I write a Halloween story every year. This one is a little late getting out, but better late than never.
It should be said that this story is horror - expect horrible things. I wouldn't have submitted this particular tale if the site hadn't gone to private funding - it's probably right on the borderline for what is acceptable. If you don't like horror stories, this probably isn't the tale for you. If you do like horror, welcome and enjoy.
There is always one, and everyone knows which one it is. It didn't matter if it was a small town or big city, there was always at least one. At least one building that any long term resident could point to and say "That's it, that's the one. That's the place that's haunted."
From the Excalibur in Chicago to the Winchester house in San Fransisco to the dilapidated corner house with the cracked and peeling paint and creaky steps in your neck of the woods.
If you were lucky, the house was empty and not occupied by some befuddled but ultimately harmless old lady or turned into a tourist trap for gullible masses, but was an actual abandoned place that a reasonably adventurous kid could break about five laws in order to have a little nightly fun with a good honest scare.
So it was with the small town of Makan, Illinois. A small town of just under a thousand, there weren't really many kids, law breaking or otherwise, but in a very real way our lives revolved around the Pond house.
We called it the Pond house because it was built in front of a small pond - or perhaps the pond had been manmade and placed behind it. An honest if modest Mansion, the place had twenty-five rooms according to the floor plans I'd managed to look up and copy off.
Getting those without the head librarian of our small library noticing what I was doing had been an adventure all by itself. The library was basically just one large room, and everyone knew me by sight.
Our lives revolved around the Pond house because it was the only interesting feature in an otherwise bland town. The small corner store, the small two room police station, the now closed bank, the barely larger feed store with it's two old silos in back, even the single tired old railroad track with it's once a week trains - nothing was as interesting as the old Pond House.
From my careful research I knew the real owner and architect of the Pond house was one Obadiah West, an early shipping magnate who moved here from Rhode Island in 1883. Why he did that was anyone's guess, but it showed he had miserable taste; even now Makan was so far off the beaten path it was beyond boring.
Mr. West hadn't founded the town, but he had poured enough money in it to keep it afloat through the years he was here, and was probably the reason the town still existed at all. There hadn't been any money in this place since except farm money. Farms were just as boring as anything else around here, but inescapable.
Contrary to the popular stories one gets from places like these, I couldn't find anything odd happening in the Pond house while Mr. West lived in it; He had died in 1965 at the ripe old age of 106, according to the obituary. According to the paper, he had one heir left at the time, a grandson, who did not come to the funeral; it was a big scandal at the time. Well, big for Makan anyway.
The current owner was the grandson of the grandson, Jack West. He also had not ever stepped foot in Makan, something I didn't blame him for. The Makan Sun also placed the West family's net worth at ten million, a mere shadow of itself.
Considering how much property the Pond house was on, it seemed a little odd Jack hadn't sold, but I was a preteen, so what did I know? Maybe he just couldn't find a buyer; it wasn't like this was a mecca of industry or anything.
The floor plan, the next best thing to an actual map, would be very useful once we got inside the house though. While we could play outside the house and on the grounds, the old sheriff always seemed to know, and he always seemed to be watching; not even in broad daylight had we been allowed entry, and woe unto anyone who picked up a rock with the intent of putting one through one of the old windows; even the already broken ones.
No mercy was shown to those poor souls.
But the old sheriff was retiring; had retired. Billy Nes, one of the towns very own young guns, had come back from college and taken over the tough job of finding lost dogs and trying to find out who kept shooting the county 34 street sign. He seemed less inclined to stake out the old Pond house at all hours.
I had my money on the old sheriff himself, because the odds were amazing and I'd be a millionaire if it were true. One day soon, I'd ask.
But in any case, the new sheriff had been sworn in this very day, and the entire town was at the Makan fish fry... an odd yearly festival considering Makan wasn't near a lake, and the river was small. The fish sandwiches were delicious at least, and so were the fries.
Just the sort of provisions one needed when taking on a challenge, and my next stop now that the map was in my back pocket and I was safely out in the sunlight.
The bunting was faded and worn; it was as old as the park, or at least as old as I was. It made the green a very odd color that was one part neon and one part old puke. Of course it was one step above the old Kiwanis table cloths currently draped over the old wooden picnic tables; they were far too stained by time and use to be festive. I couldn't help thinking (as I did every year) that old bed sheets would be better.
The cooking conga line was in full swing however, with fish, fries, and chicken being fried, and hot dogs and cheap steak being grilled. The rolls and potatoes, both sweet and normal, were already done and in a heater thing. A plate was five dollars, but you could get two main dishes and three sides.
Worth it, and Charlie, the old cook who was in charge every year, let a few of us cheat just a little. I joined the line, absently counting the number of those ahead. It looked like I'd be here a half-hour, baking in the heat, before I made it to the pavilion's shade.
And of course we were far enough away from the few carnival style games that I couldn't even watch people fail at them. Once again I wondered how a town as small as this managed to get such game operators for such a small event. Surely they weren't making money doing small events like this, and it had to be boring.
I did not jump as Whitney eased up beside me, no doubt pissing off everyone she just cut in front of. She was looking particularly busty today in her tank top, and those shorts left almost all her legs free to view. I quickly looked up before she noticed me noticing, taking in her hair, which was it's normal brown color this week; she must have gotten bored with the pink. The brown contrasted less with her dusky skin, but starting that argument again would only make her turn violent.
"Hey, Whit," I said after just a bit too long a pause. "I thought you'd already be here?"
"I went swimming with Rosa. Got to do all I can to make that alibi," she stage whispered back at me before I could get a hand over her mouth.
While I was looking around to see who heard, she licked me!
"Come on, don't be disgusting." I told her.
"but I know where you've been," She replied, batting her eyes.
"But I don't know where you've been," I told her, wiping my hand off on my jeans. "and alibis are useless, yet." I continued in an actual whisper.
"Maybe," Whit told me. "but if I'm covering for Rosa, and Rosa is covering for me, and both our parents have seen us together, then they will be less likely to ask questions or check up with each other until after the fact."
I had to admit, that was brilliant. At least, I had to admit it to myself; to Whit I didn't have to admit anything.
"Then what are you doing here?"
"Same thing you are, I bet. Getting decent provisions for later; I don't want to eat another cold sandwich with stale chips."
"Well, you're not wrong there, on either count," I admitted.
"So," Whitney started, rocking in place. It was doing amazing things for the view. "Are you going to get enough for the rest of us, or just yourself?"
I shook my head. "Despite what some people think, I am not made of money. So while I will get enough to share, I won't be getting enough to share with everyone."
Only the cool people. Besides, it wasn't as if anyone else was hurting for money, besides Whit. And if Rosa didn't cover her, I had it.
Of course, judging from the fact that she had as much money in her hand as I did in mine and Rosa wasn't here, Whit was covered. My extra could go to someone else possibly, unless they were actually just going to have lunch....
"So Eric, what can I get ya?" I looked up to see old Charlie himself, the hat he wore slathered in grease and his white apron somehow completely clean, staring at me with tongs in hand.
"Two of the usual." I replied, trying to be nonchalant. The usual meant everything he could give me, of course; it was code for us kids, but a pretty simple one. In my case it meant everything but cole slaw... because screw cole slaw; that slimy vegetable matter was disgusting.
"We've got a lot of everything still, so sure! Two of your usuals, coming up!"
Two styrofoam containers loaded completely full were shoved into my hands and I wasted no time going to the last station, bypassing the other ones filled with sides and deserts and such. If Charlie said it was all there, then it was all there. No drinks because my hands would be full as it was.
Behind me Charlie turned to Whit and asked her what she wanted, as if he didn't already know. I pretended not to see the annoyed to angry faces of the line behind her as she gave her order; she hadn't made any new friends by cutting.
I passed my ten off to Delores, the school secretary who always seemed to handle the funds for any event in Makan, waved to her really quickly before rebalancing my load, and walked away from the crowd.
"Eric wait up!"
I waited, watching with more than a little concern as Whit pulled up behind me and almost threw her own containers. Why was she carrying three?
"So where are you meeting up?" I asked her.
The original plan had been to meet at the Pond house itself, but Whit wasn't heading in that direction.
"The playground behind the school."
That was actually genius. No one would ever think to look for us at school, since it was occupied by adults like my Mom even during the summer and was locked unless some sort of boy or girl scout meeting was going on. The grounds were open, sure, but the playground was lame (even worse than the park) so it was boring. And even if people did find us they wouldn't think we were up to no good there, because of the heavy adult traffic. After all, we were visible from the road.
Best yet, the school was only half a block away even threading through the busy streets full of annoyingly slow cars. Somehow for a town this small, on fish fry day they had traffic jams. I didn't understand it.
True to Whit's word, Rosa was waiting at the lone school playground picnic table... with Alan; joy.
The son of the school superintendent, everything that Mr. West had been, Alan was not. But boy how he wanted to be.
As soon as he saw me coming he turned up his nose and looked at me across it, for example. There was no way he realized how ridiculous he looked, or he'd stop. Rosa had her back turned but she took the cue from Alan's change in posture and turned around, brightening.
"Whit, Eric! Good morning!"
"Good afternoon," I corrected. "How was your swim?"
Rosa didn't quite fill out a bikini the way Whit did, but she was a growing girl herself. It was too bad a pair of shorts and a tee stood in the way of seeing anything, but her past activity would have been obvious from her wet hair alone; the towel on the table beside her was just an extra clue.
Alan had no such tells; he probably hadn't wanted to get dirty with pond water or something; that was the excuse he'd given last week.
