It happened during her second month as a teacher. She was 23 and frustrated. She’d expected to end up in a city, but Teach For America had sent her here, to this little town built around a dead railroad station: Rexford, West Virginia. Another teacher had told her the unofficial town motto was “Hills, Whores, and Liquor Stores.” She hadn’t seen any whores, as far as she knew, but there were definitely hills and liquor stores.
“Okay, guys,” Julia told her fourth graders. “Settle down and start writing your stories.”
She was lucky, she knew. She’d been born with a teacher’s voice. Confident but kind, pleasing to the ear but full of authority. They listened when she spoke. If you couldn’t get them to listen, you were dead.
You needed other things too. Patience. A good memory of who you had been at that age. But most of all, you had to love the kids—suffer when they struggled or when something bad was going on at home—be happy for them when they succeeded or when they laughed wildly at a dumb joke. And she did. She loved her kids.
She just wasn’t sure she loved being a teacher. Especially not here, in this town.
She herself had had a few teachers, particularly one in high school, who told her she could be something. What she wanted now was to be that kind of teacher: one who made a difference for her students, or at least for a few of them. But most of the Rexford kids didn’t seem to want anything different. They already looked forward to dropping out of high school at sixteen.
“Your story can be a fable, a tall tale, or a fairy tale,” she told the class. “But remember, what do all stories have?”
“Miss Grey! I know!” said Travis, his arm shooting up. “A beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Travis was loud and bossy, the kind of kid they always joked would become a teacher. He lived in Ballard Creek, a new-ish suburb outside of Rexford, filled with D.C. commuters who lived out here because taxes were lower. Julia had gone there last month to drive a kid home after he’d missed the bus. The lawns were neat. She’d talked briefly to the kid’s mom, who was a little drunk. The mom had pointed up the street at all the saplings in their swollen beds of dirt.
“Tiny trees,” she’d said. “All planted at the same time. That’s why they’re all the same size. There’s nothing I hate more than tiny trees.”
Julia had nodded politely. Your poor husband…
You could tell the Ballard Creek kids from the Rexford kids right away. They had cleaner clothes. They weren’t smarter, but they had parents who actually made them do homework.
“That’s right,” she told Travis. “A beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Miss Grey. It felt like a glove that didn’t fit.
When the recess bell rang, they leapt from their seats to line up at the door.
Except Lucas Weaver. He stayed at his desk, feverishly writing.
All the Rexford kids were poor. But Lucas seemed really poor. He had dark hair and scabby hands. The pair of Wrangler jeans he wore every single day had been patched up so sloppily she wondered if he’d done it himself.
“Okay, guys,” she said to the line of rowdy nine- and ten-year-olds, “quiet down. I said a line, not a circus.”
They got quiet, and she let them go. Other teachers were already outside to watch them on the playground.
She and Lucas were alone. Her desk was covered with unfinished lesson plans and papers she needed to grade, and part of her wanted to tell him to go outside so she could get her work done. But she sat beside him.
“Lucas, you don’t want to go to recess?”
He didn’t look up. “I’m writing my fairy tale.”
“Okay,” Julia said. She saw that he wasn’t just writing, he was illustrating. The illustrations were detailed and swift. She didn’t want to interrupt—he was so engrossed!—so she watched. His shoulders were frail, his bones birdlike and distinct. Did he have enough to eat? Did he get breakfast in the morning?
She had asked around about him. He lived down in the Mudders, which was what they called a row of homes out past the train tracks. The real name was Perlmutter Road. It was the poorest part of town.
In her two months’ experience, Lucas had been the hardest to make a connection with. He had no friends. If you got close to him, he seemed to subtly withdraw, like he was scared he smelled bad. He actually did have a faint odor, but it wasn’t anything revolting, exactly. He smelled like damp leaves, like the outdoors, and like…pets. Damp animal fur.
“Do you have a dog or a cat at home?” she said.
Lucas stopped writing. The question seemed to trouble him. “No.”
“Oh,” she said. “Did you ever ask your mom and dad if you could have one?”
He still didn’t look at her. “I just live with my dad. And my little brother.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” she said. “What’s his name?”
“How old is he? Does he go here?”
“He’s homeschooled,” Lucas said.
She saw that he’d almost finished another illustration. It was a large animal, burly and dark. Suddenly he stood, as if embarrassed, and crumpled up the pages.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He ran to the trash can, tearing the pages up, and threw the scraps away. He looked at her with a shy, ashamed expression that made her heart go out to him. But then he fled outside. She observed through the window as he crouched at the edge of the playground, arms around knees, watching the other kids.
She was in the teacher’s lounge when a third grade teacher named Bret Goucher approached her.
“A story one of my kids drew,” Julia said. She was taping Lucas’s story back together like a jigsaw puzzle. She thought Bret would go away after a moment—he was like an older version of the guys in college who seemed to think that if they just hovered long enough, you might spontaneously become their girlfriend—but instead he sat down.
