Can’t Stop Growing Old
This is a short story that appears in last year’s There Was a Crooked House anthology from Pill Hill Press. You can buy that book here.
Can’t Stop Growing Old
by Patrick Shand
He always felt awkward when people took his picture. The smiles that he forced when his friends said “Cheese” looked like pained grimaces, so he had taken up making himself laugh when someone was about to snap a camera at him. It looked more genuine, but it also made him appear slightly crazed compared to the other people in the picture, who had calm, effortless smiles.
The camera flashed and Noah laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Addie asked, taking in a long drag of her cigarette. She’d recently started smoking the skinny black ones that smelled like cinnamon and cracked when you sucked in the smoke.
Noah shrugged, trying to rub the bright green spots from the flash out of his eyes. “Nothing, I guess.”
“The picture is sick,” Seth said as he jogged over to them, the camera hanging from his neck as always. “Looks creepy.”
“Thanks, asshole,” Addie said, punctuating the word with a punch to Seth’s shoulder.
“No,” Seth said, holding up the Polariod for them to see. “Look at how the flash barely hit the house. Just looks like this giant thing is creeping behind you, ready to pounce. Scary as hell.”
“Let me see,” Noah said, plucking the picture from Seth’s hand. Looking at it, he thought he looked so dull next to Addie—granted, her hair was so freshly dyed that the base of her neck and fingers were splotched with hot pink, but still. Still. Before he even realized what he was doing, he stuffed the picture into his pocket.
“What the hell, man?” Seth said, going to snatch it back.
“Let me have it,” Noah said, forcing another laugh and pushing him away. “You’re right, it is creepy. I want to put it up on my wall.”
“Whatever,” Seth said, sucking his teeth. “I don’t need your ugly faces in my shit anyway. We came for this.”
He pointed the camera beyond them at the dark, shadowy Crooked House.
The house had earned its status as a proper noun long before any of them were born. It was hard for such a house not to become a legend: each side was painted a different color (blue, purple, red, yellow), no one had lived there as long as anyone could remember, and, as per the name, the side of the house had sunken so deep into the ground that the house was harshly tilted to the right.
Also, because all small towns needed one of these, it functioned as the local haunted house. The stories varied, as they often do, but Noah’s friends were convinced that the ghost of Old Man Aubey, who went mad and tortured his wife and daughters to death, roamed the halls, reenacting his family’s murders on anyone who dared to enter.
Noah, who had always been fascinated with the Crooked House, discovered through a simple internet search that Aubey Shellman was never married, died from natural causes at the age of ninety-six, and never even lived in the Crooken House. He didn’t tell that to Addie and Seth, though, because he didn’t want to ruin the fun. They’d been talking about breaking into the house since they met in freshmen year of high school and, now that they were seniors, they were finally going to see if they could get in.
“You done?” Addie asked. She grabbed Noah’s hand, curling her fingers into his.
“What are you doing?” he asked, trying to hold back the smile that was creeping across his face.
“Think I’m walking into a haunted house without a hand to hold?” Addie said, raising a brown eyebrow. “You give me more credit than I deserve, bucko.”
“You guys are seriously gonna hold hands?” Seth asked, snorting. “Do you want me to run to the store? I can pick up some diapers.”
“Yeah yeah,” Noah said, taking the first step forward. This time, with Addie’s hand in his, he didn’t have to force a smile.
The three of them walked across the crunchy grass that had been cooked by the summer sun. Seth leading the way, shining a flashlight at the broken steps to make sure none of their feet went through the holes that were surely filled with spiders and worms. They walked around the wraparound porch to the side of the house, where they found a broken window that left a tight entryway for Seth, who used the cuff of his shirt to brush off some remaining shards of glass.
“Maybe you should’ve skipped out on that last double bacon cheeseburger,” Addie called after him, poking Seth’s round belly a moment as pushed himself through. He hit the floor on the other side with a thunderous crash. Noah and Addie glanced in to see if he had hurt himself, but saw that he was already taking pictures of the room from the floor.