He was going to be pretty bored later if he stuck to that.
"The water's fine," Rosa said as we sat down; sure enough, one of Whit's containers went to Rosa and the other to Alan. At least she kept the third, which was better than treating her like a poor servant. "Alan here didn't want to get wet, but we managed fine without him."
"I didn't want the algae in my hair. At least not yet," Alan agreed with a slightly peeved look, as if algae existed just to bother him.
Of course on this we kind of agreed; if you got enough and you didn't wash it out, the algae turned your hair green for a week. Which was actually fine if it were evenly applied... but it seldom was.
His fish order was something else though. A baked potato, not mashed or fries, and coleslaw? Disgusting. Then he took the included ketchup packets, opened them all, and dumped them all on the sandwich, the heathen. Even Rosa was grossed out.
"Why get a sandwich you're just going to smother in ketchup? That makes no sense!"
"Plenty of things alan does don't make sense." Whit remarked. I silently agreed.
Alan looked down his nose again. "The ketchup adds something; you should try it."
Rosa didn't miss a beat. "No thanks, when I order a fish sandwich I'd rather like to taste the fish, not tomatoes."
Alan ignored that. "So, let's see it."
"No. Not here; if certain people drive by and see us looking at a piece of paper, they will wonder what it says."
We had worked rather hard not to tip someone off, I wasn't about to give up the game now.
"Yeah, let's not do that. We can all look at it later. Did you bring enough copies for all of us?"
"Not yet, but I will have. Oddly enough my printer at home works fine for copies, and you can delete the record after. I didn't want to risk getting caught by the librarian."
"Reasonable," Whit opined. "So then it's just a matter of waiting for the rest of us to show."
The others included basically our entire class plus one who was a year above us. Some of them were good useful additions and some of them were not, but I was a firm believer in the buddy system so I didn't object too much. Even if I thought 7 of us was too many to go under the authority radar, and all it would take was one screwup from anyone to unravel our plan - and a few of our number weren't exactly the brightest of kids.
Alan surprised me though: "We're waiting for two more, here. Bernie and John agreed to wait in the woods behind the house for our signal."
I ignored his pointed look. That left my two invites to this, Charlotte and Torres. Both were from our class and both were sure to be good additions to our sleuthing; Torres even did research on his own about all the ghosts and spooks that could be in the old place. Of course, he thought that was all of them.
I was leaning more toward a poltergeist myself, but I was willing to keep an open mind.
I turned away from Alan, looking back up the road. it was far from empty, but didn't have my two friends anywhere on it's length. "I think you'll be happy they meet up with us here. They have some stuff they need to go over, to keep us safe. You know, just in case."
Alan just sniffed at me; he didn't believe in ghosts of course, or anything like that. Which was fine, I expected one of us to be proven wrong by tonight. I would be fine if it was me, but the real fun would be if Alan was fine with it being him.
Imagining him being pelted with small household objects was amusing. I would need pictures.
"Did everyone remember to charge your phones?"
"Yes, mom." Whit snarked at me.
I knew I didn't have to worry about Rosa, cause her phone was practically glued to her hand, but the nod was reassuring. Alan just stared at me as if I'd spoken another language. I guess to him, I might have.
I had some flashlights stowed, and some matches and a lantern if it came to that, but all of us had phones with service, even if some of our phones and plans were crap. The most important use we'd have for our phones tonight would come from the flashlight app we all should have loaded.
I'd made sure of three phones beside myself, but Alan wouldn't let me see his, and I wasn't about to even ask for his friends' phones. Four should be enough anyway. And if it wasn't, well we wouldn't be the ones without light.
Whit finished her food first, threw away the empty, and headed for the rusty old swing set. I half expected it to break under her weight (not that I'd ever imply she was fat, I'd be dead and buried in the sand box) but then again, I thought that every year and yet it remained. I was pretty sure it was old when my mother played on it, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
It wasn't the only piece of playground equipment left over from the dark ages, either. At least the small jungle gym that was basically all old splintered wood and a fire hazard besides had been removed last year. Too bad nothing had moved in to replace it.
We would probably be the last kids to graduate from the old school, a few years from now. Unless somehow a new investor rolled into town. Alan would certainly be in for a shock when his Dad finally lost his job.
Rosa and Alan finished up together, just as Whit stopped swinging. "Hey you two! About time you got here."
"Sorry we're late, traffic was a bear!" I heard Charlotte reply.
"A literal bear." Torres joked, or tried to.
"That was awful man, even for you."
Torres slid to one side of me, an arm already around my shoulder as he stole a fry. He set his own lunch down and popped it open.
"Can't blame a guy for tryin."
"Yes I can. Did you miss Charlie?" His lunch looked less full than mine had been.
"No man, Charlie just don't like me. You know this."
The practical joke that Torres must have played on Charlie would have to have been a very bad one; Charlie liked everybody, as long as they were a kid.
Whoops, I probably should have phrased that better, even in my head. Charlie wasn't a creeper.
"You shouldn't have slimed his car that one year for halloween," Charlotte remarked. "He loves that old beat up car."
"He shouldn't have tried to hand me an apple then for trick or treat. Apples suck."
Oh right, the fateful Halloween three years ago, when Torres had gotten his hands on some leftover Nickelodeon slime. An entire bucket of it. Bad things had happened that year.
"I like apples. You just don't like anything that doesn’t instantly rot your teeth out of your head." Rosa opined.
I had to agree; even now Torres was sure to have at least one bag of cheap candy on him.
"So I have a sweet tooth; that's not a crime."
"No, but putting crap on someone's car is... or is now. They made a law just for you." Alan couldn't resist noting.
"Just doing my civic duty," Torres replied, turning his nose up the way Alan was. "I like to make a good lasting impact on society."
I stole one of his fries for that, he deserved it.
Charlotte cleared her throat. "So, what's the plan?"
That was my cue. "The plan is swimming, after waiting the required twenty minutes after eating. Maybe even some water sports. After that we all break around five, do our things, and head to each other's houses to camp out on what promises to be one of the last clear and warm nights this year."
I had after all checked the weather reports of three different websites; they all agreed that tonight was going to be great.
"After that, we meet up in the stand of wood by the Parker place and very carefully walk our way to Pond, and go in through the back."
"Isn't the back door locked?" Alan asked.
"Yes it is... but the back cellar window is missing. Boarded up, but no glass in the frame; it should be a simple matter to pry the boards out with a hammer and go in. It just so happens I have a hammer ready. Best of all, we can just replace it later with no one the wiser."
"It doesn't surprise me that you know that. It should, but it doesn't."
I shrugged. "I'm observant."
"Not the word I'd use," Alan countered.
I suppose that was fair. "You can double check if you want. If that entrance won't work, then we can go with your idea."
Alan's Idea was to cut the lock off the cellar door and go in that way. I was against it because it left a trace.
"Whatever. Let's go, we're all done. We can skirt around town to avoid all the stopped traffic."
That was true - and it had the added bonus of avoiding all the 'golden oldies' now pouring from the tattered old speakers placed around the fish fry itself. They really needed more speakers to avoid that terrible flat mono sound....
We didn't see anyone on our trip and soon enough we were standing before the Pond house. By my own watch we still had to wait five minutes at least before jumping in, but everyone else was already shucking their shorts and shirts and jumping in.
At least Whit was waiting. Maybe the leg cramps she got last month had cured her.
She looked amazing in her swimsuit; because of course she did. She always does.
I had a front row seat to the arrival of our last two 'friends'.
Bernie was big for his year, which meant he towered over us. He was a large blond jock who was cornerback of our football team (Go wild Weasels) about whom rumor constantly flew. Some said he paid people to keep his GPA up, some people said he beat people to keep his GPA up, and some people said he beat people for fun.
I didn't really believe any of it; people talked in small towns, and the more disliked you were, the more people talked. But some days I wondered - and watching him close in with hungry eyes roving over the girls, I could believe some of the rumors.
John was a dark counterpart. From our year at least, he was the kicker of our football team. He wasn't very good, or even very athletic, and his build was closer to mine than that of a Greek God, but he was a nice earnest sort who tried just a little too hard to be cool. It was pretty sad, because when he wasn't sucking up to the powers that be in our small corner of the world he was actually really nice.
"Hi Bernie, hi John."
For some reason, Bernie always got upset if he wasn't greeted first when he came to these gatherings, no matter who he was with. It was weird, but I think I was the only one that noticed.
"Hi Eric, hi Whit."
"Hi Eric, hi Whit," John parroted.
"Hi you two!" Whit said warmly, sidling closer to the water. "Come on Eric, I'll race you!"
It was just past cramp time. We got down to the serious business of having fun. I raced Whit out to the old raft in the center of the pond, and beat her. Bernie seemed to think he was in the race too, but lagged back and feigned lack of interest when it became clear he wouldn't catch either of us.
As I helped Whit on the dock, I couldn't help but note the old sheriff, now in his own beat up car instead of Makan's own brand new police truck, driving by slowly, watching us. I waved with a smile, and he waved back and flicked a cigarette out the open window.
A still lit cigarette. At least it found concrete and not yellowing grass to nest in.
"Is he serious? Still watching the place like that? He should be enjoying retirement," Whit gasped out.
"I know Whit. When I hit seventy, if I'm doing stuff like that I want you to hit me."
"Sure thing." I hid my thrill; but it was hard to deny it. The idea that Whit and I would still be hanging out when I was old, gray, and gumming down pudding in a retirement home somewhere appealed strongly.
"So," Whit started. "we've now exhausted the fun we can have here, unless we race some more."
