I was gonna hoard this in case I ever wanted to submit it and see if I could get it published, but I'm lazy so god knows when that'd be (it's already outdated since it refers to an old TV that still works), it's probably not good enough anyway, and where the hell's a market for horror short stories nowdays anyway? So, I'll follow the tradition I (tried to) start last year and put the sumbitch up here. Hopefully it'll scare the hell out of ya, or at least give you some purple prose to pelt with tomatoes. I tweaked it a little but it's probably still a little thick in parts... I'm not a great editor.
No stealin', copyright 2010 by me.
Up The Stairs, Where The Windows Are Painted Black
The sky was probably blue somewhere on Earth, but you'd never know it from here. The sky always grew bigger as winter started to come in, withering the flesh off the trees and leaving their skeletons to claw at a sky gone grey. Heavy cloud cover slowly drifted like dust stirring on the glass floor of Heaven. With the leaves gone and the grass dead and all the neighbors conforming to some unspoken agreement about white-paint-only, there seemed to be no color on Earth, either. And this house - huge, terribly old, tilting slightly in the ground like a loose tooth - was perhaps the most colorless part of it all. It wasn't even white anymore, just a faded grey like the sky.
All this colorlessness made the orange flames high on the roof really stand out. It was a small fire as yet, but splintery as the derelict was the flames would have their way with it in a manner of minutes. Probably the best thing for it; an abandoned rat-trap like that should have been pulled down decades ago. Still, Leonard reached for his cell phone to call the fire department.
But as his car moved further past the house, he saw a child high in a tree, above the edge of the roof. Leonard's heart seized up for a second, pumped ice; the tree looked as rotten as the house, liable to crack and dump the child right into the flaming roof or to the distant ground.
Leonard slammed on his brakes and the cell phone slid from his fingers into the floorboard and was quickly buried under an avalanche of real-estate papers and Yahoo map print-outs and his Samsonite briefcase as the car slewed to a stop.
No time to look for it now. That insane kid had to be thirty feet high in that rotten tree. The sky drifting behind it created the illusion that it was already slowly falling.
He left the car and ran into the yard, pointing at the kid and yelling, "Hey! Come down from there!"
There were more kids in the tree, he saw as he rounded the corner of the house. Three more were on lower branches - every branch that was left on the crumbling hulk, in fact. One more massive limb lay in the yard beside it, a tire swing still attached.
And the yard was full of children, nearly a dozen of them, and Leonard knew that when this was over he could abandon his search for a house to rent in this neighborhood, because he wouldn't want to live here. Nobody in their right mind would.
The kids were all grubby white trash wearing dirty rags, or less; one toddler had only a pair of Pampers that needed changing, and the one chasing him wore nothing but a rash on its ass. The oldest kid there was a girl who was maybe 14, but she was the tiredest-looking 14-year-old Leonard had ever seen. She and several other kids were staring dully at him, like they were wondering if they were in trouble but not really caring because trouble was something that just happened from time to time.
One kid jumped out from behind an old washing machine that was sinking
into the yard and jerked a stick at him, yelling "Bang! Bang!" Leonard glanced at the kid - a crazy-eyed little boy who looked like he'd tried to cut his own hair and nobody had cared enough to correct the damage - who cradled the stick to his stomach and riddled Leonard with imaginary machine gun fire, spraying spit as he made the full-auto noise. It looked so surreal that Leonard met the kid's eyes again, and the kid yelled, "You're dead! AH-AH-AH-AH! KOOSH! KOOSH!" His eyes were wide and bright, Charlie Manson eyes, and he'd pulled half his baby teeth. His one permanent incisor was growing in saw-edged and crooked, steered by d.u.i. DNA.
Leonard stepped around him and yelled, "You kids get out of the tree! Now! Come on!" He looked back at the 14-year-old, who snatched up the rash-bottomed toddler and gave it a smack to slow it down. It went off more slowly, wailing now and waving its arms like a sad bird. "Where are your parents?" Leonard asked the girl.
"Mama's at work," the girl said, wiping her hands on a shirt that just barely advertised Travis Tritt amongst its fade. She was also wearing a pair of black nylon windsprint pants that had probably never been sprinted in, and muddy running that shoes that were worn out but not likely from running, at least none she'd been responsible for.
"Well, your... your damned house is on fire! Is there anybody inside?"
The girl looked around, cow-stupid, then said, "I don't know." And I don't care was implied by a shrug. Leonard wanted to shake her, make her care.