Bret made a soft, sympathetic chuckle.
“Kind of a lost cause, isn’t he? Never had him in class, but I think he’s a little out there.”
“He’s smart,” Julia said. “I wonder if the dad has any idea.”
Bret said, “I was at the cleaners a few months ago—the laundromat, by Paul’s Pizza? And the kid, Lucas, comes in with an armful of sheets, and he goes to a machine, puts the sheets in, puts a quarter in…and then he strips down to his underpants and puts all his clothes in, too! So he’s sitting there, buck naked except his Batman underpants, just watching the clothes go round and around, like a dog.” He gave another chuckle.
“He doesn’t have any other clothes to wear,” Julia said quietly.
“You know,” Bret said, “I did Teach For America too when I was your age. They had me in Baltimore. It was like The Wire. Those people name their kids the craziest shit. I had this pair of twins in my class. The one was named Yahighness and the other one was Yamajesty—”
“I gotta go,” Julia said, getting up. She had finished taping the story together.
Julia read Lucas’s story at home. She was renting a little cottage just outside of town. Her cottage nestled behind a larger house—one of the nicest, most well-kept houses around Rexford—where the landlady, a sixty-something divorced woman named Elaine Fielding, lived. The cottage was quiet and cozy.
Lucas’s story was called “The Three Wolfs.”
Sometimes kids just rewrote stories they knew. They’d write about Iron Man or Jack Sparrow. She thought at first that Lucas had just retold Goldilocks, with wolfs.
But there was no Goldilocks in his story. There were only the Wolfs, who lived together in a cave above a town. Big Wolf, Middle Wolf, and Little Wolf. Big Wolf was a brute. Little Wolf was timid. Middle Wolf was the peacemaker.
“Every day Middle Wolf went out and got fish for them all. But one day he came back and Big Wolf and Little Wolf had rabeez. And all they wanted to do was go to town and eat people.”
So Middle Wolf blocked up the entrance to the cave with rocks and trapped the other two inside, where they growled all day and night. And every day, he caught fish for them, which he slipped between the rocks to sate their hunger. And every night, he slept by the entrance to make sure they never got out.
Lucas had drawn each of them. His illustrations were quick but thoughtlessly confident, like a painter’s sketches. The most extraordinary thing was how realistic they were, except that Middle Wolf had an oddly human face and Big Wolf had strange eyes. Little Wolf was just a pup.
It was a strange story for a kid to write. He’d said he lived with his dad and little brother, Todd. So Big Wolf was the father, Little Wolf was Todd, and Middle Wolf—the one who took care of everything, who kept the peace—was Lucas.
She guessed Lucas’s father was probably an alcoholic, maybe a bad one. And Lucas was probably one of those kids who have to parent the parent—clean up, put his brother to bed on nights when Dad stumbled in late or passed out early. And that thing about Little Wolf getting rabeez…Was Lucas afraid because his brother, probably younger and more impressionable, looked up to Dad? Might one day become him? Was she reading too much into it? She went to bed with the story kicking around her mind. Shapes of wolves slouched through her dreams, surly, with black, matted fur.
Julia went by Rite Aid on her way to school and bought sweatshirts and socks.
Before class, she looked at Lucas’s front office records. His home address was listed as 18 Perlmutter Road. The only parent listed was his father, Frank. Frank. She pictured a big man, rough, with a nimbus of liquor breath.
“What’re you interested in the Weaver kid for?” the secretary, Carole, asked.
Julia closed the file. “Mrs. Parsons mentioned a Board of Ed thing once, an art program for gifted students? County Arts Program, or—”
“Jefferson County Arts Mentorship Program,” Carole recited. “It’s Fed money. They pay special teachers, bring ’em in a couple times a week after school. One-on-one work.”
Julia thought, That would be perfect for Lucas.
At lunch, Julia kept Lucas behind and gave him the clothes. Two cheap grey sweatshirts and six pairs of white socks with red stripes. He seemed not to believe it at first. He didn’t want to let go of them.
“These will fit me,” he said, tentative.
“Good,” Julia said. Then she said, “You like drawing, don’t you? You like art?”
“I like drawing stuff.”
“I found out about a special program for kids like you,” she said. “You’d get to stay after school and work with a special art teacher for drawing. I talked to a man at the Board of Ed about it. Is that something you want to do?”
She saw something in his eyes then. Enthusiasm or hope, one of those quiet, thrilling things.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Great!” Julia said. “I just need to get your dad to sign a permission slip. I’d like to talk to him about it, too, and—”
Lucas’s face changed. A light went out.
“Actually, I don’t want to,” he said. He got up, hurried toward the door.
“Wait,” Julia said. “Lucas, you would get to—”
“I changed my mind,” he said, fleeing. She heard the sharp, echoing smacks of his sneakers in the hallway.
