By William Falo
I came back to Cherry Hill to find something missing in my life. The burn scars on my hands made me wonder if I should have stayed away.
I stopped at an office building, remembering a haunted house that was there in the past. I parked behind it and stared out at the backyards of distant homes. I wondered if there were remains of the haunted house somewhere around there. When some crows landed and cawed at me, it fed my suspicion, but before I would trespass and look crazy, a man with a bad leg came out of one of the houses. He limped toward me.
“How do you know me?”
“I recognize you. Do you remember that place? I mean, what it was? The haunted house, the movie being filmed there.”
He pointed at the office building behind me.
“I,” flashes of memories came, a movie camera, people dressed as vampires and monsters. “You were there?”
“No, not right away. My daughter was and,” He stopped.
“How did you know I would come now?”
“I heard the crows and looked out.”
I started to leave. How could I trust him?
“I wanted to thank you. My daughter does too.” A girl walked out of his house.
“Do you remember her?” It started to come back, but I was missing details.
“Can you tell me more?”
I walked over and sat on a lawn chair.
Toilet paper hung from the trees, and car windows were soaped up; it was a typical Mischief Night in Cherry Hill. Inside an old vacant house, a group of high schoolers started to make a movie. It was a high school project for an entertainment arts class at Cherry Hill West High School.
They let the younger kids watch because they would be movie stars that night and wanted an audience.
They worked as gophers, getting anything the actors wanted. The camera whirled as they filmed a girl in vampire makeup getting up from a fake coffin.
A few of them smoked cigarettes, and a joint was passed around. Everyone became more chaotic as the night went on; people came and went into the old house that had been abandoned for a long time.
There was a rumor that the previous owner hung himself in the bedroom after his wife died due to tuberculosis.
The director, a high-school senior, often yelled for silence as they reached the scene where the vampire would rise out of the coffin, which looked scary. The candles that surrounded the room gave an eerie atmosphere. “Silence,” the director yelled, and everybody was quiet. Then they all heard a strange sound. Most of them swore it was a rope swinging, so they all froze. You were there in the back.
Everybody froze, then a cough came from the bedroom, followed by footsteps. There was nobody in the room.
“I’m getting out of here,” the vampire rose from the coffin, tripped on her gown, and knocked over a bunch of candles. The flames caught on the wooden walls, spreading so fast that everybody made a mad rush for the door. Smoke filled the house; with no cell phones, help was a long way off; cries filled the night, and screams reached the nearby homes. Some local residents came to the rescue and helped as the fire lit up the dark night.
It appeared that everybody had gotten out. You were near the door and heard a crying sound, and before anyone could act, you ran into the smoke. The smoke prevented anyone from following, sirens finally filled the air, and you were inside a long time; people sobbed, some mumbled about a ghost, a demon, and a man cried for his missing daughter.
“Molly,” he cried out. His bad leg slowed him down, but he tried to get into the burning house, but others stopped him.
He nodded. Hope was lost for you and Molly.
People cried out loud. It was a real-life horror, but the sound of footsteps made them all stop; then, a form appeared in the smoke, and you came out of the house with the girl. Your hands were burned, and someone wrapped them while Molly collapsed in her father’s arms, my arms; she was alive. You collapsed and moaned in pain until help arrived.
“They called it the Mischief Night Fire and said it was fortunate that nobody died, but there were injuries and psychological damage. Molly had lung damage, but it healed. Your hands would never be perfect, and you disappeared from the area to escape the trauma. Survivors were split over if there was a ghost or a Mischief Night prank that caused the panic. The police said it was a prank that went wrong.”
“No, it was a ghost,” I said. “I saw it.” I shivered.
“Molly,” I pointed at his daughter.
“Yes, it’s only because of you she is here.” Molly was crying as she walked toward me.
“We tried to find you but couldn’t.”
“I didn’t want to be found; I had a lot of issues, I couldn’t be anywhere near a fire or even a bright light fearing it would burn me, and I blocked all this out until my mother passed away. I found a shoebox with news articles about the fire. I had to come back.”
The hugs lasted a long time. They were careful not to touch my damaged hands.
“I want to show you something,” he said. We walked into his house.
On a desk, there was a microphone and sound equipment.
“I’m starting a podcast about the fire, then maybe adding other stories.”
“That’s cool. I listen to a few podcasts.”
“Do you want to stick around Cherry Hill? I would love a co-host..”
I saw Molly smiling and pleading with her eyes. She jumped up when I said yes and hugged me. The tears came then, and not only because of sadness.
I returned to my old home on Chapel Avenue and parked the car on the busy street. The house was for sale. I walked around the neighborhood, and the memories flooded back to me. I saw Kingston Elementary School, the same one I attended. I walked up towards Kings Highway, past the church where they played street hockey, and down to the old Catholic church where there was a carnival long ago. I ate at Johnnie’s Pizza which was there longer than I was alive.
I sobbed when I passed houses of neighbors who died but smiled when I saw new children playing in the same place. The haunted houses were gone, but the ghosts remained, and I accepted that as I returned to my car. I called the realtor on the sign and said I was interested in buying the house on Chapel Avenue.
I drove away and headed back to the location of the fire, but now it was for a different reason, not to remember, but to create new memories.
* * *
William Falo lives with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo