by Peter Emmett Naughton
A portion of the wall at the side of the barn had been punched in leaving a gap just large enough for Ben to slip through. He’d only ventured into the place a handful of times as a child, and all those trips had occurred during bright sunlit mornings back when the building was still structurally sound. This was during the days when his parents thought they were going to forge a new life for themselves and become farmers.
No one had consulted Ben on this decision.
Most people don’t consult ten-year-olds on much, but if they had he could’ve told them that it wasn’t going to happen. Even at that age he knew that it was unrealistic the same way he knew that his dreams of being an astronaut or a major league pitcher were just fantasies. Some things simply aren’t attainable for average people, and Ben was sure that he was average because the people that had made him were just the same. Phillip Lane and Julie Gehl were city kids raised on television and radio jingles whose families didn’t even own cars much less tractors and grain harvesters. Their milk came in a cardboard carton and the sandwiches they ate were made with white, gummy bread and cheese wrapped in plastic. They both got above average marks in school and met while attending the same state university. Phil and Jules, as they called each other back then, graduated and married shortly after with middle-class aspirations and absolutely no idea what lay in front of them.
His father was laid off three months after Ben was born and they all moved in with his mother’s family while Phil looked for work and they got back on their feet. It took nearly a year, but his father finally found a steady gig at a furniture wholesaler. He started off in the warehouse unloading trucks, but was promoted to shift supervisor after only six months. Two years after that he became an assistant manager and by the time Ben was seven his father was managing the store where he’d started. Things were good back then. His mother was teaching at a school only a few blocks from Ben’s elementary school and they’d meet each other for lunch at a park in between the two spots where Ben always fed the crusts from his sandwich to the birds and squirrels.
Ben never understood why his parents couldn’t be happy with their life. It was comfortable and safe and they had everything that they needed. Instead they’d moved him out to the middle of nowhere to be “self-sustainable”, which really just meant that they had to do everything for themselves and live in an old ramshackle house that was always either too hot or too cold.
Their dreams of agrarian bliss never came to fruition, but Ben’s parents kept the land and lived in the farmhouse until they died, his father following his mother by only a few years. That was nearly four months ago and Ben had only been back up to the place on a half-dozen occasions. He’d settled his parent’s other affairs right away, but he didn’t know what to do with the farm. It had been the scene of so many unhappy memories for him. His folks had tried their best, but Ben never stopped longing for his old friends, old school, and old life back in Chicago. He’d returned to the city to attend college and stayed only seeing his parents on holidays, birthdays, and their respective retirement parties, or on the rare occasions when they came up to visit him. It saddened Ben that they’d remained so distant, but it was like they had silently chosen sides and being away for too long made each faction feel ill at ease, like it was some kind of betrayal.
Ben tapped the flashlight app on his phone and swept the narrow beam of light across the dirt floor. There were a few pieces of equipment scattered about the interior, a posthole digger, an assortment of shovels, rakes, and smaller hand tools, and a manual earth tiller that was now more rust than metal. He wondered how much of it had ever been used. Ben remembered his mother planting an herb and vegetable patch by the side of the house that was bigger than anything they could’ve had in the city, but it was still just a backyard garden. They’d had a few chickens in the beginning and a pair of milking cows, but there had never been any actual crops to speak of and no real attempts at raising livestock. Even their modest efforts had only lasted a couple of years before his parents were both forced to find jobs in town after blowing through their meager savings.
There was a loud screech somewhere above him and Ben hoped that it was just a crow or an owl, but his mind flashed bat and rabies and he quickly retreated back to the hole and out into the dull, gray daylight coming from the overcast sky. Across an expanse of fields overgrown with weeds and crabgrass stood his parent’s house. Unlike the barn, it had at least been well maintained, the white wooden siding having been freshly painted shortly before his father’s death and the roof re-shingled just last month back when Ben thought he was getting ready to sell the place. The house itself was plenty attractive to prospective buyers; the problem was that no one wanted everything else that came with it. The farm plot wasn’t large enough to attract any serious interest from growers or livestock outfits and the acreage surrounding it that his parents owned wasn’t exactly picturesque. Anyone wanting to turn the place into a pastoral retreat would need to invest a serious amount of labor and cash and there were plenty of other parcels for sale in the area that wouldn’t require nearly the same time and effort. The fact was that no one was ever going to love the place the ways his parents had.
Ben’s phone buzzed in his pocket and he grabbed it and saw a text message from Joel.
“How’s it going over there?”
“Investigated barn…heard strange noise…fled in terror.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I mean I might have rabies, but other than that I’m good.”
“They have shots for that. Besides, I’d still love you if you were rabid. J”
“I’m not sure if that makes you sweet or sick?”
“Probably a bit of both.”
“I should be leaving soon. Just have a few more things to check out.”
“Okay. Let me know when you’re on the road.”
“Love you too.”
Ben wanted to get in the car right then and just go. If he left now he could make a decent chunk of the trip while there was still some light left in the day, even the dull gray was better than nothing, but he still needed to inspect the lock on the back door and make sure that the handyman he’d hired had replaced the screens on the windows in the living room. He reluctantly started back across the field, trying to ignore the screeching sound still issuing from the barn in intermittent bursts as he made his way toward the house.
The inside was just as it had always been. He hadn’t had the heart to box up his parent’s belongings, especially when no one had even made an offer on the place. Eventually he’d have no choice but to bring the price down and then some developer would snap it up and probably sit on the property until the area was more developed and they could put up a strip mall with a Starbucks at either end and a vape shop in the middle. It seemed inevitable and it made him feel guilty, but the only alternative was living in the place themselves and he wasn’t willing to do that even if Joel was on board.
He knew that Joel would uproot his whole life and move out to the sticks for him, and Ben loved him for it, but Joel had never lived in that house.
Ben made sure that the back door was dead-bolted behind him and crossed through the kitchen into the living room. The screens on the windows had been replaced, but they were metal mesh instead of the coated plastic kind he had requested. The local handyman he’d hired, Earl he thought his name was, or maybe Burl, had recommended metal, but Ben didn’t want the hassle of constantly cleaning them when they rusted from the rain. The last thing he needed was having to worry about the place looking rundown when he was trying to conduct a showing with a perspective buyer.
“I told him three fucking times to use the plastic.” Ben seethed.
“Metal’s better.” Earl/Burl had said with a drawl so drawn out that the first time Ben heard it he thought the man had suffered some sort of cognitive misfire. The guy clearly wasn’t a native from the Land of Lincoln. Ben’s own midwestern accent had caused Joel to tease him mercilessly when they’d first started dating, though Ben himself had never been able to detect it.
