It was a time when ghosts and goblins were real, penny candy was still just a penny and holidays like Halloween were an entire season, not just a single day. Any kid who didn’t have a haunted house in his neighborhood probably also missed out on Three Musketeers candy bars, wax lips, chewy little Coke bottles filled with sugary syrup and those tooth-snapping colored dots on skinny strips of paper. The wide-eyed trio toeing the edge of the curb, anxiously searching every window of the creaky old house across the street, had missed none of these things.
JoJo had a problem saying his “L’s” so lemon would come out “yemon” and his treatment of yellow was a thing of beauty! Lenny had a limp, since he’d been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, and was a frequent recipient of the sort of kindness often bestowed upon any eight year old perceived as being different by his peers. He sort of tagged along with the other two because they didn’t seem to notice … at least they never said anything.
Joanne had kittens. Joanne always had kittens, since one of her three cats was always committing a pregnancy. Where most little girls had dolls in their baby buggies, she had kittens in there. They were her children. Just ask JoJo or Lenny who were regularly charmed into putting their baseball gloves down and playing “the daddy” in an old fashioned game of house. Whenever they tired of the usual games, a trip up the block to see the old mansion on Harrison Street always put the spring back in their step … but somehow, on Halloween, the journey became almost holy.
Probably most of the mystery surrounding the old place was inadvertently created by grownups warning kids never to go inside because it was dangerous. While parents were concerned about their children crossing a busy street and a hundred year old house that was on the verge of collapse, they never seemed to catch on that saying not to do something was the fastest way to fuel a kid’s determination … and word spread around the neighborhood that the old place was haunted.
There were even stories about certain adventurous souls who dared to go in but never came back out. Legend held that you could sometimes see the silhouette of an old man with a long beard in one of the windows as the sun was setting behind the house. Of course, no one knew any of the kids who disappeared nor had anyone spoken directly to a kid who even saw the old man’s silhouette … but quenchless curiosity and limitless imagination kept dauntless young explorers coming back, albeit glued to the near curb, hoping for a glimpse of what might lie beyond the far one. The three friends faithfully kept what was judged to be a safe distance, until one particular Halloween eve when an ego-crushing ‘double-dog-dare’ issued by a sneering cowboy and a snickering nurse, plus some prodding from the pointed end of a witch’s broomstick, moved them to the other side of the street.
It was almost dark and their trick-or-treat sacks runneth over, as the three friends clasped hands and made their way between curbs. They said it was for safety while crossing the street but, with the old house now growing as large as its legend, each of them secretly needed assurance that the others were still there. A single streetlamp dimly lit their way, casting three long shadows on the lawn. They crouched low and crept stealthily to the porch steps, as the wind swirled the leaves into small cyclones. In a loud whisper, Lenny observed that he never realized how much noise dry leaves could make. The others sort of gulped agreement as their small forms were swallowed by the towering shadow of the house.
They just stood there in the chill, eyes fixed upon the splintered wooden door with the large rusty knocker and a gaping hole where the knob used to be. By now, even the murmur of the small band of onlookers gathered across the street had stopped and all they could hear was the dancing, wind-whirled leaves. To everyone’s amazement, Joanne pulled a kitten from inside her coat and hugged it tightly. No one even asked … they were too busy trying to screw up the courage to climb the rickety old steps. Finally, someone counted three and they all went up together. The steps creaked under the weight of the odd little trio, just like in the movies.
With another three count, JoJo eased the door open and the reluctant adventurers shuffled slowly from the porch and slipped inside. It groaned, of course, as haunted house doors do … it was a kind of eternal groan. A web of some sort brushed across Joanne’s face! She dropped the kitten and muffled a scream with her hand. Shafts of moonlight streaming through shattered windows, were just enough for them to trace the little feline’s path down a long, narrow hallway. They drew a collective deep breath and followed. The difference in the length of Lenny’s legs produced a strange cadence that echoed on the ancient wood floor.
As they reached the end of the hall, all three suddenly froze in their tracks … saucer-eyed and slack-jawed at the specter that confronted them. In a windowless room off to the right, there sat an old man in a rickety rocking chair next to a blazing fire. His face looked like leather and his scruffy white beard hung clear down to his belt. Despite his otherwise weathered appearance, he wore a neatly pressed bright red coat with a double row of shiny brass buttons down the front. His not quite white pants with gold piping were tucked tightly into a pair of shiny black boots and the whole ensemble was topped off with a very colonial looking tri-cornered hat. Joanne’s kitten sat in his lap, purring louder with each stroke of his gnarled old hand.
At the sight of his terrified young visitors, the leathery old face broke into a nearly toothless smile. In a very proper sounding accent he said, “I’d like to offer you children some tea, but you see, I seem to have run fresh out!” His bright blue eyes and gentle manner were a welcome relief and soon put the kids at ease.
He said his name was Benjamin and the four of them talked for a very long time. They shared their Halloween bounty with him and he told them stories about the Revolutionary War and the founding of America. Joanne never cared much about history, it was for boys, but Benjamin breathed life into it and his young guests were riveted by his tales. He assured JoJo that someday he would outgrow his speech problem and explained to Lenny that he had probably been a heroic soldier wounded in battle during another time … that’s why his one leg wasn’t quite like the other. All in all they had a most pleasant visit, but it was getting late and they were already going to catch the devil from their folks for staying out past suppertime. Everyone said their goodbyes, and smiled and laughed all the way home, with their shared secret tucked temporarily inside.
The next morning, having confessed the details of the previous night under threat of permanent grounding, three eight year olds once again toed the curb across from the old house on Harrison Street, this time with their parents. The adults were determined to get to the bottom of this ‘old man’ story their children had concocted to explain their tardiness … and to make matters worse, Joanne’s kitten was nowhere to be found and the mother cat had been going berserk!
Somehow the house didn’t look so haunted in the bright light of day, as they pushed open the groaning front door and led their folks down the hallway. Even Lenny’s off-kilter cadence seemed silent. The room where they had talked with the crusty old gentleman was empty, except for Joanne’s kitten playing with a huge cobweb on the seat of the rocker. The fireplace ashes were cold and so were the looks from their parents. “Benjamin!” they called. Again and again, “Benjamin!” but there was no reply … only the scuffling of Joanne’s kitten playing in the dusty chair.
Then, as the inevitability of ‘house arrest’ forever loomed ever larger, JoJo noticed a wooden peg just to the left of the fireplace, and on it hung a faded but familiar tri-cornered hat! He quietly pointed to it so that only his friends could see. One by one they each noticed the hat and smiled a knowing smile. It was now apparent to the trio they would never convince the grownups of their adventure that Halloween eve … but, somehow, when a kid has shared such a special bit of magic with a couple of close friends, forever isn’t really such a very long time.
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