"I think racing will be a good idea. Except we organize; heats and all that."
Whit ruffled my hair. "Nerd."
"Guilty as charged," I replied. More races would be good. Tire people out early and they would be less likely to do silly things that would burn us. But too much and we ran the risk of people falling asleep. Falling asleep now might be a good thing, though.
I raised my voice. "All right, who want's to race?"
Gary scoffed at his rearview mirror. It wasn't like he could keep watching the place, but old habits died hard - just like old men. Decades spent on the side of the law; Heather would have laughed. Decades of trying to corral kids. Kids were a thousand times worse than cats, he'd found. Dogs were so much simpler.
It wasn't really his problem any more, no matter how his inner voice screamed at him. He thumbed through his contacts and made the call.
"This is sheriff Nes, how can I help you?"
"Billy, it's me."
The young punk's tone changed immediately to cornered snake. "Yeah Gary, what do you need?"
"Was headed to the fry, and saw some kids at the Pond place. You might want to clear them out before they vandalize the place."
There was a pause on the line, and the punk proved he wasn't a fool. "Gary, the fry is the other direction from your house."
"So it is."
A sigh from the new sheriff almost set Gary off before the words could come. "Alright, look. I'll take a look, But you got to stop doing this. Just enjoy your sunset years already. There hasn't even been a case of vandalism of the Pond house in years. And even if there was, the West's aren't coming back. There's no need to obsess about it."
"I don't want one of the kids to break in and get hurt is all."
"Right, I hear you. I'll be down later to scare them off, I promise."
"Fine. Going to get some fish now." Gary hit the end call button before the new sheriff could say something inane and focused on his driving. He had done all he could. He snorted to himself over how true that statement was.
We were pretty much all swam out when the new sheriff drove up and stepped out of his truck. His boots squeaked as he walked out to us.
"Doin' some swimmin' I see."
We were all laying on our towels, well out of the water, and well away from the Pond house. "All done with that, sir. Just resting up then going to dinner."
The setting sun painted the forest and clouds behind us a riot of reds, oranges, and yellows.
sheriff Nes stared at each of us in turn, trying to be intimidating. It didn't work on me, at least. "Sure, see that you do. The last thing I want is to get a disturbin' the peace call."
Not sure why Nes had that accent, none of the rest of us did, and he was a hometown boy.
Oh well. I got up, and my friends rapidly followed suit, splitting off into their prearranged teams.
"No big deal, we'll leave now. Come on T, my Mom's making mac and cheese."
"I do love me some mac and cheese," Torres informed us all... which was a lie, but it was decent cover. Nes seemed to buy it anyway. It was also funny to see Torres try to hold his grimace of disgust. Nes turned around and headed back.
"Have a good evening."
"You too officer," Bernie called out.
Nes hitched a moment before walking again; was there history there? Judging from Bernie's grin, there was.
It wasn't really my problem though, Alan, John and Bernie would be hanging out together. Leaving the girls to do their own thing together. Something they would only be too happy to do, truth told, and something I didn't want any part of. Even Whit was boring when she started droning on about clothes and makeup.
"So what do you really want to do?" Torres asked me, pensively.
"Eat dinner, I wasn't kidding about that. It won't be mac and cheese though."
"Oh thank God. What do you think it'll be?"
"Probably a tuna fish casserole." Torres was well aware of how my Mom worked; this late in the summer, she would be at the school, doing administrative things and getting her class schedule ready. So there would be a note on the fridge, a cold covered dish in the fridge, and an empty house.
"Well, it's better than mac and cheese... maybe." I could sympathize with the dubious tone of that statement; I felt that way myself.
"There might be some leftover gushers or cookies in the pantry; Mom won't care if those vanish."
Torres's face brightened. "Now you're speaking my language."
Feeding Torres sugar was usually a bad idea since he bounced off the walls and got wierd ideas, but having a wired Torres backing me in the local spook house could only end well. I think.
There still wasn't much traffic to thread, but from the sounds the fish fry had switched from canned to live music: Country from the sound. Whatever it was, it was awful.
As expected the house was locked and dark; I used my key and flipped on the kitchen light from the master switch. The note was on the fridge in the usual place, and said the usual things. 'Honey, going to be late tonight, dinner is in the fridge, help yourself, be in bed by 10, yadda yadda yadda.'
I moved it to the other door to show I'd read it, and opened the fridge. Oh, tuna helper; that was close to a casserole at least, and tasted better besides. I pulled it out carefully and Torres's eyes lit up.
"I think she knew you were coming."
Most of the time when Mom wasn't home, Torres or Whit stayed over or stayed late. Mom didn't mind normally, she trusted us. Or trusted me anyway, she really didn't like Torres at all, and lately she'd been frowning at Whit. She hadn't said anything yet, but she would. I wasn't sure when, but it would be soon.
It wasn't tonight though.
We took turns warming up plates and fired up the T.V. As usual there was nothing good on; the channels were all news or bland sitcoms, mixed with the occasional game show. No wonder the networks were dying to the internet.
We put our feet up on the table, and our cokes did not go on coasters; it was the little rebellions that made life bearable.
Once I was done I went looking for a movie; it was still too early and bright out to go back.
I found a good one; the classic alien, with that Weaver lady. It was too bad the guy in the alien suit was so clumsy in that one scene, the rest of the movie still held up very well.
Torres shook me awake; I guess I'd fallen asleep at some point. The credits were rolling, Torres was wide-eyed, and Mom still wasn't home. I grabbed the dishes and left them in the sink, threw the coke cans in the recycling bin we kept, and wrote a note explaining I would be at Torres's house and she could call me to check up if she wanted. Part of this plan was to have us all cover for each other. Torres took half a year to put the movie up.
Of course, if Mom called Torres's Mom, or the other parents called each other, the jig was up. But in this modern age of cell phones, I'd found that my Mom at least tended to call me first, and other parents never. Torres's Mom was the same way, and well if anyone got a call concerning Whit it was time to stop the presses for the front page news.
It was eight now, and dark. Prime time for being up to no good, because it was too early to be a curfew, and yet too dark to easily see. I grabbed my backpack, (which only weighed half a ton) double checked it to make sure Mom hadn't messed with it since I left it by the door (she hadn't), and led the way out, locking the door behind me.
Mom warned me against not locking the door; she tended to expect the worst of people, despite there not being a single incident of theft in Makan in recent history.
Heck, we might just be the worst criminals to run Makan streets since before my Mom's day, and we were regular hoods. A real old time mafia.
My enforcer and I threaded our way carefully through Mrs. Henderson's azalea bushes. There was no police or adult presence outside my house; I had half expected one. There was nothing on the next street over either; it was a little disappointing in a way.
Sneaking around, becoming one with the dark, a silent unseen menace, was very exhilarating.
Of course the silent unseen menace was often undone by the barking of dogs, but that only added to the thrill.
We made it to the outskirts of town mostly undetected, and Torres was grinning like a madman; I had to shush him more than once, and drag him back on course after he decided he wanted to do something in Mrs. Rollin's yard.
Then came the real challenge; right there, in our route, was the old sheriff's place. A small old house, barely a step up from a mobile home, it was in decent condition but beginning to look a little seedy. Soon the town beautification committee would come after him because of the peeling mud colored paint and the rusty old satellite dish placed in plain sight. The car was in the drive and the living room light was on. I could hear the television from here; some kind of laugh track. Was the old sheriff deaf or were the walls that thin?
The window facing the street was a large picture window... just the kind you'd want if you wanted to see who was going past. The back yard was fenced, and the old sheriff's old dog Buck was back there. Buck was a pit, and not one of the nice ones; instead he was one of the territorial ones that hated anyone that wasn't his master.
I waved to Torres; then when he shrugged and shook his head, pointed. We would go across the street and use the cars as cover. Torres duck walked across the street in a hurry, going around a car street side in order to avoid a street light.
He probably should have checked for traffic first, but hey, he wasn't dead so it was all good. I looked because it would be just my luck to get flattened. There was nothing coming at me either way.
I duck walked across the street to the car, then eased past it and to the other side, meeting Torres with a grin to match his own. He turned and duck walked to the next car... and I waited a few heartbeats and did the same.
Right up until the dog, a small one from the pitch, started barking. Then I outpaced Torres in running headfirst into the bushes. The few scratches proved worth it as a porch light snapped on.
Torres stopped just short until I grabbed his arm and dragged him in. The bush rustled fiercely, but he stayed silent at least.
Luckily no one came out. I thought I saw the blinds move, but that could have just been my imagination.
After what seemed like several minutes, the porch light snapped off and all near us was dark again.
"Dude, what the hell man! I think I'm bleeding now!" Torres whispered into my ear.
"I had to be sure," I whispered back. "Do you really want to be the group that gets caught and ruins tonight for all of us?"
Torres pondered that for a moment, and I could feel him shake his head.
It took awhile to forge through the other side of the bush without snapping anything or putting an eye out, but once we had it was clear sailing into the woods. And once in the woods, we could be as noisy as we wanted. We took it slow and steady, one step at a time.
"Torres. If we're quiet when we get close, we might be able to surprise one of the other groups."
Torres stopped for a moment, then started up again, more carefully. As good an answer as any. I let him lead the way, at least until we hit the end of the tree line.
I tapped him on the shoulder and led us back a few feet into the tree line, back out of sight, and rustled leaves and snapped twigs until I found the agreed on meet up spot, complete with several bags and packs, placed near a conveniently downed tree. No one else had made it yet - the small space was empty.
