The house was a phony, a fraud, a fake. But we were so bored back then; we were willing to believe anything was possible. It had appeared randomly on the far side of town, built to look like it was plucked from a storybook, half-finished and abandoned. It begged to be explored. We prayed it was haunted, that it would give us a secret. But all we found was an empty house and knew instantly it was just as lame as anywhere else.
“A craftsman,” Margot called it. She was the new girl. Her daddy was a builder and had moved to this side of the Chesapeake Bay to bring great changes. But to us, Henderson was already a sunken ship. Each year, the town got smaller. Not in size, but in mentality. It was falling into disrepair, its good citizens getting too fat and complacent. Even our parents looked like statues in their arm chairs. They did not know where we were that afternoon. Nor did they care to know that change was coming.
The house was tucked away on the far side of Cavalier Park near the abandoned post office. People rarely came to this side of town, so Margot insisted it was safe to enter. She led us through the garage, still just a skeleton of wood beams with a plastic canopy nailed on top, and jimmied open the backdoor. The kitchen was a sad chamber of exposed pipes, cabinets stacked in the corner. We scattered around the first floor, left hand prints on the white drywall, picked at the loose tiles of the fireplace. Thankfully, we realized the toilet didn’t flush before we regretted using it. The house smelled of cardboard and dust, almost prehistoric – as if it had been waiting years for our arrival. Margot suggested we explore the upstairs. But we’d had our fun and didn’t want to test fate too much, so we left, shrugging our arms, barely giving her enough time to close up behind us.
“Carpe Diem,” Mrs. Burkett said and wrote it on the chalkboard. “Can anyone tell me what this means?”
Our first day in Henderson High School ended in Mrs. Burkett’s Latin class. We had no interest in dead languages. Neither did anyone else. The latest trend in school electives was the cinema studies class, where students sat in a dark auditorium and pretended to watch the films. Latin was a safer choice.
“Carpe Diem means ‘seize the day’. It’s a very common expression,” Mrs. Burkett explained. Her dark hair was billowy and full of gray streaks and she wore goth-styled black dresses. We thought she looked like an undead princess. We liked her. “Say it with me: Carpe Diem!” she said but again we stayed quiet. “Come on, now. There’s no place for wallflowers in this class.”
That was the word that unified us. We were wallflowers. We were scarred, ugly, odd and untalented. We rarely spoke, never participated. We were all acutely aware that while the adult world ignored us, the young were in the habit of attacking their wounded.
“Okay class, one more try. Carpe Diem,” Mrs. Burkett commanded.
A high-pitched voice came from the back row. “Carpe scrotum!” Benny Robertson called out and erupted with self-congratulatory laughter. No on liked Benny, not even us. “Get it? Seize the balls!”
“That was very clever,” Mrs. Burkett said, and escorted him out into the hall. This was why Benny could never be a wallflower. He was too loud, too vulgar, too starved for attention. Wallflowers were calm, dignified. We knew how to disappear.
We returned to the house simply because we could. Once inside, we did not know what to do. There was no rational progression to our conversations. We spoke in lists and references and movie quotes, as if we were inventing our own form of communication. When we finally grew bored, we left as if nothing had happened. But we returned the next afternoon as if the house had summoned us. Our voices echoed. We had more of the conversations that were never about ourselves, but about a world that we were crafting. We had orphan fantasies and believed for those few hours, we were magical children of unknown origin. We wrote our new history over the white walls, our graffiti as beautiful as it was embarrassing. It was dangerous to be our age and still have an imagination.
None of us could remember how Jonas was created. The name appeared among us one day. “Jonas.” We uttered it like a dare, as if it tickled, as if Jonas were some ghoulish apparition who threatened to appear if we called him too many times. We began to greet him as we entered the house. At first, he was the coded word for our afternoons out and then the landlord, the overseer, until he was the house itself. We figured, if we were the only ones to come, then we would have to haunt this place ourselves.
In Latin class, the words “Carpe Scrotum” appeared on the chalkboard. Mrs. Burkett came waltzing in, tardy as usual, and observed the letters with cautious amusement. “Alright, who wrote this?” she half-sung. Someone whispered, “Jonas,” and the classroom into a fit of hideous laughter. We watched quietly as she escorted Benny Robertson out of the room, the entire hall could hear him protest. This only happened once.
A month passed. We spent all our free time in the abandoned house. Our parents grew suspicious. Spying us walk in past dark, their eyes darted between us and the clocks. They were curious but not concerned. Otherwise, the evenings progressed as normal, our families hovering over their dinner plates, struggling for something to talk about. When they finally asked where we spent our afternoons, we told them many things. The most common was that we were with our new friend, Jonas, and did our best not to giggle.
