Some houses are meant to be ignored. You know the kind. They are three storied, paint peeled, broken windowed, monsters whose front doors always seem to be banging in a mysterious wind. They thrive in the pale light of a full moon and are the nucleus of Horror films – the envelope of nightmares. If they’re not going to be ignored, they should at least be sprinted past.
It was a house just like this that loomed in front of Zeke. He stood before it as if gripped by an icy mix of awe and terror, and chewed on the fingernail he always abused when anxiety pricked him like a thousand tiny needles. “That’s some house, Butler.”
The old black Lab responded with a whine and tug on the leash. “Hang on a sec,” Zeke ordered. “Remember the last one? It was a lot like this and it was worth it, right?”
Butler tugged harder. “Yeah-yeah,” Zeke muttered. “Maybe you’re right. Let’s—” A streak of lightning crawled wildly across the sky and lit up the house enough to catch a small face in the third story window. “Did you see that!?”
The dog grunted and sat down.
“Don’t give me that. You saw it.” Zeke gave the leash a tug. “C’mon and stop being a sissy.” A reluctant Butler followed Zeke down a cracked sidewalk that curved around to a broken porch and loose front door. It was a summer night but the sudden gust of wind that tossed Zeke’s blonde hair around his shoulders bit through his lean frame and chilled his bones. He raised an eyebrow at Butler. “Can I borrow your coat?”
The old dog made a noise that sounded like an exasperated sigh.
“They can’t all be winners, buddy.” Zeke faced the door and it nearly clipped his nose as it swung violently in the wind. “Whoa. I guess we can forget about knocking.” Zeke squinted at the opening but the darkness was a thick curtain that swallowed everything across the threshold. He searched the wall for a doorbell and came up empty. He glanced at Butler. “You ready for this?” Butler replied by scratching his ear. “Hello?” Zeke hollered.
“Who’s there?” The voice was a low growl, gritty, like mud between your toes.
Zeke hesitated. “Zeke. I was on my way home and thought you all might need some help.”
A shadow emerged from the doorway and formed the outline of a man. Zeke was over six feet tall but had to look up to find the dark eyes that studied him through slits. Butler shuddered and put tension on the leash. “And what makes you think I need your help?” the man snarled.
Zeke recoiled as the stench of rotting flesh forced its way into his nostrils. “I didn’t say I was here for you,” he managed and wiped his watery eyes. “I’m here for the boy I saw in the window, and the rest.”
The man’s laugh rumbled through the porch and he took a step closer to Zeke. The moonlight made his stringy black hair slick like blood. He touched a jagged scar over his left eye before putting his weight behind a shove that sent Zeke tumbling down the steps. “This is my house,” the man shouted. “And anyone inside is mine!”
Zeke shook the blur out of his head and pushed himself off the cracked sidewalk to his knees. The taste of blood filled his mouth and pain stabbed his left side. Butler was instantly at his side with teeth bared and every muscle taunt like thick ropes. Zeke gave him a careful pat on the head. “Nobody ever said it would be easy.”
He climbed to his feet and fixed his eyes back on the creature. Something flickered in the darkness behind the man. “Who’s that?” Zeke cried out.
The shadow spun around. “Huh?”
Zeke took a few quick steps toward the porch. “It’s okay,” he called. “I’m here to help you.”
The man turned to Zeke. “If you don’t get out of here right now—”
“Please!” Zeke continued but held at the bottom porch step. “You don’t have to stay in this place. I can take you home.” He held his breath as a pale face appeared in the doorway. The boy was a child but deep sadness hung from his eyes like weights. The trauma etched in his face made him older than most adults. “It’s him,” Zeke whispered to Butler. Excitement rode his words like electricity. “The one I saw in the window.”
The creature centered his eyes on the boy. “If you don’t get back inside I’ll rip out your brother’s throats and make you eat ‘em. And then I’ll start on your sister.”
Zeke could see fear color the boys features and he put a foot on the bottom step. “No! I’m here now. He can’t hurt you. You don’t have to listen to him anymore.” Zeke smiled and the shadow bristled at the sudden warmth. “But you have to choose to come to me. I promise that he can’t stop you if you do. Listen only to me; look only at me.”
The boy shifted in the doorway like a teeter-totter. The moments stretched into an eternity before he finally took a careful step across the threshold.
