My unlaced sneakers went slip-slopping down the pavement as I carried the the recycling to the end of the driveway. It had been raining buckets for days, and now the air was cold and fresh, the hanging haze all washed away. The hills stood out sharp and green underneath a pale gray sky. Between the Rodriguez house and the Bensons’ the distant office buildings downtown glimmered in the morning light. When I came back inside, the landline in the kitchen was ringing. I expected it would be Mom. She and Dad were in Catalina for the weekend, so I also expected she was calling to remind me to take out the recycling. But, the phone number was one I didn’t recognize. I answered the phone anyway.
“Hi. Can I speak to Molly?”
“This is Molly. Who is this, please?” I winced, hating how my voice came out sounding stiff and formal. Nobody talked like that.
“This is Shea Cavanaugh. I don’t know if you know who I am.”
“I know who you are,” I said.
Shea was in my Calculus class. Shea was popular and people liked her. There was no reason for her to be calling me.
“Oh,” she said. “Well… this is going to sound weird, since we don’t really talk in class or anything, but a couple of my friends and I, well, we had this idea…”
Shea took a breath. I was startled to realize she sounded nervous.
In a rush, she said the rest: “We want to see the house on Hillcrest Drive.”
I sucked in a swift breath.
“I drove past there a few days ago,” Shea continued quickly. ” The For Sale sign had your mom’s name and number on it, and I thought maybe you’d be down for a ghost-hunting expedition. We want you to come with us, of course. It wouldn’t be right, otherwise. If you can get the keys, I mean.”
“Who else is going?” I asked. Not like it mattered, but I needed a moment.
She said, “Nicole Faber; Cooper and Cody Stark. That’s all.”
That wasn’t all. There would be five of us and I would be fifth wheel. I thought about just telling Shea no, just hanging up right then and there. I had my own friends. I didn’t need to hang out with a group of kids who never talked to me.
But, I didn’t hang up. I knew exactly which house she meant. My mom had shown it numerous times, but she never let me go with her. It had stood empty at the top of Hillcrest Drive for over a year, because it was haunted as fuck.
No matter what Shea and her friends were like, no matter how awful they were to me, I’d get to see the inside of the house on Hillcrest Drive. And I wouldn’t be alone.
“Molly?” Shea said.
“Sorry,” I replied. “I’m here. When were you planning to go?”
“Tonight? If you aren’t busy?”
My heart started beating faster at the thought of seeing the house so soon. “That’s fine. I can get the keys. It’s no problem.”
That was kind of a lie. The keys to 2902 Hillcrest Drive were in a lock box somewhere in the front yard of the house. Hopefully, somewhere obvious. And hopefully, I could find the lock box code in Mom’s office.
“That’s great!” said Shea. “You are awesome, Molly! We can pick you up. You’re right on our way. About eight?”
“Eight’s good,” I replied, before I had a chance to fully think it over, and chicken out
“See you tonight, Molly.”
I had had no trouble finding the lock box code. It was written on a pink Post-It stuck to the base of Mom’s computer monitor. As I took a photo with my phone, I almost expected something to happen, like a sudden clap of thunder, or the lights in Mom’s office flickering, or a creepy crawly feeling. There was nothing.
I spent a lot of time deciding what I was going to wear. Which was stupid. I hadn’t been invited to a party. Shea was only being nice to me because I could get her inside the house. Anyway, ghost hunting called for something practical. A sweater over a tee shirt. Jeans, sneakers, and my hair pulled into a ponytail that would’ve looked sensible on any other girl. My hair sprang out in every direction in a dark cloud even when it was pulled back, and I knew that within a few moments, my face would be surrounded by a halo of frizz. I pulled the books out of my school bag, and filled it up with a flashlight and a bottle of water, and a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I zipped my fully-charged phone into the front pocket, and then I put the bag under the table beside the door.
I spent most of the day unsuccessfully trying to write an essay for Civics, and staring at the clock, and mindlessly surfing YouTube. Eight o’clock took forever to arrive. At eight o’clock on the dot, Shea didn’t come. At five after eight, she still was not there. At ten after eight, a dark blue Jeep rolled into the driveway, and my heart lurched. I was suddenly struck with the idea of bringing the mini note recorder in Mom’s office. She used it when she walked through a new property. I ran down the hall, slammed into Mom’s office and fumbled through the top drawer of the big desk, pushing aside crusty dried out pens and pads of Post-Its. The doorbell rang, just as my hand closed over the mini recorder. I came hurrying back, and yanked open the door, breathing hard, my face flushed.
It was not Shea standing there, but Cooper Stark. He looked confused, but all he said was, “Hi.”
I held up the mini note recorder. “I saw you drive up and I thought — I’ll bring this.”
Cooper’s puzzled look didn’t change. “What is it?”