The sign appeared in the middle of October. “No Trespassing.” It stood like a severed head on a pole. Around us, there was nothing but the woods of the park and the boarded-up windows of the post office. And yet, we felt watched. Margot would not be deterred and she coaxed us all inside. Our graffiti was painted over, the kitchen cabinets restacked, the loose tiles of the fireplace removed. But worst of all, we stood silent in the emptiness like a bunch of wallflowers. Our conversations, the ones that had made us so deliriously happy, were gone and no matter how hard we searched, we could not find them.
We didn’t return after that, no matter how much Margot begged. Each afternoon, she angrily slapped her fists against her sides before stomping off without us. We were afraid of the house and whatever new authority governed it. Instead, we tried meeting at one of our homes, hoping this would reignite the conversations. Our parents gawked as we entered. They seemed horrified by the size of our group. They rarely spoke to us as they constantly hovered in our periphery. Sometimes, they entered with little offerings of cookies and soda cans. Other times, we caught them peering around the door, staring in bewilderment, and then rushed away when we turned to face them.
Outside of Latin class, we barely saw each other.
Halloween approached and the high school was decorated with paper ghosts and foam grave stones. A galley of jack-o-lanterns grinned in the front office. Mrs. Burkett wore a black witch’s hat for a week and cast spells over the Latin texts while Benny Robertson made fart noises with his armpit. That Friday, Margot whispered that her father planned to resume construction on the house. She dangled her key and said with sullen confidence that this was our last chance.
That night, we waded through the activities of our homes, listened to the dull noises of the television and flushing toilets. We ate lukewarm dinners and crawled into bed. But all we could think about was the Jonas house. We were so bored. When you are young and neglected, you don’t just kill time, you slay it dead.
On Halloween night, while the rest of town was preparing for the onslaught of Trick-or-Treaters, we marched as a group through Cavalier Park. Margot unlocked the backdoor and we each muttered, “Hello Jonas,” as we passed through the kitchen. The air was still stale with the smell of paint. We sat Indian-style, our flashlights in the center like a mock campfire. One of us had stolen a bottle of vodka from a father’s study. Without anything else to do, we uncapped it, passed it around and puckered at the astringent taste. The bottle circulated a second time, then a third. There were no talking, just our disappointed silence. Margot and one of the boys retreated upstairs together. Some of us complained about Benny Robertson, another played solitaire with an old deck of cards. One of us found both a boy and a girl cuddled up, passed out from too much drink, and took turns kissing both of them on the mouth until they woke.
We only meant to stay an hour. But we were lost in a feeling of finality and it was suddenly dark outside. It could have been midnight for all we knew. That was when we heard the siren and the front windows illuminated with flashing lights. It didn’t even surprise us. We stood together in the foyer, neatly repacking our bags, until the front door opened. A police officer peered inside, gun drawn, and was shocked to find all of us patiently waiting.
We were escorted outside and presented to a large man with tattoo sleeves and a grisly sneer. It was Margot who stepped forward and said, “Hi, Daddy,” with crude indifference. Her father didn’t flinch; his grimace looked cemented into his face. Without a word, he pulled her into his car and drove off, leaving the police speechless. Shortly after, our parents arrived and brought with them a mix of shame and disappointment. They acted like we were the ones who betrayed them.
The police officer said the owners would not press charges and that we could go home. But before we could leave, one parent brazenly asked, “Which one of you is Jonas?”
The officer stared. “These are the only kids I found.” But our parents insisted there was one more child not accounted for. “You mean the girl? Her father took her home,” the officer explained.
“No. There’s a boy. Jonas,” they said, scanning our faces. As they spoke, we glanced at each other with arched eyebrows. Our parents tried describing him, each having heard so little, but confident they knew enough. Together, they fumbled through a generic description, no one willing to contradict what was previously said. The night had gotten colder and we waited by the cars, shivering in our jackets. Most of the trick-or-treaters were already home, feasting on their spoils. Our mothers asked, “Where is his family? Where will he go on such a cold night?” Our fathers said, “It’s not right for a boy to be left all alone in an empty house.” They were all so upset, they forgot to punish us.
The name Jonas was suddenly everywhere. They announced it over morning announcements. Principal Whately, in her chalky smoker’s voice, explained that a local boy had gone missing and anyone with information was encouraged to come forward. Students yawned, played with their phones. They did not notice us, the way we tensed up in our seats. Eventually, we learned our parents had filed a missing persons report and were assured that the police would take the matter seriously. The local newspaper featured a cover story about the abandoned housing project near Cavalier Park, but when we tried to read the article, our parents confiscated the paper. “Don’t worry yourself with that,” they said. They didn’t ask us any questions. No one did.