I settled on the felled log and looked toward the Pond house. The pond itself was beautiful, lit up by the sliver of moon hanging in the sky. The house itself looked predatory, all but leaning over the water; what a difference the lighting made. looking at it now, it was easy to see where the rumors came from.
Of course that only made me more excited.
I'd guess it was twenty minutes later and more than a few rounds of playing a version of horseshoe with broken twigs before we heard movement in the trees. movement big enough to be a family of deer - or a couple people.
The use of a light gave it away, someone was coming. Torres and I both dove behind a tree; the same tree, as it turned out, and he crowded me out so I was forced to just sink as best I could into the ground. I clenched my eyes shut as the light swung our way in order to preserve my night vision.
I let out a sigh of relief when I heard Rosa hiss out: "Very funny guys, we know you're there, just come out."
Good, it wasn't an adult; I had half suspected not because of the height the light was held at, but I hadn't wanted to test that. I stood up and Torres jumped out from behind the tree.
And of course he tried to scare the girls anyway by yelling.
The light wobbled, oddly enough, and I heard the swift intake of breath. Wait, they really hadn't known, but were playing the averages? Wow, I hadn't realized we were that transparent. But there was a more important thing to mention first.
"Shut up Torres! You want to get us caught?"
"Yeah, shut up Torres." Rosa seconded. I caught a glimpse of Whit peeking out behind her. Rosa's phone was out and the flashlight app on; she swept it my way and I turned just in time to see Torres stifle his grin.
"Did you feed him chocolate or something Eric?"
I shook my head. "Nah, we just ate tuna helper and watched a horror movie."
Whit sighed. "That's worse."
Well I couldn't deny that. "Good guess Rosa."
"Not really," she replied. "I was expecting Alan and Bernie."
"Ah, well bad guess then. Alan's going to be fashionably late." Alan was always fashionably late.
"Not if he knows what's good for him," Rosa muttered darkly.
Well, Rosa had never gotten Alan to show up early to one of our meets before, so I wasn't going to hold my breath. I motioned Rosa to turn off her phone app, and was a bit relieved when she did.
"Well, I expect them... eventually. What happened to Charlotte? I thought she was with you?"
I could hear Whit's disgust. "She said she forgot something, and went back home to get it."
Charlotte's parents would both be home by now; they were boring. "She planning on sneaking in?"
"I don't know; she said she was just going to buy it, whatever it was. She wasn't exactly forthcoming."
Well that had its own dangers, but was probably safer than sneaking in a window. The lone grocery in Makan was a small all-purpose thing. The stuff sold there was cheap, but it worked for us. And if it didn't work for us, there was always the Wal-mart, a mere fifteen miles away.
Now that two of the girls had joined us, we had enough to do something else to pass the time. So of course we continued chucking twigs at other twigs jammed into the ground, just as Torres and I had done alone before.
A crackling of brush announced another nocturnal visitor, just as I went five rounds up on everyone else. This time only Torres moved into the shadows; there were too many of us, spread too far apart, to hide this as anything other than a gathering up to no good.
As expected, it was Charlotte, bag in one hand, shopping bag in the other. She stopped in front of me and stated: "for the record, no one even looked at me twice, and yes I hid my bag before I went in the store; no one has any idea what we're doing, or if they do they didn't get it from me."
I waited until she took a breath. "Good enough."
I wasn't really that bad, was I? I was afraid to ask.
"So, what's going on?" She asked; I could just see her head moving in the gloom, taking it all in I suppose.
"Waiting on Alan, Bernie, and John. Just hanging out until then.
Charlotte grinned and pulled out a deck of cards. "I've got a better idea."
I groaned inwardly; a few of the rest of us groaned a bit more loudly. Charlotte was a card shark.
Five hands of poker and all my lunch money for the first week of school later, I looked up. The moon was now high into the sky and the town beyond was even more quiet than before.
"Tell us something we don't know," Rosa told me sourly; she was even further down than I was.
"No, I mean he's really late. Like beyond normal. At least an hour late."
"Well over that," Charlotte replied. "Maybe he got caught?"
If Alan had been caught, the rest of us were caught. But we would have seen evidence of it by now. Even our parents calling us and reading us the riot act, something. But none of that had happened yet.
I had a bad feeling suddenly.
"I'm going to go check the house. Everyone else just stay here, alright?"
I could feel Rosa's anger. "You think they..."
"It is something he might do."
She blew a breath loudly. "Yeah... yeah it is. You even told him how to get in. Fine, go check, we'll wait."
If it was a trap, the adults would only get one of us. But a trap seemed a little elaborate for what we were doing.
Still, more duck walking, this time with my hands thrown in (it was not a crawl, I don't crawl, thank you very much) seemed like the thing to do. If any cars or people came by just right, I would be dreadfully exposed.
Nothing jumped out or drove by until I made it to the porch and there was no chance to see me without being seen first. I worked my way around it to the cellar window.
It was pried open, of course; the boards spread around it in such a way that anyone coming by would see them, and maybe hurt themselves on the nails still embedded and currently pointed upwards.
I decided to use my phone instead of risking the walk back, but a phone call in this darkened silence would be loud. Way too loud. However, my phone aimed away from town, with the flashlight app on made a good signal. I turned the light on, flashed it twice, and turned it off in a hurry.
Then I waited, amusing myself by moving the loose boards under the sagging porch. They wouldn't be as visible there, at least not until morning.
I had them all safely stowed by the time my friends walked up. They were all crouched and in a line, but that was probably for the best; there wasn't a lot of traffic in Makan at nine anyway. The packs and bags alone would have marked us as up to no good anyway, no matter how many of us were seen.
Rosa was as unhappy as I was. "I knew it, that utter bastard. He didn't even call me."
"Typical, really," Whit judged. Rosa nodded along with the sentiment.
"No big deal, we know now." Torres informed us.
"Yeah, no need to wait." I took my flashlight out this time, and inspected around the frame. There was no glass or sharp edges. I pulled out my rope and tied it to the porch, making sure the post was still nice and sturdy before tossing it down. Then I thought better of it and tossed the light down too; it was a good brand and sturdy.
It hit a second later, bounced, then showed a dirty floor with debris everywhere. Rotting wood; was a wooden floor normal for the cellar in a house like this? Rotting shelves that look like they wouldn't hold our weight lined the wall; good thing we had a rope.
There wasn't much in there, and more to the point, I hadn't seen any little gifts Alan might have left for us, so it seemed safe to go down.
Which was good, since Torres was doing his best to shove me into the window face first. "Come on man, let's go."
I reversed and lowered myself down, kicking off so I would land in the center of the light. I just barely pulled it off when a heavy tug on the rope warned me to move. Torres landed behind me with a thump.
"Yes, finally in!"
"Quiet!" It seemed wrong to shout now.
The place had the same feel as a church... or a funeral home. It was hard to explain, but easily felt. Maybe it was the anticipation? The house was important to all of us, in a way, and this was the first time anyone had stepped foot in here at least since I was born.
Whit dropped down next, catlike, without using the rope. I turned away from the show off and grabbed my flashlight. A few more scratches, but otherwise it was fine. I panned it about.
There was just more odds and ends and broken furniture or shelves. A few bottles of wine in a lopsided wine rack, probably all vinegar by now. I looked closer; one of the bottles was missing, one of the racks had no dust on it, and there were fresh footprints at the rack. They weren't Alan's shoes though, too big for that; Bernie's.
Figures, really. The stairs seemed solid enough, but more than a few creaked and dipped alarmingly.
"Take these slow and one at a time, or they may collapse." It was unlikely since Bernie had fifty pounds on me and he managed just fine, but it could happen and I didn't have a ladder or anything. I'd hate to have to go back and try opening a door.
Speaking of, the cellar door was wide open. That was a nice thing, it meant I still didn't need to pull my hammer out.
There was a trail of footprints in the dust of the large kitchen. The large empty kitchen; There weren't even any appliances in it; no cookware graced the racks, and the cupboards were missing their doors. They had long since been converted to mice nests.
It was more than a little disappointing; there was no faded antebellum finery or forgotten pots, no half-eaten dinner left suddenly. Just a room stripped of all that made it liveable. The trail split up just outside, in the hall.
The hall itself had fared better; peeling gold and white wallpaper in some sort of odd diamond design, a few pictures on the walls, brass light fixtures made to look like candles with little shades still on them.
The pictures were old black and white ones, yellowed with age. The first was of the house itself, brand new. The second was of Obadiah West himself. The third was a woman that I didn't recognize. She didn't look related to old man Obadiah. Maybe a wife? I didn't find any mention of one, other than he was married in the first place. She looked a little young for that.
The footsteps were splitting up behind me.
Rosa and Charlotte stopped; they were already halfway through a doorway.
"Don't split up. I understand you want to find Alan, but we should all stick together."
Rosa pointed at Charlotte. "We've got the buddy system going; we'll be fine.
I gave Charlotte my best 'oh really' look. She fired hers right back at me. "You're only a shout away, big strong man that you are. The place isn't that big."
Whit leaned into me, and I was very conscious of her as she whispered: "Don't worry, I'll go too. They probably just want to be alone to gripe about boys for a bit. I'll keep the ghost hunt on track."
Well, Whit did have a good head on her shoulders. "Alright, fine. But Alan's are the prints going up the stairs. The ones you were about to follow were Bernie's and probably John's."
"Oh, ewww, thanks for the heads up." Rosa reversed course and I watched them all troop up the stairs.
"I hate to see them leave, but I love watching them go." Torres whispered, thankfully softly enough that they didn't hear.
