By Thacher E. Cleveland
Copyright 2011 by Thacher E. Cleveland
This book would not have been possible without the support of my friends and family, who are too numerous to list here. I would like to give a special thanks to Jennifer Bennett, Dina Lawrence, Megan Lewis and Meghan White, who were tremendously supportive. Cover artwork by Zane Reichert, design by Thacher E. Cleveland This, like most everything else I do, is for my daughter Alexandra.
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
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Darren sat on the edge of his bed and he could feel the house across the street, staring back at him through the darkness.
He was 10, and things like a house weren’t supposed to scare him, but that house was different. It was the oldest house in the neighborhood, and no one, at least none of the kids he knew, ever saw the man that lived there. The closest he had ever come was a couple of months ago when he was getting ready for bed and noticed a man in a black overcoat and hat pass through the this mass of hedges in the front. All he could see from his window was the peak of the roof and the two second story windows, shuttered tight like black eyes. Everything else was blocked from view by the hedges and twin oak trees that twisted in front of everything like wooden sentinels. The entire scene made for a house that no one in the neighborhood talked about, looked at, and certainly did not go near.
Darren and the rest of his friends from Briarcliff Avenue had been playing stickball in the street all summer in a subway series against the kids from Munson Drive. The Briarcliff kids were the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Munsie’s were the Yankees. Ralphie DiMartino, the Munsie’s answer to Yogi Berra, hit a beautiful pop fly that arched back towards Darren, who was playing left field. Darren raced along the street to catch it, but out of the corner of his eye he saw he had passed the outfield boundary and was coming upon that house’s sinister wall of brown-green foliage. His foot caught the curb and he sprawled out on the lane of grass between the street and the sidewalk.
Flat on his stomach, he watched as the ball hit the sidewalk, bounced, and then rolled under the hedge and out of sight.
There were hoots and hollers from behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Ralphie rounding second base already. Only Kenny Mitchell turned to yell at Darren. “Get the ball! Hurry!”
Darren scrambled to his feet, all fear vanishing at the prospect of Ralphie the Fink gloating all summer about his miraculous home run. Darren dashed through the thin gap in the branches and into the yard. The ball had rolled through the hedges and was visible in the dense, unmowed lawn. Darren raced over, scooped it up and hurled it over the hedge with a grunt. “Comin’ at ya!” he yelled, praying to God that they caught it and tagged Kenny out.
Once the ball left his hand, he realized that he was standing in the Forbidden Zone. The grass was at least ankle deep and tinged with brown from the heat and it didn’t look like anyone had set foot in it at all this summer. He was standing on what passed for the walk, right between the twin guardian oaks that loomed over him. He saw a couple of other balls laying in the yard that other kids obviously hadn’t bothered to go in after, but he had just waltzed in without a second thought.
He turned and there it was.
The house was smaller than he’d imagined; it had dirty white paint and each of its dozen windows were shuttered tight just like the two he could see from his bedroom. The green trim had faded and cracked into a cancerous black. Even the door had faded that way, except for a small patch of dark green high in the center, where the door-knocker should have been. A screen porch snaked around the left side of the house, although most of the screen was shredded to bits. The only thing sitting on the porch was a rusted patio chair, tipped over like a turtle.
Everything was still. Darren realized he had been holding his breath for so long that his heartbeat was pounding at his temples. He let it out as slowly as he could, careful not to make a sound. He was drawing in his next breath just as slowly when he saw it, lying on the front porch, just past the top step.
It was a brown shoe, just a little smaller than his.
He took a step forward, making sure his eyes weren’t fooling him. It was a girl’s shoe, and the only thing in the entire yard that was new and not rotten, faded or broken.
He shuffled his feet, desperately trying to get them to work, when something else got his attention.
Down at the corner of the house, almost hidden by the tall grass, was a small basement window. In the corner of that window was a tiny white speck.
It was a cloudy blue eye narrowing at him under a thick blonde eyebrow.
That was all Darren’s feet needed to start running.
He raced between the hedges, coming out to find the entire game had stopped and everyone staring at him. He couldn’t tell if they were so slack-jawed over the fact that he had been in that yard or that he had made it back.
Ralphie broke the silence. “What. . .the. . .frick?”
“I was gettin’ your hit, pansy,” Darren said.
Some of the other kids let out low whistles, others just shook their heads. “Balls,” DiMartino said, tipping his cap. “Big frickin’ balls.”
That night at dinner, things were quiet. At first he thought his parents had been fighting, but then he realized that they were glancing over at him every few seconds. Had someone ratted him out? Did they know where he had been? There had been something in the air for weeks, it seemed. They were always asking him where he was, where he had been, if he had seen anything strange. He hadn’t thought anything of it before, but now he knew.
They were afraid.
“Darren,” his father began, and Darren felt his rearend clench at the thought of how many swats they would give him for trespassing.
“Have you seen Suzie Morris around lately?”
“Doesn’t she go to your school?” his mother piped in, tapping at her plate with the tip of her fork.
“Yeah, she’s a grade behind me.”
“Have you seen her?” his father asked again.
“No, I haven’t. Why?”
“Well…” his father started, but then gazed across the table. His mother stopped tapping her fork. “She was supposed to spend the weekend with her aunt on Maple Street while her folks were out of town. She didn’t make it, and no one noticed until yesterday. Her aunt thought the parents had taken her with them, but her folks had sent Suzie to walk to Maple Street herself. So you’re sure you haven’t seen her?”
“I’m sure.” Darren replied, putting his silverware down.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, and then Darren pushed his plate forward. “I’m not hungry. Can I be excused?”
His parents looked at each other, and then his Mother nodded. “Sure thing. Do you want to watch Sullivan? Rosemary Clooney is going to be on.”
Darren made a face and shook his head, carrying his plate into the kitchen. “I’m gonna go upstairs.”
He stayed up there, door closed, watching the house across the street for the rest of the night. He could hear his parents arguing over Rosemary Clooney’s warbling. His Mom blamed his Dad for upsetting him and his Dad saying this was serious and that they needed to know. Later, his Mother poked her head in and told him it was time for bed so he went through the motions of getting ready and saying goodnight.
Instead of sleeping, Darren just sat in bed watching the house across the street as dusk turned into night. After a few hours, the streetlight out front clicked on and began its night-long hum. His eyelids began to droop, and he realized that trying to maintain a vigil through the night was pointless.
With a giant yawn, he got out of bed and went over to the window. It was hot and muggy, like most New Jersey summers, but there was no way he was going sleep with the window open tonight. He shut it as quietly as he could, not wanting his parents to hear and wonder what he was still doing up.
Just as he turned to head back into bed, the streetlight flickered. He turned, pressing up against the glass, scanning the entire street. For a second there was something dark moving out of the circle of light and heading towards the driveway. He stood there for at least five minutes, mashing his face against the glass, trying to see down into the driveway. There was nothing but darkness.
It was stupid, he realized. If there was anything out there, Mom and Dad would have seen or heard it. Darren turned and crawled back into bed,but once there, he found that sleep had left him. He tossed and turned, and after a couple of minutes he realized he’d been humming that stupid Rosemary Clooney song from the show.
Irritated, he kicked the sheet off and rolled over, still trying to get comfortable.
“Come on-a my house, my house-a come on . . .”
