10.31.2018

Just Leave

I need and plan to work more on this story, but it'll do for now. Enjoy!

Just Leave

Warren and his sister were thick in the midst of sorting out his parents’ estate. Their mother had died of congestive heart failure a little over two years prior, and their father, though seemingly healthy overall, had deteriorated in the interim and recently succumbed to lung cancer, which he hadn’t told anyone about until the last days. Both had smoked for more than 70 years, and the utter permeation of the house’s every inch by tar and nicotine was one of the main reasons Warren hated visiting. That smoke smell would be hell to get out, Warren worried, especially if they were going to sell the house.

He had driven the 3 hours or so up to his parents’ house (former house, he kept thinking) that afternoon to sort through some of his father’s belongings. Will it look different to me now?, Warren had wondered during the drive. He had only been there once since his father died and realized that he’d never known a time when the house had no real owners, no occupants.

But the house looked the same, of course. An apparent one-story from the front, an actual two-story from the rear owing to its position on a hillside, the Dimion homestead was perfectly traditional, discolored tan brick and an aging hip roof surrounded by an unremarkable but tidy yard. Trees Warren had played in or around as a kid were long gone, either from age or ice storms. None of the houses in their neighborhood looked even remotely similar to one another, which always made Warren feel an involuntary and illogical pride.

He found the spare key where it had been stashed for years – under a landscaping stone covered with bark mulch to the front porch’s left – and went in the house, catching the stinging odor of cigarette smoke before he even opened the door. Although his sister had texted him earlier in the day to say she’d already removed most of the furniture, he was unprepared for the empty room that greeted his entrance: where once had stood a dining table, chairs, TV, and roll-top desk, now there was only discolored and indented carpet. The sitting room just to the left was empty as well, and its bare faux-wood floor hollowly reverberated the closing front door. Only then did it occur to Warren that all the beds were probably gone too, meaning he’d have nowhere comfortable to sleep.

Wandering through the house, the creaky kitchen floor (you entered on the second floor, at the foundational hill’s apex) sounded louder than he remembered, likely because of the rooms’ emptiness, and he grinned at the minutiae left behind: two stained oven mitts hanging next to the stove, a comically obsolete list of phone numbers taped to the wall, three stair-stepped containers he really hoped didn’t still contain sugar-free cookies, the incongruously new washer and dryer.

Down the carpeted and equally creaky stairs, past the chairlift his mother once used, Warren found more of the same: newly furniture-less carpet, splayed-open cardboard boxes holding trinkets and photo albums, a metal trash can, a Garfield sticker on a full-length mirror. The bottom floor was half underground and smelled reliably dank, an oddly pleasant odor Warren auto-associated with his youth. Off to the right of the stairs, his father’s bedroom loomed pitch-black, and Warren felt a twinge of an old childhood fear at approaching this lightless basement room alone. The fear escalated more than Warren wished to admit while he slapped around fruitlessly for the light switch, but when his hands found it, the slow fade of the fluorescent overheads eroded that feeling and revealed a truly empty space: not only was all the furniture gone but the carpet and pad had been pulled up as well, owing to the subterranean seepage against which his parents had fought mostly in vain for nearly 40 years. The painted concrete floor’s stains and peeling made the room look less like sleeping quarters and more like an interrogation chamber.

Warren exited (but left the light on) and walked into what his family had always called the rec room, a lengthy space (42 feet end to end, his mind hiccupped) that had once held an elaborate stereo, stacks of vinyl albums, a wall of books, several generations of video-game consoles (Colecovision through Super Nintendo, if memory served), and both ping-pong and pool tables. All that remained now was the pool table. He’d hoped the old futon couch would still be here so he could sleep on it (uncomfortable though it was), but no. Even the bookshelves and firewood box were barren.

