The pebble hit my window sometime around 12:45. I was wide awake, fully dressed for night-time operations, and prepared with a gym bag full of breakout tools. I had no clear idea of what breakout tools might have been, so I grabbed anything that I thought could be useful.
I had a couple of flashlights, a heavy-duty pair of bolt cutters, a hacksaw, a crowbar, matches, a throw blanket, and an extra set of clothes just in case she needed to get dressed on the run. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use any of them. As it turned out, I only used one thing, but I’ll get to that later. So. A pebble.
I leaned out the window and saw the entire crew standing in the shadows. Almost the entire crew. Jeff stood at the forefront in a balaclava and a turtleneck. He looked like a bank robber, complete with his own bag of tricks. The handle of a baseball bat protruded from the zipper.
Ashton and Ashley stood at his right, looking a bit like they were dressed for a Gothic dance recital, except for their masks. They just tied black t-shirts around their faces and peeked through the neck hole. It looked ridiculous. Makeshift dance-ninjas.
Khalil just wore a black t-shirt and gym shorts, no mask. He kept glancing around like he thought someone was watching, but he stood his ground. No jokes this time. I didn’t even see his eyes dancing in that way that let me know he had one locked and loaded.
Jill was conspicuously absent.
As quietly as I could, I climbed out of the window and down the tree. I could hear my parents go to bed hours ago. Both of them thought they had an early morning. Neither of them knew just how early they would be rising.
When I hit the ground I had to ask, “What about Jill? She’s not coming?”
“She’s the reason we’re all coming,” Khalil whispered, “Show him, Jeff.”
Jeff pulled something out of his back pocket. A folded sheet of notebook paper. He told me, “I found this taped to the outside of her window. She’s in trouble, Paul. Here.”
I took the letter from him and read the contents in the dim light of the street lamp. My stomach tried to lurch but there was nothing inside to shift. I couldn’t eat dinner that night, just played sick and went back up to my room. The letter read:
I’m in trouble. Bad trouble. I don’t have much time to write this. I bought some time by spilling a drink on my shirt. I told mom I had to get changed. I freaked up bad. I told her about Sadie, about last night. She hit the roof, screamed herself hoarse at me. Made me call the Carmichaels on speakerphone. Mr. C had that strange stilted voice just like Khalil said. Said he wanted me and mom to come over to talk after dark. After dark! She’s making me go. Don’t know what’s going to happen. If anyone finds this note, help.
The letter was simply signed, -Jill.
I stuffed the letter into my pocket and said, “Come on. We’ve wasted too much time already.”
Even in our dark clothes I felt terribly exposed crossing from my yard to Sadie’s. Suburbia was no place for stealth missions, and with a careless glance out the window by anyone the jig would quickly be up. The lateness of the hour was our greatest advantage and greatest weakness. Once the trouble began, there would be no one to help us. We had to play it smart.
In the shade of Sadie’s tree, I motioned everyone to gather for a change of plans. Judging by the wide eyes shining in the moonlight and the shallow, rapid breaths my friends were taking, everyone was at least as keyed up as I was.
“Listen,” I whispered, “We can’t all go in there. There’s too many of us, too much risk of getting separated. Someone should stay behind as a lookout, and someone should cover the door. Agreed?”
“I’m going in there,” Jeff said, “No matter what. But maybe you’re right. So who stays and who goes?”
Ashton and Ashley clasped hands, and in unison, they whispered, “We’ll stay, together.”
I nodded. I knew they would volunteer, and I was glad to be right. I had no desire to put Ashley in danger, and Ashton was smaller than she was, if only a little.
“I’m going in,” Khalil volunteered, “I’m the biggest one here. If it gets ugly and someone’s gotta fight off Mr. C, I can do it.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Khalil may have been big, but I’ve never seen him get into a fight. Any time he got close, he defused the situation with a joke and wound up making friends with his would-be opponent. Something told me Mr. Carmichael would not be tranquilized with a quick quip. Still, I didn’t argue with him. He was willing to put himself at one hell of a risk for his friends, and that meant a lot to me.
“I’m in too. Let’s make this quick,” I said, already reaching for a tree branch.
Jeff stopped me with a hand on my shoulder, and said, “You stay too, Paul.”