Darren snapped up in bed, eyes scouring the room. The voice had been faint, but he had definitely heard the deep rumble of a voice that wasn’t his father’s. He couldn’t see a thing, the lamp from the outside not even making a dent into the oppressive darkness of his room. Not even the light from the hallway was coming under his bedroom door.
He trained to listen but the only noise was the faint whisper of the curtains as they brushed together in the breeze. His eyes passed over them at first, but then darted back.
The window was open.
He should have screamed then, he realized, but his eyes still darted from side to side, trying to make out anything in the darkness.
“Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you ca-andy . . .”
It was so faint that he almost thought he was imagining, but he knew that even in his darkest dreams he wouldn’t have been able to imagine the rumbling, cracked voice that was whispering to him in the dark.
He drew in a breath to scream, knowing that getting his parents attention was his only chance. Before he could even make a sound, the darkness on the far side of the room exploded towards him. There was a rustle of fabric and then a gloved hand clamped down on his throat.
“Shhhhh,” the harsh whisper came from all around him.
“You wanted to see, didn’t you? You came and you wanted to see, isn’t that right?”
Darren tried to shake his head but the grip on his throat was too tight. His chest burned with the trapped air in his lungs and he could barely make out the face in front of him.
“Don’t you lie to me, boy!” The face was wrapped in a black scarf with a black, wide-brimmed hat pulled down as far as it could go. Between them, he could make out the blue eyes that had stared at him from the basement window. “You want to see Him? I can make you see.”
Darren’s chest thought his swollen lungs were going to crush his heart. Before that could happen there was a flash of silver that slammed into his temple.
Around the blue eyes everything fell into a haze.
He felt himself being effortlessly hauled over the man’s shoulder, and the last he heard before the darkness completely overtook him was his whispered singing.
“Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you everything. . .”
Mark Watson liked to watch people, but watching a couple of senior girls in short-skirted field hockey uniforms instead of where he was going was what almost got his face smashed in.
His foot stopped the stairwell door just before he completely collided with it, but when he tried to twist out of the way his feet went haywire and he toppled to the ground.
“Oh, God,” a girl’s voice said. “I’m so sorry!”
Whatever mumbled, irritated remark he was going to make was swallowed when he looked up and saw her in the doorway. She had long red hair loosely tied back and her pale skin was lightly dotted with freckles. It was the kind of relaxed, “oh, this old thing?” beauty that you were born with or spent your whole life trying to emulate.
“Here, let me help you,” she said, offering her hand. After a second he took it and pulled himself up.
“Thanks,” he said, clearing his throat and failing to shake the sad and unpopular off of his clothes.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m new and--” she was interrupted by the sudden shrill ringing of the late bell. “And now I’m late.”
“Well,” Mark said, running a hand through his shoulder length hair. “If you, ah, let me know where you’re going, I might be able to help you get there.”
“Well,” she said. “If I remember my schedule right, I’ve got Chemistry in 213. I’m just trying to figure out which way the numbers go.”
“With Reynolds?” Be careful, jackass. This could be using up whatever small quota of luck you’ve been allotted.
Well now you don’t have to worry about playing the lottery. Way to go.
“Well, I was heading that way myself. Would you care to, ah . . . walk with me?”
She smiled, and he realized he was too. “Don’t worry,” he said, “Renny rarely cares if you’re late.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m Christine.”
“Mark.” His hand twitched at his side. Handshake? Wave? Salute? For fuck’s sake stop fidgeting! “This way,” he finally waved down the hallway. Maybe you can pretend you have epilepsy.
Mark found himself falling behind as they walked, taking in how she confidently moved down the hall, a total opposite to his hunched, drawn-in shuffle. He was drawn to everything about her. This was the kind of instant crush he’d have every once and a while; a magnetic snap that would grab him by the senses and lead him around like a dog. It’d be great if it didn’t make him feel like a pathetic loser who never did anything about it.
His junior year at Cedar Ridge High had started a month ago and until now it looked like it was going to be the same as every year. He’d spend time in his room, Steve and Clara would try to get him out of his shell, and he’d do just enough homework to keep up his straight C average. He’d thought that after getting some wheels this summer he’d be able to turn over a new leaf, but it’d dawned on him this morning that he was simply incapable of changing and that clung to him like a lead shroud.
And then he realized the field hockey team had a game today, and they’d be in uniform all day. That made things a little better.
The dream last night didn’t help any either. He’d been having it, or one like it, for the past few weeks. They were hard to remember, jumbled images of a 50s neighborhood, swirling darkness that filled him with dread and the sound of metal scraping against metal. There was a low, whistling tune that was irritatingly familiar, and then it was shattered by an explosion of pain in his head, and he’d find himself rolling or falling out of bed with the smell of ashes so strong he’d be gagging.
“Is it over here?” she said, glancing over her shoulder at him.
“Yeah,” he said, widening his strides to walk at her side. “Last door on the left.” Easy, Casanova. This is directions, not progress. You’re still the boy who broke down in elementary school when his aunt died; who Mr. Wallace humiliated at the blackboard in seventh grade for not understanding fraction addition; the kid who got hit in the face with a basketball and cried as the whole class watched in disapproving silence.
Talking to a new girl meant none of that stuff had to have happened. It could just be dead and buried, never to be reanimated in an awkward moment of lulled conversation. Last year when he was about to ask his lab partner Stephanie Murphy out she filled the awkward moment of silence by asking if he’d been that “boy who cried that time.”
Christine pointed at the door on the left, and he nodded. Mark sat in his usual seat near the back and stifled an incredulous laugh when she took the seat next to him. She gave him another little smile as she got a crisp new notebook out. He smiled back, now fumbling with his bag, putting every fiber of his being into doing it without dropping something.
“So,” he said as they were packing things up after class, “where are you heading now?” Forty minutes of not studying chemistry had gone into coming up with that. It beat out “You’re a goddess” and “I want to have your babies,” but not by much.
“Really,” he said. “Me too.” This was torture.
“Great,” she smiled.
“Would you like to . . . ” Mark started, and then seized. Asking her to eat lunch with him caught in his throat, the very notion of doing so contrary to everything inside him. He had to say something, he realized, not just stand there gaping like a fish.
“Do you think you could show me where the cafeteria is?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “That’s . . . well, it’s something.”
Cedar Ridge High might have a fancy brick and glass exterior that showed the quiet dignity of age with the fresh breath of the modern, but beneath its comforting exterior lay a place that dignity and freshness had mutually agreed was beneath them. There’d been places like this before. Sodom, Dresden, Fallujah, and now, CRH cafeteria. Jocks, goths, thugs, emo kids; all mixed together in a horrific mash-up of cliquish teen disharmony.
“Well,” he said, having to raise his voice a little to be heard over the crowd. “Here it is, in all its glory.”
She took a step forward, scanning the room for anything familiar. She looked back at him. “Aren’t you coming?”
“No, I usually eat lunch outside.”
“Thanks for warning me,” she smiled. “What, you were just going to abandon me here?”
“What? No! God, no! I just . . . well, Juniors and Seniors get to eat lunch off campus, so I usually eat outside. You just, well, you said you wanted the cafeteria, so I was trying to help.”
“I know, I’m just messing with you. Want some company?”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’d be great.” If by great you mean “A great opportunity for you to continue looking like a fucking fool,” then yes, by all means, let’s go have ourselves a sammich with a side of crippling shame.
