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Every neighborhood has a haunted house. When I was a kid, it wasn’t an actual house, but a wooden chapel set back into a small immigrant cemetery known as Sunshire Hill. I’d grown up in the Village of Lestershire, went to school and college nearby, and built a successful lawn and gardening business. I had mostly forgotten the old cemetery on the hillside when my family moved across town in my late teens, that was until I took on a summer’s-long service contract to cut the grass at Sunshire. It was the first time in my ten years of business that I didn’t see a contract to its end.
I went to the cemetery without my work crew for the first few weeks, usually at the end of the day. It was only an hour or two of labor. I would breeze through with the mower, wack a few weeds away from the overgrown markers and monuments, paying little attention to the memories conjured with each pass by those aged, wooden walls. Yes, the chapel was still standing. Minus some rotting beams and a few cracked windows, it didn’t look much different than it had in my youth -- like the sort of place Vlad Dracul would have stopped to take Holy Communion on the road to Bucharest. Real Old World. It loomed over the neighborhood when I was growing up, and was the center of our lore-filled adventures and dare-based one-upmanship. The chapel at Sunshire was a throwback to another time; it stood out like a sore thumb amidst the hillside of tidy, factory-built homes and manicured lawns.
By the third week on the job I couldn’t help but think fondly, nostalgically, of the neighborhood and the cemetery itself. There had been a part-time caretaker, but even back then the property still reflected its decades-long neglect. The caretaker’s job description seemed to be ‘run a mower every couple of weeks in the summer, but mostly make sure the rusty cemetery gate opened each morning and closed before dark.’ Easy as hell. It’s not like the gate mattered all that much anyway; the fence only enclosed half of the cemetery.
After the caretaker had gone, we would ride our bikes up to the fence and discuss what, and more importantly, who, lay inside the desolate structure, which neighborhood crone invited the chapel's inhabitant in each night for a bite to eat. In our neighborhood, it was Mrs. Ellsic. The old bat was usually the one to chase us off, as her house was the nearest neighbor to Sunshire. She was well-known among the local kids, specifically for her oversized broom that she was rarely seen without. We would spot her tending to graves once in awhile as we pedalled by, and someone even swore they’d seen her sweeping the steps of the chapel. Everyone knew her as Dracula’s Bride, either because she lived the closest in proximity to the chapel and looked the part, or because when riled up she would scream in her native tongue and it sounded like some sort of nasty spell.
But most nights around twilight, late in the summer, my friends and I would peer through the fence at the chapel, conspiring how we would convince a latecomer that we had seen a candle in the window, or heard an unearthly howl from the wooded area between the chapel and Mrs. Ellsic’s backyard. Challenges and dares were thrown about, and sometimes, but not always, the jawing and posturing would lead to one of us hopping the fence and either standing on the front steps of the chapel, or bravely knocking on the front door, while everyone else pedalled off screaming.
I said I’d never go in that cemetery and the kids gave me hell for it summer after summer. But one afternoon at the neighborhood pool I let my bluster get the best of me and told my crush, Jenny Lynn Johnson, that not only was I going to go up to the chapel, but that my good friend Ron Oliver and I were going to go inside. I had her attention all day and it felt good. She usually didn’t show up because she had strict parents, so I figured I could skate by on talk alone. But Jenny Lynn did show up, whether or not at Ron’s request he never did say, as things got a bit dicey that night.
Being thirteen, with about eight of my friends and the girl that I liked watching, and against my better judgment, I followed Ron in. We walked up the gentle slope that led to the chapel, our friends wide-eyed behind the iron fence. I did my best to avoid stepping on any of the graves, somewhat afraid that some bony Hungarian-American hand would reach up and grab my ankle. When we got to the stone steps that led up to the porch walkway, Ron had to dig his knuckle in my back to get me to climb.
I had faced my fear to a certain extent, and stood before the double-doors of the chapel, taking comfort in the unlikelihood of us finding a way inside, as a thick, locked chain tight against the handles seemed to indicate that the place had been sealed well against vagrants and curious kids alike. But Ron spotted a loose window frame just off to the side of the main entranceway and lifted it wide open while grinning at me. It seemed almost like a secret door it opened so smoothly, and was easy enough to enter through.
