James Renner is the author of two books of nonfiction that detail his adventures in investigative journalism (much of which took place in the trenches of the Cleveland Scene): Amy: My Search for Her Killer and The Serial Killer's Apprentice. His work has been featured in Best American Crime Reporting and Best Creative Nonfiction. His novel The Man from Primrose Lane, was published by an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2012. He was also one of the co-founders of local sketch-masters Last Call Cleveland.
Alan's father told him there was some- thing wrong with the house. He said the price was too low. Even in the post-bubble Akron economy, it just didn't make any sense. Not for the size of the home, or for the location- drop-center inside the tony Merriman Hills subdivision, not for the rich-kid school system their would-be kids would someday attend. A four-bedroom Tudor with original windows and a refinished bathroom? For $85,000?
"Something's got to be wrong with it," his father insisted.
Alan waved his warnings off as paternal paranoia. Nothing he ever did was quite up to his old man's specs. This wasn't the same world his father had known at thirty. Men today frequently changed jobs, changed careers, moved from Cleveland to Akron to work for a competing dealership. Adapt to survive. Companies didn't reward loyalty anymore. This wasn't TTR Steel. TTR Steel didn't even exist anymore. That was his point. In this world, this new real world, people sometimes unloaded a home for pennies on the dollar just to chase an opportunity. So Alan almost didn't hear him at all when his father warned him about the house. He'd heard it before.
Trish at least considered it for a moment. "What if he's right?" she asked, bending down to peer under the kitchen sink, again. "What if there is something wrong, like a leak we can't see or a foundation issue and they don't want to tell us and then we buy it and it's too late and we're stuck?" When Trish didn't pause for punctuation it prickled the backs of Alan's eyeballs and gave him headaches. For a teacher, Trish talked an awful lot like a kid sometimes.
"There's nothing wrong with the house," Alan said for the twenty-fifth time.
If there was anything that did give Alan pause, it was the lengths to which the seller maintained a distance from them during closing. Alan and Trish only knew the man by a name on the deed: Gregory Heslop. When they asked for a tour, and then a second-look, they had to give 48-hours notice through the realtor so that Heslop wouldn't be there. When it came time to sign the papers, Heslop used a lawyer as an intermediary even though there was no haggling over the price. The keys were left in the mailbox. All signs of Gregory and the Heslop family, if there had ever been more Heslops than Gregory, had been erased from the property long before Alan and Trish peeked through the windows one winter afternoon after spotting the 'For Sale' sign in the front yard.
Sometimes Alan caught himself wondering where Gregory Heslop was now, why he'd moved away from this adorable Tudor in West Akron. But mostly he wondered why Heslop had never cared to correspond with the home's new owners in any way, even if only to wish them well and to thank them for their money.
But Alan didn't really think there was anything wrong with the house. Not for a while.
The house was not without a few problems. For one, the house did not have central air. It was too hot in the summer, even with ceiling fans spinning, and too cold in the winter, even with the radiators chirping and a boiler growling away in the basement. It was drafty— the windows seemed to suck heat from rooms like angry ghosts. And after heavy rains, the house shifted, floor boards popping as if beneath little feet, especially in their bedroom.
Also, the living room had been designed in a time before television, and so there was really no decent place to hang the plasma TV. The best the nerd squad from Best Buy could do was to mount it on a swivel in the corner by the mantel. But something about that spot tended to make the picture static-y at inopportune times.
One of the things that Trish loved about the house was the woods that wrapped around the back yard. Giant trees. Bigger than any he'd seen elsewhere in Akron. Almost old-growth big. But that couldn't be. There were no old-growth forests in Ohio anymore, right? The woods were beautiful, especially in the fall, when they came alive in brilliant reds and burnt oranges. There was an owl that lived somewhere back there. Late at night it screamed at the house and it sounded like a girl crying.
Occasionally something knocked loudly from behind the wall in Alan and Trish's bedroom, from the place where the wall abutted the bathroom. Somewhere behind that wall was an old pipe that called out for attention.
There was nothing wrong with the house but there was definitely something wrong with the neighbors.
A pair of doctors, Brooke and Erin Seiberling, lived in the colonial to one side, a great white thing with red awnings that had belonged to a former mayor. Brooke and Erin worked odd hours at Akron General and drove matching Mini Coopers. Two months after moving into the neighborhood, Trish had baked an ironic bundt cake and they had walked it over to the Seiberlings' one day when both the Minis were in the driveway. Brooke and Erin had invited them in, sure. They had cut up the cake and served it with coffee. But neither Brooke nor Erin would make eye contact with them and they sat on the edge of the sofa as if ready to jump up and run out of the room. When Alan thought to ask after Gregory Heslop and whether he'd had any family, Erin had choked on a piece of cake. Then Brooke had remembered a supper they were supposed to have with his folks that evening and so they'd said goodbye and walked home. A half-hour later both Mini Coopers pulled out of the driveway next door and did not return for four days.
