“Why do I have to drink the damn tea?” Anyone could tell that Scout was worked up. My grandma explained to him, for the umpteenth time, that he couldn’t have coffee anymore, on doctor's orders. Coffee, she explained, would get him too riled up because of all the caffeine. Scout furiously kicked his crossed leg while wringing his hands in his lap. He was muttering something to himself, but I couldn’t quite make it out. It was something like,”Leave me alone, no fire.” I tried not to stare.
Scout was at least mid-30s when I first met him. He didn’t live with my grandparents, but he would sometimes get a weekend pass to come visit. As long as I could remember, he had been this way. I asked my dad why, but he wouldn’t talk about it. His standard answer included, you’re not old enough or nevermind about that. My dad’s younger brother was a topic he wouldn’t discuss.
“This is citrus tea, darlin’, with honey. You’ll like it real good.” Grandma promised.
Scout took the tea and sat it down on the end table. His beady blue eyes stared into his mother’s as he said, “I don’t know why you hate me, mom. No fire!”
My grandma, being the sweetest, most perfect woman in the world, was always soothing, always caring. I think that is what I liked best about Grandma. No matter what happened, she remained steady in her countenance. I could rely on her being the same, day in and day out. She sat next to Scout, put her hand on his bouncing leg, and used her smile to calm him down. She gestured toward the tea with her chin.
“Ok, fine! I will drink it but…if it’s terrible I am gonna spit it out!” Scout sounded like a toddler who didn’t get his way.
He brought the cup to his mouth and blew on it for an exorbitant amount of time. He blew on it so long that it was aggravating. Apparently, he liked it because he didn’t spit it out. He sat there with a frown on his face until the whole cup was emptied. Grandma sat with him, gently rubbing his knee.
I sat nearby on the easy chair watching the exchange. Before I moved in with my grandparents, I had only seen Scout on holidays. My mother left and my dad wasn’t able to take care of me like he wanted. So, he left me with his parents, in his childhood home. He would come visit on the weekends, but rarely did I go back to our old house with him. He was sad, so I didn’t ask too many questions. Besides, my grandparents were the best.
What I found out was, my aunt picked up Scout and brought him to my grandparents for a home visit once a month. If my dad was there, he never acknowledged Scout. He would walk right past him as if he wasn’t there. I think my dad was jealous of all the attention that my grandma gave Scout, even though they were both grown men.
Grandma and Grandpa took me in when I was 13 years old. They lived close to a middle school within walking distance. You guessed it, I walked to and from school every day of seventh grade. I insisted on wearing a mullet, one side dyed pink, parachute pants, and one glove to school for the entire first year I lived with them. Grandma would let me get away with anything. Grandpa on the other hand, well, I still got away with a lot, but I had to listen to his opinion about it first.
I wanted to ask Grandma about Scout, but I figured that would be rude since he was her child. I thought that it might hurt her feelings, so I let it go. I was curious though. Why was Scout living in a mental hospital when he looked perfectly normal? In fact, he could have been my dad’s twin. They both were tall with narrow waists, muscled shoulders, piercing blue eyes, and pompadour hairdos. When they were in the same house, you wouldn’t be able to figure out who was who from a distance unless Scout was furiously kicking his leg with his arms crossed and hands tucked into his armpits. One weekend, my aunt came over to pick up Scout and return him to the hospital. This would be my chance to get answers. I bided my time until my aunt was alone and out of earshot from Grandma.
“Aunt Lily, can I ask you something?” Her back was to me and the sink was running. I wasn’t sure if she heard me. “Aunt Lily?” She turned over her right shoulder to look at me, a faint smile on her lips that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Sure. What is it?” She turned back toward the sink. She was filling the tea kettle.
“I’ve been wondering what happened to Scout. I mean, why is he…” My voice trailed off. All of a sudden, I felt ashamed for asking. “I mean…do you know what happened to him?”
Aunt Lily slowly turned the water off and shifted towards me with her wet hands holding each other. Water dripped onto the floor and made a puddle. I stared at the puddle as a distraction from the silence that hung between us.
“What has your father told you?” She asked in a whisper. I guess she, too, was afraid of Grandma hearing us. I was right, it was a sensitive subject.
I shook my head slightly, indicating that he had said nothing at all about it. She let out a dramatic sigh, then pointed to the backyard through the kitchen door. She made me promise never to repeat what she was going to tell me, and I readily agreed.
