“Are you sure this is the right address, Tiff?” Freddy asked as he pulled into the weather-worn driveway at the discretion of his wife. “I know Deborah's family recently moved, but I don't remember anything about remodeling an old house.” He gazed at the tattered edifice with a degree of consternation. It stood as black as night, casting its own shadow in a self-contained space. The groves surrounding it were in an equal state of neglect with overgrown trees and weeds sprouting through the cracks in the pavement.
“Well, it says '27391 Cinnabar Way,'” she responded with mild diffidence while running her finger across the GPS screen on the dashboard. “I think I recall them talking about a new paint job. The walls were getting kind of dingy.”
“Alright,” he said, resigning himself with a shrug and parked the car. “You have everything?”
“Got the milk and cookies for the kids,” she answered with a coquettish smile, leaning down and rummaging through the tote bag in front of her seat, “and two bottles of Sauvignon for the after party.”
“Great. Too bad we can't feed their daughter wine on her birthday,” he quipped as he opened the door and leaned out.
“Freddy, stop it! She's only six,” she playfully chided and grabbed her purse and the bag of goodies before getting out of the car.
The house looked dangerous, particularly to live in, and Tiff latched onto Freddy's arm as they reached the front door, reconsidering whether she had the right address.
After a momentary pause, they knocked. No one answered. Glancing at one another, they turned back toward the door and knocked again, this time a little louder in case they weren't heard. The door creaked ajar with no indication anyone on the other side had opened it. No childish laughter or signs of conviviality stirred within. Confused, Freddy pushed the door the rest of the way, revealing an interior slatted with daylight that filtered through the gaps in the walls.
“Hello?” Freddy shouted as he gazed about the room. The only answer was his own echo. Tiff leaned closer, too nervous to slacken the grip on his arm.
“I think we should go," she proposed, dollying her neck around. "This can't be the right place.”
As soon as Freddy assented, both turned back with marked alacrity. In a heartbeat, the door, unaided by any visible means, slammed shut with an echo trailing through the house and billowing clouds of dust that collected along the trimmings. They shouted in chorus.
“Freddy, I don't know what's going on,” she said with a noticeable quiver in her voice, “but I don't think I wanna stay in here much longer—Ooh!”
The house moaned.
Freddy looked up and hollered, “Who's there? Show yourself!”
After a minute of hearing nothing but the tail-end of his echo and heaviness of breath, an unexpected response came.
“Uuh...jutht me... I gueth.”
The ominous voice mumbled as if a loudspeaker blared from all directions.
“Where are you? Come out where I can see you!” he shouted, spinning into a stance with his arms sprawled in defiance.
Tiff was shivering. “Oh, Freddy, I wanna leave!” she said, covering her mouth in fright.
“How can we? This guy's got us locked in—” He was interrupted.
“Uh...you guyth awe wowd.” The voice returned, its tone mired in a lisp of sorts.
Freddy was taken aback at the insult. “Loud? What are you talking about?”
“I dunno. I jus wiv hea.” The answer came as laconic as the sky is blue.
“Can you please show yourself? You trapped us here and we can't get out!”
“Yah, I know. Wanna pway?”
Confused at who he was dealing with, Freddy threw down his hands in exasperation and answered.
“Listen. I-it was some kind of mistake.” He impatiently shook his hands in front of his face and speculatively eyed his wife. “We must've gotten the wrong address.”
“Aw. Sowwy 'bout dat. My mommy an' daddy neva wet me go fa. Dey say I oh-wayth get wost.”
“And where are your parents?” Freddy began frantically searching the room for anything he could use as a barricade.
“Uh...I think they doid a wong time ago.”
"Ooh, Freddy, I don't like this!" Tiff interceded, shaking up and down.
Freddy tried to seize what was once a bookshelf, but it was bolted to the wall. “Jesus Christ!” he muttered to himself after being unable to find a loose object to weaponize.
“My mommy an' daddy say I wuzn't caweful and dey nail evything down.”