On the other side were the Kormuschoffs. Barb and Tony. When Alan and Trish had walked over one evening with a bottle of wine and knocked loudly on the front door, no one answered. even though they could clearly hear a television somewhere inside, the sound drifting through the mail slot in the brick wall. Tony stopped mowing his own lawn after that. He hired a kid from a landscaping company to come out to the house once a week to take care of the strip of lawn out front. Trish was convinced he'd hired the kid just so he wouldn't be caught outside one day and be forced into a conversation with them.
"That's crazy," Alan said. "Crazy paranoid."
On Halloween they put out a huge bowl of candy bars. Not those mini Snickers, but full-sized Musketeers and Baby Ruths. It was a silly way to ingratiate themselves with the neighborhood. But most parents wouldn't let their kids stop. They waved awkwardly from the street or simply ignored Alan and Trish as they escorted their little vampires and cheerleaders from the Seiberlings' to the Kormuschoffs'.
Trish and Alan still had friends from Kent where they'd lived near the university for a number of years, and so, in order to feel less lonely in their home, they began to host frequent dinners and game nights with their old chums. It was during one of these social dinners, over a game of Scrabble, that somebody suggested they look up the house on Google Earth.
"Fucking Google," hissed Sara DeLaine, a nervously-thin woman who'd roomed with Trish freshman year. Her interjection was in response to Trish's big score, won by snaking "Googolplex" off the top of "Grist." "They monitor everything now. Medical records. Criminal history. Your email. Our house is on Google Earth for anyone to see. It's Big Brother."
"Yeah, but it's not the government," said Alan.
"It's a CIA front, dummy."
"I don't know why they'd care about me, though. I guess I'm just not worried."
Sara rolled her eyes. She was sitting on the sofa, her legs tucked up under her like a goddamn cat, nursing one of the six Red Stripes she and her common-law husband had brought with them. "No one ever cares about their civil liberties being taken away until it affects them directly."
Trish leaned forward in her chair, drawing attention away from the loose argument. "So what happened?" she asked. "When you looked up your house?"
"Right," said Sara's partner, a round fellow named Henry who worked for a PNC mortgage loan office in Cleveland. "It was creepy. Wasn't it, Sara?"
"I wouldn't say creepy, Henry. It felt like being violated. It was a kind of rape. Really. I mean, you pull up your address on Google Earth and, boom, there's a picture of your house taken from the street when you didn't know they were even there. Nobody asked our permission. I mean anyone could pull up that picture. Thieves. Rapists. Scouting for victims. I mean what if I had been standing at the window, naked, just out of the shower?"
Alan, who knew Sara would never stand near a window naked unless the shades were drawn and the lights were out, laughed quietly. Trish shot him a look.
"It's not funny," said Sara.
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"See what you think. Get your laptop out. Let's take a look. You might feel differently if you pull up the picture of your house and there you are in the front yard pulling weeds with your ass crack hanging out the back of your jeans."
Alan shrugged and went to look for his MacBook.
Sara's neck was turning red. It did that a lot when she got overheated about an idea. "I mean when does it stop? You know that right here in Akron, at that Goodyear hangar, they're building a new kind of blimp that flies into the stratosphere and takes high-resolution video that can read license plates on the ground?"
"I haven't heard that," offered Trish, who was making fast work of the chardonnay in her deep glass.
"It's true. They want to film us 24/7. Know our every move."
"But Sara," said Trish. "You work at the Olive Garden."
Just then Alan returned with the laptop. He placed it on the coffee table and sat on his knees to work it. In a minute, he was typing their address into Google. A small orange street map appeared. He clicked on a green man to the left of the map and dragged it over to his road. The window changed, became a photograph of a beautiful colonial with a wide flowerbed full of petunias and heather outlining an English lawn. They all craned their heads around Alan to see the screen.
"Okay," he said. "What am I looking at?"
"That's the Carney's house, up the street," said Trish.
Alan clicked on an arrow and the view swiveled. Their house came into the shot, a brown Tudor with the paint peeling from under the eaves where the winters gnawed at it.
"Get closer," Sara insisted.
Alan clicked on another arrow that scooted the image further down the road until the view was directly in front of their home. Some months ago, that Google van with its 360-degree camera array sticking out of its roof like a periscope, must have driven by quietly snapping pictures. Trish's Saturn was parked in the driveway. Judging by the blooms on the apple tree these photographs had been taken sometime in May. Five months ago?
"See," he said. "No ass crack. No naked Trish at the win..."
He stopped short when he saw it. A second later Trish let out a surprised hiccup.