"Maw-maw's in there," one little girl said. She had dirty blonde hair cut straight at her shoulders and in bangs, and she was only maybe eight years old but already looked smarter than her older sister. She was wearing a dress that had probably been red before it faded to pink and had probably been a solid color before someone had spilled bleach on it. "Maw-maw and the baby and the doggies and kitties. And maybe a couple others."
"Upstairs. Up in Maw-Maw's room, maybe. I can show you."
"The house is on fire. You shouldn't go in there," Leonard said. He looked up and noticed a line of molten tar dripping down from the edge of the roof, spattering black scabs on the ground. God, the place was at least four stories high, and had probably been condemned fifty years ago. What kind of idiot would keep their children in a trap like this? Leonard glanced at the 14-year-old and decided that a couple of these kids were probably hers.
"It'll be okay," the little girl said. "I better show you. There's a lotsa rooms in there, you'd
"Well, if we get anywhere near the fire, you have to promise me to turn around and run right back out of the house," he said. He could smell the burning now, that choking house-fire stink of old wood and generational dust and insulation and wiring. It'd probably be okay if they went quickly, and the little girl was right; he'd probably never find his way around in there alone. There was a better chance of saving everybody if he had a navigator, and this "Maw-Maw" might not follow a stranger out of the house, anyway. He turned to the 14-year old and said, "There's a cellphone in the passenger side floorboard of my car. Go find it and dial 911 and tell them the house is on fire. You just dial 9-1-1 and hit 'send.' Understand?"
The girl dead-eyed him, open-mouthed, scratching bug bites on her arm.
"UNDERSTAND?" he shouted.
She looked annoyed and nodded, then headed for the car, in as much hurry as a glacier. Her legs brushed together as she walked, the nylon jogging pants swishing with a sound like a needle digging at the end of a record.
"You kids, out of the tree! Now!" Leonard yelled again. Two of the kids were still up there, maybe scared to come down since he was yelling. Other children were running around the yard playing, even though stinking smoke was now blowing down around them. Insane. Idiots. Their house was burning and it didn't even slow them down. Completely insane.
"I'll make 'em get down, mister," a boy said. He was maybe twelve and seemed to have some sense.
"Thank you," Leonard said. "Now, let's go, quick!" he told the little girl, and she ran up the steps into the house. "Don't get too far ahead of me," he said.
"I won't," she said, and Leonard decided that when all this was over he was going to buy her a new dress and some new toys, just for her. This would all feel even more lonely if not for the company of one sensible person, even if that person was only eight. He wanted to just get back in his car and drive away; he couldn't do it because that would be the most irresponsible thing in the world and he'd never be able to live with it, but this was a situation he didn't feel capable of handling.
The house was even more miserable inside. Chunks were missing from the ceiling and wall plaster, exposing bare boards, and there were old wasp and dirt-dauber nests all over the ceiling. They weren't active, though; cobwebs hanging from them testified to that. Everything went creak-creak-creak as they walked, and the house seemed to move, like a ship at sea. And there was so much junk in here, hoarded cartons of worthless nothing, blankets and broken furniture everywhere, little pathways between piles. An indoor junkyard. Leonard feared rats until he noticed all the cats. Dozens of them. The place smelled of their food and piss.
A little girl with long dark hair walked out of a grimy kitchen, holding a beautiful snow-white cat. "The house is on fire! Get outside!" Leonard said. She looked shocked, but started herding cats outside and Leonard supposed that was okay, a good thing even. The front door was only fifteen feet away and the fire was still high up in the house; there was still time. Probably.
"This way," the little blonde said, leading him upstairs. He got glimpses of more rooms heaped with trash and laundry and mattresses and broken toys and furniture. He kicked a two-legged plastic horse off the stairs, and a three-legged couch broke its fall. A charred-looking heater blocked the hallway, glowing red; they were lucky the fire hadn't started down here with that disreputable thing. Its cord was corrugated with teethmarks. A glance into a bathroom showed him an antique tub piled with newspapers, and a cat resting calmly on top of them. The stink of cat pee was like a biological attack.
"Shoo! Out!" Leonard hissed, throwing an empty box at it, and the cat bolted away, down the stairs. The little girl was pushing an old dog out of a room, kicking it, but not out of meanness.
"Is the house going to burn all up, mister?" the little girl asked, heading up the next set of stairs.
"I don't know. Maybe not. Hopefully your sister has called the fire department by now. How much further to your grandmother's room?"
"Not much more, it's right up here."
