The Red Curtain

Billy took Nelson to see the old haunted house. It stood on a hill on the outskirts of town. They jogged up the street but slowed near the top. The house was long, tall and white, shaded by a line of trees that broke rank to reveal a small cemetery.

‘Is that where Jesus is buried?’ asked Nelson.

‘No,’ replied Billy, ‘he ain’t really dead.’

But Nelson was eyeing a white marble cross.

‘What about that?’ he said. It reminded him of the lighthouse in his favourite ghost story. Billy said nothing. He pointed to the front door and beckoned Nelson to follow. The first room was dark and smelled sweet, almost sickening.

‘Are we even allowed – ’ Nelson started to say but Billy pinched him and whispered, ‘You gotta be quiet.’

‘Why, is he listening?’

Billy nodded severely. ‘He’s listening right now. He’s here all around us.’

The boys tiptoed forward. The room led around, past a basin of water, to an arch and a door. The air here was cold as if they’d gone underground but a clean, lambent light winked through the keyhole.

‘What’s through there?’ whispered Nelson.

‘It’s where he lives,’ replied Billy, ‘He’s there in a box, behind a red curtain.’ He pushed the door open and they stood for a moment; a hall stretched before them, filled with row upon row of hard, polished benches and pillars that flanked a long, narrow aisle.

‘You come here on Sundays?’

‘Yeah, in the morning, Come on, see the altar?’

Together the boys trotted over the flagstones. On each wall hung seven paintings, numbered, and under, in gleaming gold letters, read a sentence or two. A slender gold candlestick stood at each pillar, and on the stern-looking altar lay a book with gold pages. In front of the altar the aisle split in two, and Billy led Nelson round to a corner where, tucked on a shelf, sat a small golden box. The door of the box was veiled by a curtain that rippled and shone and was as red as Nelson’s lunchbox.

‘Don’t touch it,’ said Billy.

‘I know that,’ said Nelson, and he was surprised that the thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. The boys admired the box for a minute or two, its delicate turrets like gold-painted matchsticks. It looked, thought Nelson, like a miniature castle or a dollhouse his sister could never afford.

‘And it’s haunted,’ said Nelson.

‘Well, his spirit’s been kept in this box for two thousand years.’ Billy’s watch started beeping. Slowly they turned and walked back down the aisle and out through the dark room, shutting each door in turn. Outside, a breeze was blowing leaves through the cemetery. As they jogged down the street, bells peeled behind them. It was midday and about time to head home for lunch.