The House on Simcoe Road

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


To evade a group of bullies, a boy takes refuge in an old house with three kind women...who turn out to be far more than they appear...


The House on Simcoe Road

When Ethan saw the gang gathered at the foot of the hill, he knew there was going to be trouble. He caught sight of them the moment he rounded the old maple tree, emerging from the shade of the wooded road. The sun was beating on the gravel and haze rippled across the road like a cheap film dissolve, distorting the path.

Dean was at the head of the crew, as usual. Rhys, Ivan, Todd, and Collie were with him. They stood around the gate that opened onto the front lawn of the old McNealy house. The old house stood alone and remote at the centre of a field of overgrown grass so tall you could disappear into it. Ethan hated walking past the place; he always felt like the windows were watching him.

Dean and his crew broke off whatever game they’d been playing when they saw Ethan coming down the hill. The little boy contemplated his options. He could turn around, run back to the school, but Rhys and Ivan were on the track team and would catch him in no time. He could break left, go through the rose bushes; he doubted the gang would follow him in there, but he’d be cut to pieces in the process. Or…or he could jump the low stone wall enclosing the McNealy property and run across the lawn. Dean definitely wouldn’t follow him through there.

I’m not going that way, he thought. One look at the huge, foreboding house was enough to convince him of that.

“Don’t be silly,” he remembered Ms. Collins saying just last week, after Ethan had asked her about the rumours. “The things people say about the McNealy ladies is all rubbish. George McNealy died of cancer, and that’s that. I know them all; they’re the nicest, kindest women you could ever hope to meet.”

Ethan acknowledged that Ms. Collins could very well be telling the truth, but to a youngling like Ethan, a child’s fiction held far more sway than a grown-up’s fact.

“Stand up to these bozos,” Ethan’s father had said when Ethan had told him about how he’d been tormented by Dean and his thugs. “If you stand up to them, they’ll think twice about bugging you. A bully’s only as strong as you make him.”

Well, his dad was never wrong, and all his other options sucked, so Ethan trudged right on, toward the lion’s mouth.

“Hey, snitch!” Dean called.

Ethan kept his head down and his eyes square ahead and tried to push right through them, but Rhys blocked his way. “Someone’s talking to you, retard,” the lanky redhead snarled.

A shadow appeared behind Ethan. “Where you goin’, huh? Where you goin’?”

Ethan didn’t respond, so Dean grabbed him by his backpack and spun him around.

“Think you’re smart, huh? Teacher’s pet? You want to get into Ms. Kinsley’s pants, is that it?”

Ethan had heard that expression before and knew it meant something dirty, and though he wasn’t exactly sure how it translated, he spent day after day denying the accusation all the same.

“Spend all day thinking about kissing her?” Ivan giggled. His giggles always sounded like the croaking of an epileptic frog.

“Didn’t mom and dad tell you it’s not nice to snitch?”

“Just let me go.” Ethan had intended it to sound tough, but it came out with as much force as the squeak of a dying mouse. He tried shouldering his way through the circle. The crew surged together and spun him back to face their leader.

“I’m not done talking,” said Dean. “Are you retarded and deaf?” He asked it as though he were earnestly inquiring after Ethan’s health following a bout of fever.

“Just let me go!” Ethan shouted.

“‘Just let me go!’” Dean mocked in a nasally tone (he’s not even trying to sound like me, Ethan thought in the back of his head). He nodded to whoever was behind Ethan and that someone tore his backpack off of him. Something gave in his left shoulder in the process as the strap was pulled away and a searing lance of pain shot across his shoulder blade.

Ethan cried out. The bullies cackled.

Todd had the bag. Ethan tried to grab it with is uninjured arm, but Todd just threw it to Collie. Ethan was one of the shortest people in his class, and Dean and his gang were five of the tallest. It was an effortless thing for them to keep the bag out of his reach. Collie tossed it to Ivan who tossed it to Rhys and on and on it went. Ethan felt tears welling up in his eyes. The boys laughed harder and the game continued.

“Aww, look at you dance!” said Dean cheerfully, catching the bag from Collie. “Keep on dancin’, keep on dancin’!”

In a flash, Ethan’s despair turned to rage, and before he even knew what was happening his arm was flying towards Dean like an out-of-control freight train. Ethan’s fist landed squarely on Dean’s nose and he heard a meaty, muted ‘crack’.

Dean backpedaled, hands going up to his face. He, along with everyone else (Ethan included), was absolutely stunned at what had just happened, to the point where there wasn’t yet any room for anger, but knowing it would soon come in a flash flood, Ethan snatched up his bag before the thugs recovered their (admittedly limited) wits and spun round.

