“The house on Avenue 22 the site for another tragedy,” reads the local newspaper.
A couple of years ago, a milkman from the town had fixed up some tin sheets in the burnt-down house, and started living in that ramshackle apartment. He fixed up a shed for his cows in the back, and worked his business out of the broken house. Sometimes I would see him on the way back from college, and he would say hello to me with a smile on his face. He was an ordinary man. A cheerful, ordinary person.
Over the months, his shed expanded. His own lodgings became more stable and sturdier. The rains and the wind couldn’t get to him anymore. His cows were safe. He was living a normal, ordinary life.
Yesterday, he died. He was gored to death by a rogue bull that had been terrorizing the local cows for weeks now.
The man had tried to chase the bull away from his animals. The hulking creature retaliated in anger. He was immediately rushed to the hospital by the neighbors, but he couldn’t be saved. He was an old man, but even then, his death was untimely. “Unprecedented”, was what the article said, I think.
They held a funeral for him today. A few of his customers were the only ones there. His only family was his cows, and they had already been sent over to the care of the nearby animal shelter. The shed and the old tin sheets are the only things left standing in the house.
The house on Avenue 22 is deserted once more.
The warm summer moon hangs low in the sky as my father and I wait for the next round of fireworks to go off. The wedding party is so loud we can hear the music and see the celebrations from where we stand on our terrace. Soon, there is another sparkle of flashes in the sky as yet another rocket finds its way to the stars.
My father wants me to sleep now, but I plead for another ten minutes of the night. He reluctantly agrees. There is another loud explosion that spreads through the air. Accompanying it this time, however, instead of the brilliance of lights, is a large fireball that erupts into the sky.
Unable to understand what’s happening, my father and I stare blankly at the sky, and moments later, another fireball and another explosion fill up the night. Cries of alarm we can now hear, and in the distance, we see the bright orange tint of flames.
There is a house on fire.
My father rushes me down the stairs. The fire seems to be pretty far away from where we live. My brother and I follow my father out to the road; by the time we get there, there are people lined up with buckets trying to douse the flames. My brother and I stand away as my father joins the lines. Soon, we hear the sirens of an approaching fire truck.
The inferno rages on for more than three hours before the fires are finally extinguished. It is the house on the corner of the street that now languishes in sorrow. The other houses had been saved in time, but that house itself is ruined. The flames have engulfed half of it entirely; the walls that still stand seem to mock the ashes of their former fellows.
The house has been abandoned for as long as anybody could remember. Today was no exception. There are no human casualties.
Soon, the fire engine leaves. The neighborhood leaves. A desolate, empty house’s destruction will be a major topic for conversation tomorrow morning, but tonight, it is hardly of any importance. Father leads us back home.
As I fall asleep, I pray to God. And I thank him for destroying that demonic house. I thank him for listening to my prayers.
Reaching the fourth standard did not bring much change into my life, except that my brother had now passed out of college and gone on to study abroad. The hour-long walk back home from school now took only a quarter of that. The midday sun would lull all the neighborhood into drowsy sleep, and it was rare that I had a companion for my walk.
Faced with these circumstances, I would now walk home down Redford Street, taking much effort to avoid Avenue 22, even if it meant having to walk some more distance. I don’t know why I avoided Avenue 22, except for the fact that the burnt-down house at the corner scared me. In my brother’s company, it was only a sad, desolate house, something to run past quickly; but when facing it alone with nobody by my side, it seemed more malevolent than sad. On some days the memories would come rushing back and the fear that had stayed barely buried for so long would claw at my throat again, and sleep would be slow to come along that night.
Rather than have to face all that, I chose to walk down the longer way back home. I did not want to have to face that house ever again.
I sit here on the bench by the bus stop, looking at my diary, in the shade of the oak tree that I have known since childhood, and I ask myself, what desperation, what idiocy could drive people to such extremes.
I open my diary once again.
Since returning here, I have delved as deep as could be into the matter of that house. Not built on the ruins of an ancient burial ground, neither built along the crazed designs of an egotistical money-man. Not a single murder committed in the house, nor a witch’s spell-cast dwelling. The house was as ordinary as any of the others on that street.
I find the page I am looking for.
1931 Earliest occupied
1936 Occupant falls off roof while repairing it; dies of injuries in hospital
1937 Reoccupied by married couple
1944 Stillborn child born to couple
1947 Expectant mother miscarriages
1949 Wife commits suicide. Whereabouts of husband unknown
1953 Reoccupied by family of four
1958 Family moves out; reasons unknown
1965 Reoccupied by family of three
1971 Father and son killed in car accident, widow sells house and moves out
1977 Reoccupied by old professor
1980 Occupant falls prey to mysterious illness; dies in hospital
1989 House burns down
1996 Reoccupied by local milkman
1998 Occupant dies in freak accident
I wonder if I am trying too hard to explain memory.
I wonder if I am putting too much faith in my own memory.
I wonder if I am trying to create reasons to explain imagination. Or is it my imagination itself that is running wild? Even now, after all this time…?
I close my diary and stand up; the sun has set and darkness will soon be here. In the distance, I can see the houses light up. But here, in the shade of the oak tree by the side of the woods, and there, by the house on the end of Avenue 22, darkness rules; darkness is always King.
I need to go back home, and I decide I want to walk down that cursed street one more time. I am not haunted by nightmares now, but even then, the choice is not an easy one.
As I walk past the gate, I can see the painted signboard in the faint twilight.
“Undergoing renovations for reoccupation. Please walk carefully.”
I walk past the gate. I walk past the house. I don’t look back. I don’t look back. I don’t look back at the house again.