December 6, 1941
A bright blue sky for a hundred miles west ended the day. Cool mountain breezes, from the snowcapped Sierras, blew across the lowlands. A short hike to the edge of town, Alex and John searched for the house known as “Decay and Splendor.” Hidden among a neighborhood of pines, the gothic manor sat empty and foreboding. Boarded-up windows and tangled vines hid a once beautiful home fallen from glory. Dead leaves scented the air and swished along a buried sidewalk as they approached. Statues and figurines of white marble peeked out among the overgrown brambles.
As they approached the gothic structure, birds flew in and out of the tower. Old newspaper covered the windows under fallen boards. Alex felt eyes watching him from a hundred directions. The “yeeek” of the weathervane drifting in the breeze sent many young men running home. No one had been brave enough to stay one night in this house.
“Should we go in?” asked Alex.
“Sure, why not,” said John.
“What if we slept on the porch? No one’s ever done that before.”
“Alex, I’m going inside with or without you.”
Rumbling came from the east, where storm clouds stretched across the sky.
“Do you want to sleep outside in that or do you want to come inside?” asked John.
Alex hesitated, his legs trembling. To the west it was calm and sunny. “Should we go home and do this next weekend,” Alex asked.
“Come on, we better get inside before it rains.”
“Look at those clouds. It might be safer if we went home, John.” said Alex.
“We’d better get inside before the rain starts. It’s starting to get cold, and I want to start a fire.” John walked up the steps.
“Go ahead, when the fire is lit, come and get me. I’ll stay out here a little longer.”
The thunder reminded Alex of rocks in a barrel rolling down a hill. Lightning flashed in a tall tower of clouds. Dust devils picked up leaves and whirled them around the courtyard. Warm air clashed with cold, and the storm winds howled around the lonely house.
The thumping of John’s boots were almost as loud as Alex’s heartbeat pounding in his ears.
“John, you’ve got to see these clouds,” said Alex. The sun faded orange along the horizon, as this thunder boomer crept closer and closer. Animals quieted their noises and prepared for the rain.
“Alex,” said John
Shaken back to the present, Alex spun to see John glowing in the light of his lantern. Fear gripped him in anticipation of a creature reaching out to tear him limb from limb.
“I almost died.” shouted Alex, clutching his chest.
John looked at Alex, amused. “I called you from inside. The fire is going. Let’s get out of the cold.” Heart racing, Alex grabbed his bag and headed up the steps and inside.
Green paint flaked free of the house and mixed with the leaves and trash blowing around the porch. “Are you sure this place is safe? It won’t come falling down on our heads tonight, will it?” said Alex.
“No, it’s over a hundred years old. Built with the best wood money could buy. Look, would I do this if it weren’t safe?” John jumped down three steps to the floor, holding onto the banister when he landed. Thunder boomed as he hit the floor. The timing couldn’t have been better. The house shook with the vibration as the storm hissed rain outside the open door. Eyes wide open, Alex slammed the door shut and barricaded himself against the frame.
“Never do that again.” he said.
John grinned. “It was good timing. I didn’t know. How about we sleep in the dining room tonight?” John said. “Right next to the fireplace.”
Alex stood paralyzed from the waist down. Listening to rain slapping the sandstone beneath the gutter sent chills up his spine. Witches tapped on the windows and snakes hissed right outside the door. Cannon balls covered in flames rolled down the halls, crashing into everything. It's all he could imagine.
“It’s a storm Alex. Come on in.”
A lightning bolt, bright enough to highlight every room, followed by thunder, exploded outside the house. Alex jumped across the floor and slid to a halt. Grabbing his bag, he ran to the fireplace and plopped on his knees, trembling, holding the pack for safety. “Why, why, why, why, did I agree to this? What was I thinking? I want to go home," he said.
“You’re going to be OK. There are no such things as ghosts," said John. Sliding out his sleeping roll and untying his pack. John went about his work setting the example of calm under pressure. Nerves of steel, that’s what he believed in, like his father said; “With nerves of steel you can handle anything.” Alex didn’t believe him. He sat there and trembled, gripping his bag.
A nest of spiders, disturbed by the heat of the fire, ran from under the mantel and up the chimney wall to the ceiling. Up into the darkness they ran, ten, twenty, fifty, and then they vanished.
Alex sat like a statue, crushing the contents of his bag against his chest. I’ll wake up covered in spider webs. They’ll suck my blood dry, he thought.
“Hey Alex, are you going to sit there all night?” John waved his hands in front Alex. Shadows from his fingers loomed across the room. Alex could see John's fingers even after he closed his eyes. He opened them to see John’s grinning face staring back at him. “You’re fine, you’re safe with me.”
Alex lightened his grip on the bag. It tipped to the floor.
Five minutes later, everything was laid out. They made their sleeping rolls like boy scouts. John, in his sock feet, sat and ate a Hershey bar while Alex contemplated all the ways he might die that night.
“You should have brought something to eat,” said John.
“I did, but I’m not hungry.” Alex looked sad. He listened to the rain outside, the fire snapping, and his courage draining away. “Why did you do this? Why did you bring me here, John?” asked Alex.
John froze mid-bite. He looked at Alex. The heat from the fireplace warming his face. Through the orange light, he could see his friend was pale. “Look, we’re about to turn 17. The world needs men with confidence. Men who can face their fears and not blink. Do you understand?”
