A single tulip had struggled its way free of the weed-choked garden that spanned the front porch. Long strips of paint peeled from the siding and columns. Like most of the windows, the doorway held little more than the memory of screen. The door itself was a thick slab of oak; it’s finish ignoring the effects of weather and use. A glimpse inside revealed the carpets were fit only for the trash help, but here and there the hardwood floor beneath showed itself.
“It’s perfect,” Laurie said, running her hands over the splintering pain on the porch rail.
“You are insane,” her daughter responded.
“Can we paint it blue?” Junior asked, practically hopping in excitement as he starred up at the two story Victorian structure. The position of the windows and doors gave an impression of a face, and already he could picture it smiling beneath a coat of sky-blue paint.
Behind him, he saw his father directing the moving van into the long horseshoe driveway. The massive oak at the center of the curve was just begging for a tree house, and his hands were already itching with the desire to climb. His sister’s voice pulled him back from the distraction of the oak and he immediately began protesting the unfairness of it all.
“Sorry, Junior,” Ethan Sr. responded, ruffling his son’s ginger hair. “Your sister called dibs on the tower room.” He turned towards the house and signed. It would take weeks before the house was in a condition to even think about unpacking non-essentials. Laurie had assured him it was structurally sound and that all the repairs were cosmetic, but he still regretted walking away from the sleek, modern house on the cul-de-sac in town. It was a small price to pay to convince his wife to give up everything for his transfer and promotion. As he started to turn back to the moving truck, he thought he caught a glimpse of something moving in an upstairs window.
Sarah adjusted her telescope and smiled. The nearest house was almost a mile away, and there was no ambience from streetlamps to detract from the view. Technically, she was supposed to be unpacking her boxes into the newly repaired shelves, but she couldn’t resist taking time for her telescope. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of her brother peeking in, and sighed. “What do you want, Twerp?”
“My nightlight broke.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” she responded, trying to hide an evil smile. “It’s the best thing for keeping zombies away.”
Junior gulped and stepped up to the telescope. “Can I see?”
“Don’t touch it,” Sarah started to protest as Junior’s hand jarred the telescope. It now provided a view of the barn rather than of the big dipper. “Out of my room!”
“But I’m scared!”
“I did. He says I’m too big for a nightlight. What if there are ghosts?”
Sarah bit down on the automatic denial when she caught sight of the tears on her brother’s face. “Salt,” she said instead.
“Takes care of the ghosts. Ghosts are made of ectoplasm, and that’s slime. Remember what happened to those slimy slugs when they got salt on them?”
Junior though that over a moment and smiled. “Salt,” he said, and ran for the kitchen.
She chuckled, and turned back to her telescope. For a moment, she thought she saw something in the barn, but it was gone when she looked again.
“You said that a week ago!”
“I just haven’t had time.”
Junior sat on the stairs, listening to his parents argue in shushed voices. He could hear Mario barking outside on the tether where Junior had forgotten him earlier, but he didn’t want to risk upsetting his parent’s further by interrupting them.
“What the hell is that dog barking at?” he heard his father ask, and he gulped. The gig was up. He started to rise, and Mario cut off in mid bark. Silence, and Junior panicked, racing for the door and nearly knocking his father down. He ran to the oak tree. His parents followed as he frantically looked for the little Jack Russell. “Mario!” The unfastened collar lay in the driveway, still attached to the tether. Junior picked it up, starting at the open buckled. “The zombies ate my dog!” he wailed.
‘For Christ’s sake, Junior!” his father bellowed, slapping the collar out of Junior’s hands. “There are no such things as zombies. The dog just ran away. We’ll look for him tomorrow.” Junior choked back a sob and ran to his mother as his dad continued, “if you’d brought him inside like you were supposed to he wouldn’t be off getting eaten by coyotes or run over or…”
“Enough.” Laurie’s quiet voice cut through Ethan’s rant as Junior began sobbing in earnest. She turned and carried the crying boy into the house.
Ethan ran his hands through his hair and begin looking around and calling for the dog. He thought he heard something moving around in the barn, but there was no sign of Mario.
Laurie finished the final coat of varnish on the last of the kitchen cabinets and glanced over at her son. He was supposed to be attaching the hardware to the various cabinet doors, but instead he was fiddling with Mario’s collar again. Her husband had offered to get them a new dog when it became clear that Mario was well and truly gone, but Junior had not responded well to that offer. It had been three days since Junior had even spoken to his father. The long hours Ethan was working didn’t help the issue. He had bought Sarah an aquarium and been dubbed greatest father ever in her eyes, but the gulf was spreading between father and son.
Junior was still convinced a ghost or zombie had stolen the dog, causing his sister to complicate the whole matter by alternately mocking her brother and convincing him that a werewolf lived in the barn. The dog had obviously been stolen, and for that reason alone Laurie was already looking for another, larger dog. She just wasn’t sure how Junior would take the introduction of the puppy they were on the list to pick up next month.
She heard Sarah come down the stairs and prepared herself for yet another argument as to why her daughter’s life would come to an abrupt and horrific end if she didn’t get a computer. Something made a skittering sound in the wall, and Laurie made a mental note to pick up mousetraps on her next trip to the store.
Sarah carefully closed the lid on the jar and placed it in her backpack. The stash of canning supplies in the barn had provided a treasure trove of specimen collection and storage equipment. The jars in her pack contained the leaves and berries from several plants in the field behind the house. In the jars, the fruit wouldn’t smash, enabling her to take the samples home to identify at her leisure.