Leonard followed her through a hallway stacked with boxes full of broken toys and disconnected telephones and coils of cable and maybe all the missing socks in the world. One was scribbled with magic marker into an idiot-looking hand puppet. It looked crazy, hanging broken-necked and smiling over the edge of a box, and he hated it instantly; he hoped it would burn.
"Maw-Maw?" the little girl said, walking into a bedroom. "Maw-Maw, I think maybe the house is on fire, we need to go outside."
Leonard stepped in behind her and looked at the short, chubby lady in the padded chair next to a black and white television. "The house is on fire. Everybody needs to get out, right now!"
"Oh my goodness," the old lady said, wrapping an afghan around her shoulders and picking up things from the table beside her, eyeglasses and pill bottles and - ridiculously - a TV Guide. "Where's the fire? Oh my goodness!"
"On the roof! Now, where's the baby? The little girl said there was a baby."
The lady nodded, blinking hard and staring around the room at nothing. She picked up a small jewelry box. The little girl grabbed a kitten off the bed and it started mewing loudly. "Yes, there's a baby upstairs. Kind of a baby."
"Well, let's get it out of here!"
"Oh my, really, it'd be better to let that baby burn," the old lady said. "It's really a terrible baby. Not really like a baby at all. Better to let it burn, sir."
"What?" Leonard couldn't believe what he'd heard. The lady picked up a little clown figurine and stuffed it into a purse that was becoming increasingly crammed with junk. "WHAT?"
"It really is a bad baby," the little girl said, nodding and hugging the kitten. "Not nice."
"Let the baby burn up. Best thing for it," the old lady said with a sad smile. "It's not made right. Its head and its body. It's really badly deformed. Has a mean spirit, too. Hateful thing. We have to keep it shut away so nobody can see it. Just leave it for the fire."
The lady was reaching out for a plastic unicorn to stuff into her purse, and Leonard slapped it out of her hand in rage. "You'd let a baby run alive?! Just because it's deformed? What kind of a shit are you? Packing away this, this dimestore crap and leaving a baby to burn!? Lady, you're crazy! No way are we leaving that baby! Now, where is it?"
"Upstairs," the little girl said. "Upstairs down the hall. Where all the windows are painted black."
"Katrina, don't you tell anything about that baby. Come on, now, let's go outside." The old lady looked at Leonard with an indulgent little smile. "I'm sorry, sir. You're a very kind man, but believe me, it's better for everyone that the baby be left where it is. It's better that it doesn't grow up. It's awful to look at and it does terrible things. If there's a fire it probably came out of that baby's soul. You just leave it be and come on outside with us."
"Hell with you!" Leonard said. "Go on, get out of the house! I'll get the baby myself. Jesus Christ! You're insane! Get out of here before I... I don't know what I'll do, just get out."
The lady shook her head. "Come on, Katrina. Time to go outside."
The little girl hugged the kitten and said, "Please hurry outside, mister."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be down, just get your grandmother out of my sight."
They started downstairs, and Leonard started up. The next floor was dark, and hot. He could smell the fire now, a smell that crammed itself into his throat like mildewed cotton and dared him to breathe. He coughed hard enough to gag, but there was no smoke yet, just stink. The fire hadn't made it down this far, at least, but any minute now...
It was dark as hell, and when he glanced into empty rooms he could see that the windows had all been spraypainted black. There were other colors showing through the black, like someone had tried to use spray paint to make homemade stained-glass windows of them at some point, then blacked out their mistakes. The only light was dim, filtering through spots they'd missed and making crazy acid-trip shadows. Idiot inbreds, destroying a house that time had all-but-annihilated anyway! Then wanting to leave a baby to burn!
There was a door at the far end of the hall that was closed, and Leonard guessed that must be the baby's room. How deformed would it be? Even its own family was scared enough of it to want it to burn. The yard was full of ugly kids, so their standards must not be too high; the baby might be a real monstrosity. And Leonard wasn't very good with deformity. He knew it was a stupid fear, but he even avoided carnival sideshows. Carrying a hideously-deformed infant down through this maze of filth and trash wouldn't be easy for him, but letting a baby burn alive... that'd be a lot harder to live with.
The door - scribbled on by kids, layers of paint chipped and gouged - seemed to radiate waves of terror. He didn't want to see what was on the other side.
He could just leave, saying he couldn't find the baby. No one was here, no one would know.
But he'd know.
"Goddamn crazy old lady," he snarled, reaching for the knob. The stink of the fire wouldn't allow him to hesitate much longer. Sweat was streaming from him and his lungs were hurting; the fire was gnawing its way down, and the roof could collapse and flatten this whole place. No time left for fear.