About 20 years ago, my dad, Scout, Lily, and some neighborhood kids were playing in an abandoned house at the end of the street where my grandparents live now. She pointed towards the house, about a quarter mile down the road. In the top of the closet, they found a Ouija Board. I looked puzzled.
“Do you know what that is?”, she asked, raising her eyebrows and nodding yes. I lied and said that I did.
She said that my dad dared everyone to play. The kids were all in, except for Scout. Scout said he didn’t want to play and he was going to go back to the house. Aunt Lily said that everyone started teasing him for being scared, even her. They somehow coaxed Scout into staying to play the game.
At first, nothing happened. The group was laughing and pretending to be possessed. Then, there was a loud clap of thunder. Everyone was startled. The front door blew open as a gust of wind warned of an impending storm. Scared twice within a minute, the kids decided they better get home before the storm hit. Lily remembered that Scout was sitting furthest from the door as all the kids stood and patted the dust off of their clothes. Another thunder crack and everyone ran for the door, still playing around a little. The wind kicked up again and slammed the door shut before Scout could get out. The doorknob fell off when the door slammed. Scout began banging on the door, yelling for them to get him out, as a torrential rain poured from the skies.
The girls immediately took off running, their clothes soaked and shoes filled with mud before they reached the house. When Lily looked back, my dad was running towards them, but not Scout.
“Where’s Scout? Did you get him out?” Lily asked my dad.
My dad said that he couldn’t get the door open. He told Scout to go out the back door of the house and he said okay.
“You didn’t wait on him?” Lily questioned.
“Did you wait on him, Lily? No, you ran home to get out of the rain. Besides, he’s 14 years old. He knows how to get home on his own.” my dad replied, looking back through the rain to the end of the street. Scout wasn’t coming.
My dad and Lily stood on the porch staring down the street, willing Scout to run from the abandoned house towards home but he didn’t. After waiting for 30 minutes, they kicked their shoes off and went inside. Their mom, my grandma, was cooking dinner. She handed them a towel to dry off and asked for Scout. My dad told her that they were playing by the old house and he decided to stay there until the storm passed.
It was time for dinner and Scout hadn’t made it back. The rain was still coming down in sheets as they sat in silence eating. Lily elbowed my dad in the ribs and whispered that they should tell their mom what happened. My dad whispered back to quit being stupid, that’s when Grandma asked what was going on.
“Lily thinks Scout is a baby and can’t walk home on his own.” my dad said, cutting his eyes to his sister.
She replied that she just thought they should go back to the house to make sure he was ok. Grandma agreed. If he wasn’t back in the next few minutes, she would send them both down to get him. Minutes passed. He didn’t return. Lily and my dad put their shoes on and started walking towards the abandoned house, getting soaked in the process. They heard it before they saw it. A giant bolt of lightning slammed into the roof of the old house. The two were so startled, they fell into the mud. The roof was on fire. Dad told Lily to run back to the house and tell Grandma what happened. He ran toward the abandoned house, yelling for Scout.
Lily’s next memory was my dad walking in the kitchen door with Scout in his arms. Scout was naked, wet, and shivering.
“Since then, Scout hasn’t been the same. He started hearing things and yelling out “No Fire” every time he heard a thunderstorm or when he was alone. Sometimes, he yells it out for no reason at all. Mama took him to the doctor and they said he was crazy. He’s been living at that hospital for over 20 years because the doctor said he is dangerous. Personally, I don’t think he would hurt anybody. He was a nice kid. Whatever happened in that house changed him, and your daddy feels responsible for it.” Lily lit a cigarette and took a long drag, looking down the road at the old abandoned house.
Grandma cracked the kitchen door, said the kettle was whistling, and asked if we wanted a cup. Lily said yes, squished her cigarette into the makeshift ashtray on the porch, then stood to go inside. I wasn’t ready for the story to end. I told Grandma I didn’t want any tea and I wasn’t ready to come in yet. She and Lily went in and closed the door.
The old house was obscured by the fruit trees that Grandpa planted years ago. There was a peach, plum, and apple tree planted along the south fence line about 50 feet from the back of the house. I walked over and picked a peach, looked around it for bugs, and seeing none, I sank my teeth into it. With juice running down my arm and dripping from my elbow, I looked between the trees at the old abandoned house at the end of the street. There was a fence around it now. Must be recent, Lily didn’t mention it. Part of the roof was gone and the remaining parts were charred black. The yard was grown up all around the house and vines were creeping up the sides. I walked down the street, still eating the peach, towards the old house.
