In the kitchen, he slowed to a walk, staring out the window and refusing to shift his attention from it. He set the stack of paper plates down on the dusty table and, without looking, closed the door to the basement a little too hard, wincing at the booming racket it made. He heard a noise down there in the dark. More laughter? he asked himself. Or was that creaking on the steps?
He shook himself like a dog shaking the snow off his back. Get ahold of yourself, Eddie. No such thing as monsters. Well, they exist, but they look like Daddy and Uncle Gil. You imagined all that down there. Or it was a mouse moving scrabbling around in an empty box under the stairs. The scary lady is not real. Dr. Erikson said so.
He shook his head at his own silliness and crossed to the faucet, filling one of the plastic cups. Eddie gulped it down, ignoring the thin streams of cold water that snaked down his chin from the corners of his mouth. He refilled the cup and downed its contents too, all while staring out the window over the sink. The morning light showed him the side of the garage, the peeling white paint reminding him of skin after a bad sunburn.
What happened out there? What did you do, Daddy? Why did you do it?
He curled his lip at his own weakness. It didn’t matter why. It didn’t matter what happened. Death had taken them, they were never coming back.
He turned away from the window, and just for a moment, a flash of red danced in the little window on the side of the garage. Was that Daddy’s red hat? He shook his head. No, he thought. Only your imagination, Eddie.
He let his gaze wander around the small kitchen, remembering all those Saturday mornings—breakfast, dishes, and cleaning the house with his mother. A bittersweet smile creased his face until his gaze brushed by the door to the basement. He hadn’t grabbed his mother’s cleaning supplies while he was down there. He hadn’t even taken a rag.
As he stared at the door, a step behind it creaked as though someone stood on the other side of the door shifting from foot to foot. His gaze fell to the doorknob, hoping against hope that he had locked the door without thinking, but he hadn’t.
Heart racing, he slid his boot toward the door, and the stairs creaked again. He froze in place. Standing here like a goober will not help if there’s somebody behind that door. Or something. Which there isn’t, because there’s no such thing as ghosts or monsters or werewolves or vampires or anything else you can muster up, dumbass.
No scary lady, either.
Grimacing at his fear and stupidity, Eddie forced his other foot to move, to lift from the ground in a normal step. He forced himself across the kitchen floor and grasped the cold doorknob, tensing to bolt away at the first sign of one of those things that didn’t—that couldn’t—exist.
Nothing happened. No more creaking stairs, no more breath sounds, no laughing, no nothing.
See? he thought as a sigh of relief gusted out of him, and he shook his head, rolling his eyes at his own silliness. Nothing there.
He relaxed his grip, then froze, heart lurching in his chest. Did the doorknob just move? No, it couldn’t have. There’s nothing there, remember? But it sure seemed like the handle had rotated a tiny fraction. The knob warmed beneath his flesh— heated up like a living thing. He jerked his palm away from the doorknob and stared at it. It’s only a doorknob. A dusty, dirty doorknob. If it warmed up, it’s because of your own body heat. Stop being an idiot.
He willed himself to grab it and turn it, but his hand didn’t want to obey. His arm seemed frozen. He glared at his fist, telling it to move, to grab the doorknob, but it refused to listen. When he returned his gaze to the doorknob, the light reflecting from its surface shifted a mite, as if the knob moved the tiniest bit…as though someone had been turning it and then let go right before he looked at it.
Without planning to, he took a step back, his rebellious hands still refusing to obey him. His heart raced, and his breath came in gasps. He waited like a doomed man, taking shallow breaths and swaying from foot to foot.
The doorknob didn’t turn, and the stairs didn’t creak.
With a deep sigh, Eddie forced himself to relax, shaking his hands as if to wake them up after they’d fallen asleep. “You’re so silly, Eddie,” he murmured. He stepped closer to the door and reached for the handle. He laid his hand on the doorknob, and it was ice-cold again.
Someone pounded on the door that led to the dooryard, and Eddie jumped, a small shriek escaping his mouth. He turned toward the side door and froze.
No one should be knocking on that door, he thought. No one knows I’m here. They abandoned the house, right? The knocking paused, and Eddie held his breath. If I keep quiet, whoever it is might go away.