Upstairs a door groaned and Ben sighed. He’d paid a small fortune to have the exterior sealed and weatherproofed in the hopes that it would finally remedy the drafts that had always plagued the place, but it seemed that was wishful thinking. The house was a bona-fide relic that had been standing for over a hundred and fifty years and designed well before modern niceties like insulation and ductwork existed, much less the kind of materials capable of creating the hermetically sealed homes they built today. The door creaked again and he glanced over at the staircase; there was a can of WD40 under the kitchen sink that he could use on the hinges, but that would require him to be on the same level as his old bedroom and he didn’t think he was up for that just now.
Ben looked around at the remnants of the life his parents had built for themselves, a life that he’d been largely absent from, and then turned and headed out the front door toward his car.
“So did you like wear overalls and bail hay while you were out there?” Joel said, handing Ben his second drink of the night. The vodka was starting to melt away his anxiety from the trip and he was trying not to let it spike back up, but it was difficult whenever he thought about all the things that still needed to be done.
“We didn’t have enough animals to need whole bales, but I did get to use a pitchfork to spread loose hay around the barn when I was a kid.”
“And I’m sure you looked adorable doing it.”
“Mostly I just remember being itchy.”
“You don’t talk about it much.”
“There isn’t much to say. My folks had a dream and it didn’t work out.”
“It isn’t just your parents though. You’ve barely even mentioned growing up there. It’s this huge chunk of your life that I know nothing about.”
“Well the short version is that I was a miserable kid who took out my frustrations on my mom and dad. I blamed them for taking me to that place and nothing they did was ever good enough.”
“Everyone’s an incorrigible little asshole when they’re that age.”
“Except that I was different when we lived in the city; I mean I was pretty introverted back then and could be a bit sullen and moody, but for the most part I was fine. It was only when we moved that everything changed. Hell, I didn’t even tell my parents I was gay until they came up for my college graduation. It wasn’t because I was afraid of what they’d think; I just couldn’t tell them there.”
“What is it about the place?”
“Honestly, I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just this feeling I get, like I can’t hear myself think because of all the mental static in my head.”
“You may be the first person to move from the country to the city for peace and quiet.”
“Give me police sirens and L-trains any day of the week.”
“We’ll get it packed up and fixed up to be sold. Then you won’t have to worry about it anymore.” Joel said and twined his fingers with Ben’s. The two of them lay on the couch while a TV show about competitive baking that neither of them was really watching played in the background.
Ben could feel his eyelids getting heavy and he let himself drift off while a white-haired woman spread yellow buttercream frosting around the edges of a triple-layer cake.
The sun sunk below the horizon, a hazy, orange half-circle slowly slipping away to usher in the dark.
There had been a presence earlier in the day; something small and fairly insubstantial, but different than the rabbits and deer that loitered the property grazing on grass and shrubs. The thing had been inside the barn and in the house and there was something about it that felt familiar, but the sensation had vanished along with the creature.
It had seen so many things come and go; had borne witness to the birth of civilizations from savage wilderness, watched as empires rose from nothing and crumbled back into dust, and spent seasons in slumber for lack of anything interesting enough to rouse its curiosity.
As the eons wore on there seemed to be less and less worth waking for.
But it did enjoy feeding. That had never changed.
Perhaps if the creature returned it would take a quick peek and see what was for supper.
“This place is like a time capsule.” Joel said as Ben guided him around the interior of the farmhouse.
“My parents weren’t big into redecorating. Mostly they just added things, though they were pretty tidy for pack rats.”
“This is seriously amazing. It’s like walking through a museum of your childhood.”
“I’m glad someone appreciates it.”
“Oh c’mon, all this has to mean something to you?”
“Look, I know these weren’t exactly fond memories but they’re still a part of you, and being able to experience a bit of your past feels special to me.”
“I know, it’s just…my parents were the only thing tying me here and now that they’re gone I just want to be rid of it. I feel shitty for saying that since you’re being so sweet, but it’s the truth.”
“I get it.”
“You don’t think I’m a petulant brat?”
“Only when you eat all of my fried rice after insisting you don’t want any while I’m ordering.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to change.”
“Sooo are we packing here or what?”
“Sure.” Ben said, picking up a flattened cardboard box from a pile on the floor and folding it back into its proper shape. “Hey.”
“Yeah?” Joel said as he hunted around the room for the tape gun.
“I love you.”
Joel smiled. “Me too…that’s why I let you eat all my goddamn rice.”
There was a loud clatter followed by a thump and suddenly Ben was sitting bolt upright in bed.
It was his parent’s bed, which he thought would feel weirder sleeping in than it actually did. He still hadn’t set foot back in his own bedroom and was planning on leaving it for last. The house was silent now; he didn’t hear any wind howling outside, though he supposed there might have been before and the noise he’d heard could’ve been a breaking tree branch. More than likely it had all been in his head, the auditory portion of some dream he could no longer remember. Still, he thought he should take a look around just to be sure and considered waking up Joel, but decided to let him sleep.
The only illumination in the house came from moonlight shining in through the windows and Ben made a mental note to buy a couple of nightlights to place along the hallways and to keep a flashlight on the bedside table. His bare feet felt cold and exposed walking along the wooden flooring and he could hear Joel’s voice in his head chastising him for not wearing slippers, but the padded interiors and loose fit made him feel clumsy and the last thing he needed was to stumble over something in the dark when he got up to take a piss. The treads creaked beneath his feet as he descended the steps and Ben remembered how he’d thought that only haunted houses had stairs that made noise when you walked on them. His father had assured him that the wood was simply warped with age and that’s why it squeaked and groaned when stepped on, but Ben hadn’t believed him.
“I was an irascible little shit, wasn’t I Dad.” Ben chuckled to himself.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs he could feel cold air curling around his legs that was more than just the draftiness of the house. For a moment he was sure that they’d left the back door open, but then he remembered that he was standing directly above the crawlspace that led into the cellar. Ben started looking around for the cause of the noise that had woken him up. The boxes they’d packed were exactly as they’d left them and the various piles and stacks of items they’d organized appeared to be undisturbed. He made his way over to the kitchen to see if something had fallen off the pot rack or tumbled from a cabinet, but everything was in its proper place.
From the corner of his eye he caught a glint of something outside the window above the kitchen sink. If he were home in his apartment it might have simply been a street lamp mirrored in a neighbor’s window or the reflection off a storefront from the headlights of a passing car. Out here the only thing resembling light pollution was the moon, and on nights when it was crescent or new the dark was so pervasive that it was like staring into a black cloth. Ben looked up at the waxing gibbous hanging in an otherwise inky sky. It was strange not to see more stars out. The tree line was only a few hundred feet from the house, but he couldn’t see anything beyond the barn. He assumed there must be a heavy front of clouds obscuring everything turning familiar objects into faint shapes out there in the gloom. Another thud came from somewhere below him, but it was quieter than it had been before. It almost had to be coming from the root cellar and Ben thought about putting on shoes and going down to investigate, but he didn’t much like the idea. The possibilities of what might be waiting for him loomed in his mind. Most likely it was an animal, probably a skunk or possum that slipped in through a gap in the stone walls or burrowed in under the floor. He tried to remember if there was any food left down there. After his mother passed away his father hadn’t done much cooking aside from making coffee, preferring to get his meals from either the local diner or the restaurant at the far end of town that was modeled after a log cabin.