There was a small park behind the school dotted with some other kids in various clique-sized groups. Climate change, plus New Jersey being New Jersey, made the weather warm and mild. He led her over to his usual spot for lunch a secluded bench under a tree.
“Wow,” she said when they sat down. “That was something alright.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “They’ve been trying to get a tighter grip on stuff for years.”
“Still, I’m just glad I talked my Dad into not sending me to private school,” she said, getting a lunch bag out.
“Around here? Your family must be pretty loaded.”
“Yeah, well, my dad thinks we’re not rich enough. He’s getting a pretty big raise with this new job.”
Better and better. Beautiful and rich. If only she’d quit giving him false hope, then she’d be perfect.
“Hello?” she called, waving her hand in front of him with a slight smile. “Are you still in there?”
“Yeah,” he said, blushing. “Just thinking. Sorry ‘bout that.”
She shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that. What about?”
“Oh, just . . . stupid crap. The usual.”
She looked at him for a moment and he thought that she was going to call his bluff, but she just ate her sandwich in the sudden, uneasy silence.
“So, ah, where’re you from?” Mark asked, trying not to sound as lame and desperate as he felt. Coolness. Deep, inner, once in a lifetime coolness was what he needed, and he could feel it just within his grasp.
“Well, I was born in upstate New York and then we moved to Cincinnati for four years, Cleveland for five, Pittsburgh for three, and most recently Boston for four. This, however, is the first time I was able to get my dad to let me attend public school. The great schools are supposedly why we picked this town.”
Mark smiled. “That’s what a lot of people say. I think the schools were really good in the 70’s or something, but this place has pretty much gone to hell. In the past couple of years we’ve had more fights and stabbings than ever before. A lot of people blame it on an ‘increased gang presence’ or something like that, but that’s just crap.”
She rolled her eyes. “Great. My dad hears ‘stabbings’ and his head’s going to explode and the leftover bits are going to move me to boarding school”
“Well,” Mark shrugged, “there hasn’t been one since last Spring, so I think you’re stuck with us for now.”
“Believe me, I hope so. Every other private school, no matter where you go, is full of these prima donna rich kids who think they’re the shit.”
Mark smiled a little bit. “Aren’t you a ‘rich kid’?”
She shrugged. “Well, you’ve got me there, but at least I still try to be a human being.”
“Well, you’re way better than the others,” he said. “When most of the people here run me over they don’t say a thing. You at least talk to me.”
“It hasn’t seemed like they’ve been able to stand to talk to me either, so I guess we’re stuck together.” She smiled and Mark could feel his five-minute lifetime allotment of coolness slipping away.
“Well, I hope you don’t feel too ‘stuck.’ I’m kind of a social pariah, so hanging with me may not be wise. Y’know, if you want to keep your options open.”
“I so don’t care about that anymore. I tried so hard to do the whole popular girl thing in Boston but I just morphed into an uber-bitch. I think I just need some time to chill.”
“Well, I know how that goes,” he said, replacing coolness with outright lies. “I’ve had some things that I’ve had to work out too, and, y’know, it’s just something everyone goes through.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Oh, it was . . . ,” Mark brushed some stray hairs from his face, finding something interesting across the way to look at. “It was just some . . . family stuff. Nothing too major, I guess.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so just prying away, like you’d wanna discuss your crisis of faith or whatever with a stranger.”
Mark chuckled. “No, can’t have a crisis with something you don’t have.” He opened his mouth to say more, and then stopped. “You’re not, like, religious or anything are you?”
“My mom is, kinda, but my dad’s too much of a workaholic for church. Personally . . . I think that’s one of the things I’m trying to figure out.” She paused. “So you don’t believe in God or anything?”
Mark studied the ground, trying to pick his words before he blurted out more nonsense.
“It’s not that big a deal or anything,” she said. “If you don’t wanna talk about it--”
“No, I’ve had this conversation before, kinda, but my friends are . . . well, they’re a little divided on the issue.” He looked up at her. “But hey, I don’t want to be weird or anything. I mean, we just met and we’re already delving into the big questions and all.”
“Well, I’ve had my fill of stupid conversations about clothes and TV and all that shit. But if you’re not comfortable talking to me-”
“No, no, I’m comfortable!” Mark blurted out.
“I hope so,” she laughed. “I’d hate to see you when you’re uncomfortable.”
“Well, y’know, it’s just that I’m enjoying talking to you, and I don’t want you to flee in terror or anything.”
“I won’t flee in terror, Mark. You’re far too nice.”
“Well, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be nice to you,” he said, trying not to grin like an idiot. “But the whole God thing . . . no, I don’t believe. I don’t believe there’s some big old white guy with a beard sitting in the clouds who’s got Pat Robertson’s back and making sure the teams that pray the most make it to the Superbowl.” She laughed, and he paused to enjoy it. “I just can’t accept the fact there’s something out there guiding our lives for some master plan. There’s too much wrong with the world for me to accept that.”
He leaned back and took a bite out of his sandwich before he said anything else. She stared at him intently and Mark inwardly cringed. This is it. She’s going to get up and walk away and every time I see her I’ll replay this conversation in my head and want to die.
“Is this a private party or can anyone jump in?” a voice called from behind the tree.
Mark jumped with so much surprise that he crushed his sandwich in his fist. “Jesus, dude. Relax, it’s just me,” said the lean boy with the long, black leather coat who stepped from behind the tree.
“Steve, Christ! You scared the crap out of me!” Mark said, throwing the remnants of his sandwich at him.
“Sorry, man. I thought I was expected, but clearly you found some better company.” Steve grinned wide, not taking his eyes off Christine. “I’ve gotta say, you definitely traded up.”
“Yeah, this is Christine,” Mark said, his face growing red as he wiped the mayo and mustard off of his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, extending a hand which Steve took with an even bigger smile.
“Charmed,” he said, clasping it firmly. “Steve Rhodes, pleased to meetcha.” Steve plopped down between the two of them. “So,” he said, looking from one to the other, “what are we talking about?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Mark said, before Christine could answer. “Just giving her the lowdown on the whole Cedar Ridge High thing.”
“Ah, you’re a new kid, huh?” Steve said, grinning even wider. “Well, there’s just one thing you need to know.”
“Don’t hang out with us, we’re losers.”
She chuckled a little, and Mark felt his whole body cringe. “Seriously,” Steve said, “It’s not that bad. You’re young and pretty and the world is your oyster. You’ll do fabulously.”
She rolled her eyes a little. “Yeah, well, I’ll settle for normal.”
“Better than normal from what I can tell, but that’s just me being forward,” Steve said.
The three sat in silence for a few moments, and Mark’s mind raced for some way to regain control of the situation.
“So, Christine, uh, what class do you have next?” was all he could come up with.
Christine rummaged through her bag and pulled out her schedule. “Well, let’s see . . . I’ve got English, French and Study Hall. And then, it’s the weekend.”
“Any big plans for it?” Steve asked, looking at her but elbowing Mark at his side.
“Just unpacking,” she shrugged. “Haven’t been here long enough to find something interesting to do.”
Steve looked over at Mark and grinned widely. If he says anything I’ll kill him, Mark thought. I swear to God I’ll kill him right in the fucking face.
“How about that?” Steve said.