When we returned to Latin class, Margot’s desk was empty. She didn’t return the next day or the next and without her we lost our appetite for Latin altogether. Mrs. Burkett struggled to keep our attention and to her discomfort, Benny Robertson constantly raised his hand. Finally, we asked about Margot and were told she had gone back to live with her mother.
“I know this is rough on you all,” Mrs. Burkett told us. “It’s horrible to lose a friend under these circumstances. So, let’s take this week easy and just get through the lessons.” We thought she meant Margot. She did not. To herself, she said, “Poor Jonas.”
For a short while, our town refocused its attention to its minors. They said we were all in danger or at least susceptible to it. Our parents grew out of their statuesque poses, suddenly monitoring our every move. Everywhere, adults accompanied their young, almost leading them around on leashes. The school held a special assembly. The newspaper printed articles about our safety and the ineptitude of the police who hadn’t found a single clue. The city council discussed a curfew. In church, a plump woman in a canary-yellow suit stood behind the pulpit and asked us to pray for Jonas’s safety. The local tavern even held a charity event, though no one really knew what they did with the money.
Our group never met outside of class again. We studied hard, but Mrs. Burkett was disheartened by our lack of enthusiasm. When we passed each other in the halls, it was with a small nod of recognition. Sometimes, we waved from across the street or rolled our eyes at each other during the Sunday sermons. But it was best not to linger. We felt like conspirators distancing ourselves from the crime. By the end of the semester, half of us dropped out of Latin. It was enough distance to purge ourselves of each other and if we were careful, everyone would forget about Jonas and the house and never know the embarrassing truth of our involvement.
They found the body in December.
When Jonas was discovered, the entire town felt it like a defeating punch in the gut. It happened over the winter holidays, after the ice storm knocked out power for two miserably cold days. Some dog walker in Cavalier Park had stumbled upon him, lying under the frost-coated branches of two pine trees: a young man, about fifteen years of age, olive complexion and dark curly hair. Hypothermia, said the news. They claimed he was homeless and died during the storm. The newspaper ran his picture on the front page and as much as our parents tried to shield us from the reports, it was the only thing we could talk about.
The students of Henderson High congregated in their usual hierarchies as we moved quietly amongst them. They discussed Jonas with the enthusiasm of a delightful mystery. Amanda Sharpe stood with her entourage, admitting she had dated Jonas briefly the previous summer and could not bear the idea of his loss. We overheard Craig Morey in the locker room, talking about how he and Jonas had gone to summer camp together when they were little, and Peter Coleman claimed Jonas still owed him twenty dollars. Then Benny Robertson, picking off the dead skin from his lips, said it was all a mistake - that Jonas was alive and well and they had seen each other the previous weekend. That was until Leisha
Malone publicly reprimanded him for having no respect for the dead. That, and Leisha knew Jonas was a fallen Catholic and we should be concerned for his soul. In response, the school officials brought in teams of grief counselors who annexed a portion of the gymnasium, setting up make-shift cubicles. They encouraged us to make an appointment and Hannah Burns was there every afternoon, wailing loud enough to ensure we could all hear her over the bell.
We no longer feared getting caught. It was far too late for that. From our dark corners, we grinned and learned to laugh silently with a short upward thrust of our necks. We felt superior. We rolled our eyes contemptuously at our concerned parents. We marveled in how our classmates forgot to tease us and how our teachers forgot their lesson plans. With each new newspaper article, school assembly, each time the neighborhood collectively mourned, we bathed in the glory of their stupidity and wished it could go on forever.
Eventually, the town grew impatient with the high school’s grieving process. Dead teenagers were bad publicity, especially for developers. Overnight, the counselors were banished. The curfew passed with overwhelming support while the proposed memorial was overshadowed by the Annual Chamber of Commerce’s Ball. Demolition teams tore down the old post office, setting up their chain link fences and posted signs depicting the new shopping center. Even the vacant lots around Cavalier Park were bulldozed and prepared for more craftsman houses. All but the Jonas house. It remained in its half-built state. The “No Trespassing” sign would vanish and be replaced every other week. Despite the curfew, another group of teenagers was found inside one night, holding a candle-lit séance. Graffiti appeared on the vinyl siding, “Jonas was here.” It was painted over before long.
They brought in hall monitors to the high school, old ladies in polka-dot muumuus, volunteers tasked with suppressing the chatter. They lurked in pairs and eavesdropped. They stood sentinel by our blue painted lockers, waded between the cafeteria tables, armed with rulers to slap us if we even mentioned his name. And as soon as they passed, some brave troublemaker would hiss the word, “Jonas,” and the old ladies would spin, flailing, searching for the culprit.