“Maybe you should’ve skipped out on that whole being born thing,” he said in a high pitched screech that one could only assume was his attempt at mocking Addie’s voice.
“You’re so clever,” Noah said. He looked at Addie then, as if to silently ask if she wanted to go first.
She nodded, let go of his hand, and, with a toss of pink hair over her shoulder, she stealthily slipped through the window like a cat. There was barely a sound when she landed inside on her feet.
Noah didn’t find it quite so easy peasy, but his entrance was less theatrical than Seth’s. He stumbled a bit when he landed, slipping on the heavy coat of dust that carpeted the wooden floor, but Addie was there to grab his arm, steadying him. He grinned at her, but it was too dark for them to see anything but shadows.
“We totally have to have a summer party here,” Seth said, walking through the bare, dark room. As soon as he stepped away from them with the flashlight, the room fell into inky darkness. Noah reached out to grab Addie’s hand again, this time out of instinct, but she had already walked past him to follow Seth. Noah stuffed his hand into his pocket and caught up.
They moved to the next room up, which had obviously been the living room. The skeleton of a couch leaned against a wall, just a wooden frame with yellowed foam clinging to it in places. Seth slowly handed Addie the flashlight and reached into his pack, pulling out a tiny camcorder. He flipped open the screen and began recording.
“Night vision,” he said, giggling like an excited child. “Looks so cool.”
Addie held the flashlight close to her chest, casting more light on her face than the actual room. Her usually confident grin was replaced with a tight, nervous line.
“You okay?” Noah asked.
“I hate to be the stereotypical girl,” Addie said. “That is so fucking lame. But why do you guys seem like you just walked into any old house? This is the Crooked House. Can’t… I don’t know, can’t you feel it?”
“You misunderstand, dear Addie,” Seth said. “I’m not afraid to admit that I’m scared shitless. I fully believe that this place in haunted. Got absolutely no doubt. I’m putting that fear aside, though. Do you know how badass this footage is gonna look?”
Addie looked at Noah, shining the light in his face. He blinked and feigned a smile. “I am. I am scared,” he lied.
“Good,” she said. “Good. At least I’m not alone.”
Noah watched Addie and Seth explore the room, pointing at little drawings on the walls that suggested that maybe people had visited the house before them. Whatever creepy feeliog Addie felt, Noah didn’t. In fact, the only thing he could feel was the physical pain in his chest that was his sudden and disturbing longing for Addie. They’d been casual friends all through high school, hanging out in a group every now and then. She always had some punk boyfriend with a two foot tall Mohawk or five rings in his face. Noah never got to talk to her much until the month before they snuck into the Crooked House, when Addie came to his house the week before finals and begged him to help her study for her English 12 test. They ended up making out on Noah’s bed, her then blue hair spread over his pillow like a piece of sky.
She hadn’t mentioned it and she hadn’t made another move, which he was pretty sure meant that he was being rejected. He was nothing like any of the guys she ever dated. He didn’t have crazy hair or any facial piercing or even any t-shirts with band names on them… but sometimes when she smiled at him, he thought she might have felt the same way.
No, the Crooked House wasn’t scaring him. Being close to Addie, from holding her hand to when they approached the porch to when she helped steady him, was making him anything but frightened.
They went down the hallway which ramped down to the sunken part of the house. Seth opened every door in the hall as they walked, peering in and snapping pictures and nothing in particular. Even Addie’s fear visibly dissipated when each step forward confirmed what Noah had suspected all along: the house was nothing but a trashed, abandoned, tilted structure.
They finally reached the door at the end of the hall. The floor had become so slanted that they had to lean against the wall in order not to fall into the room when they opened up the door.
“What’s in there?” Addie asked Seth, who was peering into the room through his camera.
“I don’t know. The night vision isn’t…” he said. “I think something’s wrong with the camera…”
She reached over him and shined the flashlight into the room, but the beam of light just disappeared into the darkness.
