Houses are built for all kinds of purposes. Some to shelter a family, others to worship in. Occasionally, in those most ancient of places, houses are built not to keep out the wind and rain, or the animals and the outside world, but to keep something else in…
“Here’s the spare keys, and here’s the combo to the pumphouse lock. Mi casa es su casa” said the now-former owner of this pile with a smirk. "Welcome to Legba, Louisiana."
“Not an attractive offer,” Shane mumbled quietly.
“Didn’t seersucker go out with ragtime music? That guy can keep his “gameshow” face,” Ricky piped up from the backseat.
“Dang! He had a face like a haunted house!” Shane snickered.
“Don’t say “haunted”, will ya. You know all those “Louisiana Voodoo” stories out here. This is prime zombie territory if I ever saw any.”
“You picking up on some bad Juju, dork?” Shane quipped with that smart-ass voice like nails on a chalkboard.
“I said voodoo, dummy. Both West African, but voodoo is the religion and belief. Juju refers to the objects of supernatural powers and the practice.”
“Well, aren’t we just head of the class! Seems like you might be smarter than you look.” Shane drawled in an imitation upper-crust accent. “Seriously, how do you retain all that crap, but can’t recall anything mom and dad told you 10 minutes ago?”
“Well,” Ricky began, “Step one is learning to read. Step two is to pick up a book. Now you have the recipe. Go give it a try.” He wagged his fingers dismissively.
“Alright, alright,” their father interjected. “Grab your gear and go help your mother. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and this place isn’t getting any prettier with the likes of you two mouthing off back there.”
Shane looked out the window, frowning so hard his forehead hurt. “Thanks a pant-load dad. I love living in the sticks. Just skipping rocks, catching frogs, and an all-day mosquito buffet.”
Hauling their suitcases up the dirty, paint-chipped stairs, Shane and Ricky made their way into the house, or, what they imagined might have once been one. This was more like a rotting wooden corpse. Shane could hear his mother coughing in the living room from the foot of dust that covered every inch of the place. Exposed lath strips where the prehistoric plaster had cracked off completed the whole “Amityville Horror” vibe.
“Again, perfectly fine place in Mid-City and we hitch up the wagons to move here. Is that an outhouse?” Shane said staring out the window.
“Priced out, pal. Besides, this is ours to do whatever we want with. And no, that’s what they call a shed.” their father chuckled in passing.
“Aaaah!” Ricky hollered from somewhere upstairs.
“Five will get you ten he saw a spider. I'd double down and bet it’s just a daddy long-leg.” Shane said, shaking his head.
“Just go see what’s up.” his mother waved.
Shane took the stairs by two’s, stopping when he got to the landing to survey what direction Ricky was making all the racket from. Damn it! He didn’t even get a chance to pick a room before Ricky barreled up here to set up his lair.
“MOM!” Shane yelled. “Guys! Get up here!”
Sophie came trudging up the stairs, exhausted from unloading boxes of dishes. The boys stood like statues blocking the doorway of the first room. Nudging them aside, she stopped inches into the room, blinking rapidly as if what lay before them was a speck of dust in her eye to be rubbed away for clarity.
“Um...well...” their mother stood mouth agape. “Let’s go grab your father.” Not wanting to turn her back on the room as if it held a live tiger, she backed up and leaned over the banister. “James!” she yelled.
“Hey yo! What’s the hubbub?” James replied as he stomped up the stairs balancing two boxes precariously one on top of the other. “Who was the first to see a ghost?” he joked, grinning ear to ear at the look on his family’s faces.
Setting the boxes down on the landing, the three moved aside so James could make his way into the room. The space was darker than he expected, but he could see what all the fuss was about.
“Um…” rose from his throat. “That’s–.”
“Jesus, James! It’s a flippin voodoo shrine!” Sophie broke in with surprise.
“Yeah, dad! Check it out. That lady in the picture on the left is Marie Laveau! New Orleans' most famous voodoo queen!” Ricky stood pointing at the first portrait, edges covered in melted red candle wax and garlands of dried flowers intertwined with what looked like long braids of...hair.
“That other one has got to be Papa Legba. You know, the dude who manages the crossroads between humans and the spirit world. And check that out! Candy, cigarettes, those little bottles of red stuff. I bet all those are the offerings.” Everyone looked at Ricky, unsure of what to say next.
Ricky moved in closer, bending down toward the mound. “Are those–”
“Stop! Yes, those look like animal bones, and no, don’t touch that.” James grabbed the back of Ricky’s shirt to stop him from going any further.
“Come on. We’ve lived in New Orleans at least my whole life. You see this everywhere in the French Quarter! We’re only 20 minutes away from the heart of it all.”
