Bad things are happening again.
I approached the old house cautiously -- silently, too, I hoped. Every chirp of my sneakers, every thud of my heart, made me feel like all pretense of an empty night was gone.
The uneasy presence of the ancient and dilapidated house saturated my spirit. Two stories of rotting termite-infested wood, with rats in every nook and roaches in all the crannies. I didn't bother with the front porch. The lone right-hand railing was more splinters than solid wood. Plus, the first step was missing, the second one creaked, and the third was just set in place, waiting for a misstep so it could bolt out from underneath an unsuspecting foot.
The old Sherman place had been the forbidden playhouse for the neighborhood kids as long as I could remember. Then four years ago, after my accident, we stopped going there to play. I still came back occasionally for other things. That's how I knew to come here tonight. No one had lived in it for almost 40 years; at least no one had owned it. It was inhabited now. And it was up to me to deal with the intruder.
Around back, the old root cellar door opened easily and quietly, the board with the padlock staying secured to the frame. I stepped in, lowered the door back down, and let the darkness, the essence, the presence of the old house envelope me.
A flurry of tiny sharp claws rushed over the top of my foot. It was pitch black inside the musty dirt-walled cellar, and the smell of stale mold was stifling. Holding my breath, I quickly moved to the door leading into the house and gently pushed it open. The air in the house basement was only a little less foul, this being where the cats drug their prey to eat and leave the carcasses, but at least fresh dust blew in from the broken windows and the ajar door leading into the house proper.
I carefully made my way across the basement floor to the stairway, listening intently for sounds that should not be there. I was familiar with creaks and groans of the weight of the top floors settling ever farther down. It had sunk at least an inch in the last year, and one day would simply snap the old dry beam that ran the length of the bottom floor ceiling. I knew intimately the whispers and shrieks of the night breeze through the fractured window panes and gaps in the siding boards. What I listened for, but did not want to hear, was the breathing of my quarry waiting behind the next door.
Near the foot of the steps, my shoe bumped something, and I slowly squatted to touch it. What little skin the rats left was beginning to pull back off the bone, but there was still enough soft curly hair for me to know the head. This one was Jimmy's Cocker Spaniel, missing for almost four months now, the first one to disappear when the bad things started again. I really should tell Jimmy where he was in the morning -- if I got out of here.
The dark confines of the small basement began to close in on me, and I hurried up the steps, squeezing around the door into the kitchen. The old door hung on by one screw in the bottom hinge, so I had to be very careful not to touch it lest it fall off.
Melted wax and fresh charcoal smells in a kitchen 40 years empty -- I was in the right place. A quick swipe told me there was no dust on the counter, though I could smell the small cloud scuffed up as I walked. At the entryway I paused, listening still, listening to the stillness. I had to be cautious, because it was almost time to meet.
The moon broke through the heavy clouds, large and bright, showing lumps of covered furniture. Just before the moonlight faded, something gleamed in the corner. I knew every inch of this place, and I knew that gleam was not supposed to be there. As I threaded my way cautiously through the maze of furniture, the moth and rat holes in the dirty white covers on the chairs and sofa played with the dancing shadows, giving the garish illusion of grotesque occupants sitting at tea.
The gleam in the corner was my new bike, stolen this morning. I knew it would be here. It was bait, to make sure I came to the house. It was a signal, saying come now. It meant my adversary was watching for me, waiting for me, coming for me.
The huge chandelier overhead began to vibrate, the remaining crystals rattling against each other. When playing hide-and-seek, that was always a hint of someone moving upstairs. Quickly I melted into the shadows under the old stairway. The footsteps were gentle and easy, almost floating in their descent. I followed their progress less by sound and more by the crust and cobwebs that fell from underneath each tread into my hair.
A flashlight beam pierced the darkness and I froze. The dust! My footprints were all over the place in the dust! Just then, the circle of light framed one, and began to follow its path. The mirror in the chipped gilded frame on the opposite wall played a surreal show of eerie shapes and ghostly shadows. Back and forth, the light traced my progress around the room, finally finding the trail that led under the stairs. It was no use hiding any longer. I stepped out into the harsh glare.
"Hello, Jen. I knew you would be here."
She played the light over my face, down my lanky frame to my too-big feet, then back up. "Glad you could make it, Tom. You've grown a lot in four years."