“The goddamn pool table,” Warren sighed. No wonder it got left behind. The ping pong table was bought new and had still, four decades on, been in good shape, though the net needed replacing. This thing, on the other hand, had become shabby family legend almost instantly. Warren’s father bought it soon after they’d moved in from a decrepit billiard hall that was going out of business. It was visibly worn from day one, boasting scratches and scuffs but also an almost comic instability – when touched or bumped, it creaked and swayed side to side. Warren had tightened the relevant bolts countless times (his father was hopelessly unhandy), but it never lasted long, and this ritual had provided Warren with one of his favorite memories, a memory that came flooding back as he stood in this huge, unfamiliarly-empty room. Something about lying on his back under the pool table put Warren at peace, and he would regularly crawl underneath it when the legs needed tightening and just stay there, flat on his back, gazing at the table’s dusty underside, staring at the light seeping evocatively through the spaces between ill-joined pieces of wood. More than once, Warren had lost track of time during this weird reverie, never sleeping but perhaps not entirely conscious, either, eventually rolling out onto the open floor and rejoining the family upstairs, his parents asking where he’d been all this time. Warren grinned at the memory’s richness and subliminally understood where he’d sleep this night. The house held no softer, padded surfaces anymore, anyway, so what did it matter where he lay?

He wondered if the balls were still in the table and reached into the return opening, scraping the back of his hand on broken plastic molding. The balls were there, all right, and Warren involuntarily grabbed three of them, numbers 4, 5, and 9. He thunked them onto the faded green felt and remembered the table’s most famous trait: it was warped such that any rail shots curved toward the center. As kids, he and his friends learned very quickly to use that warp to their advantage, playing the curve to hit balls that might have been unreachable on a regulation, defect-free surface. There were no longer any cues, of course, but Warren picked up the 5 and gently underhanded it along the right-hand rail, chuckling as it passed the side pocket and arced toward the middle as he’d seen it do hundreds of times before. Then his muscle memory kicked in and he grabbed the other two balls, rolling them rapidly toward the 5 and banking them off the far rails so they’d sink in the corner pockets. It took him a few tries but he finally sunk them all, enjoying the still-immensely-satisfying sound of pocketing balls.

Warren rapped the table surface twice and was walking toward the rec-room windows when his phone buzzed. You get there OK?, his sister Alice texted. He re-pocketed his phone, continued to the windows, and pulled open the curtains. Holly bushes still rose about a third of the way up the windows; above that Warren saw the few small remaining trees in the backyard, the top of the viny back fenceline, and the dusky indigo sky tinged with oranges and purples from the setting sun. He surveyed this scene for a few moments and was about to reply to Alice when he heard the upstairs floor creak overhead behind him.

Warren frowned and looked around at where the sound seemed to have come from. He tried to remember if Alice was in town – she lived half an hour away with her second husband and two stepsons – but thought she wasn’t. She had always visited more regularly than Warren had, so it wouldn’t be unheard of for her to drop by unannounced, but he half remembered her saying she was traveling this weekend. He plucked out his phone and typed, Yeah, easy trip. Are you in town? In a few seconds she replied, No. At the in-laws til Sunday. That’s right. OK. Have fun, Warren sent back. Alice responded with a thumbs-up emoji.

He tried to think of any other friends or family members who might have come over and into the house. His parents, though, had been virtual hermits for the past 20 years, rarely leaving the house and maintaining almost no friendships. Most of their closest relatives had already died, and those relatives’ offspring were scattered elsewhere around the country, so Warren doubted there was anyone left who would be here. A neighbor? Possible but unlikely, as the Dimions had never consorted much with their neighbors. Hospice or caregivers? Even less likely – his mother had refused hospice care, and his father didn’t tell anyone he was dying let alone arrange for hired help. Maybe I imagined it, Warren thought.

He was heading back through the long room bound for the stairs when the floor creaked again, this time directly above him. He stopped and looked up at the ceiling. “Well. Didn’t imagine that,” he muttered. His pace quickened as he approached his father’s room (glad I left the light on, he mused) and climbed the stairs to his right, eyes on the landing above, not worried about being quiet or stealthy. “Hello?” he said from the doorway into the empty kitchen. “Somebody here?” He crossed the long kitchen floor toward the front door looking for signs of ingress but found none: the balcony door off the kitchen to his left was still closed as was the front door. He walked through all the upstairs rooms, but they were empty save for more moving-house minutiae.