I tried to protest, but he held up a hand to stop me and said, “You’re the backup, just in case shit goes downhill in a bad way. Ten minutes. If we’re not out of here with Sadie and Jill in ten minutes, come in after us. Otherwise, be ready to run. All right?”
I wanted to argue, but it was no good. He was right. I might not have been as big as Khalil, but I was sneaky, I was fast, and in a pinch, I had my bag of tricks. Also, I was scared out of my wits, if I’m being totally honest. In light of all that had happened in the last few weeks, the inside of the Carmichael house was a huge and terrifying X-Factor.
So instead of arguing, I nodded, and whispered, “Okay. Ten minutes. Jeff, Khalil, stay out of sight. Find Jill, find Sadie. Grab Sadie, kicking and screaming if necessary, and get the hell out of there. We’ve all been in that house a million times, you know the quickest way out. If you run into any trouble, any trouble at all, scream your fucking heads off, okay?”
Jeff drew the bat from his own bag of tricks and whispered, “If we run into any trouble, they’ll be the ones screaming, courtesy of Mr. Slugger here.”
But I could see the falseness of the bravado in his eyes and in the slight quaver I detected in his voice.
Without another word he scrambled up the tree to Sadie’s bedroom, and Khalil followed quickly behind him. I realized then that surely her window would be locked and that point of ingress would be closed to us unless Jeff was willing to break a window and possibly alert the entire household. I began to consider other points of entry as the two of them crawled onto the roof and out of my line of sight.
My concerns were ill-founded, it seems. I could hear the soft sound of the window sliding up, and a hand extended over the edge of the roof, making an A-OK sign. The hand disappeared again and they were gone. I checked my watch with its glowing dial and immediately began to count the minutes down.
Under the tree, the three of us crouched in the dirt and waited, silently, for something terrible to happen. A minute passed. Two minutes passed. I couldn’t breathe.
“Is any of this real?” Ashley whispered. I could tell by the ragged edge of her voice that she was crying. “This doesn’t feel real. A month ago this was a boring neighborhood in a boring town and everything felt real. This feels like… like…”
“It feels like a nightmare,” Ashton finished.
“Did she really eat Figgy?” Ashley asked, “Was she really running around… naked?”
“Jill said she did,” I said, simply, “If she said Sadie did those things, I believe her. She wouldn’t make that up. I haven’t seen Buck around either.”
“I haven’t seen any of the neighborhood pets around lately, have you?” Ashton asked, “Remember at the barbecue? There was like, six or seven dogs running around, at least. When was the last time you heard a dog bark?”
I couldn’t remember. I wasn’t thinking about it. Unless your neighbor’s dog has been barking all day long, you don’t think much about the sound after a while.
“I-” I started, not sure what I was going to say. I thought I heard a sound from inside the house, and my heart jumped into my throat.
Four minutes, twenty seconds. I didn’t think I could wait ten whole minutes to run in after them. My mind raced with a thousand terrible possibilities of what might be going on in that house. If they screamed, would we hear?
“Paul?” Ashton whispered.
“Yeah?” I answered.
“This isn’t just abuse, is it? It’s something worse. Sadie disappeared out of thin air. She was gone. Jeff said something else was in the closet with them that night. What if Sadie didn’t come back? What if it just looked like Sadie?”
“What if it was something else?” Ashley asked.
I didn’t answer. There was no answer.
Six minutes. I had to consciously will my feet to stay planted there in the dirt. It was maddening to stay there, asking rhetorical questions and knowing nothing. They say no news is good news, right? Wrong. Whoever ‘they’ are, ‘they’ are assholes. No news is torture. But I promised, ten minutes.
I almost lasted eight.
When I could wait no longer, I rose to my feet and grabbed my gear bag. Ashley and Ashton looked up at me, looking in that moment more like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods than they did the sinister Children of the Corn.
“It’s time,” I lied. “Go wait by the front door and be ready to move. If you don’t see us all come running out in the next few minutes, haul ass back home and call the police. If you hear a scream, run home, call the police. Okay?”
Ashton and Ashley stood up immediately.
“Be careful,” They said.
I nodded and scrambled up the tree. They were already rounding the corner of the house by the time I hauled myself onto the roof. The window to Sadie’s room was a yawning portal into total darkness. To climb through into whatever mysteries were held within was unimaginable, so I climbed through before I could stop to think about it.