The sound came again, so soft this time that it was barely audible.
‘See, it’s going away.’ Ben thought while trying not to dwell on exactly what was making the noise.
He turned and started back toward the bedroom pausing at the base of the stairs. An image of his father sitting in his armchair came to him and he recalled their conversation about the creaking steps. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t accepted his father’s explanation, his child’s imagination refusing to let the bland rationalization banish his belief in specters.
No, the real reason had been his certainty that his father was lying to him. There was something about his eyes, a glassy stillness in them that didn’t seem like his dad at all, even though he had sounded and acted the same. Ben remembered wanting to ask his father if he was all right, but he’d been afraid.
Afraid of what his response might be, and of who, or what, was uttering the words from the other side of that blank gaze.
“Morning sleepy head.” Joel said as he poured a second mug of coffee and handed it to Ben. “I thought you were never going to get up.”
“I had a bit of a restless night.”
“Was I snoring?”
“You don’t snore sweetie.”
“I mean, I didn’t think I did, but everybody who does it starts sometime.”
“No, it wasn’t you, but some sound did wake me up.”
“What was it?”
“Not sure; probably just animals.”
“I guess we really do need to get back to the city since it appears country living doesn’t agree with you.”
“What about you, sleep alright?”
“Totally fine, which I know must be a real shocker.”
Ben chuckled, “Only person I know who can fall asleep standing up.”
“Technically I was leaning against a wall; one of my many skills.”
“Coffee preparation being another.”
“Oh you just pretend not to know how so that I’ll do it.”
“True, but it always turns out a lot better when you make it.”
“Speaking of, I was going to make us breakfast but the only thing around here aside from coffee was a loaf of bread that’s seen better days. We need to go grocery shopping.”
“Guess I was so focused on packing the place up that I forgot about little things like food.”
“I’m just tired.”
“Those damn nocturnal critters.”
“My people are not woodland sorts of folks. Pretty sure summer camp was about as rugged as any of us ever got. I honestly have no idea why my parents ever thought they could pull this off.”
“Dreams aren’t supposed to be reasonable or easy.”
“That’s probably why so many of them don’t come true.”
“Tired-Ben is a very pessimistic fellow.”
“Why don’t we take a little drive and get some food in you. I think it might help brighten that dour disposition a bit.” Joel said and kissed Ben on the cheek.
“No fair making me smile.” Ben said, grinning despite himself as he grabbed the keys off the kitchen counter and they headed out the door.
The first taste is always the sweetest; that ineffable initial experience which can never be truly duplicated no matter how fervently it’s pursued.
Its first had been a young homesteader family who had built a small three-room house on top of the flinty, frozen soil. The couple had arrived in the dead of winter with a young boy and by spring there was a newborn girl added to their fold.
In those days it had felt youthful and been eager to consume, but had learned from other older entities to start slowly. The earth that it dwelled in was little more than silt and shale and it lingered there in rapt anticipation as all the settlers’ attempts to grow food withered and died before they had a chance to take hold. The wave of dread that radiated out from the parents after their crops failed tasted like the most exquisite sip of wine. There was a nearby trading post that kept the family supplied with necessities, so it knew that it would need to resort to further measures for things to progress as intended. Months went by before an opportunity presented itself in the form of the father. He was working on a small outbuilding on the same site that would be used for the barn years later. The man was tall and well-muscled from spending endless hours in those fallow fields. He was thoughtful and meticulous in his work, but anyone, no matter how careful, can succumb to a momentary lapse in judgment or fall victim to a stroke of bad luck.
He was standing on a wooden ladder nailing in boards for the framing of the roof, when a sudden gust of wind rose up and slammed him sideways sprawling him out onto the ground. It wasn’t a far fall, but he landed on his shoulder dislocating it from the impact. The closest thing to a physician was a gentleman a few miles away who tended to sick horses, and although he was able to set the father’s shoulder back into place it never truly healed.
That was the seed it needed to germinate everything that came after. The constant nagging ache that blossomed into spasms of throbbing pain whenever the weather got too damp or cold caused the father to grow short tempered and resentful. It was able to push him by doing little more than having the door hinges stick, or causing the lanterns mounted along the walls to gutter and go out. The flares of anger that these incidents produced in the man were pungent and rich. They finally spilled over and he struck his wife after she’d suggested going into town to send a telegram so that a proper doctor might come out and see to his shoulder. This was followed by a delicious wave of shame and guilt from the father that was even more satisfying. The arguments and explosions of temper and violence continued despite the man’s constant apologies and it soon grew bored and longed for other flavors to satisfy its palate.
It began creating noises at night, little symphonies of sound that would wake the children from their slumber and cause them to crawl out of bed and go searching. That innate curiosity mixed with their inborn sense of fear was an intoxicating elixir, especially when they were alone, but even together it could provoke a reaction in one that would set off the other. One of its fondest memories was the night it had roused the little girl with tree branches tapping against the windowpane. There was no tree near that side of the house and she had crossed the room and woken her brother and the two of them had gone to investigate. The boy, whose name it had long since forgotten, stepped out onto the small wooden porch and looked up at the moon shining full and bright in the night sky. It kicked up a swirl of loose silt from the ground, forming the particulates into a dust devil and then contorting the shape of the funnel in front of the boy until it revealed the barest glimpse of its true visage.
It watched with wicked glee as the boy’s eyes went wide and his mouth grew slack like a fish wriggling at the end of a hook. His sister remained inside the doorway and didn’t see the look on her brother’s face as he fell to the ground dead.
The boy’s death filled it with a remarkable rush, but the true euphoria came from the girl’s screams as they echoed around the house and seemed to go on long after even her parent’s cries of horror and anguish had faded.
The town hadn’t changed much since Ben was a kid. Some of the shops and restaurants he remembered were gone and there were a few nods to modernity like the new stoplights and street signs and a multiplex at the end of Buckley road that replaced the old two-screen theater in the center of downtown. Maggie’s Café was still standing, and it was one of the few things that he was actually excited to show Joel. The red brick façade looked as though it had been replaced or resurfaced a few years back, but the interior was exactly as Ben remembered it.
“This place has the best French toast I’ve ever had.” Ben said.
