The Forgiving Preview
Jacobi House stood like any house—severely erect, perhaps even proud, but made by human hands.
Its two-stories perched high on a bluff on the Willamette River, not in isolation, but in Portland, Oregon, a city of more than six hundred thousand souls. In decay, the house remained defiant, but that was true of most historic buildings that had survived into the new millennium.
Evil may have walked its halls, but the building itself wasn’t evil in any of its parts. Its foundation didn’t disturb any burial plots, American Indian or otherwise, and its architectural design wasn’t a demonic summoning glyph, though these theories had been suggested each time the house had been partially torn down and rebuilt.
People feared the place like they feared the dark. Hope died there. Horror put down roots. But Jacobi House was like any other house.
Save for one thing.
Jacobi House needed forgiveness. And it would have forgiveness, hell or high heaven.
On the south side of Jacobi House stood the smaller Stonecipher House.
After the railway had connected Portland to Sellwood in the early 1900’s, the Stonecipher tradesmen, mostly carpenters, built a blue and white Victorian Revival next door for the same reason lighthouse keepers build family lodging near lighthouses. The Stonecipher men took shifts in Jacobi House fixing plumbing, replacing rot and rust, minding the electric, and remodeling whole rooms, but they needed accommodations less harsh and unforgiving for their wives and children.
The caretaking of Jacobi House passed down through the generations until only three Stoneciphers remained alive: mother and her two young children, Molly and Alexander.
“In the beginning…” Six-year-old Molly read out loud at her child-size desk in her austere bedroom. Her Bible lay open to a picture of the serpent tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. “…God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Molly’s hair, having never been cut, was the same length as Eve’s in the picture. Members of The Cross of the Lamb had to follow a long list of rules: conservative dress, long hair for girls, prayer three times a day, no unclean meats, no caffeine, no spicy foods, memorization of the whole Bible before age twelve. The list went on from there.
As required, she read from the Bible every day in the light from her window, even though she didn’t know the meaning of many of the words. She had six more years to get it right. “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” She yawned into her fingers. “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.”
Antsy, she flipped ahead. The Bible was the longest, most boring book in the whole world. It had illustrations, but she already knew them all, even what pages they were on.
Jacobi House’s upper-story windows stared back through razor wire that topped a dividing wall. Dead leaves blew past. Molly usually paid the house next door no mind, but her father’s rattling, wet coughs had echoed through Stonecipher House the past few nights, even though Mother had buried Father out back more than six months ago. It had to be the cursed house next door that made his suffering linger.
Molly left the Bible. She put her ear to her door and held her breath to listen. She swallowed her excess spit. Satisfied no one was coming, she crept back across the room, knelt beside her desk, and removed a baseboard.
Inside the wall waited Dolly, a cornhusk doll Father had let Molly squirrel away, and she hugged it and kissed its corn silk hair. The doll was all she had left of him.
“You be a good little girl,” she whispered. “Or your skin will burn like paper.”
She replaced the baseboard and sat at her desk.
As she played behind the glass of her window, the wind howled, and the trees behind Stonecipher House undulated and lost more leaves. The leaves covered her father’s grave. They floated out over Sellwood Park and the river.
Mixed with the rustling leaves and the howling wind, human screams originated from Jacobi House.
In contrast, Molly’s room was almost silent. She repressed the urge to tell Dolly stories (Mother might hear), and instead danced the doll across the picture Bible, across the burning of Sodom, across the Nile red with first-born blood, across the Jews wandering the desert, and finally into the loving arms of Jesus.
She pulled at the tight, itchy collar of her Puritan dress. More leaves blew past her window. How nice the fresh air would feel.
Windows could usually be opened.
She crawled onto her desk and pushed up on the window frame. It wouldn’t budge. She braced her feet on the surface of the desk and pushed up with all her strength. The window burst open with a loud CLACK and let in a rush of wind that reversed direction and blew the doll between Molly’s feet off the desk and out the window.
The husk dress caught on the razor wire on the dividing wall.
The doll danced on the razor until another gust sent it flying down onto the Jacobi property. Dolly was gone.
The wind died and left a distant screaming pinned in the air. Molly backed off the desk and covered her ears. Her eyes watered.
From a barred window across the way, the screaming intensified. A lace curtain wavered behind the bars. Sometimes, if Molly watched closely, she saw glimpses of children in Jacobi House.
Molly’s window slammed shut and cut off the screams. Her mother, buttoned up in her own murrey Puritan dress, stood with her hand clutching the window frame. “Molly! What’ve I told you? You know better! Never open this window. What’ve I told you about Jacobi House?”