She thought about it that night, making dinner in the cottage. She could hear Elaine’s dogs—a mastiff and a Dalmatian—barking from the main house. Must be a rabbit in the yard. She thought about how Lucas had reacted so viscerally to the idea that she might talk to his father. Was he embarrassed by the idea of her meeting… Frank?
No, not embarrassed. There had been fear. He thought Frank would punish him for being singled out as gifted.
The next day at lunch, she tried to talk to Lucas again, but he resisted, saying only, “I changed my mind! I don’t want to do it!”
Later, she called his home phone number—the one listed in his file—but got “This number is not in service…”
It bothered her. She asked Mrs. Simms, the teacher who’d had Lucas last year, if she’d ever met Frank. Mrs. Simms didn’t think so, and she was surprised that Julia thought Lucas was gifted. Mrs. Simms had thought he was “challenged.”
None of the other teachers had ever seen Lucas’s father.
Well, this is what I’m here to do, isn’t it? Julia thought. If nobody else at this school has gone out of their way to help this kid, or reached out to Frank Weaver, it might as well be me.
She didn’t tell Lucas. Perlmutter Road was the last stop on his bus route, so he would get dropped off around 4. If she left school right away, she could get to his house by 3:40, which would give her twenty minutes to talk to Frank Weaver.
It was Friday. She left right after the last bell. She drove through town, past forlorn houses and big dogs chained to posts, past Judy’s Laundromat and Paul’s Pizza. Then down a pockmarked road to the dead train station. She crossed the tracks and drove down a short road, flanked by woods, that became another road. The sagging homes that lined it made her think of toothless faces.
This was Perlmutter Road. The Mudders. Lucas’s house, number 18, was a two-story grey trap. The porch was sunken. The driveway was so overgrown that there was no driveway.
Julia parked on the street. The house was even worse up close. The neighboring ones, at least, showed signs of life. Toys on porches, curtains in windows. But Lucas’s front yard hadn’t been mowed in years. And the windows were actually boarded up.
Had she made a mistake?
She looked around. It was quiet. She could hear insects. Birds in the woods. Dogs. There were no dogs. Every other yard in Rexford, it seemed, had a dog. But not here. Not in the Mudders. She remembered how Lucas smelled. Like pets. But he’d told her he didn’t have any.
Someone was looking at her.
She didn’t know how long he’d been there. A young man—a kid—on the next porch over. He had the hollow eyes of an oxycontin addict. High school age.
“What are you doing over there?” he said.
“I need to talk to Mr. Weaver,” Julia said. Her voice sounded too high. Weak. She tried again. “Frank Weaver. Do you know if he’s here?”
He just kept staring. Maybe he wasn’t such a kid. Maybe he was in his mid-twenties, or older. “You better get away from there,” he said.
“I’m from the school,” she said. “I’m Lucas’s teacher.”
“Well, I told you,” he said. He went into his house. She thought about knocking on his door, asking if he knew them. But she was scared of him. She was scared of Frank Weaver, too. She was scared that at any moment she’d lose her nerve.
She walked up on Lucas’s porch and rang the doorbell.
No sound from inside. She beat on the door with her open hand, hesitantly at first, then harder.
“Hello? Mr. Weaver?”
Nothing. And yet she had a discomfiting sense of someone just on the other side of the door, and aware of her presence. She pounded on the door again.
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
Still no sound. She stepped back. She noticed something—the windows were boarded up from the outside. She approached the nearest one. The boarding-up had been done haphazardly, with the boards misaligned and the nails driven in at crazy angles.
It was, she thought, like a child had done it.
There were gaps between the boards. She leaned in, staring into the interior darkness, letting her eyes adjust to the shadows inside.
One shadow was shaped like a man.
Her scalp went cold. He was standing fifteen feet away, looking in her direction. Or maybe it’s just a coat hung on a door. Maybe it’s just…No. The figure in the darkness shifted slightly. It didn’t come closer. It just shifted its weight. It was simply standing there—and hating her. Radiating malevolence.
Then the paralysis was gone and she jolted back as if burned. She stood at the edge of the porch, shaken. The sunlight on the back of her neck made her feel like a little girl, a fearful and wildly imaginative child.
You’re just scared. You didn’t see…that.
The neighborhood was empty and silent. She edged back to the window and peered between the boards. The…figure…was gone. There were still shadows in the same place, but they were indistinguishable from other shadows.
Get your shit together.
She’d come here to do something—to help a kid who needed help. Jumping at shadows was no way to go about it.
Something was wrong here, though. That living room hadn’t looked inhabited.
Julia went down the porch steps and looked up at the house again. And now she noticed something—the upstairs windows were not boarded. There was only dark glass.
Walking cautiously around the house—should I be doing this?—she peered into the backyard. The grass was high. There was a slash of blue material in it, shiny like a windbreaker: A tent. A sagging blue tent, as if for a camping trip.
The front flap was open. She approached it and knelt to look in. She saw candy wrappers, empty peanut butter containers. Bed sheets with some comic book hero on them. Thor. It was Thor. A child’s sheets. And she saw pens and pencils and 9-by-12 paper, the kind they used in the school printers. And library books—school library books. Sounder and Bridge to Terabithia.