“Even better than Palace Grill?”
“Oh yeah, it’s no contest.”
“That is a bold statement my friend.”
“You can try some of mine if you don’t believe me, but I’d recommend getting your own. That way we won’t look like ravenous animals circling the plate.”
“I was actually thinking of going healthy and ordering an egg-white omelet or maybe a veggie scramble.”
“That may be a bit tricky. Maggie’s isn’t exactly an egg-white kind of place. They give you a side of ham with everything.”
“They gave some to my cousin even after she explained that she didn’t want the bacon or sausage that came with her pancakes because she was observing Lent.”
“Wow, um, that’s….”
“I think the word you’re looking for is awesome.”
“I was going to say interesting.”
A waitress wearing a checked green and white apron approached their table. “What can I get you fellas?”
“I’ll have the number three with bacon and a cup of coffee.” Ben said.
“And for you?”
“I’ll have the same thing only with orange juice instead of coffee.”
The waitress nodded and collected their menus before turning and heading back toward the lunch counter, which was lined with round chrome stools that featured dark-red leatherette tops.
“This place would be Kim’s worst nightmare.” Joel said with a snort of laughter. “Like I can literally feel the grease in the air pressing into my pores.”
“Yeah, she’s not exactly going to be able to get quinoa or tofu out here.”
“That’s when I knew you were the one.”
“Because I don’t like tofu?”
“Because you were the first guy I’d met in forever that wasn’t chasing some lifestyle trend or online fad. You were a genuine person who didn’t feel the need to impress me with how current they were with all the latest bullshit.”
“So you’re saying that I’m some lame, out-of-touch bumpkin who dragged you back to his hick town. That’s what made you fall in love with me?”
“Shut up, you know what I mean.”
Ben let a small smile crease the corners of his mouth.
“You just love giving me shit, don’t you?” Joel said returning the smile.
“It’s part of my simple country charm.”
“Here you go guys.” The waitress said setting down two oval-shaped dishes in front of them. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”
“Jesus, is this supposed to feed a small army?” Joel said.
“Now make sure you mix the melted butter with the cinnamon before you pour the syrup.”
Ben watched in anticipation as Joel took the first bite of his French toast.
“Oh my god.”
“I told you.”
“This is seriously incredible.”
“Maggie’s might be my favorite part of this whole town. It’s one of the only places where all my memories are good ones.”
Joel put his free hand on Ben’s shoulder.
Ben smiled. “Go on; eat it before it gets cold.”
They finished their breakfast and walked around town with Ben pointing out various sights and recollections from his childhood. It was late afternoon by the time they got back to the house and the setting sun had transformed the horizon into a vibrant expanse of pink and purple that seemed too beautiful to be real.
Ben took Joel’s hand. “I know I don’t exactly have glowing memories of this place, but I’m still glad that I could share it with you.”
“Me too.” Joel said and gave Ben’s hand a squeeze.
Ben leaned in and kissed Joel and they stood there on the porch watching the painted sky.
They finished boxing up the living room and downstairs bathroom along with everything in the kitchen aside from the few items they’d been using and the cleaning supplies. By the time they’d finished it was nearly midnight and they were both exhausted, but Ben told Joel to go ahead upstairs without him and after a few teasing protests Joel had relented and headed off to bed.
Ben wasn’t exactly sure why he’d stayed. The other night still lingered in his head even as he tried to dismiss it as a byproduct of his overactive imagination. The stairs hadn’t creaked when Joel was on them and Ben couldn’t decide whether that confirmed or disproved his point. He stared at the empty fireplace and contemplated going around to the back of the house and grabbing some of the wood his father had stacked there. That idea quickly died when he realized that he had no idea how long it had been since the chimney was cleaned and didn’t want to risk filling the house with smoke. He wondered what it had been like for his father living there alone. Had his dad heard the sounds coming from the cellar, or did such things simply not exist to him because he refused to let himself believe in them? A psychologist might say that it was Ben who had the problem and that the noises were manifestations of a troubled mind.
‘A few bricks shy of a full load.’
That was his father’s expression for it, but if it was all just a delusion then why had his dad looked so strange when he’d asked him about the stairs? Ben had always felt a sense of unease that shadowed everything he did around the property and it made him wonder how much his parents might’ve hidden from him.
Ben began to tap his foot on the floor to a song from his teenage years whose title he couldn’t quite recall.
He was pretty sure it was a Ramones or a Stooges tune.
Or maybe something from X or The Cramps.
‘…was it the Buzzcocks?’
Ben’s heart shot up into his throat. The sound had come from directly below him and been hard enough to rattle the floorboards.
He wanted to scream, but couldn’t so much as utter a squeak; his pulse was pounding against his windpipe and his muscles had gone completely rigid as he sat there in the wooden rocking chair his parents had bought when they first moved into the house.
The pattern repeated three more times and then paused as if waiting for Ben to respond. He tried to move, but his body still refused to obey. It came again, louder this time, and Ben was sure he could see the walls shaking from the vibration.
‘Joel had to have heard. He couldn’t possibly have slept through the entire house quaking on its foundation.’
Ben knew this was true and was simultaneously sure that Joel was lying peacefully in bed with no idea of what was going on downstairs.
A wave of dizziness swept over him as he watched the floorboards tremble. Had there still been pictures hanging, he was sure they would be on ground with their frames in fragments strewn across the floor.
The rhythm came again and again, increasing in volume with each progression. Ben was sure that at any moment the plaster ceiling above him would come raining down on his head. He felt something click deep down in his throat and found that he was finally able to move his jaw enough to force some words through.
“Stop it! Stop this right now!” Ben croaked as loudly as he could.
The pounding immediately ceased and it was so sudden that Ben jumped in his seat. Until that point he wasn’t aware that he’d regained the use of his body, but was grateful for the discovery.
He wanted to call out to Joel, wanted to collapse in his arms, but a part of him was afraid of what his reaction might be; that he might see that same glassy, dead-eyed expression on Joel’s face that he’d seen on his father’s.
Ben slowly rose from the chair and made his way upstairs hoping that Joel wouldn’t notice when he climbed into bed.
There had been other memorable experiences since that first family.
