The Johnson house was probably the biggest house on our street. Two storeys high, the upper floor was an apartment. My friends, Lolly and Dina lived on the main floor.
The Johnson girls were both older than me, and Dina was a bit of a bully (see the Haunted Shack) but they lived just a few doors down from mine and within my allotted play radius.
In those dinosaur days before TV, internet and on-line games, we had to use our imaginations to make up games. We’d play Cowboys and Indians, Tag, Hide-and-Seek, Kick-the-Can, jump rope, Hop-scotch – basically anything that involved just our bodies, our minds and whatever we could think up.
It must have been in the fall. We were all getting hyped about Halloween.
The air had a chill to it; leaves and seed pods from the catalpa trees would blow in the wind and doors and windows would be closed tight to keep out oncoming winter. (Have you ever noticed how quiet a street can get once that happens? In summer, when everyone is outside and homes are open, there’s always the sound of people: laughter, yelling, talking, bumps and noises of mother’s cooking dinner, fathers and brothers tinkering in the yard. But come fall, it all quietens down.)
It had to have been a Saturday. We weren’t in school and our parents weren’t home.
Eternally banished to play outside, we’d come inside the Johnson house as it had started to rain and no one was home.
Lolly’s mother had gone shopping and left the older sister Dina in charge. But Dina had disappeared with her own friends leaving Lolly with me, her younger brothers, my cousin Barry and two or three others.
We’d started off innocent enough, playing Tag or something equally mundane. When we got bored, we gathered in Lolly’s bedroom and started making up stories, which soon turned to ghost stories.
It started to get dark, and because of the massive porch on the south-facing front of the house, little light filtered into the house. But that was OK. We kept the lights off because the darkness was somehow exhilarating.
It was getting late in the day and everyone knew they should be going home. But we hadn’t heard the Yellaphone (see the Haunted Shack again) so figured there was time for one more story.
Just as one of the tall tales was reaching a climax, we heard a sound coming from the living room.
“Did you hear something?” Lolly said.
“You’re just trying to scare us,” said one of the boys.
“I’m not,” she insisted.
Then we all heard it – a noise, like a creaking door.
“Shhh! Someone’s in the house,” Lolly said.
As quick and silently as we could, we scurried under the bed, hearts beating so loud, we were sure the intruder could hear us.
Someone was moving around the living room.
We snuggled closer to each other, trying not to breathe.
From under the bed, we had a clear line of site into the kitchen. We watched as grey pants and black shoes passed the doorway, turned and walked back to the living room.
We could hear him – picking up papers, moving chairs.
Barry decided to have a look. He slid out on his stomach from under the bed and peeked around the door.
Just then, the man turned and spotted Barry on the floor.
What happened next is, well, I’m not really sure.
But Barry swears the man flashed fire-red eyes at him and then vanished.
At that very moment, a smell like nothing I could describe permeated through the house. To this day, I can remember it. I didn’t know then what it was, but when I grew up and remembered it, I could only describe it as something like hot ammonia.
I don’t know how long we lay there, frozen on the floor. But we were relieved to hear the kitchen door open and the bumbling sounds of moving feet and grocery bags hitting the counter.
“Dina? You here?” Lolly’s mother yelled.
With that, we all ran for our lives – through the bedroom and out the door, not looking back.
As days and months wore on, the incident expanded and with each telling, more details were added. One intruder became two, then three, then a whole houseful of ghosts. We all had our own interpretation of what happened and I suppose, as we aged and came to our senses, we realized it was probably just someone who came to visit, and finding no one home, left again. After all, no one ever locked a door back in those days.
But I’ll never forget that smell.
I never told my mother about the incident not until decades later. (There were lots of stories I never shared with my mother like the time I fell through the ice at the river).
But one day we were having a chat about the old neighbourhood; and clear out of the blue, she said, “did you know the Johnson house was haunted?”
“You never told me that,” I said.
“Well, I didn’t want you to be scared, but it was only the upstairs part, anyway,” she said. “Old man Johnson lived up there. (That would be Dina and Lolly’s grandfather.)
“Back then, everyone had a coal/wood stove in the kitchen, and it was said that the old man had the habit of pissing into the fire. And after he died, on some nights, the smell of burning urine would permeate throughout the house.”
Her words hit me like a brick.
So THAT was the smell.
I quizzed her more about the old man and she said he was bad-tempered and hated kids.
Had he been meandering through the house on the day we’d been hiding under the bed?
I guess we’ll never really know.
But right into adulthood, Barry never changed his story. He swore he saw a man with red eyes.