By Louise Dragon
Rusty hinges ground on the screen door. His friends laughed. “No such thing as ghosts,” he recited & pushed open the door.
Neal Dodge looked back at his new friends and forced a smile.
I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. The words played in his brain like a neon sign.
“There’s no such thing as a haunted house!” Neal shouted through the rusty screen. “Meet me back here tomorrow, same time, same place.”
Ted Atwood looked nervous, so did Frank Damon, Louie Clutterfield, however, was still grinning.
“See you,” Louie called back and the three boys turned and headed down the deserted street. None of them looked back.
Neal gulped, left the door open, and turned to inspect his surroundings. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. Perhaps this initiation stunt to be admitted to The Torros was not worth it. He shrugged, took of his yellow baseball cap, and wondered if it was against the rules to spend the entire night huddled by the front door waiting for morning.
Neal’s eyes moved cautiously about the room, but his feet stayed put. He’d heard all of the scuttlebutt about the Caserton House. Old Jonathan Caserton had collected children like some people collect stamps. People in town say kids still disappear in or around the Caserton house, empty or not. Nobody knows where they go – they just seem to come up missing.
Neal placed his back against the door jam and slid his butt down to the floor. He felt relatively safe this close to the door. He was thinking that if any ghosts or ghouls came at him, he’d be able to outrun them right off the eerie property – membership or not.
From this vantage point, Neal caught site of a huge portrait of Jonathan Caserton placed jauntily over the mantle in one of the front rooms. The painting showed a stooped, mustached, old man with a cane. All about him were children, all gazing up at him with sad eyes.
Neal found that he couldn’t take his eyes off the likeness. He’d pull them away, but they always swung back to the canvas. It was mesmerizing -- like a magnet for his stare. At last he just gave up and turned to study the images in the painting.
Abruptly Neal found himself standing before the portrait – he could not recollect walking over to it, yet here he was, inches from the fascinating depiction. He wondered why anyone would have had sad-eyed children painted into his portrait when rumors were that he stole, tortured, and murdered dozens of kids during his life as a teacher.
Ted Atwood had said that no bodies were ever found. Frank Damon had confided that old man Caserton had disappeared also. People thought he was still in the house – at least his ghost was – still murdering children whenever one was dumb enough to wander into his path . . .
Louie said it was all crap. Said the missing kids were just runaways and old man Caserton was probably fish food.
Neal returned to his spot by the front door and hunkered down. He did not think he would get much sleep tonight, but his eyes got heavy and he dozed briefly.
In his mind Neal heard screaming. Was it a police siren?
Neal jerked awake. An eerie keening noise echoed around him. Was it wind, sirens, cats fighting?
A beam of fading sunlight shone in through a front window lighting up the Caserton Portrait.
Neal rubbed his eyes and gawked at the canvas -- which had changed.
The old man now held his cane above his head like a crazed executioner. His murderous eyes blazed with purple hatred and his gape-toothed mouth opened wide into a black tunnel of horror.
The sad-eyed children around him now cringed in terror; their mouths open in keening screams of unimaginable fear. Their sad eyes seemed to focus on Neil as he shook the prickly needles and pins from his legs, rose shakily, stumbled, grabbed his hat and . . .
Rusty hinges ground on the screen door. His friends laughed and called to him, but Neil did not answer.
In the front room, in an old portrait, a painted tear ran down the face of a sad-eyed boy wearing a yellow baseball hat.