I moved to South Philadelphia toward the end of the pandemic. My landlord raised the rent, and it was cheaper just to buy a house. Granted, it’s not a big house, nor is it particularly nice. The floors are uneven, and the ceiling sags. The kitchen is like the set of an old movie, and the basement is infested with house centipedes. But it’s affordable, and it’s quiet, especially since no one lives next door.
I’ve recently started to hear things moving on the other side of the townhouse wall. The noises aren’t loud, nor are they frequent. It’s mostly soft shuffling and light tapping, usually right before dawn and just after dusk. To make matters even more curious, someone has been watering the plants in the house’s back yard. Two leafy fig trees have grown from small sprouts to extraordinary heights over the summer.
Earlier this evening, I noticed that the house’s back door was open. It was just a crack, as if someone had forgotten to close it. The opossums that live in the alleyway will come inside and eat your trash if you let them, so I figured I’d be doing someone a favor if I closed the door. I climbed over the crumbling cinderblock wall and maneuvered through the foliage. When I put my hand on the knob, the door surprised me by swinging open.
There was nothing inside, just uneven floors and sagging ceilings like my own, but I could hear a beeping sound emerging from the basement. I peeked down the stairs, where I saw an older man in a colorless cardigan sweater sitting on a metal folding chair. He was flipping through an issue of National Geographic that he’d taken from a cardboard box filled with old magazines.
I froze in alarm, but he looked up and met my eyes before I could back away. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I apologized. “I live next door, and I heard the beeping. I was worried something was going to explode.”
“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “It’s just an oven timer. I figured I’d give it a few more minutes, but I might as well turn it off.”
I felt awkward, like I couldn’t just leave, so I asked him why he was sitting in the basement with an oven timer.
“They pay me to look after the place,” he answered. “You know, rattle a few chains, make some thumping noises in the night. Feed the spiders, maybe put a bloody handprint on the window. That sort of thing. It keeps the property values down.”
I realized that I could see the back of the chair through the man’s sweater. This didn’t bother me as much as you’d think it would. I’d seen stranger things in the neighborhood, and the man seemed nice enough. “I haven’t really heard anything from next door,” I admitted. “Do you want me to be more scared?”
“Don’t sweat it. They’re not paying me much, and I haven’t gotten a raise in years. My heart’s just not in it these days.” With a sigh, he closed the magazine and tossed it back into the box before disappearing in a thin whisp of smoke.
I left the basement, closing and locking the door behind me before returning to my own house. I guess the post-pandemic economy has been tough for everyone. All things considered, I don’t mind living next to a haunted house. Like I said, it’s affordable, and it’s quiet.
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This illustrated short story was originally published in the Philly Zine Fest 2022 Anthology. This year’s Philly Zine Fest was held at Temple University on Saturday, November 5. Despite a giant political rally happening right across the street that afternoon, it was a very chill and relaxed event with lots of good vibes and creative energy. It’s been my dream to table at the Philly Zine Fest for years, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. Here’s to many more celebrations of independent artists and writers in years to come! If you’re interested, you can find the Philly Zine Fest website (here), and it’s definitely worth checking out their parent organization, The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library.