The three made more small talk the rest of the period, Mark only throwing in a few comments here and there to make sure he wasn’t forgotten among Steve’s ADD-charm. When the bell rang and the three got up to leave, he drew in a deep breath, turned to Christine and said, “Can I walk you to your next class?” If he didn’t know any better, he’d say he was calming down. She had been getting to her feet and putting her backpack back on. She turned, hair flipping over her shoulder.
“Sure,” she said, “I’d like that.”
So much for calming down.
“Well, here you go,” Mark said.
“Thanks for the walk,” she said. “You’ve been really sweet.”
“Oh, well, that’s . . . It’s my pleasure,” Mark said. “Really.”
They stood for a few moments, Mark trying so hard not to stare at her that he ended up admiring the tile work.
“Well, I should see you later, okay?” Christine said, and Mark snapped his head back around.
“Yeah!” He said, and then took a breath, trying to reel in the enthusiasm. “I guess I will see you in class and stuff.” They still have that most days, and she’ll be in at least one of them, genius.
“Yeah,” Christine said, smiling over her shoulder as she walked into class. “See you then.”
Mark stepped backwards, keeping an eye on the door until Steve crept up behind him and clapped him hard on the shoulder.
“Man! You are smitten!”
“Shut up!” Mark said, elbowing him in the ribs and walking away.
“Relax! It happens!” Steve said, falling in alongside him.
“I know!” Mark said, feeling the eyes of everyone in the hallway on him. “I just don’t need you advertising it everywhere, alright?”
“Yeah, fine.” Steve said.
As they entered the gym, Steve turned to Mark and grinned wickedly. “Hey, didya hear? She’s free this weekend!”
“Would you shut up?” Of course he heard and knew exactly why Steve had brought it up.
“Think about it, man,” Steve said as they headed down to the locker room. “She’s a pretty hot chick, and if you don’t make your move now, pffftt!” threw his hands apart in a dramatic gesture. “She be snatched up by some other guy and she’ll forget you even existed.”
“I wish we could forget you existed,” called a voice from the other end of the row of lockers. Mark closed his eyes and prayed for the thousandth time for a world where Steve knew when to keep his damn mouth shut.
“Hey,” Steve called over his shoulder. “Not talking to you, Jack.”
“Fuck you,” Jack said. His eyes focused squarely on Mark, who stared back in impotent silence. Ever since the sixth grade Jackson Cole went out of his way to make sure that Mark was miserable. If he wasn’t throwing paperclips at the back of Mark’s head, he was bumping into him in the halls or finding some other way to embarrass him. Jack was Mark’s anti-matter; clean-cut, athletic, social, well-liked, wealthy, and whenever they crossed paths Jack tried to destroy him.
Towards the end of sophomore year Jack had been pushing each confrontation with Mark further and further. The last time Jack and his friends had found Mark heading for the South Exit after school. It had become typical fare by this point, especially after school without anyone else around. Before Mark could get away Jack bounced him off a couple of lockers to the delight of his minions. Mark just closed his eyes and rode each shove like a humiliating wave, keeping his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to see Jack’s twisted grin every time Mark made contact with metal.
The ride ended when he grabbed Mark by the lapels, drawing him close to his face and snarling, “Look at me!” Mark cracked his eyes open a little, wincing at the fury raging in front of him. “You’re a loser, Watson,” Jack hissed. “A failure. A nobody. You could just disappear right now and no one would ever care.”
Mark felt tears of shame and rage welling up and he knew that Jack could see them too. He let go of Mark’s shirt and he slumped to the floor, stripped of his will to exist, let alone stand. He didn’t open his eyes until he heard Jack and of his friends leaving.
Mark had hoped that the summer had given Jack a chance to cool down but Mark could tell that things were just as bad as before when Jack chose a gym locker in the same row as Steve and Mark.
Jack strode forward and Mark couldn’t keep himself from stepping back a bit. “No, fuck you,” Steve said, his voice wavering. Steve was bigger than Mark but it was all height and not muscle. Jack didn’t even acknowledge Steve’s existence, keeping his gaze locked on Mark. The corners of Jack’s mouth turned up a little and it took every ounce of Mark’s willpower to not look away.
“You shouldn’t even bother looking for a girlfriend, Watson. No girl would go out with a pathetic waste like you.” He snickered and started to turn away. “Besides,” he said over his shoulder, “I’ve probably already fucked her.” He said it loud enough for the rest of the people in their row to hear, and there was a wave of chuckles and smirks.
Mark could tell Steve wanted to say something to him, but Mark ignored it. It was just going to be his usual, “Stand up for yourself,” “Don’t let him push you around,” and “You’re ten times better than he is.”
It’s hard to fight back and stand up for yourself when you know he’s right, isn’t it?.
When everyone was changed they headed up stairs and sat in their assigned spots on the gym floor as Coach Roberts checked off their names. The nets were already set up, dashing Mark’s hopes that they were doing anything else but volleyball. The gym had been divided into two separate courts and the class had been split up into four teams, which they split in to after attendance was taken.
Mark absolutely hated volleyball. Despite whatever hand-eye coordination he’d gotten from video games he couldn’t hit the ball to save his life, much less get it over the net. Accepting his own ball-and-net shortcomings was one thing but playing out his sports inadequacies for everyone to see was just cruel.
Jack and his friends being on his team made it unbearable.
“There,” Jack said, motioning for Mark to take a spot in the middle of the court after. Mark opened his mouth to protest but remembered it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. He shuffled to his spot, trying not to look as nervous and mortified as he felt. Mark soon found himself flanked by two of Jack’s friends, Victor Barnes and Kyle Ferris. It was going to be bad today, he realized.
The game got underway, and Mark watched the ball dreading it coming toward him. It came down towards Vic, who moved out of its path and called, “Get it!” Mark stepped over, gritted his teeth and swung at the ball. It caromed off his fist and arced up behind him.
Kyle tapped it straight up in the air and said, “Send it over.” Mark scrambled to get under the ball and managed to get it over with a healthy dose of luck.
The pattern soon became obvious. The ball would come down and Jack’s friends would either move out of the way, ordering Mark to get it, or send it over towards him deliberately. Mark found himself racing back and forth, arms flailing at the ball and sending it off in random directions.
Finally Mark was rotated back into the serving position. The ball was dropped at Mark’s feet, somewhere near his pounding heart and self-esteem. Kids on the other team rolled their eyes and some took the opportunity to sit and stretch out. Mark closed his eyes, trying to keep his face from flaring to red with embarrassment. “Any day, Watson,” Vic snickered next to him.
Mark opened his eyes and picked up the ball. It rested in his palm and after a few seconds he pictured Jack’s head in its place. Hitting it hard no longer was a problem. He tossed it up and swung as hard as he could. It flew high, narrowly missing the maze of ducts and pipes on the ceiling. Mark thought for a second that he’d actually score a point, but it headed towards one of the few people on the opposite team that was actually paying attention. The ball went back and forth, and thankfully Mark’s team lost the point so he didn’t have to serve again.
When he moved Kyle took his place at Mark’s right again, and it seemed that the game had changed. Instead of running him ragged all around the court they went out of their way to bump, jostle and ram into him. They’d dart to the sides when a ball was coming near Mark and slam him to the ground while trying to get at it. Soon exhaustion at running around became the least of his worries and he found himself too tired to even move out of the way. As they headed back down to the locker room towards the end of the period, Steve jogged up alongside Mark. “Hey, it looks like they were knocking you around pretty bad out there, huh?” Mark just looked away, not wanting to confirm the obvious.