And in the corner, a small pile of familiar white socks with red stripes.
Lucas was living in the tent.
The poor kid. Where was Frank Weaver? Had Lucas’s father abandoned him here? Gone out drinking one night and never come home?
She went back around the house, intending to leave—and then she heard the school bus. Instinctively she stopped, half-hidden.
Lucas and two older boys got off. The older boys were roughhousing as they went off down the street.
She watched Lucas walk toward the house alone. He went around the other side, into the back yard. She crept back around to see him enter his tent. After a moment, he came out with the Thor sheets bundled in his arms. He carried the bundle back around the other side of the house. She watched him go up the street, his small figure getting smaller. Off to the laundromat.
He was on his own. She would have to talk to child services, get the county involved. Once he was gone, she walked toward her car. But a prickly feeling on the back of her neck—like a silk scarf brushing against it—made her turn and look back at the house. It was a shell, a sarcophagus.
A shape moved in the upstairs window.
A child’s silhouette—smaller than Lucas. Maybe five years old. Then it was gone. It had been sucking on its fingers.
Todd. The little brother.
She walked back to the porch. She rang the bell and called, “Todd?”
No answer. But she’d seen him. He was in there.
She pounded on the door. Silence. She peered through the boarded-up windows again. Darkness. Then, soft as a cat, a little figure dashed past.
“Todd!” she shouted. “I’m Lucas’s teacher, from school. Can you let me in?”
No reply. She tried the front door. Locked.
“Todd? I need to talk to you.”
She heard something, like a kitten mewling, from inside. Plaintive. As it got louder, it sounded less like a kitten, more like a child. It grew into a sob. A sound of desolation and fear.
I have to get in there. I have to help that child.
She banged on the door. “Can you hear me? Open the door!”
The crying seem to be from deep in the house, maybe from the basement. It had a faraway, panicky, almost hysterical quality.
Julia threw herself against the door. Something terrible was happening inside that house. Something had happened to that child. A kind of madness was coming over her.
The door didn’t give. She looked around wildly and saw something sharp in the grass: a long piece of metal, rusted, something from a car. She brought it to the door, stabbed one end between the door and the jamb, and pulled. With a retching crackle, the door swung inward, the old lock ripping out of the dry, almost-rotted wood.
Immediately the crying stopped.
She looked into the foul, stale darkness and listened. Her heart was pounding; she felt it in her throat and ears and under her left breast.
The fever that had come over her—the frantic desire to get inside the house, help the child—subsided a little. Did I really hear it?
Yes. She had heard it. And she’d seen the silhouette. There was a child in this house and he’d been terrified, maybe in pain.
So why now the silence?
She stepped inside. The air was…heavy. She held the neck of her shirt over her mouth. Things had rotted in here. There were animals in the walls, or something, and one had expired.
Her voice died in the air. She was in a cramped front hallway. To the left was the kitchen…ancient dishes in the sink…everything coated in a grime-skin. To the right, though, was the living room. The room she’d seen the little figure dash through.
She entered it. The rug was grey-brown. Liquor bottles in the corner. Rat droppings all over the floor. A Redskins calendar sideways on the wall, yellow. On a coffee table sat a bowl of black moss that had been soup.
Beside the bowl sat three small figurines of red clay. The figurines had disproportionately large heads. Animals of some kind, maybe goats.
“Todd?” she called again.
A symbol had been smeared on the table, long ago, in some dark substance. A five pointed star. The star had other markings, drawings that looked like eyes with rectangular black pupils, like goats’ eyes. One at each point of the star.
A feeling of dread was coming over her. Like she’d miscalculated in some disastrous way.
I shouldn’t have come here.
Then her skin tightened into bumps. She felt it again, the sense of someone close by. That presence she’d imagined—no, I didn’t imagine it—beyond the boarded-up window. Its malevolence, its pure and shining hatred.
That presence was standing behind her. Giving off an overpowering desire to perform acts of cruelty. To mutilate, to desecrate, to inhale the agony of others.
She looked behind her. Nothing. Nothing. She wanted to flee the house. But another, darker room—the room into which the small figure had dashed—waited beyond the living room. She took a step toward that doorway. It led into a dining room, where the light didn’t reach. She didn’t enter, just looked in.
A man and a small child, curled on the floor.
They’d been dead a long time. They were dry as leaves, almost mummified, and there was something wrong with their faces—
The sense of a presence behind her grew suddenly intolerable, as if it were just now leaning over her shoulder, its big chin almost resting on her collarbone, its breath on her neck.
“ONE MORE STEP.”
A whisper—she jolted so hard it was more like a convulsion. In a mindless panic, she ran from the house. On the lawn, she fumbled for her phone, gasping. No service.
The house is doing it, she thought hysterically. Whatever’s in the house. It’s that strong, it’s jamming the signal.
