The loneliness and mystery of abandoned homes standing among the winter wheat and corn fields on the reclaimed swamp land of southern Delaware fascinated Paul. When he did not have a tennis or golf game on his schedule, he spent his spare time photographing the homes. He planned to write a book, which would include photos of the homes and a narrative on their history, illustrating the decline of southern Delaware’s small private farms.
On a warm Monday in spring, Paul parked his car on a seldom-used rural road in western Sussex County in front of an old two-story-wooden colonial. His first home of the day and seventh visit overall. Paul liked its isolated location, next to a recently planted large corn field, full of two inch shoots, without buildings on the road next to the house. The white paint had deteriorated so most of the wood looked bare. Several dilapidated chicken houses sat at least a quarter of a mile east of the home and he saw nothing to the west except a forest a half-mile away. Paul was armed with a carrying case dangling from his neck, containing a Canon 35 millimeter single lens reflex digital camera, three lenses for regular, detailed, and long-range shots, and a small flashlight. He wore an Australian trail hat to protect his face from skin cancer, tan knee-length shorts and a light blue tennis shirt embellished with the words ‘Dubrovnik, Croatia’.
Walking a hundred yards from the car, Paul took pictures of the west side of the house, which was surrounded by bluestem grass, daisies, other wild flowers, and several large green bay leaf bushes. On the south side of the house a maple tree, with new light-green leaves, grew through a broken first-floor window.
As Paul walked to the back of the house, he noticed the right side had collapsed into the interior allowing sunlight to bathe the floor of the living room.
After taking several pictures of the back, Paul walked up a three-step concrete stoop, opened the back door and entered a mudroom, hoping to record the contents of the last moments of the house’s occupation. The mudroom contained a large sink and an old white washing machine with a manual clothes wringer, which he thought dated from the 1930s. He walked into the living room, where the sun illuminated dust and spider webs and he noticed the musty smell of mold. Bright wallpaper had once covered the walls, but it had faded and partially peeled. No paintings or photos adorned the walls to reveal who had once lived there. The room held little furniture. He saw a drab dust-covered couch on the opposite wall and a broken armchair next to the sofa. The stuffing from both pieces of furniture sagged from open holes, which he assumed were rodent nests.
The floor creaked as he walked toward the sofa. He heard the crack before he felt his left leg disappear through the floorboards up to his knee. The initial sharp pain in his knee subsided immediately when the wood broke from the floor and fell to the crawlspace relieving the pain caused by the stabbing jagged wood. Dust rose from the broken floorboards, accompanied by the earthen smell of accumulated dead insects and small animal droppings. He feared he could have a broken leg and would become part of the abandoned home, perhaps decaying over the next several months into a trapped skeleton. That fear subsided as he felt his cell phone in his shorts’ pocket, and realized he hadn’t broken his leg as he could move it without a sharp pain.
Paul looked through a crack in the broken floorboards and estimated the surface of the crawlspace at six inches below the bottom of his foot. Kneeling on his right leg he found he could not directly lift his injured leg through the destroyed floorboard. He had to use his arms to break the decayed wood around the initial hole so he could remove his leg by lifting his right knee, balancing on his hands and pulling the other leg though the widened hole. Returning his right knee to the dirty wooden floor, he placed his injured leg outstretched to the right of the hole. When he saw blood seeping from a gash in his knee, he decided to drive to the Atlantic General Hospital emergency room, assuming the rotted wood was saturated with an array of deadly germs. After stabilizing his injured leg, he gazed into the crawlspace and saw sunlight pouring through the window reflecting off a skull.
Not believing his blue eyes, and still on one knee, he dragged his one-hundred and sixty pound, five foot ten inch body closer to the break in the floor, being careful not to block the sunlight, and then he saw the skull attached to shoulder bones, surrounded by spider webs stretched from the floorboards to the bones. The shadows blocked the rest of his view. Never having seen a skull outside of the movies or a museum, Paul wondered whether it was a plastic toy left over from a long-ago Halloween party or a real skeleton. How had it arrived on the crawlspace floor? This raised more questions – accidental death or murder? He remembered his recent escape from the floor, realizing how close he had come to being the second skeleton in the abandoned home. He turned on the automatic flash and took several photos of the skull and shoulder.
Wanting to see more of the body, Paul took the flashlight from his carrying case. The strong LED light revealed a full skeleton partially covered with rotted clothes. The irregular bones’ shape could not be a plastic skeleton. He took several photos he thought might interest the police.