In all fairness, the town of Dooley, could be considered something of an island; a sampling of civilization slumbering amid an ocean of cornfields. Only one highway led from the tiny berg to the nearest city, convenient for most needs, but far enough to impede local progress. Time seemingly ignored this bedroom community, at least the brighter aspects of time, but the ravages of neglect still made their inevitable mark.
The old Dooley house was a prime, but by no means singular, example; it rotted at the very center of town, abandoned since time immemorial. The sprawling Queen Anne no longer bore any trace of the colors that had once earned the title painted lady, and there was more gingerbread rotting against the foundation than what still clung to the sagging facade. Artistic millwork adorned the many gables and peaks, but all of it gray, dried-out and splintered like old bones. A few windows remained intact, mostly on the second and third floor, but thick layers of interior dust and exterior dirt completely occluded whatever might scurry in those dark rooms beyond. The ground floor was securely boarded-up except for the front doors, and their grimy stained-glass transom.
A tight grove of oak trees, large enough to be as old as the house itself, surrounded the building and reached all the way into the neighboring park, and the acorn-covered tennis court. A narrow gravel drive wound through the grove, spotted with a few weeds struggling against the dense shade. The old Dooley house, as we called it, sat adjacent to our elementary school playground. Such proximity between a school and a dangerous derelict would never be tolerated today, but in 1978, no one questioned. And that was good for us; the Dooley house was a near-infinite source of speculation, rumor and imaginary intrigue.
“Mrs. Dooley killed her husband and then herself…in that room there,” Matt insisted, pointing at a dark window on the second floor. A more experienced individual would have determined that the window in question was undoubtedly part of a stairway, but legends, especially those cherished by children, rarely consider logic or basic architectural standards.
Danny and I certainly didn’t question Matt’s authority, or the veracity of his claim. This was one of the older tales, certainly the most durable. The reputed exploits of Mrs. Dooley had a wide range, from murder to mere neurosis. Some stories told of her killing and eating her own children before being killed by her husband. In others, she starved herself to death, grief-stricken after philandering Mr. Dooley left with another woman. Occasionally, someone would work-in real color like Satanism or witchcraft, depending on last Sunday’s Movie of the Week.
In truth, we didn’t even know if there had actually been a Mrs. Dooley at all. Dooley was the name of the town and the park, but that was our only evidence. We didn’t care; we filled-in the blanks for ourselves and had a great time scaring each other, lying to our friends and to ourselves.
“I’ve seen a face in that window before,” Danny confessed, maybe even believing it himself. I nodded accepting it without question while trying to conflate a topper.
“Me too,” I said, “always at midnight. A lady’s face, covered in blood!”
Matt agreed. Few challenges were made to new myths; those were the rules—as long as new elements came from a friend. Anything Rhonda or Hank said, even if repeating your own words, were always a lie. And stupid. Kids can be assholes that way, and we were no exception.
It was early October and the smell of winter lurking around the corner perfumed the air with the smell of burning leaves. Many of the occupied houses in town were decorated for Halloween; nightly television was blanketed with bad monster movies and candy commercials. Even classroom activities orbited around creating ghosts or scary pumpkin faces out of felt, colored paper and the obligatory popsicle sticks. The oak leaves had already turned, creating a low ceiling of glowing gold, casting the house and park in an eerie, and to us, a magical light.
We sat on our bikes, surveying the house from a safe distance. A gentle breeze rustled the branches overhead and sent the occasional acorn plopping to the ground. All of our mothers would have been horrified to see us in our short sleeves, bare arms covered in goose bumps.
Danny must have been mulling my last nugget of explosion around in his head. Perhaps he was irritated because I amended his own embellishment, or just angry because I had gotten the last word. I usually go the last word and Danny, a full twelve inches shorter than me, was often left feeling slighted.
“Why the blood?”
“You said you saw her covered in blood.”
“Yeah,” I confirmed. And then, just to add credibility, “lots of times. Always at midnight.”