He then walked out into the front yard. The driveway held only his gray Corolla, and the street was empty other than a few cars parked in front of neighboring houses. Looking up at the darkening sky, he breathed in deeply for several moments, savoring the cool, smoke-free air. “Maybe it’s just settling,” he muttered after a long exhale. As if this idea resolved the issue, he went to get his overnight bag from the car and had just reached the right-rear-door handle when he heard the house’s metal security door bang shut. He gasped and pivoted, heart pounding in his ears. No one was on the front porch, and the inner door was still open. “What the fuck?” Warren said, uncomfortable at the quaver in his voice. He immediately got irritated, grabbed his bag from the car’s backseat, slammed the car door, and marched toward the house, locking the car with a squeeze of the key fob.

On the porch, he dropped his bag and opened the security door to full gape so he could time its closing. He watched as it swung slowly shut, finally slamming home with a decisive bang. Eight seconds. I was out here longer than eight seconds, he thought, smirking. He opened the door again, pushed it all the way to the wall, and held it there for a moment before releasing it. This time, the door remained idle for one…two…a little over three seconds before it began its slow arc. After it banged shut again, he thought, So, say twelve seconds. Enough time? Warren decided it was. Although he was sure he heard the door close after he walked out, maybe that was just an aural memory. Maybe it took longer to ease shut than it used to. “Stop being an idiot,” Warren said to himself dismissively. He went inside and threw the deadbolts on both front doors.

After using the restroom and searching fruitlessly for food, he ordered a pizza to be delivered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Later, under the pool table, Warren watched Netflix for a while on his phone until he got sleepy. He hadn’t thought to bring a pillow or blanket, so his overnight bag and windbreaker served these purposes.

With the curtains drawn, the room was nearly pitch black, and it irked Warren to discover that he was scared. The pool table was at the far end of the long room relative to the door, meaning he was all-too aware of the forty-plus feet of darkness nearby. He resisted the urge to pull his windbreaker over his head and instead just focused on the table’s underside until his eyes began to get heavy.

Soon Warren was dreaming about a volcano out of which sprouted a horned, Fantasia-like demon that threw purplish lightning bolts at a smoky, ruined landscape. He wasn’t sure what eventually jolted him awake, and he had just instinctively remembered the earlier floor creaks overhead when he heard the front security door slam shut upstairs. “Fuck,” Warren gasped. Don’t sit up and hit your head, he thought sarcastically. He lay motionless waiting for some other sound, his mind attempting to tick methodically through reasons the door would have slammed. Only one, he thought – someone coming in or going out. With a sudden rush of courage, Warren rolled out from under the table (don’t turn your back on the darkness!, his younger self shouted), stood, and willed himself through the lightless room until he got to the door and light switch. He flicked it on with an index finger and whirled around to survey the room, which was empty, of course. He stood there several seconds and was just about to head upstairs when the upstairs floor creaked, this time toward the end of the room, beyond the pool table. “All right, asshole,” Warren said quietly, “Time to end this.” He looked around and rummaged in cardboard boxes for a weapon – his dad had owned a few military-issue pistols that were surely long gone – but found nothing more sinister than what appeared to be a third- or fourth-grade school photo of his sister in a silver metal frame. Despite the amateurish book and ruler outlines etched into the frame, it was solid and heavy, which he proved to himself by slapping it into his palm a few times. “OK, sis. Let’s go,” he said.

Warren sped past the darkened bedroom to his left and concentrated on taking the stairs two at a time, which did nothing to prevent the hairs on the back of his neck from prickling up like always. He stepped into the kitchen, hit the light, and lifted the picture frame prepared to strike, but there was no one there. “Hello?” he called after a beat and held his breath to focus his hearing. Not a sound. He walked across the long kitchen floor, creaking as he went and blankly comparing his creaks to the ones he’d heard downstairs, senses alert for any disturbance. His pulse quickened as he peeked into the entry hall, but the front door was closed and locked just like he’d left it. He walked to it, turned the deadbolt, and slowly opened the inner door. The metal security door was closed as well. Warren pushed on it gingerly, but it had no give whatsoever. He sighed, stepped up to the security door, and looked out the window.

