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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1804964
Rated: GC · Short Story · Gothic · #1804964
A pair of ne'er-do-wells loot an abandoned farmhouse in the woods of east Texas.


In these parts, the trees grew in long thick stretches bounded by the dirt roads, the odd pasture, the occasional cluster of mobile homes, often with an older wood frame nearby or next door. The northern end of the woods was marshy. The thin oaks and pines sank into the backwash of the lake, surrendered to the water completely after about a hundred yards, and resumed a half a mile away on the other side of the creek, rising from the muck in unison and marching into the distance. A stillness hung on the air like a mask, suspended on a wire with the mistletoe and any perception on time; one day passed like another, dusk and dawn, with ne'er a sound or stir. The trees stood watch over a kingdom where very little moved very far, and in the way they bore themselves, the way they stood over the gray dirt watching all and seeing naught, they seemed alert, cohesive, and nearing the end of their inhuman patience.

The old Cooley farm was an eighth of a mile from neighbors in any direction. The house sat with five old black walnut trees looming around it in a ring; two in front of the house, one at each side, and one behind. In another life, the walls had been white, with a grand porch that now lie somewhere under the rotten rafters and old branches. In the backyard, in the shadow of the old walnut tree, the door to the storm cellar had long ago rotted off its top hinge and hung back haphazardly at an angle, while behind it the stale air was silent but for the random echoing plop of a drop of water. To the east of the house lay the remains of the wooden barn, grown up entirely by weeds and thorns, and closer to the road an old brick chimney from the original house stood black and stoic amidst tangled bushes.

From where Luke stood in the woods across the road, the property was covered in thick darkness. He could only see the house as a vague black form underneath the shadows of the trees. The old Caudle man who owned the place only made an appearance to take stock of the decay and cut the grass with his tractor when it suited him, perhaps every month or so, which was, at least before the April thunderstorms, enough to keep the grass from being too high. Luke studied the place as best he could, looking for movement or any sign of human presence and finding none.

Caber stomped through the trees behind without any attempt to conceal himself. Luke sucked in a breath.

“Dude, what the fuck? You want someone to hear us?”

Caber threw his head back and brayed. “Relax, ya fuckin' pussy, ain't nobody e'en out here!” He switched the trash bag to the other hand and threw it over his shoulder.

Luke shuddered. “They might be if you keep this shit up.”

Caber gave Luke a dirty look. “What the fuck you gotcher panties bunched up for? You afraid a the dark or somethin'?”

“I don't fuckin' like this place.” Luke crossed his arms and shifted on his feet. He stared ahead at the inky form of the house.

Caber scoffed. “Oh, knock it off. It's just a house, for fuck's sake.” He stepped out of the trees onto the road. Luke felt the lack of company swell up to swallow him in the dark and his chest tightened.

“Wait!” He darted out into the road. Caber kept walking, but Luke grabbed his arm and pulled him to a stop. “C'mon, let's just go fuck with that ol' nigger down at the bridge.”

Caber shook him off. “What're you, twelve?! Stop actin' like some lil bitch! We're not goin' over to the bridge, we're not goin' anywhere, we're gonna do this, got it?!”

He tore across the road and into the yard before Luke could answer. Luke hesitated, eyed the darkness one last time, and called, “Hey, wait for me!” and trotted after him.

Once in the yard, with the darkness surrounding them, Luke could  see two windows on each side of the fallen porch. Beyond the cracked and missing glass the shadows merged in a solid wall of black. They couldn't make their way in the front, not through the debris covering the door, and instead made their way to the right, so they could try the back door.  Somewhere inside Luke thought he saw something glimmer.

Caber gasped. “Did you see that?” He spoke in a low voice. “Looked like there's somethin' shiny in there. See, I told you there was shit in here to hawk!”

They kept on around the side of the house. There were three more windows on this wall. As they made the corner, Luke could see, then smell, the old cellar. His nose wrinkled. The air had a sour scent that Luke immediately wanted to call “buried,” a rotting, deathy, dirt smell. He looked up at Caber and he was frowning.

“Bugshit, dude, that's fuckin' rank.”

“I know, right?”

They turned at the back corner of the house. There were five windows on this wall, and a back door that, though a good three-and-a-half feet from the ground, was clear and leaning open. Luke's heart started beating faster. Caber chuckled and ran up to the door.