After the space of five heartbeats, the knocking began again, and Eddie sighed. After a moment, Chief John Morton’s face appeared in the kitchen window above the sink. The chief grinned and gave Eddie a jaunty little wave. He pointed to the side door and mimed turning a lock.
Eddie stood frozen, staring at the cop as if he were an apparition or a zombie returned from the dead. Too late to hide, he thought.
Morton waved toward the door, his smile faltering a little. “You’re not in any trouble, Eddie,” he called through the window. “This is your house, after all. Or at least your Aunt Margo’s until you turn eighteen.” He pointed at the side door again. “Come on, Eddie. Let me in. It’s freezing out here.”
Eddie plastered a smile on his face and waved. So much for no one ever finding me here, he thought. He walked to the side door and thumbed the deadbolt. He opened the door. “Hi, Chief,” he said.
Chief Morton beamed at him. “Hey there, Eddie. Thanks for letting me in.” He stomped his big feet on the top step of the stoop, dislodging the wet snow from the treads of his boots. His eyes never left Eddie’s face while he did this. “Colder than a witch’s tit out there this morning. The house isn’t much better. Rough night?”
Eddie licked his lips. “It was warm enough. I brought a blanket.” He cleared his throat and examined the chief, looking for a red woolen watch cap or a scarf or anything. “Were you…” He shook his head.
“What, Eddie?” asked Morton softly. “Was I what?”
“It’s stupid.” Eddie blushed and ducked his head.
“Nah. Come on. Ask old John. I don’t bite.”
“It’s just that I… Maybe I saw a flash of red. Out in the garage. Anyway, I thought you might have a red hat or something and…” Eddie wound down, feeling three kinds of foolish.
“Nope. I’ll go check it out if you want, but it was probably an old blanket flapping in the wind.”
Eddie’s blush deepened, and he shook his head.
“It’s no skin off my nose to go out there, Eddie. It’s my job, you know.” He put a thick hand on Eddie’s shoulder.
“No, it’s stupid. Just my mind playing tricks. Seeing things that aren’t there.”
John Morton stepped into the house and pulled the side door closed behind him. Morton looked at him for a moment, assessing him. Then he smiled and ruffled Eddie’s hair. “Geez, son, your breath freezes even inside there. Don’t you have the heat running?”
Eddie shrugged again. “Pilot light’s out.”
“Well, let’s get that sorted out,” said Morton. “It’s been a few years, but if I remember, the cellar door is in the kitchen. Am I right?”
Eddie’s throat went dry, and he imagined the lining of his esophagus cracking the way wet sand in the desert did as it dried. He settled for a nod and pointed toward the basement door.
With his eyes on Eddie’s face, the chief turned the deadbolt and then looked at the vault door. “Are you sure you have heating oil, Eddie?”
“I… Maybe.” Uncle Gil or Auntie Margo would have had to pay to have the tank filled, and part of him hoped that they had, but another part of him doubted it.
“What, did your aunt and uncle let the utilities drop?” The big man unzipped his shiny municipal jacket with its patches and badge and walked into the kitchen.
“They…they didn’t tell me one way or the other.”
Morton made a noise that was half amusement, half scoff. “I’m having trouble imagining your Uncle Gil parting with the money to keep this place warm.”
Eddie chuckled. “You don’t know the half of it, Chief.”
The chief turned and peered at him, his face serious. “I suppose it’s been hard.”
It wasn’t a question, but Eddie found himself nodding anyway.
“Worse of late, I bet.”
Eddie couldn’t meet his gaze and looked at his feet, nodding. He shouldn’t be the one feeling guilty, yet he did. Somehow, it didn’t seem fair.
“Guess that’s why you’re here.” Morton’s footsteps boomed across the kitchen, and he put his hand on the door’s knob.
Morton turned to look at Eddie, arching his craggy eyebrows.
Feeling foolish, Eddie dropped his gaze again. “I was… I mean, I went down there earlier… I needed a cup, and my mom… My mom used to keep a few down there for… For impromptu cookouts, I guess. I…”
The chief chuckled, an amused but understanding expression splashing across his face. “More mind tricks, eh? Well, don’t you feel embarrassed. Old, empty houses can be creepy, son. But don’t you worry, the police are here.”