A young mother and her twin girls, who were skinny, pigtailed mirror images of one another that had been best and only friends. The mother homeschooled them and kept them secluded, regarding the outside world as a hostile entity to be visited only when absolutely necessary. The house was on its fourth iteration by that time, but the barn had yet to be built and the land was still mostly barren fields and unforgiving forest. This shroud of isolation that the mother thrust upon her daughters sprung from a bottomless well of fear and it reveled in the sensation, keeping the woman jumping at shadows and trembling from phantom noises in a near constant state of anxiety. These episodes caused the woman to burrow deeper and deeper into her paranoia and while she was caught up in the tangled web of her own psyche, it had time to spend with the children. The one called Amanda was the bolder of the pair, but even her comparatively quiet sister Emily was still less of a mouse than their mother. It started off slowly, a game of jacks in the parlor on top of floorboards that were skewed one moment and perfectly sound the next. These manipulations were subtle, but over time they accumulated like continuous days of rain slowly drowning a valley. Amanda accused Emily of cheating at the game despite her protestations that she hadn’t. Later when Emily was skipping rope in the kitchen, an indulgence their mother allowed as long as it kept them inside, it shifted the earth beneath the building’s foundation just enough to cause her to become unbalanced and fall. Amanda witnessed the accident, not noticing the shift in the house herself, and had laughed at her sister’s clumsiness.
That was when the real rift between them began.
The girls started avoiding each other and only feigned their former affection for one another when their mother was around. Amanda spent long hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the house including the attic and cellar during those times when her mother ventured into town for supplies. Emily read every book in the house and begged her mother for more volumes from the library whenever she went out. Several times both Amanda and their mother had heard Emily speaking aloud and assumed that she was reading a passage from one of her books, though it had sounded more like she was having a conversation with someone.
Their first real fight came a week later when Emily, angry over her sister eating a slice of cake that she’d been saving for herself, complained to their mother. Amanda apologized at the time and seemed genuinely sorry for what she’d done, but that evening after their mother had gone to sleep she snuck up to Emily’s bedside and tied her to the metal frame using the sheets from her own bed. When Emily tried to scream for help Amanda put a pillow over Emily’s face and said she’d suffocate her if she made another sound. Amanda left Emily bound until early the next morning. When the three of them were sitting around the kitchen table eating breakfast later that day Emily looked like she was going to say something to their mother, but one glance from Amanda stopped her in her tracks.
Emily waited nearly a month to exact her revenge. Their mother had gone into town to deal with some matter with the bank and then was planning to go grocery shopping. Emily had mostly avoided Amanda since the bedroom incident and had acted sheepish and timid whenever they encountered each other. During that time Amanda had expanded her exploration to the woods that bordered the east end of their property and Emily waited until her sister had left the house and then followed Amanda, hiding behind bushes and trees in order to avoid detection.
It was dusk when Amanda stopped to gather stones by the edge of a small stream. Emily had only meant to scare her sister, to make her experience that bolt of mortal terror that she’d felt smothered beneath the pillow, but it had other ideas.
Their mother arrived late that evening to an empty house. It would take the police two days to find Amanda’s body floating face down in the water. They spent the weeks and months that followed searching for Emily, but she was never seen again.
Ben was quiet as he and Joel began organizing things on the upper floor. He’d barely slept and hadn’t told Joel anything about what had happened during the night.
“I’m not gonna ask again.” Joel said.
“If you’re okay, because I know you’re not.”
“This place…I know….”
“I’m not sure what you want me to say.”
“How about starting with what’s really going on with you.”
“You know what’s going on with me; you just said it yourself.”
“It’s more than that. You’ve been acting strange all morning.”
“If you say so.”
“Fine, don’t tell me. Let’s just finish this so we can go home.”
Ben glanced over at Joel, who was carefully cocooning a collection of porcelain figurines in bubble wrap, and started to say something but then thought better of it. They spent the next few hours packing up Ben’s parent’s room without uttering more than a few words to one another. Ben stared down the hall at his childhood bedroom and a sickly feeling settled in the bottom of his stomach.
“I can tackle your old room if you want.” Joel said, seeing where Ben was looking. “You can start working on the bathroom.”
“You’re welcome.” Joel said and patted Ben gently on the back as he passed him.
Ben folded the towels and put them in the box with the others from the linen closet. He made sure that the caps on the toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, and conditioner were all secured and then placed everything into plastic storage bags just to be safe before packing them away. He was sorting through his parent’s prescription bottles, trying to determine which ones he could flush down the toilet and which had to be taken to a pharmacy for disposal, when he heard Joel scream.
“What is it?!” Ben panted, breathless from his sprint down the hall.
Joel said nothing, instead pointing to the bedroom closet. The wooden bi-fold doors were only partially open, but Ben could see well enough to tell that there was something shining from inside the dark recesses. It took him a moment to figure out what he was looking at and when he finally realized what it was he burst out laughing.
“What’s so damn funny?” Joel said, both bewildered and irritated.
Ben reached in and pulled out a taxidermied animal about the size of a shoebox with dark gray fur and glittering glass eyes the color of onyx. It was purchased by his uncle from a local man who sold assorted oddities and given to Ben as a gift for his twelfth birthday. When presented with the creature he was gracious and polite the way his parents had always taught him to be and thanked his Uncle George; after the party was over he promptly put the bristly-haired critter in the back of his closet where it had remained ever since.
“Joel, I’d like you to meet Warren the Possum. Warren, this is Joel.”
They’d both gotten a good laugh from Joel’s unexpected discovery and decided to go through all the rooms together after that. By dinnertime they’d completed boxing up the main rooms on the second floor leaving only a few scattered items and a small storage closet to contend with.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Joel said, still chuckling.
“It seems the least I can do after inflicting Warren on you.”
“Seriously though, you’re uncle seems like a deeply weird dude.”
“My parents always called him a confirmed bachelor. After I came out to them I asked if Frank was gay and they both looked at me like I’d told them I could fly. To them the term had always meant a guy who’d never gotten hitched because he refused to settle down or because no one in their right mind would ever agree to marry him. I explained the real meaning to them, even showed them an online article about the origins of the phrase, but they still didn’t believe me.”
“I think in this case their definition might actually make more sense.”
“So anyway, what was your question?”
“Why are you so freaked out by your bedroom?”
Ben paused for a long moment before he spoke. “You were right before when you said that there was more to my story than I was telling you. There were things that happened up here when I was a kid that I never told anyone about.”
“Not even your parents?”
“I tried talking to them a couple of times, but they thought I was just telling stories to get attention. Honestly, after I moved away I started to think that maybe I had made it all up, but then….”
Joel took Ben’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “It’s okay; you can tell me.”
“…it’s started happening again….”
“What’s started happening?”
“I’m seeing things out of the corner of my eye, hearing noises that seem to come from nowhere, and there’s this chill that follows me around the house.”
Joel put his free arm around Ben and drew him close.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” Ben said. “I mean I probably am so….”
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Part of me hopes that I am insane. At least it would explain things.”
“We’re almost done here.” Joel said. “And after we’ve finished we can hire an estate agent to sell the place. You won’t ever have to set foot in here again if you don’t want to.”
“You really don’t think that I’m a complete nut job?”
