© James J. Doyle, Jr. 2012
Before we begin, let me tell you about Uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe is one of twelve children. He grew up on a farm near Penelope, Texas, which is about 100 miles southwest of Dallas.
Uncle Joe has an older brother, Charles. Joe and Charles farm together.
Charles and his family used to live in a place just down the road and around the bend. No one lives there now. That old house is falling down and overgrown with weeds. It looks spooky, and some people say that it is haunted.
* * *
I must give you a warning.
I have told this story to only a few people. When I told my granddaughters, Katelyn and Finley, they started to shiver and looked like they wanted to cover their heads with a blanket.
So, be prepared.
This is a true story.
* * *
It was August and it was hot.
Uncle Joe and Charles worked late harvesting the corn that stood dry and silent in the fields near Penelope. Together, they managed almost 2,000 acres of crop land. Sometimes they stayed out most of the night guiding the John Deere harvester back and forth across the fields, stopping to load the shelled corn into the semi-trailer truck, driving the truck to the grain elevator and sending the corn up the elevator into the storage bins where it would be held for sale.
This night they stopped just before midnight. Each brother drove off in his own pickup truck, Uncle Joe in the lead. Even with a full moon overhead, it was a dark and strangely quiet night.
Uncle Joe crested a small hill where the road climbed to the bend near the old house where Charles used to live. He saw something up ahead, and he squinted and peered into the night. Yes, there was a light. Uncle Joe slowed and pulled off near the fence. He got out and walked to his brother’s pickup idling beside him.
“Did you see the light, Charles?”
“I did, Joe. I don’t know how a light could be on in there.”
“I’d better check.”
“Be careful, Joe. That old place is a wreck.”
Charles kept his pickup running with the headlights pointed at the house. There were so many shadows from the broken, sagging trees and leggy bushes that not much of the light was reaching the old homestead.
* * *
Joe walked to the fence, climbed up and over the barbed wire, jumped and landed in the yard. The peaked roof of the front porch had long ago collapsed and most of the front door was hidden from view behind the crookedly fallen overhang. Uncle Joe turned to his right and moved around to the side of the house.
A dull incandescent glow emanated from the bathroom window.
Uncle Joe grabbed the sill and raised himself on his toes. His nose against the window, he looked in. The glass was smudged, so he reached up with one hand and wiped the dirt away. Nothing looked unusual. He couldn’t see anyone. The old sink and commode were yellowed and cracked with age. The light switch on the wall to the right of the door was one of the old-fashioned spring-loaded switches, the kind with two big black buttons, one above the other. You pushed one in and the other pushed out, then you pushed that one in and the other pushed out. That’s how you turned the light on and off.
Uncle Joe let himself down. Odd, it seemed cold. He stomped his boots to warm his feet.
In the growing dark, Uncle Joe walked around the back of the house to the other side, looking for a way to get into the bathroom. He spotted a low doorway open to a covered storage shed connected to the main house. Joe ducked his head and entered. On the far wall was a faint outline of light around another door, a door into the house.
In the semi-dark, Uncle Joe stumbled over cans and tools to reach the door. He got his balance, grabbed the door handle and pulled.
The door came out just a little.
Joe pulled harder.
The door started opening, and then, it stopped.
Uncle Joe braced himself with both hands gripping the door knob.
Before he could give another pull, the door jerked back and slammed shut!
Uncle Joe’s hands flew off the handle and into the air!
He felt a cold chill on the back of his neck.
“Probably just something wrong with the door,” Uncle Joe said aloud.
He shook his shoulders and stepped back.
“It’s okay. I’ll just have to go through the front door.”
* * *
Uncle Joe moved carefully back through the shed, emerged outside and walked briskly to the front. He had now made a full circuit of the house, and he still didn’t know what was going on.
* * *
Joe stood looking at the front of the house, searching for a way through the collapsed porch roof to the front door. Getting down on his hands and knees, he crawled through a space between the fallen roof and above the creaking deck. When he reached the front door, he leaned against it with a shoulder as if to give it a shove and fell inside as the door opened inward with a rush.