I slugged him in the shoulder anyway, on principle; his grin was insufferable.
"So where are we goin'?"
"Into the dining room I think, its the most insulated room on the ground floor. There are windows, but they face away from town; it would be very hard for stray lights to give us away."
I pointed to the set of footprints no one wanted to follow.
Torres sighed. "It figures."
The prints branched off a room later. The living room actually had a couch with a dust cover over it, and a coffee table that looked sturdy. There was something in the corner that looked like an old television, but had no screen... a radio? It was still plugged into the plastered wall. The carpet was old and eaten through in several spots, and the smell of mold was powerful here.
The room the other prints led to was marked as a parlor. It also, like the living room, faced the street. Our path led to the direct center of the house, more or less. Down another hall, and into the dining room.
The dining room was a bit more grand than I'd expected. The table was still intact and long enough to seat about three families. there were a dozen uncomfortable looking chairs set in front of it, as if a meal was expected. The floor was just wood, and popped loudly as we walked on it. I didn't want to look too closely at what was littered on it, and I was glad I'd thought to bring the small dust broom I had. I'd be throwing it out after this expedition, for sure.
I tested the table, and it held. I tested a chair, and it creaked loudly, but it held. Good enough; Out came my supplies.
The lantern first, then the leftovers from the fry, marked with my name. The broom, the low profile sleeping bag (just in case, I doubted I'd be doing much sleeping) the bottled water, and the standard odds and ends like my string and multi-tool. The notebook and pens were joined by the mirrors.
I didn't have the money for cameras, so I was going to go with the low cost alternative. Small mirrors taken from old junked cars. They wouldn't do that much, but they might give us a view of something we wouldn't normally see if placed properly. The last one was a professionally made one with a telescoping arm.
I didn't know if there were ghosts in this place, but I was going to try my best not to scare them off. Maybe if they didn't see me they wouldn't hide. Well, it was a silly thought anyway. But then again, it was the thought that counts, or so my Mom told me.
I half expected to have at least one of the groups find us by now, but no luck. I guess it was time to find them. Well, some of them anyway.
I thought better about it, and grabbed my leftovers again; no sense leaving them out for rodents. The water would be fine.
My pack was much lighter this time around as I headed out to the stairs.
"Come on Torres, buddy system."
Torres had his phone out and the camera app up, staring through the lens. "But this looks like prime ghost real estate here! The ghosts are bound to show up!"
"They can show up anywhere, and we'll be back here as soon as we gather everyone. It's best if we just stay together."
Torres kicked an imaginary can. "Fine, whatever."
A better thought occurred. "Besides, how are you going to light up what you're taking pictures of? Even with the flash, it'll be dark... unless someone is with you and has a light."
"That's... a good point, actually." Torres was forced to admit.
I got out my phone and checked the signal as I dragged the flashlight app up; four bars. Good to know - I should have checked earlier. Ghost houses were supposed to be dead zones. It was good that this one wasn't though, I was expecting a call in less than an hour.
One of the stairs cracked as I put weight on it. "Careful going up, this one is rotten."
"Got it." Torres avoided it by leaping up to the next step... which was a really stupid idea. I didn't bother commenting though, he wouldn't care.
Up the grand staircase, the dust trail led both right and left. The prints leading left were smaller, and alone. So much for the buddy system.
"So, let's go left."
"Because the fewer people around, the more likely the ghosts will show up. It's almost scientific fact that ghosts and aliens wait for lone people who will never be believed to troll."
Torres pondered that a moment and then stepped ahead. "Good point."
I held the light ready just in case, and Torres was glued to his camera app as we advanced.
I Found myself stepping on the outside of my feet, and Torres was beginning to crouch walk. I was a little glad we hadn't found the girls yet, since we probably looked pretty stupid, trying to be quiet in this creaky old wreck. But it felt right to do it, especially with just the two of us.
She wasn't in the first door, a right which led to what had to be a bedroom, even without the bed and the rest of the furniture lying in ruins. The next door, also a right, was a nursery, judging from the cracked and faded paint job; it featured some bright colors and disgustingly cutesy animals. There wasn't so much of a stick of wood in it; why were some rooms still furnished and others empty? It made no sense.
The next two doors, and nothing. The left was a large closet, and the right was yet another bedroom. Why did they need so many bedrooms for two people? That was another good question. There was no word of a small kid or pregnancy at the time the house was built, and this room here was clearly the son Jack's.
It had it's furniture, all of it. Bed next to the window, bookshelf to the right of it, bureau to the left. There were still books on the shelves, and they looked mostly okay. The bed was made and lumpy, there was a closet near the door, but the door was shut. There was also an open toy box at the foot of the bed, filled with a deflated ball, a wooden train set, and a few other odds and ends.
Torres lowered his phone and stomped into the room. "What are you doing?"
"I'm curious, sue me. Oh hey cool, an actual popgun!"
He actually snagged the gun and pulled it out. "Dude, there's no way it works. Put it back."
He tried it, but the trigger wouldn't click and the cork just fell out of the gun. "Drat, foiled again."
"Come on man, you can play later."
The last door was the master bedroom; it had to be - and it was closed. I opened it and let it swing, and was immediately confronted with a sight I did not want to see.
The master bedroom was furnished, and it looked like the room had stood up even better than the others; the bed was intact and made with barely stained sheets, the bureau and nightstand were, well, standing, and there was a small sort of desk that appeared to have much of its shine. The faded wallpaper with weird curly-cue designs had yet to peel off the walls, and the ceiling had some water marks but was intact. The old chandelier was still hanging from its mounts.
And there, sitting on the bed that had the blankets pulled from it, Rosa and Alan sat. They sat very close, and they were both glaring frown-faced at me.
Torres was immune to the looks. "Well, there's two of you. Swanky place. Alan, what are you doing up here, and what the hell was the deal about going in without us? Where are your buddies?"
Alan sighed and pinched his nose with a hand. "I don't know where the others are, we split up. they are probably trying to find some family silver or something; did you try the kitchen? And do you both mind? We want to be alone."
Alan swept his other hand around Rosa's shoulder; she leaned into it, still trying to burn me into a crisp with her mind.
"Right, fine, we'll just be going. Yell if you need help or something, alright?"
"Sure," Rosa replied. "We'll yell if we see ghost or something."
"Come on Torres, let's go."
Torres stopped going through the bureau and shrugged. "Sure, whatever. Just yell if you see a ghost."
I waited for him to leave first. "We'll be just down the hall. I'll be back in an hour to check this room."
Rosa's gaze softened. "Sure, just... go do whatever. We'll join you in a bit."
I shut the door, pulled a post it note from my pocket stash (For making notes of course!) and used my pen (same pocket) to write: "do not disturb" and posted it to the door. Thankfully, it stuck.
I turned back to see Torres waggling his eyebrows at me and grinning.
"No way man," I hissed at him. "You want to get your ass kicked by Bernie? Because all that guy needs is half an excuse."
My bosom buddy made a show of thinking about it. "Good point - but we can always hope she's a screamer."
Torres was the same age I was. "Dude, you don't even know what a screamer is; don't kid yourself."
If I tried anything like that with a girl, Mom would kill me. Well, assuming she ever found out - which she probably would, because friends or not, someone would blab, and Mom, being a teacher, would hear it.
She already suspected me anyway, I was sure. It was nice to be trusted.
"Alright, so false alarm, we now know what Rosa's prints look like."
"Pay attention, Torres. Jeez."
Back down the hall and the other direction. Two more bedrooms, a store room for what looked to be art supplies (there was an easel in the center of the room), and finally another bedroom.
This one was done over in pastel stripes, had a make up table complete with makeup (again), a bureau, and an armoire, all in matching cherry. Charlotte and Whit were buried in the armoire, pulling out dresses and holding them up while looking into the full length mirror standing in the corner.
The dresses looked pristine (How did that work, when everything else had rotted?) and way too big for either of them.
"What is it with girls and dresses?" Torres asked, grinning at the twin raspberries he got back.
No, none of this made sense. Why so many bedrooms? Did the wait staff live in the house too? What explained this room? It would be too expensive for that, and Mrs. West should have been with Mr. West. In fact, there was a make up table in the master bedroom too. Something was off here.
"They are some expensive dresses," Whit told us. "Probably hundreds of dollars."
I could tell she wanted to take one.
"So, see any ghosts?" Charlotte asked with a smile.
"Nothing yet," I told her. "I take it you haven't either?"
Both girls shook their head. "Nothing."
Well, crap. "Well, if any were going to show, this would probably be the room for it. It's probably too early for it or something."
"Maybe. But this is going to be one boring stake out; it's just after nine and we've already explored everything."
I raised an eyebrow at her. "Really? Why not try the library?"
"I said 'of interest'." Charlotte told me, sticking her tongue out at me.
"There might be some interesting first editions in it; Dickens or similar. Worth more than a dress and much easier to cart off." Though I doubted it would be any easier than the dress to sell for cash; after all, the question of where kids like us got loot like that would be asked.
There was a thumping from downstairs. "What was that?"
"Probably Bernie, making a mess," Charlotte answered. "Come on Torres, let's go check it out, just in case it isn't!"
What? Charlotte grabbed Torres and all but dragged him out of the room, distracting him with talk of special effects from the eighties.
Meanwhile Whit grabbed me. "Buddy system, remember? Come on, let's talk."
What did we need to talk about? Whit dragged me to the bed, which crazily enough supported us.
"You know Eric, we're in highschool now."
We were. Whit smiled, and her fingers drifted along my chest. Was she...?