“A voice recorder.” I bent and scooped up my backpack, and Cooper, taking the hint, backed up to the front stoop, letting me walk out and shut the door. I made sure the front door was locked, and then I walked with him to the car, saying, “I thought we could ask questions, and record the answers.”
Cooper still wasn’t getting it. I felt my face burn. Shea and Nicole were sitting in the front seat of the Jeep, staring at me.
“Oh, you mean answers from beyond,” Cooper said, grinning. “That’s good thinking.” He opened the back door. “You mind riding in back with me and Cody?”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
“Hey, Molly,” said Cody from the darkened back seat.
Cooper stood back to let me climb in first. He and Cody were twins; both had the same tall, lanky build, the same noses, the same curve to their eyebrows. They even made the same facial expressions.
The car smelled faintly like eggnog, but in the way that I knew it was one of the girls wearing body lotion. I figured on Shea. I could not picture Nicole Farber wearing holiday-themed anything, much less something with a holiday-themed smell. I had no classes with Nicole this semester, but she had fascinated me for a long time. Not as long as the house on Hillcrest Drive, but as long as I had been at Howard Taft High with her. Nicole was not pretty. She was one of those girls who commanded your attention, whether you wanted to give it to her or not. Her eyes were a hard gray-blue, usually framed by eyeliner. Her hair was bleached platinum blonde and cut in a severe pixie that nobody except Nicole could have pulled off.
Both of the girls turned around to examine me while the map light was on, and Cooper was folding his long limbs into the car.
“Hi, Molly,” Shea said brightly, smiling at me. Nicole murmured hello at the same time Shea added, “Thanks for helping out.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
What I wanted to say was why don’t I just give you the lock box code, and I’ll get out of the car? But, I didn’t say that. Unless I went along with them, the house on Hillcrest Drive would become the new hip hangout to drink and screw and take drugs. More importantly, I did not have the courage to go inside that house alone. This was my one chance.
Shea drove up into the hills. The streets were still wet, scattered here and there with fallen palm fronds. The tires of the Jeep crunched over them, and the car lurched a little bit every time. Sprinkles of rain gathered on the windshield, and Shea flicked the wipers once, clearing her view. As if in retaliation, the rain started to fall for real.
Nicole said abruptly, “Where are we supposed to park? We can’t just park right in the driveway.”
“Nobody will see us,” Shea said. “Nobody comes outside in the rain in Los Angeles. Except us.” She uttered a little laugh.
Nobody laughed back. The rain was falling heavily now. Hillcrest Drive was narrow, and it was steep. Shea drove around a switchback turn with a guard rail on one side, and a steep hill of trees and underbrush on the other.
Like Shea, I’d been up here before. When I first got my permanent license, I went looking for the house in the daytime. I drove up and up into the hills, following Hillcrest Drive through twists and switchbacks, looking for 2902, but very few of the houses had numbers, and all them looked the same: sun-bleached and broken-down, shuttered and unfriendly. Then Hillcrest Drive took a sharp, steep turn, and I knew I’d found it.
“Stop,” I wanted to say, but it was Cooper who said it first, leaning forward between the two front seats.
The knifelike pitch of the house’s roof stabbed the sky, silhouetted against the light spill of the Sunset Strip. The front had no windows, only a narrow, dark door; the lower parts of the house were blank and squat. It was the worst house I’d ever seen, and most of it lay hidden down the far side of the hill. Shea was already slowing in the middle of the road, just like I had the first time I’d seen it. Nobody said a word for what seemed like a very, very long time.
Shea’s eyes met mine in her rear-view mirror. Then she glanced away. She pulled the Jeep into the driveway, and I spotted the lock box secured to the wrought iron fence separating the house’s scrub and gravel front yard from the street. Cooper opened the door and piled out of the back seat. I jumped out after him, hurried over to the lock box, and punched the five digit code in. The lock box snapped open on the first try, and I snatched the keys out of it. I’d been repeating the code over and over to myself all day. When I turned around, Shea was looking at me with her eyebrows raised in amusement.
“I told you I could get the keys.” I sounded pretty defensive.
Shea laughed. “Yeah, you said that, Molly.”
The five of us hurried to the front door, the rain falling more heavily now, and I fumbled with the key in the stubborn lock, too embarrassed to double-check the address written in Sharpie on the back of the plastic key chain, thinking that for certain one of Mom’s agents had put the wrong set of keys in the lock box. But the door was only swollen from the wet. Finally, it unstuck and, as I put my shoulder against it and pushed, it groaned open.
I blinked in the utter darkness inside, sensing the others close by, and a large space encircling us. The lights flashed on, and beside me, Cooper gave a soft, startled cry.
Inside, it was awful. Maybe it was the sudden shock of seeing all of the house at one time, plus having my retinas fried, plus the sudden thunk of the door closing firmly behind us. But, it was awful.