Dean reacted quicker than Ethan expected and threw a wild punch with a fist daubed with blood. The blow only clipped Ethan’s backpack, and Dean’s knuckle was cut on the zipper. He emitted a cry of pain, and that was enough to snap his minions out of their daze. They surged together like a pack of wolves and a battery of blows rained down on Ethan as he tried to slip through the ring. Pain exploded like miniature grenades across his flesh. He’d never felt so much of it in his entire life. After his head was sandwiched by a pair of blows, he started to see stars. Amidst the assault, adrenaline kept him standing, and when a gap presented itself between the looming towers of Todd and Ivan, he bolted through it and ran straight towards the wooden gate in the low stone wall.

He collided with the gate at top speed, the old bolt shearing right off and the gate swinging wide open. Ethan sprinted down the path towards the house. He heard the gang arguing behind him.

“Come on!” Dean yelled. “Let’s go!”

“Fuck that,” said Rhys, “I’m not going in there!”

A moment later, Dean gave an impotent scream. Ethan glanced over his shoulder. None of the boys were following him through the gate. He broke left, running perpendicular to the house. The chest-high grass was a lush, vibrant green; very healthy compared to the grass in the schoolyard or outside his house, which had all been scorched gold by the heatwave.

Ethan’s foot struck something soft and he heard a very loud, very indignant “mrow”. He looked down in time to see a black cat leap out of his way and disappear into the grass, in the direction of the house.

The crew still wasn’t chasing him. In fact they were gone from the entrance to the property. Ethan was right; they wouldn’t dare trespass. No longer in immediate danger, the steam went out of his legs, and as the adrenaline drained from his blood, he felt the full force of the punches and kicks he’d sustained, and the pain brought him to his knees, and then a powerful dizziness struck him and he curled up in the soft grass. Tears flowed freely from his eyes.

A gentle wind brushed the grass, played in the branches of the trees. It was quiet in the grass, almost unnaturally so. Since the cat, not a single animal was to be heard; not a bird, not a grasshopper, nor even a cicada, whose buzz had been heard at least once nearly every minute everywhere Ethan had gone since spring began. There was only the sound of the wind and of Ethan’s soft sobbing.

He never heard any footsteps, or any sign at all that someone was approaching him. He only heard the voice, and at first, he thought it was just the wind, because it was so gentle. “Hey there.”

Ethan wiped his eyes and looked up. Kneeling over him was a woman. She was very tall, and looked just a little bit – and Ethan wasn’t sure if this was the right (or polite) word to associate with such a pretty woman – punk. She wore ripped jeans and a t-shirt with the logo of a band Ethan didn’t recognize, and her bare, slender arms were covered in tattoos of animals – wolves, birds, spiders, moths, fish, dogs, and even a black cat – all woven together like the faces of a totem pole. Her hair was the colour of a raven’s wing, shot through with a single line of crimson red, tied into a ponytail. Her face had angular, sharp features. She looked like one of those girls who’s just getting done being a teenager.

“What’s wrong, little guy?” Her voice was nice, like soothing music.

Ethan sniffed. “I got beat up…”

“Oh no.” The woman sat down beside him in the grass. She reached a hand out to the bruise on his left temple, but he recoiled. “I only want to take a look.” Ethan hesitated a moment, then leaned back in, letting her brush the hair away from the bruise. It burned despite her light touch. She hissed. “That’s really bad. You should come inside and let mom take a look at it. Then we can call your parents.”

“I’m not supposed to go with strangers.” Ethan started to feel funny, like the whole world was suddenly a big merry-go-round.

“Do you live near here?”

He pushed himself to his feet. The spinning got worse. “Dad says I shouldn’t talk to…to…” He started walking towards the stone wall (at least he thought he was; it kept moving). “Have to go home…” His legs started to shake. His vision went a colourless grey, and then irised-in to black. He felt like he was back in one of those funny not-quite-dreams he sometimes got before sleep took him at night, the ones where he felt like he was falling and then the bed rushed up to meet him. But it wasn’t his bed that met him this time, but the arms of the pretty woman.

And then he knew no more.

#

Ethan had a very funny dream. Not scary exactly, just very strange. He dreamed that he was in a very dark place, so dark he couldn’t see an inch in front of his nose. He wasn’t sure it was exactly a room; it felt way, way too big to be a room. It was almost like outer space, minus the stars, and instead of being very cold, like his dad said it was out there, it was toasty warm. He tried to move his arms, but either they were invisible or they weren’t listening to him.

In front of him, two huge tongues of flame exploded soundlessly into life. They looked like the pictures of prominences erupting from the sun that Ethan had seen in his Eyewitness space book at home. The tongue on the left was a bright, shimmering green, and the one on the right was a moody, dull red. The two tongues crossed in midair, and Ethan suddenly felt a tremendous pain all over his body, like he’d been punched everywhere he had skin.

