So, I haven’t been writing so much lately. I’ve gotten stuck on the edits for Peace, Love and Murder, and the creative gears in my brain have been all gunked up with work stuff and school stuff and stuff stuff, but I caught a Wendig post on Friday–a flash fiction challenge.
Sure. Like I’ve got time to write a short story, Chuck. I haven’t done that since high school.
Except, wait, I accepted the challenge and turned a pretty cool story out of it. (FYI, there’s a couple swears and some creepy stuff, if you’re not into that. This ain’t a romance, folks.)
The cold bit at Damon’s nose as soon as he opened the door, and he tugged his scarf up. The wool itched and smelled like peanut butter and cigarette smoke.
“Come on, Curtis.”
Damon jerked his little brother’s arm and Curtis yelped. “Tee, Damon hurt my arm!”
“Gone, now. Get to school.” The volume went up louder on the TV, and a racking cough echoed out from the living room. “You lettin’ the cold air in!”
Damon automatically steered Curtis around the loose board three steps down. He was a little shit, but that didn’t mean Damon wanted to see him trip down the rickety staircase of their second-story apartment.
The wind picked up as they trudged down the sidewalk, bringing with it a crumpled McDonald’s bag, a couple of dead leaves and a condom wrapper that gleefully cartwheeled past them.
“Man, you forget your hat again?” Damon demanded. Curtis just snuffled wetly, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his coat. He took off his knit Lion’s hat and pulled it down over his brother’s little bald head.
“Damon, can we walk a different way?”
“Naw. It’s too cold today. Just keep lookin’ straight ahead.” Damon tugged up the hood of his coat, but he still couldn’t feel his ears. It would be better, he thought, stepping over a broke-off chunk of the sidewalk, to walk the other way. Even if it did make them 20 minutes late.
The passed what used to be the Martins’ house. The dead, yellowed grass in the yard was waist deep and black garbage bags spilled out of the garage, some split and puking their contents up on the driveway. The neighbors boarded the windows to keep the crackheads out, but an upstairs one was broken. Shards of glass still stuck out of the frame and a pink curtain flapped through the hole. He wondered where the Martins stayed at now.
Half a block left till they crossed Parker Street. The lead-colored sky got even grimmer, and a couple fat snowflakes swirled on the next frigid gust.
At the corner, Curtis stopped, digging the heels of his sneakers into the pavement, and looked up at Damon pleadingly. “I don’t want to walk by the cracked house.” His bottom lip stuck out like a baby’s, but his brown eyes were so wide and scared, Damon could see the whites all the way around. Damon didn’t hassle him, just took Curtis’s icy fingers in his own.
Something growled behind them, almost unheard over the wind. Damon eased his hood back and turned his head, pushing Curtis behind him.
A big pittbull stood stiff-legged a few feet away, hackles up, lip lifted to show off sharp white teeth, staring them down. Damon saw pitts all the time, some skinny mixed-breeds with scarred coats and hind-tucked tails, others with cropped ears, thick-muscled and wearing wicked spiked collars, with a look in their almond-shaped eyes that told you not to fuck with them. But he’d never seen a pitt this big.
Curtis poked his head around Damon. “Shy,” he called quietly, sticking out a hand toward the dog. “C’mere, good girl.”
Damon held his brother back, but the dog’s hackles lowered and the fierce expression on her face eased up. Her pink tongue lolled out and her whip tail half-wagged.
“Shy’s cool,” Curtis said simply.
Damon shook his head, but didn’t argue. His brother was weird with animals. He grabbed Curtis’s hand again and checked the street. No cars. There were never any cars on Parker Street except the broke-down, stripped-out ones that always sat there.
“Remember. Straight ahead,” he muttered to Curtis.
It wasn’t strange to see a burned out house around. Arson, careless crackheads, sometimes just people so far down on their payments they burned their own shit before the banks could kick them out and take it. But, on this block, every house was burned out. Stark black bones jabbed at the sky from holes in roofs, blistered siding peeling away in strips and front stoops crumbled and blackened like broken teeth. All the houses on this block were like that. All but one.
And there it was. The cracked house. He’d thought that Curtis meant “crackhouse” the first time he’d said it, but the three-story brick mansion, towering on a lot where no grass ever grew, didn’t have any hollow-eyed dudes with needle-marked arms hanging out on the wide porch. The paint on the trim was bright red and new-looking and when the sun was shining, all the red-framed wavy glass windows glittered, none of them missing or boarded up. The only thing off about the old house was a giant, jagged crack that ran through it. From the highest point of the roof, all the way down the brick face to the stone foundation, the cracked house was split and gaped open about two feet.
Today, without the sun shining off the windows, shadows swarmed behind them. Curtis’s steps slowed. “Don’t look at it.” Damon gave Curtis’s arm a sharp tug. But Curtis watched the cracked house, his dark eyes fixed on the third story window at the end.
“She’s there again.”
Damon grabbed his brother’s shoulder. “It’s not Momma. You hear me? Momma’s not in there.” He shook Curtis, but his brother never looked away from the house. “I told you,” he went on desperately. “She’s down in Atlanta with Daddy. She’ll be back for us in the summer.”
“Damon, man, she’s in there. She’s waving at me.”
