Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Shadow Down the Street

There are houses like it in most small towns. Some are set about a mile out of town, as if peering in coldly, its windows dim eyes and the air around it stale, while others are nestled tightly like teeth, its decay sorely sticking out. This is the house that people jokingly suggest as haunted as they pass by, or the house that a friend of a friend swears he heard something weird one night; both would be right, as both are true. The house is haunted, in a sense, like all houses are haunted. A place absorbs a memory – sometimes you can feel it on a hot day – like walking into a dream, or sometimes late at night when the midnight mist rolls in and the street lamps become glowing golden orbs, and the last days of summer feel like they will last forever.
 This was a brown house, and was likely made at some point in the sixties –a split level ranch, as was the neighbor to either side, and each neighbor aside those. Every third or fourth driveway along Fig street had a basketball hoop, and most of the lawns were well kept. Except this lawn, because it belonged to this house. The lawn was as dead as the house was cold. There were patches of weeds and crabgrass; clods of dirt and the husks of long dead plants littered the yard, and near the front door was a pile of old newspapers. But even as families on the street grew up or moved away and their houses were sold, this one seemed to never be occupied. Not in any of the resident’s life times – any who still lived in the neighborhood at least – could even recall the house ever being listed for sale.  No one was too concerned with it – not the adults anyway – they supposed they knew what the problem was; it was like any other house, except this one had problems, and would need a good landscaper to boot. The kids however, they knew what the problem was; the house was cancer. Inside was something evil – something terrible. Inside the house there was something that – up until recently – only gobbled up kids in their nightmares. Up until recently, there were a dozen or more children playing on Fig Street at the corner of 5th. Now there were none; now, there were only three kids on their bicycles staring forlornly into the dead eyes of the house. Now, it was just them. Now, they were alone.

“Brad, you know this is like – crazy – right? This kind of thing doesn’t exist, and we’re just being stupid kids – you know that right?” Andy said this in a tone which dissuaded any notion that he may in fact believe it. Andy was a lanky brown haired kid who was wearing a black Jurassic Park t-shirt. The other boys, Brad and Andy, didn’t move. This is what the trio did now, now that the children on Fig had seemingly dried up and turned to dust. Each of them had a reason to suspect something dark was in that house, but the downside of crying wolf is that when you’re only twelve, no one ever believes you – even if all of the sheep are all gone.

No one knows who the first ones were, but all the kids on Fig street from as far back as Brad could remember told scary stories about the house, kids disappearing – the type of thing that stirs your imagination once a year for Halloween, and eludes your minds’ eye for most of the remaining eleven months. Sometimes the kids, who ‘disappeared’, were later to be found as runaways and some of the families just had loose roots and wound up in Fisher Minnesota or some other unheard of place – but not many. The disappearances that could be explained totaled forty eight, at least according to the local police, but this was over the course of twenty years, so while the police officers who would look into these claims may have at one point seen or heard of other kids disappearing on Fig, it was never enough to cause any concern. Not until recently. Had an officer taken a look two years ago, they would have noticed one glaring problem: all of the reports were of children. Now, they were putting together the pieces. The disappearances were picking up – six children reported missing since last year. Brad didn’t need this figure, though – his friends had been taken in the night and if he didn’t stop whatever was in the house he knew he would be next. He had seen into the heart of the house before. He knew it, and it knew him.

Andy glanced at his watch, a cheap Timex indiglo, and cautiously – “It’s almost six guys, we should head home before it gets dark.” Andy didn’t know if he exactly bought into the witchy Scooby-doo haunted house idea, not entirely at least, but whenever he passed the house, man it gave him the creeps. His mom said there was a perv-o running around snatching up the kids, he had heard her say it one night when she and her father had too much to drink and she forgot Andy was at the table. She had been discussing, over five or so glasses of wine, the recent disappearances – the first since a year ago when three other kids Brad relinquished, and shook his head, irritated. He looked at Andy, and then Ned.