“Looks clear in here. We can climb in.”

He put his bag on the floor inside, stepped up with his left foot,  and hoisted himself up by grabbing the door frame with his right hand. He stood a moment to scan the interior of the room, and Luke waited a few paces away from the door, watching. He felt an uncomfortable pressure in his chest that made it a little hard to breathe.

He wasn't the type to scare easily like this. He may have been many unpleasant things, but Luke Sanders was no pussy. He and Caber had been ransacking abandoned houses and terrorizing the neighbors for years, since the day they met at the church daycare and promptly got themselves thrown out. Except for the time they accidentally set the woods near the Berry Farm on fire, nothing bad ever happened to them. They'd never even been caught (the police came close with the Berry Farm fire, but they ended up arresting a pair of dumbasses they went to school with).

Yet somehow, somewhere inside, he didn't feel right about this one. Of course Caber wouldn't understand—Caber was an idiot. But he was the only idiot dumb enough to let him stick around, Luke figured, so he tried to swallow his nerves and remind himself that he'd done this sort of thing before. There wasn't anything in there that would eat him.

Caber turned around and offered a hand to Luke. “Think it was the kitchen. There's some counters n'shit. It's safe to walk around in here, the floor's still good.”

Luke stepped up to the house, heart pounding, body screaming in protest, and took Caber's hand. It slipped because of the sweat on Luke's palm and he fell on his ass.

Caber chuckled. “You alright?”

“Yeah.” Luke stood up, knocked the dirt off himself, and tried again. This time it worked. Luke looked around. The floor did appear to be intact, and against the far wall were a few pieces of the old counter. The refrigerator and oven were gone, and the sink was in pieces on the floor. There were two more doors, and when Caber opened one nearest to them they saw it was the pantry. Luke tried to read the labels on the handful of cans that were left inside but it was too dark.

“Won't get far through here.” Caber closed the door and stepped over to investigate the counters. Luke glanced around. The paint was peeling off the walls. The plaster had fallen off the ceiling in one spot over the area where the stove seemed to have been. The room only had one cracked window covered with a handful of cracked boards. It was otherwise empty except for a blackened crucifix hanging by the window.

Caber laughed. “Aw, dude, come see this shit!”

He pulled a magazine from under the counter. He reached into the bag, pulled out a flashlight, pointed the spot of light at the cover. It was a Playboy from 1973.

Luke smiled. “That's what's up.”

“No it ain't.” Caber flashed him a wolfish grin.

Luke chuckled. “Faggot.”

Caber raised an eyebrow and opened it to the middle. “What's faggoty 'bout this?”

Luke shrugged one shoulder and nodded. “Fine, you win.”

“Every fuckin' time.” Caber turned his attention back to the centerfold. He made a small grunting noise, something like “mmh,” and adjusted the front of his jeans.

“Fuck it, I'm keepin' it.” He opened the bag and dropped it in. “There ain't nothin' in here. You ready to move on?”

Luke nodded. Ready as he'd ever be. He didn't like the house any more now that he was in it. The air was too still. The buried smell was less dirt and more rot, but no less dead. Caber stepped over to the other door and opened it. Beyond, the darkness was total. Caber pointed the light through the door, looked left and right, turned back to Luke. “It's a hallway.”

“How's it look?” Luke asked.

“Uh...looks alright. Ain't nothin' in here neither.”

Luke cocked an eyebrow. “Well, what'd you think would be in there? It's a fuckin' hallway.”

Caber shined the light in his face. “Don't make me fuck you up.” He aimed back down the hallway. “There's a couple'a doors down here.”

He took a few steps into the hall, trying to study the doors to figure out which would be best. He turned to Luke and pointed the light at him. “Which one you wanna try first?”

The floor opened with a terrific crash and Caber dropped. His eyes stretched wide and his mouth opened for a scream that never came. The light dropped out of his fingers. Luke sucked in a hard breath and grabbed his chest.

Caber fell the four feet to the ground under the house and stood with his chest and head poking up through the hole in the floor. He was frozen for a moment with his arms raised to shoulder height and his face stuck with terror in a way that would've made Luke burst into obnoxious laughter any other night.

“You alright?” Luke whispered.

