“Anyone home? It’s me.”
No answer. The boy's new key felt warm from his pocket in his chilly fingers. He turned the cold knob. The door creaked open.
“Hey, anyone home?” he called again.
His footsteps on the old wooden floor made hollow clock-clock-clocks; nothing like the soundless carpets of their old house. Through the row of wide windows on his left, he saw the nearby woods turn black under the dimming sky. It was only early October, but already swirls of dry yellow and brown rattled past the window in every gust of wind.
A lamp sat on the bare, dusty floor, and he switched it on. His family had only moved in the day before. The boy moved among piles of cardboard boxes, clock-clocking across the room. He didn’t know this new house—this very old house, but new to them, and much bigger than their last house. He didn’t know whether his parents could hear him calling from the front room, if they were upstairs, or if they were down.
In the kitchen, last night’s empty pizza box sat on a yellow-tiled counter.
“Anyone here? Anyone home?”
And for a moment the house seemed to call back, but he couldn’t quite hear what it said. He was quiet, listening. Was it only the emptiness, echoing back?
The boy slid his cold fingers up his wrists, under his sweater, for warmth. He didn’t know how to turn the heat on in this house.
An icy draft slipped down the neck of his sweater, like fingers.
Oh: the basement door was open—just a crack. Just a crack leading into the blackness of the stairwell. That must be where the draft was coming from. His dad must be down there, setting up his workroom.
The boy slipped through that cracked-open door into the darkness. He felt the air for the string to pull the light on, but it was too high, just too high for him to reach, though he could feel it with the tips of his fingers.
So he walked down the narrow wooden steps in the dark, feeling his way. At the bottom of the stair, he took a few steps in.
A silky hand brushed across his face. He stumbled backwards, thinking: a cobweb, it was obviously a cobweb, a cobweb for sure.
But for some reason, at the touch of the cold silk, he remembered the woman from next door, the woman who had brought them a welcome cake the night before. She had stood in the doorway, smiling, but she wouldn’t come in, and wouldn’t look them in the eye. “It’s your first night in the house. You should have some of this ginger cake,” she had said. “You should all have some, tonight, for luck. It’s a special cake, for luck.”
Then she smiled, as if she were joking. But her eyes hadn’t smiled at all.
His parents had called the cake delicious, licking crumbs from their fingers, laughing at the idea of lucky cake.
But the boy didn’t like ginger, so he had had no cake at all.
“Dad?” he called into the echoing dark. “Anyone here?”
And now he heard, he definitely heard, a whisper—unless it was only water running in the pipes.
But why would pipes say Yes, yes; here, here.
And it was still so dark. If his father was here, why was it still so dark?
“Anyone home?” he calls, and now his voice is high and thin, his throat is dry, and the cold of the basement runs through his veins, up and down his arms and legs. Shouldn’t his eyes be adjusting by now; shouldn’t he see something? But he sees only darkness.
He hears something, though. Yes: now he hears it, he hears the voices, and now they are certainly voices, rustling and whispering around him. And although hasn’t moved, although he has stood quite still, the cobwebs—are they cobwebs?—are all around him now, caressing his face, tangling like silk around his fingers and wrists, stroking the back of his neck.
“Anyone home?” he whispers.
We are, we are, they say, folding themselves around him. We’re home, they say, gathering him up, caressing him, muffling his screams. Yes, we’re home. We’re home. We’re home.
A few minutes later, another key in the front door, his parents’ laughing voices, the rustle of boxes and packages.
“Anyone home?” they call.
But the only noise is the October wind singing through the door, then the creaking of the door as it swings shut. That is the only noise in the old house.
And that is the only noise there will ever be.