House of Numbers

Mid August, a year later. Evening. Summer light in the Hudson Valley lingers and fades slowly in the sky while the canopy of trees gets darker and darker until the final moment, sometimes as late as ten pm, when sky and trees become a single blanket of darkness. Thunderstorms a few hours earlier had cooled and freshened the air, giving Vance a lift from the fatiguing hours of study. Drowsy but diligent, he plowed on; work at the Institute never let up. News of the Ferguson riots, days earlier, floated in from the outside world like a Marx brothers picture remade as tragedy. The country was on fire and the principal players were running around yelling, “Help! H-e-e-e-e-e-l-p!” while Vance sat at a table in the library, searching for order in the chaos of another century. He read and read into the quiet night and after a while the numbers seemed to move on their own, sliding off the page, marching single file across the table and up his right arm, tickling as they rounded the back of his neck. He was about to swat them away when he heard footsteps, jerked upright, and realized he’d dozed off. The door opened. In walked Jimmy, the scrofulous old bastard who stoked the coal furnace in winter and mowed the grass in summer.

“Working late, Mr. Vance?”

“I’ll lock up before I leave.”

“Well don’t stay too late. Don’t push it.”

“What’s your drift, Jimmy?”

“Nothing. I ain’t saying I’ve seen nothing. Personally speaking, you understand. But I heard stuff.”

“What stuff? Are squirrels getting in?”

“Might have been squirrels.”

“Squirrels, you say.”


“Or if not squirrels—”

“Ain’t sure. All I know is I’m standing at the bottom of the stairs. Not the big staircase in the front hallway. The steep one off the kitchen—”

“—that leads up to the attic, right? The narrow little staircase?”

“Yup. Couple of weeks ago. Like I said, I’m at the bottom of the stairs when I hear kind of a— Like shuffling feet in the attic. I yell, ‘Anybody up there?’ Now I know no one ought to be in the house at that hour. Not Professor, nobody. Just before I yell up there a second time, a door slams.”

“Jimmy, what kind of—”

“Ever heard anything about Professor’s family history, Mr. Vance?”

“I never thought about it,” Vance said.

“Them Hoppers always knew what they wanted and done what they done to get it.”

“Your point?”

“It ain’t none of my business to be telling this.” He dropped his rheumy eyes and lowered his voice. “But if ever you wanted to learn more about them Hoppers, follow the trail that starts just back of the house.”

“The one that goes into the brambles?”

“Don’t be surprised what you find.”

Vance thought for a moment. “About those noises, Jimmy—”

“Maybe I was imagining it.” He paused. “You sure you want to stay late?”

“I’m fine.”

“Up to you, Mr. Vance. But call me over in Noblesville if anything funny happens. Call me, not the cops, understand?”




Tony Van Witsen

Tony Van Witsen is a seven-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fifteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including Spellbinder, Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review. Tony recommends Becky Tuch's Substack.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, June 5, 2022 - 09:20