"We're almost adults. At the point where we should put away childish things, and start doing the things adults do."
"Yes, I'm sure," She interrupted. "I've never been more sure. You're a cute guy, Eric, but youre pretty dense, you know?"
Her finger moved to my lips. "Shh, no. No talking. For the next little bit, let's let our bodies do the talking. Mine has an awful lot to say."
She shoved me down, playfully but with force. The old bed creaked, but it held. Then she took off her shirt; she still had her bikini on, and it still revealed just as much as before.
"Don't worry about it Eric, I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
Her hands reached for my belt
The door burst open.
An ax buried itself in Whit's head.
An ax in Bernie's hand, had just gone into Whitney's head. She fell over, her eyes open and on me but not seeing me.
"Gotcha, you bitch. Not this time." Bernie stated softly; he put a boot on Whitney and pulled until the ax came free.
"Sorry, kid. Everyone has a time, and this one is yours." The ax came down again; I rolled and it buried itself in the bed. I rolled back to trap it, and kicked up.
Bernie let go of the ax in favor of his nose. "Damn it kid, just let it happen! Otherwise it'll hurt more!"
I grabbed the axe and he leapt back, avoiding my swing. I got my feet under me and tried again; this time Bernie lunged forward, his fist leading.
I was slouched against the wall somehow; I rolled again and the ax splattered blood over my face as it buried itself in the wood. As Bernie buried it in the wall, aiming for my head. I gathered my feet under me again and lunged; somehow I managed to knock him back two steps.
When he slammed me in the back, I expected it. I went down, squirming through his legs and lunging again, this time for the door.
"Damnit, get back here!"
My head swam and something tripped my feet up, but I managed to make it out and down the hall. I could hear Bernie's raw breathing just behind me; I ducked left to the stair, and dive rolled down them.
The ax probably just missed me.
I hit the bottom, ground floor, everyone out, and went left again. I had to stay out of sight as much as possible, and find the others. The house wasn't that big, and the noise of Bernie yelling, cursing, (and swinging an ax through Whitney's face) and stomping around would be noticed.
But first I needed to hide; I could hear Bernie already halfway down the stairs. Where could I hide?
"Come on, kid. I like a good chase as much as the next guy, but you're making me a little angry, here. You won't like me when I'm angry." Bernie said, and chuckled.
Where could I hide? The closet was too obvious. The library! That's where Charlotte and Torres were, I could warn them, and maybe find a weapon or something!
I moved, and I heard Bernie start after me as I made the noise.
The library door had a lock. A metal bolt. I slid it into place and the door immediately jumped as Bernie slammed into it from the other side.
Jumped, but it held.
The library was large. Every wall had a bookshelf against it. All those shelves were full of books. There was a large table in the center, thick, heavy wood. There were three plush chairs; upholstered in bright red. The chandelier was still hung from a chain, it's wire running down the length. There was another door on the left side, that led to the hall.
Charlotte and Torres were seated, staring at a book; they looked up.
"Dude, what the...."
"No time! check the other door, see if it has a lock!"
I had to hiss my words, I didn't want Bernie hearing them; he might already know the layout of the house, but there was no sense making things easier for him.
"Eric, what's going on?"
There was a thud in the center of the door, and it jumped again. The ax of course; I heard it tear some wood away as Bernie retracted it.
Well, bad idea to lean against it then. We'd have to settle for running, but Bernie was closer to both the cellar door and staircase. Could we make it?
"Bernie went insane and killed Whit. We need to get out of here, now."
"I can hear you little squirts! You're in for it now!"
Torres straightened up as I flew to the other door. Another ax strike, and the locked one had a small hole.
"Are you fucking with us, Eric?"
I turned back as an eye peered through and caught sight of us. "Does it look like I'm fucking with you? Come on!"
"There you are. You should have just stayed still, Eric. Now your friends are going to have to die with you."
Another blow and the door splintered; I grabbed Charlotte and pulled her behind me as I ran, pell mell, for the cellar. Behind me I heard Torres stomping after me.
"Holy shit, I think he's serious!"
I stripped an end table shelf from one of the tables as I passed, threw Charlotte against the wall near the staircase. I had a second to wait.
When Torres came through I grabbed him too and threw the shelf down the cellar stairs.
Bernie flew right past us and I wasted no time helping him along and down the stairs; he dropped the ax halfway down, just before he broke the steps. I took a breath and retrieved it before shutting the door. Bernie was still down, with a bloody head, but I wasn't about to check on him.
Hm, this door had a lock too, on this side. It made no sense. I rammed the bolt home anyway; maybe without the ax and no staircase he wouldn't be able to break it.
Charlotte looked concerned. "Eric, where did you leave Whit?"
"She's upstairs." They wouldn't believe me, even now. Not until they saw for themselves.
"Anyone else a little spooked here? What even just happened?" Torres asked.
Well, maybe he would.
Charlotte marched upstairs and headed right for the room I'd so recently escaped from. I couldn't bring myself to follow at first, but... I'd never been able to check, not really. She could still be alive!
There was no way she would ever be the same again, but she could still be alive and need help.
Charlotte's choked scream and sounds of vomiting helped bury that hope, but I still stepped in to make sure, with Torres right behind me. I owed it to Whit to make sure.
A closer, less panicked look revealed that Whit had brain leaking from her skull. She was already cooling, and there was a powerful stink of both urine and shit, now being joined by the acidic stink of vomit. I bit back my everything, and wrapped her in the stained blanket she lay on.
"Something's wrong. I can't get a signal on my phone." Charlotte stated bleakly.
She moved her phone around, even holding it up while I fumbled for mine. Torres held his own phone up to me with some alarm; his had no signal either.
My phone showed no bars either, and I know coming in, it still had them. I was waiting for Mom's call after all; I'd checked specifically.
"Eric, something's very wrong here. More wrong than Bernie."
I couldn't agree more. "Right, let's go find the others and get out of here."
The master bedroom, all the way across the hall, was empty.
At least at first glance. My note had been taken down, and while the bed was messed up, there was no clear evidence of what had taken place. But I had a feeling. I spread the sheets out, and there was a large patch fo blood on one corner. There was the sharp but quickly fading scent of urine.
There were also few spots of blood near the old armoire; still shiny, still fresh.
Rosa's body was stuffed into it, wedged into the bottom, the expensive and large pocket knife Alan was so proud of still sticking from her chest, just left of center. Charlotte sucked in a breath and started to cry.
Torres decided to start taking pictures and filming.
First Bernie, now Alan? Something was very wrong, very amiss.
Rosa's phone was in her pocket, but it too had no bars.
"Hey Eric. Think the ghosts could be jamming our cells?"
"I don't know. What makes you think this is ghosts? It could just be Alan and Bernie. Cell phone jamming devices exist, they could have just set this up to make their big spree killing debut."
"Because even Alan wouldn't have done this. Maybe the rest of us, sure - but he liked Rosa. But if he's possessed? If Bernie's possessed? Maybe the ghosts aren't nice, and aren't happy with us, man."
"All the more reason to get out then, and get help."
Rosa stopped sniffling long enough to ask: "What about John? Shouldn't we try and find him?"
"Fuck John." She jumped at my curse. "Everyone left I care about is in this room. We get out first, and if we see John and he's fine, he can come. If not, we'll send Billy in after him once we get out."
I forced my grip on the ax to loosen; Torres was beginning to stare.
"Right man, uh, sounds good. Let's just go then. You first?"
That was fair, I had the weapon. "Sure, if you take up the rear... and actually keep the phone down, and your eyes open. If you see Alan, yell."
"Oh, believe me man, I'll be yelling."
Charlotte didn't say anything, but she had her pepper spray out. It was pointed my general direction but not quite at me. At this range, she wouldn't miss.
That was fine; I led the way, cautiously, feeling out my steps for ones that would make the least amount of noise.
We couldn't go through the basement, that was clear. But as long as we didn't mind being caught (and that was the least of our problems) we could simply go out the front door. It was boarded up of course, but I had an ax. A window would probably be easiest.
The doors and windows are barred. You will not be able to escape.
The voice was light, airy, feminine, perhaps even musical. The kind of voice you wanted to hear more of; but it did not belong to any of us. I stopped. Where had that come from?
"Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Charlotte asked.
I heard her nervousness, her fear.
I waited a weighted second before I answered. "I guess it was nothing, sorry."
It was best this way; I knew now where the voice had come from, why it resonated. There was no good way to admit you were hearing voices in your head, that you'd cracked. Especially in this kind of situation.
It was funny though, why wouldn't I hear Whit's voice, and not some unknown?
I went straight to the first window; one in the living room. It was locked of course, just as it had been when I checked it before a year ago. It had also been broken a year ago, and even earlier today; but now it was whole. Why was the glass intact? The lock slid easily - but the window wouldn't go up.
I set the ax down and tried again, with both hands. The window wouldn't budge.
Torres scooted me over and set his hands to the other side; even with both of us, the window didn't move; not even so much as a shift in it's track.
"Seriously, guys? Not the time."
"Couldn't agree more," I turned and told the one not helping. "We aren't faking. You're welcome to try if you want."
Charlotte took me up on the offer, and gave up just as quickly, red-faced and panting.
I picked up the ax again. "Get back."
As soon as they moved I swung; the ax rebounded off the window. There wasn't even a mark; not a chip.
Even bulletproof glass wouldn't do that. A flash went off behind me as I swung again. Again, not a single scratch.
"Not quite the evidence of ghosts I was hoping for." Torres admitted softly; he didn't flinch when Charlotte punched him in the arm.