A dark shape appeared to be moving where the corners of the yard and the driveway met the street. Warren stared at the shape with incomprehension. His first unbidden thought was that it was a trash bag, but he hadn’t yet set out anything to throw away. A dog?, he wondered. No, it was too flattened, seemed too formless. But it was definitely moving – he could see that now.

Warren turned the deadbolt, opened the door, and stepped out onto the cold concrete front step before walking into the dewy grass, never taking his eyes from the dark shape, whose slowly moving surface bore a yellowy sheen from the streetlight. Stepping around one of the yard’s lone remaining trees, he was about five feet from the shape when he stopped abruptly and went cold from the inside out.

The shape was indeed a large black trash bag that pulsed weakly in and out at irregular intervals and angles. Warren could hear something sliding and pushing against the smooth plastic as the movements continued. He stepped closer despite the rising panic and started to hear whimpers. “Hey,” he said involuntarily. It was then he realized someone was inside the bag, the pulsing movements feeble attempts to tear the plastic and escape.

“Hey,” he said again without really knowing he’d done it. He stepped right up next to the bag and put his hands on his knees, peering intently at the jerkily undulating shape. I have to call the police, Warren thought, and he had just slapped at his right hip looking for his phone when the metal security door slammed shut again. “FUCK!” he shouted, jumping back and nearly falling down. He looked at the front door, but no one was there. And then the bag said his name.

Warren.

He looked down at the bag. It was torn open. A naked, jaundiced figure lay coiled up inside but moving slowly, an elbow and a forearm appearing, and then a face in profile. Warren stared, eyes wide. The picture frame slid out of his sweaty palm and hit the ground.

It was his mother.

Warren.

Her head turned slowly toward him. Her skin was yellow and saggy, with grime visible in the creases even in the wan light.

Warren.

She looked at him with mustardy eyeballs. Her voice was a croaky whisper, her throat clotted.

Warren. Run.

Warren began to sob. “Mom!” he managed. “What is this?”

Run. A thin arm the color of fish belly then pushed out of the bag opening, wrapped itself around his mother’s body, and pulled her with obvious effort farther down into the bag. Her face contorted into the most anguished look he’d ever seen before her body doubled in on itself painfully and disappeared.

“Mom!” he shrieked. Then Warren threw himself onto his knees and reached in with both arms to pull his mother out, but he fell into the bag, into darkness, and he lost consciousness, the scent of old earth and fresh decay in his nostrils.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Warren awoke to a dull ache down his right side. He lifted his head, but his neck had such a crick he couldn’t lift it far. He opened his eyes and was hopelessly confused for a few seconds, because what he saw was his car. He blinked at it a few times and then craned his neck around despite the pain. He was in the front yard, curled up in his gym shorts and t-shirt, shivering from the chill, wet with dew, exposed skin prickly and cross-hatched from the crisp autumn grass.

It was early daylight, perhaps 6:30 a.m. Warren lay his head back down on the ground for a moment and tried to gather thoughts. When details from the night before began coalescing, he remembered the dark shape and why he had come outside, and he shot up off the ground with a panicked groan despite the soreness in his side and neck. His bare feet scuffed along the rough gray driveway as he balanced himself and looked down where the trash bag had been last night. But other than a flattened patch where he had lain (all night, he thought with distaste), the grass showed nothing. He looked instinctively up at the front door and scanned the immediate vicinity in front of him. Nothing seemed amiss. Warren exhaled as if he hadn’t done so in hours. “Fuckin’-A,” he blurted and laughed.

Shaken by the lingering images but relieved nonetheless, Warren walked slowly down the driveway and sidewalk to the front door. He was about to mount the small steps to the porch when he froze.

There were dirty smears all over the porch’s painted concrete, as though someone with muddy feet had repeatedly slipped while trying to enter the house.

Warren stared at this sight until a wiry panic made him look down. The short expanse of gray concrete between the grass and the steps also bore streaks of mud along with a few larger clogs, and he had stepped right in it all. He lifted his right foot to inspect the sole – it was filthy.

“Shit,” he spat and hopped backward into the grass where he dragged them one at a time to get rid of the mud. When they were cleaner and damp with dew, he looked back up at the porch, saw the streaky mud again, and exhaled irritatedly through his nostrils.

