperate and foolish, suddenly hating Nancy, then hating himself for being so stupid as to think that he could scare the children away from her. He stared up at the house and felt horribly alone. His chest tightened. For a moment, he had trouble breathing. He squeezed the walkie-talkie in his fist, banged his head on the steering wheel, punched himself in the thigh, and began to weep. Big, ugly tears. A wailing, animal sound rose from his throat.
And in the dark of the children’s room, Joey and Sam sat up in their beds, their eyes fixed on the nightstand, where the tiny red light on the walkie-talkie blinked and snippets of gurgling moans crackled from the speaker like some tortured voice howling from beyond.
Wayne retrieved his mail from the square of metal boxes in the parking lot outside of his apartment. Sifting through the envelopes, he found he’d been issued a summons to appear in court the following month. He crumpled the letter in his hand, his gaze drifting absently across the sky and along the edge of the roof of his apartment building. He realized that, on some level, he’d never thought Nancy was serious, never thought she’d actually try to take the children.
“Tell us about the eyeball again.”
“Yeah, the eyeball!”
“Okay, okay,” Wayne said. He pulled the blankets up around the children’s necks. “Once a year, on the anniversary of the murder, the eyeball will appear, and it will float through the entire house, starting in the basement, then up the stairs, out the back door, around the yard, circling the house and coming back through the front door, up the stairs, toward the bedrooms. First, it turns to left and looks into your mom’s room. Then,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “it turns to the right.” Joey squirmed at the implication. Sam stared at her father with an open mouth. “Some people say Old Man Hobson was a devil worshipper, that he summoned the eyeball using black magic. But I think it’s part of Old Lady Hobson’s ghost—it flew out of her head when she was shot, and now, every year, on the anniversary of her death, her eyeball is doomed to look over the whole scene of the crime, until it finally gets to the basement, where she re-watches every detail of her own grisly death.”
“Daddy,” Sam said. “I don’t want to go back to Mommy’s house.” Her brother kicked her gently under the blankets. “I don’t like eyeballs. I want to stay here.”
At the end of the week, on the night before he’d pick the children up for what he knew could be the last time he’d ever see them, Wayne sat in his car outside of Nancy’s house and drank a beer, then unlaced his shoes and threw them into the back seat. He took out an old gym bag that contained the rubber devil mask, the walkie-talkie, which he’d purchased at the party supply store for forty dollars. He also took from the trunk an old fishing rod; at the end of the line, he’d affixed a Halloween decoration that he’d ordered from the internet: a plastic eyeball that lit up with a small switch and some batteries and was meant to hang from a doorway or awning.
There were five ways that Wayne could get in or out of the house: the front and back doors, which he knew would still open with his key, the windows of Nancy’s room and the children’s, both of which he could access from the roof of the back porch, and finally, the cellar doors that opened up to the backyard. Wayne decided he should first make his way to the passage between the walls of the upstairs hall. When the children were in bed and he could see Nancy bobbing up and down on the exercise bike in the living room, Wayne crept across the lawn in his socks and climbed the lattice onto the roof. He shuffled his way toward Nancy’s bedroom, pushed the window open, and clambered inside, leaving his gym bag and fishing rod on the roof. The upstairs hall was carpeted—without his shoes, if he stepped carefully, he could move in silence. Opening the closet, he pushed against the back panel and wormed into the secret passage. As slowly as he could, he pulled the closet door closed, then stood quiet for a long moment, listening to the sounds of the house around him. He could hear Nancy’s footsteps downstairs, moving between the kitchen and living room. Wayne inched toward the children’s room, then waited in the dark until he’d settled into a comfortable standing position.
Joey was on the cusp of sleep, eyes fluttering as he slipped into a dream: he and his father, digging for worms with their hands in the damp soil of the backyard. Joey could just about smell the earth when, suddenly, he was jolted awake by a loud knocking. He sat up and looked around the room. Sam began screaming. The knocking seemed to be all around them, a terrifying clamor that sounded as if the very walls of the room were threatening them.
Downstairs, Nancy sighed and closed her eyes. When the screaming didn’t stop, she headed upstairs to see what the commotion was.
Wayne could hear the frustrated tone of her voice, pleading for the children to get back in bed. When he heard her footsteps moving back down the staircase, Wayne edged toward the closet, slipped into the hall, and went back out through the window in Nancy’s room. The night air was cold. The shingles of the roof clung to the bottoms of his socks. The moon glowed behind a drift of clouds. Wayne took the fishing rod and made his way toward the window of the children’s room.
Sam curled against her pillow, watching the shape of her brother shifting beneath his blankets on the other side of the room. The window was just above Joey’s bed and as the clouds pushed across the sky, the folds of his comforter looked like an elaborate landscape of moonlit dunes and darkened canyons. A light appeared in the window, descending slowly into the frame. Sam looked up to see what she knew to be the monstrous, glowing eyeball of Old Lady Hobson hovering in the dark, peering in at her.
Nancy was halfway up the stairs again by the time Wayne made it back down the lattice. He pressed himself flat against the house and glanced up to where the light from the children’s room had clicked on. The sound of their crying drifted out into the night. Wayne crept along the side of the house and unlocked the back door.
“But just for fifteen minutes,” he could hear Nancy saying upstairs, “and that’s it.” The children’s feet pattered above him. Wayne ducked through the door that led to the basement, where, he thought, he could execute one final scare before leaving safely through the cellar doors. He waited at the top of the basement stairs and listened while the children and their mother came downstairs, Sam still sobbing as the three of them settled onto the couch.