No, I refuse. I tried the next window down, and got the same result. When the ax rebounded a third time without leaving a mark, I turned.
It won't work, cutie. Sorry, but none of you get to escape that easily.
My friends must have seen something in me, because they gave way so fast that Torres almost fell over. I just went past them and tried hitting the door.
The ax bit into the wood, digging out a fresh splinter.
I tried again, and was rewarded by another chip of wood flying. It narrowly missed my eye.
That's the way, cutie. Persist; fight it. That attitude will do wonders for you in here.
Distracted by the first voice, I almost missed the second. "Hello, chums. What are you doing?"
I turned to see Alan, covered in blood and bearing some deep scratches, a large makeshift club in his hand. It looked like a table leg. He was leaning against the wall in the hall, right behind Charlotte. She backpedaled in a hurry, and Alan didn't seem to care.
I thought about what I wanted to say before shrugging. Let's see how he reacts.
"No you're not." Alan replied, coming off the wall and looking right at me. He raised his club.
"And why aren't we, Alan?"
"Not 'we', wimp. You; I couldn't care less about these other two." His eyes didn't even twitch as the others moved out of the way.
"Go ahead, I'll catch up."
"You sure man?" Torres asked.
"How touching," Alan mock swooned with a grin.
"Shut it, murderer. Yeah Tor, you two go ahead. I got this." Torres hated my old nickname for him, but it usually got him to listen to me.
"Oh, we're all murderers here; it's only a matter of time. You'll understand soon enough."
He swung at my face with a grin. "If I don't kill you first, that is."
I backed up and used the ax to poke the swings away; it mostly worked.
"Did you and Bernie plan this, Alan? Did you get together and just decide to go spree killer for laughs? Because I can tell you, it ain't funny."
Alan shortened his swing and decided to stop going for home runs. His base hit tagged me, but not badly. "That lug? Don't make me laugh! We just happened to have the same idea is all. You won't be stopping us this time, H."
Who the hell was H?
"Talk sense or rave, Alan. Not somewhere in between."
I managed to nail him in the gut with the ax head, and knocked the breath out of him. He stopped grinning, but it cut our conversation to wheezes and gasps.
And the wood clacking as we tried to beat each other down. He blocked my overhand and I backed off. Time to change things up, before I got out-muscled; already my arms were noodles.
The flat of the ax snapped Alan's improvised weapon in half, and before he could deal with that, my backswing slammed into him. The flat again, because I wasn't a murderer.
Having both of them rot in prison was worse than a clean death, anyway. I had to believe that.
You should finish them, cutie. If you don't, they will get you later; it's us or them.
Again that voice, that was almost angelic. I was sure I'd never heard it before, but somehow my mind was supplying it. No, it was a problem for later, even if I was insane now.
I had more rope in my bag, and duct tape. I headed back to the dining room and grabbed them; Charlotte and Tor weren't here, nor was there any evidence they had run this way. I really should have kept better track - they had went through the kitchen, but they could be anywhere by this point.
Worry about ourselves, cutie. They are already lost, even if they don't look it.
I read somewhere that you shouldn't answer the voices in your head, so I didn't.
It's okay cutie, you don't need to answer. You and I will be good friends soon.
I grabbed my bag while I looked at the windows; they were all pristine and clean, like the ones in the front room. The dining room table was still standing, but it was missing a leg.
Alan was gone. Because of course he was. Back to the door? No, I had to find my friends.
But I couldn't call to them, that was one of the most stupid things I could ever do. It would give away my position, potentially cause my friends to give way theirs, and let Alan plan around us. But there was a way I could draw him back to fight on my terms.
I turned to the windows, and bounced the ax off the first. It made a gratifying amount of noise, but of course the window didn't break, because of course it didn't.
I stopped and inspected the doors. I could tripwire them with just a little effort. It wouldn't do more than hurt someone, but if it turned out to be Alan I could follow up.
The next room over was the servant's quarters, empty save for rotting shelves, a single desiccated plant, and John.
He was lying in his blood, folded almost into a square and nearly dismembered. The look of shock and surprise was still on his face, and his guts were painting the walls. The blood was half dark and half dried, he had obviously been there for some time. While Torres and I were setting up, feet away, it seemed.
It looked like the ax had been used before. But why would Bernie kill his best friend? It made no sense.
The dust around my feet swirled. But the windows were shut, and there was no breeze. Words were spelled - get out.
What did the dust think I was trying to do, barricade myself in?
More words formed - trust none.
Again, tell me something I don't know, ghostly dust. Useless; I moved.
My phone rang. It had four bars, and the number was Mom's.
"Honey, where are you?"
"I'm at Torres's house Mom, just like I told you. We're camping out in the backyard."
That was my voice, coming from my mouth, but I wasn't saying it.
"Really? Put him on then."
"He's asleep, Mom. I'm not going to wake him up." Those weren't the words I was trying to say. Why couldn't I say the right words? I slammed myself into the wall, and that worked.
"What was that honey?"
"Just the portable T.V. Mom, the killer is breaking through the door."
"Alright honey, you should turn that garbage off and get some sleep; it's getting late. I'll call you in the morning."
"Sure Mom, love you."
She hung up and my voice was mine again - but it was too late, my phone didn't have reception again.
Just quit trying, cutie. Had to get that out of the way, or your mom might have kept trying to call. Whew, you're pretty difficult to work with for now; I'm a little tired.
A twang and someone took a fall. "Eric?"
I looked down into Torres' concerned face. "Did your phone work?"
I felt a small hope twist in me. "Kind of. Then it stopped. What about yours?"
He got up and made a show of dusting himself off. He didn't say a word about the tripwire. "Nah, no bars. Camera and flashlight app works, but that's it."
Torres was alone. Why was he alone? "Where is Charlotte?"
My best friend shrugged. "We were in the pantry when she screamed and ran off upstairs. I tried to keep up, but I lost her."
Charlotte screamed? Why didn't I hear that? The house wasn't that big, and the pantry wasn't that far away.
Torres wasn't armed with anything.
"I didn't hear a scream. where did you lose her?"
"Upstairs, I thought she went into... the room Whit's in. She was heading that way. But shes got those long legs, and when I caught up, I didn't see her. As for the scream, I don't know how you missed it, but sound in this place is rather funky."
The dust swirled again; the words were less perfect, more scattered, but still legible: Not Torres.
It sounded like him. Do I believe the dust, or my ears? "I guess it is, after all, Alan managed to get away after I had him, and I didn't hear him move."
"Really?" Torres glanced at my ax, now mostly bloodless. "I thought he just ran off, but you actually managed to beat him?"
I nodded. "Lead the way."
He frowned, but he did it. He also kept glancing back at me. I kept my distance though, and kept the ax low as I could without being completely unready.
I didn't want to go in that room. I just... couldn't. Not again. "Check the windows in there. I'm going the next room over."
The next room over was just as empty as before, but the windows were just as intact as the ones downstairs.
I heard Tor: "Charlotte? You here?"
The windows wouldn't open or break. Charlotte didn't answer.
Torres came out. "No, and the windows here don't work either."
There isn't a way out. Not for them, and not for you, not yet.
Screw it. "Charlotte, you here? Answer me, please!"
There was no answer. "Fine, the plan's still on. Time to get out of here."
"Not that I don't want to, but how? We can't even open the windows."
I thought about it. "The master bedroom has a balcony. There has to be a door to it, and maybe that will work."
I remembered the map, the blueprint. It was the only door we hadn't found. It hadn't been important, really, and the balcony had been clearly falling apart from the outside. But I'd take falling and breaking bones over dying and no one even knowing.
Torres followed me into the master bedroom. I carefully did not look at the body still lying in front of the armoire. The door should open with a view to the back yard... Maybe from the master bathroom?
No, there was only the door leading to the bathroom itself, the large porcelain tub and toilet, the lopsided sink, and loose tiles.
No, it had to be on the other wall. Behind the Armoire? Why was there even an armoire in a master bedroom anyway?
Who would have moved the armoire in front of the balcony door?
The knife was no longer in Rosa's body.
I checked, and sure enough, the door was there. "Help me move this."
Torres shrugged and grabbed an end. The thing scooted easily enough between us,and revealed a small door with small lock that seemed like a pretty large security risk. I guess it was an old house thing, but if there was a trellis outside, it would be pretty easy to enter. The lock slid easily, and the door opened.
The balcony up close was a little lopsided and a lot rotted; there were holes in the floor I could inspect the roof through. The railing looked pretty solid however. Which had to be an illusion if the floor was as rotted as it was.
The roof was sloped, but it led down a good four feet; if one of us fell we would only fall one story from the roof. That was doable.
Torres thought it was too; he took one look, and tried to knife me. I managed to block the first stab with the ax head. Even ready, it was difficult.
"You're not Tor."
The grin twisted his face in a way I'd never seen; a foreign expression. "I'm not Tor. Don't worry, you'll be reunited soon enough."
He stabbed again, and I had to give ground.
Back, away from the door, before he pushed me through it and I fell on my head. But that gave me an idea; if I moved to the left....
He would track me, and trip over Rosa; just like that. A quick tap with the ax handle, and he was out. This time I had the duct tape with me, and I didn't waste any time. Torres, or what looked like him, was so bound and hogtied by wrists, elbows, and feet, that I doubted he could even move, let alone get upright and cause trouble.
I also had some spare rope, and I knew I should leave and get help, even if it meant leaving my friends here.
It won't be that easy, cutie. As you can see, your friends hate us. The others, they won't let us leave. Not yet.