The gang! he remembered. Dean beat me up!

The two tongues burned brighter, and then something wonderful started to happen: the pain started dying down. All over his body, the throbbing of the welts Dean and his crew had dealt him were fading away, all at once. It was like someone had found the ‘PAIN’ dial inside Ethan’s brain and was slowly turning it until it read ‘0’. That ugly dizziness that had accompanied the bruises on his temples was also fading as well.

As soon as all the pain was gone, the tongues of flame extinguished themselves, leaving him in darkness once again.

After a time (though he wasn’t sure whether he was asleep or awake during that time), he started to become aware of sensations. He was certainly warm, and wrapped in something soft. His head was on a pillow, and he smelled cooking; tomato sauce. He was lying on a sofa.

He fluttered his eyes open, and they were met with those of a girl who was for sure a teenager. She was lying on her side on an ottoman pushed up against the sofa, head propped up on a hand. She was thick-limbed and broad-hipped – “chubby,” Ethan’s mother might say, but still very pretty. She smiled when she saw him wake up. She had a very mischievous-looking smile.

“It’s alive!” she said. She rolled onto her front, crossing her arms in front of her chest, causing her chest to bulge against her shirt. “How are ya, munchkin?”

Ethan tried to find his voice. “G-good…I think.”

“Nothin’ hurts?”

“I don’t think so.” He pushed himself up. The sofa he was lying on looked like it had gotten tired of the Victorian Era and decided to take a trip through time. A stunning quilt depicting a huge owl taking flight over a stormy lake, backlit by a starry sky, was draped across him. He hadn’t seen such a work of art even among his Aunt Agatha’s creations, and that lady could work a needle like nobody’s business. In fact the whole living room he was in was a work of art, from the red wallpaper patterned in interlocking gold diamonds to the wingchairs with arms and legs carved into the most intricate faces of mythical beasts.

Getting into a seated position, Ethan found that there wasn’t even the ghost of an ache anywhere on his body. “No,” he said, amazed. “I don’t feel anything at all.”

“Good!” the girl chirped. “You’re timing’s impeccable. Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Oh…um, can I phone home, please?”

“Yeah, of course!”

“Uh…” He glanced around. “Do you have a phone I can use?”

“Oh! Yeah, here, use mine.” She reached into the pocket of her jeans and took out a sleek Galaxy S8. She unlocked it with a mere flick of her thumb on the pattern lock and handed it to Ethan. “I thought everybody had phones these days.”

Ethan took the cell with reverence. Touching someone else’s phone felt as personal as touching their diary. “Mom thinks I’m not old enough to have one.” He dialled his home number, punching each digit in carefully. He once accidentally dialled Trip Clayton, who lived across town and whose phone number was one digit different from Ethan’s home number. Trip was a writer people didn’t see much, and to dial his phone was to invite the wrath of a man who had little patience for living, breathing human beings, and much less patience for their “spawn”, no matter how gentle “their spawn” were.

Ethan pressed the ‘call’ button. After three rings, his father picked up. “Hello?”

“Dad,” Ethan said, “it’s me.

“Ethan!” Dad said brightly. “What happened? Where are you? We’ve been worried.”

“I got into a fight with Dean and those other guys.”

“Oh my God, are you okay?”

Yeah, but your advice didn’t work, Dad. “I’m fine. The McNealys helped me out. I’m at their house now. I’m using one of their cells.”

“Can you put me on speaker?”

“Yeah, um…” Ethan tried to find the right button, but he’d never seen an S8 work before.

“Here,” the girl said, holding out a hand.

Ethan relinquished the phone and she worked her magic. “Hi, Mr. Bryce! It’s Britta. Your munchkin’s fine.”

“Hi Britta. Nice to hear from you again. So, Ethan’s alright?”

“Just fine.” Britta flashed her white teeth at Ethan. “In fact, we were hoping he could stay for supper.”

“That sounds fun. That alright with you, sport?”

Ethan’s head nearly spun. Wait, shouldn’t…shouldn’t Dad be freaking out right now? Shouldn’t he want me home? And Dad also sounded a little too calm. Well…he did say that he’d spoken to Britta before…I guess if he knows her, then it’s okay. “Yeah, I guess so,” Ethan said.

“I’ll come down to pick you up at six. Don’t worry; you’ll have lots of fun.”

“Okay.”

“Alright. Take good care of him, Britta!”

“I will,” Britta said, flashing another smile.

“See you later!” Dad hung up.

Kinda weird.