She was halfway up the street before she got any bars.
The sheriff’s name was Drew Eastin. He was a skinny, thoughtful-looking forty-ish man with deep crow’s feet and a calm half-smile. On another day, she might have found him attractive.
“Stay here,” Eastin told her. Two more squad cars were pulling up. That was probably half of Rexford’s police force. “We’ll go in and see what’s what.”
She waited, numb, by the police cars. She kept hearing that voice in her ear, the raspy whisper. A man’s voice, rough and insistent. The sheriff went into the house with a few deputies. One came back out. His face was ashen and gleaming and he kept rubbing his mouth.
When Sheriff Eastin emerged, he wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked older.
“Like you said,” he told her. “Two bodies. State crime lab’ll tell us for sure, but I think it’s Frank Weaver and his son Todd.”
“I don’t understand it. Why didn’t Lucas tell anyone?” Julia said.
“Probably scared the county would take him away. Probably seen it happen to other kids down here.” He looked around. Some residents were outside, watching the police cars. “I’ll get Kenny to go by the Laundromat, pick up the kid.”
“Okay,” Julia said. “I’d like to stay here until they find him, if that’s all right. Do you have any idea what happened? How they died?”
Eastin sighed. “If I had to guess, I’d say Frank killed his boy, maybe fed him rat poison—there’s a big box in there—and then killed himself. What happened after that, I don’t know. It looks like nobody’s been in there for a year. Jesus.”
“What about the crying I heard? And the person I thought I saw moving around?”
You didn’t think. You saw it.
Eastin gave her a strange look. “There’s nobody else in there. We looked all over. Only place we haven’t been yet is the basement.”
“Why not?” she said, uneasy.
“It’s locked. Heavy door. We’re looking for a key. We’ll get a locksmith to come if we can’t find one.”
“Could someone be down there?”
“If so, they’re keeping quiet.”
He shook his head again, slowly exhaled. “What?” Julia asked.
“I’ve been a cop for 25 years. I’ve seen a few people who died younger than they should. But in there… something’s not right.”
She nodded. She knew.
ONE MORE STEP
Eastin went reluctantly back to the house. A coroner’s van arrived. Two men in white uniforms carried out the body bags.
They were loading the second body bag—the little one—when footsteps came up quickly behind her, soft and crackling. She cried out as she turned—
It was Lucas. He had come out of the woods up the street; he must have taken a shortcut, and the police had missed him. Clutching his bed sheets, he stared with horror as the bodies were taken away.
“What are they doing?” he asked in a high, shaken voice.
“We found your father and Todd,” she said gently. “We know you’ve been on your own. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to—”
“What are they doing?”
“Lucas, how long have you been living like this, by yourself?” she said. “Can you tell me that? When did it happen?”
He didn’t seem to hear. He took a few tentative steps, staring with what seemed like disbelief at the small black body bag being loaded into the van.
“They took them out?” he said. “They’re taking them away?”
“Lucas,” she said, “they’re not going to take you away. Someone’s going to—”
“They can’t do that!”
The look on his face was heartbreaking. A look of despair. Of someone who has no choices left.
No kid should have to feel that way.
She stood in front of him to block his view. She put her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes.
“It’s going to be okay,” she told him. “I know this must have been hard—I can’t imagine how hard—but I’m here for you. That’s a promise. Do you understand?”
His state of shock seemed to subside, and a flicker of comprehension came into his eyes. He nodded.
“That’s a promise,” Julia said again.
Very quietly, he said, “I’m scared.”
She hugged him. She couldn’t help it.
Julia spoke quietly with Eastin, out of Lucas’s hearing. The sheriff had tried asking the kid a few gentle questions, but barely got a response.
“What’s going to happen to him?” Julia asked.
“First thing, we need to figure out the relative situation. Maybe he goes to live with an aunt or grandma.”
“What if he doesn’t have one?”
“Well,” Eastin said uncomfortably, “then we see what the other options are. There are good foster families out there.”
“What about this weekend?” Julia asked. “Where’s he going to sleep?”
It was clearly a question the sheriff had not considered yet. “Well,” he finally said, “I don’t know that even if we drove him to Morgantown they’d have a place all set up for him tonight. I’ll…I’ll see if I know someone who can—”
“I can,” Julia said. “He can stay with me. I rent the cottage behind Elaine Fielding’s house. There’s room.”
“Well, good,” Eastin said. “I mean, you’re his teacher.”
She drove Lucas to her cottage. The whole ride, he stared out the window, scanning the trees like he was looking for something. Very faintly, in the distance, there were sirens. Rexford was in a valley, and sound carried.
“Do you want to listen to the radio?” Julia asked, because she didn’t know what else to say. What could you say to a kid who’d been through what he had? All you could do was try to make him feel safe for the moment.
No matter what I do, he’s gonna need a lot of therapy.
Lucas didn’t seem to hear her. He just kept looking out the window. Now and then he twisted in the seat to look over his shoulder, as if something might be following them down the road.