Uncle Joe looked around. He was in the living room.
Light from Charles’ pickup filtered through the front windows. A door stood open to the right, probably to a bedroom.
He heaved himself up, walked over to the open door and peered in.
* * *
Parts of the ceiling were on the floor. Boards and debris littered the room.
Uncle Joe kicked aside wood and insulation and made his way to an open hallway on the far side of the room. When he reached the doorway, he was blocked by more debris. Fallen boards were wedged against the walls, forming a barrier of old and rotting wood.
Joe grabbed two of the dusty boards, moved his head closer to a space between the slats and peered down the hallway. He could see the bathroom at the end of the corridor, the door now open.
A dusty cold light crept out and reached toward him. Odd shadows fell on and between the broken wood and draping insulation.
Uncle Joe remembered the light switch inside the bathroom. He couldn’t see it now, but he thought about how those old buttons were hard to push. It took effort, and when you did push the button there was a loud click.
At that very moment, there was a loud “CLICK!”
Uncle Joe froze.
THE LIGHT WENT OUT!!
The hairs on the top of Uncle Joe’s head stood up.
Slowly, Uncle Joe straightened to his full height.
“SEE YOU LATER,” he said in a clear and controlled voice.
Uncle Joe turned and RAN through that old house, wood and debris flying everywhere. At the open front door, he dove at that hole in the fallen wood. He sailed right through, without even touching the porch, rolled over twice in the yard, leaped to his feet covered with dust and twigs, raced to the fence and sailed over it in a single bound.
Charles was watching, wondering what in the world was going on.
Uncle Joe leaned heavily on Charles’ open window, took a deep breath, threw his arms in the air, waving and shaking them in all directions. His words stammering and growing louder, he nearly broke his brother’s eardrums as he shouted:
“DON’T KNOW WHO OR WHAT! SWITCH CLICKED OFF! CLICKED OFF! LEAVE! LEAVE NOW! FAAAAAAST!”
Joe sprinted for his truck.
“Sure, Joe,” Charles said, rubbing his left ear.
Before Charles could say more, Uncle Joe hopped into his truck, the door hanging half-open, cranked that truck in reverse, spun back onto the gravel, shifted gears and slammed the gas pedal to the metal. I mean those tires were spinning and gravel was flying as that pick-up truck blasted down the road like a rocket ship to the moon. Uncle Joe was moving so fast he almost missed the curve and would have ended up in the middle of a field, but he made it and was out of sight in a second.
* * *
Uncle Joe sat at the kitchen table.
Charles placed a glass of fresh milk in front of his brother. “Here, drink this. It’ll relax you.”
Joe glanced at the glass. “I don’t know what happened back there, Charles.”
“Don’t think about it anymore tonight, Joe. It was probably nothing, maybe a vagrant. Tomorrow, we’ll go back. In the daytime. I’ll go in with you.”
Charles patted his brother on the back.
“I’ll pick you in the morning,” he said. “We’ll take a break at lunch and head over there.”
* * *
Under a bright noon sun, Joe and Charles approached the house.
Charles brought a ladder that straddled the fence. They climbed over and stood staring at the front of the derelict house.
“Joe, you said you tried to enter through the shed?”
“There’s a door to the house in there, but it would not open.”
The brothers walked around to the left of the house, ducked into the shed and walked cautiously through the mess toward the door.
Charles stood beside the door. “Is this it?”
Charles grabbed the handle, turned it, and the door opened easily.
“Something was holding it last night, Charles.”
“Let me go in first, Joe.” Charles entered the house. “The door to the bathroom is here,” he called, and glanced over his shoulder. “The hallway is collapsed back where you were last night. This way is open.”
Charles stuck his head into the bathroom.
“Joe, come here. Don’t go in, just look at the floor.”
Charles moved aside, and Joe came up and leaned into the bathroom.
“Do you see any footprints on the floor?”
“Nope, just dust. There’s lots of dust, but I can’t see any footprints.”
“Can you reach the switch?”
“Yeah, it’s here to the left where I knew it was, with those big black buttons.”