Eddie peeked at the chief’s face and then away. The chief wore a huge smile, and Eddie folded his arms in front of him.
“Don’t worry, son. We all get spooked from time to time. Even big fat police chiefs.” With that, he turned the knob and descended into the basement. “If you only knew the calls I get, you wouldn’t waste any more energy on embarrassment.”
With his heart in his throat, Eddie walked to the top of the staircase and looked down, just in time to catch Chief Morton leaving the cone of luminance at the bottom of the stairs.
“Dark as the devil’s asshole down here, Eddie,” said the chief. “Turn on the overheads, will you?”
Eddie shook his head and reached for the switch, then grimaced at his own stupidity. “Electricity’s off.”
In the shadows at the bottom of the steps, a figure moved. But it wasn’t the right shape to be the chief’s shadow. And the way it moved… Like she used to—how an insect moves. Eddie shuddered and squeezed his eyes closed, hoping it would go away.
“Course it is, your Uncle Gil being who he is and all. Of course, the electricity’s off.” Eddie heard the distinctive sound of knurled metal rasping against plastic. “Good thing I brought my Maglite.” A bright white beam stabbed into the darkness below, flickering across the shelves, across the empty space, and then froze on the hulking mass of the heater. “There she is.”
“I tried to light the pilot last night,” said Eddie, his gaze going to his own flashlight standing like a lone soldier on the counter next to the sink.
“No joy?” The chief chuckled. “Obviously not. Sometimes I’m a tad slow, Eddie.”
“No, you’re not, Chief.”
The chief chuckled again. “Well, thank you for the vote of confidence, but from where I stand, I’ll have to disagree with you.”
Not knowing what to say, Eddie shrugged.
“Oil tank down here, son?”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “To your left.”
The white flashlight beam flickered to the chief’s left. “Yup, I see ‘er. I’ll take a look.” As he turned, a shadow detached itself from the corner. A shadow that the Maglite couldn’t pierce.
“Be—” Black smoke spurted up the stairs in the space between Eddie’s heartbeats. He had a mere moment to move, and he wasted the time gawking. The plume of smoke formed itself into an almost human shape, and, as if the thing opened eyelids made of smoke, two orange eyes gleamed at him from where the face should have been.
Eddie’s throat closed as though a strong man had wrapped his hands around it and squeezed. The eyes whirled and twirled, like pinwheels in a strong wind. They spun so fast, Eddie found himself listening for the clickity-click his brain insisted must be there.
“What was that, Eddie?” called the chief. “Didn’t catch what you said.”
While he stared into those spinning eyes, the thing of smoke disappeared in a snap. Eddie cleared his throat, the harsh sound echoing in the vault below, and he cursed himself for a major dweeb. “I said: ‘Be careful.’”
“Don’t you worry, son. Everything is in hand.”
The basement stairs creaked, as though someone was shifting their weight from side to side, right below where Eddie stood. His heart froze in his chest, and though his mouth opened, he couldn’t say a word. A shadow hid against the wall of the stairwell, pressed flat like a ninja—a shadow of a woman.
“Ah! Someone turned off the valve.”
An ice-cold object brushed against Eddie’s cheek. It felt like the most frigid hand in creation rested against his cheek, patting, caressing, but he couldn’t see anything, not even a shadow. He tried to shout for the chief, but his voice betrayed him. He croaked out a string of unintelligible syllables.
“You say something, Eddie?” called the chief.
Eddie parted his lips to speak, but that freezing object left his cheek and invaded his mouth, coating his teeth, gliding over his tongue. “Ugmmmph!” he grunted, trying to keep the cold—to keep her—out of his throat. He pulled his head back, but the pressure didn’t abate. He stumbled back until his butt bumped into the cabinets under the sink.
“Don’t be shy, son.” The police chief stepped over to the bottom of the steps, and Eddie imagined him standing there in the penumbra at the bottom of the stairs. “I got the oil turned back on, son. We’ll have this heater going in two shakes.”
Eddie tried to shake his head, but he couldn’t move. He tried to shout for the chief—for help, or as a warning—but he couldn’t even make the unintelligible sound that he made before. His chest began to hurt, to ache as if he’d been underwater too long.