Elaine, her landlord, was retrieving the plastic refuse bins from the end of the driveway when they got home. Elaine was tall, with short grey hair, a husky laugh, and a serene, absent-minded smile. She was smiling now, wiping one hand on a faded t-shirt that said Vandals, which Julia was pretty sure was an old band. She was also pretty sure Elaine smoked a lot of weed. Elaine leaned down to the window to say hi.
“Hey, who’s this?” she said. “One of your students?”
“This is Lucas,” Julia said. “He’s hanging out this weekend. Right, Lucas?”
Lucas studied Elaine. “Yeah,” he said.
“Lucas, Elaine lives in the other house, that one.” Julia pointed it out.
Elaine looked a little puzzled but waved. “Okay then. Lucas, I want you to do one thing for me, okay?”
“What?” he said even more quietly.
“Keep it real. Can you do that?”
“Good,” Elaine said. “Then you don’t have to worry about anything.”
Julia drove up past the main house and parked by the cottage. It was getting dark. Once inside, Lucas shut the front door and locked it. Then he went around and locked all the windows.
“You want to get pizza for dinner?” she asked. She was trying to keep him occupied, if not entertained. She had just started playing Despicable Me on her laptop—she didn’t have a TV—and they were on her couch watching it. He sat with his arms wrapped around his knees.
“I don’t want to go out,” he said. “Do you have anything to eat here?”
“We don’t have to go out. We can order,” Julia said, searching for her phone. “What do you like? Cheese? Sausage?”
She ordered two large pizzas from Paul’s, the local place, thinking she could put leftovers in the fridge. What kid doesn’t like pizza for breakfast? When she sat back down with him, she noticed again his frailness, his birdlike shoulders. Her desire to help him, to protect him, swelled up stronger than ever. Now that she knew how he had been living, she wondered if he was suffering from serious malnutrition.
He should be checked out by a doctor. He should’ve been taken straight to a hospital.
She wasn’t going to make Lucas’s night even worse by rushing him off to War Memorial Hospital right now—an hour away—just when the movie was getting good and they had pizza coming. But she could make sure something was arranged for tomorrow. She went into the kitchen with her phone. Sheriff Eastin had given her his number.
His phone rang many times before he answered.
“Yeah, who’s this?” He sounded almost out of breath and there was a siren, loud, in the background. She had the impression that he was driving.
“It’s Julia Gray. I wanted to ask you—I think Lucas should see a doctor, get checked out. I think he’s malnourished and, given how he’s been living—”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
“Is everything all right?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
“I’m headed over to Ballard Creek. It sounds like some people got hurt over there tonight—maybe bad.” His voice sounded raw. Not the confident man who’d showed up in the Mudders a few hours earlier. “Miss Gray, I have to go, but there’s something else I ought to tell you…. We got into the basement. I’m gonna ask you to keep this to yourself. What we found down there was, uh, a lot of animals. Dead ones.”
“What kind of animals?” she said quietly, so Lucas wouldn’t hear.
“Dogs mostly, dogs and cats. Some of them had collars and tags. They were, ah—I’ve never seen anything quite like it. They were kind of…twisted around. Like with their necks and their…bodies broken.”
“Broken?” she said.
“Like somebody wrung them like towels and broke everything inside them,” Eastin said. “And…some of them hadn’t been down there that long. Some of them had only been there…maybe a week. Or less.”
Julia looked back into the living room. Lucas was watching the movie.
“How big were they?” she said faintly. She heard what sounded like a police radio crackling.
“Small. Cats and small dogs.” He knew what she was thinking. He said, “Miss Gray, I don’t know what happened to those animals in that basement. But if you don’t want that kid in your house tonight, I get it—you bring him over to the station. You understand?”
“I’ll call you back,” she said quietly.
She hung up. She looked back into the living room. Lucas was not watching the movie anymore. He was looking at her.
She remembered the way he always recoiled at school if anyone got near him, like he was scared he smelled bad. But he didn’t smell bad…
He smelled like pets.
tried to wring them like towels
broke everything inside them
Julia looked at his skinny arms, his small white hands.
He couldn’t do that. Could he?
She walked slowly over to him. He kept watching her. She sat next to him. She looked him in the eye.
“Lucas,” she said, “How long ago did your father and your little brother die?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he mumbled.
“You need to,” Julia said. “How did they die?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he repeated almost inaudibly.
“Did you see it?”
He didn’t speak. She looked at him. That quality he had, which she had interpreted as vulnerable shyness…could it be something else? Something colder, more reptilian? She remembered that movie, The Bad Seed. Or was it The Good Son? Someone—one of her relatives—had made a joke about it when she became a teacher.
“Lucas,” Julia said, her voice catching in her throat, “they found some animals in your basement. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Do you know how they got there?”
“Did you…put them there?”
He shook his head slowly. She took his arm. It was as thin as a bone.