"What the hell?" she said.
"What?" asked Henry.
Trish pointed at the window. It was maybe a foot square, on the second floor above the front door, where the roof climbed to a peak. There were a couple problems with this window. First of all, it didn't exist. At least not anymore. As long as Alan and Trish had lived in the house, the front wall above the door had no window. But more alarming was what was standing just inside the window.
"Who's that?" asked Sara.
"I have no idea," said Alan.
It was a girl's upper torso and face, that much was obvious. A young girl, maybe eight years old, in a red jumper with blond hair hanging to her shoulders. Her mouth was open as if she were laughing. Laughing or...
"Jesus, Alan," said Trish. "Is that girl screaming?"
"Wait," he said. "I know what happened. I mean, the Google truck or whatever must've come by when the Heslops still lived here. There must've been a window there they covered over before they sold it. I bet that's George Heslop's kid."
"That's my car in the driveway, Alan."
"Heslop must've had a Saturn, too. It's obviously his car if the window is still there."
"But Alan," said Trish. "That's my Obama 2012 bumper sticker on the back of the Saturn. And there, in the Florida room, you can see your poster through the window. That Lord of the Rings poster you hung on the wall."
Alan creased his brow, thinking.
"So there's not even a window there now?" asked Henry.
"No," said Trish. "It's just siding."
"But, I mean, what's there? What's there where the window is? What's there now?"
"It's a linen closet."
They climbed the creaky old stairs to the second floor, various drinks in hand.
Across the landing from the topmost step was a wall with two doors that opened out. Trish crossed to it and with a look back to her audience opened the doors with a flourish, half expecting some hysterical little girl to come tumbling out. But inside there were only towels and toilet paper, various over-the-counter remedies for cough and cold, and a box of Tampax.
"You know," said Henry, sipping his beer, "it is a rather thin closet."
In fact there was only enough room for the towels if you double-folded them before placing them inside. Yes, it was a thin closet. A very thin closet, come to think of it. And that really didn't make any sense considering how their adjacent bedroom and the bathroom on the other side of the closet both extended all the way to the front eaves of the old house.
Without explaining, Alan walked into their bedroom. Everyone followed a few steps behind.
"Give me hand," Alan said to Henry. The two men pushed a low dresser away from the wall. Behind it was a little wooden door, the kind of handmade door one might find in a playhouse or some Grimm's fairy tale.
"Where does that go?" asked Sara.
"Plumbing access for the bathroom," said Alan. "That's what I thought, anyway. But that window, if it was ever here, it would have to be between the bathroom and this bedroom and the only thing in-between is whatever is behind this door."
"What do you mean, 'if it was ever here?'" said Sara. "It was in the photo. Clear as anything."
Alan sighed. He'd never liked Sara. She was a very black-and-white type of person, the sort of person who missed the subtle beauty of the world because she was always too busy putting on her mascara in the car on her way to work. She never thought to question what she knew to be true.
"You know what Google Earth is?" he asked her. "It's just a collection of pictures taken from that truck that goes by. It looks like one seamless kind of reality because they have a computer that takes the photos and lays them on top of each other and then polishes out the seams."
"I don't get it," said Sara.
"Well, like with any computer program, sometimes there are glitches. Sometimes the seams don't get polished right and you get a picture of a man walking down the street without a head. The part of the photo where his head should be was taken a few seconds later and so it doesn't match up right. And sometimes a glitch might cause a photograph from one area to overlap on a scene somewhere else if the coding isn't right."
"Henry," said Sara, "do you understand what he's saying?"
"I'm saying," said Alan, his voice beginning to take on a hard edge that caused Trish to shake her head at him, "that perhaps the picture of that girl at the window was misplaced from a series of pictures of another home and mistakenly overlaid on top of our house."
Sara crinkled her eyebrows. She didn't have to say anything. Clearly, she would not consider the possibility that Google, of all things, was fallible. Not when being afraid of it was the foundation of half her life.
"Open the door," said Trish.
But suddenly Alan didn't want to. Sara was part of it, sure. Some part of him really felt that whatever was behind the door, and most probably it was just a bunch of pipes and mouse turds, whatever was back there, she didn't deserve to see it. Also it was cold in here, again, even though it was at least sixty-eight outside in the sun. It felt like fifty in here all of a sudden. The air bit at his exposed neck and made him want to go back downstairs where it was always warm. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but with these people.
In the end, Henry was the one who knelt down and opened the wooden door. It held for a second, then popped open, sending a puff of plaster into the air around it. Henry coughed dramatically and patted the dust away with one hand. On the other side of the door was a brick wall. And on the wall was written: NEVER OPEN.
"What do you think it means?" asked Sara.
"I think its meaning is fairly clear," said Alan.