Always self-conscious whenever someone mentioned my teenage growth spurt, my hand reached up unbidden and fingered the wisp of a mustache I was trying to cultivate. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I pulled my hand back. This was no time for awkwardness. Sister or not, I had to begin stoking the fires of my hatred and anger. I needed the edge. My survival depended on it, because one of us would not leave here tonight.
"Yeah, I guess I have grown a bit -- no thanks to you! I still walk with a limp after that fall from the balcony."
"Sorry, dear brother." Her voice held no remorse, only dark humor and grim determination. "I wasn't trying to break your leg when I pushed you. You're just lucky the railing broke and let you fall sideways, instead of head-first!"
We stood there, the tension running electric fingers up and down my spine. Four years ago, my sister tried to kill me. Failing, she ran away from home. Now, the bad stuff was happening again, just like four years ago, and she was back. The reason was no mystery; she wanted to take another shot at it, at killing me. I needed to get madder. I couldn't do anything until my temper was white-hot. At the moment, I still loved her too much.
"I'm 16 now, Jen. I wrestle and lift weights. It looks like I'm taller than you, too." A buzzing began in my ears, and I puffed out my skin-and-bones chest and smiled. "Do you really think you can take me?"
Velcro ripped and she removed a large hunting knife from a hip pouch. "I have to." The snick of the thick blade locking into place was loud in the silence. "That's what I came to do." She rotated the blade slightly. Glimmers of reflected yellow light stabbed the dark shadows. "It has to stop, Tom. I have to stop the killing tonight. You will be the last one."
The presence of the knife and the cold, unfeeling tone in her voice sent a cold shock against my hot anger. But then she advanced, a single hesitating step, and my lip curled, more a sneer than a smile. She was struggling within herself, and wasn't given over to the inevitable battle. Jen was like two people; part of her did not want to do this. But all of me wanted to survive.
She took another step and halted. "It has to stop, Tom. Everything was all right for the longest time. But Jimmy's dog disappeared, then several neighborhood cats. I finally realized what was happening. The killing was out of control again."
I circled around behind a chair. My anger was building, and I knew that now I would fight back with all I had. Was it enough? The buzzing grew louder, and a red haze slowly filtered my vision.
Her voice was still there, pounding against the buzz, strident and desperate. "Deric hung from the swings, Alex tied head-down into the pool off the low board, and Shawna chained to a tree and lit on fire." One more step, then she paused by a sofa, her flashlight illuminating the center of my chest, the challenging sneer on my face visible in the broken mirror as weird shadows. I could almost reach her. "But it stops, Tom, now, tonight. I promise. You'll be the last one."
With that, Jen lunged and thrust the flashlight into my face, bashing my nose. Blinded by the light and the pain, my temper peaked. As in a dream, I heard my own voice scream. I felt my arm move and slap the light away, but I didn't do it. I was detached, consumed, a spectator to this thing that took over from time to time. I watched, not appalled at all, as hands attached to my body groped, all on their own, found Jen's throat, and began squeezing.
Suddenly I was back, only I was on the floor next to Jen. Blood spurted from the severed arteries in my armpits, and it flowed from the deep slashes across my stomach. The red in my eyes faded, slowly being replaced by a creeping gray shadow.
Jen, breathing hard and ragged, pulled herself closer, the bloody knife still in her hands. "I'm sorry, Tom," she whispered hoarsely. "I'm sorry I had to be the one. But it was the only way -- you see that, don't you?"
I nodded with great effort. "Mom ... Dad ... would never ... have believed ... how much I liked ... liked to kill. They ... they wouldn't ...couldn't ... have stopped ... stopped me." I panted, catching my breath. "Really didn't ... didn't think you could ... either, Jen." It was too much; I couldn't speak any more.
"No, Tom, they couldn't have stopped you. It wouldn't be over, and more would die. I never knew what made you do it. I just knew there was only one way to stop you from killing again." She was crying now. "I'm sorry I failed you four years ago, Tom. But it's over now. You're the last one."
I couldn't see anything, could barely hear her sobbing, but I felt her tears falling on my face like a cleansing rain of love. My eyes must have been open, because I was dimly aware of her fingertips softly closing the lids and her lips kissing first one, then the other. I relaxed then, and the last one died.