“Nuh-uh.” Danny shook his head with the severe retort, showing total disregard for the established rules. “My Dad said she poisoned her husband! Then hung herself. Why would she be bloody?”
Of course, a more astute question would be why an eleven-year-old boy would be in the park at midnight, but that was the kind of thing taken on faith—mainly because that kind of logic escaped us entirely.
“She did not. She used an ax,” I cried, taking inspiration from a cheap TV movie about Lizzie Borden, which I had seen less than two weeks ago. My friends had seen the same movie, but again, you never point out where the stories originated…or else someone will do the same to you. Instead, we quoted Dad. That was the only acceptable exclusion to the established rules. You can contradict your friends, as long as it’s under your father’s authority. I saw Danny’s dad at least eight times a week, and he saw mine nearly as often, and the topic of Mrs. Dooley was never mentioned. We never asked the alleged source directly, we never sought confirmation. Our code of conduct was very rigid, even in the case of a challenge.
By our standards, Danny’s challenge was legitimate, though sneaky, and could only be resolved by another credible source. Matt would have to arbitrate, and he did so.
“Yeah, I heard she used poison…but then she cut him up in the kitchen. They never found all the pieces.”
Matt was very diplomatic—and for that, he got the last word.
With all of our stories squared and victory shared, we stared at the vacant old mansion for another few minutes. Despite Matt’s intervention, I was still feeling a little sore with Danny, even though he had technically followed the rules. I thought my embellishment, which I was already beginning to believe myself, was pretty good, and deserved some admiration. Since I wasn’t going to get any here, I was getting bored.
“Hey,” I said, inspired. “Wanna ride up to the cemetery and look for her grave?”
We had looked before, many times. Besides a sign over the entrance announcing Dooley City Cemetery, the name was found nowhere among those slabs of marble and granite. But there was always something interesting to discover there, especially in the spooky autumn twilight.
As I maneuvered my clunky red Huffy to face the opposite direction, Matt on his brand new mountain bike, was already circling, waiting for a race. Before we rode off, however, Danny yelled to us.
“Guys! Did you see that? Someone’s up there!”
Matt and I turned to see Danny pointing to a window on the third floor. It was dark and dirty, just like all the others. Nothing seemed to be moving, except for a thin film of cobwebs illuminated by the setting sun swaying on the other side.
“I don’t see anything,” Matt said, dismissively.
“I saw a face in that window,” he insisted, more emphatically than before. “She was right there, looking at us!”
On most occasions, I would have been the first to agree and run with the new claim. However, I was still feeling sore, so I fought back, careful to keep to the established rules. “Nuh-uh! Ghosts don’t come out during the day…My Dad said so.”
“I don’t care what your Dad says, I saw it. Just now.”
“You did not! You made it up. We didn’t see anything.”
Now I was ignoring the rules, but I didn’t care. Danny had tried to cheat me earlier, and I wasn’t going to let him do it again. But then he made the ultimate childhood challenge.
Matt, always willing to make peace, stepped in, knowing full well that this was never going to end. “Let’s go to my house and play Star Wars. I got some new action figures, and then we can watch Battlestar Galactica. Mom will make us some popcorn.”
That sounded like fun, but I was in a battle of my own, one that I was not willing to surrender. Danny must have been able to see the resolve on my face as we stared at each other. He was also ready for a fight, and so he upped the stakes.
“If you’re so sure ghosts only come out at night, why don’t you go up there and prove it…I dare you.”
My anger instantly turned to cold dread. Although I believed my previous assertion that ghosts do not come out in daylight, I was still terrified by the notion. Still a distance away, the old house was in itself a ghost, a towering monster glaring at the world with blank, angry eyes. Furthermore, it was in such a state that it looked as if it might collapse at any moment.
“I’m not going in there…”
“Are you scared? ‘Ghosts only come out at night.’ Fraidy-cat!”
I squeezed the handles of my bicycle, my face turning red. But Danny saw his opportunity, and was relentless.
“Fraidy-cat! Fraidy-cat, fraidy-cat, fraidy-cat!”