“I’m fine,” Mark said, fumbling with the combination to his locker.
“Look, Mark,” Steve said, finally soft enough for only Mark to hear. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s only gonna get worse. You have to--”
Mark slammed his locker door open, cutting Steve off. “I’m fine,” he said, still not looking Steve in the eye and feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on his back.
“Watson, that was a great game!” Jack called from his locker.
“Look,” Steve said, “why don’t you leave him the hell alone, huh? What the hell did he ever do to you?”
Jack shook his head and looked down at his feet. “What did he ever do to me? Y’know, I didn’t realize I needed a reason. I just figured losers like him deserved it.”
Steve walked up to Jack stepping between him and his locker. “Let me tell you something you spoiled little bastard--” he began, but Jack didn’t give him a chance to finish. Steve didn’t even know what was happening until he was doubled over and gasping for breath, his hands at his stomach where Jack punched him.
Mark rested his head on his locker for a second and then walked over to Jack, who was staring down at Steve’s crumpled form with murderous intent in his eyes. “Hey,” Mark called, his voice squeaking out of his rapidly tightening throat. Jack looked up and actually smiled.
Jack stepped over Steve and leaned against the locker next to Mark. “I can’t believe you’ve got to get some theater geek to fight your battles for you,” Jack said. “Fucking sad, man.” Mark looked away from Jack’s gaze, his fists clenching and unclenching. Jack leaned in close enough so only Mark could hear. “But if you did, I’d fucking destroy you.” Moving before Mark could register it Jack shoved him hard to the ground and then pinned him there with a foot on his chest.
The spectators that appeared around them let out gasps and murmurs and Jack’s face contorted into an evil grin. He pressed his foot down harder, and Mark’s breath hissed past his teeth. Jack leaned down. “Don’t bother to fight me, Watson. I’ll bury you.”
With that, Jack lifted his foot up and walked back to his locker to continue changing, not even looking in their direction. Mark just lay there, listening to everyone change and head upstairs to wait for the bell. His breath came back but not his will to stand.
“Hey,” Steve said. Mark looked up and saw him sitting on the bench next to him. He was dressed and just stared down at Mark.
“What?” Steve repeated. “We got our asses kicked, that’s what. That and we’re late for class.”
“Yeah,” Mark said, sitting up and wincing. Mark avoided Steve’s gaze and got changed as quickly as his aching muscles would allow. If you’d stood up for yourself, his little voice sneered, this never would have happened and your friend wouldn’t have put himself in danger. But what do you care? You’re a coward. A worthless coward. He slammed his locker drowning it out.
All in all, Christine thought, it hadn’t been a bad day. Sure she’d started a couple of weeks behind but it looked like catching up wasn’t going to be that big of a problem. The only confusing thing was how spread out the campus was, making it almost impossible to figure where you’re going unless you literally run into someone who is more than happy to show you around. She smiled, thinking of Mark’s wide-eyed, eager to please face that showed up once he lightened up a little. He certainly wasn’t the type of guy she was usually interested in. In fact, she wasn’t even really sure if she was interested in him or just found him interesting. Either way there was just something about him that made her want to know more.
She stopped just outside the school’s main entrance, trying to remember which way her house was, when she saw Mark over by the bike rack unchaining what looked to be a small scooter. Spotted with rust and dirt, it suited his sloppy charm. She headed over, hoping to catch him before he took off.
“Hey stranger,” she said, and he whirled around so fast it made her jump. When he recognized her, his eyes opened wide and he nearly dropped the helmet he was holding. “Oh! Hi!” he squeaked.
“Remind me never to sneak up on you,” she laughed.
“Sorry, it’s been a rough day.”
“That’s alright. This is a really cool. Is it a moped?”
He smiled a little. “No, it’s a scooter. A Vespa 180 Super Sport, actually, from 1965. Total classic. I finally got it fixed up this summer. Steve and I call it the V.”
“That’s totally kick-ass,” she smiled. “Your parents don’t worry about you on a bike like this? Mine would freak.”
Mark shifted, gaze drifting away. “Ah, well, they don’t really worry about much. I take care of it myself and I wear my helmet. I’ve only crashed once, but I was screwing around and doing something stupid.”
“You? Stupid? I find that hard to believe,” she grinned, making him blush and getting his attention again.
“Well, it was Steve’s fault really,” he said. “He’s always trying to get me to ramp stuff or race cars or something moronic like that. That time I think he was chasing me around my backyard. I swerved to avoid running him over and crashed into the garage. So yeah, no playing tag with the V, that’s what we learned.”
“Good to know,” she smiled. “Well, I’ve got to go, I’ve got quite a walk.” she said.
Mark paused and then said, “Y’know, I could give you a lift. I don’t have my spare helmet with me, but I’ll go slow.”
“Thanks, that’d be great. And don’t worry about me, I don’t mind going fast.”
Mark pulled up in front of Christine’s house and was more convinced than ever that he was way out of his depth. As Christine yelled and pointed directions from the back of the V he realized that they were moving further up the Hill, towards Cedar Ridge’s big homes with huge yards and fantastic views of Manhattan. Sure enough, she directed him into one of the secluded little cul-de-sacs near the top. She motioned him to one of the houses at the end. It had a wide front lawn and a driveway that curved around the back.
“Thanks a lot for the ride,” she said, standing up and pulling her hair back.
“Yeah, no problem,” he said, still transfixed. “That’s a pretty nice house.”
“Oh,” she said, glancing at it over her shoulder. “Yeah, it’s alright. My dad wanted another one on the other side of town that was bigger but the deal fell through so we got this one instead. He says this’ll do for now.”
“Gee, I hope so,” Mark said before he could stop himself. He felt his face get red, but Christine just smiled. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I told him I was sick of moving and this place was more than enough, but he says he only wants ‘The Best.’ He’s a little crazy like that.”
Mark smiled, mostly from relief. “Hey, I was, ah, wondering,” he started, and then clamped his jaw shut. What are you doing? Are you insane?
“What?” Christine said, smiling, and suddenly all hesitation was lost.
“I was wondering if you’d like to come to a little party at a friend of mine’s this weekend,” he said, getting it out before it was too late.
“I’d love to.”
“Oh, wow, okay,” Mark said. “I’ve just gotta check and make sure it’s okay. I mean, it was gonna just be me and Steve but I don’t think it’ll be problem. It should be great, though. Really, really great.”
“Sounds like fun then,” Christine said. “What kind of party is it?”
“Well, it’s actually my birthday next Tuesday, so it’s like a pre-birthday thing. Nothing fancy. Like I said, just me, Steve and Clara, hanging out, watching movies that kind of stuff.”
“Oh,” Christine said. “Who’s Clara?”
“She’s just a friend of mine. Older lady, owns a store downtown. She’s pretty cool.”
“Great,” she said, smiling. “Let me give you my number so you can call me later with the details.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, each one reaching into their bags for pen and paper. As Mark took hers, their fingers touched, he could swear that she let her fingers linger for a second before drawing away.
“Well,” Mark said, now even more flustered than before, “I’ll call Clara and make sure we’ve got room for another person and then I’ll give you a call. Is later tonight okay?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Okay, yeah. Great.” Mark fumbled to get his helmet on. He rode off, watching Christine in his little rear view mirror until he turned the corner and she vanished from view. Oh wow, he thought. I think she really likes me. Hot damn.