“What the hell are you doing?” Nicole snapped at Cody.
He had his hand on the light switch next to the door. I don’t know if I could have been that brave, fumbling along the wall in the dark, praying that my fingers would find only a light switch, and not something else. Like a cold hand meeting my own. I scrubbed my palm on my damp jeans.
Nicole lunged for the lights, and turned them off, plunging me into darkness once more. The image of the house burned in negative, floating in front of my face in carnival oranges and neon blues. The echoes of Nicole’s question wheeled madly away, sucked toward the high ceiling.
“No one’s going to see us,” I said. “There aren’t any windows in the front.”
Shea said, “Jesus, just turn the lights on, Nicole. Turn them on.“
The lights came on again. Shea stood between Nicole and Cooper, her arms wrapped across her stomach. She was shivering. Nicole looked quickly to Shea, and then at the blind wall of the house that faced the street.
The space was gigantic, the living room sunken and the ceiling soaring at a vertiginous angle. Although the lower parts of the house were lit as brightly as an operating theater, deep shadows gathered above. Looking up felt like plummeting into a crevasse. At the peak of the ceiling, a massive black metal chandelier hung on a chain like a spider. It appeared to be gently, almost imperceptibly swaying back and forth.
“Shea, are you alright?” Cooper said.
“I’m just — I’m wet,” Shea replied. “I’m cold.”
The house was still furnished. The floor was white marble, veined with pale gray, and the sectional couch in the sunken living room was sleek white leather, uncomfortable and greasy looking, with one throw pillow, square and startling black, placed at the elbow of the sectional like a staring pupil in an eye. Halfway back to the rear of the house, the marble gave way to pure white shag carpeting and, at the far end of the carpet was a sliding glass door.
Shea walked toward the chrome and glass kitchen, her shoes squelching on the marble floor.
Cody cried out, “Shea!”
Again, the echoes spun upward, and I thought: don’t say her name. Now the house knows her name. It already knew Nicole’s name. And mine.
Cody sprang forward, grabbed Shea by the arm, and yanked her back from what I suddenly saw was an open stairwell leading down, directly in front of the kitchen pass-through. There was not even a glass panel or a chrome railing to stop Shea from falling. Downstairs, the lights were on. All the better to conceal that stairwell. A shadow would have given it away.
“Jesus,” Shea said again. Her face was almost as white as the floor. “Jesus.”
Nicole gave a high, sharp laugh.
“It’s not funny.” Shea shrank against Cody’s arm.
“Yes, it is!” Nicole swept her arm out in a wide gesture “This house — it’s like it was designed it to kill people.”
“In the eighties,” I said, “right after the house was first built, a woman fell down the stairs.”
They all turned to me, eyes wide.
Even Nicole looked freaked out. “Did she die?”
“She broke her neck.”
Cooper said, “So, her family moved away pretty soon after that? I heard nobody stays here very long.”
“She lived here by herself. That’s what my mom said. She was a painter. She painted movie posters. Nobody came looking for her.”
Shea pressed one hand over her mouth, and looked away from the stairwell.
I looked down. The stairs were slick blond wood, descending to an equally shiny landing, where the flight of stairs turned and disappeared underneath an overhang that looked custom-built to crack your skull on.
Cooper said, “How many other people died in this house?”
“No idea,” I said.
“I thought you were supposed to be the expert,” Nicole snapped at me.
Shea said, “Nicole…”
“Isn’t that why we brought her along?”
“Nicole, stop it.”
“Come on,” Cooper said, arranging his face into a smile. “We’re here. Let’s explore.”
He started downstairs, and I followed cautiously, my sneakers squeaking and my heart hammering. When Cooper reached the landing, he halted. The staircase made a sharp turn, and the space below was utterly black.
“I don’t…” Cooper said. “That’s not possible. We would have seen that from…” He looked up past me, frowning. Then he shook his head.
“There’s a switch,” I said.
Cooper flicked it. From below, I heard the tick-tick-tick of fluorescent lights. A flickering, sickly yellowish glow illuminated the stairs leading down from the landing. The house gave a sudden sharp jolt, rocking us against the wall. From above me, I heard somebody yelp. The foundation groaned, the glasses in the bar rack over the kitchen pass-through chimed against one another, and something fell over with a soft and stealthy thump. I imagined the black chandelier in the entryway swinging, swinging.
“Oh shit,” Shea laughed.
When I turned to look up the stairwell, she had her hand pressed to her heart.
“Shit, that totally scared me.”
“Me too,” Cooper admitted.
Nicole said, “What do you think? A five?”
“Nah,” said Cody. “Four, max.”