Caber let out a long pent-up breath. “I think so.” He placed his palms flat on the floor on either side of him and pushed down. He came up a few inches but he couldn't lift himself any further than about waist-high.

“Goddamn this perfect ass!” Caber punched the floor and made another crack. Luke wanted to laugh at this but he couldn't find the energy. He stepped up and offered a hand. “Here.”

“Careful. Stay in the kitchen.” Caber grabbed his hand with his right, pressed down on the floor with his left, and they pulled. He came up another few inches before his ass got stuck yet again underneath the floor boards.

Caber sighed. “Fuck my life.”

“How we gonna get you out?” Luke asked.

Caber threw his arms in the air. “How the fuck should I know?! Why you always gotta ask me stupid shit like that?! Look around for somethin' to smash the floor!”

Luke turned back to the kitchen and started rooting around under the counter for something metal. He found an old Stretch Armstrong, an old magazine filled with black and white pictures of naked young wrestlers, and a bit of paper with a goat's head imposed on an upside down star. He folded the paper and the magazine together and ripped them up in frustration.

“Any luck?” Caber asked.

Luke scanned the room one more time, came back to Caber empty-handed and stomped the floor next to him with his right foot. The floor gave with a limp tearing sound. Luke took Caber's hand again and pulled him up into the kitchen without difficulty.

“Why don't you go first?” Caber asked. “You're smaller'n me.”

Luke opened his mouth to protest, remembered who he was talking to, sighed. “Move over.”

Caber grabbed his bag and the flashlight from the floor and tiptoed over by the cabinet. Luke crept around the hole with his eye on the dirt below and his toes feeling around for soft spots in the wood. The floor was weak from the edge of the hole to the wall opposite the kitchen door. Elsewhere the floor seemed fine.

“Gimme the flashlight,” Luke whispered.

Caber tossed the light over the hole. Luke caught it with his right hand and pointed it down the hallway. There were three doors on the left wall, two doors on the right wall, and one in the wall at the end of the hall. Luke thought for a moment that the death smell was stronger, but he decided he was just tripping himself out.

“How's the floor?” Caber asked.

“It's fine, just watch that wall.” Luke pointed the ray of light at the weak area of the floor. Caber stood on the balls of his feet as best he could and snuck around the hole. He spat on the floor.

“Fuckin' piece a shit!”

Luke turned to look down the hall. “So which one you wanna check out?”

Caber paused to eye the doors. He considered it for a long moment while Luke tried to keep from hyperventilating.

Will you hurry the fuck up... Luke thought. He felt the hairs rise on his arm. He wondered vaguely if he looked as bad as he felt. He hoped not. The last time Caber suspected Luke of flaking out he didn't hear the end of it for six months. He was about to start throwing obscenities when Caber jerked his head toward the nearest door to the right.

“That one.”

Luke pointed the light forward and approached it. It was painted light brown to match the rest of the hall. The doorknob was glass. Age hadn't damaged this one as badly as the other parts of the house that they'd seen. Luke drew a shaky breath, reached out, grabbed the knob, turned, pushed.

The hinges squealed. On instinct, Caber dug his finger in his ear and jiggled it around. The door opened easily enough. Luke pointed the light inside the room but it was empty save for the remains of a dead possum in the middle of an old black cloth. The carpet was riddled with large black holes, and a layer of ash coated the entire floor. The window in this room was in one piece, but it was open.

Caber wrinkled his nose at the possum. “Ugh.” He glanced around. “Helluva paint job in here.”

Luke nodded. The walls were spray painted with a wash of whitish gray, with black and maroon pictures scratched in lines across the walls all around the room like an Egyptian tomb. They didn't make a whole lot of sense. He considered a pair of stick men dancing with a circle on a stick and a lopsided letter “y” while Caber took the flashlight and grabbed the doorknob to the closet. The wood of the frame made an awful racket but Luke again had to wonder if it was just his nerves. The light hovered over the shelves inside, bare except a broken knife, a few pieces of old newspaper, a black candle. The light paused on three words scratched into the wood on the back wall:


NOTHING ALIVE HERE
.

Caber frowned. “Dude, what the fuck?”

Luke's breath hitched in his chest. He took a step back. His heel came down on the edge of the cloth. He spun and hissed, “SHIT!!!”

Caber closed the closet. “Let's go check out another room.”

