Playing House, Helen Patterson
I’m not sure who started it, but we kids created a game called Vampire House, or
House. In House, you break into one of the dark, brooding houses that appear suddenly
in broad daylight. Once inside the house, you go exploring. The houses are always
empty, lifeless. There’s always one iron door that won’t open no matter what you do.
The only rule is you absolutely must leave the house before the sun sets.
-Dr. Jane Medina, “Setting the Record Straight: My Personal Experience with the
Phenomenon Popularly Known as ‘Vampire Houses’”
It’s late, and our parents aren’t home yet. There isn’t any food in the fridge, and the three of us are hungry and bored. I suggest hide-and-seek, but Sally thinks it’s for babies.
“Let’s play House instead,” she says. “It’s what everyone at school plays.” Skye and I look at each other. Skye’s eyes are wider, bluer, and much less innocent than mine were at her age, but she’s still my littlest sister. I must protect her.
“It’s almost dark, Sally,” I say. “We can’t even reach the nearest house before sunset, and no one knows what happens after sunset…”
“Snap! Slurg! Glugglugglug!” Sally laughs, her canines prominent.
“Skye’s afraid! Little baby-blue Skye!”
“I’m not a baby!” Skye says. “And there’s a new one, a new house, right down the street! I’ll go all by myself!” She runs out the front door.
“You shouldn’t have teased her like that,” I say to Sally as we run after Skye. “Mom and Dad will be pissed.”
“Like they care what we do!” Sally says.
“Where is this house, anyway?” I ask. “It must…” I trail off as we round a bend in the road. There, in a formerly empty lot, is the house. In the yard, foot-tall dandelions sway from Skye’s passing. Skye herself stands on the porch. As soon as we see her, she lifts her chin defiantly, pulls the heavy door open, and is swallowed up.
Sally and I step through the front door and into a long, dark hall. On the left, there’s a living room with IKEA furniture. On the right, a dining room with a long, dark table. At the end of the hall, a graceful staircase spirals upwards.
The house eats sound. The second we step over the threshold, the scuffling of our shoes, the panting of our breath, the whispering of a faint breeze, all vanish. I can only hear my heart thudding in my ears. The house smells as empty as it sounds. The air is oddly heavy and flat on my tongue.
“Smile!” Sally says, grabbing my face and pulling it against hers. There’s a flash of light, and she releases me.
“No Wi-Fi in here?” She fiddles with her phone. “I’ll have to upload it later.”
“Will you shut up and help me find Skye before—”
“Before what? We have a few minutes, right? Ooh! I bet it’s just like on TikTok! Oh my God, why am I not filming this?”
Sally raises her phone and runs off.
I wander the house alone, worrying. The house is impeccable, like a model home. Like a model home, it’s unlived in and fake. I hurry, but Sally and Skye dart ahead of me, around me, behind me, always out of reach. I am a terrible babysitter and a worse older sister.
Time seems to move too quickly. From the upstairs windows, I see the sun dipping ever lower on the horizon.
“Where are they?” I whisper to myself.
“Hey! Scaredy-Jane! Down here! We found the hidden door!” Sally yells.
I cringe. It feels like the house is watching us, that it senses our presence. We should only talk in whispers if we dare talk at all.
I find Sally and Skye in the pantry. Set in the back wall of the pantry is a locked, iron door. Sally bangs carelessly on the door with one hand. Her other hand holds her phone. Skye stands a few steps behind her, hands balled into rigid fists.
The sun finally sets, plunging the kitchen into purple shadows. At that exact moment, the doorknob turns, and the door begins to open.
Sally screams and runs, knocking Skye to the floor.
“Run, Skye!” I scream, but Skye is frozen on the ground, staring at the soundlessly opening door. I know I should help her. That’s what big sisters do. But then I see a hand, bloated and inhumanly pale against the darkness behind the door, reach for Skye’s throat.
I can’t stand to see what follows that hand. I turn and run after Sally, through the front door, and into the sudden rush of living, chilly air, of crickets and birds serenading the dying sun.
The door slams shut as I bolt out. It clips my heel, and I stagger off the porch.
Sally collapses into a pile of dandelions. Their jagged leaves and faded, yellow blooms cling to her arms as she sobs. Then, her face freezes as she stares behind me, back at the house.
I turn around, and I see Skye’s face. She’s still trapped inside, beating her tiny fists against the little window above the front door. The window is at least ten feet off the ground. She hangs there, suspended, screaming. But we can’t hear her. The darkness in the house is so great that I can only see the dim outline of her face framed by wispy hair like dandelions gone to seed. And two fists pounding the glass without a sound.
And then, she’s gone. The house simply isn’t there anymore, and Skye is gone, too.
Nobody knows what happens to anyone still inside a house when it vanishes. No one has ever seen my sister, Skye Medina, or any of the others who have gone missing after they vanished. I pray for them all.
-Dr. Jane Medina
Helen Patterson lives in Oklahoma, and is obsessed with all things horror. Her most irrational fear is randomly developing the rare genetic brain disorder Fatal Familial Insomnia. Follow her on Twitter, Goodreads, and Letterbxd @ScaryShelley, and tell her your favorite spooky book or movie.