“Know that creepy feeling I mentioned before?” Addie asked. “Yeah, that’s back.”
“What the…” Seth took a step toward the room, holding the camcorder out in front of him as if it were a sword. He took a big step forward and disappeared into the black. Addie moved forward to follow him, but stopped suddenly, her forehead wrinkling in concern.
“What’s in there?” she called.
Seth didn’t respond.
“Stop messing around!” she cried.
Addie turned to Noah. Without the beam of the flashlight, she just looked like a black shape. But he could feel the heat of her breath when she came close and said, “Do you think he’s messing around?”
“Definitely,” Noah said. “Let’s just go in. I’m sure it’s nothing.” He took the opportunity to grab Addie’s hand again and pull her through the door. They walked into absolutely darkness, looking for the glow of Seth’s camera.
There was nothing.
“I’m scared,” Addie whispered.
“Don’t be,” Noah said, squeezing her hand. “I’m here.”
“Oh, great, Noah’s here,” Addie said. “What the hell are you going to do against a…”
“Against a what?” he said, laughing despite himself. The flashlight and night vision not working had made him start to question his surety that they were just walking through a normal old house, as stupid as he knew that was.
“I don’t know! Don’t laugh at me!” she hissed.
“Sorry,” Noah said. With his free hand, he reached out in front of him like a blind person without a walking stick. They took slow step after slow step together. When the door closed behind them with a groan, the impenetrable darkness seemed to melt away, and an inviting, warm, red glow filled the room. Noah and Addie looked around the room and saw that they were in a completely empty wooden chamber. There was no lamp for the light to be coming from. There was no Seth.
“Where is he?” Addie whispered.
Noah shrugged, trying to remain composed. He knew that if he began to panic, Addie would lose it, so to give himself something to concentrate on, he began to scan the room for a source of light. “There’s no lamp,” he said. “What is this?”
“I’m ten minutes past wishing we didn’t come, Noah,” Addie said. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
She ripped her hand from Noah’s and made to walk to the door, but right before she could reach out for it, she fell to the ground and began convulsing violently, her body flopping against the wooden floor with hollow thuds.
“Addie!” Noah cried and made to kneel down to her, but the moment he bent forward, he felt all the blood rush to his head. He tried to stable himself, but it suddenly felt as if every vein in his body tightened, cutting through his muscles, wrapping themselves around his bones, squeezing. He tried to cry out, but the darkness swallowed his scream. The red light grew brighter and brighter until it felt as if it was so hot that his eyes were melting. He squeezed his lids shut and then, he saw—
Noah leaves house. Goes home. Has quiet summer. Goes to college. Meets girls. Nothing serious. Good grades. Wins scholarships. Gets degree. Grows older. Builds connections. Gets job. Drawing for company. Moves up. Does what he wants. Grows older. Meets girl. Good artist. Good wife. Good kids. Future. Grows older. Cancer. Doesn’t hurt long. Dies holding wife’s wrinkled, cold, wonderful hand.
“—you okay? Oh my God, Noah, get up, get up, get up! We have to get out of here!”
Noah blinked. He saw legs. Long, smooth legs in front of his face, not hands with paper thin skin. He followed the legs up to see Addie’s pretty face twisted into a mask of panic made worse by the red glow of the room.
“Noah, get the hell up!”
His mind racing, his legs shaking violently, Noah put his arm against the wall and pushed himself to his feet. He took in a deep, steadying breath and then turned to look at Addie. He remembered seeing her seizing on the floor just a moment ago… or a lifetime ago, he couldn’t tell.
“What did you see?” he asked, his mind still racing with memories of a life that he hadn’t lived. “Did you see… I don’t know, something?”
She looked at him, her glazed eyes looking like embers in the red light, and tried to respond, but the sound that came out of her was broken.
“No,” she whispered, her voice quivering. “I didn’t.”