He yanked the door open.
The baby was sitting up on a bed, like a Buddha, calmly watching him with wise, slitted eyes. Its body was small and thin, but its head was oblong, looking like a squashed Easter Island figure, all angles and corners and flattened places. Leonard could barely see it through the black-painted-window gloom, but what disturbed him more than the thing's appearance was its manner; it seemed maybe a year old but was sitting up on its own, as if meditating, and it was calm and passive, ancient in infancy. It blinked slowly at Leonard, focusing on him in a way of which babies were usually incapable. It was silent, interested in what was happening, but not upset.
Leonard didn't want to touch it.
He didn't want it to touch him.
But he was being ridiculous. There wasn't time! He ran to the bed and pulled at the bedspread, wrapping it around the idol-like baby. There, he couldn't even see it now. Maybe it would smother, but probably not. Maybe he could carry it down if he couldn't see it.
The bundle had a repulsive weight and softness, and the bedspread had a weird, sweet chemical smell, alien pheromones that overrode the choking fire smell. Something past the ceiling cracked and knocked on the ceiling, and Leonard ran from the room and down the stairs. Something hammered the ceiling in there again, like something angry in the attic wanting in. No time.
The house was such a ridiculous maze of junk he worried that he'd get lost. It'd probably burn for a week and do less than a hundred dollars worth of damage in the process. Cats and dogs were still in some of the rooms, and Leonard kicked open doors and threw a broken radio through a window, hoping the animals would find their own way out.
He stepped on an old LP record that he didn't remember seeing on the way up and that made him think he was lost, but he kept going. The house was quiet now; he felt sure everyone was outside, and could see kids through the windows, still playing. The baby inside the bedspread was very silent; he worried that it had died, but felt sure it hadn't. It probably wouldn't smother in there. If he looked at it again he might drop it and run from it. Best to keep moving and stop thinking.
There was a loud crash upstairs and the house gave a strong shake, seemed to yaw in its foundation, and he knew the roof had caved in. The place was taking it, though, stronger than it looked. The first floor was coming up; he'd make it.
In seconds he was in the front yard, which was now smoky and full of sparks drifting down like neon snow. He carried the baby a safe distance away and set it down in a patch of weeds and unfolded the blanket around it. It adjusted itself and sat up, blinking calmly. Its skin was so white and translucent that Leonard doubted it had ever felt the sun. Veins squigged around inside like alien tattoos. It seemed content.
The grandmother came over, cradling the rash-assed toddler on one arm and her purse full of trash on the other. The toddler had dirt around its mouth, like it had been feasting. But the grandmother looked more like she'd been the one who'd swallowed something horrible. "You brought it," she sighed.
Leonard looked back at the house, burning more aggressively now. He decided not to say anything to the old woman, looking instead for the fat girl who'd gone for his cell phone. He found her, sitting on the ground, watching the fire. He ran to her. "Did you call for the fire department?"
She made a don't-bother-me face and waved her arm. "Stupid phone's broken."
"Broken? No it's not! Where'd you put it?"
She waved her arm vaguely at the grass and went back to staring into the flames. He saw the cell phone and picked it up; it was heavily cracked, and he wanted to blame the girl but remembered how hard the briefcase had come down in the floorboards on top of it. The phone was dead.
He looked helplessly at the house and could see the flames through some of the windows now. "Did you go to the neighbor's and call?"
"Nobody's home," she said.
"Nobody's ever home here," a voice said, and he turned to see Katrina. "Sorry, mister."
"Well, probably someone's seen the smoke by now," he said.
"Maybe," Katrina said. "Nobody much lives out here. Everybody dies of cancer and stuff."
"You shouldn'ta brought out that damn baby," the fat girl spat.
Leonard walked away to stop himself from slapping her head off. Katrina followed him. "Sorry, mister," she said.
"Not your fault," he said. He still planned to buy her a new dress, but the rest of her family, especially Maw-Maw and that sullen chubby bitch, they could go hang. Maybe he'd get something for the weird baby. He was afraid of it, but also felt sorry for it. It couldn't help its looks. Weirder than the looks, however, was its behavior. It didn't act like a baby.
He looked over to where it was sitting, avoided by all the other children. He walked toward it, drawn there because it looked as alone as he felt. Katrina
followed him, but she stopped about fifteen feet from the baby and grabbed one of Leonard's fingers. Leonard stopped, backed up a few feet and squatted down beside her. The air around the baby felt chilled, despite the heat from the burning house.