“So,” said Britta, pushing herself to her feet, “shall we go see what’s a-cookin’?”

Ethan threw off the quilt. “Sure.”

Britta put a hand on his shoulder and ushered him through to the adjoining kitchen. Ethan heard the ‘clunking’ of a wooden spoon against steel. A very tall lady was standing over the stove, her back to them. She had the same black hair and slender body as the not-quite-teenager from before (where is she, anyway?), however, when she turned around, Ethan saw that she was much older; probably Britta and the other woman’s mom. Her eyes were very dark, like two tunnels that never came back out into daylight, but her smile was as pleasant as Britta’s.

“My my,” she said, chuckling. “He’s even more adorable awake.” She knelt in front of Ethan. Ethan knew that he should always look someone in the eyes when they were talking to him, but he felt that if he looked into this woman’s eyes for more than five seconds, he’d fall in and never get back out. “I knew there was a nice little boy hiding under all those bruises.” She reached out and put a hand under his jaw. Her fingers were very long, like those of a musician, and he felt and heard a little ‘crack’ when she made contact, like the zap you get from a static shock. “I’m Helena. You woke up just in time. Pasta’s almost ready.”

Ethan’s brain registered something then: the clunking of the spoon hadn’t stopped when Helena turned around. But if she’s not stirring, then who’s… Ethan peered around Helena’s shoulder and saw that, in fact, no one was stirring; the wooden spoon was moving the contents of the steel pot all by itself. “Sounds good,” he heard himself say mechanically.

Helena stood up and grabbed the spoon mid-stir, continuing the stirring motion. “Why don’t you take a seat?” She gestured to a small, square table nearby already set for four.

Britta pulled out a chair and got him settled in the spot against the wall, then slipped into the seat immediately on his right. She rested her head on her hand and peered down at Ethan with a wry grin. “You noticed it, didn’t you?” she said in a low voice.

“Noticed what?”

She lowered her voice even more, to a whisper. “The spoon in the pot.”

Ethan said nothing, and had no logical reason to feel this way, but he thought that perhaps he’d glimpsed something that it would have been best not to see. He nodded.

“Cool, isn’t it?”

Ethan thought it best to nod again.

“You want to see something else that’s cool?”

Once more for the road. He nodded.

Britta picked up a small silver spoon from the table, put the head in her mouth, and then bit the head off. Ethan watched with wide eyes as she chewed, hearing metal crunch between molars. All the while, she held the remains of the handle in her hand. She swallowed and rubbed her belly contentedly. “Mmm…tasty.” She grinned, then contemplated the spoon, and frowned. “Except now I have nothing to eat with…” She shrugged. “Oh well, guess I’ll have to get it back.” She put the broken end of the spoon handle in her mouth. Ethan saw her tongue move around in her cheeks. Her eyes looked left and right in a thoughtful – almost bored – expression. And then she pulled the spoon from her mouth, intact; head, handle, and all.

Ethan’s jaw dropped. “How did you do that?!”

Britta put the spoon down and leaned closer to him, smiling her mischievous smile. “Magic.”

“Britta, where’s your sister?” Helena asked. She was straining some spaghetti through a colander.

Britta rolled her eyes. “I don’t know, digging in the garden?”

“Tell her to wash her paws and get in here. Dinner’s ready.”

Britta groaned and got up from her chair. “Just give me a sec, little guy. Be right back.” She headed towards the back door of the house, leaving Ethan alone with Helena.

Helena brought Ethan a steaming bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. A crown of parmesan melted on top. She set another bowl where Britta had been sitting. “You know,” she said, speaking in that universal tone which Ethan described as the ‘Adult Serious Tone’. “Those boys who ganged up on you…they hurt you really badly.” Her tunnel-eyes were filled with concern.

“Yeah,” Ethan said, still amazed that the welts were gone.

Helena went back for the other two bowls. “They seem a mean bunch. They bother you at school a lot, or your classmates?”

Ethan nodded. “All the time.”

“I thought so.”

“Mostly they pick on me, Hannah Cray, Joey Burns, and Aldwin Cusack.”

“What do they do, exactly?”

“Steal stuff, break stuff. They broke Hannah’s science project today, right before she was supposed to present. It was a mini volcano. She stayed up all night working on it.”

Helena shook her head. “Very cruel of them.” When she spoke these words, a snake of ice slithered down Ethan’s spine, and the whole room seemed to get colder.

“Yeah,” he said. “I told Ms. Kinsley about it but they didn’t get in trouble, and they found out I tattled. That’s why they beat me up.”

Helena sat down across from Ethan, hands folded in front of her. “Nobody ought to be punished for doing the right thing. You did the right thing, Ethan, and it makes me very upset that you got hurt for it. From now on, if you need to get home or go to school, you can cut across our front lawn, and if those bullies try to follow you, they’ll have me to deal with.”

