February 3, 2023

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How to sell a haunted house

by Grady Hendrix

Louise pulled into the driveway and got out. Her rental car looked too bright and blue next to the dry front yard. The camellia bushes on either side of the front steps looked withered. The windows were dirty, their screens blurry with dirt. Dad hadn’t installed the storm windows yet, which he always did until October, and nobody had swept the roof where dead pine needles were bunched into thick orange continents. A limp seasonal flag with a red candle and the word Noel hung on the front porch. It looked dirty.

The first blank line of Listr appeared in her head and filled in: Walk through house. She would start here. Take a tour. Assess the situation. That made sense, but her feet didn’t move. She didn’t want to go inside. It felt like too much. She didn’t want to see it so empty.

However, as a single mom, Louise was an expert at doing things she would rather avoid. If she doesn’t rip the band-aid off and go about the business, who will? Forcing herself to walk across the dry grass, she opened the screen door and reached for the knob. It didn’t turn. no keys Maybe the back? She walked around the house where the yellow grass faded to earth, unlocked the waist-high chain-link gate, swung it open wide with her hip, and slipped through.

Mark’s wood stood abandoned in the center of the backyard, a clump of once-yellow pines that had faded to gray. Louise recalled how excited her mother had been when Lowe turned it in for the patio Mark promised to build in 2017. Since then it had stood untouched, killing the grass.

Not that there was much weed to kill. The backyard had been a blind spot in her family, a large, weed-strewn expanse of dirt and whatever mutant grass could survive without watering. Nothing significant grew backwards, except for a ridiculously tall pecan tree in the middle that was probably dead and a twisted cypress tree in the back corner that was overgrown. A wall of immortal bamboo separated them from their neighbors.

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Louise grabbed the rattling old knob on the back door to the garage and her heart stopped. She expected it to be locked, but it turned under her hand and opened with a familiar fanfare of squeaking hinges. She forced herself to go inside.

Shadowy cousins, neighbors and aunts huddled in the garage, sipping Coors as they always do on Christmas Day, Bing Crosby playing a boombox, the women smoking Virginia Slims and adding notes of menthol to the pink perfection of the roasted Christmas ham. Louise’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and the phantoms vanished and the garage looked twice as empty as before.

She went up the three brick steps to the kitchen door and froze.

She heard the muffled voice of a man speaking with confidence and authority from somewhere in the house. Louise stared through the window in the center of the door, peered past the diaphanous white curtain, trying to see who it was.

The brick pattern linoleum floor rolled past the counter separating the kitchen from the dining room and ended on the far wall where her mother’s string art gallery hung above the dining room table. The plastic tablecloth changed with the seasons, and now it was red poinsettias for the winter. The JCPenney chandelier hung overhead, the china cabinet pushed into the corner, the chairs behind her.

The man continued talking inside the house.

She could see a small part of the entrance hall with its green carpet, but no people. A woman asked the man a question. Was Mark in there with a realtor? Has he already taken things? Louise hadn’t seen any cars parked outside, but maybe he’d parked around the corner. He could be sneaky.

She carefully turned the bolt. The door broke its seal, then swung open and the man’s voice grew louder. Louise walked in and pulled the door shut behind her, then crawled forward, straining her ears, trying to hear what he was saying. Details registered automatically—her mother’s purse sitting at the end of the counter, the answering machine flashing its red light for 1 new message, the smell of sun-warmed Yankee Candle—then she reached the dining room and stopped.

The man’s voice sounded big and small at the same time, and Louise realized it was coming from the television in the living room. Her scalp tightened. She looked into the entrance hall. It grew dark on the left and led deeper into the house. To the right was the living room where someone was watching TV. Louise held her breath and rounded the corner.

Hundreds of her mother’s dolls stared at her. Clown dolls on the sofa, a harlequin clamped to one of his arms, German dolls with doll faces crowded a shelf above their heads, a swarm of dolls stared through the glass doors of the doll’s closet on the far wall. On the doll’s closet was a diorama of three stuffed squirrels. The TV played the Home Shopping Network for two giant French Bébé dolls, sitting side by side in their father’s brown velvet armchair.

Mark and Louise.

That’s what her mother called them when she bought those ugly, expensive, four-foot-tall dolls, with their hard, arrogant faces and coarse, cropped hair.

No matter where you two go, I can keep my precious babies with me forever, she had said.

The girl sat stiffly in her layered sundress, arms at her sides, legs stretched out straight, strawberry-colored lips pouted, eyes blank, staring at the TV. The boy was wearing a navy blue Little Lord Fauntleroy jacket with a white Peter Pan collar and shorts, and his blond hair looked as if it had been chopped into a pageboy’s head with a pair of blunt scissors. In between lay the remote control. They had always scared Louise.

She looked down the hall but saw no other sign of life—the bathroom door was open, the bedroom doors were closed, no lights were on—so she forced herself to swipe the remote control between Doll Mark and Doll Louise, but didn’t try to close her clothes Touch and turn off the TV. Silence fell around her and she stood alone in the house full of dolls.

Excerpt from How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023