Not even coming home could dampen his spirits.
Since he was seven home was a same dirty beige duplex located in scenic Wrong Side of the Tracks Cedar Ridge. He’d moved in with his mom’s older sister Martha and her husband Joe when his parents died in a car accident. The childless couple, faced with familial obligation, did their best to turn the house into a home. Martha did the tucking in, the comforting and the “there, there, it’ll be alright,” while Joe specialized in “Don’t touch that” and “Keep it down, I’m trying to watch the game.” Mark had begun to adjust when the world got re-scripted again shortly after he turned eleven.
That day Aunt Martha wasn’t there to meet him when he came home after school. At first he just chalked it up to some errand that she had to run and he went on with business as normal. Hours passed and Mark realized that not only was Martha late but Joe should’ve been back from work. Food, TV and even homework couldn’t keep things from blowing past “weird” and heading deep into “scary.”
The car pulled in well after dark. Mark waited in the hallway, watching the backdoor but not wanting to get his hopes up. After what could have been a dozen trips from the garage to the back porch the door opened and Joe walked in. He shuffled straight ahead, right up to the refrigerator and opened the freezer. He took out a bottle and took a long drink from it. He closed the door, bottle still in hand, and slumped forward, leaning his head against the door.
“Uncle Joe,” Mark said, as soft as he possibly could as he stepped into the kitchen. Startled by the noise, Joe’s head jerked up and the bottle of Vodka slipped from his fingers and shattered on the tile. Mark jumped but Joe didn’t even flinch. He turned towards Mark and his eyes were red and blurry, and the face that had once been merely gruff had collapsed into one etched with age and wear.
“What did I do?” Mark whispered.
“You wore her out.” His voice was a harsh, ragged croak. “She did everything for you, and you just took all she had and didn’t give a damn thing back. You just took and took.”
“Don’t you dare!” Joe yelled, dropping down on one knee, barely missing bits of glass. He grabbed Mark by the shoulders and shook him. “Don’t you cry, dammit! She was my wife, you don’t get to cry!” Mark sniffed in deeply only to get a nose full of Vodka fumes. “Stop it!” Joe snarled, shaking him even harder, and then pushing him back into the hallway with a disgusted shove. Mark flopped back, not even trying to break his fall. Against orders, Mark began to sob as he watched the still kneeling Joe lean against the doorjamb, head down and body shaking.
When the shaking stopped Joe mumbled something Mark could barely hear.
“Wh . . . what?” Mark said, catching his breath from his own sobs.
“Get out!” Joe snapped, glaring up at him wet, hate filled eyes.
Mark just sat there, stunned. Was he throwing him out on the street? Joe slammed his palm down on the floor with a thunderous crack. “I said get out of my sight, goddamnit!”
Mark scrambled backwards, arms and legs working frantically until he got himself rolled over and heading up the steps, taking them three at a time. His foot caught on the top step and he stumbled forward, crashing into the door to the attic. Breathless and terrified, Mark made it into his room, pausing only to lock the door behind him. Mark pushed his bed across the room and wedged it against the door. He snatched the blankets off and threw them into the closet, arranging them into a makeshift nest. If he wants me out he’ll have to come and drag me out.
Mark slept in the closet for two weeks after Martha’s fatal stroke, wedging the door closed with his bed every night. When he was thirteen Joe let him move into the attic space that had been Martha’s sewing room. It was small and cramped, the ceiling slanting down so much that he could only fully stand up in half of it. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter, but it had a lock on the door and Joe never went near it. For Mark, it was a safe haven in the dark, narrow, not-quite-a-house.
They didn’t ever talk about what had happened the night Martha died. They lived almost as they had when she was alive; the two barely acknowledging each other. When they did it was usually some fight about money, chores, or schoolwork. Their last ten rounds had been about the last of the money that was left from his parents. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to buy and fix up the V. “Fine,” Joe snarled in defeat. “But that’s the last of it. If you want anything else, you’re going to have to actually earn it.”
Like most days, the house was empty when Mark walked in. Joe worked at the post office and after work he usually headed to a bar to hang out with his friends. Mark suspected Joe didn’t like spending time in the house any more than he did. The house had become a rusty bear-trap of grief and loss, barely cleaned and unchanged since that night.
Once upstairs, Mark dropped his stuff as fast as he could, flipped on the TV and grabbed the phone to call Clara. Martha had been acquainted with Clara through their church and Mark had been to Clara’s store a couple of times before Martha died. Mark found himself in her store a couple of months and Clara asked him how he was holding up. Without warning everything poured out of Mark in a spasm of tears. She closed up and they went up to her apartment upstairs where she eventually got everything out of him. After that she made a concerted effort to be a part of his life and be as good a friend to him as middle-aged black woman could to a teen-aged white kid.
“Mystic Books,” Clara answered.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Hey kiddo,” she said. “You sound pretty excited. What’s up?”
“Well, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind if I brought another person to the party this weekend.”
“Sweetie, it’s your party! Bring whoever you want!”
“Well,” he said. “I just wanted to check and see, in case, y’know, there were problems or something.”
“No, Mark, no problems. I’ll just bring out another chair. So, is it anyone I know?”
“Well, no,” he said. “She’s new in town, and I just met her today.”
“A her?” Mark knew this was coming and knew he could only ride it out. “Don’t tell me you’ve got a girlfriend now? And on the first day that you met her? That’s impressive!”
“Clarrrrrrrre,” Mark groaned, “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s just a girl that I met and well . . . I asked her and she said yes.”
“Well she’d have been a fool to say otherwise,” Clara said. “I’ve got customers, so I’ve gotta run, but I’ll see you tomorrow okay?”
“Sure,” Mark said, hanging up and flopping back on the bed. He dialed through the few TV stations he could pick up with the rabbit ears and after a half hour of boring reruns he got stuff out of his bag so he could begin to think about doing some homework. The piece of paper with Christine’s number sat on the table near his phone. It stared at him, daring him to be the guy that actually called when they got a number and not just “the guy who finally got a phone number.” She probably wrote the number of some pizza place on it. That’s no trophy, that’s a seven digit path to mortification.
He dove and snatched it up. “Christine Baker” it said and underneath the number she’d written: “Call me!” a looping, cheerful challenge to what passed for his manhood.
He looked over at the phone, lying on the bed next to him. He reached it over, picked it up and then dropped it right back down.
He reached out again. Phone up, phone down.
“This is stupid,” he muttered grabbing the phone up again, his other hand quickly stabbing at numbers before he could chicken out a third time. The phone rang for what seemed like an eternity, and he almost dropped the phone back down when she picked up.
“Is that you Mark?” Christine answered.
“Yeah,” he said. Oh God, she was there! “There’s no surprising you, is there?”
“Well, you’re the only person I’ve given my new number to so far and I don’t think the telemarketers could get me that fast. Sorry that took so long, I was stuck behind a pile of boxes. So what’s going on this weekend?”
“Everything is good to go, so I can give you the address of Clara’s store or I can swing by and pick you up. Whichever is cool with you.”
“I’d definitely take another ride if you’re offering. I think you were holding back on me today.”