He stepped over to the door, reached for the knob and gave it a quick twist.

“FUCK!” Caber doubled over with his hand pressed to his stomach. Luke felt like his heart dropped a few floors down an elevator shaft. He approached, reached for the light, and aimed it. The doorknob had shattered at some point, and the edges sliced a long tear across Caber's palm. Blood coated his entire hand and dripped onto the floor.

Caber tried to look at it but his eyes slid out of focus and he swayed on his feet. “Why the fuck did you close the door?!” he hissed.

Luke shook his head. “I didn't, I swear!”

“Oh, bull fucking shit!! Ow, FUCK!!!”

He doubled over again. Luke wrapped his hand with the front of his shirt and opened the door. He almost walked into the girl before he saw her and did a double take.

“Hi!” She smiled wide. She couldn't have been more than sixteen at the most. Her hair was dirty blond, done up in pig tails with two red bows. She was wearing a brown dress that went all the way down to her shins. Her shoes were the same color as her dress, flat-soled, with buckles. Her eyes, bright and green, stared straight into Luke's without flinching.

Luke and Caber stopped cold and looked back at her. “Who the Hell're you?” Luke asked.

The girl blushed. “I'm Nellie Cooley. Who are you?”

The boys stared back at her blankly. Luke's eyes took on a sort of filmy cast, like a dream. He felt his heart pick up speed. Nothing seemed quite real anymore.

“Nellie who?” he asked.

The girl giggled. “Nellie Cooley. Now, who are you?”

Luke made a few strangled sounds like he was choking. Caber stood up to his full height, stepped around Luke and smiled.

“Hey, baby, this here's Luke Sanders, n' my name's Elroy Dickens. But most people call me Caber.” He winked at her. She giggled anew and glanced at the floor bashfully.

“Why do they call you that?”

Caber stretched his good arm over her shoulder. “Oh, that's just m'middle name. Why do they call you Nellie?”

The girl giggled again. “It's short for Eleanor.”

Her accent struck Luke. It was so thick, so country, more so even than Caber's or his own. It reminded him of his great-memaw. Whatever it was, he was almost certain that he'd never heard a young person talk like that outside the state of Arkansas.

Nellie glanced down in a discreet attempt to examine Caber's form. She spotted his hand and gasped.

“Oh my word! How did that happen?”

Caber chuckled. “I cut it on the doorknob in there.” He pointed into the room. Nellie wrinkled her nose.

“Oh, I don't go in there. It's too musty. Here, follow me and I'll fix that right up for you.”

She marched off through the door to the far left. Caber and Luke hesitated for a moment before Caber took the first step to follow and Luke came after him.

“Dude, did we take anything?” Caber asked.

“I don't remember anymore.” Luke whispered.

Nellie poked her head into the hall. “Are y'all comin'?”

Caber flashed her his best grin and nodded. “Yeah, we'll be right there.”

She smiled back and ducked back into the room. The boys made eye contact, shared an unspoken “fuck-it,” followed.

They stepped into the room and stopped. It was well-lit, warm, clean. There were two wing-backed chairs and a large sofa, all red. On either side of the sofa, in between the couch and each chair, two kerosene lamps burned on two end tables made of dark wood. The drapes were pulled closed, dark green like the rug. The fireplace in front of the sofa was closed, built of dark gray stone. Next to the window in the back of the room stood a tall bookshelf full of leather bound books. Nellie was next to it at a roll-top desk made of mahogany, digging through the drawers.

“Here it is!” She returned with a roll of bandages, a hand towel and a small cup of water. She noticed the way they stood at the door gawking and looked around. “What? What's wrong?”

Caber blinked, collected himself, and smiled. “Nothin', babe, it's just a lot nicer than we expected.”

Luke bit back a peal of high, hysterical laughter. Nellie blushed.

“Well, thank you, I've been a-cleanin' and a-scrubbin' in here all day.”

Luke frowned. Again with this damn accent. Nellie didn't take her eyes off Caber long enough to notice. She took his good hand and led him to the couch. Luke stayed back by the door and watched them. Nellie examined Caber's hand, met his gaze and looked away with a giggle, poured water on the cut to clean it. Caber hissed a bit. She looked back up at his eyes with a sorrowful look and slightly pouting lips. He grinned a little to reassure her that he was fine. It worked and she started wrapping his hand with the bandage.

