He trudged through the scraggly, yellowed grass. No one heard the chain link fence rattling in the still night, nor the thump as the gas cans struck the dry dirt on the other side.
Bernard wrapped his fingers around the rusted metal and hoisted himself up. The creak in his bones felt nothing like the last time he’d taken this journey, before brown had tarnished the silvery metal fence, when other boys traveled with him.
But then the moment passed and Bernard sat hunched down in the backyard, a lone, dead tree his only company in the night. In front of him he saw could see the dirt covering the only window on the back of the house, and the back door right beside it.
There was no paint left on this structure, unlike in his youth when bright blue and white had nearly shined shone in the night. Though the home had been abandoned even then, time hadn’t had a chance to defile it just yet. Now the outer walls were bare and gouged.
Pain arched through his back as he pulled himself upright and latched his hands back onto the gas cans. The years hadn’t been kind to him, nor had he been kind to himself, and all those nights of abuse were beginning to catch up. At the age of fifty-seven he felt closer to eighty, and admitted in some far region of his mind a kind of kinship with the building he approached.
The doctor had told him so many times before to cut back on his smoking, his drinking, and improve his eating habits. The blood Bernard now saw glistening on his hands when the worst of the coughing fits came had proven the man right. The cause of the problem, however, was something on no one had ever known.
For exactly forty-two years of his life he’d lived with something painful on his shoulders. A deep pain in his lungs and a quiet conversation with his doctor about Bernard’s soon to be realized mortality had finally been enough to make him throw the weight off, even if his actions came too late to save him.
As he trudged across the dirt lawn towards the terror of his youth he heard could hear the faint cries of other children not so far in the distance. He wasn’t sure how close they’d actually come to the house. Bernard and Charlie hadn’t been particularly fearful of approaching it so many years back.
Most children ventured a wary look at the foreboding structure, aware of the rumors and tall tales that made their way through the schools, but few dared to actually brave the house itself. Charlie had been one of the special few to take such a chance, and Charlie had been the one responsible for the large fence that would eventually be built around the empty home. Bernard had to stop for just a second to see Charlie’s smile and playful insults as the young boy Bernard had been hung back rather than delve into the darkness of the open back door.
Now the backdoor was locked. Bernard stepped back and slammed his boot into the door. Pain arched up his leg into his hip, but he ignored it and took another swing. Wood creaked and cracked, and the third kick was enough to break the old door open.
For just a few more seconds Bernard stood outside, staring into the darkness of the kitchen, the gas cans on the ground beside him, his fear from forty-two years ago still whispering in the back of his mind. If he squinted he could see Charlie’s back up ahead, vanishing ed deeper into the structure.
He slipped the flask out from his pocket and let the whiskey burn its way down his throat. That was a bit of liquid courage he’d never had when he was younger.
As soon as he was through the door he could hear the continuous groan of the old building. The walls seem to shake with life each time the slightest breeze cut through the night. Cabinet doors rattled and the whole building appeared to shudder.
Bernard was nearly out of the kitchen when the door slammed itself shut behind him. He fell to his knees, nearly sent gas pouring across the floor, and clutched at his chest. The fluttering sensation began to pass. The wind, he told himself, but nothing in him really believed it.
There was life running through this structure. Age wasn’t enough to dispel the tales he had once thought as childish. Experience had shown Bernard firsthand what this building could accomplish.
His hand shook as it reached into his pocket and pulled out the flashlight. The beam of light illuminated the haze of dust in the air. Up ahead he could see the closed front door, along with the boarded up window in the living room. Charlie’s father had broken that window once upon a time.
Bernard saw in his mind the red-faced man scooping up the rock while screaming Charlie’s name. He would’ve done more if the people with him had allowed it. He ended up moving away before he’d ever have a chance to.
But Bernard was still around, and more than willing to finish that undone job. With one can of gasoline under his right arm and the other in his left he started down the hall until he reached the main room between the kitchen, living room, and dining room.
There was no more furniture left in the building. Bernard wasn’t entirely sure where it had all gone, or even who owned this place. The only thing on the floor was thick dirt and a lone hammer nestled in the corner of the living room along with a board and a few nails.
Was that the last time anyone had bothered to set foot in the house, he had to ask himself? Someone had walked in here to board that window up.