“You worthless piece of shit,” the man roared. “No wonder your momma left you for Blow and an unending train of men. Here’s how this is gonna go.” He reached to his left, pulled up a shotgun, and aimed it at the center of Zeke’s chest. “You run to this idiot and I’ll fill him with enough lead to sink a ship.” The sound of a shell sliding into place solidified his threat.
Panic struck the boys face and he shot a helpless look at Zeke. “It’s okay,” Zeke assured him. “I want you to walk forward and never look back.”
“Robbie!” Three figures stood in the doorway. The two boys looked older than Robbie and the girl a few years younger. “What are you doing?” the oldest one asked. “Get back inside.”
“Yeah,” the shadow mocked. “Get back inside, Robbie.”
Beads of sweat appeared on Zeke’s forehead. He’d been here before and the results hadn’t always been good. “Robbie,” he urged. “They need you to go first. Show them there’s a way to live. Run to me.”
Robbie shuddered and stared at the shotgun still pointed at Zeke’s chest. He glanced back at Zeke through wide eyes and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter what he does to me,” Zeke insisted. “We’ll leave here together and never come back.” He opened his arms and a calm greater than the sum of all pain washed over Robbie. A small smile flashed at the corner of his mouth and he bolted for Zeke like an Olympic sprinter out of the blocks. He made it the end of the porch before the explosion of a 12-gauge shotgun knocked him sideways.
Zeke only had enough time for half a shout before a lead fist hammered his chest. The impact knocked him backward and all went silent as if someone pounded a mute button. Minutes passed. Seconds maybe; he couldn’t tell. The sound of Butlers crazed barking was the first thing he heard. It was a million miles away and smothered by the ringing in his ears, and tearing pain in his chest.
He blinked a few times at the hazy image of Robbie hovering above him. Zeke watched his mouth strain but couldn’t hear him or feel the tears that fell from his eyes and splashed against his face. The moon had been bright but he couldn’t see it anymore. Darkness was closing in like street lights turning off one by one. The tears were in his eyes now and he grasped Robbie’s hand tightly. “You’re free because you chose to come,” he whispered. “You’re home.” Then the last light sputtered out.
A low, satisfied laugh rumbled through the ground and Robbie spun toward the porch. The creature leveled the barrel at him. “You thought things were hell before,” he growled. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” He spat at the crumbled mass that was Zeke. “Get back inside while I finish off the mutt.”
Robbie’s shoulders slumped and he took a final look at the man who’d promised to save him. A sigh rose from his heart that’d learned things would never change.
He started to put the image to his back but then stopped because he noticed a finger on Zeke’s left hand twitch. The motion was like a wave that traveled up his arm and spread through his chest that suddenly rose as it filled with air. The current flowed out of his mouth in a cough and Zeke struggled to his knees. “Arghhhh,” he moaned and probed his chest. “That’s gonna leave a mark.”
Butler was there in an instant to greet him with a slobbery tongue. “Okay-okay,” he said and eased to his feet. “Where’s Robbie?”
The wide-eyed boy stepped to his side and tugged on his sleeve. “Ah,” Zeke exclaimed and took Robbie’s face in his hands. “I told you everything would be fine. Ready to go home?”
“Y-yes,” Robbie squeaked.
Zeke nodded. “Give me a minute.” He fixed his eyes on the creature who’d turned paler than the moon.
“Get back,” the shadow cried. He managed to keep the tremor out of his voice but the shotgun quivered in his hands.
Zeke stepped to the porch. “There’s room for anyone who wants to go with us. You don’t have to stay here anymore.”
Robbie’s brothers and sister rushed across the threshold and joined Robbie behind Zeke. A small crowd of hopeful expressions were gathering at the doorway.
The shadow brought a heavy foot down on the floor. “Stop or I’ll—”
“You’ll do what?”
The man lifted his hands and shock washed over his face. “Wh-what’d you do with my gun?”
Zeke’s eyes were flames. “You’ve been disarmed.” He titled his head. “Haven’t you heard? No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
The man shook with rage and moved to snatch a small girl trying to sneak by but Zeke flicked his hand and the shadow crashed against the wall as if hurled by the wind itself.
Children spilled from the house one by one. The fresh smiles on their faces pulled tears from Zeke’s eyes. They wouldn’t all come, a fact that broke his heart. But he watched Robbie chase Butler and grinned. There would be a celebration tonight. A celebration that would chase every tear from every eye.
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