A charnel house stench pervaded the space where so recently I took the odor of lavender for granted. I smelled rot, blood, and filth mingling in the air among the buzzing of flies. I suppressed the urge to gag for fear that the sound would alert the things that once were the Carmichaels.
The room, so far as I could tell in the dim light of the moon, was utterly trashed, nearly unrecognizable. It looked like an angry bull had been set loose in the room, bucking and butting at everything in its path. Sadie’s vanity and dresser appeared to have been flung across the room and crushed. Her bedding was ripped to shreds and streaked with some dark, reeking matter.
The closet, I noticed, stood open. That rectangle of a darker blackness in the gloom-filled me with unspeakable dread. In some way I would never fully understand, something in there was the source of a horror that fell over our cul-de-sac and altered our lives forever. That something had been there from the beginning, waiting for the right moment. Sadie told us so. She thought it was a ghost lurking in the walls. How could she have known how much worse it could be? How could she know she would lose herself?
What was this bloodthirsty, feral beast Jill saw hunting naked in the moonlight? How could she become a thing like that? Could she still be saved?
The answer wasn’t here in her bedroom, I knew that. I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer. I had to venture into the halls, had to search for my lost friends. What I would do if the Carmichaels found me first, I had no idea. I held no illusions that the encounter would be a friendly one.
As slowly and quietly as I could manage, I opened Sadie’s door. When I found myself under no immediate attack, I dared to poke my head through the gap. The hallway was lit only by the few doors that stood open, pillars of dim light provided by the curtained windows. I reached into my bag for the flashlight, only to realize I didn’t dare use it. I would be shining a beacon to lead them to me.
My only answer was to crawl low against the wall and try to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The trouble with that was the risk of finding something that had already adjusted before I could. The other trouble was, now that I was here, I had no idea of where to look. I guess if I had any expectations of what would happen when I entered the house, it was to follow the sounds of a struggle and run toward it.
Apart from the ever-present buzzing of the flies, the house was completely silent. I hoped that was good news. It could have meant that Khalil and Jeff were never discovered and that they too were still in the house somewhere stealthily searching for Jill and Sadie. I tried to hope that was good news, but the silence brought no such comfort. The silence was the sound of doom.
I had to get moving. The house was huge. My friends and the Carmichaels could be anywhere within. If they already managed to save Jill and Sadie, would I even know? I needed to find them fast, I needed to be planning ahead for our escape.
A gut feeling told me the living room and foyer were the greatest danger zones. If the front door was unguarded we could simply dash through to the outside. It wouldn’t be that easy. The basement had a storm door that led outside too, but we would have to pass through the entire house again to reach it. The back door led to the fenced-in yard. I knew from experience that Mr. Carmichael left the gate padlocked at night. We might be able to scramble over the fence, but only if no one was injured. If we were being chased the attempt would cost us precious seconds.
I grimaced in the darkness. A conflict seemed inevitable. If we were all together again I would feel better about my chances. I had to find Khalil and Jeff. Why was it so dark? Who turned out all the lights?
Enough with the hypothetical questions, I thought, I’ve got to get moving.
I crawled instinctively toward the first pillar of light, the first open door. It was a guest bedroom. The top floor had four bedrooms, including the master bedroom with its adjoining bathroom, Sadie’s room, Eliza’s room at the end of the hall, and this one. I slept there once when my parents were out of town. Mr. Carmichael sometimes slept in the downstairs bedroom when he and Mrs. Carmichael were fighting. Sadie told me so at some point.
The stench was worse in the guest bedroom, fresh, raw, and wet. The buzzing of flies was so loud there it was like television static. I should have left, but something drew me inside. Curiosity maybe, and never mind what it did to the cat. I crawled through the doorway, measuring every movement with the care of a bomb disposal technician. I noticed the carpet was tacky wet as if something had spilled there and no one tried to clean it up.
I could see the spill had originated on the bed, something was once was bound there with ropes that now hung limply from the head and footboard. Something that fascinated the swarms of flies. I tried to swallow, but my throat had closed to a pinhole. Have you ever tried to rise while every instinct you had screamed at you to stay on the floor? I felt like Gulliver when he was tied to the ground by the Lilliputians. When I finally found my feet I beheld a gruesome sight.