“Hey, I told you, I’m a terribly responsible driver. You get no fast rides out of me.” He paused. “Wait, I think that came out wrong.” The phone was good, he realized. She couldn’t hear wincing and foot twitching.
“Really?” she laughed. “I hope so.”
“Yeah, definitely came out wrong.”
“So,” she said, “aside from the fact that you’re disaffected with your home town, a bitter atheist, good with directions and drive a snazzy little scooter, what else do I need to know about you?”
“Oh, not much,” he said, “But then again, me just telling you would just spoil the mystery, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, I’ll just have to see how much of this mystery I can uncover before I get called back to unpacking.”
He smiled. “Ask away. My life’s an open book, pretty much.”
Mark was rooted to the V, holding his helmet in a death grip. With the lights of Manhattan shimmering to life behind it Christine’s house managed to look even more elegant and formidable than it did almost 24 hours ago. Tiny lights lit the crooked walk up to the front door and then twinkled off the panoramic windows that curved around the side of the house.
He knew nerves were stupid, as the conversation with Christine was amazing last night. While they didn’t have much in common interest-wise (he wrangled out the secret of her young love affairs with various boy-bands of mediocre talent), he laid back and listened with wonder as she regaled him with tales of the various places she had lived. Almost every story began with “We were hanging out” or “We were at this party.” Mark had spent almost a decade in Cedar Ridge and had yet to see a single party. The closest he came to hanging out was when Steve dragged him to one of his Theater Club things, where Mark just ended up practicing for a spot on the Olympic Wallflowering Team.
When they finally had to get off the phone she said that she “was really looking forward to the party.” Mark found himself playing that, and the rest of their conversation over and over again when he went to bed.
It was easy to say over breakfast that nerves were stupid, but walking up the path to the world’s prettiest house of horrors he remembered all the things he’d left out and avoided on the phone last night - like his lack of wealth and parents. Nerves were the only things that existed in his body. As he walked up the path he could see the driveway curve around the back of the house and down, nestling under the porch and providing the perfect resting place for the pair of nearly matching sports cars.
He jabbed the doorbell quickly, expecting it to shock him with some kind of poor kid detector. The chime was as perfect and inviting as the rest of the house had lead him to believe it would be and it did nothing to put him at ease.
The door opened and an older, shorter-haired Christine smiled at him. “Well hello,” she said. “You must be Christine’s date.”
Date? She called this a date? Maybe someone else is coming by when you’re done. “Ah, yes ma’am. I’m Mark Watson. Pleased to meet you.” He wiped a hand on his jeans and offered it to her, and she shook it warmly.
“Won’t you come in, Mark? I’ve got a roast in the oven, but Christine will be right down,” she said, heading back into the house and gesturing at the stairway in the front hall that curved up the wall and up to a second floor balcony.
“Sure thing,” he called after her, walking into the living room wondering if “roast in the oven” was a euphemism or if people actually did that. The living room was a fancy “not for watching TV” one like Steve’s, and the windows he’d seen from outside swept along the back wall and offered a breathtaking view of Manhattan in the distance.
If Mark hadn’t known better he’d have thought the Bakers had lived here for years. The furniture, all sleek, modern and stylish, was meticulously placed. The only hint of the nasty act of unpacking was the couple of boxes tucked away in a corner. There was an array of pictures hanging on the wall above a black leather sofa that looked like it cost more than Joe’s car. Mark leaned in to take a look at them, mindful not to touch anything.
The pictures looked like they had been beamed in from some distant universe where everyone was cheery and visited exotic places like lighthouses, mountains, and what may or may not be Japan. There was an older boy in the pictures with Christine and her parents; a perfect, handsome clean-cut male specimen to go with their fantastic daughter.
“Hey,” Christine said, tapping Mark on the shoulder. “Ready to go?”
He turned and his bitter envy melted away. She was at least twice as lovely as she’d been yesterday, hair down and face slightly more made up. Everything about her look pushed his jeans and t-shirt down from “casual” to “sketchy hobo.”
“Yeah, totally,” he said. “I was just looking at some pictures of you and your family. They’re all . . . man, you guys get around.”
Christine shrugged. “Yeah. My mom loves taking pictures and stuff, so it’s always posing and smiling.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Speaking of which, we should roll out before the inquisition starts.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mark said as they headed for the door. “I’ve got the spare helmet, and it should fit you just fine.”
“Excuse me,” Christine’s mother said, stepping into the foyer. “Did you say ‘helmet?’”
“Um, yeah,” Mark said, stopped dead in his tracks by Mrs. Baker’s almost magical appearance.
“You didn’t tell me he was picking you up in a motorcycle, Chrissy,” Mrs. Baker said.
“Mom,” Christine moaned. “It’s not a motorcycle, it’s just a scooter. Totally harmless. Helmets and everything!”
“I don’t know Chrissy, maybe I should drive the two of you.”
“Please!” Christine said, with a wave of her hand. “Mark’s a safe driver, and we’re going to be late. It’s perfectly fine, okay?” Christine opened the door, waving for Mark to take the lead out but he just stood there, eyes going from Christine to her mom and back again.
“Fine,” Mrs. Baker said with a sigh, “As long as you’re safe. And remember, you’re supposed to be home by midnight. No later.”
“Yeah, sure, thanks Mom,” Christine said, grabbing Mark’s hand and almost dragging him out the door.
“I hope I didn’t get you in trouble,” Mark said, handing her a helmet.
“No, it’s just been 24 hours and she hasn’t found something to bitch about so she had to latch on to something. With my Dad settling in at the new office and my brother away at college, it’s gonna be me.”
“Well,” he grinned, “I’m sure she’s just worried about her little Chrissy.”
She punched him on the shoulder with a smile. “Please! They’ve been calling me that since I was a little girl and it’s so fucking Nick at Night. Don’t you start!”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, starting up the V.
“A beverage for madam?” Steve asked Christine, laying a bottle of soda across his forearm for her like a maitre d’.
“Thanks,” she smiled.
“Raging party, huh?”
“Very . . . intimate.” Which was an apt description of the guest list and the store itself. Nestled between an appliance store and a Chinese take-out place on one of the main drags through town, it was lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves. The books themselves ranged from science fiction and horror to books on mysticism and the occult and there was a small case next to the register with crystals and tarot cards. Towards the back of the store there was a small sitting area, where Clara had set up a card table and wheeled out a TV/VCR.
“This place is cool,” Steve said, “but there’s always something here that I can’t figure out. A couple of months ago she had coffin nails, and I so didn’t want to know what that was about.”
“I think she said they were for protection spells or something,” Mark said, wandering over from the new releases.
“All I know is that I don’t wanna meet who she gets ‘em from, y’know?” Steve smirked.
The three stood there, sodas in hand, the only noise drifting in from the street. After a few seconds, Steve cocked a thumb towards the back of the store and said, “Hey, speaking of, I’m gonna go upstairs and see what’s up with that cake.” With that, he strolled to the back and vanished behind the curtain labeled “Employees Only.”
The two stood there in the near silence, Mark rocking back and forth on his heels. “This is nice,” Christine said a couple seconds later.
“Yeah,” Mark nodded. “I mean, I know you’ve done way cooler stuff in Boston and wherever, but I’m glad you like it.”
“Mark,” she said, stepping closer and putting a hand on his shoulder before he wore a hole in the carpet. “That stuff’s not important. You helping me out at school and being, maybe, the best conversationalist in the past decade is way more impressive.”
