“And that’s Patty Wilson’s house,” Billy said, pointing out the car window.
Then, a few seconds later …
“And there’s where Steve Bonds lives,”
It was a bright Sunday morning in early fall, and the Claussens were on their way to church. As it happened, the road they traveled lay along a stretch of Billy’s new bus route. He had just started first grade and was eager to show his parents around the countryside.
“And that,” Billy said as the car banked to the right, “is Joanne’s house.” He pointed to a broken down shack standing in the middle of a field. Weeds grew ten feet tall and threatened to swallow the whole structure. There was no mailbox or power lines,half the windows were missing, and the other half were broken.
In the front seat, Monica and Brad looked at each other.
“That place has been empty since I was a boy,” Brad said. “Nobody lives there, son.”
“No, Joanne lives there!” Billy exclaimed.
“I don’t remember hearing about a Joanne,” Monica tried a more diplomatic approach. “Is she a new girl?”
“She’s not a girl at all, Mom. She’s the old lady who lives in that house.”
Now Monica and Brad exchanged worried glances. “
“How do you know Joanne, Billy?” Monica asked. “You haven’t been in that house, have you?”
“No, Mom. Jeff Robinson told me about her. Said she has been a family friend for a long time.”
Monica and Brad let out relieved breaths. Jeff Robinson was three years older than Billy and a smart aleck, just like his father, Pete. The fourth-grader had been pulling Billy’s leg, and their son was just too naive to recognize it.
“Well, I don’t want you to go nosing around that place, alright?” Brad said, his voice turning playful.
“I won’t, Dad,” Billy said, not sure how he’d even have the opportunity. “Dad, why shouldn’t I go messing around at Joanne’s?”
Brad scraped his lower teeth against his upper lip to keep from laughing.
“Well, did you see that place? It’s scary looking, if you ask me. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if Joanne is a witch!”
“Oh,” the boy answered quietly, and he slumped down in his seat, suddenly afraid to look back on Joanne’s place.
A month went by, and Brad forgot all about “Joanne.” Billy hadn’t mentioned her again, and Brad had stopped going to church with the family as the temperatures fell.
Times were tough, and the Claussens were doing all they could to scrape by. With Christmas approaching and his hours at work uncertain, Brad took on a few odd jobs to chip in a little more cash to the family coffers.
In mid-October, he signed on with the local newspaper to deliver the Sunday morning edition, and it only took him a quick glance at his customer list to realize he’d be traveling Billy’s bus route again.
What he didn’t realize at first, and not until he was standing in front of the place, was that one of the addresses belonged to “Joanne.”
Brad felt silly walking through the tall grass with a paper in hand, and he was sure some varmint would run up and take a nibble out of him, or that he’d fall through the porch floor … or that a witch would grab him from inside the house.
None of that happened, and Brad left the paper on the porch, same as he did at every other house … even though he could see clean through the place, courtesy of busted out windows and gaps in the siding.
When he got back to his car, he checked the address again, and again, and there was just no way he had it wrong. He’d have to ask his boss about it before the next Sunday, just to make sure.
Except, the week got busy, and he forgot.
And so, a week later, Brad found himself trudging up the desolate and scraggly country walk again, paper in hand, sure he was in the wrong spot even though he had checked ten times over.
He shrugged and dropped the paper on the porch — what else was there to do? He’d just have to make sure to ask his boss what the deal was this time around. Must have been some long-forgotten account that just needed to be closed out.
Brad turned to head back to his car, then stopped, a chill running down his spine as realization set in.
The porch had been empty when he dropped the paper. Last week’s paper was not there. Where had it gone?
And there was something else.
Slowly, Brad turned back to the house, where a slip of paper nailed to the front door flapped in the light breeze. Had that been there moments before?
Brad wasn’t sure.
He tugged the paper loose, and the door creaked open, revealing a dark interior completely devoid of furnishings, with holes in the floor and roof, and most of the plaster missing from the walls.
Brad cast his eyes do the slip of paper, a simple handwritten note:
“Thank you so much for delivering my paper last week. It’s been so very long since I had a visitor. — Joanne.”