Something had died on that bed, died terribly. The sheets and mattress were so saturated with blood that it pooled on the surface like stagnant ponds in some hellish landscape. Bits of torn flesh and gnawed splinters of bone were all that remained of what was once a living thing. My frantic mind tried to dance around the truth and failed. The living thing must have been a human being. The ropes were spread too far apart for it to have been anything else short of a gigantic dog. And there was no fur.
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered, “What have they done?”
“Who’s there?!” A voice hissed from somewhere in the room. Panic flared in my chest so brightly that I thought for an instant I was having a heart attack. It was a miracle that I was too choked up to scream. The sound came from behind a heavy wardrobe. There was a closet there, I remembered.
“Jill?” I whispered, realizing I recognized the voice once my heart stopped pounding quite so hard. “Is that you?”
“Paul?” she whispered back. “Oh thank god! Quick, let me out of here before they come back.”
“Yeah, hold on,” I whispered.
Feeling terribly exposed with the light from the window and the open door at my back, I pushed the wardrobe aside just enough for a skinny girl to be able to slip through the gap. Jill squirmed through and we both ducked down behind the bed.
“Did you see them?” She asked me.
“Not yet,” I answered.
“They’re not human. They’ve changed. Sadie too. They stuffed me in the closet and made me listen when they… when they… We need to leave, now.”
“We can’t. Khalil and Jeff are in here somewhere.”
“Frick!” Jill hissed. “Those things must have seen them. That’s why they ran out of here in such a hurry.”
“Which way did they go?” I asked.
“They went downstairs, I think,” She whispered, “I could hear their footsteps thumping on the staircase. I could hear something else thumping down the stairs too. Something… heavy.”
Her eyes darted to the bed and I knew at once what she meant.
“We’ve gotta go after them,” I said, taking her hand. It was slick with sweat, just like my own.
“Yeah,” She said, rising to follow me, “but what are we going to do when we find them?”
“I don’t know,” I told her, thinking for some reason that honesty was still the best policy in this situation, “I’m kind of hoping I’ll think of something by then.”
“Frick,” she whispered, but she didn’t let go of my hand either. She didn’t run for Sadie’s window. Like myself, she was too concerned about the safety of her friends to give in to fear. Unlike myself, she saw what they had become and witnessed the grisly death of her own mother. Her courage was not tempered by ignorance like mine was.
I’ll never forget about that.
Jill and I crept down that pitch-black and seemingly endless hallway pressed against the wall as if an endless precipice yawned through the center in place of the once-plush carpeting. In the pillars of light projected from the doorways, we could see that the carpet was saturated with reeking filth. Debris littered a home that was once kept immaculate by a team of maids, hired twice a month by Mr. Carmichael to scrub the place from top to bottom. It now looked more like the den of a rabid bear than the home of a well-to-do suburban family. I could feel deep gouges in the walls that reinforced that image. What else could have done that if not a wild animal?
I wondered at the devolution, the decadence in the truest sense of the word that befell my friend’s family. What could have happened to them? To Sadie? Where did she go when she disappeared? How could all this have happened in the space of a few days? When we found her in the closet everything else seemed normal.
There was no sense or reason to any of this. As terrified as I was, I was perhaps equally sorrowful. How could our lives return to any sense of normality after tonight? How could I look out my window and see this house and ever know peace? It seemed impossible.
At the end of the hall was a sunroom where we used to play as kids. Beyond that was the landing. Once, when I was about five I wandered out of the sunroom, climbed over the baby gate, and fell down the stairs. I wasn’t badly hurt but I was frightened and bawled my head off. After that, the sunroom was converted into its current purpose by Mrs. Carmichael. She raised a miniature garden of potted plants there and doted on them with as much or perhaps even more care than she devoted to her own children.
The curtains were all drawn now, just as they were in the rest of the house. Whatever had become of the Carmichaels, they had the presence of mind to hide their activities from the outside world. Or, I supposed, they simply grew to shun the light like vampires and other unholy things. I wasn’t sure.
The plants had all been upended from their pots, torn to bits and strewn about the floor of the sunroom. I could only just see them in the gloom and took great care to avoid stepping on anything that could make a sound. I could tell Jill was doing the same. She still held my hand, but I could feel her jerking away as she dodged all the detritus.
She pulled ahead slightly and released my hand when I paused to adjust my bag. It was digging into my shoulder and growing uncomfortable, but I refused to leave it behind. I still harbored some hope that the contents would help us along the way. My eyes were finally starting to adjust to the inky blackness of the house. I could just make her out ahead of me, creeping toward a door I perceived as a narrow darker strip in the surrounding darkness. It must have been merely ajar, and not standing wide open.