Cooper continued down the stairs, and the rest of us followed. Instead of a huge empty space like the one above us, this room was small and the ceiling was so low, it made me want to hunch my shoulders, even though I wasn’t very tall. The floor was hardwood, not the same pale color as the stairs, but a dark reddish brown. My reflection swam murkily beneath my feet. Down here, the drumming of the rain was very loud. There was no furniture. French doors led outside, their glass panes opaque rain-speckled black. The stairs continued down, to yet another darkened space below us.
“Molly,” said Cooper, “give me the recorder.”
I fumbled with my backpack, unzipped the front pocket, and handed the mini note recorder to him. Cooper clicked the recorder on. He held it up, and began to pan it slowly back and forth, like he was looking for a cell signal.
“What are you doing?” Nicole said.
“Shh!” said Cooper. “Hello?” He paused. “Is anybody here?”
There was a faint sound from outside, a soft rumble.
Shea said, “Is that thunder?”
It had sounded like a soft roll of thunder to me, but also like a glass patio door sliding open.
Footsteps moved across the floor upstairs. Shea clapped her hand over her mouth. The steps were soft and light, as if the person walking was wearing socks or slippers. And then, a short scream. Startled, rather than frightened. Something unseen came rolling and tumbling thickly down the stairs. The noises stopped with a final thud at the bottom of the stairs, less than a yard from where Nicole and Shea stood clutching each other, and in the midst of that thud, an unmistakable sharp and awful pop like a branch snapping.
“What the fuck was that?” Cooper said through white lips.
Shea tore herself away from Nicole and ran down the stairs. I saw the top of her dark head disappearing into the dark and I knew what would happen, like knowing the punchline of a joke before the joke-telling is done: the short, startled scream, and then the rolling and thudding of her missing her footing and falling.
“Shea!” Cooper called down. “Shea!”
Cooper threw himself toward the staircase, but Cody flung out an arm to stop him. “Coop, be careful!”
Cooper gave him a wild-eyed, glare, the mini tape recorder still clutched in his hand, its red light burning.
“Shea?” Cooper called down. “Shea, hold on, I’m coming down. Hang on.”
Cooper started down the stairs, fumbling along the wall for the light switch. He found it, and clicked it up and down, but the lights did not come on. Cooper raised his head. I imagined what he saw: a circle of white, frightened faces above him. Nicole snapped out of it first, hurried over to her backpack and dug around in it, pulling out a flashlight. She went down the steps, only as far as she needed to, stretching out her arm, and passing the flashlight to Cooper.
“Thanks.” He flicked on the flashlight, and disappeared under the overhang of the stairs. “Shea?”
There was another thump. The flashlight this time. I heard it go rolling and bouncing down the stairs.
“Fuck.” Cooper’s footsteps hesitated, and then continued down.
Nicole clamped both hands on my arm. Her fingers felt like talons, even though my sweater.
“It’s haunted,” she whispered. “It really is haunted.”
She shoved me away and bolted upstairs. The house shuddered again. Cody and I looked at each other.
“Aftershock,” he said. Then he turned back to the darkened stairwell. “Cooper! Shea!”
It wasn’t an aftershock. I heard a loud crack. From the floor above, Nicole screamed, cut off by a crashing, jangling roar. The house tilted, as if it were kneeling down. The feeling was nearly imperceptible at first; I thought it was only in my head. But from underneath me came another creak, then a crunch, and I tumbled off my feet as the room pitched sharply. The house began to topple. It was falling, down into the canyon, its foundation undermined by heavy rain, and decades of neglect. I heard glass breaking. A rush of cold, wet wind. All the lights went out, leaving me in jumbled darkness with screaming all around me. I didn’t know who was screaming, if it was me, or the house, or all of our voices together. Shattering crashing splintering and rolling. A rushing rumble half lost in the cacophony, a startling slap of cold water that rolled me under and poured into my mouth, tasting of chlorine. I pictured my parents, sharing a bottle of wine in their hotel room on Catalina. I hadn’t told them where I was going tonight. I hadn’t told anyone.
I wake in darkness. The rain has stopped. Either that, or I can’t hear it from wherever I am. I reach out, stretching and straining, but there’s nothing to touch. Black emptiness all around me. Then a click. It sounds like a light switch flicking, but no lights come on. The darkness is absolute.
“Is there anyone here?” asks a voice. Calm and low.
“Oh, thank God,” I cry out. “I’m here! Thank God — help me, please!”
“Is there anyone in this house?”
“Yes, I’m here! Please! Please help me!”
No response. Only the empty hiss of silence.
“Please, I’m here!” I call out. “I’m here!”
“What is your name?”
“Molly. It’s Molly.” Why does that matter? Why is the voice asking me this? Maybe it’s to calm me down. Yes, that must be why. “Please help me,” I tell the voice. “I’m so frightened.”
“How long have you been trapped in this house?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I… I… ” My voice trails off in confusion.
“How did you die?” The voice pauses again, awaiting an answer. Then it continues. “If there are spirits in this house who wish to speak with us, please give us a sign.”