It didn’t matter. Bernard turned away from the living room and towards the stairs leading up.
Charlie had gone up there, or been dragged up, Bernard supposed. The details had never really been revealed, and no one would ever know what had really become of poor Charlie Bishop. Bernard had thought about it before though. He couldn’t even recall how many drunken nights had been spent wondering what Charlie’s last moments of life had been, and how he’d ended up in that upstairs bedroom.
Whether or not Charlie himself had done it of his own free will, Bernard started up the stairs by choice, listening to the low creak, nearly to the top when something banged from somewhere within the house.
The boom reverberated all around him, seemed to shake his organs inside of him, and made his flashlight’s beam go scurrying frantically across the dark home.
“Can’t scare me that easily,” Bernard whispered, with a voice cracking a little more than he’d prefer. Yes, the house could scare him that easily, but that didn’t mean it could scare him enough to make him run.
Age had given him a disregard for his own personal safety he hadn’t ever dreamed of before. He may have been killing himself with alcohol, but it had been a slow and ignorant death. Anything the house could offer him would be a lot more abrupt.
Whatever awaited him he would face it. The boom didn’t repeat itself. The steps protested but held until Bernard reached the top and glanced back over the balcony at the journey he’d taken.
The hall split into two directions. Charlie had chosen or been dragged to the right. Bernard followed Charlie’s path.
There were two doors at the end of the hallway and both of them were closed. So removed from the windows in the first floor Bernard felt the darkness creeping in on him. He couldn’t help but feel a wave of hot, dry air drifting through the hall. Even the air in this place felt old and rancid.
Briefly he saw the youthful face of a frightened Charlie gulping in large mouthfuls of the decayed air, his brown hair, normally kept neatly combed, messy and slick with sweat.
Bernard reached out and opened the first door. A window in this room gave him light to see by, and showed him a small, empty bedroom. Though he knew immediately this wasn’t the room Charlie had lost his life in, Bernard still found himself taking a step forward to stare at the faded brownish red in the middle of the floor.
What had once been a puddle of liquid was dried and aged into nothing more than a fairly large stain. He turned from the sight without allowing his mind to consider who had spilled their blood on that floor.
After all, Charlie hadn’t been the first soul to face their end in this building, he had only been the most well known. But every time a child went missing, people couldn’t help but look to the old building sitting so silently behind the high fence.
The next door opened into the room he had been hoping for, and showed him for the first time in his life where his best friend had died.
There was no blood in this room. There was no sign of any disturbance that Bernard could tell, only a thick stench of something too foul for Bernard to fully place. His nose immediately wrinkled at the rank odor, but it didn’t stop him from walking into the center of the room and setting down the gas cans.
There were no windows in this room, and the only light Bernard had to see by was the beam of his flashlight as it swept across the bare walls, aware he was looking for some mark of Charlie’s time here, actually wanting to see the hint of an act of violence from so many years ago.
He heard the movement behind him, the stench growing stronger, filling up his nose and making the vomit rise in the back of his throat. A dark shape slammed into him as he was half turned.
The flashlight rolled freely away from where Bernard struck the floor. He felt the pain jolt through his hip when he connected with the wood. Something else crashed down on top of him, that ungodly stink pouring off of it.
Thin fingers wrapped around Bernard’s throat. He stared up into the dark shape of a man, his face filled with black, dirty hair, his eyes nothing but bottomless pits in the poor lighting within the bedroom.
Bernard’s hand groped blindly across the floor as the fingers dug deeper into the soft flesh beneath his throat. He latched onto the handle of the gas can and swung it up as hard as he could.
Suddenly the fingers were gone from Bernard’s throat. A startled yelp of pain exploded from the dark form and sent the man crawling back across the floor. Bernard managed to reach for the flashlight and illuminate his attacker.
Wide, frightened eyes stared into the beam of the flashlight while a dirty hand rose to block the glare of the beam.
“Don’t hurt me again,” the man whimpered, the right side of his face and hair covered in blood from a gash on the side of his forehead. His outfit was little more than dirty rags, his arms almost nothing but bone, ribcage painfully visible through a tear in his shirt.