“Lucas… if you don’t answer me, I can’t help you. Please, tell me the truth: Who killed the animals in the basement?”
He just stared at her.
Thoughtlessly, as if in a dream, she stood up and started backing away. Dimly she was aware of the dogs barking over at Elaine’s house, but then they both went silent. The movie, still playing on her laptop, chirped mockingly. Lucas watched her back into the kitchen. Then he turned to look out the window, where darkness had fallen.
She called Sheriff Eastin back. She had to call three times before he answered, and when he did, she could hear screaming in the background—the gender of the person was impossible to know, but they were screams of fresh, shattering grief.
“Who is that? What’s happening?” Julia said unsteadily, a panic rising.
“Miss Gray, I gotta call you back,” the Sheriff said hoarsely. “Some people got…killed over here in Ballard tonight.” The way he hesitated before he said killed made it sound like they hadn’t just been killed. Like something more awful, more…specific had happened to them. “I think maybe…some kind of animal’s gotten loose. And we don’t know where it is now.”
She had a flash image of a human body torn apart, broken—tried to wring them out like towels—lying like a huge, shredded red rag on one of those neat green Ballard Creek lawns.
“Sheriff, I want to talk to you about Lucas—”
“Not now,” he said distractedly. “Just lock your doors.”
She said, “They already are,” and then Eastin hung up on her.
and all they wanted to do was go to town and eat people
Except maybe he hadn’t hung up on her, because when she looked at the phone, she had no service anymore. Just like earlier, at Lucas’s house. And just like earlier, she felt a chill of dread, the fine hairs all over her body standing on end.
She looked at Lucas again. He was still looking out at the window into the night, but now he was gripping the edge of the couch with white-knuckled hands. If he were a dog, the hair on his back would’ve been standing straight up.
“Lucas,” she whispered, “what are you looking at?”
Then the screams started from outside.
They were coming from Elaine’s house. The sound was so raw, so unfamiliar, that at first Julia didn’t realize it was Elaine. She started for the door but Lucas cried in a high voice, “No—don’t go out there!”
It was a good thing she hesitated, because then, in the window, she saw movement. Something in the yard. Lucas saw it too, and backed away from the window.
There was a child out there. Just a small dark shape, moving strangely on the grass. She knew right away that it was the same silhouette she’d seen in the window at Lucas’s house, in the shape of a small boy. But now she could see that something was growing out of its skull, something like gnarled tree branches. Horns, or antlers. The boy-thing had its fingers in its mouth. It was hopping, like a frog, in the dark grass. It was playing. Not the least bit bothered by the long, ragged screams of agony coming from the other house.
“Lucas,” Julia whispered, paralyzed, “who is that?”
She said, “Your brother Todd is dead.”
Elaine’s screams stopped. They had seemed to go on forever, but it was probably only fifteen or twenty seconds.
The little boy-thing in the yard stopped hopping. It stood and turned toward the big house, and when it did, she got a glimpse of its face in the moonlight—wax-white and strangely bulbous, with large, crazily staring eyes, and a wet mouth that was sucking on itself as if in constant search of a food source. Then shadows covered it again. The glimpse was so shocking, so bizarre, that she wanted to believe she’d imagined it—that her mind had drawn it up from some horror movie she’d seen as a girl.
The lights in Elaine’s house were dark. They’d been on earlier. Now the little boy—Todd—was staring at Elaine’s house as the back door swung open and something—a man-shaped darkness, but larger than a man—emerged.
Julia recognized it, too. It was the thing she’d seen the first time she looked in the boarded-up window of Lucas’s house. The figure that had radiated such malevolence. The one that had whispered to her.
ONE MORE STEP
Now she could see that it, too, had great, gnarled, oak-like antlers. It walked to the little boy (if walked was the right word, because its feet didn’t quite seem to touch the ground) and held out its hand, and the little boy shape seemed to eat, or lap, something out of its hand.
She didn’t have to ask Lucas who it was. She knew.
It was Frank Weaver.
Frank and Todd turned to look at the cottage. Their faces, indistinct in the darkness, were grotesquely, almost clownishly evil.
“Lucas,” she whispered, “what do they want?”
He was so quiet she could barely hear him.
“They’re hungry. They’re always hungry.”
and all they wanted to do was go to town and eat people
They were still just standing out there in the yard, like hateful statues. She understood that they didn’t eat in the normal sense. They didn’t feed on flesh, that wasn’t what he meant. They fed on pain.
“What are they?” she whispered. “How did they get like this?”
“He did it,” Lucas said. “He made it so if they died, they would be like this…” His voice choked off. “He didn’t know that if their bodies stayed in the house, they couldn’t get out.”
“You were feeding them, weren’t you?” she said. “You were keeping them trapped in the house and feeding them.”
“I had to,” Lucas whispered.
“And I let them out,” Julia said.
Lucas didn’t answer. She wanted to ask him why he hadn’t warned her, told her they would be coming. But she knew the answer—it wouldn’t have made any difference. She never would’ve believed him.
