By M. LaRose
Driving to the LVW “Wicked Wording” conference on 9/30/17 caused me to travel down a road I hadn’t taken in a while (and I’m not being metaphorical). I knew the road would take me past a certain abandoned house that that I’ve felt strangely drawn to ever since I first noticed it, years ago. Knowing I would pass the house that morning, I was curious to see if the old building was still standing, and if so, what condition it was in.
I’d first noticed the old house eight or ten years ago, when I occasionally drove a road along the river. The house was already weather-beaten then, boards stripped of paint and surrounded by a somewhat overgrown lawn that merged into forest behind the building. The house sits close to the road, with no garage or driveway, just a space in the longish grass to one side, where a car might once have parked. I never saw a car there, but the windows were veiled by white lace curtains and a bird-feeder hung in the front yard. I got the sense that the house was still inhabited, probably by an elderly couple or person. But I couldn’t tell for certain.
Then one morning, several years ago, as I drove by the house in a hurry to get to work, I saw an old woman in the small front yard. She was standing by the birdfeeder in a long white nightgown. I only caught a glimpse of her as I passed, but her nightgown and shoulder-length grey hair lifted on a breeze as she held her arms up near the birdfeeder. Something about her presence struck me — as if she were a rare, mysterious bird that I’d caught sight of. She seemed special and out of place, in the yard in her nightgown; with her arms held up in a tentative gesture. Had she just been tending the birdfeeder, or was she standing there aimlessly; possibly confused?
Seeing her that day, and finally knowing that the old house was still inhabited, made me wonder even more, however fleetingly, whenever I passed the building after that. I’d wonder about the woman inside. Did she have family or friends who checked on her? Did an organization, maybe Meals-on-Wheels, stop in regularly to make sure that she had food?
Anyway, sometime later — I don’t recall if it was weeks or months — I happened to drive by the house again one day. I was startled to see a vehicle parked on the grassy bank in front of the house: an official-looking van, an ambulance. There was some crisis. Had the old woman died? I saw no one near the vehicle or in the yard. The rescuers must have been inside the house, dealing with the situation. As I drove on by, I wondered if the old woman would ever return to the house, or if she had already passed away. Whenever I drove that road again I’d scan the house for signs of life. The place had always been so quiet that it was hard to tell whether the woman had returned or not. A glimpse from a passing car did not reveal much for a while.
But as months and years went by, it became obvious that the house was now unlived in. The grass in the yard grew tall, with no trace of a path to the door. The birdfeeder had disappeared. The old woman had either died or been removed to some facility. I couldn’t help thinking that she’d died that very day I’d glimpsed the ambulance on her lawn.
My routine changed and I didn’t travel that road as often anymore, but when I did, I began to see changes in the house. One day I noticed that an upstairs window had a broken pane of glass. And the forest was encroaching from the back, where it had always grown close. The tall grasses had given way to even taller weeds. No one was maintaining the place. The house was completely abandoned. There was no “For Sale” sign on the grounds, no sign of anyone caring anymore.
I began to wonder if the old woman’s possessions had been removed. Or were they still in place, unvalued and forgotten? If I stopped and tried the door, would it open? Was it possible to go inside and take a look around? Over the years, I thought of trying this more than once, but some inhibition always stopped me.
Then I registered to attend the LVW’s “Wicked Wording” conference and realized that I’d be driving by the old house on my way to and from the meeting. I threw a pair of boots inside my car and told myself that maybe, after the conference, I’d finally stop and investigate the now-abandoned house where once I’d seen that ethereal old woman holding her arms out in the yard.
I hadn’t seen the house in several months, if not longer, and as I passed it that morning I was surprised and dismayed to see that the entire house, including the front door, was now hidden behind an engulfing thicket of sumac trees, knotweed, and brambles.
Maybe I’d waited too long to investigate the place. It looked like it would now entail some serious bushwhacking, just to reach the door. Anyway, I had the Wicked Wording conference to attend.
But once at the conference, more synchronicity set in. Writer William Alexander spoke of his experience tramping through a castle site in Scotland. Then J.W. Ocker told of purposely exploring the odd places that intrigue him. And Shawn T. Anderson mentioned searching for an abandoned neighborhood in Southern Vermont. As I listened to these speakers, the urge kept growing within me to investigate the overgrown house where that old woman once had lived.