On the fence gate, a sign read, “Private Property, Do Not Enter.” I wondered why this old house hadn’t been demolished in all these years. There was a black cat sitting on the front porch of the house. When it saw me, it jumped up to the nearest window sill and slinked into the space where a window used to be. The hair on my neck stood up. I think I creeped myself out, even though I was standing in the middle of the street. I didn’t run, but I certainly power walked all the way back to my grandparents and immediately went inside. Lily and Scout were gone. Grandma asked where I had gone off to. I told her that I took a little walk, as I stood washing the peach juice off my arm in the kitchen sink.
That night, I had a dream that I was standing in front of the house. The black cat asked me to come in and see what the hoopla was about. I walked toward the gate. Scout came running out of the house with his hair on fire. He was running right for me. I sat bolt upright in bed. My heart was racing. I was burning up and dying of thirst. I walked into the kitchen to get some water, and looked out the window over the sink, towards the abandoned house. A light was on inside.
I walked quickly back to bed, knowing that I had to have imagined that. There was absolutely no way that place had electricity. I was only 13, but I knew for sure that house didn’t have electricity, there was no roof! I convinced myself that it was my imagination, went back to bed, and prayed that I would sleep without another dream.
On our street were a total of three houses; ours, the abandoned one, and the Hendersons. Joey Henderson was in my math class. I asked if he wanted to walk home together. I wanted to pick his brain about that old house. He agreed. He said that his parents inherited their house when his mom’s dad passed. They moved there because his mom was pregnant at the time and his dad had just lost his job. Everything’s fine now, he said. I nodded but I really didn’t care about that. I wanted to know what he had heard about the old house.
Joey said he hadn’t heard much besides to stay away from there and that it had been abandoned for years. I asked him why it hadn’t been torn down, as if he would know. He said he heard his mom talking about playing in that house when she was a kid before it caught fire. That was all he knew. Taking a wild chance, I asked him if he would go into the house with me. Hell no, he wouldn’t. He looked at me like I was crazy. So much for partners in crime.
I said bye to Joey and walked toward my grandparents’ house. Grandpa’s station wagon wasn’t in the driveway. That meant that they weren’t home. They never left the house without each other. I knew that Grandma left a key on the back porch, under the ashtray. I found it, unlocked the back door, then put the key back. Grandma had baked some cookies and left them on the kitchen table with a note that said they would be back by dinner. I took a bite out of a cookie and immediately knew that I wanted at least four of them. I was famished. I took a Coke out of the fridge, stuffed the cookies in a napkin, and went to sit on the back porch. Something about that old house was calling for me. I needed to see what was inside.
“Curiosity is what killed the cat.” I mumbled aloud, then remembered the black cat on the porch. “Well, I hope it doesn’t kill the cat. What did the cat ever do to me?” Still mumbling, I realized that I was talking to myself. Maybe crazy runs in the family.
I walked down to the abandoned house. Like before, the cat was on the porch licking its paws. Strange to say, but the cat made eye contact with me and held my gaze. He didn’t run this time. I opened the creaking gate and stepped around the thorny vines as I made my way along the remnants of the sidewalk. Before I stepped under the overhang, I noticed that the wind had picked up and the skies were turning dark. A small twinge of fear made me pause for a moment, then it resolved into excitement. The door knob was in fact missing, but the door was slightly ajar. With the cat purring at my side, I walked inside as the first clap of thunder sounded in the distance.
The house was about the same size as my grandparents’. Dust and cobwebs were everywhere as I looked room to room. I heard something coming from the closet as I entered one of the bedrooms. The Ouija Board! I realized that I wasn’t alone. I turned to run for the door, tripped over the cat, and fell face forward. My forehead hit the window sill and I landed face up. My ears were ringing and my vision was blurry. I tried but couldn’t get up. As I lost consciousness, I saw something , sort of like a person, emerge from the closet. That was the last thing I remembered until waking up at the hospital.
My neck was in a brace and my head felt like it was splitting down the center. The doctor listened to my story patiently and with a sympathetic smile. Dad, Grandma, and Aunt Lily came into view as the doctor stepped away. He promised that he would come back later. They heard my story. I could tell that my dad was fuming and for the first time, Grandma was too. Dad told Lily to tell me the truth.