Alex understood. That’s what "Boy’s Life" was teaching him and the Boy Scouts. He unpacked a chunk of cheese and looked into the fire as he picked at it. I want to be a man. He thought. Raindrops fell through the chimney and hissed around the fire. Alex looked at John. He always felt stronger with John. They’d been friends their whole lives. Alex gnawed at his food. His round cheeks regained their color. Then he became emotional.
“John, what’s it like to have your dad around?” asked Alex
John crumpled the empty Hershey wrapper and tossed it in the fire. “You miss yours, don’t you?”
Both their fathers served in the Great War together. Both their families lost relatives during the Spanish Flu. After these two were born the country fell into a depression and Alex’s father left to find work. It'd been several years, and he hadn’t returned.
“Yeah, I miss my dad. He wasn’t here to teach me things like your dad.” Alex became quiet.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” said John.
Watery eyes looked up.
“I never had a brother, and I always felt like you were one to me.” John grinned. This comforted Alex. A heavy sniff and he and John stood up to explore the house.
Old mouse droppings lay among thick dust now scuffed by their boots. The place was old and musty, but not rotten. Kids told stories about people lost inside forever. They said the basement, meant for animal sacrifice, was bloody and full of shrines. Feral cats would stare at you from the fireplace or atop the stairs. Their glowing yellow eyes watching your every move.
A constant tap, tap, tap came from a room down the hall. Alex and John went to investigate. Room after empty room showed nothing but peeling wallpaper and bare floors. Alex looked behind him as much as he looked ahead. The feeling someone would appear over his shoulder at any moment; scared him stiff. Down the hall, a cool breeze blew cobwebs along the ceiling. Step after step they moved through the darkness.
John felt brave, but Alex’s heart beat harder and harder.
“What do you think it is?” asked Alex.
“Only a leak in the roof.”
“Do you have a knife or anything?” asked Alex
“No, why would I have a knife?”
“I wish I had a knife.” said Alex
“So I could give it to you,” he said.
John looked at Alex from the corner of his eyes. “Lets go.”
Easing their way down the hall, the bathroom door was half open. The noise came from inside. Pushing the door, its hinges creaked, and the lantern filled the room with a yellow light. Rain dripped through a broken window on to the floor. “See, it’s nothing.”
Turning back, Alex lunged across John’s path. Sudden movement in the darkness came at them like the wind. Alex braced for impact when a sheet of newspaper hit him in the face. Alex’s mind knew what it was, but he couldn't believe it. John grabbed the paper and pulled it away. Alex stood motionless, eyes closed, waiting to die.
“Thank you, Alex.”
John crumpled the paper and tossed it on the floor. Together they breathed a sigh of relief. Foot steps and howling wind were all the boys heard as they walked from room to room. Back downstairs by the fire. For a moment the two sat silent.
“You know, you saved my life back there.” said John.
“How, from the funny pages?” said Alex
“It’s not the point. Did you see what you did?”
“When you thought we were in danger, you threw yourself in front of me to protect me from getting hurt.”
“That’s the point. You didn’t know what it was, but you sacrificed yourself to protect me. That’s the most brave thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.”
Alex sat up straighter. “You mean it?”
“Yes, I mean it.” John ran a hand through his hair. “You're the bravest person I know.”
Alex smiled. “Yeah, I’m not scared anymore. Let's go down to the basement and see what’s down there.”
“Lets not get too brave.” said John.
Rain, interrupted by thunder, calmed to a steady gentle rhythm. The fire popped and smoked, raging brighter with new logs, then calming to red embers. The night and its symphony of sounds relaxed the boys. Lying on their backs, listening to the rain, they waited to fall asleep.
“Alex, do you remember what we learned in history this year? Do you remember what Thomas Paine said?” Alex looked confused.
“It’s from ‘The American Crisis.’ Do you remember? ‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’” Alex looked over at John, then understood. John grinned. “Yes, you remember, don’t you?”
Alex looked up and confidently said. “Yes, my favorite line was: The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Lying prone, John raised his hands in presentation to the world around them and said. “We are in this house on the edge of town. Tonight we’ve faced our fears. Tomorrow we will be men.”
“Do you believe that?” said Alex.
John’s fingers crossed and settled on his chest. A deep sigh, but no answer. “Do you ever think about what the future will bring?”
“No, I think about summer, and baseball.”
“My dad always said to go with your gut. My guts are telling me somethings coming.”
“Do you mean like a fart?”
Laughter echoed off the walls. A large peel of thunder sounded in the distance. Uncontrolled hysterics warded off any fears. Gasps and chuckling followed by yawns and stretches settled between them.
“John, do you think we will ever be as great as our fathers? I mean, will we get called upon to live the life they lived?”
“If my gut is right, yeah, I think we will. Someday. Besides, if history has taught us anything, it’s that it will repeat itself.”
“Do you think we will have to fight the Germans again someday?”
Lying with one hand behind his head, John looked at Alex. “That’s what my gut is telling me. Someday, we will fight the Germans again. My dad keeps telling me it’s important to go camping with the scouts, he’s even teaching me how to shoot at groundhogs. It’s like he knows something isn’t right.”
“Do you think he could teach me how to shoot? I’ve never shot more than a sling.”
“I don’t see why not?”
“I miss my dad.” said Alex “If he were here, do you think he’d have anything to tell me like your dad?”
“Sure he would. All dads are like that. They want their kids to make the world a better place.”
“Do you think we can make the world a better place?” Alex asked.
“I’ll tell you like my dad told me. You can make it better, or die trying.” Alex grinned and relaxed for the first time that night.
Steady breathing broke the silence. Light rain patted the roof. A warm fire and full stomachs ended the night.