Everyone claimed they once knew him, that they knew the true details of his demise. They said Jonas was strangled by his father. His skull was crushed in by a lead pipe. He drank from a carton of Drain-O, was shot during a drug deal, bitten by a rabid dog. It was murder made to look like suicide. They continued to speculate, as if wishing him alive and well so they could watch him die all over again. It went viral on the Internet. A pigtailed girl with dark makeup provided updates on the conspiracy. Someone made “Who Killed Jonas” trading cards listing the suspects, locations and versions of his many deaths. It was Mayor Thompson in the abandoned post office, killed by fire, six bullets, syphilis, a slit throat. As the hall monitors confiscated them, they were redistributed the very next day.
Jonas became a ghost story used to frighten the younger children. Don’t walk through Cavalier Park at night or else he will come for you. Entire sleepovers were dedicated to summoning him through Ouija boards, with all players claiming they didn’t move the pointer. Kids said you could raise his ghost in the mirror by saying his name three times: Jonas, Jonas, Jonas. Our younger siblings went through a phase where they couldn’t use the bathroom with the door closed. We’d walk by and see them squatting on the toilet, refusing to look towards the vanity.
Disgusted, we’d slam the door shut and hold it tight, as they screamed in terror and pulled against the doorknob, leaving soft trails of shit behind them.
By the end of Freshmen year, as the Memorial Day parade approached, the theater club announced the theme of their float: the Life and Death of Jonas. They did so early to prevent competition from the jazz ensemble, the student socialist party and the horticulturist club. But the city put a stop to that and banned any float promoting dead runaways. Then, the newspaper published a letter to the editor by one of our parents. “For the longest time, we talked about new initiatives to protect our children and make our schools safe,” she wrote. “But we failed. We didn’t protect them all.” And we agreed, gloating quietly. They had failed. They knew nothing. We knew we had beaten them.
Except for me. I didn’t feel triumphant over anyone or anything. If this was our revenge, I could not remember, no matter how hard I tried, what exactly we were avenging. Instead, I found myself standing aloof as I always had, a wallflower. Nothing had changed. I was still ridiculed in my classes, given menacing looks and called dirty names in the hall. And all I could think of was a few months ago, which now felt like another life, I had been a part of something greater. We had created a phenomenon, one that could not be stifled as hard as the town tried, one that was kept alive by the same grotesque children who reviled us. And yet, the more Jonas grew, the more we were excluded from him. And worse, all that trickery ended with us not having each other.
The following September, I was one of the few to take Mrs. Burkett’s Intermediate Latin class. She was her usual perky self, oval eyed and full of enthusiasm. “Carpe Diem,” she wrote on the chalkboard and I joined her in saying it out loud.
Without the special assemblies and grief counselors, the high school reverted to its usual cruel system of rewarding the obvious over the extraordinary. I joined the art club and the yearbook staff. I proudly rode my bike through Cavalier Park. Then, I publically announced, much to my mother’s dismay, that I was an atheist and quit the confirmation classes at church. One afternoon, I found the impervious Benny Robertson slammed against his locker, bruised and sobbing, and decided to make him my friend. We spent our weekends avoiding our glum families, watched Anime films and crafted plotlines for comic books we would never draw. We acquired more friends, experimented with Dungeons and Dragons and circle jerks. But most importantly, the conversations came back and I was overwhelmed with the sound of my own laughter. That was when I felt avenged.
I think this is what happens to bullied children. We retreat inside ourselves and learn to distrust those who offer guidance. We’re told to ignore it and it will go away, and are then ushered out the door and into the den of beasts. We grow hard exoskeletons, we censor ourselves and apologize too much, we retreat into our imaginations long after it is encouraged. And then, at the first sign of safety, we crave affection and talk too much, reveal every vulnerability until we’re depleted and desperate to fill up on something new.
So, I didn’t tell my new friends the truth about Jonas. When they made their own wild claims, I didn’t challenge them but nodded intensely and gasped when appropriate. I kept the ruse all the way to graduation, where the freshmen orchestra began to play, beckoning us into the auditorium. We were all shrouded in ugly teal robes and indistinguishable from each other. From the bleachers, our parents gazed thinking they could single us out in the crowd. Benny and I sat together, satisfied our last day at Henderson Hellhole High had come. The valedictorian, Amanda Sharpe, took her place behind the podium, and nervously stuttered, “Almost four years ago, they found Jonas dead in Cavalier Park…”
Though Principal Whately rushed to take the microphone, the entire student body applauded.
“Jonas was killed with a pick-axe,” Benny said as he poked me in the ribs.
“They burned him alive,” I whispered back.
“Gutted with a hunting knife.”
“Torn limb from limb by four wild horses.”
“Murdered by Mayor Thompson.”
“By his evil twin.”
“He still haunts Cavalier Park.”
“If you see Jonas, kill him…”
“…and he’ll live forever.”