Old Man Horace rocked his chair, scraping it on the porch. As I walked up to him, I could see his face, splattered with brown age spots, and his eyebrows, white and wiry like toothbrush bristles. His eyes were almost shut. Other than his nostrils swelling and falling, he might have been dead.
I turned around. The rest of them: Rusty, Jacob, Terry, Mike, and Carl were waiting in the middle of the yard. Jacob’s bike was leaning lazily to the side, but Rusty’s was alert, ready to hurl itself down the road at the first sign of danger. Terry and Mike were smiling, waiting for me to wuss out. Carl had eyes round as apricots.
I leaned in towards Old Man Horace. At once I could see the rumors about him were false. He wasn’t a killer; he clearly didn’t have the strength to drag children into his house and eat them. He was a weak, frail old man.
But did frail mean harmless? There was something else that lingered in his eyes and the half sneer on his lips. This man knew things.
“My— my name is David Mathis,” I said. “You’re Mr. Bartholomew Horace.”
Old Man Horace nodded, his neck creaking like his rocking chair.
“Do… do you have time to talk?” I asked. My foot ached. Somewhere crossing his yard I had tripped on something, maybe a rock. “Can I ask you some questions?”
He made a grinding noise in his throat, a slow, rough cough like a weak engine. I turned back towards the other five. Only a week ago it would have been the other six, but now our friend Jeremy was out of our group, stuck at home.
“Um… Mr. Horace?” I asked. “I think you spoke to a friend of mine. Named Jeremy?”
Air blasted out of his nostrils like a horse. The right side of his face twisted into half a grin, while the left half hung loose on his face, like hot rubber sliding off a roof.
“Jeremy was here a week ago,” I asked. “Do you remember him? He came here in the evening. He hasn’t been right since. He doesn’t want to eat or drink, and his momma has to wash him and do everything for him. He hasn’t been to school, and he doesn’t speak to anyone, not even me. Did… did something happen to him? While he was here?”
Did you do something to him, I wanted to ask. Did you do something to Jeremy to make him sit and stare at his wall, not even eating unless his parents pushed the food down his throat?
Even as I was speaking to Old Man Horace, I was priming my feet, ready to run as soon as anything happened. I shouldn’t have been there, none of us should have. But that was the thing about Bartholomew Horace. The more our parents warned us to stay away from him and his creaking rocking chair, the more we had to know what about him was so dangerous.
Then his right eye moved. It swiveled in the cave of his socket, studying every part of me. It was an eye that could see every scar on my body, even the ones that had long faded away. His eye was pushing into me, peeling away each of my memories, going back year by year, like a mason undoing a house one brick at a time.
The other six— five— were shouting at me. They must have seen something I didn’t, or maybe they heard our parents calling. We were not allowed to be anywhere near Old Man Horace, especially after what had happened to Jeremy last week.
But I had to know. If I ran away from this porch, the question would have eaten me up. I had to know what Old Man Horace had whispered to Jeremy out of that sagging mouth, the words that had turned Jeremy from a boy who spent every day running around outside, into an empty puppet. I had to know, even if it meant becoming exactly like Jeremy.
Old Man Horace was still rocking. He had looked further into me than I could ever see of myself in the mirror. The rest of the boys were still calling. Even the wind, picking up dust in the red sinking sun, was whispering at me to get off the porch before Horace could speak.
Old Man Horace leaned forward, and I couldn’t resist. I had to hear what he had said to Jeremy. His lips were at my ear, his breath warmer than the breeze from the setting sun. The bristles on his chin and mustache scratched against my ear, and my head flinched.
Now he says it.
It’s in such a low voice I don’t hear it the normal way you hear things. It’s all whispers and breath. It doesn’t last longer than a couple words, and then it’s over. Old Man Horace is finished talking to me.
Old Man Horace doesn’t tell me what he told Jeremy. And he’ll never tell anyone else what he’s just told me. Old Man Horace tells each person something different. Somehow, when his right eye looks through you, he sees the one thing you didn’t want him to see. And when he tells you, you can’t get it out of your head.
The sun is there, but it’s less red, and less hot. The breeze stops, and sweat spills down my spine. Then I’m walking away from the porch, across the grass, yellow and crunchy beneath my feet. The others are looking at me, and from their faces I can see something about my own face is changed.
I try to smile at them, to make them feel less afraid. But Old Man Horace’s words have trickled through my ears into my jaw and hardened, cementing my cheeks in place. Even if I could smile, I don’t think I’d want to.
The feel of Horace’s breath and his bristles are still fresh in my ear. The other boys are asking what he said, but I don’t have the energy to answer. I try to get on my bike, try to swing my leg over, but I don’t have the strength. I just topple over to the other side. I try a second time, than a third, and on this last try, I scrape my knee open on the dirt. I leave my bike where it is. As I’m walking with the other five towards the edge of the yard, I see them: dozens of bicycles, balls, slingshots, an air rifle, packs of cards, tangled in the overgrown grass. That’s what it was that I tripped on while crossing the yard for the first time, another bike. But somehow I hadn’t seen them until now. I don’t even think the other five can see them.
Rusty makes up an excuse to leave our group. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to hang around anyone who looks like me right now. The others spread out in different directions, taking different streets to their own houses. I know that Mike is riding in the completely wrong direction, but I don’t think he’ll turn back this way until he’s sure I’ve already gone.
I don’t know how long it takes to walk home, but I do know that I’m carrying invisible weights on my shoulders. I can’t tell anyone about them. The other boys won’t want to hear it, or they’ll tell me I was stupid to go to Horace’s house after what happened to Jeremy. And my own family… there’s no way I can explain what Old Man Horace told me, because it was about them.
Then I’m at home. I’ve been dreading crossing the step through the door; I know as soon as I do, everything Old Man Horace said will be proven true.
I come inside the house. Momma is laughing, bouncing little Eve on her knee. Maybe Momma gives a glance in my direction, maybe she says something, but her eyes are so locked on my baby sister that she can’t even see what’s happened to me. At least Jeremy’s mom and dad noticed that he had changed. At least they tried to feed and water him.
There are footsteps on my side. Mr. Hatfield walks past me, maybe he says hi. I can’t tell anymore. But he’s already siting next to my momma, and Eve, hugging them both, laughing with them. They barely even see me. They don’t need to see me. Old Man Horace was right.
The steps on our staircase don’t even feel real under my feet, and I wonder if I could float up to my room, a ghost in my own home.
Then I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, waiting for one of them to remember that I also live here. But Momma and Mr. Hatfield and their baby are all busy downstairs, and even though my ears have been numb since Old Man Horace put his lips to them, I can hear their laughter and contentment. Old Man Horace was right. And whatever he told Jeremy, I’m sure it was exactly right too.