“I am going inside. I am getting dressed. I am gathering my shit. I am locking the door. And I am leaving.” Warren said all this firmly and pointedly as though trying to convince himself to do it. He maneuvered around the mud and opened the metal security door (no mud on the doorknob, his mind noted). But his strides into the house were short-lived. Once inside the foyer, what he saw stopped his motion with the force of a large fist in the middle of his chest.

There were more muddy streaks on the foyer’s white ceramic tile and on the kitchen’s old, indented carpet. And beyond that lay a torn black trash bag. It was empty but dirty and visibly stretched, as though something inside had forced its way out. Not fully aware that he was doing so, Warren walked forward to see what he already knew was there beyond the bag. Muddy streaks, splayed at crazy angles on the carpet and extending to the end of the kitchen, all the way to the door that led to the laundry room and the stairs.

I should leave right now, Warren mused, but everything’s downstairs – clothes, car key, phone, everything. The thought of his phone made him look on the wall where his parents’ old landline phone always hung. It was still there. Call 911, his mind shouted. And tell them what?, he countered. Someone tracked mud into the house and left a trash bag behind?

“No,” he said aloud back to himself. “Say someone’s in the house.” An intruder, he added mentally. Stepping to the phone, careful to avoid the mud, he plucked the handset out of its cradle, put it to his ear, and started to dial but realized there was no dial tone. Punching the numbers anyway did nothing. As he began to hang up, he heard a sound like low white noise. He put the handset back to his ear. “Hello?”

Intruder, said a voice from the phone. It was quiet and raspy.

“Who is this?”

Intruder, the voice said again. Warren could discern neither gender nor age.

“If this is a prank, you’re a fucking psycho and I will call the cops,” Warren barked. The sudden heat of anger felt good.

Warren, the voice said. Stay with us.

For a time Warren couldn’t speak. This last phrase dissipated the anger and left him aghast. What is happening?, his mind pled.

Stay with us. It sounded like multiple voices now.

“I...I don’t…,” Warren stammered. “I don’t know what’s going on.” He paused, then: “Who are you?”

Silence now, save for that low white noise. It was barely audible.

“Who are you?” Warren said again.

Intruder. Back to a single voice, the same raspy one as before. Then, after a beat, came a different voice. It was loud and booming and guttural and furious.

INTRUDER!

“GODDAMN IT!” Warren shouted involuntarily, and he threw the handset at the wall. “FUCK YOU!” he screamed, nearly hysterical.

The voice from the phone was repeating INTRUDER! over and over so loudly Warren could hear it clearly even with the handset lying on the floor six feet away from him, its long, tangled cord still swaying after his throw. He scrambled over and grabbed the cord so he could hang up, but he had too much slack, and the handset shot off the floor, smacked him in the knee, and then ricocheted upward, narrowly missing his chin and nose. After he finally grasped the handset, the voice still bellowing, he slammed it down into the cradle and marched toward the stairs, sidestepping the bag and the mud, maniacally determined to leave as fast as possible.

Before he made it to the stairs, though, he heard one of the bedroom doors pop open down the hall back beyond the front door, and he froze in place.

Heavy footsteps in the hall.

“Who’s there?” Warren called.

The footsteps stopped, but he still heard the floorboards creak as if under shifting weight.

“Answer me,” Warren demanded. “Who’s there?”

The same voice from the phone, the quieter one: Intruder. Warren’s heart felt like it would stop. He tried to say something, but his mouth and throat suddenly felt sandblasted.

The louder voice again: INTRUDER!

Warren ran. Out of the kitchen, down the stairs two and three at a time. He bolted into the rec room and all the way to the pool table, throwing himself underneath to grab his bag and windbreaker. His head was a maelstrom of wild thoughts (Fuckin’ house is haunted! Lost my fuckin’ mind! Haven’t smoked pot or done acid or been blackout drunk in years!), and then he collapsed, openly weeping from fear and stress.