Ron was about to slip into the large opening he had made when the tell-tale screeching of Mrs. Ellsic penetrated the treeline beside us. She had spotted our friends at the fence and Ron and I watched, petrified, as her flashlight illuminated their flight. Eight or so outlines took off down the road as she shuffled into the street with her broom at the ready. We hid on the chapel porch for nearly twenty minutes before we saw her head home and her light dim, at which point we made our way back to the fence to retrieve our bikes.
We rode away, and had barely left the cemetery property when Ron tumbled off his bike in front of me, eating dirt before skidding off the curb and into the street on his chest. My stomach flipped when a broad flashlight beam illuminated the scene, me included. It was Mrs. Ellsic! She had been standing behind an oak with her big silver flashlight turned off, and jammed her broom handle in the spokes of Ron’s bike. She must have seen our bikes and had successfully ambushed us. Well, Ron cussed her out and she cussed him out and I pedalled off, never looking back, assuming my friend wasn’t that bad off considering the language he was using.
The next morning I stopped by Ron’s house and he was still cursing that old witch. He lifted up his sleeve and showed me a nasty, red skidmark on his arm he got when he hit the cement. The front wheel on his Mongoose was busted up, too. Mrs. Ellsic had gotten him good and he was already planning how to get her back. We met up with some of the other guys later that week and Ron fleshed out his plan. When he revealed what he had in store for Mrs. Ellsic, I tried to get him to reconsider. But everyone else was egging him on and, as happens with guys that age, I had no choice but to go along with the consensus.
A few nights later we met up and rode our bikes up to Mrs. Ellsic’s, hoods up, masks on. She still had a few lights on in her house when she showed up, so we rode up and down the street a few times until the house went completely dark. We walked with our bikes around the house and up her back steps slowly, keeping an eye out for any passing cars that might spot us. The heat was sweltering that night and Mrs. Ellsic had left her doors and windows open, a screen door our only barrier to entry.
Ron popped the door open easily and everyone rode their bikes inside. We went nuts, hooting and hollering through the old house, tracking dirt all over the floor. Knocking over furniture, pictures, anything that was in our way. Soon enough a beam of light shined from the second floor down to the living room. We looked up to see the old lady scurrying down the stairs, screaming and cursing in her native tongue. It was madness. Caught up in the moment, we chased her out of her own home and into the woods, circling her on our bikes as she scrambled away in her blue nightgown, eventually into the neighboring cemetery. We chased her right through, weaving around gravestones, and finally up to the chapel steps. She was clutching her big flashlight tight, waving it around as scared as I’d ever seen another person. Ron got too close and she coldcocked him with the light, knocking him to the ground, after which, we fled. As we rode away and back through the woods, we yelled, “Go home to Dracula” among other more derogatory ethnic slurs.
Mrs. Ellsic never bothered us again after that. We started high school that fall and eventually lost interest in neighborhood haunts and vampires. I even ended up dating Jenny Lynn Johnson for a couple years.
And so I found myself decades later staring up at the chapel in that neglected cemetery week after week, regretting that I never did have a look inside and conquer that silly childhood fear. Plus, Jenny Lynn was single again after a nasty divorce and I figured she’d have a good laugh when I told her I finally found my way inside the chapel at Sunshire Hill.
So, when I’d finished mowing one evening, I headed toward the chapel. I tried to peer through one of the windows, but they were caked with grime. I tested the door, but the chain was still tight across it, barring entry. I then remembered the window frame that Ron had opened and found that it was still loose with a little jimmying. I lifted it and climbed inside, but didn’t quite find my footing, tumbling a few feet and landing awkwardly on my ankle.
I swore at the moderate pain and got back to my feet. I had built up this elaborate, unearthly image of the place and found that it was nothing but an empty, dirty chapel with a few rotting pews. Still, my childhood imaginings had a lasting effect on me, and as I walked down the main aisle, trying to make out anything of interest in the near dark, I felt an oppressive discomfort.
I continued forward, unnerved by my own footsteps, which echoed in the hollow chapel. I only passed a few rows before something caught my eye. My first thought was that I had spotted some curtains or draperies in a pew, but then as I drew closer I was taken aback that I had likely stumbled upon a sleeping vagrant. But as I approached the figure, I saw that it didn’t have the fullness, the roundedness, of a living being, and dreaded what horror lay sunken within that dusty blue cloth.
When I adjusted what I knew to be a nightgown, I saw the partially mummified husk of an old woman -- her brown, leathery flesh surrounding a gaping maw. I backed away, stricken, unwilling to accept the truth of what I had uncovered. It was only then that I spotted a large, dated, silver flashlight on the ground beside the bench.