“That'll be a mighty deep scar,” Nellie said. Caber chuckled.

“Yeah, it will. It'll be good for showin' off at the lake.”

“Lake?” Nellie leaned her head to one side. “What lake?”

“Wright Patman. Over there.” Caber pointed vaguely south.

“Huh.” Nellie put her head in her hand and leaned on her knee. “What do y'all do out there?”

“Fishin', campin', y'know, every now and then bunch a people go down there to get drunk and get a little frisky.”

Nellie covered her mouth as she laughed outright and turned a new shade of scarlet. “Gee. I've never done anything like that.”

“Aw, I bet you'd like it.”

Luke rolled his eyes. Caber kidded and flirted with the girl some more while she finished wrapping his hand. Luke watched and thought over the course of the evening, going over anything they might've swallowed or smoked. The last thing they had was a blunt of the new sack Caber bought from J.C., and that was three hours before they headed out into the woods. He supposed the sack could've been spiked with something like PCP or acid. He'd heard stories of that sort of thing, and he had to admit that J.C. was dumb enough to miss that sort of detail when buying from a supplier. He took another look around at the perfect little room, and the perky girl in the old-timey clothes, and it was the only thing that made sense.

On the floor, Nellie recovered from another fit of giggles. “So where are you from?”

Caber pointed north with his good hand. “Oh, we're from Maud.”

Nellie's face lit up. “Oh! I haven't been to Maud in...gosh-a-mighty, it's at least been since my last visit to the doctor's. Ma used to take us in the car whenever we needed to see Doc Carlow. Then we'd go get ice cream from the Womack's place. She was always sure to make us swear Pa would never find out about that ice cream.”

Even Caber looked put off by what she said. “Doc Carlow?” he asked.

Nellie nodded. “Yeah. He lives on Fannin Street, next to the railroad.”

Caber glanced at Luke, cocked an eyebrow, looked back to Nellie. “And the Womack's?”

Nellie nodded again. “Yeah. The ice cream place. It's down from the Methodist church.”

The boys made eye contact again, shared another unspoken moment of “fuck-it” and Caber nodded. “I remember that place.”

“Lemme tell you, I just love that ice cream. Have y'all been there?”

“It's closed now.” Caber scratched behind his ear. Nellie's face fell.

“Aw. That makes me sad.”

Caber chuckled. “Hey.”

He slipped his good hand under her chin and coaxed her to look at him. “Don't ever let me see that pretty face without a smile, you hear me?”

Nellie laughed and blushed all over again. She seemed to notice Luke standing by the door for the first time. “Oh! Would you like to sit down?”

Luke opened his mouth to decline, but Caber said, “Sure he would!” and gestured to the nearest chair with his eyes and a hint of warning. Luke lowered himself onto the seat with his hands flat on the cushion to brace himself for whatever happened when ass met surface, but he settled into the chair without complication. Nellie watched him and laughed.

“You're a funny little man.”

Caber threw his head back and unleashed his loudest bray yet. Luke felt heat rise in his face. He felt rather silly when he thought about it, embarrassed by the comment of a girl who probably didn't exist. He crossed his arms over his chest and muttered, “That's what I aim for.”

A low voice boomed from the back. “Nelly, who're you talkin' to in there?!”

Nellie's face fell. The color drained away from her cheeks and her eyes grew wide. “Oh, Pa.”

Caber frowned. “What's wrong?”

Nellie's breath started to quicken. “It's my pa. He's home early.”

Luke cocked an eyebrow. He wanted to ask, “Early? Ain't it a little late?” but he was too scared. He looked at Caber, but Caber was too busy worrying over Nellie. He noted how typical it was for Caber to be more concerned about a hallucination's feelings than their safety, simply because the hallucination had boobs. Caber cooed at Nellie, trying to calm her, telling her that it would all be alright, but for once Nellie wasn't listening to him. Footsteps came down the hallway, heavy, deliberate, and she became more and more restless.

“I'm not supposed to have nobody here...I'm not even supposed to talk to boys even when I'm with my ma and pa—”

“Babe, it's alright.” Caber took her hand with his good hand, but she pulled away like he was on fire. The footsteps stopped outside the door, and in the moment that followed Luke was too scared to breathe. The knob turned, squeaked, and as the door came open, Luke wished that they were on the bridge harassing the old black man.