“Okay, okay. You three head back downstairs.” James started shuffling the boys out. “Let’s get some temporary spots set up since it’s getting darker. I’m going to clean up a bit. Power won't be connected until tomorrow afternoon, so Shane and Ricky, you go grab the two camping lanterns and the flashlight from the car. I’ll get that fireplace in the living room going in a bit.”
As the boys and Sophie made their way downstairs, James reached up to throw the heavy old drapes open on the two windows. It hadn’t escaped his attention that no matter how many windows they opened around the house, everything around them remained strangely cast in shadow, as if there is always something blocking the light, even in open rooms.
James knelt beside the altar, rickety football-knee popping like it was full of Rice Krispies. He began scooping the many small beads and bones, wondering why the sellers hadn’t taken this with them, or if this is a sign of squatters. Reaching past the portraits for an open jar, a cracking sound from behind the shrine caused him to pause.
Chunks of old plaster fell from the wall exposing a honeycomb of shelves and nooks. James froze, the tan he usually sported turning sickly grey as no less than five bleached white skulls, eyes hollowed by time, stared back at him. With a dry throat, he slowly rose to his feet. “Oh, Sophie is NOT going to like this,” he muttered aloud.
His footfalls sounded heavily in the dark, quiet space as he approached the wall. Small bottles of assorted sizes, some containing liquids, others with things he didn’t want to know about. Small figurines, more tiny bones, half-burned candles, and little round saucers with stacks of dried leather or jerky lay in piles around the skulls.
Rubbing his eyes with his clean hand and swatting away the plaster dust that hung in the air, James turned to leave the room, set on not letting anyone up here until he trashed that whole little shop of horrors. Taking one last look at the macabre scene, the room appeared even darker. Dusk was settling in, but the shadows that seemed to overtake everything they touched seemed...strange. Almost fluid-like. He closed the door tightly, a shiver running the length of his body despite the balmy outside weather.
The long day of moving was coming to a close as the sun settled below the horizon. The boys were wiping their greasy fingers and faces from the chicken wings Sophie grabbed for takeout as James fed the small fire he had built in the old stone fireplace. The night air always had a bit of a chill regardless of how hot it got during the day.
“Now that’s a fire!” Sophie said smiling with love in her eyes for her little family. “For a city boy, you always manage to make a good fire. I think that’s something my dad loves about you. That, and sharing those tiny beers that no one ever knows where they came from.”
“Number one, those beers remain an elusive mystery to this day. Two, I always carry my secret weapon.”
“What’s that, Pop? Creme brulee torch? Lighter fluid?” Ricky said inquisitively.
“Cheapskates velvet! No boy scout should ever be without some.”
“Um...okay, I’ll bite. What in the world is “cheapskates velvet?” Sophie looked side-eyed at James.
“Dryer lint! Do you know how flammable that stuff is? It’s no wonder so many house fires start because people forget to clean that out. Just jam a few wads in an old toilet paper tube and presto! Instant fire starter.”
“BOOM!” shouted Ricky, bursting into loud laughter. “You da man, Dad!”
Sophie cleared the living room of spent food containers while herding the boys along to layout their makeshift bunks until the rest of the furniture arrived the following day. Just like camping, she thought. Though the great outdoors was something she left to James. “Glamping” they called it, was a little more her speed.
In the dying firelight, every shadow moved like it had a purpose. Like they were soldiers set to task by some long-forgotten king. The boys hopped into their sleeping bags while James and Sophie settled onto the old, creaky air mattress. “Years later and this thing still stinks like rubber,” James grumbled. Not many things grossed him out, but the jiggle and smell of anything rubber kicked his gag reflex into overdrive.
It seemed to James like he had been asleep for days when they awoke to a loud crash from upstairs. Sophie grabbed his arm as the boys blinked the sleep from their eyes but remained quiet. “What the hell was that?” Sophie mouthed to James. James shook his head from side to side. He had no clue.
Ricky started to rise from his sleeping bag when James held up a hand to stop.
The sound of a door slamming in the back of the house rattled the old windows. It wasn’t windy out, and there certainly wasn’t a draft that could have done that. Sophie had personally double-checked the locks. Country life didn’t mean you let your guard down, after all.
“Boys! Come here,” James whispered. “Stay with your mother.”
“Don’t do anything foolish, James.” Sophie looked up at his stern face set with stone-cold resolve to see what this intrusion was all about. Sounds from two opposite locations in the house did not bode well with him. There was no way he could protect them by being in two places at once.