“I’ll be right back, son.” His big feet thumped on the concrete, getting farther away.
Eddie’s tongue felt as though someone squeezed it with tongs made of the coldest metal imaginable. He tried to lean back over the sink, tried to lift his arms to ward off whatever the thing was. He thought his chest would explode if he didn’t get away from whatever had him.
The scary lady wants to do more than watch this time, a tiny voice in his mind whispered. Eddie’s eyes rolled side to side. So this is how she always hid from my mom and dad. She turned into a shadow or turned invisible. He twisted his head to the side, and a fraction of an inch outside the rays of the morning sunlight, a shadow hunched. A shadow with an arm stretched toward Eddie’s shadow.
In the basement, the clank of the pilot light door sounded. “Eddie? Do you have any…oh. Here they are, right in front of my nose.” A match scratched away down there in the darkness, and the heater whooshed to life. “That got her, son. Head on over to the thermostat and set a nice, warm temperature.”
The shadow faded as though the light making it had gone out, and the pressure on his tongue, the ice-cold invasion of his mouth disappeared.
Maybe nothing was ever there, he thought. On shaking legs, Eddie walked to the hall to set the thermostat. Behind him, the chief thumped up the stairs. “It’ll be warm as a pizza oven in here in a few minutes,” said the chief.
“Uh-huh,” Eddie croaked, his mind racing, ideas fluttering around like mad hummingbirds in a tornado. What was that? Did I imagine it?
Was that the scary lady? She seemed…different somehow, the small voice in his mind whispered. That was way worse than the other times the scary lady paid me a visit. She’s never touched me, not in any of her previous visits. Why did she touch me—attack me—this time? And why were her eyes different? The small voice had no answers, or if it did, it didn’t want to share.
“Well, then.” The chief settled his bulk into one of the dusty kitchen chairs. “Did you see that beautiful Tiffany lamp down there in the basement? Didn’t your Auntie Margo want that out to the farm where she could appreciate it? How do you suppose they got the glass that bright-red color? It’s almost as if the lamp is on, even though the thing’s not plugged into any socket I can see.”
Red? Eddie turned the thermostat to seventy-three degrees and tapped it with his finger the way his mother always had.
“Can’t say I appreciate the picture much. A Garden of Eden thing? That ugly willow tree with orange leaves, that orangish-brown snake with the red spots… And that weird bird! Not my style at all. Did your mother like that shade?”
My mother never saw that shade, Eddie thought. When daddy brought it home, it was as I saw it last night, but when the scary lady started to come, it changed to the dark background and bright-blue fish. It’s never been red. He wanted to say the words aloud, but even at eleven, Eddie knew better than to say things such as that to a cop.
He turned, glancing at the kitchen visible from where he stood. A part of him wanted to go down into the basement and look at the new lampshade, but he didn’t believe he’d ever go down those steps again. Not without someone dragging him.
“Why don’t you come back in here, Eddie, and we’ll have ourselves a little chat?”
“Coming.” With a gentle sigh, he turned away from the thermostat and walked back to the table in the kitchen. Eddie chose the chair across from Chief Morton’s and sat, resting his elbows on the table. After flicking up to the chief’s face, his gaze rested on Morton’s bronze name tag.
“Eddie, I know it’s hard.” The big man cleared his throat, but in a much more polite way than Eddie had a few minutes before. “It must be, it must be hard to deal with…well, what you have had to deal with. I don’t imagine your Uncle Gil makes it easy, either.”
Eddie pursed his lips and turned his head away.
“But there has to be something good in all this.”
Eddie darted a quick peek at the chief’s broad face.
“Your Auntie Margo is a nice one. Don’t you enjoy being with her every day? I mean, it’s better than a stranger, right?”
Eddie fidgeted with the zipper on his coat and leaned back in the chair.
“It can be hard, a boy your age and a man such as your Uncle Gil. I imagine he’s a hard taskmaster. Hard to please. High expectations.”
Eddie ducked his head.
“But is that all of it, Eddie?” asked the chief, leaning forward and resting his elbow on the table.
Eddie glanced up into the chief’s face, met his concerned gaze, but said nothing.