“Push the one that’s out.”
With some effort, Joe pushed the button in and was rewarded with a loud CLICK.
“That was the sound, Charles.”
“Is the light on, Joe?”
Joe looked up at the ceiling.
“No, Charles, there’s no bulb in the fixture.”
“What?” Charles pushed past Joe into the bathroom and stared up at the empty socket. “This makes no sense. Unless, someone was here and took the bulb, but they would have left footprints in all this dust.” He looked down at the floor, shook his head and gazed out the window. “I don’t know, Joe, maybe the place is haunted.” Charles paused for a second. “Or, maybe, the house wanted us to come here, but what are we supposed to do?”
Uncle Joe’s eyes narrowed, he crinkled his nose and pursed his lips, and the muscles in his neck visibly tensed and tightened. He wasn’t looking at anything. It was an Uncle Joe thinking look, and he was thinking hard.
* * *
It’s been more than a year since Uncle Joe first told me the story of that old house, and I was still wondering what had happened. So, I headed down to the country for a visit.
We were in the back of Uncle Joe’s house. I was watching Joe turn sausages on the grill. He was making lunch.
“Hey Joe,” I said. “What did you do with that old house? Did you tear it down?”
Uncle Joe looked at me. “Why would I do that?”
“Joe,” I said. “It’s haunted, remember the light?”
“I remember,” Uncle Joe said. “I thought about that, and I did some things.”
“What things?” I asked.
“Well, I opened the gate into the backyard so my cows can graze on the grass and weeds. It’s not so messy there anymore. Then, I asked the neighbor across the road to let his dogs run into the yard. They’re a big friendly bunch of dogs, nice dogs. I mean those dogs would lick you from here to Sunday. And, when I’m driving that way, I stop and throw seeds so the birds will fly into the trees. I even leave a few ears of corn on the ground. I see rabbits, raccoons and possums there now.”
“Why’d you invite all those animals in, Joe?” I asked.
Joe stared out across the fields before turning back to me.
“You know how some people, when they don’t have friends around, they can get lonely and sad? They may even act crabby and sort of mean like? I figured an old house with no one around, no kids, no dogs, no critters, could get like that and look scary and even act kind of haunted.”
“So, the house isn’t really haunted?” I said slowly. “It was talking to you, asking for your help?”
“It did get our attention. I brought that old house some friends to keep it company.”
“Did it work, Joe?”
“The place looks different now. Sure, it’s still old and falling down. I don’t know how to say this.” Uncle Joe took off his John Deere ball cap, scratched his head, put the hat back on and said, “Well, the house seems at ease, at peace somehow.”
“But, what about that light?” I blurted out.
“I’m glad you asked about that. It is strange.” Here, Uncle Joe’s voice slowed down and started to sound spooky. “I was driving home about midnight last week. There was a full moon. It was very, very quiet. When I drove over the hill, I saw the house in the distance. And, as I got nearer, as I approached closer and closer and closer, I saw . . .”
“What, Joe? Something really scary? Huh?”
“Nope, not a thing,” laughed Uncle Joe. “There was no light at all, just a quiet old house at midnight under a full moon.”
* * *
After I left Joe, I decided to drive by that old place before heading back to the city.
When I pulled over off the road, the car was immediately surrounded by dogs. They seemed friendly enough, but I was not willing to let my clothes get licked off my body. So, I stayed in the car and watched as the dogs chased a possum into the open doorway to the shed, the same shed where Joe had first tried to enter the house.
As they played, I surveyed the house. The front porch was almost completely gone. I do not know how Joe ever got in and out of there. There were holes in the roof, the siding was peeling off in sections and the trees were bent and broken. The place looked pretty scary to me.
And, just as I had that thought, at the very moment, a cardinal landed on the fencepost right in front of the car. That redbird turned its head, blinked, and looked me straight in the eye. What I heard in my head was as if the bird was talking.
“Why would you think this place is scary?” the cardinal asked.
All I could do was laugh and shake my head as the bird flew into a tree.
Things aren’t always as they appear, you know, but I trust Uncle Joe.