Like any 12-year-old boy with a crush, if he was going to do something stupid, it would be for a girl. The kids in town had been talking for months about the old Branson place up on the hill and the terrible things that happened there. Harold Branson, a retired cop who lost his mind, killed his wife and then hanged himself in the upstairs bedroom right in front of the window for all to see. Or so the story went.
Because of the tragedy, no one wanted to buy the place so it sat empty for 20 years and took on the look and reputation it deserved—as a haunted house.
It was Halloween and the bunch of them went up there on a dare. But saying you’ll go in, navigate the darkness and wave to your friends from the window where Branson died and actually doing it are two very different things. Everyone chickened out except Sebastian. He was a lonely kid and wanted so badly for Maria to notice him and this would do it. He’d be a local legend, the boy who challenged a ghost.
Terrified as he was, Sebastian pulled some boards loose, squeezed inside and made his way upstairs to the window. He paused just long enough for Maria to snap a photo and ran out like the devil was chasing after.
Two weeks later, Maria went to the pharmacy to collect her photos and her mouth dropped when she saw the image. There was Sebastian waving from the window of the haunted house and right behind him in the shadows was the face of an old man, his hands appeared to be reaching for Sebastian.
The kids were certain Maria and Sebastian were playing a trick and dismissed the picture as a joke, but they knew better. It had to be old man Branson trying to grab him. They promised to never speak of it again.
A year or two went by and Sebastian was in high school. He was a good student, played football, and stayed friends with Maria. One day when the yearbook came out, she showed up at Sebastian’s house white as a milk. “Turn to page 47, under ‘sports photos’,” she said. It was a candid shot of Sebastian in the big game standing next to his teammates and there, right behind him, was the same face from the Branson house that dark Halloween night. “I asked my friend on the yearbook committee and they assumed he was a coach but he’s not. No one knows who he is or remembers him being on the field that day,” she added. Sebastian felt sick to his stomach. “Do you know what this means? This thing is following me. I never should have gone in that house.”
For the next two hours, Sebastian and Maria went through every photo in every album, box and drawer looking for that haunted face and they found him again in a picture taken the previous summer at the beach. “I remember this day. I nearly drowned in the ocean, a riptide took me under. Jeez, do you think he tried to kill me?” Sebastian joked, not entirely sure he was kidding. None of it made sense, but, for the first time in his life, Sebastian was truly scared.
Summer came, Maria went off to camp, and Sebastian took a job mowing lawns around town. Every Monday he cut grass at St. Peter’s church and couldn’t help but notice a very old priest saying the rosary in the garden each time he was there. After seven weeks, he finally worked up the courage to speak to him. “Father, I’m not a religious person but I’m scared and don’t know who to talk to.” He told him about the Branson house and the man in the photos now haunting him. The old priest listened intently. When he finally spoke he said five simple words: “Take me to your parents.”
Sebastian did just that, telling them the story and showing them the frightening photos. At first they stared blankly; then his mother looked more closely and pressed her fingers to the image, her lips began to quiver. “This is my grandfather. He died before you were born. I don’t understand.” But the old priest did. “The three times he is with you in the photos are the three times you were most afraid. He’s not there to hurt you. It’s quite the opposite. You’re not cursed, child. You’re blessed.”
That Saturday, Sebastian purchased flowers and rode his bike out to the cemetery to find his great-grandfather’s grave. As he rested them on top, he saw his own name etched in the weathered stone—Sebastian O’Rourke. No wonder he watched over the boy. Sebastian whispered a grateful “thank you” low enough so only the dead could hear. Then he hopped on his bicycle and pedaled toward the setting sun. Whatever came next, he knew he wouldn’t face it alone.
John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at email@example.com.