Abandoned Houses

I was twelve-years-old and standing in an abandoned house that was no longer abandoned.  I was standing in my future bedroom. We had just begun renovations  that day and it was my job to peel off the yellow newspapers that wallpapered the room. Outside the window, a rusted tire swing hung from a drooping locust tree and a flock of crows congregated there, pecking and cawing, not knowing that their residency was about to come to an end.

I hated the house. I didn’t dare tell my mother, but I hated it. Its emptiness represented to me the bareness of my life since my parent’s divorce. In a way, I too had felt abandoned. My mother had chased my father away and my father, having lost his business in order to pay for the divorce, had moved to another state to find work.  There was a strange kind of humor in the way that during the whole business no one had turned to me to ask me how I felt. If they had, I would have said the entire situation was ridiculous. I may have even begged them to stay together. Perhaps that is why they didn’t ask me. They didn’t want me to plead with them.

Horses. It was the horses that did it. Not their fault really. But the whole idea of “horses” severed my parent’s marriage. It was as if that word was written all over my history.  My mother decided to make horses her life. It was an expensive, ridiculous hobby that forced my mother to be gone through most of my infancy as she traveled the world showing her horses. My father was then forced to abandon his own responsibilities at his business in order to stay home with me.

My father couldn’t afford them. His business was suffering and he couldn’t afford to keep the horses as well. He asked my mother to sell them. That was it. The end of my parent’s marriage. She would rather give up her husband than her horses. I wish it was more complicated than that, but it wasn’t.

Ridiculous. If anyone had asked my opinion, I would have told them (her) to grow up. But no one asked my opinion. I was just a child.

I turned from the window and squinted at the room, trying to imagine the newspapers gone and carpet on the floor. I couldn’t picture it. The rotting wooden floor was covered with the shriveled remnants of leaves, skeletal feathers, and mouse droppings.  I approached the section of wall closest to the door and read the blurred newsprint, wondering about who must have lived in this room and thought to cover it with words and stranger’s faces. Some of the news strips announced marriages and births, while others reported murder victims found in local corn-fields and missing children. The murders and the marriages hung next to each other, interchangeable.

I began to peel the paper away from the wall. It was moist with age and I could feel the mold from the paper getting under my fingernails. Underneath, the wall was made of wooden panels. Pieces of newspaper stuck to the wood.

My mother walked into the doorway. “Alright,” she said. “I’m going to go feed the horses.”

She paused. She expected me to volunteer to help her. Instead I looked into the corner and observed the emancipated corpse of a bird, it was mostly camouflaged by the pile of dust that surrounded it.

The horses had moved in three weeks before. We had completed renovations on the old abandoned barns before we had even begun to think about the house. The horses always came first. No matter what.

My mother sighed heavily and walked downstairs. The steps creaked miserably under her weight. I dug my fingernails deep into the newspaper and pulled. It came off in one clean strip and flapped in my hand. The paper smelled like urine.  I crumpled it up in my hand and turned.

The main feature of the room that had caused me to claim it for my future bedroom was that by walking into the closet, one could open a door and find themselves standing on a balcony overlooking the living room. I walked out there and waved at my new step-father, Bill. He had begun gutting the walls of the living room, the inner-wall that he had exposed was hallow and dark with wetness. The house was going to be a lot of work, but he couldn’t stop smiling from the pleasure of it.

Bill had bought the house in order to begin his new life with me and my mom. He couldn’t afford much, but he wanted to provide for us. He remembered the house from his childhood, he had visited it many times. “It was one of the most beautiful houses in town, back in its prime,” he had said.

He waved up at me. “How you doin’ pumpkin?”

I held up the crumpled piece of newspaper. “I got one done.”

He smiled and nodded, “Well that’s good.”

We both jumped at the sound of a sharp yell coming from behind the house. It was my mom, she was yelling, “Bill! Bill!”

“Shit!” Bill exclaimed and threw down his hammer. He ran out the door and I ran back through the room and down the rickety stairs, jumping over most of them in a wild fear of them collapsing beneath me.