“The only thing crazy about you is your continued affection for Kiefer Sutherland; I’m sorry sweetie, but he just isn’t that good of an actor.”
Ben smiled. “I love you.”
“I’m bonkers for you too baby.”
“Too soon?” Joel said and they both laughed.
“Can I ask you something serious?” Ben said.
“You haven’t heard anything strange since we’ve been here, especially late at night?”
“No, not that I remember, but you know I sleep like a hibernating bear.”
“What about the cold?”
“I’ve noticed it a little I guess, but it’s an old, drafty house.”
“And seeing things?”
“Nothing particularly unusual, but what have you seen?”
“I’m not sure exactly; glimpses of things, but they always vanish whenever I turn my attention toward them.”
“Everybody has moments like that, especially after dark. Combine that with you being sleep deprived and stressed out about being here and it’s no wonder you’re seeing things.”
“I know you’re right; I just thought that I was done with all of this.”
“A few more days and we’re outta here. Hell, we could hire a moving company to pack up the rest and drive it out to our storage space; we could leave first thing tomorrow.”
“No, I want to finish things. I’m sick of running away from this place.”
“Okay then.” Joel said and kissed Ben on the forehead.
They did a couple more hours of work after dinner before turning in for the night, determined to get an early start the following morning.
The next thing Ben was aware of was being alone in bed. He called Joel’s name, but there was no reply and he could see no light coming from the corridor outside of the room. He slowly became aware of a faint sound somewhere off in the distance. It was difficult to discern what he was hearing, but whatever it was seemed to be repeating itself.
Ben grabbed his t-shirt from the end of the bed and slipped it on over his head. He cinched the cord of his pajama bottoms tight around his waist and crept to the edge of the doorway, peering out into the hall. The darkness made it impossible to see much of anything, his parent’s room having only bedside lamps for illumination. The light switch for the upper level was located in the middle of the corridor and he stood there, feet rooted to the floor, unable to will himself forward.
The noise continued from somewhere below him, a susurrating sound that seemed like a cross between a bird’s warble and an infant’s coo.
“Joel? Are you alright?”
Ben bent at the knees and flexed his arms at the elbows shaking the paralysis from his limbs. He took a tentative step out into the hall followed quickly by another. The switch seemed miles away as he inched along the wooden floor boards hoping the whole time that maybe this was all a dream and he was really still buried beneath the blankets with Joel.
He was reaching to flip the switch, his fingertips extended out as far as they could go when the noise suddenly changed.
It was no longer a warble, or a coo, but the distinctive sound of someone in pain.
It thought that perhaps the most interesting of its interactions with the living world hadn’t been the cases that ended in immediate death, but the ones where it had wormed its way into the hosts, surreptitiously siphoning while everyone around them went on oblivious of its activities. True, those instances hadn’t contained the visceral delights of some of its more dramatic conquests, but there was something to be said about inhabiting a creature and draining its essence until it was little more than a shell. That kind of parasitic commingling stretched out over years was almost intimate and went beyond the mere attainment of sustenance.
Such had been the case with the most recent occupants of its hunting grounds and it had hoped the same would be true of the creature who had returned. It took a while to remember the boy; there was little resemblance to the child he had been those years ago, but the scent was the same. His sudden arrival had piqued its interest with the expectation that the boy was planning to occupy the house again so that it might have an ongoing food source for a time. Alas, that seemed unlikely now and it would soon be forced back into hibernation waiting for someone else to come along. It was a shame given the potential it had gleaned so far. The boy’s fear had been an unexpected pleasure, like re-experiencing a long-ago sampled delicacy whose flavor had changed, but was still familiar and welcoming.
The other one who had come with the boy was unfortunately quite a disappointment. He had gone catatonic almost instantly, which had been deeply unsatisfying, though itwasn’t particularly surprised. Skeptics always fared worse because their minds refused to yield to inexplicable occurrences and instead simply buckled from the strain. There was no enjoyment, and very little nourishment, to be gained from a host in this state. What it really needed could only be extracted from a suffering subject and the boy was its only remaining option.
It hoped that he would last a while before his consciousness collapsed so that it could relish every exquisite moment.
The sound had faded away by the time Ben reached the bottom of the stairs, but he knew where it had come from.
He’d purposely avoided the cellar since they’d returned; it was the only place in the house that filled him with more dread than his bedroom. The entrance was located in the back of the kitchen pantry and when he reached it he found the small wooden door open with the lone, bare light bulb that hung in the center of the room glowing faintly beyond it.
“Joel?” Ben said, stepping into the room. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust and when he was finally able to see, the space was exactly as he’d remembered. There were rows of shelves filled with empty mason jars and a table in the corner with plastic bins that held circular metal lids and threaded metal rings to seal them. He remembered his parents talking about storing months worth of preserved fruits and vegetables once the farm really got going, but the only thing they’d wound up doing was buying the canning supplies.
Ben found Joel at the end of a row of shelving slumped over in the corner. He knelt down beside him and was relieved to see that he was breathing, but his eyes were closed and even in the gloom Ben could tell that his skin looked pale and waxy.
He put his hand on the side of Joel’s face and held it there. “C’mon baby, wake up.”
Ben could feel the root cellar begin to tremble and worried that the whole thing might come down on top of them.
The vibrations felt like they were penetrating his bones as the rhythmic pulsing echoed inside his head.
The room began to rotate like he’d had too much to drink and he slumped down against the stone wall next to Joel.
Ben’s vision started graying around the edges as the spinning sensation increased and the pounding grew louder. He grabbed Joel’s hand and held it tight as he slowly slipped into darkness.
It took Ben a moment to realize that the house had changed.
Everything appeared to be in the same place as it had been before, but the things themselves were altered. The paint in the living room, which had faded from years of sunlight to a dusty rose color, was now a vibrant crimson, and the Navajo blanket that served as an area rug had become a fuzzy rectangle of burnt-orange shag carpeting.
He was sitting on the floor, watching some detective show on television, and his parents entered the room, laughing and looking decades younger than they had on the days that they’d died. Ben tried to recall this event, struggling to put it into some kind of context, but nothing surfaced from his memory. When he glanced down at his hands they were his own not those of a child, and yet whatever this was it had clearly occurred decades earlier. There was a scattering of birds breaking from the branches of a bare tree outside the window and Ben watched them fly away until he could no longer see them. When he returned his attention to the room his parents were gone.
The air seemed to shimmer in front of him like waves of heat haze coming up from a patch of hot asphalt. Ben blinked to clear his vision and that subtle shift started happening again, but this time he noticed it right away. His parents had reappeared, standing together in the kitchen, but it was now a good thirty years on from their previous incarnation. His mother had a distant look on her face that was the same as the one she wore during the last years of her life. His father’s face seemed frozen in concentration, like he was trying to puzzle out the deeper meaning to some idea that he wasn’t quite ready to share.