“What haunts Jacobi House?”
“Then why did you open the window? I’ve warned you. I’ve told you about this.” She continued in a more controlled tone. “If not for the House of Skulls, that sin would bear down upon us. And what would happen then?”
Her mother gazed out the window. “You must promise me to never go to that house.”
“Good girl.” Her mother let out a breath and forced a smile. “Now, have you studied your Bible verses?”
Molly nodded a hesitant “yes” and then looked away, avoiding her mother’s gaze.
She had studied her verses, just not enough of them. It wasn’t a lie. “But Alex gets to go to school!”
Mother reached out. Molly flinched, but Mother just fixed Molly’s hair. “Yes, but Alex is a boy.”
The girl flushed with anger.
Since father died, she often wished her mother wasn’t her mother, that Alex wasn’t her brother, and that she herself wasn’t Molly anymore. She needed Dolly back from that dark, no-good house. She couldn’t go during the day; her mother would see. But at night! At night she would sneak out the window, down the fire escape ladder, and through the front gate of Jacobi House. In the shroud of darkness, she would save the one thing she still loved and that loved her back.
At the same time the wind stole Molly’s doll away, her brother, Alex, drew a circle on a piece of paper at his desk at school. His yellow crayon snapped from the pressure. He ripped down the waxy label and continued to draw with the stump.
While he and the other children of his class continued to draw, his first-grade teacher, Isabel Torres, cleaned a whiteboard with hand sanitizer and a paper towel. The alcohol in the hand sanitizer made it an effective alternative to expensive cleaning solutions. The children were all so quiet and focused that as the teacher scrubbed, she noticed the ticking of the clock above her on the wall. For her, the last hour stretched longer than the whole morning before it.
Lumen Christi Catholic Elementary originally opened its doors as Lumen Christi School for Boys more than a hundred years ago. Back in those days, while Catholic priests taught young boys on the first and second floors, other priests used the basement as an infirmary for the old, dying priests and nuns of the whole Northwest area. As the boys studied, screams sometimes came from below, especially from the basement room reserved for exorcisms. A hundred years later, the basement housed school supplies and broken desks and projectors, and few ventured down the dark corridors or into the stone, windowless storage rooms; the basement had a reputation for unsettling even the bravest souls.
More than one paranormal website featured the school as a haunted hot spot, quoting past custodians and even a few students about eerie encounters with spirits from the beyond.
Directly above the old exorcism room were Isabel and her pupils.
The classroom door opened to the hall, and Becky, the headmistress, stood in the doorway. Her boney hand beckoned.
Isabel set down the hand sanitizer. Becky already looked annoyed by the wait, her arms crossed, her shoulder holding open the door. She glanced down Isabel’s body. Isabel became hyperaware of any exposed skin; was her modest Sunday dress still not conservative enough?
Becky didn’t speak immediately and instead studied Isabel’s face. A marker smudge marred Isabel’s cheek. The headmistress wrinkled her nose. “You coming to Sunday Mass?”
“We missed you last week. If you can’t manage…”
“I was sick.” Isabel had already explained her absence more than once. It was the one time she had missed Mass since starting at Lumen Christi six years ago.
“How would it look to the parents? I mean, one of our teachers never attending services.”
Isabel un-tucked the collar of a child’s coat that hung by the door. She knew Becky’s real issue. Over the summer, someone had discovered Isabel’s relationship with Howard Stark. Having been together for more than eight years, they were as committed as any married couple, but she knew the school board didn’t see it that way. To her shock, they had let her stay on (she guessed some were just happy she wasn’t single), but since then, her coworkers, especially Becky, had stopped hiding their contempt.
Becky continued in a whisper. “The last thing we need is another scandal. After that boy.”
“You mean after that boy’s two mothers.”
“You know very well what I mean. We couldn’t let that boy enroll. What kind of message would it send? You need to start taking your job more seriously.”
Isabel remained mute. She reminded herself that any teaching opportunity was a godsend and that this school paid better than most.
“Make sure you attend. There have been complaints. You’re on thin ice.” Becky slipped away and let the door shut in Isabel’s face.
Old dingbat, Isabel thought, trying to minimize her anger. Becky wasn’t going anywhere. She was as much a fixture of the school as the gargoyles on the front of the building.
The children continued to draw in grim concentration.
“Ten more minutes.”