A chill went down her spine and she was once again struck with the irrational surety that she was being watched. Her father had visited the neighbors after Mario had disappeared and they had all denied knowledge of the dog’s fate. Sarah figured whichever set of creeps was lying probably also had binoculars. She raised her hand above her head and carefully extended her middle finger.
The slow rumbled of distant thunder drew her attention to the sky. Silver gray thunderclouds were moving slowly but implacably towards them. And it was getting late. Sighing, she closed the zipper on her pack and started back to the house. As she spotted an intricate spider web, she idly started to ponder how to guilt her father into buying her a camera.
In the back of her mind, the feeling of being watched remained.
Laurie hung up the phone as Sarah entered the house, shaking her wet hair link an unrepentant puppy. Laurie smiled. ‘Not sure you noticed, but it looks like a storm just might be coming. The police are advising against travel, so your father is going to crash at the office and then take the weekend off.”
Sarah grinned and took off her soaked jacket. “Call it a hunch, but the weatherman might have a point. It skipped drops and went straight to buckets just as I was coming round the barn.”
“Your brother came inside an hour ago. He’s nice and dry. Apparently, he looks up once in a while.”
Sarah rolled her eyes dramatically. “He’s still a doofus.”
Lightning abruptly traced across the sky and the two found themselves standing in a dark house. A couple moments later the thunder rolled past and the lights flickered once, then returned them to darkness.
“Well, I suppose this means cuddling up with a movie is out,” Sarah commented.
From upstairs, “MOM!” came from Ethan’s room.
“The flashlight is in your second drawer,” Laurie yelled up the stairs in response, then returned to the kitchen to grab candles from a drawer.
Sarah accepted a lighter and two candles and went into the living room. She put a candle on each end table, illuminating the room in a flickering, warm glow. She turned to head back into the kitchen, and the candlelight vanished. Sighing, she relit both, but again they were snuffed. “Mom, the candles won’t stay lit. I think there is a draft.”
Laurie appeared in the door and offered her the kerosene hurricane lantern. “Phone is out,” she said as the bobbing flashlight beam heralded Junior coming downstairs.
In the kitchen, the candles went out. Laurie sighed in frustration and what might have been a curse passed her lips in a whisper. Sarah ignited the wick on the lantern, using Junior’s flashlight for aid. Outside, the combination of storm and sunset rendered the areas the lantern light didn’t touch as absolute blackness. In the kitchen, Laurie relit a candle. The flame didn’t waver, and yet, less than a minute later the flame vanished as thoroughly as if Laurie had dipped the candle in water. Not even a glowing wick or puff of smoke to indicate the candle had ever been alight.
A cold, primal fear started at the base of Laurie’s spine as she lit the candle again. This time, the flame lasted less than five seconds. She tried again, and this time the flame vanished from the lighter itself. Slowly, Laurie grabbed her toolbox and backed into the living room. Junior held the flashlight, and for now, it seemed the kerosene lantern was unaffected.
Upstairs, a door slammed.
Junior crawled onto the couch, holding the flashlight tightly. Sarah sat next to him and shook her head. “It’s just a draft, silly,” her breath came out with a faint mist in the cold air. “See? It’s just the storm, and you probably left a window open.”
In the kitchen, the tap turned on.
‘Oh, yeah.” Junior drawled, burrowing further into the couch cushions. “Just a draft.” He grabbed the blanket folded on one arm of the couch and pulled it around him. “It’s not an open window, I nailed mine closed.” Sarah blinked.
A cupboard door opened, then slammed shut.
Laurie stepped forward and shut the door between the living room and the kitchen. With one hand, she held it shut while she grabbed a chair with the other hand. She finished wedging the chair beneath the door handle just before something hit the door from the other side. Sarah didn’t have time to protest before Laurie grabbed her and Junior and shoved them both behind the couch.
The door tried to open again.
Laurie reached into her toolbox and picked up her largest claw hammer. She positioned herself between the children and the door. Behind the couch, Sarah clutched Junior as he started to cry. She didn’t notice the tears on her own face.
The kerosene lantern went out.
Silence filled the house, broken only by the whimpers from Junior. Outside, even the storm seemed to have stilled. Laurie glanced back at the frightened children. Sarah was pale with shock, and Junior seemed to be trying to crawl under the couch.
The chair shattered under the force of the blow that threw open the door.
Something came through. The figure bore a passing resemblance to a gnarled old woman, one as tall as the door farm and made of a vaguely transparent white mist. It grimaced and opened its mouth to reveal broken, jaggedly sharp teeth. With a wail, it started to come towards them. Laurie swung the hammer with all her strength, but she could have been striking a waterfall for all the effect it had. The apparition swing it’s arm at Laurie, sending her flying back into the couch.
“Mom!” Sarah screamed.
Junior stood up and shouted a wordless war cry any six-year-old boy defending his mother would know by heart. He flung an open cardboard box at the apparition, and then ducked back behind the couch. The apparition reacted as though burned. It shuddered and thrashed, drawing into itself and crashing onto the floor. For several long seconds, it writhed and shrieked. Finally, it went still.
Laurie stood, wincing. She stared at the thing that was slowly dissolving into goo on the living room floor. Slowly, she turned towards Junior. He wore a victorious smile on his face and raised his hand triumphantly. When neither his mother nor his sister joined him in his victory cheer, he glanced at their confused faces.
“What did you do?” Laurie asked.
“I threw salt at it,” Ethan answered as though that explained everything. When neither responded, he pointed out, “it was Sarah’s idea!”
Laurie turned towards the stunned Sarah, and the two of them broke into relieved laughter.
© 2010, Within this mind. All rights reserved.