Tiff gave Freddy a look of both perplexity and horror.
“Come on, honey,” he said, grabbing her shoulder in haste. “We gotta find a way out of here.”
She willingly nodded before running into the next room, each step coming as an amplified stomp.
From behind, the voice called out, “Hey, whea did evvybuddy go?”
Tiff surmised the room was once the kitchen, or a scullery of sorts, as she observed the exposed pipes jutting from the wall and the remains of a counter steeped in dirt and grime abutting the corner. They both jerked their heads from left to right before stumbling left into what must have been the dining room at some point. Chairs covered in dust and cobwebs were randomly thrown about, cluttering the room and complicating their way through like an obstacle course.
“Honey, be careful!”
“I'm trying,” she shouted, navigating her way around a giant cobweb between two upended chairs.
“Aw, thea you awe!” The voice boomed from the ceiling. “You mite wanna be cawefol. Mithta Spidah packth a big one!”
“Oh, great!” Freddy barked as he tread through another set of broken chairs adorned with enough gossamer to pass as ghosts. “The last thing we need is being on the menu!”
A giant spider looking as though it packed more venom than a black mamba lunged for Tiff as she precariously arced over the web with her dress in tow. Screaming out a quick “Yipe!,” she staggered forward on one leg, missing a fatal bite by inches.
“Hey, guyth, watch thith!”
The voice moaned loud enough to clip its sound into a raspy hoarse. Within seconds, the sheet of cobwebs covering the pile of furniture suddenly came to life and flailed around, startling Freddy into losing his balance and knocking him onto his rump.
The room shook and the ceiling above started to flake.
“Look at me! I'm a ghoootht!” The voice said, drawing out the word in emulation of a baying ghost. The gossamer continued to thrash about, blowing filaments across the room, even all over Freddy.
“That spider's the freakiest thing I've ever seen!” she squeaked, quickly swiping off her high heel and wielded it like an ax. “Freddy, lemme kill it!” On impulse, she bumbled over to the web, hampered as she strode over on one shoe. She looked side to side hoping to find the spider, but cursed when she saw it scoot away under a floorboard.
“Honey, forget about it!” he said, struggling with the cobwebs. “If we don't get out of here soon, we might not live to tell about it!” The sound of wood crinkled overhead. Craning his neck up, he noticed the ceiling was crumbling.
“Boooooo!” the voice continued to bay. “Weee! Thith ith fun! Ah you having fun?”
“Sure! We're having a blast!” he yelled in sardonic overtones, narrowly dodging a chunk of the ceiling as it came crashing down.
"Cone on!" he said, grabbing his wife by the hand and peeling off the last of the cobwebs. Scrambling out of the room, they veered left toward the stairs.
“Up there?” she cried, pointing.
“It's our only chance. Come on!”
“Hey, wea you awl goin? Com back hea!” the voice demanded.
They raced up the steps, praying every second the staircase wouldn't crumble from underneath.
“Boom-bee-boom, go da staiws!” the voice said to the tune of retreating thumps.
They were nearly out of breath when they reached the second floor. It was hard to breathe, and the hallway appeared as dreary as the rest of the house. The ceiling was reduced to a skeleton of beams and rafters. The musty stench was stifling, doubling in the acridness from downstairs. They coughed and gagged from all the debris and staggered toward one of the bedrooms, knocking over a vase as they went. The shattering of ceramics further agitated the uncanny resident.
“Hey, you bwoke dat vase! Aw, you guyth awe gonna pay fo' dat!”
They stumbled into the nearest room when a large ambry jostled loose and came tumbling down. Like a bullet, they retreated before the crash of splintering wood kicked up dust that billowed through the doorway. A sudden wind picked up at the behest of “Bwow wind bwow!” and blew harder than any change in air pressure could explain. Wood splinters and other detritus turned into pellets of hail, pricking and jabbing them like the shots from a BB gun.
"Whshshoooo…" the voice continued to taunt to the sound of the wind.