After college, Isabel had volunteered in Venezuela, and the kids there had always been playful and eager to learn—poor and dirty, but quick with smiles and laughter. She missed them, or more precisely missed being the naïve idealist that viewed every one of them as a growing seed of hope. It felt like a lifetime ago.
She did her job at Lumen Christi—put in long hours, did as she was told—but no longer risked emotional investment. That didn’t mean she didn’t take pride in her work; it just meant being practical. Like with the rest of her life, she got what she needed and tried to require as little as she could in return. Now everything ran smoothly.
An unnatural skittering flittered back and forth in the classroom and gave her a frightening chill. She looked for its source, but the sound stopped. Was it the pipes again? It seemed unlikely. The lights had flickered too, but none of the children seemed to have noticed. Was it her vision that had flickered? Did I just have a stroke or something? she wondered. No, why would I think that? Everything’s fine. Whatever it was, things felt normal again.
Over the summer, an electrician had installed brighter lighting. Despite this (and the rainbow alphabet, and silly posters, and day-glow bulletin board), the room still held its gloomy atmosphere.
Of course, she’d heard the stories about the basement, but ghosts didn’t exist; why would Satan’s minions trouble themselves with moving around furniture and making strange noises just to scare the custodians? Faulty wiring and unreliable power sources made lights flicker, not the spirits of the dead.
Alexander Stonecipher’s hand shot up.
Still sitting at his desk, the boy held out his drawing. Its subject matter faced the floor and the lower chambers. Isabel walked forward, her hands clutched at her chest. It was a child’s picture, that’s all, yet dread made her hesitate. She knelt and took the picture: A big crayon sun.
“Very good,” she said tightly, still not relieved. “I’m sure your mother will love this.”
“Why do children die?”
Some of the other children looked up from their drawings.
Alex’s father had died of pneumonia only six months before—his mother had sent Alex to school with a handwritten letter that looked like it was from the 1800s—and so it was no wonder death occupied his mind. “Well, Alex, all things die eventually. It’s part of God’s plan. Don’t worry. You’re going to live for a very long time. Here.” She tried to give the picture back, but he shook his head.
“It’s for you. Because you lost your baby.”
She looked back at the drawing. It wasn’t a sun, as she first assumed; it was a yellow snake eating its own tail.
“It’s an ouroboros,” he said with pride.
She grabbed his arm. “How did you…” Loss hit her in the gut, a physical pain that made her eyes water, and she could no longer make out the snake, only the circle that it made. God! It had been six years since Taylor died, and yet it was still a sucker punch to remember. An empty crib. A silent apartment.
“It’s not your fault,” Alex said. “They all lose their babies to the House of Skulls.”
That night in Stonecipher House, Molly pretended to sleep under an old quilt hand-stitched by her mother from rent dresses.
An oak crucifix carved by a Muslim slave during the Middle Ages hung on the wall, and the realistically-rendered Christ, in striking sorrow and agony, watched over Molly in her bed. Lashes crisscrossed his emaciated abdomen and obvious ribcage, and carved blood rivulets streamed from his thorn crown. Below the corpus, a skull and crossbones referred to the original name of Calvary: the Place of the Skull.
Molly bided her time under the cover, her slight body trembling with anticipation. Jacobi House waited. Its form loomed behind her eyelids and grew there like a carnivorous plant that wanted to swallow her up. She wiped her sweaty palms on her nightgown and turned her head against the pillow.
Molly wasn’t the only Stonecipher awake and disturbed by the house next door. At the end of the hall, Alex ran water into a glass in the bathroom sink.
A naked light bulb, screwed in beside a medicine cabinet, gave off harsh light and heat. The boy repeatedly glanced at the intense filament and then watched the spot in his vision fade. How long before the light permanently scarred his retina? Maybe then the darkness would stay away.
He poured the water down the sink and refilled his glass. If he went back to bed he’d just have another nightmare: a black terror-void, fangs and hissing. His dry tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. The dream of rope burns still stung his wrists.
Cold water from the tap on his wrists muted the phantom pain, a little.
He remembered the drawing he had made for his teacher, how his hand seemed to move on its own. How long had he not been himself? And if he wasn’t himself, who was he?
Father’s razor was missing from the medicine cabinet, likely thrown out by Mother. He closed the cabinet and looked again in the mirror. He expected to see someone else, but a little boy still looked back.
“Escape,” he saw himself say.
A stone carved with the word “Lamb” rested on a shelf next to a pile of hand towels. The stone and the crucifix were the only decorative things in the house.