James rose from the air mattress as quietly as he could. Reaching out for the handle of a camping lantern, not daring to turn it on yet and ruin his night vision, he swiveled his head looking for something he could use as a weapon. Seeing nothing close by, he slowly picked up his key ring, maneuvering a key between each finger to make a set of “key-knuckles.” Okay, first floor, then second, he thought.
Silently, with footfalls masked by socks, James worked his way through the living room, into the kitchen, and closer toward the back of the house. Passing the basement door, he gave a gentle twist of the knob and tug. Locked. Rounding the last corner, he knew what was off immediately…candlelight. Dozens of thin, dark candles, some fresh, some burned down to stubs, stood littered throughout the den. They covered window sills, boxes not yet unpacked, and the floor. Among the candles, scattered about like confetti, lay small figurines, bottles of green glass, flowers, and other mounds of items he couldn’t see in the flickering shadows. Instead of the heavy old drapes that had remained in the windows, strands of tiny bones tied together with yellowing twine hung swaying in front of the glass. What fresh hell is this?
Testing the back door and finding it too was locked, James stepped over the items, leaving everything as it was, and sped back to the living room. “Sophie, take the boys out of here. Wait in the car and call 911.”
Upstairs again. James couldn’t stop the tingling that was rising in his spine. He’d been through two break-ins in his life, subduing one would-be burglar, the other fleeing the scene. He didn’t scare easily, but this was different.
Finding her set of keys and phone, Sophie knelt and reached out for Ricky’s hand.
Suddenly, a massive BOOM resounded through the house!
Three more heavy slams rattled the windows. They all stood frozen, listening. Someone...or something, was slamming against the basement door!
“Whoever comes through there is messing with a bag of snakes when they see this.” A loud whoosh parted the air as Shane took a practice swing with an old Louisville Slugger.
“Shane! Be quiet and give me that thing.” James took the bat from Shane. He forgot the boy’s little league bat bags were in the corner.
The pounding stopped. They all stood still. Listening. Waiting.
Two heavy thuds sounded from the second floor.
James motioned with his free hand for Sophie and the boys to get out. He needed them safe and secure before he went hunting around.
Sophie grabbed the boys and made for the front door. It wouldn’t budge when she tugged on the knob. Twisting and turning, pulling and shaking, nothing would open the big oak door. Sophie turned back to James, fear evident in her eyes.
Another crash from upstairs.
Galvanized into action, James gestured to a corner for them to stay in. He mounted the staircase, skipping every other step to get up there as quickly as possible. Perhaps not the wisest of ideas to charge in like a bull, but he knew speed meant surprise, and that’s exactly what he needed on his side.
As he cleared the landing, James could see the room he had proclaimed “off-limits.” The door stood open now, shadows dancing in the entryway from what light source he didn’t know. He cursed as the old floorboards creaked and groaned with every step.
Wiping beads of sweat from his brow and upper lip, James stepped into the doorway, bat at the ready. Candles. More and more candles stood flickering in the darkened room. At the center of the light, a man knelt on both knees in front of the shrine, dark skin glistening, broad-brimmed hat tilted to the side. Beside him, an old dog was laying on its belly, glassy eyes looking up at James as if ready to accept a pat on the head.
“You’d do well to leave this protection here,” said the man in a low, deep voice. James stood rooted, unable to move forward or retreat as the man slowly turned from the shrine and stood to face him. The portrait...the man bore an uncanny resemblance to the figure in the second portrait he now stood by. “Papa Legba,” Ricky had called him. Old and craggy was his face, with soft eyes that looked almost...fatherly, and without a trace of malice.
“Been a long time this place has been here.” the figure said, tipping his hat with an old stubby cane. “Been a long time since new folks have been here too. Old Bones and I,” he motioned toward the dog, “have been at this for some time now. You see, some things just aren’t made to play well with you folks. Some things need to be caged and tended to.”
“Some things? You folks?” James squinted, looking restless and confused about the man in his house and what he was trying to tell him.
The door swung shut behind James as if pulled by some invisible hand.
“You know, bad things. Bad, mischievous things you “living” folks just wouldn’t understand. Things that want to do more harm than anything. Me and old Bones tend to that. The living, the spirits, and the darkness. Y'all already heard it beating down that door below, longing to get out and have its way with this world.”
“Listen, pal. I have no clue what the hell you are talking about, what your malfunction is, and why you’re in my house. So, on the count of three, pick up your shit, and get out.” James readied the baseball bat. “One...two...th—”
“A word of advice if I may.” the man interrupted, holding up a calloused hand. “Don’t let the candles go out…”
And with that, the man and his old dog were gone.
With an involuntary shiver, James stood unblinking for what felt like an eternity. “So much for the quiet country life,” he muttered.