"That's Tiki," the little girl whispered. "Mama named it because it looks like a tiki. That's some kind of carved log monster or something that she saw one time when she went to Flora-der. So Mama named it Tiki. It's not a boy or a girl. It won't play with anybody, either."
"Where'd you get it?"
"Mama had it. She can't have any more babies now because Tiki ate up her inside-parts when it was born. It brought them out with it and was chewing on them. Mama said its daddy came out of a wall in an upstairs room one night when she drank too much. She thinks."
"That's crazy," Leonard said. A loud cracking made him look back and he saw a section of wall break itself away from the rest of the building, and a blazing couch fell through, as though the house were giving birth to it. It hit the ground and sprayed sparks and thick soot all around, smoldered toxic smoke. Kids yelled and ran to poke sticks at it, and Leonard told them to get away from there and stay away from the house. They backed away, staring hatefully at spoilsport Leonard.
He huffed and looked back at Katrina, whose eyes were wide and blue. "It'll be okay," he said, and she nodded. He looked at Tiki, who was serenely watching the fire with slit eyes the color of oysters. He wondered if having all those cats in the house had corrupted its genetics; it looked somehow feline. "Doesn't it...Tiki, ever cry?"
Katrina shook her head, no. "Sometimes it sings, though. That's when it's wanting to do something bad."
"Something bad? Like what?"
"It made Jeff slam a car door on his hand like five times, over and over, and one of his fingers come off. And, see Janet?" Katrina pointed at the black-haired girl from the kitchen, who was still hugging the white cat. "Tiki made her get garden shears and cut her tongue down the middle." Katrina stuck out her tongue and ran her finger down its length.
"What? Made her, how?"
"Sang to her. I guess Tiki wanted her to have two tongues. She can't really talk now. And Tiki sang to my big sister Pauline and she went away and nobody knows where she is." Katrina stared at him somberly and whispered, "Maw-Maw has dreams that Pauline's in the river."
Leonard felt cold and looked at the baby. It was watching the burning house with great interest and breathing deeply, apparently enjoying the awful smoke. Tiki looked back at him and kind of smiled, and his brain felt like a rock had been lifted inside it, and bugs underneath were fleeing to all corners.
Should have left it in the house. Should have listened.
A cat, smoking, leapt from one of the upper windows and landed on its head and twitched. Tiki chortled, amused.
"Tiki hates everybody, I think," Katrina whispered. "Nobody loves Tiki, really, and Tiki don't love nobody. Tiki likes to hurt. One time we found Tiki with one of the cats, and Tiki had cut itself and was feeding its blood to the cat, and the cat went crazy. We saw it around for a week, biting at itself and squalling all night. We figure it probably ate enough of itself to die, maybe. Tiki's bad." She looked down and tore at the dying grass. "It's sad, I think. It's why Maw-Maw wanted it to burn all up."
Tiki began to smile wider, definitely smiling now, not a baby smile. It flapped its arms a couple of times, the first baby-like thing it had done yet, and gasped.
Then it began to sing.
It wasn't really a song, just a high, lonely tone, something like winter wind and distant train whistles at midnight and a dying wheeze in a back bedroom, and Leonard wanted to scream and grab the baby and make it stop. He looked at Katrina for help.
But Katrina was laughing and getting up. Joining the other children, all laughing and running for the house.
"What the hell... stop! STOP!" Leonard said, getting up and chasing the kids. He grabbed mute little Janet and threw her down. She dropped the cat but jumped right back up and kept running for the house, gobbly-giggling with a nerveless tongue. "Stop!
Kids were pouring into the house. All of them. Leonard looked for Katrina, made a grab for her and ended up with a fistful of bleach-weakened fabric and saw her running laughing into the smoke.
He went back inside but couldn't see anything but shapes of heaped junk, some kitchen tiles. He couldn't breathe. The house was starting to come down, and he could see flames through cracks in the ceiling.
All around, kids were giggling, all around him where he couldn't see.
"Come out! Get out of here now!" he screamed, coughing. They just snickered and he could hear them running. Feet pounded the ceiling overhead.
Tiki was singing, and its brothers and sisters were all playing hide and seek in their burning home.
He couldn't look anymore, and choking and tear-blind he staggered back outside and fell on the grass with Maw-Maw and the 14-year-old girl, who was nursing a bitten hand from where she'd tried to stop one of the children, and they sat and listened to Tiki's song and watched little giggling faces peer out of the windows of blazing rooms until the house fell in, leaving Leonard with a handful of faded rag and a song that would never leave his ears.