I jumped off my bike and pointed an accusatory finger at Danny. “Fine. I’ll show you.”
As I starting marching towards the house, I could hear Matt trying to talk me down, but I ignored him. Even Danny tried to revoke the challenge, but it was too late for that, I was furious, and that filled me with courage.
The house loomed nearer, beckoning. I had never been this close, though I had often wanted to see inside but never dared. It was the monster that haunted all my dreams and my fantasies.
I climbed the front steps. Although the serpentine veranda was mostly intact, the porch floor had rotted away completely. A deep trench of dirt and splintered wood gaped between me and the doors. But I knew the exterior of this place as well as my own home. I had surveyed it from every possible angle, though always from the safety of my bike at a considerable distance. There were several doors to this sprawling mansion, so I made my way around to the back.
The house now stood between me and my friends, and the setting sun. The shadow of the place deepened the twilight shadows, and the temperature here was substantially cooler, but I continued. As I neared the backdoor, located at ground level, I felt a thrill of both terror and excitement.
A board covered the window on the back door, but it had been placed so long ago that most of it was gone and I could see the darkness beyond. I held my breath as I pushed. The framework of the door was so deteriorated that the only resistance came from the warping of the floor beyond, but it gave way, the hinges creaking as the dark opening revealed itself.
I stepped through and found myself on a narrow landing. A short flight of stairs led upwards to my right, and another, infinitely long, descended into the dark basement. It was like staring straight into hell. Briefly, I wondered what kind of horrors lurked down there, but fortunately, that was not part of my quest. I quickly hurried up to the kitchen.
It was nearly as dark here as it would have been in the cellar, with all the windows boarded and the failing sunlight. I paused for a moment, waiting for my eyes to adjust. There was little to see here; only a small portion of remaining cabinets and a large empty space. The nineteenth century floor tiles were cracked, and buckled, and coated with a century of dust and chunks of plaster from the ceiling. I could see light shining through the window in the room above. I was too young to consider the very real dangers around me that termites had probably feasted on this structure for so long that even my eighty pounds might be more than the house could stand. Instead, I was more fascinated by the kitchen itself, where Mrs. Dooley was, so recently, reported to have dismembered her husband.
My curiosity temporarily overrode my apprehension. I placed a hand on the countertop and brushed aside the decades of filth and mold. The wooden strips of the butcher-block had all faded to the same shade of gray, but the deep grooves left by knife or cleaver remained. I felt a chill; could the story be true? Or did someone use this counter to prepare food?
There was, of course, no real evidence of violence. However, there were footprints through the kitchen, many sets. Some were very old, little more than contours under the dust like old tracks under freshly fallen snow. Other trails were more recent. I definitely was not the first visitor to this old wreck, unless…do ghost leave footprints?
Shaking, I made my way through a maze of pantries into the dining room. The once grand chamber was a little brighter than the kitchen, light streaming in through the transom over the front door. Piles of old blankets scattered around the room, along with a mountain of beer cans and empty bottles. Graffiti was sprayed all over the cracked wallpaper, but in this light, I couldn’t read any of it.
I hurried to the foyer, and the blessed increase in light that it offered. Near the entrance was the beginning of a grand staircase. To more mature eyes, the carved walnut newel-post would have been recognized as a thing of artistry, but to me, it was something from a horror movie. Slowly, I approached the carved, silent sentry. If I were to complete the challenge, I would have to go upstairs to the third floor. From the bottom step, I could see all the way to the top, the staircase winding up two flights around a rusted chandelier.
I heard nothing from the rooms above; saw no movement in the jumble of shadows. I began to climb. On the first landing, I was treated to a substantial increase in light. The window, the same one Matt had indicated as the murder/suicide room, was too high above the floor for me to see out, but through the thin, cracked glass I could hear my friends beyond. Their voices were faint, but at least I knew they hadn’t abandoned me. That, coupled with the fact that Matt had obviously been wrong about the location, reinforced my belief that the story itself was just another myth.