My mother was running through the horse-pasture towards a large, dark, mound that lay on the ground. Our two dogs, Dallas and Jake congregated around the mound–sniffing and licking. Dallas, who was half-Labrador and half (as Bill once told me) coyote, took a large bite out of the mound and his mouth came away red.

“Get the fuck away from her you monsters!” My mother yelled, waving her arms at the dogs. She was sobbing and gasped as she reached the mound. She moaned loudly and threw herself into Bill’s arms, who gathered her up and turned her away from the macabre.

The corpse of one of our broodmares, Tara, lay there. Her eyes were wide and white and her thick purple tongue protruded from her mouth. There were deep gashes in the side of her stomach and some of her entrails had slipped out to paint the grass red. Something had cut her neck so deeply that her head was nearly detached from her body. Her bones were startlingly white against the darkness of the blood.

My mother’s sobs grew louder and I couldn’t help but feel ashamed and slightly embarrassed by the way she was carrying on. I knelt down next to the horse’s body and stared.

“I’m going to take you home,” Bill whispered to her. “I’m going to take you home and we’ll call the police. We’ll figure out what did this. It was probably a rabid coyote or something.”

He let go of her and she stood there, facing away from us, clutching her face.  Bill knelt down next to me and grabbed my arm, “Ash, I need you to stay here. Can you do that for me? Bring all the horses into the barn, feed them, and go back into the house. Do not leave the house. Do you understand?”

I nodded. I wanted to beg him to take me with him, but I had no words.

“I’ll come right back for you,” he said. “I promise.”

He led my mother away and left me standing there alone in the field.  I called to the dogs to come away from Tara’s body but they didn’t respond. They were driven mad with the blood. I stepped around the horse and grabbed them both by their collars to lead them away. Dallas nipped at me and smeared blood over my arm.

Eventually I was able to lock them into the house and I went to take care of the horses. When I was done Bill still wasn’t back.  I walked through the back door into the enclosed porch of the house where Bill told me to never go because the roof was about to collapse.  There was holes in the floors and the distinct smell of death in the porch, which had served as a secondary kitchen for the house.

A yellow stove sat alone against a wall, surrounded by two-shattered windows. Out of curiosity I opened the oven and the smell of death became even more potent. There was a pile of fur with a skeleton paw. I yelped and dropped the stove door. It clanged as it slammed on the floor. I ran from the room.

For a half-hour  I sat on the floor of the living room and stared out the window, waiting for Bill. I felt as abandoned as the house. But he eventually came for me.


All that summer, it seemed like Bill was obsessed with abandoned houses.  It was as if he felt that it had become his mission to rescue them, or to at least rescue their belongings. One time we pulled over onto the side of a country road, in front of a tiny shack with a bent roof. “These were the servant’s quarters for that house across the street.”

I looked over at the leaning gray figure of a house standing stoic in a cornfield. The abandoned mansion was in worse shape than its slave quarters.

Inside, the shack was empty except for a single metal bed with harsh springs. “Black people used to live here,” Bill said. As if that meant anything.

We went to across the street to the mansion. Half of its roof had collapsed and if you stood behind it you could see both the bottom and the top floor, just the way houses looked on stage-sets.
“You be careful,” my mother warned me.  In order to walk through the house I had to step through floor-boards. I tripped along the back of the house and trembled. I was afraid that with one wrong turn I would once again come face to face with death. Abandoned houses were ossuaries for dead animals. I slid through a doorway with its gray door still clinging to the wall by one hinge.

The room was nearly empty, probably already salvaged of its valuables a long time ago. An old wooden headboard rested along a far wall, it had been broken in two. Next to it sat a wooden laundry basket filled with dolls. I picked up a large naked figure. Her body was colored darker than her head and half of her blonde hair was missing along with one eye.   With the paint chipped on her face, she looked like a decaying corpse. I wondered about the little girl that might have once loved her and what might have brought that girl to abandon her. Had she grown too old for dolls? Despite the fact that it repulsed me, I hugged the doll to my chest and began to spin in circles. I could smell the mildew rising from the doll’s hair–a rancid, dusty smell that tickled my nostrils.  I danced with the doll, my shoes shuffling against the dirty floor.

