Vivien rose and closed the curtains around the room.
“Do you mind if I use your restroom, Miss Wallace?” Lucas asked.
“Down the hall and to the left,” said Vivien, pulling curtain ties and shaking out wrinkles.
Lucas followed her directions. The floorboards were dark and the hallway papered with an embossed white octagonal pattern. More photographs hung on the walls, showing a brooding Georgian building being raised from the ground and more people in period clothes. Amongst these were bold, simplistic charcoal sketches that looked to have come from asylum patients.
Past an open bedroom, Lucas saw a pitcher and basin on an ebony table by a door to the left. He tried the glass doorknob, but it didn’t budge. It didn’t even rattle against its casing. It stuck fast, as if it was only for show. Lucas went back to the living room. Vivien was mixing tea in the kitchen again. Rooster looked doubtfully at the wall beyond which Marley sat on the porch.
“I didn’t quite find the restroom, Miss Wallace,” said Lucas. “Is it the locked door?”
She stopped mixing tea.
“Oh, Lord,” she said.
“What?” said Lucas.
She turned around, putting her hands on the counter behind her. She looked at the middle of the kitchen floor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t been quite frank with you.”
“Alright,” said Rooster. “What do you mean?”
“It was me,” she said, “in the picture in the book.”
“That picture was taken over forty years ago, at least,” said Rooster.
“Fifty,” she said.
“You haven’t aged ten years beyond that,” said Lucas.
“No,” she said.
The hair on Lucas’s neck stood on end. He felt his mouth run dry. Rooster took a step towards Vivien, peering intently.
“You’re not really here, are you?” said Rooster.
“I’m here and there, from time to time,” she said. “I can’t particularly explain it, but once the house starts to go—you’ve only a couple minutes.”
“What happens after that?” said Lucas.
“You see where he’s sitting?”
She pointed to where Marley Hendrick rocked on the porch.
“It’ll be the only part of the house left,” she said.
“Is he a ghost too?” Lucas shouted.
“Please!” said Vivien with a pained look. “Keep your voice down! No he’s not a—ghost, as you call it. He’s very much alive, and he’ll be very angry.”
“Why did you keep us here, then?” said Rooster, his temper rising.
“I’m sorry,” she pleaded. “I try to help folks! I didn’t mean for him to show up!”
Without warning, half the kitchen simply vanished as though it had never existed. Vivien stood on a patch of bare foundation slab. The sun shone down on the three of them. Dry pine needles and oak leaves lay scattered around their feet. The gardenia bushes around the house looked wild and unkempt. Tears appeared at the corners of Vivien’s eyes.
“You’re going to have to run in a minute,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
With that, she was gone.
The boys turned around. The final wall stood alone, with the remains of the porch sticking out from it. Sharp angles of filthy broken glass pointed inward from the sides of the old window sashes. All the pictures and furniture had disappeared, and the wall was brown and peeling from decades of weather. Chunks of it had fallen away, and the cedar studs showed through. Marley sat on a rocker on the porch. They could see his back clearly through the gaps. He had a machete in his hand, and he tapped it on the porch boards, humming to himself.
Rooster motioned to Lucas that they should go quietly. The boys walked as carefully as possible across the concrete slab, but Lucas’s foot trod on a dead leaf. At the crunch, Marley lifted his head and turned to stare at them through the broken window. A tangled cataract of graying beard fell from his face. Several teeth were missing from his open mouth. He wore tattered coveralls and a soiled cotton knit shirt that had faded from red to a threadbare pink. The powerful smell of sweat and filth washed over the boys from a distance. Seeing them, he stood up and faced them.
“Ha!” he shouted at them. “HA!”
He lifted his machete and slapped the flat of it on the wall. Rooster looked at Lucas.
“Go!” he said.
They tore off the property towards a far embankment, sprinting at top speed. Rooster outpaced Lucas and looked back. Marley came off the porch and loped after them, hollering with a bestial noise and waving the knife.
“Come on!” Rooster shouted to Lucas. “Come on!”
Lucas was out of breath and already sweating. He heard the heavy boot-slap of Marley running behind him, the grunting breath, and swish of the knife. Then he heard the welcome sound of a shuffle and a crash as Marley tripped. Lucas looked back and slowed down while Marley rolled across the ground and collected himself.
“What are you waiting for, an invitation?” yelled Rooster.
Lucas took off again. Satisfied, Rooster turned to run, but he had come too far without looking. He tripped over a cluster of wily gardenia shrubs and fell facedown into a mess of leaves and white flowers. Glancing behind himself as he fled, Lucas tripped over his fallen friend and fell beside him. Marley had risen again and came on, brandishing the machete.
Lucas made a wild bid to stand up, accidentally pulling a single blossom off the bush, and the boys scrambled up the embankment, scratching their hands on the brambles and coarse grass. Lucas didn’t hear Marley behind them as they climbed. Cresting the top of the rise, they could see the road in the distance. Lucas chanced to turn around.
Marley Hendrick crouched down where Lucas had thrown the blossom. He cupped the broken petals in his rough, meaty hands, and he buried his misshapen face in them. Lucas grabbed Rooster by the shoulder and turned him around, and they looked down at the man. Not only did he sniff the blossoms, but he wept aloud, making animal-like whines as he rubbed the flower petals violently on his face.
“Maybe we should do something,” said Lucas.
“What?” said Rooster. “You want to help the man with the machete?”
Marley heard them, and he lifted his eyes to see them. His face was smeared with grime and petals and contorted by fury. He uttered one intelligible word.
“Go!” he shouted.
They went, and the sound of weeping grew behind them.