His sobs subsided after a few minutes, and he lay there with his face in the old carpet, snot and tears running into the fibers. My phone. Alice, he thought suddenly. He propped up on his elbows and reached for his phone. Dead. He’d evidently fallen asleep without plugging it in. “Of fucking course,” he said bitterly and wiped his messy nose on his bare arm. Just leave, he thought. Just leave.

Before he could push himself off the floor, a billiard ball rolled on the table surface a few feet above his head. Warren froze and held his breath. He heard the ball’s rolling cease as it bumped softly against a rail. A few seconds of total silence. Then another ball rolled. And then came a sound like an entire roomful of billiard balls hitting the surface in a cascade, repeatedly knocking and rolling like indoor thunder, and soon billiard balls were raining off the creaky and swaying table, bouncing onto the carpet and rolling all over the room, clacking against each other and the baseboards, as though a tornado had sucked up a billiard hall and spewed its contents all over creation. Warren watched with wide eyes and was sure he could feel the threads of his sanity snapping apart. Eventually he just put his head down and hoped it would stop.

After a time, there was silence again. Warren looked up and around and saw mounds of billiard balls everywhere around the table and the room, piled atop each other despite their surface slickness. He snorted a nervous laugh in spite of himself at the ludicrousness of the scene.

Then he heard the creaking upstairs. Feet moving over the floorboards. This time, though, the sound was heavier, more definite. And soon it became a series of booming steps, like someone in cinder-block shoes running through the kitchen, running to the stairs and toward him, bounding down to the basement level. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. The sound was impossibly loud. Warren thought his heart would explode in terror.

With nowhere to run, Warren balled himself up, still under the pool table, face in the carpet, hands covering his head, knees at his chest. Go away go away go away!, his mind repeated.

Soon there was silence again. Warren looked up, hoping the balls wouldn’t be there, but they were. He listened for footsteps in the room but heard nothing. After gathering his courage, he climbed out from under the table and stood up.

There really were mounds of billiard balls all over the large room. Easily hundreds of them. The tabletop held plenty too. Warren looked up expecting to see a hole in the ceiling, punched through by falling billiard balls, but it was intact.

“Fuck this,” he muttered and dropped to the floor to cram his clothes, shoes and socks, windbreaker, and phone into his bag. Then he stood up and turned around to leave and had just begun to maneuver around the balls when he saw movement to his immediate right. A mini-avalanche of billiard balls clacked down the slope of a large mound, rolling into his feet and revealing a black hole around which the surrounding billiard balls somehow maintained their positions, as though they were shiny round bricks packed into mortar. And then came a sound he’d heard the night before: a slippery pushing against plastic, trying to get out. Warren wanted to look away but found he couldn’t. Black plastic began to stretch outward from the hole. Run, Warren’s mind screamed, but he was transfixed.

A tear appeared in the plastic, followed by familiar yellowed flesh, mottled with grime.

Warren. His mother again.

Warren. Run.

Run.

But it was too late. The thin white arm shot out of the mound and snatched Warren’s calf so hard and fast that he fell and did the splits, like a bad cheerleader. The arm already had his right leg halfway inside the hole, and he felt himself being slowly dragged over billiard balls and carpet toward that opening. Warren screamed wordlessly and fought to get loose, but what had been set in motion would not be stopped. As he was pulled into the hole, his left hip in agony from his backward-stretched left leg, he struggled for purchase on the mound of billiard balls, but his hands just slid around on the smooth surfaces. Then he passed completely into the hole, the stench of decay and fetid earth filling his head, and he was gone.

1 comment:

  1. This fuh-king RULES! I printed it out to read at home after work, and, wouldn'tcha know I'd pick a night when the wind's up and it's dropping limbs and stuff on the house. Usually I blame odd noises in the house on my cat, but he was sitting with me, so it was either the wind, or... you did it! :) Great details (the dented carpet thing made me jealous). I tend to read like a mechanic, so as I was going I was thinking, "If I were writing this I'd mention something about how the house sounded different without furniture," and just as I was thinking that, damn if you didn't mention that! :) I love when stuff like that happens. Excellent build-up of atmosphere in a perfect setting to have creepy stuff happen... and then you delivered big on the creepystuff! You actually got me creeped out by trash bags, billiard balls, and the telephone. Good work!

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