If he hooked his thumb in the “L,” he could hold the stone in one hand without the risk of dropping it. He knew if it slipped, it could crush his toes.
“Don’t…” In his mind, a woman in a dirty slip ran barefoot down Ferry Street. Old lips sewn up tight with fishing line made the boy flinch.
The weeks following their father’s death, Alex often dreamed of running away; he imagined stuffing his backpack with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and running north as far as Washington, maybe even farther.
With Father gone, the ceiling of religion came down until the only thing to do was to crawl. Then Alex started first grade, and life became bearable again. His teacher was a beacon in a darkening world. He now suffered through the nights knowing relief came in the mornings. He thought his sister, who never left the house, who never talked to anyone outside the family, must long for escape every minute.
He thought wrong. His sister never dreamed of escape, because she never even knew it existed.
Molly, deciding everyone finally slept, folded back the quilt, and slipped out of bed without a sound. Her heavy nightgown hung to the floor. It was too dark to see anything besides the square of her window, but she knew her room; there was nothing to trip on, and with purpose, she tiptoed forward.
She felt her desk and climbed on top.
Out the window, the gabled roof of Jacobi House pressed against clouds lit by downtown Portland.
The window slid up easily this time, and air rushed in too warm for a night this late in September, like an exhaled breath. It swirled the room and creaked her door open.
Light intruded from the hall. She looked back at her open door. There Alex stood in his starched PJs, his right arm dangling straight from the weight of the stone in his hand.
“Are you running?”
She shook her head. “I lost her. To the house.”
Alex didn’t understand whom she had lost. She didn’t have friends, and their mother slept soundly downstairs. He didn’t know about Dolly.
His sister didn’t explain; instead, she awkwardly backed off the desk and out the window into the night. He did nothing to stop her.
“Don’t let her escape,” he heard his mind say. But Molly wasn’t trying to escape; she was going to the house.
The house would have her.
In the blustering wind outside the window, Molly clung to the top rung of the emergency fire escape ladder that led from the second story window to the yard.
If she fell, surely she’d break all her bones.
God will protect me.
As she descended, she stared at each ladder-rung instead of the yard below. At about halfway down, an anguished scream from Jacobi House startled her. With her arm hooked around a ladder-rung, she listened. The scream could be from a woman, but Molly knew that men, when truly terrified, could sound like women too.
The scream cut off.
“Molly!” It was Alex, leaning out the window with the “Lamb” stone in his hand. Shadow hid his expression, but moonlight shone on the stone, which hung directly above Molly’s face. Seeing it dangle there, she flinched and tensed up.
“I’ll pray for you,” he said.
She hurried down the rest of the way to the yard. Her bare foot touched grass, and she leaped away from the side of the house. Once at a safe distance, she looked back up.
Her room was dark. Her brother was gone from the window.
Jacobi’s surrounding wall towered taller than it had ever towered before, and she traced her hand along its rough stones and stepped through fallen leaves. As a game, she and her brother often dared each other to touch the wall, but tonight that transgression was nothing because far worse was still to come; she was going to slip through the gate and search the grounds of Jacobi House.
Be brave, she told herself. Be brave!
Sticks and rocks stabbed at her soles, and when the pain felt too sharp, she quickly hopped to the other foot.
At the east edge of her family’s property ran Ferry Street. No one drove this street at night (a drop to Sellwood Park and the Willamette River created a series of dead ends that stymied any through traffic), but street lamps lit the way with a pale, sickly light that gave her confidence.
She continued around the corner of the wall and up the sidewalk. Ahead, past Jacobi House’s outer wall and gate at the street’s end, a metal railing and a warning sign stopped cars from plummeting into the park hundreds of feet below. Jacobi House was the last house before the drop-off, and from the sidewalk, and also from the riverbank below. The surrounding wall made the Jacobi estate look like a windowless warehouse. She touched each lamp post as if playing a game of tag until she reached a gravel driveway and a massive iron gate that blocked the way into the grounds. A two-hundred-year-old black cherry tree stood next to the gate like a sentry standing guard.
A hundred years ago, the tree wept blood at the witching hour, but its tears had long since dried up. Even a tree can only weep for so long.
Molly peered through the bars. The street lamp behind her cast light a few yards into a courtyard, Past that, the dark form of Jacobi House, a cross between a two-story hotel and a Gothic Revival church, loomed in the moonlight. Her mother had forbidden her from entering this place, but her mother forbade her everything.