Jill paused at the doorway, daring only to open the door wide enough that we could pass, and peered through. I saw her go rigid. She turned to me as I stepped closer, only a couple of paces behind. Her eyes were as wide as coasters, and she rose a single finger to her lips. Quiet, She mouthed. When I reached the door she stepped aside so I could see what was the matter.
Above the landing, a pair of skylights allowed a meager illumination. It was just enough to allow me to see her, standing perfectly still just at the top of the stairs. It must have been Eliza, I could tell that from her size and build. She was only slightly more defined than a solid shadow from the distance from which I watched her. She appeared to be nude, or nearly so. Something seemed to be hanging from her back, like a ragged cloak. The remains of her blouse, perhaps? I could smell her, a wild animal reek of sweat, blood, and shit.
As I stood there wondering what we could do, she cocked her head back and sniffed at the air. I could hear the sharp inhalations. She began to turn and I could see the greenish gleam of her eyes shining in the darkness like a coyote’s. I ducked behind the door before those strange eyes could be trained on me.
“Who. Is. There?” She said. It sounded more like an animal’s cry than human speech, except I could still hear a glimmer of Eliza’s voice under the harsh tones.
I glanced over at Jill, still wide eyes and flared nostrils. She pressed herself against the wall so hard I thought she was trying to slip through. In this strange house, I guess it wasn’t impossible. Out in the landing, I could hear slow footsteps approaching and that awful bloodhound snuffling.
Run! I mouthed to Jill. She just shook her head. She didn’t seem to be able to will her limbs into moving. Neither could I, for that matter. I reached into my bag, hoping something therein could be used as a weapon. If only I could have gotten my dad’s gun!
My hand closed over something cold and metallic. Hexagonal. The crowbar? It would have to do. Maybe I could buy enough time for Jill to make a run for it. Slowly as I could manage, for fear of triggering the Eliza-thing into action by making a sound, I drew the crowbar out of the bag. Her hand wrapped around the edge of the door. Her grimy fingers were tipped in thick, sharp, grotesquely long nails like talons. I held my breath.
From somewhere below us a terrible, ululating screech tore through the silence of the house like an air-raid siren. I couldn’t tell if it was a cry of fear or of rage, but whatever it was, the Eliza-thing found it more interesting than us. She stomped away and down the stairs making some kind of glottal noise in her throat. Simultaneously Jill and I released a ragged sigh of relief. The relief was only temporary, of course.
Jill said it before I could, “We have to follow her.”
“Let’s go,” I said, gripping the tire iron in my left hand. What good would it be against four of those things? Best not to think about it.
Abandoning caution, Jill and I dashed through the door before rational thought could freeze our legs in place. If our friends were down there, they did not have much time. The Eliza-thing was already out of sight, we the quarry forgotten.
At the bottom of the stairs I held Jill back and we stopped to listen. The silence of the house was broken, perhaps for good. Now we could hear the sounds of crashing, screams, and animalistic cries rang out from every which way. The ground floor was darker than upstairs if such a thing was possible. Jill and I knew the house well, but not well enough to chase those things blindly.
“Here, hold this for a second,” I told Jill, thrusting the crowbar into her hands. She took the bar from me silently, breathing hard.
I reached into the bag and fished out the two flashlights. At least I knew the batteries were good. They came new from the pack in the junk drawer. No horror movie cliché of the flickering flashlights for us.
In the flashlight’s beam, I saw Jill clearly for the first time since we parted ways at school this afternoon, hundreds of years ago. Her eyeliner streaked down her face in runners of dried tears and her chin-length hair ran wild. Her expression was one of fierce determination. She looked nothing like a quiet middle school student and all the world like a Valkyrie of Nordic legend. She held the crowbar in a white-knuckle grip like she was itching to use it on someone.
A thunderous crash reverberated through the house, sounding closer than ever. I forgot all about trading the crowbar for my extra flashlight.
“Let’s go,” Jill hissed through clenched teeth.
“Yeah,” I said, wishing I felt as eager to catch up with those fiends as she seemed to be.
We dashed off in the direction of the crash, though halls that lost all familiarity and grew somehow labyrinthine with my growing panic. Behind every closed door and blind corner, I expected a blood-crazed horror to spring forth and seize the two of us in its terrible claws. Still, we saw nothing, or nothing living at least.
