They sat at the same table set up as the previous day but there was no pitcher of lemonade. Never afraid to state the obvious, I said, “So, um, no lemonade today?” The fifty cents clutched in my sweaty hand might as well have melted.
Kelly said, “Lemonade was yesterday. Can’t you read the sign?” She sat slumped in her beach chair, a full body eye-roll. She wore a red Coke tee shirt. Her chestnut brown hair was pulled into a side-high ponytail, held up by a black scrunchie. Kelly was clearly well into her pubescent physical transformation whereas I was still a boy, without even a shadow of hair under my armpits.
Kelly’s little sister with the bowl-cut mop of dirty blonde hair was going to be in second grade; I didn’t know her name and was too nervous to ask. She covered her mouth, fake-laughed and wobbled like a penguin in her unstable chair. That she might topple into the table or to the blacktop didn’t seem to bother Kelly.
“You’re supposed to be the smart one, Paul,” Kelly added.
“Heh, yeah, sorry.” I adjusted my blue gym shorts; they were too short, even for the who-wears-short-shorts 80s. I tried to fill the chest of my NBA Champs Celtics tee shirt with deep breaths, but only managed to stir a weak ripple in that green sail cloth.
Their updated sign read: Ice Cold Lemonade 25ȼHaunted House Tour: 1 Per Person
I feared it was some kind of a joke or prank. I thought about hopping back on my bike and getting the hell out before I did something epically cringe-worthy Kelly would describe in detail to all her friends and by proxy the entire soon-to-be seventh grade class.
Kelly told me the lemonade stand thing was boring and that her new haunted-house-tour idea was genius. I would be their first to take the tour so I’d be helping them out. She said, “We’ll even only charge you half price. Be a pal, Paulie.”
Was Kelly Bishop inviting me into her house? Was she making fun of me? The ‘be a pal’ bit sounded like joke and felt like a joke. I looked around the front yard, spying between the tall front hedges, looking for the ambush. I decided I didn’t care, and said, “Okay, yeah.”
The little sister shouted, “One dollar,” and held out an open hand.
Kelly corrected her. “I said ‘half-price.’”
Little sis shouted, “Fifty cents!” her hand still out.
I and asked, “Is it scary, I mean, supposed to be scary?” I tried smiling bravely. I wasn’t brave. I still slept with my door open and the hallway light on. My smile was pretend brave, and it wasn’t much of a smile as I tried not to show off my mouth of metal braces, the elastics on either side mercifully no longer necessary as of three weeks ago.
Kelly stood and said, “Terrifying. You’ll wet yourself and be sucking your thumb for a week.” She wacked her sister on the shoulder and commanded, “Go. You have one minute to be ready.”
“I don’t need a minute.” She bounced across the lawn onto the porch and slammed the front door closed behind her.
Kelly flipped through a stack of notecards. She said she hadn’t memorized the script yet but she would eventually.
I followed her down the driveway to the house I never thought of as scary or creepy but now that it had the word haunted attached to it, even in jest…it was kind of creepy. The only three-family home in the neighborhood, it looked impossibly tall from up close. And it was old, worn out, the white paint peeling and flaking away. Its stone and mortar foundation appeared crooked. The windows were tall and thin and impenetrable. The small front porch had two skeletal posts holding up a warped overhang that could come crashing down at any second.
We walked up the stairs to the porch, and the wood felt soft under my feet. Kelly was flipping through her notecards and held the front screen door open for me with a jutted out hip. I scooted by, holding my breath, careful to not accidentally brush against her.
The cramped front hallway/foyer was crowded with bikes and shovels and smelled like wet leaves. A poorly lit staircase curled up to the right. Kelly told me that the tour finishes on the second floor and we weren’t allowed all the way upstairs to the third, and, somewhat randomly, that she wrote ‘one per person’ on the sign so that no pervs would try for repeat tours since she and her sister were home by themselves.
“Your parents aren’t home?” My voice cracked, as if on cue.
If Kelly answered with a nod of the head, I didn’t see it. She reached across me, opened the door to my left and said, “Welcome to House Black, the most haunted house on the North Shore.”
Kelly put one hand between my shoulder blades and pushed me inside to a darkened kitchen. The linoleum was sandy, gritty, under my shuffling sneakers. The room smelled of dust and pennies. The shapes of the table, chairs, and appliances were sleeping animals. From somewhere on this first floor, her sister gave a witchy laugh. It was muffled and I remember thinking it sounded like she was inside the walls.
Kelly carefully narrated a ghost story: The house was built in the 1700’s by a man named Robert or Reginald Black, a merchant sailor who was gone for months at a time. His wife, Denise would dutifully wait for him in the kitchen. After all the years of his leaving, Denise was driven mad by a lonely heart and she wouldn’t go anywhere else in the house but the kitchen until he returned home. She slept sitting in a wooden chair and washed herself in the kitchen sink. Years passed like this. Mr. Black was to take one final trip before retiring but Mrs. Black had had enough. As he ate his farewell breakfast she smashed him over the head with an iron skillet until he was dead. Mrs. Black then stuffed her husband’s body into the oven.
The kitchen’s overhead light, a dirty yellow fixture, turned on. I saw a little hand leave the switch and disappear behind a door across the room from me. On top of the oven was a cast iron, black skillet. Little sis flashed her arm back into the room and turned out the light.
Kelly loomed over me (she was at least three inches taller) and said that this was not the same oven, and everyone who ever lived here has tried getting a new one, but you can still sometimes hear Mr. Black clanging around inside.
The oven door dropped open with a metal scream, like when an ironing board’s legs were pried opened.
I jumped backward and knocked into the kitchen table.
Kelly hissed, “That’s too hard, be careful! You’re gonna rip the oven door off!”
Little sis dashed into the room and I could see in her hands a ball of finishing line, which was tethered to the oven door handle.
Award-winning writer Paul Tremblay is a Telluride Horror Show 2021 guest author. He will be reading during Friday night’s Creepy Campfire Tales in Elks Park, along with Jeremy Robert Johnson and Stephen Graham Jones, at 6:30 p.m. The trio will also participate in Saturday’s Horror Summit at the Sheridan Opera House at 10:30 a.m., followed by a book signing at 11:30 a.m.
His latest “No Sleep Till Wonderland” (Harper Collins, 2021) is out now.
“Ice Cold Lemonade 25ȼHaunted House Tour: 1 Per Person” originally appeared in “Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories” (edited by Ellen Datlow, Saga Press, 2019). The story is reprinted courtesy of the author.