“Really?” he said, eyes focusing on the hand on his shoulder. Talking on the phone had been one thing, but being in front of her put him right back in the hallway, flat on his ass and staring up in stupid, mute awe.
“Totally,” she smiled. “I just don’t want you to be all stressed out and nervous or anything just because I’m here, okay? There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off as Steve brushed back the curtain and Clara came in with a candle topped cake. Clara began to sing, and Steve and Christine joined in. Christine linked arms with Mark, who was flushed with embarrassment, to drag him towards the table in the back.
“You didn’t have to go to any trouble,” he said when they were finished.
“Trouble?” Clara said, waving her hands and rolling her eyes. “It’s your birthday and we love you! Of course we have to make a fuss.”
“Yeah,” Steve said with a wide grin, throwing an arm around Mark and squeezing him close and pulling him away from Christine. “Happy sweet sixteen, baby. Now let’s get at that cake!”
When they finished the cake and the Chinese food, Steve and Clara gave Mark their presents. Steve gave Mark a copy of an imported Kung Fu movie tand Clara gave him a large hardback collection of Lovecraft stories. “Thanks, you guys,” he said, grinning from ear to ear at the two of them. “You know I’ve been wanting this, haven’t you?” he asked Clara.
“Well you’ve only picked it up and put it down a dozen times, kiddo. How could I not?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t bring anything,” Christine said, “But I’m sure Clara can point something out to me later.”
“Oh, hey,” Mark said, pushing the book aside. “Don’t worry about it. I mean, we just met and all, it’s no big deal.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, rapping out a beat on the table with his knuckles. “You’re like the little drummer girl, but, y’know, without the drumming.”
“Exactly,” Mark smiled, but then stopped. “You don’t drum, do you?”
“Not a musical bone in my body,” she laughed.
“Annnnnnyway,” Steve said. “We were gonna watch The Thing, but now I vote kung fu kick-ass action, what say you?”
“Totally,” Mark grinned, and then looking back over to Christine, the smile again giving way to concern. “Unless you hate kung fu. But this looks really good.”
“No,” she smiled, patting him on the arm. “I’m really not down with the scary movies. I saw ‘The Ring’ with my brother nearly had a panic attack. Kung fu is fine.”
The movie was just as good as Mark had hoped it would be, but most importantly in the dark he was able to steal glances at Christine. He loved watching her watch the movie, her eyes lighting up when she laughed or growing wide during some outrageous fight.
During a slow point, Mark excused himself and stepped behind the curtain marked “Employees Only”. Behind it was a small hallway with stairs along the far right wall that led up to Clara’s apartment and a narrow hallway to the left that led to the bathroom.
When he finished in the bathroom he was about to turn and head back into the store when he heard a creak from the upstairs door. He paused, cocking his head to see if he heard it again. After a few seconds he did, and it sounded like a footstep. Mark walked up to the foot of the steps and squinted up at the darkness above.
He could barely see the top, but it looked like the door was closed, which was unusual. There shouldn’t be anyone up there, but there were fire stairs leading down from the small patio at the back of Clara’s apartment and into the lot below where Mark had parked the V. They weren’t in a bad neighborhood per se, but it was as close to urban as Cedar Ridge got.
Mark took a couple of steps backwards, trying to keep the door in sight. When he reached the curtain he turned to ask someone if they heard something as well, but he realized that another massive kung fu fight. Christine laughed out-loud, and the light from the TV sparkled in her eyes.
This is stupid, go sit with her.
Mark was about to go back in when he heard a definite creak above him. He looked from Christine to back up the door, and then turned and crept up the steps.
The stairway was dark and Mark tread softly as he could. He hadn’t turned on the light downstairs, and if the door upstairs wasn’t closed, Clara hadn’t left a single light on upstairs.
What are you going to do? Sneak up on a burglar, wrestle him to the ground and be a hero for your new “girlfriend?”
Mark stopped at the second to last step, one hand on the wall to his left, the other reaching out to feel for the door. He looked back down the steps behind him. The muted light through the curtain of the TV was still flickering, but everything else was as black as pitch.
He turned back and reached out for the door. His fingertips brushed against wood, and he realized that the door had been closed. He listened for anything out of the ordinary, which was easier further away from the kicks and chops, but this time there was nothing. He felt around until he found the doorknob, and gently pushed the door open.
“Hello?” he called, and then winced at his own stupidity. Oh, that’s a great way to sneak up on a burglar. Why don’t you take up yodeling?
The door opened into the living room. To the left was a wide archway that led to the kitchen and through there, the patio. The apartment was dark, the only light coming from the narrow windows that faced the buildings next door. Everything looked normal, although it was odd that Clara hadn’t left a single light on.
He took a few cautious steps around the living room, straining his eyes to peer into the inky depths of the shadows around him. He stopped, trying to hear whatever it was that had been moving around up here but there was nothing. Not even the kung fu mayhem was making it’s way up the steps.
“Hello?” he called again, his voice bouncing around him.
There was a flutter out of the corner of his eye, near the kitchen. As he turned to look a breath of air washed over him, carrying a thick odor of smoke as if it had just blown out a thousand candles. He wrinkled his nose as he peered around in the dark, not wanting to leave the little island of light from downstairs.
There it was again, a flutter of something in the deep blackness of the kitchen. He stepped forward, and then the dark exploded towards him like black smoke. He stepped back, trying to get into the light, but the shape was on him in a second, enveloping him and filling his nostrils with the scent of ash and fire. His stumbled back, waving one arm behind him to find the wall and the other in front of his face. The darkness was so absolute that he couldn’t even see his own flailing limb in front of him.
All he could see were two lights flickering in the distance. They bobbed slightly, getting bigger, and then he realized they were eyes.
He turned to run but then realized he was inches away from the top of the stairs. He pinwheeled his arms, frantically trying keep from toppling forward. Stretched out, trying to keep his balance, he realized the stairway had changed, become old and wooden. This wasn’t Clara’s anymore, and the light from downstairs didn’t come from a kung fu movie, but flickered like an open flame. Smoke wafted up at him, carrying with it a heavier smell of something burning like a rancid barbecue.
Mark heard the low whistle of a familiar tune and when he turned the flaming pair of eyes hanging in the darkness were towering over him.
“Come on-a my house, my house . . .” a voice whispered through the darkness.
There was a flash of silver, a brilliant contrast to the darkness, and then he was tumbling backwards down the stairs.
Continued in SHADOW OF THE PAST
About the Author
Thacher E. Cleveland grew up in Montclair, NJ which is totally nothing like Cedar Ridge. Honest. After school he moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio and stayed for about 15 years, selling books and comics and becoming a co-founder his own comic shop. In 2010 he left the retail side of life and relocated to Chicago. Thacher is a contributing writer and columnist for the website and is one of the hosts of the Super-Fly Comics Podcast on the Panels on Pages podcast network. He can be found online at his website, or Twitter ) or on .
Also by Thacher E. Cleveland
NEVER LET GO: A Winston & Churchill Case
Lexie Winston and George Churchill are private investigators that specialize in the unusual, the unexplained and the unnatural. When they're contacted by a man who's worried about his wife after the loss of their son, they realize some people will go to any lengths to be reunited with the ones they love. Beyond murder, beyond sanity and into the realm of pure evil.