We could hear them, grunting, screeching, and making some awful coughing sound I thought to be some species of laughter. Jeff and Khalil were running for their lives, and these things were making a sport of it. My only comfort in this breathless chase was the glimmer of hope that my friends were still alive. For now.
Jill and I burst through another door and immediately we were assailed, not by the Carmichaels but by a stench so unbelievably foul I had to reevaluate my definition of foulness on the spot. We found the kitchen. Finally, I retched, vomiting hot bile from an empty stomach. From just behind me I could hear Jill doing the same.
The least of the problem seemed to be the refrigerator. It stood open, the motor long since burned out. The food that remained within had putrefied and was busy with flies and maggots. What could be seen had moldered beyond recognition. Some blackish slime seeped onto the floor in a viscous puddle.
The worst of it was spread out over the dining room table, the countertops, and littered the floor in festering mounds. We would have to step through it to cross into the next room. Carcasses, and pieces of carcasses. Every pet in the neighborhood must have been present. Most of them had been eaten, guts and all. Bones, ragged pelts, and spilled blood were all that remained. Some of them had apparently been left for later consumption but had grown rancid and bloated in the lingering heat of summer.
My Buck was one of these. I saw him last, sprawled out by the microwave. Those monsters tore his throat out, and his final terror was frozen in his face.
“Buck,” I whispered, tears stinging my eyes, “Bucky, oh damn it, what have they done to you, Buck?”
I turned back to Jill, perhaps seeking comfort and found her frozen by grief far greater than my own. It was her mother, stripped naked, murdered, and tossed carelessly into the corner of the kitchen.
She had been bitten to death. All over her body were the sort of awful, ragged wounds that could only have been caused by many sets of teeth, and deep crescent-shaped gouges that must have been created by fingernails. What remained of her face was contorted in a rictus of agony. Her skin was torn at the wrists and ankles from her final struggles. Coagulating blood seeped from the countless wounds.
I held onto Jill, tears running down my face and, as a small blessing, blurring my vision. I had no words, nothing to comfort my friend. Her mother was one of the kindest, most loving people I had ever known. She didn’t deserve this.
“They made me listen,” Jill said, “They locked me in that closet and made me listen while they tore her apart. They made me listen while they ate her alive! I had to listen to her scream and I couldn’t help her!”
Tears flowed from her eyes freely, and though her expression was one of unfathomable grief, below the surface and in her voice was a stronger emotion still: Rage.
“We’ve got to go, Paul,” She insisted, grabbing the spare flashlight that hung out of my hip pocket. “We can’t let those things do this to Khalil and Jeff.”
“I-uh-I-” I stammered, swallowing hard. My mouth tasted sour, bitter. “Fuck! Come on then, let’s go get them and get the fuck out of here.”
The next sound seemed to come from the way we came, sparing us from trudging through the waste any further. We spun on our heels and dashed back through the door, slamming it shut behind us. Jill took the lead this time, her flashlight swiping left to right in search of some sign of our destination.
We found the foyer next, and I noticed to my dismay that the door had been nailed shut with heavy boards. We would not be leaving this way. I cursed under my breath, knowing that the back door and the storm doors would likely be sealed shut as well. Trapped. We were trapped in here.
Jill was already crossing into the living room and I dashed after her for fear of being left behind. There we were presented with three options. Two more halls and the staircase that doglegged off the hall to the left.
“Which way?” I asked.
“Shhh!” she answered, “Listen.”
I listened, but only for the briefest moment. That was when something stumbled through the hallway and fell at our feet, screaming and clawing at our pant legs. I shrieked and kicked at the thing until Jill illuminated the creature with her flashlight. It was no creature at all, it was Khalil. He was bruised, bloodied, terrified, and- still alive.
“Khalil!” I cried, pulling him to his feet. “Thank Christ, you’re alive!”
Jill bear-hugged the hyperventilating Khalil and kissed him on the cheek. Khalil pulled away.
“We’ve got to get out of here, guys!” He cried, his eyes darting every which way.
“Wait!” Jill demanded, “Where’s Jeff?”
“They grabbed him,” Khalil said, tears running down his face, “They grabbed hold of him and… and I just- I just ran! He screamed and screamed and I… I didn’t help him. Fuck, man, I just ran! God damn!”