“You know one of these days we’re going to go to sleep, and never wake up at all?” Brad said bluntly. “Or what if we do wake up; I wonder what happens to the kids that are taken. D’ya think if they had a choice they would go in their sleep? I think so.” Brad looked to Andy. “I know you guys think I’m some freak, but sometimes they come back. I hear them outside when everyone else is asleep. I know it sounds like make believe, but sometimes at night I can’t sleep because they are out there and I can feel them looking at me. I can feel them!” Brad looked terrified as he said this, but his voice was firm. Neither Ned, nor Andy, nor Brad said anything for a minute, but each was acutely aware of the dimming landscape. “I don’t think you’re crazy,” Ned began. He looked at Andy and then back to Brad. “I’ve heard things too, or at least I think I have. The dea-“ he fumbled, searching for the words  “-they sometimes play outside my window at night. I don’t see them, but I think I hear them, whispering in the dark. And I think they’re whispering about us.” Ned said quietly. “That’s bologna, guys, Mark and Jimmy and Vanessa were kidnapped by some pervoid, that’s what the cops think – you two are just trying to have one over on me, or you think I’m some stupid kid. I’m not a kid.” Andy protested. Brad shook his head. “If you don’t believe us – spend the night tonight. They come around most nights.” Andy considered this a moment. “Are you guys serious? Like, really serious? ‘Cause they were my friends too – and if this is some kind of prank or joke, just drop it now because that’s really mean. They were my friends too,” Andy said, hurt, his armor of disbelief now gave way to just how scared he really was, and for once his true age was not belied by his tall, lanky body. In his face shone a frightened twelve year old boy – a young twelve at that. Each of them – even Andy – felt the unreality of the situation wash over them. Perhaps there were dead children, and the house was cursed? No one can prepare for that, and boys of a certain age will always find a haunted house – sometimes it’s only haunted in their minds; but this time there was something more than that. “No, it’s not like that.” Brad shook his head slowly and suddenly felt as though Andy might somehow be worst off, as the last bits of incredulity broke away from the corners of his eyes in the shape of tears. The piercing tones of an alarm clock broke the moment. “The sun sets at 6:12 tonight, and it’s 6 right now –“

“I know, I only live like four houses away Andy,” Brad reassured him, “we’ll make it.” The street lights worked intermittently at best on Fig street, and since the disappearances of their friends, Mark, Jimmy, and Vanessa – and the other three children last fall – the parents who did not just up and move held a tight curfew; most kids played inside these days, there were the Butler kids who were cooped up all day, and were driven to and from school, and Andy had heard that their parents didn’t even let them play outside any more. Brad knew this to be mostly true – he was friends with the Butler boy; it’s not that his mother didn’t let him play in the yard, but that she could only maintain short periods of him playing outside before she freaked herself out, imagining that someone was going to swoop in and steal him like a harpy. There were the Cooper twins, but they were always off to themselves – so not much was different there, but it had only been recently that they began to stare forlornly at the street. It was like looking at an old picture, remembering how life used to be, and realizing the picture is staring back. There was Danny Fisher; his mom had taken him out of Wilcox Elementary, and had begun to homeschool him. Whenever Andy, Ned, or Brad tried to get him to come out and play, his mom would answer the door with the same excuse as every time before “Danny has homework, he’ll be out again when his homework is done.” She would say to them, the sense of urgency bleeding through her otherwise calm – if not stern – voice. Brad thought it was like people were scared, but didn’t know it – or if they did – they didn’t know why, even though they tried to tell themselves it was a kidnapper, or a molester, it was somehow worse than that and everyone knew it. No one else but Brad would admit it, but he certainly was not the only one to notice.

The boys crossed the street and walked their bikes between the cars that lined the curb. Each of the boys was caught in his own thoughts. It was an uneasy quiet that was accentuated by the clicking of derailleurs. “So how come you guys aren’t scared.” Andy asked, slightly injured, feeling weak. “There’s this house down the street from where we live that kills kids. Was it just that easy for you to ignore all of the times we’ve been told this kind of thing doesn’t exist?”

“I’m scared. I’ve been scared every day since Jimmy, Mark, and Vanessa disappeared. There’s only so much that you can take before you just get kind of numb to it, I guess.” Ned didn’t respond. “And besides, its dangerous to let fear control you.” Brad suddenly wished he had a thicker sweatshirt on. His black hoodie was stretched and worn, and the months to come were bound to be colder.

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