They were nearly knocked on their feet as they raced toward the room on the opposite side of the hallway, dumbstruck at bow all this could happen on a whim.
“See? I told you yor gonna pay!”
With their progress impeded, they held onto one another for dear life before lunging into the other bedroom. As soon as they entered, the wind began to wane. He lifted his head and noticed the remains of a box spring in the middle of the room and a refectory table just to their left.
“This guy isn't kidding!” Freddy shouted towards his wife as the roar of the wind disappeared. Shifting his attention, he said, “Why are you doing this to us? Let us out!”
“I wike pwaying gameth. Wanna pway hide an' theek?”
“I take it we hide and you go seek. Kinda like diminished returns!”
“Yaaaay! Okay...uh… wuuuun… tooooooo...”
"I don't like the sound of this game!" he grumbled, snapping his head around. He bolted for the door as it slammed in his face.
“Oh, come on!”
“Uuh...wut come aftaw too?”
“Three, damn it! Hey, honey, you see any way out of here?” he said, frantically rattling the door knob.
“Aw, thwee. Dats wite!”
“I'm looking! I'm looking!” Tiff snapped, trembling as she searched the bottom molding of the wall until coming to a closet. She was about to open the door by habit when she stiffened up in terror as to what could have been lurking inside.
“What's in the closet?”
“Faaaaauuuu...” the voice continued the countdown.
“Um...er...alright!” Shutting her eyes and tightening her neck, she swung open the door and, stricken with another bout of fear, slowly leaned in past the door jamb and opened her eyes. A shriek pierced the air.
“Sounds like that jerk's getting desperate!” He said, frantically scanning everything along his side of the room.
“Freddy, that was me!” she protested, shaking her hands over her head as a pack of rats chirruped and scuttled into a frenzy.
“Fi—uuh, yeah! Fiiiiiiiiiive...”
Tiff made out the rats disappearing behind an old painting withered beyond recognition. Leaning closer, she cringed as she lifted the painting away revealing a gap of broken drywall. Deep in the dark crevice, she caught the tiny glimmer of an object that aroused her suspicion.
“Freddy! I think I found something.” Tensing up, she reached in at the risk of losing her hand from the bite of a rabid creature and retreated the object. She sighed with relief observing what turned out to be a shiny brass box.
“Ten! Weady o not. Hea I com!”
Freddy shot his head up. “Wait. That wasn't ten!”
“Yea, it wuth. Why you think I sed it?”
While gazing upward, he spied what must have been part of a greater attic before the years of dilapidation reduced it to a flimsy catwalk.
“Honey, up there!” He gestured at the gaping hole and the naked framework along the wall. They were able to see a few holes punctured through to the outside where thin shafts of light streamed into the house. He grabbed one end of the refectory table and slid it against the corner. “We can use this to climb up. We'll use those studs the rest of the way.”
There was a rattle like a screw unraveling, and he saw that it came from the bed.
“No! Oh, God, no!” he whispered with a sinking feeling.
Tiff, looking frustrated, approached him holding the box up. “I found this over there,” she said, gesturing to the closet. “I was curious as to—”
She turned to where Freddy was leering. The springs on the rotting mattress came loose and, with a metallic twang, exploded into the air, pelting everything in sight, including Freddy and Tiff.
“Oh, no! Not again!” he shouted.
“Freddy,” she said, turning back toward her husband, “I think this place is really haunted!”
“Ya think? ”
“Wow! I wuv spwings. Boing! Boing! Boing!”
“What about this box?”
“Show it to me later!” He shouted, unsuccessfully dodging projectiles.
Without tarry, they hopped up on the table, and managing the beams in the wall, he helped push her over the lip of the ceiling, taking the brunt of the enfilade, each hit stinging like a bee. He hollered in anger.
“All we wanted to do—Ouch!—was go to a little kid's—Ack!—birthday party!” he grumbled as the objects battered him relentlessly while clamoring up a wall of beams three feet apart. Some ladder!