After a while, I heard footsteps and looked up to see Bill standing in the doorway. “Do you see anything you want?” he asked. “They’re going to bulldoze this place next week.”

I bent down and placed the doll back in the basket with her companions. “No. Nothing,” I said.


The leaves had begun to fall. I sat spinning on the tire-swing in the backyard, watching the house, the road, and the fields rotate around me. Bill was on his bulldozer, tearing down the back-porch where I had found the raccoon in the stove. My mother was up in the stables with her horses. I leaned my head back and watched the tree branches turn above me, like a mobile.

The bulldozer abruptly stopped and Bill let out a yell for my mother that was so loud it caused the crows to erupt from the top of my tree. I stopped spinning and waited for a few terrifying moments. There was a strange silence that settled over the yard. Then I heard a sharp scream.

My arms were stiff and my chest tensed in anticipation as I pushed myself out of the tire swing and ran towards the back of the house. As I rounded the corner Bill suddenly grabbed me. His arms held me uncomfortably tight. He held me against his chest. “You don’t want to go back there Pumpkin, it’s bad.”

I struggled against him. “I don’t care. I want to see. What happened? I want to see!”

He reluctantly let go of me and I ran towards the pile of rubble that was once the back-porch.  Just on the edge of this rubble, on a piece of floor that the bulldozer had not net touched, lay Dallas’s headless body.

My mother stared at it with her hand clasped over her mouth. She wasn’t sobbing the way she was when we had found Tara’s body. Yet her face was still ghostly white.

“What happened?” She said to Bill. “Did you hit him with the bulldozer?’

“No!” Bill yelled, clearly more upset than either of us about the death of his favorite dog. “I hadn’ gotten the bucket anywhere near there yet! Besides, where’s his head?”

My mom just shook her head.  “Do you think the same thing got him that had gotten Tara?’

He didn’t respond to her, just stared. His eyes were wet.

Shaking her head, my mother looked at me and said, “I feel like I’m being punished. I’m being punished for divorcing your father. I’m paying for every mistake I ever made.”

Seeing the expression on Bill’s face, my mother finally began to cry. “I’m sorry, but I can’t live here. I don’t want to. Not with some crazy animal on the loose.”

Bill nodded slowly and looked up at the house.  Just a few days before we had painted the front of it a light, cheerful yellow.

“I’m serious Bill.” My mother’s voice was stern now, with a hint of cruelty. “Sell the fucking place. I will never come back here. Never again.”

Bill turned away from her and he looked at me. I smiled at him and the corner of his mouth lifted slightly, just for me.

“Come on,” he said, his voice was quiet and low. “Let’s go. I’ll take you y’all home and come back later to get things cleaned up.”

My mother marched towards the car but I hung back with Bill.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “She’ll change her mind, once the shock wears off.”

“No she won’t,” Bill said.

And she didn’t. We came and got the horses, we cleaned up the body, we put up a wall where the back-porch used to be, and then we abandoned the abandoned house.

As we drove away I looked out of the window of Bill’s truck, towards the hill and the field that rose behind the house. I saw a dark figuring standing at the top of the hill, featureless like a shadow, but large and indistinguishable in the noonday sun. I placed my face against the cool window and opened my mouth, as if I might have been able to swallow the shadow into myself. I watched it until we drove out of sight.

Sometimes at night I have dreams where I am walking through the fields on the hill, the shivering structure of the abandoned house below me, its glass-less windows like dead eyes into a corpse that still has a soul. So much death. I find myself obsessed with the spirit of death, even after all these years.

In the dream my hands are coated with blood, and the metallic taste of it is thick in my mouth. I am walking among the residue of hundreds of dead horses with their throats cut and their eyes white and unseeing. I am the vampire taking back the life that was stolen from me.

I am the monster on the hill.

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