“We can’t just leave him!” Jill cried, “He might still be alive. We can still save him!”
“He. Lives-but. You. Can’t. Savim,” Barked an awful voice from behind us.
I whipped around and shone my flashlight on the source of that strange voice. I shone my light on Sadie. What once was Sadie.
I looked upon that twisted thing that Sadie had become and I realized something for the first time in my young life. Until that moment I had harbored a secret hope that Sadie and her family could be saved. I still held to that fairy tale belief that the spell might be broken and everything would go back to normal. I realized at that moment that things didn’t always turn out okay. Sometimes things ended as badly as they possibly could. Sometimes darkness won the day.
The thing that stood in the archway held only a superficial resemblance to the sweet, pretty girl Sadie used to be. Her body had become a pale fun house distortion, too long of torso and limb, her posture crooked and stooped. Those breasts the schoolboys coveted hung withered and wrinkled on her emaciated chest. Swishing left and right behind her was a strange, fleshy tail. From her back fluttered bizarre diaphanous wings like those of a wasp. Her too-long fingers ended in filthy yellowed hooks and her feet came to resemble the cloven hooves of a pig. Her legs were streaked with blood and shit.
The worst of the changes were in her face. Her ears grew long and pointed and her hair fell out in clumps. Her eyes shone like Halloween lamps, green and eldritch. Not a glimmer of humanity remained in those luminous orbs. Her nose receded into gaping wet slits like the nose of a bat. Her Teeth grew jagged, brown, and far too large for her jaws. It looked like the mouth of those ghastly deep-sea fish with the glowing lure hanging from their foreheads. Gore clung between those teeth and saliva ran freely from her shredded lips.
“God…” I gasped, “Sadie, what have you become?”
A voice from the other hall answered. “Be. Coming. Soon.”
It was Mrs. Carmichael. She held a butcher knife in a clawed hand. The Eliza-thing stood by her side, grinning a needle-toothed grin.
“Need food. Food. Meat. Eat. The-ch. Ange. Needs.” A third voice, standing at the stairs.
It was Mr. Carmichael, or it was. He held Jeff by the back of his turtleneck sweater. Jeff appeared to be breathing but was unconscious. He stepped closer to us. Sadie, Eliza, and Mrs. Carmichael all did the same. We were surrounded. We were going to die.
“Let us go!” Khalil cried.
“Can’t. Won’t.” The Mr. Carmichael-thing grunted. His transformation did not seem as advanced as Sadie’s but his face had the empty, savage dullness of a feral animal.
“Lured. Here.” The Eliza-thing tittered, “Lik-cows. Cattle. T’gether. Enough. To-become. Soon-ow”
“No-scape.” The Mrs. Carmichael-thing growled. She raised the meat cleaver, now only a few steps away.
I was frozen there, useless. All of my childish plans for a daring rescue came to this single moment, and I choked. We were going to die, and we would die in the most grisly way imaginable. One by one they would rip us apart with their jagged maws to feed some bizarre metamorphosis. I could do nothing. Nothing.
Someone pushed me to the ground and split the air with a wild cry of fury. It was Jill. Six sets of eyes locked upon that thirteen-year-old, a five-foot-two eighty-pound hellcat holding a crowbar aloft.
She charged at Mr. Carmichael screaming what might have been her first swear word, “LET HIM GO, MOTHERFUCKER!”
She swung the crowbar with all her might, hard enough that I could hear it cut the air. With superhuman reflexes, the Mr. Carmichael-thing caught the cast-iron crowbar in mid-swing-
And he promptly burst into flames. The flame flared at his hand and spread wild-fire down his arm and beyond, until the thing that once was a man was engulfed entirely. It released Jeff and flailed away, emitting an unearthly scream. The other fiends stood dumbfounded around us, if only for a moment.
Jill, our savior, would not allow them the moment to recover. She still held the crowbar and charged the others, swinging wildly and landing glancing blows that flared like shooting stars in the darkness.
“GETITWAY!” The Sadie-thing bellowed, even as the flames began to spread across her shoulders and engulf her grotesque vestigial wings.
They scattered, leaving behind them snaking trails of fire in the carpet and the drapes. Khalil and I were frozen still in shock, Jeff only beginning to come to.
Jill was still vibrant and alive, more so than I ever saw her. Energy seemed to radiate from her in waves, like a miniature sun.