Her father's shadow came into the room before he did, stretching across the floor before his heavy black boots in a way that reminded Luke of the Angel of Death in an Exodus movie, slithering forth to hunt down the Egyptians. The man himself was about six foot two, wearing long black slacks, black suspenders over a long-sleeved, button-up white shirt. His hair was gray, short, combed back in a way that hadn't been considered fashionable, even in these parts, since before the Korean War. His face was fierce, set in an expression of stern, calm fury. Nellie stared up at him with terror darkening her eyes, sitting as far away from Caber on the couch as she possibly could without falling off. Caber watched him without expression, but Luke could see the fear fluttering wildly in his eyes behind the mask.

“What're they doin' here, Eleanor?” Mr. Cooley asked. His voice carried a veiled threat, like a mad dog that only growls once before attacking. Nellie tried to speak, but her words kept sticking in her throat and she could only make choking noises.

“We were passin' through, got lost in the dark,” Caber said. His voice was steady but Luke detected something in it, something shaky, that he'd never heard before. It scared him even more. “I cut my hand,” Caber continued. “And Nellie here was kind enough to help us out.” He held up his hand to show him the wrapping. Mr. Cooley didn't acknowledge him. He stared at Nellie with a dark look in his eyes.

“Eleanor, what have I told you about boys?”

A tear spilled out of her left eye. She swiped it away. “Please, Pa, I'm sorry—”

“What did I tell you, girl?” His voice rose a bit. Luke shivered. Nellie drew a shaky breath. “I'm sorry, Pa, but he was hurt—”

“Go to the prayer room.” He extended his arm straight out beside him and pointed into the hallway. Nellie sobbed and the tears started to flow freely.

“Please, Pa, please don't—”

“Don't make me tell you again, girl.”

Nellie rose slowly, dragged her feet across the room like they were heavy, and as she passed her father gave her a hard slap on her ass that echoed in the room. Nellie cried out, and on his way into the hall, Mr. Cooley slammed the door. By the sound of the steps outside, they headed into the room with the broken doorknob. Nellie's sobs grew louder. As soon as they heard the other door close, Luke jumped up from his seat and took Nellie's place on the couch.

“Dude, what the fuck are we gonna do?” Luke hissed.

“I dunno.” Caber was still trying to act tougher than he was, but he was much more subdued, quieter, which told Luke he was just as scared as he was.

“Can we get through this window, y'think?” Luke asked. “You wanna try?”

“Nah,” Caber whispered. “I think the pieces of the porch roof are blocking the other side of it. Otherwise we would've come in through here.”

Mr. Cooley started getting loud, yelling about the Bible and whores. Nellie's sobs grew louder also, begging forgiveness and mercy. A loud pop cut her off before her sobbing turned into wails. The old man screamed at her some more, telling her to stop crying, that she'd have something to cry about directly, and she just cried louder and begged him to stop. They heard more pops, louder, rhythmic, then a sound like something hitting the wall. He was screaming so loud now that they couldn't understand him, and she was shrieking, sobbing, but then she stopped, abruptly, like she was cut off. Mr. Cooley didn't quiet himself, screamed some more about the Bible and God and sin, and the noise he made got louder and louder until they heard a sickening crack, very small, and the screaming stopped like someone had pulled a plug.

Luke blinked in sudden darkness. He could only hear the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, and Caber's ragged breathing.

“Wha...what now?” Caber whispered. Luke felt his stomach sink. Caber'd never asked him that before. He didn't think that meant anything good.

Luke strained his ears to hear sounds from the other parts of the house, but heard nothing. He noticed that the springs under him were digging into the back of his thighs. He felt the upholstery with a hand and it was dusty, holey, threadbare. Caber reached down for his bag in the darkness, pulled out the flashlight, turned it on. The spot of light found the fireplace first, cover-free, filled with ashes. The chairs, even the one Luke had been sitting on, were missing at least a leg each, and leaned dangerously at odd angles. The dust swirled in the light like dancers, and when Caber turned to shine the light around the room, the furniture was broken, fallen, or missing wherever they looked.

“Okay, I don't hear anything.” Luke whispered.