Invigorated by the eerie tales and “wicked wording” theme, I left the conference both eager and determined to explore the old place. It was now or never, I told myself, before the forest totally claimed the house and the structure became unstable.
As I parked the car on the shoulder of road beside the house, it occurred to me that possibly the house was already unsafe to enter. Nevermind potential ghosts – the floorboards might be rotten. I pulled on my boots and headed into the mass of 5-foot tall goldenrod that had replaced the front yard.
Soon brambles were grabbing at my pants and I was glad I’d worn a jacket. Pushing my way through early-autumn greenery and the branches of a knotweed thicket, I spied a bay window at the side of the house. Inside the window, visible on a table, sat a jumble of objects: old ceramic mugs and books and papers. Beside the bay window was a glass storm door, still intact; and through that I saw a room in shambles.
The glass and metal storm-door opened easily as I clicked the handle. The solid inner door stood wide open, as if to welcome a guest. Hesitating at the threshold, I surveyed the mess that spilled across the floor and piled against the walls of an old kitchen. The house’s interior looked like a trash heap of decay and debris. I stepped inside dubiously.
Little fears spoke up in my mind, asking me again, if entering the old house was really a good idea. The door had been wide open. Some vagrant, or vandals, might be inside the inner rooms; possibly squatting in the house; maybe taking drugs. If so, who knew what state they’d be in, or how they might react, if startled.
My car was parked very obviously out front, and that worried me, too. Several cars had driven by as I was starting my solitary trek into the weedy yard. What if some creep decided to follow me into the house?
A range of scenarios flitted through my mind, all of them worthy of horror stories. But the house was very quiet and my senses told me there was no one present but myself. I’d keep my explorations brief.
I moved through the first-floor rooms, picking my way between toppled wooden chairs, and an overturned bedframe. Endless masses of old blankets and clothing were strewn across the floors, from wall to wall. Possibly, vandals had been riffling through the house, or the last inhabitant had been living like a hoarder. Maybe relatives had long-ago removed anything of value and left the rest to rot. Maybe someone curious (like me, but more destructive) had thrown the old woman’s things around.
Despite the mess, I sensed that these abandoned rooms had once been a tidy home. There were signs. Like the metal filing cabinet that stood beside a crumbling staircase in the cluttered front hall. Too surrounded by junk for me to easily approach, the cabinet was comprised of many drawers, several of which now stood open haphazardly. On an old table, atop a jumble of books, lay a yellowed notice from a local bank, confirming that a loan had been paid-in-full, back in 1961. The notice was addressed to a married couple. I felt sure the wife had been the old woman I’d glimpsed that morning, years ago. It made me happy to think that she’d been married once.
High up on one wall, hung a simple crucifix. So she’d been a person of faith. And it seemed that she’d loved animals, judging from numerous stuffed toys that lay discarded around the house: a cat, a rabbit, a teddy bear. A winsome photo of a tropical frog stared up at me through the dusty shrink-wrap of a never-opened calendar on the floor. It was a calendar I might have chosen, being a fan of frogs myself.
Part of me wanted to test the crumbling stairs that led to the second floor. But the staircase railing was gone and the stairs and nearby walls were badly peeling. They didn’t look completely safe. I felt I’d seen enough.
I’d only spent a little time inside the abandoned house, but it had satisfied my curiousity. After many years of wondering, I’d learned a bit about the woman who’d captured my imagination when I glimpsed her in her yard that day, in the final season of her life.
As I left the old house, I felt no lingering presence there; no scary ghosts to wrap their wisps around me. The house did not feel haunted. It seems to me now much more like a once-cozy birdhouse whose cheerful birds have flown away to other lands, leaving only remnants of their nest. And somehow I feel gladdened by the traces of that old woman’s love for birds and animals. It seems fitting that the forest is encroaching on her abandoned home.
The last thing I noticed, as I pushed my way out through the overgrown weeds around the house, was one bright wild raspberry hanging in the brambles. It was so pretty, like an offering; I almost plucked and ate it. But I didn’t. Because that berry was just a bit too spooky, after all.
M. LaRose is a Vermont author of paranormal romance, whose work is inspired by the mysteries of nature and human passion. You can follow her on Twitter @TheFlowerEater or on Facebook at: The Flower Eater by M. LaRose.