She said, “Is there anything we can do?”
He stared out the window, his chin crumpling. “They don’t like the light,” he said. “But the lights are going to go out soon.”
The two figures in the yard were no longer standing still.
The little boy started toward the cottage, still being playful. He took giant, exaggerated tiptoe steps, like a cartoon character sneaking up on someone.
And the huge man strode—floated—after him.
A full-body panic seized her. Once, as a child, she had been dragged and rolled by a wave at the beach. It seemed to go on forever, and as her brain screamed for oxygen and black dots swelled in her vision, she’d felt the same panic: I’m going to die TOO SOON. As in, NOW.
They came toward the cottage with nightmarish slowness—grinning, enjoying themselves, like an obscene parody of a father and son out for a walk—and she knew that when they reached it, her life would end.
“I’ll go with them,” Lucas said faintly. “They came for me. If I go out there, they might not—”
“Shut up,” she hissed. She was trying to think. The lights are going to go out. She knelt and fumbled under the table by the front door—she kept a flashlight there.
A tiny voice in her head screamed at her. Send him out! For fuck’s sake, if he’s the one they want, send him out there—and RUN.
Ignoring it, she turned the flashlight on—a heavy, powerful Maglite with a black metal handle longer than her forearm—barely a second before the lights went out. Darkness surged in on them. The Maglite’s beam swung wildly, bleaching the walls and ceiling. She saw their leering, impossible faces, suddenly right outside the window, pressed up against the glass, looking in. Their eyes had rectangular black pupils, like goats’. The boy gibbered soundlessly, lips moving and puckering.
They’d be on her already, she knew, if not for the Maglite—which had already begun to flicker—
“GIVE HIM TO ME.”
A whisper…but it felt like burning smoke against her eardrum, like steam enveloping her brain. She cried out and recoiled—and then they weren’t at the window anymore but inside, the man-shape in one corner of the room and the boy-shape in another, moving in, and the flashlight died and Lucas was shrieking—
—and Julia was about to scream in someone else’s voice, Take him! Leave me alone!—
Headlights flashed across the front windows. A car was pulling up outside. Frank and Todd weren’t there anymore. A car door slammed. Footsteps came toward the front door.
Julia tried to warn the pizza delivery boy, but he barely had time to ring the doorbell. Then two shapes lunged past the front windows and he started screaming, too.
For a moment she was frozen. Some part of her—was it, though? really?—had been about to do it…about to give Lucas up. A hot wave of shame washed over her.
She heard bones breaking outside—all at once, like a sheet of bubble wrap being twisted—and her paralysis broke. They only had a moment or two.
She pulled Lucas into the kitchen and grabbed a glass salad bowl, a steel pot, and the iron skillet she used for cooking eggs. She arranged them on the linoleum floor in a triangle with herself and Lucas at the center. She started tearing up newspaper and filling them with it. Then she grabbed some matches and lit the newspaper on fire.
“Keep putting paper in,” she told Lucas. “Don’t let the fires die.” They had only three newspapers—today’s, yesterday’s, and the one from the day before. How long would that last?
The delivery boy’s screams tapered off. The small fires began to rise, with Julia and Lucas huddled in their flickering light, feeding them. She saw Todd’s dark shape capering in the living room, like a dog.
Frank appeared in the kitchen doorway. Lucas gripped her arm. For a moment, Frank just looked at her, the fire dancing between them. The light played on his swollen face.
“GIVE HIM TO ME,” Frank whispered.
A strange calm settled over her. Her brain seemed to enter that cloud again, that steam. She had to be realistic. They had gotten Elaine and the delivery boy, and some people over in Ballard Creek too. They had fed. Maybe they would let her go if she gave up the boy. She could quit teaching, go back to school, do something else, live another life. Yes. First she just had to live through the night…and that meant giving up the boy.
“PUSH HIM OUT OF THE LIGHT.”
She didn’t move, but she looked down at Lucas. It wouldn’t be hard, and then they would be gone. Frank’s obscene face seemed to swell and distort in the firelight.
“GIVE HIM TO ME. HE’S MY SON.”
She placed a hand on Lucas’s shoulder—felt the frailness of his bones, the heat of his flesh. Lucas looked up at her. He was waiting for her to push him way.
She looked up at Frank. She dug her fingers into Lucas’s shoulder.
She shook her head.
Nobody noticed at first when she didn’t show up for school. The town of Rexford was in shock. Six people killed during the night, including the two over in Ballard Creek, and others missing.
But when her coworker, Bret Goucher, who taught third grade, eventually dropped by her cottage and check on her, he didn’t even go inside. The kid from Paul’s Pizza was lying on the porch. Paul himself was there too, having come over to see what had happened to his missing delivery boy. After what had been done to them, they looked more like disgracefully made pizzas than people. Mr. Goucher got back in his car and fled.
It was Sheriff Eastin who finally found Julia. She was all over the kitchen floor. She was alone.