For a moment, Ethan swore he very nearly fell into those bottomless eyes. “They won’t follow,” he said, looking instead at his spaghetti, which steamed.

“Oh? Why not?”

Ethan blushed. “Oh, um, they’re…they’re kind of afraid of this place.”

“Are they?” A grin suddenly spread across Helena’s face. “And why’s that?”

“Well—“

“Found her!” Britta came sauntering into the room with the older girl – the one who’d come to Ethan earlier – in tow behind her. “She was chasing squirrels.”

“Ethan,” Helena said, “I believe you’ve already met Aileen.”

Aileen and Ethan exchanged a smile. “Welcome back to the land of the living,” Aileen said.

“Thanks,” said Ethan, then added, “thanks for helping me out.”

“We’re not in the business of leaving hurt little boys to cook out in the sun.”

“Ethan was just telling me that those bullies are afraid of our house,” Helena said.

Ethan felt two more pairs of eyes lock onto him on either side. He felt surrounded.

“Is that so?” said Britta, quite amused. “Do tell why.”

Ethan’s face turned redder and he squirmed a little in his seat. “It’s nothing, really. It’s just stupid.”

Aileen giggled. “You’re cute when you blush, you know that?”

Helena leaned forward. “Ethan, honestly, it’s alright to tell. Are you afraid you’ll offend us?”

“Er…not really…” he said.

“Well, there’s no reason to be. Are you afraid we’ll laugh?”

“…No…”

“Are you afraid…that we’ll be mad?”

Ethan pictured himself as a worm on a hook under the surface of a lake. “…kinda.”

Helena’s smile turned warm. “It’s okay, I promise we won’t be.”

Ethan looked at Aileen and Britta. They both nodded. Feeling that there was no way out of this encirclement, he told the truth. “Well…there are these rumours at school…they say…”

“Yes?” Helena said. “What do they say?”

Ethan plucked up his courage and spat the words out. “They say that you poisoned your husband.” He immediately sank back into his chair, waiting for the anger and the hurt – for the offence – to show on their faces.

Instead, all there was on the faces of the three ladies was surprise, and that quickly transmuted into mirth as they broke into laughter.

“Poison!” Britta said, wiping an eye. “Oh that’s funny.”

“Yeah, are we criminal masterminds or something?” Aileen said.

This was not at all the reaction Ethan expected. More than that, he didn’t find much to laugh about; death was no laughing matter, except in the movies when the bad guy died in a funny way. It was almost like the ladies were laughing at some inside joke.

“My husband,” Helena said, getting herself under control. “My husband died of cancer, hon. Sorry to burst your classmates’ bubble.”

“That explains why nobody likes cutting across our grass,” Aileen said. “I thought it was just because we had respectful neighbours!” Her laughter renewed itself.

“Actually, it’s not a bad rumour if it keeps people off the grass,” said Britta. “I slaved day and night over that grass.” She leered lovingly at her mother.

Helena gestured to the pasta. “Come, eat. It should be cool enough.”

Ethan tried an awkward forkful of the spaghetti. It was just shy of hot, and was the tastiest spaghetti he’d ever had in his life. He said as much to Helena.

“Glad you like it,” she said. “Tell me; you said your class did some science projects. What did you do?”

“I made a potato clock.”

“Awesome!” said Britta. “I’ve always wanted to see one of those. You got it in your bag?”

“No, I had to leave it at school.”

“Darn.” She stirred her spaghetti. “You know, after dinner, I can show you a trick.”

“Really? What?”

“I can make a clock run just with my mind.”

Ethan’s eyes widened, and yet the image of the spoon stirring by itself hung in his mind. “Really?”

Britta smiled. “I’m serious! I’ll show you.”

“I hope you can wait until after dessert,” Aileen said. “Mom made her famous chocolate pudding.”

So they ate, and the McNealys probed Ethan with more and more questions, about school, his family, the places he’d traveled to, how he spent his summers, what some of his favourite hidey holes were around town, but every now and again, talk circled back around to Dean and his crew, and Ethan would reveal a new tidbit of horror to his hostesses, like the time they stole his backpack when he’d brought a photo of his baby sister to school to show Ms. Collins, or the time they broke the watch his mother had bought him for his birthday. Every time Dean came up, the ladies would slow their eating and lean forward, as though they were watching a very exciting part of a movie. It was the most interested that anyone outside of Ethan’s family had been in the goings-on of his life that he never really noticed that the McNealys were doing far more listening than talking, and that an hour had slipped by and yet his spaghetti was as warm as when it had been served.