Damon couldn’t even get a clear picture of Momma in his head anymore, and there was no way Curtis remembered her. Telling Curtis Momma was coming back was just bullshit so the kid wouldn’t be sad all the time. Momma had dropped them with Tee two years ago. It was creepy as fuck, that Curtis thought she was in there.
He looked up at the third-story window on the end. Something was moving. Damon’s chest felt frozen-tight. Something squirmed in the stirred-up shadows behind that wavy glass. He squinted against the flakes that fell thicker around them, but he couldn’t make out what it was.
And then he saw the Honolulu blue of his own stocking cap, bobbing on top of Curtis’s head, up the red-painted steps. Damon was halfway across the street when his brother’s hands wrenched at the old-fashioned crystal doorknob. He was halfway up the porch stairs when Curtis disappeared through the red door and it slammed shut behind him hard enough to rattle the wavy-glassed windows in their frames.
Behind him, the pitt barked wildly.
Damon’s Timberlands thudded against the porch boards and he threw his shoulder hard against the door. The crystal knob was so cold it burned like fire against his hand. It rattled but wouldn’t turn.
Shy darted up, her snowy-spattered fur sticking up on her back and lunged for the window next to the door. She kept barking, sounding so mean it made Damon almost scared enough to piss himself. She scrabbled at the glass, her nails making streaky scratching sounds, like she was trying to dig her way through. Damon went to the next window, cupping his hands against it, trying to see through, but it was like the glass was painted black on the other side.
Something jerked him from behind. It was the dog, dragging him away, back toward the porch steps. Seconds later, there was a deep rumble jittered the ground under Damon’s feet. Then the house started aging right in front of him. Fresh, new-looking paint dimmed, darkened and flaked away. Sharp-cornered bricks softened and small chunks crumbled to dust. The roof rippled, nails popping out, shingles sliding down the sides to go winging to the ground. Gutters flopped loose, bent under their own weight and clattered away. And then the crack in the cracked house widened.
What had been a two foot gap was now three.
Damon glanced up at the third floor window, spiderwebbed now with glistening cracks. The figure was gone. He sprinted toward the house, but Shy passed him, scrambling over the stone foundation and through the gap. Damon clambered up after her, feet slipping against the loose foundation stones. The arm of his jacket ripped on a broken water pipe sticking out of the floor, but he kept moving, feathers from his sleeve drifting behind. The wooden floorboards vibrated heavily under his feet and he looked frantically around for the dog. All he could see was old furniture—and it was all rotting. Stuffing leaked out and cushion covers faded green to yellow and then disintegrated. Wallpaper fluttered loose and then slid in crackling folds to the floor. An upright piano first tinkled and then clanged, collapsing inward on itself.
Next to the piano, stairs led to the second floor. The banister disintegrated under his hand when he grabbed it, a thick sliver of blackened wood sliding sickly into the meat of his palm. Damon yelled at the pain, but kept going, decaying steps groaning under his feet. The long hallway shifted and buckled, doors flying open and banging closed. The dog was just disappearing around a corner. Damon followed, stumbling over a mottled flowered carpet that bucked and writhed under his feet. He hit another set of steps, these even worse than the last ones. On hands and knees, Damon climbed them as quickly as he could.
“Curtis,” he rasped, his fear-tight throat squeezing the word to a whisper.
The top floor was one big room, empty, with ceilings coming down at sharp, awkward angles. In the middle stood his brother, his back to Damon. Shy was crouched on the floor at the top of the steps, stiff fur bristled, growling deep.
His brother turned, his face bright, paying no attention to the abrupt crash of a beam falling to the floor behind him. “Damon, I told you Momma was here.”
Damon blinked hard. It was Momma. Memory came back in sharp focus: the smooth chocolate color of her skin, her straight white teeth, hair styled in the natural she’d had last time he’d seen her. Tears pricked his eyelids, but then he met her eyes. They weren’t brown, like his momma’s. They were red. Red like the trim on the cracked house.
The thing that wasn’t Momma held Damon’s eyes as the grin it wore widened. And kept widening. The thing’s grin got so wide that the skin on either side split, so Damon could see the white, white gleam of jawbone beneath.
“Curtis! That’s not Momma!”
At the same time he screamed the words, the pittbull leaped. Shy grabbed the thing’s arm in her powerful jaws and shook Curtis’s hand free. Damon shot forward and grabbed him, dragging him back toward the steps. The house shuddered again as the thing started to shriek.
Damon got him down the attic stairs, missing the last step, feeling something snap in his ankle. He didn’t have time to cry. The ceiling of the hallway was falling in places and it was everything he could do to drag his sobbing brother behind him. They made it down the second set of steps, the shriek above them getting louder, shaking the house to pieces around them. Damon shoved Curtis out of the widening gap in the outer wall and rolled out after him.
The chimney went down in a clatter of bricks as the boys made it to the sidewalk. The roof collapsed in on the third story, muffling the shrieking as they hit the street. The crack in the cracked house crunched back together for a moment, brick edges grinding together, and then pulled apart long enough for a white dog to jump out as Damon and Curtis got to the end of the block.
And by the time the Shy reached them, the entire cracked house imploded, the shrieking finally fading to where it couldn’t be heard under the roar of the winter wind.