How the man had managed the strength to fight at all was something to marvel at. Whatever strength he had had appeared to be gone, his pleas for reprieve weak, as if simply breathing took every ounce of energy he had in him.
“Who are you?” Bernard asked him, his own voice raspy, throat still sore.
“I just ...I just live here,” the man sputtered out.
“You don’t ...own this place, do you?” Bernard asked.
“My father,” the man said.
“Your father?” Judging from the man’s appearance he had to be in his sixties, if not older.
“Father left me a long time ago,” the man whimpered, pulling himself upright now, staring less at Bernard and more at his own hands. “Already had left before my bad day, and the bad day was the last of it. Been living here ever since. He won’t let me out. And … he hasn’t brought me food in a long time. Did my father send you with food?”
Bernard took a step back from the man and his wide, begging eyes. The flashlight trembled in Bernard’s grasp and an idea came to him.
“The bad day?” Bernard asked.
The man dropped his eyes, shifted his gaze across the floor. “A boy came in looking for something. Wasn’t supposed to be here, and I—he found me with him, my father did, found me with the boy’s body. Father didn’t like it one bit and said they’d take me if he didn’t hide me away first, and then locked me up here. But I tell you that I didn’t harm that—”
The flashlight caught the man across the cheek before he could finish his sentence. The second blow cut a deep gash across his forehead and splashed red onto the light. Through a haze of red Bernard brought the flashlight down again.
There was no spirit lurking within the walls of this structure. There were no malevolent beings sealed here. All he had was the bum he struck again, sprayed blood down his upper lip, swelled his left eye shut.
The fury left Bernard with a stitch in his side and a sore shoulder. The bum lay curled into a ball on the floor, uttering a low whine as he struggled to breathe. Just staring at him kicked off another bout of rage.
The flashlight struck the floor while Bernard pulled the lid off the can of gasoline. The bum shrieked when the liquid covered him, tried to pull closer to the wall as if it would open up and save him from the awful smell of gasoline.
Bernard had to put a hand over his nose the smell was so strong in the windowless room. The empty can clanged to the floor, and Bernard held in his hand the pack of matches, one out, the tip pressed firmly against the rough strip on the pack.
But his hand didn’t jerk to the side. He remained frozen, aware of the tears streaming down his cheeks from both the gasoline and the emotions burning inside.
“Please,” the bum was still whimpering, voice so distant, but it still reached Bernard through the haze.
He watched the unlit match land next to the flashlight. The packet hit the floor next to it.
He couldn’t do it.
This wasn’t the same as a building. When he had believed it was merely a house he was destroying, the thought hadn’t been as difficult. There would be no screams of pain. A true life would not be lost. No matter what the man lying on the ground before him had done, Bernard still couldn’t bring himself to take the man’s life.
The years had done plenty to punish him for the crimes he had committed. The man’s father had taken care of that.
He grabbed hold of the bum’s shoulder and hefted the man to his feet. Watery eyes stared into Bernard’s face, the bum only half conscious from the way it looked.
Before pulling the man out the door Bernard made sure to place the matches back in his pocket, but left both cans of gasoline sitting in the middle of the room.
The journey down to the back door was long and painful, Bernard’s body wracked with pain from the beating, but eventually the two of them emerged into the back lawn, where Bernard pulled the man towards the fence.
Before he could make it halfway he saw the first changes in the bum’s face. The man’s skin seemed to waver, alive, Bernard almost thought, and the man’s eyes were closed, features still. Bernard dropped him to the dirt, aware of the odd feel to the man’s body right before it struck the ground and exploded completely into a thick, dark smoke.
The haze burned Bernard’s eyes, spiked pain through his lungs, mind unable to focus on the very reality of the situation. Nearly lost in the cloud of smoke, pain jolted his knees as they struck the dirt. He managed to turn towards the house before he fell over completely, unable to breath, the cancer in his lungs forcing blood into his throat.
He could see the gas cans left unused in the room, one hand reaching uselessly towards the house, as if to drag him closer, to finish the task he’d been tricked into forgetting.
The pain wouldn’t let him. His fingers shook, nails torn upward in a final lunge for the door.
“I’m sorry, Charlie,” he tried to say, but the coughs stole away even this, until Bernard lay motionless, right hand outstretched s towards the house, and a book of matches in his left.
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