Ben stared at his parents’ inscrutable expressions for what felt like hours. He had always loved them deeply, but there was a part of him that never fully understood them.
Why had they uprooted everything to move to this place, and why had they stayed?
An image flashed inside his head of standing with his father at his mother’s gravesite. What he had originally taken as a look of uncomprehending grief on his father’s face, he now saw had been something else entirely. It was that same vacant stare he’d had when telling Ben that there were no such things as ghosts or spirits or other malevolent forces slipping in through the cracks in reality.
‘It was you.’ Ben thought.
Another image came rushing in obliterating the graveyard scene. Ben was standing between his parents, each holding one of his hands the way they had when he was a child, but in this version he was fully grown. The three of them were in the middle of an empty field under a gray autumn sky, looking out at endless furrows of dirt in front of them. His mother turned to him and asked Ben what they should plant first when springtime came around. Before he could answer the scene dissolved and he was standing alone at the edge of a wheat field; he barely had time to take this in when the scene shifted again and the wheat transformed into bright, green stalks of corn.
“This never happened.” Ben said, though he wasn’t sure if he was actually speaking. “My parents never planted anything.”
Ben was suddenly back in the living room and this time the walls were restored to their faded hue and the blanket was in its accustomed place beneath the coffee table. His parents were sitting side-by-side in identical wooden rocking chairs holding hands and looking just as they had in their wedding photos. They rocked in unison at a leisurely pace and with each passing back-and-forth their expressions began to change. What started out as beaming smiles and bright, shinning eyes slowly distorted into downturned mouths and dull gazes.
Soon he could see wrinkles starting to form on their faces and clusters of liver spots springing up on their skin. The chairs continued rocking in their unhurried fashion as the flesh of the figures in them were beset with the deformations of age.
Ben watched in horror as his parents’ hair fell out in clumps and their bones began to protrude, the skin surrounding them becoming sunken and brittle until they were little more than living skeletons.
“Stop it! Stop doing this to them!”
He wanted to run over and embrace them, to hold onto them before they disappeared completely, but he forced himself to remain still.
“This is what you want, isn’t it?”
There was no reply or acknowledgment of his question as Ben watched his parents desiccate and then disintegrate into piles of ashy dust that continued to rock back and forth on the wooden chairs.
The noise from before that sounded like the fusion of a bird’s warble and an infant’s coo began trilling in his ears and Ben closed his eyes trying to block it out. When he opened them he was back in his apartment in Chicago. Joel was sitting on the sofa with a man Ben was certain was supposed to be him even though this person didn’t really look all that much like him. The two were cuddled together in front of the television and Ben watched as the man that was supposed to be him started nibbling on Joel’s ear while Joel rubbed the back of the doppelganger’s neck. A soft moan came from one of them, Ben wasn’t sure which, and then Joel’s eyes went wide as blood began spilling from the side of his head. The simulacrum of Ben came away with most of Joel’s right earlobe clenched between his bloodstained teeth.
Ben rushed over and swung wildly at his double, but instead of his fist impacting the man’s face it passed straight through and he found himself prone on the floor of the apartment. There was a bark of laughter behind him and Ben turned to see Joel grinning at him with his arm around his deranged assailant.
The man plucked the earlobe from his mouth and tossed it nonchalantly over his shoulder. “He still doesn’t understand.”
Joel gave Ben a pitying look. “Well, my baby always was a bit of a slow learner.”
Ben pressed his palms against the floor to make sure that it was really there and then pushed himself up onto his feet.
“You aren’t anything like me.” Ben said to the man who still had blood smeared all over his face.
He turned to Joel. “And I’m not sure what the hell you are, but it certainly isn’t who you’re pretending to be.”
Joel shrugged at him. “If you say so sweetie.”
That quavering warble came again and Ben clamped his hands over his ears, but the noise was inside his head. He staggered back from the sensation and thought that he might pass out when the sound finally ceased. He was back in the cellar with Joel, though he was sure that this still wasn’t real. An image materialized in front of him of a boy wearing brown corduroy pants and a long-sleeve white shirt with a man riding a motorcycle stenciled in red on the front of it. He did remember this moment. It was shortly before the birthday where he’d received Warren the Possum and he could hear his parents upstairs yelling at each other. His mother wanted to throw a party for Ben and invite some of the kids his age in town up to the house. Ben’s father insisted that they couldn’t afford it and that even if they could he didn’t want the locals coming over and sneering at the,“stupid city folk trying to play farmer.”
That had been the first big fight they’d had since moving and at the end of it his father had convinced his mom to simply buy a cake and ice cream and just invite Uncle George. Ben remembered his dad had promised that they could invite people from town over next year when they had everything up and running.
Ben had stayed in the cellar long after his parents stopped arguing; he constructed glass castles using the mason jars and dug moats around them in the dirt floor using the pocket knife his father had given him for his birthday the previous year. The largest blade was less than three inches long, but both his parents had warned him about being careful and how the knife was a tool, not a toy. When he’d finished digging he used the bottom of his shirt to wipe the blade clean and had caught a glimpse of himself in the metal’s reflection. There were his hazel-green eyes staring back at him and just off to the side he’d seen something else. Ben turned around to get a better look, but there was nothing behind him.
His parents had their share of serious fights after that day, but the intensity seemed to lessen with each instance even as their family’s situation continued to decline. By the time Ben was ready to leave for college, his parents had settled into menial jobs they were both overqualified for despite there being better opportunities just a few towns over.
The cellar scene melted away and was replaced by a green-curtained picture window that was the front of a restaurant in Chicago that he and Joel frequented. Joel was standing beside Ben dressed in the outfit he’d worn on their first date together; back then neither of them had known about the quaint little noodle-house that would become one their favorite spots. That first romantic meeting had been spent attending the art exhibit of one of their mutual friends. Afterward they’d all gotten tacos from a little stand that became another one of he and Joel’s favorite places to eat.
Joel stepped off the sidewalk to hail a passing taxi and Ben watched as the cab jumped the curb and struck Joel sending him careening back into the building. Before Ben could move to try and help the scene shifted and he was suddenly in a brightly lit hospital room sitting in a chair by Joel’s bedside. There were plastic tubes trailing out of Joel’s nose and his head was swaddled in bandages that partially concealed the bruises covering his face.
Ben knew this was a lie, every bit of it a fabrication, but the anguish that welled up inside him felt as real as when he’d watched his parents wither away to nothing. He wanted to comfort Joel, but bristled at the idea of giving his tormentor any more satisfaction.
One of the monitors next to the bed began to blat loudly and Joel’s body suddenly went rigid.