When the bowls of pasta were empty, and there was a hiatus in the conversation, Britta patted her belly and let out the longest (and probably most satisfying) belch that Ethan had ever heard in his life. The easy, attentive expressions on Aileen’s and Helena’s faces gave way to disgusted reproach as they whipped their gaze onto Britta.

Ethan stifled a laugh.

“Gonna get dessert?” Britta said cheerfully, as though she hadn’t just fired off the mother of all burps.

Aileen shook her head and got up to go to the stove.

Britta turned her head to Ethan and winked.

At quarter to six, just as they were finishing their dessert, Britta offered to show Ethan the clock she’d mentioned, and he eagerly accepted, following her down the hall on the main floor to her room. Walking through the house, Ethan was amazed by how much the house seemed to be a time capsule from the Victorian age or earlier. Ethan wasn’t that big on history, but he knew the difference between 1800 A.D. and 1800 B.C.; apparently, the house didn’t; it was like the Frankenstein of history. The walls were hung with paintings from the Renaissance (some were pretty, but most were just really bloody). The rooms that Ethan glanced into as he passed had pieces from ancient Greece. And everywhere he went, strange charms and masks hung from the walls.

He came to Britta’s room, and his mind was sent reeling once again; hers wasn’t a time capsule or hodgepodge of any era, but looked to be a perfectly normal teenager’s bedroom, with posters of cool spy movies, a bookshelf of horror novels (the kind where you’re not sure if the monster really dies at the end), and a dartboard hanging from the door. At first Ethan thought that it looked like a boy’s room; there was no pink or any girl toys like Barbie or My Little Pony. Then again, Britta wasn’t exactly like any girl he knew at school. She was a lot like a boy. In fact, Ethan thought she might be more fun than any of the girls he’d ever met.

Britta went straight to her bed and flopped down on top of it with a sigh. “I am so full.” She patted her belly, which indeed looked a bit rounder than when she’d first sat down to the dinner table. “Look at that, completely stuffed.”

Britta’s stomach gave a particularly loud gurgle, causing Ethan to giggle.

“Alright,” she said, shifting onto her side. “Time to show you my trick. You see that clock over there?”

She pointed to the top of her low bookshelf, where an obsidian clock with Roman numerals etched in gold sat. It was stuck in one position: noon…or midnight.

“Yeah?” Ethan said.

“Okay, keep watching it.”

Ethan obediently watched the clock with his total attention. Five seconds passed, then five more. The second hand lurched forward towards one.

Ethan sucked in a small breath and glanced back at Britta. She was pointing one finger at the clock and still smiling at him.

As Ethan watched, the second hand started stuttering forward at ever-increasing speed, until it came round to twelve again and the minute hand lurched into motion after it. Pretty soon the two hands were racing around the clock like cars on a track, whizzing faster than the eye could follow. Then suddenly they stopped, and started whipping in the other direction.

After being bedazzled by the display for a minute, Ethan slowly came to his senses and shook his head, smiling at Britta. “It’s just a trick.”

A bemused smile crossed Britta’s face, and she lowered her finger. “Oh really, now?”

Ethan nodded, wondering why he hadn’t figured it out sooner. “It’s just a clock with a battery.” And the spoon was just a trick, too.

“Hmm…really? Let’s see if you’re right.” She reached both hands out. Ethan interpreted this gesture as her wanting him to bring her the clock, so he turned around to get it. The clock instead leaped up off the bookcase and flew past him into Britta’s grasp.

The teen turned it over in her hands, inspecting the back. “I don’t see any place a battery could go. How about you, Ethan?” She held it up for his inspection.

He found it quite hard to move. He was still running over in his head what he’d just seen and tried to figure out what the trick was; there must have been a string running from the clock to Britta’s hand…but how could that be, when he was standing directly between them? He would have felt something.

Ethan shook his head numbly.

“Huh. Guess I’ll put it back then.” The clock left her hand, moved through the air, circled around Ethan quite politely, and landed softly back on the bookcase. Its hands snapped back to the twelve position.

“So,” said Britta smugly. “Believe me now?”

Ethan nodded, utterly flabbergasted.

A knock came at the door of the room. Helena was standing there, framed in the sunlight that managed to spill all the way through from the front window of the house. Aileen stood behind her.

“Oh.” Britta pushed herself off the bed. “It’s time?”

Helena’s shadow nodded.

“Time for what?” Ethan asked.

Helena slowly strode forth into the room, her eyes glinting. Ethan fought the urge step back. She knelt in front of him. “Ethan,” she said, a big, excited smile on her face, “how would you like to help us cast a spell?”

“Seriously?” he said.

“Seriously.”