The chief looked uncomfortable for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck. “Your aunt…” Morton shrugged again. “Well, there’s been rumors. A small town such as Cottonwood Vale… People talk, and when the little old ladies at church glimpse bruises under your aunt’s shawl… Well, you know.” The chief reached for his neck again but stopped and dropped his hand to his lap.
Eddie raised his eyebrows.
“I can help, Eddie. If there is something going on, something not right, all I need is for you to tell me what it is.”
Eddie cut his gaze away.
“Eddie, look at me,” said Chief Morton, but it wasn’t a threat the way Uncle Gil always said it.
He brought his gaze back to the chief but stared at the end of the chief’s nose instead of looking him in the eye.
“I can help, Eddie. There are laws. It’s not how it used to be. If your Uncle Gil is getting up to no good, all you have to do is tell me.”
Eddie tried to swallow the sudden pain in his throat, unable to speak even if he wanted to. For a moment, he imagined that cold pressure on his tongue kept him from making a sound, but there was no pressure, no tightness around his throat or deep in his chest. He pictured that big black hole in his middle and shoved all that pain and fear into it.
Morton sighed and flopped his big hand on the table. “Okay, then. Tell me why you are here in this cold house. Why did you leave the farm last night?”
Eddie closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “I… I collect things. Gil…he…he doesn’t want me to collect things. He…” Eddie shook his head.
“Go on, son,” said the chief in a voice just above a whisper.
“I was collecting…” Eddie’s gaze darted up to meet the chief’s. “I had these…these figures, and Uncle Gil…Uncle Gil… He hated them.”
“What, action figures?”
Eddie licked his lips and cut his eyes to the side. “I had two G.I. Joes—one with the Kung-Fu Grip.”
“I can’t imagine anything wrong with that, son. A boy your age.”
Eddie squinted at the chief. “I also had… Do you know what a Ken doll is?”
John Morton nodded. “Yes, goes with a Barbie, right?”
“Yeah, I had a Ken doll and a few Barbies, too.”
“Barbies, you say?”
Eddie swallowed hard. “As collectibles. They’re going to be worth real money in twenty years. Everyone says so.”
Morton grinned and lifted his shoulders. “If you say so, son.” His face grew serious. “I’m still not seeing it, Eddie. I still don’t get why your Uncle Gil should get upset about this collection.”
“He…he called me a bad name.”
“Because of the Barbies?”
Eddie nodded, and John Morton pursed his lips and sighed. “Son, some men…” He shook his head. “Some men are a little uncomfortable with the idea that someone in their family might be different.”
“He called me a faggot,” Eddie blurted.
“I’d guessed that, Eddie. Do you understand what the word means? It’s an ugly word, for as much as it gets used these days.”
Eddie tilted his head to the side and looked off into the corner. “I think so. Men that…” Eddie blushed to the roots of his hair.
The chief leaned toward him. “Yes, men that love other men.”
“No, no. Playing with dolls doesn’t make you gay, son. If it were that simple, I don’t reckon there would be any gay men.”
“Then why did Uncle Gil—”
“To get at you a little.” The big man put his hands on the table between them and stared at his palms. “To make you feel small. Weak.”
“I don’t understand.” Uncle Gil always called him weak and made it sound like a bad thing. Why make me feel weak, then?
The chief glanced at him, meeting his gaze. “If your Uncle Gil is the type of man that he seems to be, Eddie, there’s a lot about him that’s hard to understand. It’s a weakness that some men have, a broken part deep inside that leads them to do bad things to the people they love.”
Eddie thought about the way Uncle Gil treated Auntie Margo, about the bruises she wore from time to time, about how he cowed her into doing whatever he wanted. He thought about how mean Uncle Gil had been to him over the years, how he had made Eddie burn his doll collection, and he bobbed his head.
The chief nodded back. “I see you understand. As far as I’m concerned, that’s another nail in your uncle’s coffin. All you have to do, Eddie—all you ever have to do—is ask me for help, and I’ll be there. I know how to stop a man who’s bent up inside like your Uncle Gil, to stop him cold. You just tell me.”
Eddie squirmed in his chair. I told you about Uncle Gil, he thought. I told you he didn’t like me. I told you he called me names. How many times do I have to tell you? But he said none of those things, and so, nothing changed.