Feeling emboldened, I turned to continue my journey to the top, when I nearly walked into an open noose. I was too scared to scream. I backed away, quickly, losing my footing in the process and stumbled backwards to the floor.
Despite the pain, I remained frozen, watching the rope carefully to see who or what was attacking. But nothing moved. As I studied it, I realized it was suspended from a balustrade on the successive flight. A vast network of spider webs, glowing distinctly in the fading sunlight, was anchored to the rope, proving that it had been there long before my intrusion. Perhaps it really had been there for decades, left behind after Mrs. Dooley’s body had been removed.
My mind was reeling. The rope, the countertop, the footprints… I had a challenge to complete, and only a few minutes remained to me before the house would be swallowed in darkness. I had to reach the third floor window, where I was becoming increasingly convinced I had actually seen the bloody face.
“Okay,” I tried to calm myself. “I’ll just run up these stairs, smack the glass, and run out. I’ll be fine. Plenty of time.”
As I rose, I discovered a stabbing pain in right hand. When I fell, I had braced myself with my hands. Only now did I realize that I had landed on a glass shard, a splinter from the window above. The cut was deep, and bled freely. I made a fist and squeezed, wondering if my blood might somehow activate the local spirits.
Both terrified and determined, I raced up the remaining stairs, ignoring everything between the noose and the top of the house. Already, I could feel the unquiet, angry spirits rising from their daytime slumber. They were watching me, waiting, hungry for my soul…
Finally, I reached the cavernous attic, and the shattered remains of a ballroom. I ignored everything present except for my target, a huge oval of beveled glass and lead ribs. Through the dirt and grime, I could see Danny and Matt watching from far away. They looked as tense as I felt, probably wondering if they should rescue me, or seek help from an adult. I just needed to make sure they saw me, and I would have won the day.
With little concern for my still bleeding cut, I pounded on the window with both my palms. When my friends and I made eye-contact, I gave them a thumbs-up. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see that they were cheering. I was about to conquer the old Dooley house, now I just had to get out alive. But the house had one more surprise waiting for me
As I ran back to the stairs, I saw it and paused. The entire back wall of the ballroom, still covered in blue floral wallpaper, was scrawled with writing. Not graffiti like in the lower rooms, but a kind of record, names and dates, printed in various colors, in many different hands.
I read the names. Some of them sounded familiar, like “Melinda Murphy 1964.” Could that be the same Melinda Murphy who was my first grade teacher? She grew-up in Dooley. Another signature, done in pencil, said “Mikey Harrison ‘57.” That’s the same name as Matt’s Dad. And finally, “Brian Stokely 1971,” written in white chalk, along with a drawing of a noose. I knew Brian, he used to live just down the street from me until he left for college a few weeks ago.
The house had given up her last secret. It was now mine; I would keep it safe, a private trophy belonging only to me, reigning heir to an unspoken tradition. I reached for the chalk, which Brian had so kindly left behind, and signed my name. “Jason Miller, 1978.”
As I stared to descend the stairs, I took one last look at the big window, still marked with splatters of my own blood. Everyone would see my hand prints eventually, and they would tell their own tales of how and why and by whom they were made. I didn’t just conquer the old Dooley house, and the legend, I had become part of it.
Brent Seth was born in Bloomington, Illinois during an ice storm which, with the benefit of hindsight, seems to have been something a peak. As a self-destructive, cynical nihilist, Mr. Seth has always displayed a peculiar affection for comedy, especially when used as a club to beat-up that which was never actually alive.
His first novel Short Fuse is currently available on Amazon and Barns and Noble.
When he isn’t busy tapping the keyboard, Brent spends his time dusting the cello in his office, indulging in extreme (and sometimes vindictive) gardening, massing even more LEGO bricks to an already insanely large collection, and wishing he knew how to play the cello.
Mr. Seth now lives in Michigan with his husband and several spoiled cats.
On a dare, one young boy takes a journey into his own nightmare, a decaying mansion rumored to be haunted by the victims and perpetrators of several brutal murders. In the fading autumn twilight, this boy must face his fear to discover the very real secret of the old Dooley House.