"Yes, well," said Henry, setting down his glass and crossing his thick arms. "It's an odd thing to write."
"And why did they seal it off in the first place? I mean if it is an access to the bathroom or whatever."
Alan stood and raked his fingers through his hair.
"I don't like it at all," said Trish. "Your father he warned us there might be something wrong with the house and obviously whatever made the Heslops drop the price so low is behind that wall and we really should have known before we bought the place and they shouldn't have closed it off just to forget about the problem, which is probably a leaky pipe, a pipe that has been leaking ever since..."
Alan raised his hand and extended his first finger to quiet her. "I'll be back," he said.
Trish called after him as he descended the stairs: "Alan, where are you going?"
He didn't respond but she could hear him clunking down the stairs to the basement and then after another minute he returned. In his right hand was a sledgehammer, the kind with the thick red metal grip. He wielded it like Mjolnir.
"Now, are you sure you want to make a mess?" asked Henry.
"Jesus, Alan," said Sara.
But Alan had known them all long enough to understand a few things. Firstly, if he didn't do this, if he didn't find out what was in there and why it should never be opened, it would be all they talked about for the rest of the night. The conversation would never end. It would be another one of Sara's pointless and banal debates. Also he knew his wife. Eventually her curiosity would get the better of her. She would convince herself that something, some leak or fire hazard or mold, was slowly destroying the house from inside that little room beyond and they would have to do this anyway.
"Excuse me, Henry," he said. And the facile mortgage broker backed away as he brought the hammer around in an arc, like a little league slugger chasing a ball that was too low.
Linda Collier, insurance agent for Hilow Realty, pulled the pictures up on her computer. Two story Tudor. Original windows. Nice back yard. Plus, it was right smack in the middle of Merriman Hills, probably the best place to raise a family within Akron city limits. She could sell this house. Great Recession be damned. One by one she uploaded the photographs she'd taken on her digital camera to HilowRealty.com.
It was another one of Randy Richter's flips. Half her homes were Richter properties. Ten years ago Richter had been a history teacher at John Kennedy High School in Franklin Mills. Now he snatched up cheap homes he could rehab quickly and turn for profit. This was his best find so far. Richter said he'd picked the Tudor up at auction for $68,000. He was probably exaggerating a bit. Linda figured she could sell this house for around $145,000, as long as he wasn't in a hurry. He hadn't even put that much sweat equity into fixing it up for sale. Just patched a hole in one of the bedrooms.
Then again, the story about the previous homeowners was a bit... well, it was strange. And it didn't take much to scare aware prospective buyers, Linda had learned. She once had to sell a home in Kenmore where a murder/suicide had gone down. Guy shot up his ex and then put the Colt 45 to his temple. Lots of work, there. The history of the house slashed the price by fifty percent. This one, though. It wasn't that bad. Not much of a story actually. So the previous homeowners, the Murphys, had disappeared. So what? Walking away wasn't a crime. People did all sorts of crazy things in this economy. Still, it was just creepy enough to frighten off some of the more superstitious clients.
The neighborhood made up for its odd history. Merriman Hills was nestled into a crook of the Ohio Valley foothills and commanded a stunning view of the Cuyahoga River in the Fall, after the leaves turned. Richter claimed the area was once the center of civilization for the Shawnee Indians who believed the valley was a "thin" spot between this world and the next, a good place to communicate with God. She had asked him not to broadcast that bit of trivia.
As she reviewed the pictures one more time before publishing the listing, Linda paused at one in particular. This photograph showed the house from the street, head-on. Strange. She hadn't noticed the window above the front door before. Obviously, it must be there but, in her mind, she could only recall smooth siding there.
A second later, she saw the faces.
A red flush came over her. She looked around the office. General Hilow was sitting back there in his office, watching a rerun of the Hills. Other than that, she was alone.
She had gone all through the house, using the key in the combination catch Richter had left hooked to the doorknob. Every room, just to make sure it was ready to sell. Of course, there'd been nobody in there. Linda used the mouse to zoom in a bit.
Five faces were scrunched around the oblong window, looking out. Two men. Two women. And a young girl in a red jumper.
Some weird camera glitch, she told herself. Some digital bleed-through from some long-deleted photograph.
Quickly, Linda used the paint tool to smooth the siding pixels over the window. In a moment, it was gone, along with the pale faces behind the glass, the pale faces that seemed to be calling out to her as if they had watched her standing in the yard taking the pictures.
Once it was gone, she found it easier to believe it had been a hiccup in the digital code, some random transposition of old frames. Without allowing herself time to hesitate, Linda clicked on the 'publish' icon and the listing appeared on the realty website.
Tomorrow she would send the link to her contact list. Someone would want this house. After all, at $145,000, it was quite a steal.
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