Noah knew to stop pushing, but he was dying to know what she’d seen… if he featured at all in whatever she had seen. He wondered why she wasn’t in his… whatever it was. He wondered what the red light was, what the room was, what the house was, and why it was putting these images in their heads.
But then, when he saw tears begin to dribble down Addie’s face, all of his questions sank to the back of his mind, and he walked over to her. He slowly, tentatively wrapped his arms around her. She put her forehead against his.
She choked out, “Why am I being so weak? Why are you…”
“What did you see?” Noah whispered. “Please… tell me.”
“I saw…” she said. “I saw my life. I saw me, older. It was so… fucking normal. I was a goddamn housewife. A housewife. Me. With a fucking rich husband like every woman I hate. Why the hell… Why…”
The red light once again started to brighten. Addie buried her face into Noah’s chest, turning away from it.
“I don’t want to see it again. I can’t.”
“I’m here this time,” he said. “Hold my hand.” He clasped both of his hands over hers and, once again, felt the burn of the light. This time, however, they didn’t fall. They just closed their eyes and—
Noah and Addie leave house. Go home. Lovely summer. Kissing. Sex. Holding hands. College. Alone. Noah leaves college. Addie leaves the state. Noah begs, Addie listens but she feel nothing but pity… sympathy. Rocky year. Kissing. Sex. Growing older. Addie feels cold. Addie looks grey. Noah is alone when Addie is with him. Growing older. Noah believes that he made a mistake. Addie never wanted him. Addie never wanted anything. Noah always wanted too much. They grow older and they are very, very alone. Noah’s cancer. Feels like boulders growing from his insides. Long, useless fight. Dies alone. Addie grows older and older and older and die on a sofa while watching a soap opera she never cared about, clutching a badly knit mitten in her gnarled hands.
The light slowly dimmed until the red was only a dull glow.
This time, Addie didn’t beg him to leave. She just looked at him, her mouth hanging slightly open.
He turned away from her, letting go of her hand. He couldn’t look at her, not now, not after that, not after living with her not loving him for the rest of his life, not after…
“What did you see, Noah?”
He sat on the floor, away from her. She stood over him, looking beautiful, looking like something he wanted more than anything in the world. Only then did he realize that he was back in the room of the Crooked House, not… not where he’d been. He clenched his teeth to keep from crying.
“Us,” he replied simply, his voice like a scratch on cardboard.
She put her hand over her mouth. Noah didn’t know if it was to stop herself from crying again or to stifle a scream. He felt like doing both. He’d felt himself with her, felt himself love her, felt her not love him back, felt the desire to end it all, to hurt her, to die…
And here he was, back again, wanting to do nothing but hold her close and tell her it was okay, that it wasn’t real.
To kiss her.
He got up and started to move toward her, but again, before he could reach her, the red light fell over the room like a wave.
Leaves house, goes home, quiet summer, college, girls, scholarships, degree, job, wife, kids, future, dies, hands, wonderful hands, and—
They stood in the room, looking in each other’s eyes. Tears flowed down both of their faces, both from the sting of the light and the sting of what they were seeing.
“Did you see it again?” Noah asked. “I saw—”
“What you saw the first time,” Addie said. “That’s what I saw. I saw the first…”
He took a step toward her. “I have an idea. I think I know what’s going on.”
“I’m going to kiss you,” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Can’t we just leave? Can’t we…”
“I’m going to kiss you, but when you’re done seeing what you’re seeing, you have to stop me,” Noah said. “Because I know I won’t be able to.”
She stared at him for a moment, the color completely drained from her skin, leaving her face a perfect white canvas for the red glow. Finally, she nodded and closed her eyes.
He stepped up to her and rested the side of his face against her cool cheek. When the light started to brighten, he softly put his lips on hers, kissing her goodbye.
The red blotted out all else but their thoughts, and then—
Noah and Addie, summer, kissing, sex, hands, alone, leaving, begging, listening, compromising, kissing, cold, alone, old, mistakes, cancer, pain, death, older, alone, and—
Addie broke the kiss.
