Every town in Florida has that one run-down house, that one spot filled with urban myths and stories handed down from neighborhood kid to neighborhood kid. Riding bikes around town, coming up with various schemes and games to entertain yourselves in the rural backwaters of a town that lives in the shadow of tourists, every kid eventually finds this old house. It is a source of wild tales and crazy dares, stories shared to frighten.
The truth of the matter is that this house is a source of dread and fear for all the children, but not that they truly understand why. They ride by it, trying to catch glimpses of what frightens them about it. They gather in groups and dare each other to get ever closer, some getting close enough to touch the mildew-covered walls and smell the rot from the leaves mixing with the heat of the sun that lay heavy on the lawn. Sometimes you catch glimpses of a figure, always a woman, moving around inside the sun-bleached house. One of the kids swears they saw her in the backyard, hoe and spade in hand, planting some unseen garden. She is always a witch, always some demonic figure who curses and summons monsters to frighten. Every child knows her, every child knows the run-down house.
As teens many have forgotten the old stories they used to tell themselves, moving onto new horrors from film and stage. But none of them ever forgot that house, or the woman inside. When the stolen beer flowed and the teens gather late at night for thinly-veiled sexual games, horror stories come out. And someone always brings up the old "crack" house, along with one of the horror stories attributed to that house. A murder, missing child, a witch, a demon-summoning agent of the devil. One by one, they all remember the stories they told and the dares they made; they never forgot the house.
The teens find their way to the rotting house, drunk and high on more than the drugs in their system. The house is still there, just as they remembered it. There's a light on, and the peeling paint and crumbling walls on the house seems more imposing and frightening for the light. A shadow moves across the filthy window, someone is inside and awake. One teen is dared to go to the house, to sneak around and investigate. Old fears come back, those primal nightmares that as children refused them sleep. One teen goes up, to touch the moldy door like old times. The light turns out, and they hear the door creak open. They run, all afraid and terrified of what hell spawn is unleashed upon them. They go back to school the next day, laughing off their encounter. They joke about how stupid it is, and how dumb they were.
But they never go back to that damned house, they never bring it up again. And their friend just moves one day, no explanation.
Adults are beyond such things as childhood fears, that's what they all say. Adults have real fears, worries of money and relationships, they don't have time for childhood scary stories. They forget, they move on. They forget all about that one scary house, and the figure inside. They don't even remember what it was like as a teen, that fear clutching the belly and twisting all rational thoughts into a warped horror. They never think about it again, until they go back to that old hometown.
Stories and memories from the old days resurface as old friends drink beers and discuss life. Stories of old teachers and neighbors, childhood loves lost and friendships forged. And of that old house, the one you haven't thought of in years. The beer makes things fuzzy, and you can't believe you were ever afraid of a stupid house. You talk yourself into going to visit the house, if you even remember how to get there.
You remember, because you never truly forgot. It's exactly as you remembered it, unchanged by time. You remember the fear and the horrors, the things your mind has tried to forget. As you stand outside this old house, you hear the door open wide. A woman walks out, a young one clutching her belly that has just begun to swell. Her eyes are filled with dread and regret, her face set and determined, her walk brisk to be free. You remember her, remember your childhood friend who never left town. You lost contact when you moved, you never reconnected; just like she never left this rotting and festering town.
An old woman hangs in the doorway, watching you. The shadow on the moth-eaten curtains, the witch, the devil-summoner. The source of nightmares your whole life, casually lighting a cigarette and gazing at you from a haze of smoke. She knows you, has seen you your whole life. You've known her too, seen her your whole life. She is the decrepit woman you remember being shunned at the wal-mart, the aged woman that adults in town would talk to in hurried and quiet breathes and would be afraid to be seen with. She's the old woman watching you ride by from her seat at the bus stop, but never gets on the bus.
She goes inside, and you run. You drive away, and drink to forget. But in the dark of the night, when your mind won't let you sleep, you remember her. And every time you find yourself in your old hometown, you drive by that broken-down house. And she's always there, covered in a haze of smoke, waiting for you.
Every town in Florida has that house. Each town, living in the shadow of media and tourist centers, live in darkness. Each town is a festering rotting hole, compost to grow new lives in which one day must leave. But someone needs to tend to the compost, someone needs to ensure the healthy leave. The dead stay and rot, their nutrients feeding new generations of life; their gardener stays in that house.
Every town in Florida lives in shadow, rotting and festering as it ages away. Every town has that house, and the woman who tends the compost.