The iron bars left grease on Molly’s fingers as if she’d been eating her mother’s fried chicken. The girl slipped her arm and shoulder through without any trouble, and then with a little more force her head popped to the other side. She kept pushing forward, and the farther the bars slid across her chest, the more they felt like a tightening snare.
Two dark figures advanced in the shadows of the courtyard. The first figure had a bloody hacksaw used exclusively to cut off the heads of children, and the second figure had a pair of sheering scissors the length of Molly’s forearm. They hid their weapons behind their backs as they crept forward. Molly didn’t see the weapons, just the dark forms advancing. Though not threatening in size, the forms moved with stealth, like shadows come alive.
The little girl cried out and tried to pull back, but her efforts wedged her tighter between the bars.
She whimpered, mewling like a caught animal.
“Little girl!” the first figure said in a hoarse voice that seemed to cross an impossible distance to reach Molly’s ears.
Still panicked, Molly pulled and squirmed. She tried to get her head back through, but her ears caught on the bars. Despite the pain, she kept pulling and squirming and finally slipped free just as the two figures reached the edge of the light.
The streetlamp illuminated the first figure’s bloodstained clothes, but the light failed to reveal a face. The second figure hung back in the darkness, almost invisible.
Molly wanted to rub the hurt from her ears but was too afraid to move. “Are, are you a ghost?” she stammered. Did the things have substance or would they just pass right through the chained and padlocked gate?
“Ghosts are make-believe, sweetie.” A blood-caked hand reached into the light and pointed. “Right over there, hanging on that tree…”
On the backside of the gnarled cherry tree hung a key on an iron spike.
“All you have to do is get that key, and you can free us.”
They’re trapped! Molly realized. They can’t get me!
Body odor wafted from the other side of the gate, and there was something even fouler underneath. The girl put her hand to her nose to ward off the stench. She didn’t think ghosts would smell.
“No-no-no, be a good girl. Molly, you’re a good girl, aren’t you?”
“Do you have Dolly? I… I lost her. I lost her to the House.”
The blood-caked hand reached back, and for a moment, because of the shadows, the figure looked as if it had no arms and no head. Then the reaching hand pulled Dolly from the darkness into the light.
Molly gasped. “You have her!”
A little primping would restore the flattened husk dress to its original shape.
The girl glanced around (no one was watching), and then cautiously crept up to the gate. “She’s mine!”
The blood-caked hand held Dolly out, but not far enough that it could be reached through the bars.
“First, the key.”
Tears pricked the little girl’s eyes.
She rushed over to the cherry tree. She was growing fast (Mother always said so), but even stretching on her tippy-toes, she still wasn’t tall enough. The key was too high.
She grabbed a stick from the ground and used it to knock the key off the spike. “Take that!”
The fat, knotted trunk blocked the light from the streetlamp, so she had to search blindly through the decaying leaves, all the time careful not to dirty her nightgown. Mother can’t know I’ve been outside! she thought, not realizing grease had stained her chest and back when she had tried to squeeze through the gate bars.
She groped and felt sticks, more leaves, roots, cherry pits, a tiny slug, and there, in her cold fingers, the key. “Yes!” With the key, she rushed back, saw the dark figures afresh, and halted a few feet short of the gate. They were hard to make out, but the things were dirty. They choked her with their stench. They made her tiny.
“Hurry!” said the figure holding the doll.
Molly looked at the key and gripped it tight. She looked up and down the deserted street. It felt as if the night air had just dropped twenty degrees. She started to tremble. “If mother sees me…” She resisted the urge to wipe her dirty hands on her gown.
The doll tilted from side to side as if giving Molly a quizzical look.
“Just a bit farther. Your dolly needs you.”
The bloody fingertips that animated Dolly had stained the delicate husk dress a dark red. Water would wash away the blood, but if not, Molly would still love the doll; true love was unconditional.
Her vigilant mother sometimes checked in on her in the middle of the night to whisper a prayer, “Keep my baby safe,” and maybe to straighten the quilt. If Molly didn’t return soon, she might be missed. In fact, her mother could already be searching the house or charging down the street, angry with Molly for once again being the disobedient child.
The little girl need not have worried. At that moment, her mother slept, dreaming of the end of the world.
The dark things stood there behind the gate, shifting in their stinky clothes. There was no rattling chains, no shrieking, no ghostly glow. Their eyes didn’t burn in the dark. Not monsters, the girl decided, just people who wanted free from Jacobi House. Who was she to keep them locked up?
With renewed determination, Molly stepped forward with the key outstretched, ready to make a trade.
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