The wooden steps groaned as Wayne descended into the basement. The walls and floor were concrete painted a pale gray. A single light bulb dangled from the web of pipes and ragged joisting overhead. Despite the apathy he’d felt about the Hobson murders when he lived in this house, Wayne found himself now, in the dark, wondering where, specifically, the crimes had happened. Had the chair that Mrs. Hobson was tied to been pushed into one of the corners? Or had Mr. Hobson arranged it more dramatically beneath the light of that one dangling bulb? And where did Mr. Hobson sit down—had he sat down?—to get comfortable in his final moments? Wayne stood, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark. When the shapes around him—the support beams that ran between the floor and ceiling, the hulking furnace looming beneath the staircase—began to emerge, Wayne set down his gym bag and unfurled the cord of the smoke machine.
Upstairs, Nancy and the children sat in front of the television. Nancy clicked through the channel guide, looking for something that would put the children to sleep. Comedy specials, infomercials, celebrity sing-offs. She settled on a nature show—tadpoles squirming their way toward becoming little froglings.
When the banging started, Nancy thought it must be her boyfriend, Cameron, at the front door. He’d promised to stop by later and she was eager to see him. Cameron traveled frequently for work; it had been more than a week since they’d been able find any time together. She hadn’t let him meet the children yet, had wanted them to feel comfortable without Wayne before she sprung someone new on them, though there’d been nights when he came over after they were asleep and left before they woke.
Nancy was halfway to the door when the banging happened again. “Just five more minutes,” she called to the children behind her. “Then it’s back upstairs.”
It had been enough to convince Nancy to let the man buy her a small pistol, which she kept locked in a black metal case in the top drawer of her dresser
She paused before the door, wondering suddenly why Cameron hadn’t just rung the bell. Then it came again, three loud raps: thud, thud, thud. Nancy looked around, as if expecting to see whatever it was that made the sound, before realizing that it came from underfoot. The basement. The children appeared in the hall behind her, their faces crumpled with dread.
“I want Daddy,” Sam said. Her voice was small and frightened. “I want to go to Daddy’s house.”
“Get back on the couch,” Nancy told them. The sound came again, right beneath her: thud, thud, thud. “Go,” she said sternly, and then she turned and walked as quickly as she could upstairs to her bedroom.
In the months since Nancy had divorced Wayne, Cameron—who often spent weekends hunting up north and was of the belief that all people should own and know how to operate a firearm—had convinced her to let him buy her a gun. “A single woman with two kids in the house?” he’d said. “What if something happened? How would you protect them?” At first, she’d thought the suggestion was ridiculous, but then, on one of the secret dates they’d gone on while she was still married to Wayne, Cameron had taken her to a shooting range, had helped her point and fire a pistol, and there’d been something strangely exciting about it. Maybe it was just a sense of autonomy she’d been learning to enjoy, or a sort of rebellion that she knew Wayne hated. After Wayne moved out, Nancy had found herself spending most nights sitting in front of the television, watching crime dramas, which, over time, began folding themselves into her imagination. She’d turn on the television and every episode, it seemed, involved some vicious serial killer. One plot that stuck in her memory focused on a woman just like her—a single mother of two—who was raped and tormented by a masked invader. The final straw came one night when Cameron was over and the two of them were scared by a sudden racket from the basement—a set of paint cans knocked over by a raccoon that had gotten in through the cellar doors. Cameron had gone down with a flashlight and scared the animal off, but standing at the top of the stairs while he crept down there, hearing the shocked yelp he let out when the flashlight shined on the raccoon’s snarling face—it had been enough to convince Nancy to let the man buy her a small pistol, which she kept locked in a black metal case in the top drawer of her dresser, and which she found herself unlocking now for the first time.
The fog was filling up the basement, making it difficult to see. Wayne walked slowly, both arms out in front of him. He made his way toward the corner of the basement, where there was a small set of concrete steps leading up to the cellar doors.
Nancy held the gun behind her back to hide it from the children—she didn’t want them any more scared than they already were. They stood anxiously in the doorway of the living room, the television flickering behind them. Nancy waved for them to return to the couch. “It’s just a raccoon,” she said, reassuring herself as much as the children. She opened the basement door and fog billowed forth around her ankles. The stairway leading down was a dense haze through which she could see almost nothing. She wondered if something was on fire, but there was no smell of smoke. She thought of the stories the children had recounted, the gory details of the Hobson murders, and then she put her foot on the first step, holding the gun out in front of her.
Wayne found his way to the cellar doors, but when he pushed against them, they wouldn’t budge. He wondered if something was sitting on top of the doors on the other side. He pushed harder, banging against them repeatedly before realizing that the bolt on the outside was locked. He’d never known the cellar doors to be locked—another of the small changes that had occurred since he moved out of the house. He scrambled about on the concrete steps, pushing the doors at different angles, pressing up against them with his shoulders, feeling their edges with both hands.
Nancy was startled by the noise—something was over there, something much bigger than a raccoon. Through the fog, she could see, like a phantom, the gauzy shape of a man, hunched over, its limbs moving frantically. In a panic, she raised the pistol and fired. For a split second, the light of the blast cut through the fog. At the sound of the shot, Wayne froze, and he knew in that moment that he would not have jumped, no matter what happened with the children, he never would have jumped.