“Me neither.” Caber sounded like he was prepared to take charge again. They waited a moment to check again, and for once, the tombish silence of the house was a blessing.

“Can I ask a stupid question?” Luke whispered.

Caber looked at him and tipped his head up in a quick nod. “Shoot.”

“What the fuck is goin' on here?”

Caber shook his head. “Man, I ain't even sure I wanna know.”

“I got a feelin' we gotta kick J.C.'s ass.”

Caber gave it some thought and saw what he meant. “Agreed.”

They waited a bit more in case something else moved, but when nothing did, Caber stood.

“Let's get outta here.”

They crossed the room as quietly as they could, listening hard for any other sounds. When he reached the door, Caber glanced back at Luke. Luke nodded and he pulled it open.

The light fell on Nellie's face. Her eyes were red, bloodshot, and tears streaked down her face. She looked up at them with an accusation burning in her pupils. “You...you didn't help me.”

The boys blinked at her. Their mouths dropped open to answer her, but no words came.

Another tear rolled out of her eye. “You didn't...how could you let him do that to me?”

Caber stuttered for a second before he could speak. “I—we weren't even sure what was goin' on.”

“You're not deaf, you know perfectly well what he was doin' to me!” Her voice rose in a shrill squeal. Luke's breath sped up, so much so that he wasn't able to do it properly and his lungs burned but he couldn't slow down.

Caber raised his free hand and put it on her shoulder. “Look, I'm sorry, we—”

Nellie slapped his hand away. Her face twisted with rage. “Don't you touch me again!” Her voice was a fierce growl. “You only want one thing. I feel it. I have since you came in here. And you ain't gettin' it!”

“I just wanna get out of here and go home!” Caber cried.

Nellie glared at him, staring into his eyes like she thought she could make them melt in his head. “Hmm.”

She was gone. Luke thought he missed something, but the look on Caber's face told him otherwise. He turned and looked at Luke without trying to hide the terror in his expression.

“Dude, let's get the fuck outta here.”

They stepped into the hallway. When Caber pointed the light down the hall, the door to the kitchen slammed shut as small fingers reached up through the hole in the floor to pull more and more of the floorboards down into the crawlspace below the house. The air was thick with dust and a strong scent like rotten eggs and charcoal.

“There was a window in here,” Luke muttered. He stepped around Caber and reached for the doorknob to the room that Mr. Cooley called the “prayer” room. He heard a tiny sizzle before his brain registered the heat in his palm. Luke cried out, let go, grabbed his arm by the wrist and squeezed. The fingers in the hole seemed to regroup, moving around to work in Luke’s direction, ripping away more and more of the wood that stood between their grasp and the boys.

Caber reached out and grabbed Luke’s arm. “C’mon!” He lunged for the last door in the hall. He let go of Luke and yanked it open. “Aw, hell yes, there’s a window in here!”

He took a couple of quick long strides into the room, tripped, fell with a groan, but Luke never heard him hit the floor. When he stepped into the last bedroom, the light was gone. Luke could hear the fingers at work, trying to come closer and closer. His heart was going so fast and so hard that he thought the damn thing might break itself. He nudged forward with his toes, trying to find Caber or what he tripped on and finding naught. The burn on his hand had cooled to a dull stinging throb. In the black of the house, his eyes perceived white dots and smears that danced in front of him without substance or meaning. His breath was harsh, shallow, hardly taking in what his body needed. Somewhere in the house behind him he heard a small high-pitched chuckle.

His feet came out from under him as if someone pulled them from behind. He fell face first. His head was light and swimmy from lack of air. He crawled forward with his arms and legs squirming before his lungs would unlock to take new breath. His mind ran in circles, screaming to get out, to find Caber, to keep moving no matter what. The sound of the fingers working away at the wood came nearer, speeding up, closing in. Luke reached and pulled to move, to escape, to figure out where Caber fell, while the sound of the fingers, with the lack of any other sound, filled his ears and became impossibly loud. His fingers wrapped around a long, round stick and the noise stopped.

Luke sucked in a sharp breath. The flashlight— he thought. He pulled it to him and felt around for the button, but at either end he felt only round lumps like rock. He felt it over again, trying to figure out how he missed the button, and it took him a few seconds to realize that the stick had once been part of someone’s upper arm.

Hands fell upon him from all sides. He didn't have time to scream before it was over.



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