I wasn't insane; that voice wasn't my voice, just like Torres wasn't Tor. It was coming from me, but it wasn't me.
Who are you? What are you?
I'm Heather, and I'm a spirit. A soul. I'm someone who died in this house, some time ago; I don't know how long. And you and I are going to be the best of friends.
The house was colder suddenly.
Yes, you went looking for ghosts, and you found them. The others, they like to cut loose, to indulge, to ruin everyone's fun. They are shortsighted; I prefer to play the long game. I want out of here, and you're my ticket.
She said we, but for getting out she said I.
That's right. For the world outside, it's one soul per body, no exceptions. But I'm a lot stronger than you. The only reason it's we for now is how difficult it is to take over a body you have nothing in common with. I wanted your girl Whit, and was all set to show you a little fun, when we were so rudely interrupted. But hey, any port in a storm as the saying goes, and this just makes the whole thing more challenging.
You... you utter bitch. How dare you!
She laughed inside my head, as if grating long nails against the chalkboard of my mind. She laughed and laughed and laughed.
The door burst in, slamming the wall and coming off a hinge. Bernie stood framed in the doorway.
"There you are, bitch! Miss me?!?!"
Oh. Well this isn't good, he will definitely kill us; he doesn't like me much.
Gee, I wonder why?
She answered me. Because I might have killed him, last time around. He holds a grudge, it seems.
Bernie rushed in, not caring about the ax at all. I nailed him with the flat and he didn't even slow. He did catch the backswing though.
"Not totally out of fight, huh? That's not like you, Heather. Normally you'd be on your knees by now, begging."
"I'm not Heather, you asshole." I lifted the other end of the ax up, nailing him in the chin. He shrugged it off.
"Sure you are, guy. We can see each other, and she's all over you. Plus, you hit like her."
They could see each other? How did that work? I didn't have time to worry about it, since Bernie ripped the ax from my hands.
I backed up. "And who are you, really?"
Bernie shrugged. "Not like it'll do you much good. My name is Frank, nice to meet you."
I lunged through the broken door as he swung. I wasn't in any pain so he must have missed, so I did what any smart guy would do; I turned and slammed the door in Bernie's (no Frank’s, his name is Frank) face.
"Ow, you little runt!"
Back down the stairs again, to the sound of a crash behind me. I was really getting sick of this. I went directly to the dining room since my traps were still there, and Frank didn't strike me as any more intelligent than Bernie.
He really isn't, and feel free to tell him so.
I wish I knew how to perform an exorcism. At least Frank was leaving not-Torres alone; he was right behind me. If he wasn't... well I'd have doubled back.
Wait, not Bernie was here... that meant the cellar was empty and open, with it's open window. That was my chance! I leaped over the second tripline as not-Bernie fell over the first, heading out and around, back towards the cellar door the long way around so he wouldn't figure it out.
He got to his feet, tripped again if the noise I was hearing was correct, and then got smart. He met me at the door.
"No getting out that way, Heather. It's been a long time, let's have a little fun first. Maybe you can even convince me not to kill you, if you try really hard."
Even on Bernie's face, that grin didn't fit.
I was getting really tired of the stairs. Not-Bernie was hot on my heels again, so I took a breath and reversed, slamming into him a few steps from the landing.
I caught myself on the bannister, but he didn't.
The master bedroom again. I had been wrong; it hadn't taken not-Bernie any time at all to kill not-Torres, it seemed.
The armoire was on it's side, in front of the door to the balcony, blocking it. So that was what the crash was.
I heard groaning, and stumbling. Why could I hear all that now, when I couldn't before? "You bitch, Heather! I'll kill you!"
Thumping up the stairs; I had seconds, and there was no way I'd be able to move the armoire in time; the door was already down. With no choice, I slid under the bed. He would look here, find me, and kill me.
But wait, the mattress was almost hollow, with the fluff and crap rotted out and under the bed. I shoved it back into a semblance of what it was, and raised myself into the mattress, digging in as best I could.
I stopped and held my breath when I heard not-Bernie shoulder the door. "I know you're in here!"
Apparently he had been fishing, because he sighed a moment later. "Come on, just come out Heather. You picked the right room for fun and everything, the bed isn't too boody."
Some light as he moved the covers, looking. I didn't move.
The covers fell back into place, and he looked in the armoire. "Come on Heather, you can join your new friends on the floor after, it won't be that bad."
He paused at the door. The ax came through the mattress, very close to my arm. I didn't move. I didn't move when he pulled it back out, either.
"Damn it, lost the little pipsqueak. Guess she's down the hall... or downstairs," Not-Bernie whispered before yelling: "I'm coming for you, Heather! I'm going to find you!"
He stomped down the hall, and finally I took a tiny sip of air.
Wow, you're resourceful when you want to be. Whitney was right about you.
Shut up, Heather, if that is your name.
I had to wait. If sound was carrying for me now, it was probably carrying for everyone else. I waited until I heard not-Bernie go downstairs, then I waited another three minutes.
Even though the armoire was mostly empty, I couldn't move it.
Sorry cutie, haven't you noticed? You aren't a big macho guy anymore; not with me in your head. Solid oak furniture isn't something you'll ever be able to move.
Bull. This was a ghost so hated, that all other ghosts wanted her dead. Again.
It's complicated cutie, but won't be any concern of yours much longer. I'm almost done, here.
The room suddenly spun, quickly, and I found myself on the floor. Had I made noise? Had Frank heard?
No, I wasn't going out like this. I refused to go out like this.
Climbing the armoire I put my back against the door, leveraged my legs against the hinges of the thing, and pushed. With a screech, it moved, but it moved at the wrong angle. I got a better grip and tried again.
"I heard that!" drifted from the bottom of the stairs. Frank started taking them two at a time, judging from the sound.
I had seconds at best; it just wasn't enough time, especially since I would need a rope. I did the next best thing, and ran to the door. It was open, so it was the best place to hide from someone rushing as fast as Frank was.
He rushed in, eyes on the corner with the balcony, and I rushed out, squeezing past him.
"What! I can't believe I fell for the oldest trick in the book!"
Yes, serious deja vu here, except not. The house... it was different down stairs. Everything was in it's heyday, and all the furniture was there. The light from the electric candles was warm and inviting, the wallpaper in the hall was bright, and the floor shone. It all looked like new, like a house Alan would... would have been happy in.
The cellar door staircase was intact, as was the door.
No, that was wrong. This was all wrong. Oh, this Heather, or whoever else, was clever.
Wasn't me, cutie. It's the house itself. You're seeing it how it wants to be seen - how we do. Very soon, now.
I tuned her voice out, and looked. Everything past the third step was gone. I jumped it, just in case, and felt something give in my ankle.
Frank didn't jump and didn't brace; he just hit that fourth step and fell through it. The ax flew into the far wall with a sharp crack that almost muted the crack that came from Frank. Frank, or Bernie's body, twitched a little bit, then went still.
I could still see the stairs, all of them, one set still upright and leading to the door, and the other in a heap at the base of it. I could see two different cellars too; one in far better condition than the other.
That was it, that was the answer all along. The rope was still there, and so was the window.
Halfway up the rope to the window, my body stopped suddenly, and I couldn't get it started again.
Not so fast, cutie. We can't go outside to meet our adoring public like this.
I was suddenly cast in complete darkness... or struck blind. There was nothing - and then just as suddenly, there was.
I was upstairs in the house again, in a room I barely recognized. The bed propped up against the wall was in great shape, almost new, and made. The make-up table was loaded down with paints and powders of all kinds, and the lights added a cheery glow over it all.
There were landscape paintings I didn't recognize on the fully papered walls, mixed with black and white photographs of people I didn't know, and a desk shoved in a corner.
The mirror I was facing displayed a young girl in it, a blonde in a sky blue dress that was perhaps as old as I was, her face lit up in a grin that struck me as mischievous while her dainty hands primped her long curls.
The only jarring sight to the image was Whitney's body, still where it fell and covered by the bloody sheet.
The blonde stopped, her frown gone. She stamped her foot. "No, I was so close!" She yelled.
It was a voice I recognized from my mind, and suddenly, I could move again. I didn't waste time.
No! You're not getting away that easily!
I slowed, fighting for control, but I didn't stop. The pain was welcome as I tripped on numb feet and fell down the last three stairs. My vision grayed a bit as I lowered myself down to the cellar floor, and my ears heard sounds. Awful sounds.
I fumbled for the rope for what seemed like forever before I found it, and started up.
Gary looked at the house. An hour before, Mrs. Peer had called him. She said she had seen lights on in the old house, but so far he'd seen and heard nothing. It wasn't unusual for Mrs. Peer to make a call like that, but Gary took any report about the old house seriously, and when Billy had either ignored her or not done enough, Mrs. Peer had remembered.
So now he was sitting here in his truck with a cracked thermos of cold, bitter coffee, freezing his balls off in the chill.
Movement. Someone was moving around, near the house. Another fool kid, playing with fire.
He opened the door, tossed the coffee from his cup, and headed over at his best speed, snapping his trusty old flashlight on. Usually, the sight of that light alone would be enough to send a kid running, but the slight form altered course to him instead.
The form revealed by the light made him drop it; a slight form in a heavily stained blue dress and white socks, with shiny mary janes on the feet. A large brimmed hat jammed over what could only be a wig, above a face that would not be out of place in one of those old movie where the actors danced and sang.
At least, Gary had always thought so. It was a face he recognized.
The word tore from his throat, unbidden. "Heather?"