Tiff crouched over the lip of the attic and reached down, ballasting Freddy as he struggled his way up onto the platform. Just beyond the tattered edges of the attic lied the gaping cavity of the house.
“Weee!” gleefully cried the ghost.
“Think he'll find us up here?” she whispered in confidence.
“I hope later than sooner," he said, catching his breath.
“By the way, did you see this?” she said, handing him the open box. “I took a sneak peek myself.” She waved her hands at him like a steering rudder.
Freddie looked inside and noticed a series of Polaroids of a man stooped over with a twisted expression, each image depicting him in various idles of daily life. The one with the propeller head beany and a toothless grin stood out. His eyes were slit and close together, a case of hypotelorism which was a telltale sign of Down's syndrome.
"This one has the word 'Milo' inscribed on the bottom, as if it was written by a child learning to—"
“See?” she began. “These are snapshots of the ghost when he was alive!”
“Well, in that case, if that's our ghost,” he said, shutting the box and facing Tiff, “it explains a lot!” He shook his head plaintively. “And Deborah didn't tell us she was living next to a haunted house…with a retarded ghost!”
"And find our way out of it too," she added, scanning the aperture for any means of escape.
The ghost bellowed, “Hewwo? Anybuddy hea? I know you in dea. Wet's pway sum maw!”
"Look!" she said, leaning forward and pointing to a drop ladder at the frayed edge of the platform.
“Com out, com out wheaeva you awe!”
"Good. It's now or never!" They got up and skulked over to the ladder on tiptoes, suspecting the ghost was too dumb to find them if they were furtive enough.
The ladder slid out and dropped like a hammer.
"Thea you awe!"
"Damn it! Why did you let it go?" he snapped.
"I didn't. It just sipped out of my hands!"
They both climbed down and barreled over to the stairs.
"We gotta find a way out, now!" he shouted in excitation as they clamored down the steps, discarding any attempt at hiding.
"Wait! I have an idea," she said, reaching into the bag.
"Yoo hooo! Anybuddy wanna pway catch?"
"No!" they shouted in unison, knowing what that would have entailed.
They stumbled into an old wooden coffee table filmed in what looked like an inch of dust. She pulled out the box of cookies, opened it and spread it on the table.
"While you do that, I'll go check out back," he said, patting her shoulder before dashing past the scullery.
Dumping the carton of milk next to the cookies in a plume of dust, she got up and announced herself to the ghost.
"Hey, Milo! Guess what?"
"Look what I've got!" she announced mellifluously with a wide smile and a hand gesturing at the table.
"Ooh, Boyyy!" the ghost shouted with unhinged glee. "My favwit!"
In an instant, the table was consumed in a storm of dust and crumbs as the ghost tore into the snacks like the Tasmanian Devil. Tiff leaned away and sneered in mild disgust, before her husband ran inside arousing her attention.
"Honey! You're not gonna believe this…" and waved her into the pantry.
"Mm-mm! Yum!" the ghost delighted in a flurry of munches and slurps as the couple dashed out of the room
"Apparently, our bottlenecked specter forgot about the back door," he said, gesturing with both hands outside, "which was not only unlocked, but completely off its hinges!"
“How did we overlook something so obvious?” she pondered with her finger pressed against her chin, still hearing the comestible nightmare within.
“Doesn't matter. Let's just get out of here before he finishes."
In an instant, they bolted out the door, thankful for the fresh air and a full sky once again. Within moments, they reached the car and got in, followed by the thunks of the doors shutting.
“Oh, finally!” she said as Freddy started the ignition and lifted her phone up. “Deborah just gave me the right address. It was 2-7-3-1-9, not 9-1. Says she's sorry.” She pulled the phone away and shoved it into her purse.
“At least it's only up the road. Still, I'd say that was one mistake that nearly cost us our lives! Well,” he said, patting the tote bag, “at least we still have the wine for tonight!”
The engine growled, and without another word, they peeled out of the driveway.