“Let’s go!” She cried, waving us along as the flames began to spread and the smoke billowed. Khalil and I followed, pulling Jeff to his feet and half-dragging him up the stairs after Jill. Sadie’s window was still the best way out. One by one we crawled through that portal, choking on smoke, one last time. Ashley and Ashton had already fled, having followed my instructions to leave and call the cops.
By the time the police and the firemen arrived, the flames had engulfed the entire house. They managed to extinguish the blaze before it spread to the other homes, but the Carmichael house burned to the ground. Thank God, there were no survivors.
The final cause of the blaze was officially determined to be an electrical malfunction. Unofficially, the investigators were baffled. There did not seem to be any obvious source or rational explanation for the fire. A couple of times I heard the phrase ‘spontaneous human combustion’ bandied about. Unofficially.
I know the investigators found the remains of all those partially-consumed animals in the rubble, along with the charred corpse of Jill’s mother. I know they found evidence of cannibalism in the autopsy. I know that the blackened skeletons of the Carmichael family were found to be strangely deformed, even apparently possessing extra bones. The adults never grasped the enormity of what had transpired, but they knew enough to want the truth safely suppressed.
I know none of those things made it into a police report. Money changed hands. Lots of money. Mr. Watkins was a lawyer and the executor of the Carmichael estate. Mrs. Valentine was a notary public. Forgeries were made. The police station was renovated and the fire department got that new fire truck they were hankering for. As far as the media knew, it was a tragic but essentially mundane house fire.
No one talked about what happened that awful night in the late summer. Eventually, I stopped trying to bring it up. The Carmichael lot stayed empty for at least as long as any of us lived there. A few interested parties came to inquire about the lot, but they were firmly discouraged.
One by one, we all began to drift away. Jill and her father were the first to go. He had a job opportunity in Silicon Valley and he was glad to leave the tragedy and the mystery of his wife’s death behind. The Valentines were next, followed shortly thereafter by the Watkins family. My parents sold our house two months after I went away to college. I haven’t been back there since.
For ages, I searched for some kind of rational explanation for what happened that night. I scoured the libraries and later the internet for some precedent, anything that could give me some manner of closure. Eventually, I found something. Indulge me for a moment, as I relate to this old fable:
Once upon a time, a baby was born to a loving couple. That baby was perhaps the most beautiful baby ever born, and the couple loved her dearly. They were, for a brief time, desperately happy.
The love and devotion this man and woman showered upon their progeny attracted the attention of the Fae, magical creatures of the wilderness. They conspired to replace the baby with one of their own, to be raised by the couple in the child’s stead. The couple suspected nothing and raised the impostor as their own.
In time, however, the child grew strange, savage, and deformed. It tormented the couple to their wit’s end, but they tried to love the child all the same. For their pains, the pretender only bedeviled them further.
One day a traveling blacksmith happened by their humble cottage and, seeing the horrid child, knew it at once for what it was. He told the married couple their child was a changeling, one of the faerie folk, and he knew how to prove it. He pulled from his tool belt an iron sledge. The child was cowed at once, but the blacksmith was not satisfied.
He pressed the iron head of the hammer against the child’s forehead, where it burned as if red hot. The changeling fled for the land of Faerie, for the strange folk held a peculiar aversion to iron and feared it above all else. The next day the couple’s true daughter was returned to them and they all lived happily ever after.
Stories just like that could be found all over Europe in the olden days. From what I read, the accepted explanation for this phenomenon was simple ignorance. They had no scientific explanation for deformities, mental illnesses, and birth defects, and attached to them a supernatural rationale. Here, with hundreds of years of learning on our side, it’s easy to dismiss the ideas of changelings and Fae.
For most people, it would be easy to dismiss. Most people did not have a door to the Faerie in their closets, and did not know anyone who did. And that’s for the best. The doorway we found in my friend’s closet that night robbed us forever of friends, family, and the ability to believe in a sane and structured world.
Twenty-six years have passed, and the nightmares have never left me. Again and again, I dream of wandering alone through those dark, hot, reeking hallways knowing something terrible is coming. I’ve lost count of the times I found myself awake in the middle of the night, soaked in a cold sweat. Some nights I swear I can hear whispers in the walls, but it must be my imagination. It must be.
I haven’t opened my closet in weeks.