“What would I have to do?”

Helena took him by the hand. “It’s very simple. We’ll show you. Come.”

#

They led Ethan to the stairs that went up to the second floor of the house. From the first floor landing, it didn’t look like such a long way up, yet once he started making the ascent, Ethan felt like the staircase was getting longer, stretching out the way a hallway does in a dream when the monster is chasing you. It was also getting warmer; muggy, even. By the time they reached the second floor (after what seemed like a week of climbing), Ethan felt like he’d stepped into a sauna.

The four of them made a left and started down a very long, very narrow passage with no doors. It might just have been the same effect as walking up the stairs (whatever that had been), but this corridor felt longer than the length of the house from one side to the other. It was also the only part of the house he’d seen so far that wasn’t adorned in art that a previous era was probably sorely missing. It was Spartan; bare grey wooden walls that stretched on into the distance. The air was thick and hung heavy with a smell of wood smoke mixed with cinnamon. The hallway also felt…crowded, even though it was only the four of them there; Ethan got the distinct feeling that he was brushing past the shins and thighs of invisible strangers.

I don’t like it up here. “Isn’t dad going to be here soon?” he asked.

“He will,” said Aileen, giving him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I promise this won’t take long.”

The air grew denser as they walked to the end of the corridor, and Ethan was worried he might have trouble breathing soon. When they finally reached the end of the hallway, they made another left and entered a very dark room. There was a brazier at the centre of the room, but its light was muted, as though it were fighting a losing battle against the shadows that crept from the corners of the room. The smoke from the flame exited through a skylight in the roof, and Ethan had a momentary feeling of disorientation, minus the pain of being punched in the head.

He’d passed by this house enough times to know that there was no skylight on the south roof of the house.

The McNealy ladies swept around him, and they were no longer wearing modern clothes; they were garbed in robes of blackest black, or something that flowed like robes but weren’t made of cloth, and they melted into the shadows surrounding the brazier. Their floating heads were the only things which stood out.

“Those boys,” said Helena as she and her daughters circled the flame. “Those bullies…they hurt you so bad your parents would have had to take you to the hospital.”

“And it isn’t the first time they’ve hurt someone that bad, is it?” said Aileen.

“Th-they…” said Ethan, finding it hard to speak because of the air and the trembling in his voice. “They broke Hannah’s arm last year…”

“And why did they do it?” Britta asked.

“Sh-she wouldn’t let them ride her bike…”

“And there were other times,” said Aileen. “Broken noses, bruised bodies, stolen bicycles.”

“Yes…”

“And out of all those times, how many did they get in trouble for it?”

Ethan started to sweat. This room is crowded…I can’t see the people, but it’s crowded. “Never. They never got in trouble.”

“Exactly,” Helena said, and her voice was like the landing of a guillotine. “They just went on hurting you and everyone else, and they got away with it.”

Helena produced something out of the dark of her robe. It looked a little bit like a deck of cards. “I cannot stand a bully, and I cannot stand it when a bully goes unpunished; not when he hurts an innocent, sweet little boy, and not when he hurts my two little girls.”

For an instant, Ethan could see bruises on the faces of Aileen and Britta, but it must have been what his dad called an “optical illusion”, because they were gone instantly.

“I don’t want them to hurt anyone ever again,” Helena said, and held out the card-things exactly like a magician asking an audience member to pick one. Ethan saw plainly that they weren’t cards, but enlarged yearbook photos; five of them. On the left was Collie and Todd, on the right was Ivan and Rhys, and in the centre, well, only one person it could be. “Don’t you want that, too, Ethan?” Helena asked.

“I think that would be good…” Ethan said, feeling himself drawn forward, one foot in front of the other. He heard low voices to either side of him, and he got the feeling they weren’t coming from Aileen or Britta.

“Then we’re going to need your help,” said Helena. “All you have to do is take a photo and throw it in the fire.”

Ethan felt an inexplicable new surge of fear. This was far more than the uneasiness he’d felt since coming upstairs; this was like panic; he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if one of those pictures got licked by the muted flames, something horrible would happen. Yet all the same, he felt his hand stretching out. It plucked the middle photo cleanly out of Helena’s hand. Dean was looking up at him, his ‘smile’ more like a sneer.

“I…I don’t know…” Ethan said.

“Think of all the times they hurt you,” Aileen said. “Let them boil up like a pot of water.”

Ethan turned to the fire. His skin was drying quickly from the heat. All you have to do is throw it in the fire, a voice – a very dark voice – whispered from the back of his skull.

“Are you worried about getting in trouble, munchkin?” Britta asked, and her voice was so very kind and sweet and loving and irresistible. “You won’t, I promise. You’ll be completely safe.”