When Noah realized that he was back in the room, he felt her hand on his face, her eyes looking down at the red washed floor.
“We’re seeing what happens if…” she whispered.
“I know,” he said, turning away again, trying to hold the sob in, trying to trap it in his chest.
“Hey,” she said, walking over to him. “Hey, hey, hey. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“How is any of that okay?” he said, realizing a second too late that he wasn’t able to hold it. He let out a wail and pressed his face into Addie’s neck, feeling the suddenly familiar press of her skin into his. He’d lived it all. Before he’d walked into the Crooked House with her, he wondered if she wanted to date him for the rest of the summer. Now, he’d loved her for two entire lifetimes. He’d died alone because of her, but he couldn’t stop it. He just wanted to kiss her again.
“Shhhhh,” she said. “Shhhhh.”
The light began to glow brighter.
Noah looked at it, realized that he was still holding Addie close, knowing what he was about to see again.
He closed his eyes, ready to embrace it.
Gently, Addie put her hands on his chest and pushed him away. He looked at her, almost unable to see through the blinding red glow.
She shook her head.
“But…” he said. The light faltered, dimming, as if it were waiting for them. “But you weren’t even happy the first time. You lived all… normal. You’re Addie, you’re not… you’re not going to be a housewife. You’re not…”
“I don’t know what I’m going to,” she said. “But I’m creeped out. And I’m tired of seeing this shit. And I don’t know what the hell it is, but I know it shows us something horrible every time we’re… Let’s just go, Noah.”
He looked at her for a moment, her pink hair blending into the red light, her pretty face scrunched and strained from what she’d seen, her hands hanging empty at her sides.
He shook his head. “I’ll see you later.”
For a moment, it seemed as if she were going to protest, to make him come with her. But just as the light started to flood the room again, she turned away, leaving Noah in the room alone, enveloped by the glow.
He saw many things before he left the room. He walked through the blackness, into the hall, through the living room, into the kitchen, through the window, and onto the porch, where he found Seth curled in the fetal position next to a few shards of broken glass.
“Are you okay?” Noah asked, his voice emotionless, drained.
Seth looked at Noah, his pupils dilated. “What did you see?”
Noah shrugged, looking past the house at the hill where Seth took a picture of him and Addie. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out the picture, and said, “Myself. Getting older.”
“I saw me… and my cameras,” Seth said, his voice wavering. He looked over his shoulder. Noah followed his gaze and saw the broken camcorder and the ruined Polaroid in pieces behind him. “I was taking pictures of… I was… alone.” He began to cry, holding his knees to his chest as his body shook with sobs.
Noah looked at the picture—the last Seth would ever take.
“That seems to be going around.”
When Noah finished college four years later, he decided to invite everyone he’d ever known to his graduation party. The more guests, the more generous gifts for me, he figured. A few of his closest college buddies came out to celebrate, but since the party was back home at his parent’s house, the majority of the people who were eating his chips and drinking his beer were classmates he barely remembered from high school.
He was, however, glad to see Seth. He hadn’t even seen his old friend enter, but just found him in the corner, playing a game on his phone.
“Hey man!” Noah said, reaching out his hand.
Seth looked up from the game, smiled briefly, and took Noah’s hand in his. They shook. “Congrats.”
“Thanks,” Noah said. “So… long time no see, talk, communicate in any way whatsoever.”
“Yeah,” Seth said, forcing a chuckle. “Weird how that shit happens.” He glanced down at his phone.
“Weird, yeah,” Noah said. “Listen, we should totally get together sometime. I mean, we haven’t really talked since the summer of senior year. I have so much to learn about what it means to be Seth now!”
“Not much to say,” he said, this time not even faking a smile. “Not many surprises when you already know how it ends..”
Seth shook his head. “Forget about it.”