Ben shouted for help as the alarm from the machine grew louder and louder. Soon it was blaring beside him, the sound echoing off the walls and multiplying in volume to a deafening cacophony that caused him to fall to his knees clutching the sides of his skull in agony. Tears streamed from his eyes blurring his vision as he watched Joel’s body continue to convulse. Ben waited for a nurse or a doctor to come rushing into the room, but the door remained still as he knelt there helpless. The alarm rose in pitch until it sounded like the keening of a banshee and Ben wanted to pierce his eardrums just to make it stop.
In the midst of this chaos Ben heard a voice.
I never thought that you’d return.
The words seemed to emanate from inside his head the way the strange sounds had.
All the others who left never came back, though only a few managed escape, most of them when I was young and still inexperienced with your kind.
The wailing of the alarm was gone now and Ben found himself enveloped in a darkness so total that it seemed to be a physical presence; his surroundings weren’t uncomfortable, but felt restrictive, like burying yourself in sand at the beach. There was a musty odor in the air mingled with the scent of organic decay and it was then that Ben realized that he was encased in soil somewhere much deeper than the cellar.
‘What are you?’ The thought skittered from Ben’s head at the same instant he wondered how he was able to breathe down here.
I’ve had many names given to me by many different peoples and cultures, but they are of little consequence. The river cares not what you call it, when it crests its banks and washes you away.
‘You’re what killed my parents.’
Death is an inevitability for your kind. I did nothing to hasten the process, in fact, it would be fair to say that I may have actually extended their longevity.
‘So you could continue to drain them the way you’re going to drain me.’
Their end was merciful compared to what yours will be.
‘You expect me to believe that you showed my parents mercy?’
Your opinions on the matter are irrelevant.
‘I don’t think they are, but I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.’
That’s what I find so odd about your kind.
‘That we believe in things?’
That you think your belief gives you control over your fate. It’s like watching a mouse scurrying this way and that trying to escape a snake when the whole thing was decided long before the rodent and serpent ever met.
‘Is that what you’re doing with me now? Playing with your food?’
It is regrettable that our time together is so brief, but I see no reason to make the entire encounter a mere formality. After all, there is much we could learn from one another. Would you like to know how your mother felt as I extracted the last remnants of her ability to form coherent thoughts? What about experiencing your father’s crushing loneliness and despair after your mother was gone, or the bitter disappointment he felt in you for abandoning him?
I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then, shall I? Very well, as you wish.
Ben felt the soil around him begin to shift; whatever force had been holding him in place was suddenly gone and the dirt began to press down on him from all directions. He quickly shut his eyes and tried to cover his mouth and nose, but his arms were pinned to his sides by the shifting earth. He choked and spluttered, coughing out mouthfuls of soil only to have more instantly rush in to replace it as he struggled for air.
I had hoped for more from you, the prodigal son returned home. It might have been quite interesting between us, but I suppose some things simply weren’t meant to be.
Ben rasped through a throatful of dirt wanting his last utterance to be spoken aloud, but the words wouldn’t come as he began slipping from consciousness and the best he could manage was the thought.
‘Go to hell.’
Oh my dear sweet boy, don’t you understand?
We’re already here.
The lights from above were so bright that even with his eyes closed Ben felt like he was staring into the sun.
“Ben? Ben honey, can you hear me?”
Ben tried to reply, but the only sound that came out was a dull gurgle and he was suddenly aware of a sharp pain in his throat.
“It’s okay; don’t try to speak. They had a tube in you to help you breathe and your probably still swollen.”
Ben opened his eyes a little at a time and when his vision finally adjusted he saw Joel standing over him. He tried to reach up and touch Joel’s face, but his limbs felt like they were filled with lead.
Joel rested his head against Ben’s arm. “When I found you next to me in the cellar you weren’t breathing. I called an ambulance and tried to do CPR, but the EMTs wound up having to shock your heart to revive you; it had been so long and they weren’t…weren’t sure that you’d ever wake up….”
This time Ben was able to reach the tips of his fingers onto Joel’s arm. Joel looked up into Ben’s eyes. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t believe you about that place.”
Tears began to roll down the side of Joel’s cheeks and Ben did his best to wipe them away. They held each other in silence for a long while until a nurse finally poked her head in to remind them that visiting hours were almost over.
“Well I guess I oughta let you get some rest so the staff doesn’t scold me for hindering your recovery. I’ll be back in the morning with some fresh clothes and maybe when you’re feeling up to it I can sneak in some real food so you don’t have to endure too many hospital meals.”
Ben gave Joel’s hand a squeeze and Joel kissed him on the forehead.
“I’ll see you soon…I love you…” Joel said and turned off the lights as he exited the room.
There was a small fixture mounted above the bed that gave off a pleasant amber glow and some additional illumination seeping in from the window on the far wall. The light outside was stark white and Ben wondered whether its icy luminescence was coming from the new LED bulbs that had replaced all the sodium-vapor lamp poles or an especially bright moon, though he supposed it was probably a bit of both.
Despite having only recently regained consciousness he felt utterly exhausted, but every time he closed his eyes sleep refused to come. Ben lay in bed counting the holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles and wishing that someone had given him the remote for the TV mounted on the wall, which was currently nothing more than a useless rectangle of black plastic to him.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and Ben turned his head toward the door. Something was obscuring the light that normally lined the bottom of the frame; he still felt far too weak to stand, but was able to sit himself up and lean forward to try and get a better look. There was a dark substance loosely strewn about near the base of the door and as he squinted to try and bring the image into better focus he heard a sound from behind him like sand sifting through the holes of a child’s plastic play shovel.
Ben turned back toward the window and saw black particulates floating down from the ceiling like ash escaping the flames of a bonfire.
He understood now what he was witnessing as the soil began to leach its way into the room from every crack, crevice, and opening slowly filling the space with ancient black earth.
The voice arose from inside his mind with a whispered familiarity that was almost comforting.
I’m so delighted that you’ve decided to stay.
We have such a great deal left to share with one another.
Peter first fell into fiction penning stories to amuse his grammar-school classmates, which helped him overcome his shyness, but resulted in very few completed homework assignments.
He is an avid fan of horror movies, especially those with a sense of humor, food served from carts and roadside shacks, and the music of The Ramones, The Replacements, and other bands of like-minded misfits who found a way to connect with the world through their music and their words.
He was raised and currently resides in the Chicagoland suburbs with his wife and cats and his writing has appeared in various publications including: The Delinquent, Crack the Spine, Apiary, Cemetery Moon, The Literary Hatchet, Graze, Ink Stains, Whatever Our Souls, Dodging The Rain, and the No Trace and Dark Lane anthologies.
You can visit him online at: http://ravenpen.wixsite.
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