The Ghosts of Houses

“I’m here to confess,” John said. “Or..turn myself in. Is that what you call it?”

The policeman behind the desk leaned forward. “You saying you’ve committed a crime?”

John didn’t answer right away. He looked around the room as if there might be someone else there. Then he asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Like haunted houses? Look pal, this is the police. You want ghosts, you go to a psychic or something. It’s not my-”

“No, please! Hear me out. I have committed a crime. I’ve been running so long…but I can’t get away. I have to confess.”

“So. Confess.”

“It was the eyes,” John said. “All those eyes. I wouldn’t have done it except…they were looking at me. Every day and…I couldn’t help it. I had to be rid of that place.”

“Listen pal-”

“No, please. I’m not crazy. Well, maybe I am. But this is the truth. I burned down the Safe Street Hotel.”

“Never heard of it.”

“No. No I don’t imagine you would. It was…quite some time ago. Me and my mother moved into the apartment across the way, and the hotel was empty, run down and abandoned. It gave me the shivers. I tried to tell mother. I tried to tell her…all those windows…like eyes…they were watching me. But she said it was just a building. Just a building.

Only it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t. It had a soul. Just like you and I have a soul. I know that now. I know that places can have souls just like people. Maybe everyone knows it in a way.

There’s no place like home. That’s what they say. And they’re right. Every house, every convenience store, maybe even telephone booths. They all have souls of their own, ghosts of the things we make them.”

“You say you burned this place down. How long back are we talking here?”

“Time? I’d have to say about twenty-five years. It seems longer. But I can still remember. I remember how the gasoline sloshed in the can. I remember climbing through the broken window and cutting my hand on the glass. I remember the flame of the match and the sudden inferno. And I remember standing outside and watching the Safe Street Hotel burn to the ground and thinking it was all over.”

“Wasn’t it?” The officer’s voice took on a strange new tone and her leaned forward across his desk toward John.

“No,” John said, and there were tears in his eyes. “No, it was only…only just beginning. They came and put the fire out and knocked down the gutted old walls, and I thought I would be happy. Only that night, I woke up out of a nightmare and looked across the way and I saw…it was there, as real as ever. All the windows were eyes, and they were watching me. They knew what I had done. Every day and every night I saw it. And it saw me. And when the day came that mom said we were going to move, I was so happy. So happy…”

“And did it get better then?”

The tears fell fresh from Johns eyes and this time he wept with his face in his hands. “No! Because it was haunting me, don’t you see? I didn’t see. Not at first at least. I was so glad to throw my bags in the trunk and leave Safe Street once and for all. And when we got to the next town, everything seemed normal for a while.”

“But?”

“But it was there. I saw it on the third night, sitting there across the street in the place where the Chinese takeout restaurant should have been. And it was looking at me. Accusing me.

Every night I couldn’t sleep. Mom thought I was love-sick over some girl, but what did she know?”

John paused a moment and then went on. “I was seventeen,” he said. “I had my whole life ahead of me. But I ran. I took forty bucks out of mother’s wallet and hopped the first Greyhound I could find.” There was a long pause. Then John said, “I never saw her again.”

“And the hotel?”

“I saw it lots of times. I survived somehow. I got tough and learned how to live on the streets. But it didn’t matter. It followed me. Every town, every city, every godforsaken dot on the map; they all had their own Safe Street Hotel. I didn’t matter where I went, it was there. It was haunting me.”

“You’re not making any kind of sense.”

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to understand. You just have to believe me. I did it. I did it officer. I burned down the Safe Street Hotel, and I’m turning myself in. I’m going to put it all right.”

The policeman leaned back in his chair, “Listen, even if I believed your story, and I ain’t sayin’ I do, it wouldn’t matter. Statute of limitations on arson is twenty years. Nothing I could do if I wanted to.”

“No, please. You have to help me! I have to make amends!”

“Not my problem. Now get out of my office. You’re wasting my time.”

John walked out of the door in a daze. Dark clouds were rolling in from the east and, he smelled rain on the air. Hewished for the rain, wished for it to come and drown out his tears.

He stood there on the sidewalk for a long time while the thunder rolled in the distance. But then a chill came over him, the barest hint of a premonition. He turned and looked back at the building behind him, and it wasn’t a police station at all.

And all the eyes were watching him.

 

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