For the first time in a while, Noah began to feel the familiar creeping sensation that he associated with a pulsing red glow. Trying to ignore the feeling, he feigned a smile as if someone was about to take his picture and walked away from Seth, who was too busy fiddling with his phone to notice.
Feeling suddenly uneasy, Noah moved through the crowded room. No one looked at him. No one said anything to him. He wondered if they really cared.
He walked out the back door, looking for Dave, his college roommate, but the only person outside was a brunette smoking a thin, black cigarette that smelled like cinnamon.
“Excuse me,” he said, stepping past her.
“You’re very not excused,” she said. “Not even a ‘hello’?”
Noah turned around, squinting at the girl. She was pretty, if a bit plain. He vaguely recognized her but couldn’t put his finger on it, which he could tell was making her more and more pissed by the minute. The moment she stood up, whipped around, and flicked the cigarette at the ground, Noah was hit by a memory of a girl with pink hair turning around and making her way to a the door, and then falling, shaking…
She froze, her hand on the knob. “We have a winner,” she said, not turning to look at him.
“I can’t believe you came,” he said, and before he could stop himself, he reached out and grabbed her hand. For some reason he couldn’t explain, as soon as he felt her skin on his, he braced himself for something, but when nothing came, he looked up at Addie. He was just holding her limp hand.
“I can’t believe I came either,” she said.
“You look good,” he said. He looked at her hair. Her clothes. “You look different.”
“Gotta grow up, I guess,” she said, letting her hand slip out of his. “You know that better than anyone. College graduate, huh? How many of these fucks in our senior class can say that?”
Noah shrugged. “I don’t know any of them, really.”
“Why’d you invite them, then?”
“Figured they’d bring money. Or at least a completely ingenuine thank you card. But it looks as if they kinda just want my beer.”
She chuckled but didn’t meet his gaze.
“So how have you been?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Sort of a balance between being perpetually creeped out and at awe with how old I’m getting. I’m twenty-two, yet I remember how it felt to run barefoot to the ice cream truck when I was seven. How did we get so damn old?”
“If an actual, honest-to-God old person heard you say that, I think they’d laugh. We’re still young, Addie,” Noah said.
Addie shook her head. “I guess. Can’t stop growing older, though.”
Noah took another step up so they were on eye level. “I can’t believe I haven’t seen you in four years.”
“Time flies and all that cliché bull.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just… I guess you’re right. These past four years seem like… Well, honestly, sometimes it seems like they just stretched on forever and I can remember every little detail. But when I think back, when I think about where I’ve been, I…”
He looked down, searching for the words.
“Yeah?” Addie said.
“When I wonder where all the time has gone, for some reason… all I can picture is a red glow and a crooked house,” he said.
Addie closed her eyes, biting her lip. “Stop.”
“Sometimes, all I can think about is that house,” Noah said.
He reached out and touched her soft brown hair, beginning to remember things he hadn’t in a while, things he’d tucked safely into the deep corners of his brain in order to preserve his sanity. He remembered how she saw herself as normal. Saw something that she didn’t want to be.
“Are you happy?” he asked softly.
She took a step back from him. “Working on it. Are you… you know?”
Noah thought about it for a second. “Kind of almost there, I think.”
“Good,” she said. “I’m glad.”
With another word, she walked back into the house and disappeared into the crowd of people that he didn’t know.
Even though it was his own graduation party, Noah walked in the opposite direction, away from his house, down the road, up a hill, and found himself on the porch of a colorful crooked house. He looked at the broken camera on the floor, wondering what Seth had seen that had ruined him. He looked inside the house and wondered what kind of a wife Addie would be for someone else. He looked back down at the wooden planked patio and, moving a pile of leaves aside, found a faded picture of a young boy with a goofy smile and a beautifully strange girl with pink hair. His arm was draped awkwardly but carefully around her, and her head rested on his. The menacing silhouette of a crooked house crouched behind them, looming over them, looking down on them, waiting for them.