How could he disappoint her? Britta was fun, Britta was nice, Britta played with him even though she barely knew him…

Even though she barely knows me…

Why had his dad so easily agreed to let him stay at this house? That was so unlike Dad, that was not at all a ‘Dad’ thing to do. Dad should have been scared to death about me, and he sounded so calm on the phone, and even if he wanted me to stay here, I don’t think he’d want me to be a part of this…whatever ‘this’ is.

Ethan hated the boy whose picture he was holding – hated all five of that rude, menacing, cruel gang – and yet deep down he knew that whatever they had done, whatever pain they’d inflicted, they didn’t deserve the unthinkable things that would happen to them if he threw their photos in the fire.

“My husband died of cancer,” Helena’s voice echoed inside his head.

Whatever happened when their photos landed in the fire, the crew would be wishing it was cancer.

Ethan dropped the picture of Dean and lashed his arm out, scattering the photos that Helena held in her hands, and then, like an arrow from a bow, he shot out the door and hurtled down that crowded-not-crowded corridor towards the stairs.

Behind him, he heard a roar. It was the roar of something human – maybe even female – but mixed with something else, something he really didn’t want to meet. There was a crowd after him, an army. A red glow flooded the hall as the mob chased after him. Amidst the tumult of voices, Helena’s was quite distinguishable: “That was rude, Ethan…QUITE RUDE!”

He ran faster, and the corridor stretched out just as it did in his dreams. He didn’t think he’d ever see the end—

He collided with the far wall, his arm nearly going through the wood. Banking right, he sped down the stairs, nearly breaking his neck. The first floor seemed to be on the other side of the solar system. Again he didn’t think he’d make it; the roaring grew louder, the glow was behind him, heat licked his back, and the disappointment of the McNealy ladies was leading the crush.

He jumped the last three steps and bolted through the front door of the house. Outside, it was full dark, with stars glittering in the sky. A baleful gale blew in the trees, and the night stank of wood smoke and cinnamon. It was hot out, as though the sun had never set.

A bellow came from behind him, from inside the house. The red glow pulsed.

He cut right across the lawn and vaulted over the low stone wall with adrenaline-fuelled ease. He jumped back onto Simcoe Road and continued on toward his house. The roar was growing distant, the glow less intense, but the wind blew more furiously in the trees and Ethan never slackened his pace for even a second. He raced and raced up the road, his feet barely touching the ground. There were times when he felt like he was gliding.

Ahead! There! The lights of his house! He was almost home!

The wind was now blowing like a hurricane, and in it was a low chuckle; in it, he heard the voices of the McNealys, laughing like they had at the dinner table, laughing at some inside joke.

I’m going to get caught. They’ll let me get as far as the first step on the porch, and then they’ll pull me back; down the road, over the wall, into the house, up the stairs, into that dark room, into the fire, and into the place inside the fire.

He exploded through the front door of his house into the lighted hallway. He slammed the door behind him, locking out whatever dark, unseen things were following him up the road, and just when he stopped to take a breath, arms grabbed him.

“Ethan!” Mom cried. “Ethan, God, where were you?”

His dad was by his side now, too. “We were worried to death! What happened?!”

“I’m okay,” Ethan said, coughing on the smell of wood smoke. “I’m okay, I—“

He completely lost his train of thought. His parents tried to prompt him, get the full story out of him, but he didn’t hear them. All his attention was focused on the thing at the foot of the stairs leading up to his room: his backpack.

He’d never stopped to get it on his flight out of the McNealy house. It should still be back there.

Taped to the pack just below the zipper was a note written in red ink (ink, he repeated to himself, it’s INK). Even from the front door, he could read it clearly:

 

Forgot something, munchkin!

H, A, and B

His parents clearly hadn’t noticed it…or maybe they couldn’t see it at all. Now I’m part of the inside joke, too, Ethan thought, hearing the laughter of the McNealy ladies inside his head one last time.

Outside, the trees gave one last troubled rustle, and then were still.

 

THE END


Submitted: March 31, 2018

© Copyright 2021 James Patrick Dick. All rights reserved.

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Comments

MissFedelm

A great story. Sort of reminds me of Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes". It has the same feeling.

Sun, April 1st, 2018 1:17am

Author
Reply

Haven't ready any of Bradbury's stuff but I think I have a couple of his novels on my shelf right now. Have to get through my Asimov first...and Huxley...and Rice...long list. O.o

Sun, April 1st, 2018 2:03pm

hullabaloo22

Beautifully told, from start to finish. Excellent!

Sun, April 1st, 2018 7:52pm

Author
Reply

Thanks so much!

Sun, April 1st, 2018 2:02pm

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