by Michael Brown
“I had a life once,” the trucker said pushing away the unfinished food on his plate. He downed the coffee. He ate late in diners. Slept in his truck or in motel rooms. Hazards of his occupation. “Why so sad tonight?” Cherise said, pouring another cup.
“Maybe I’m thinking about my ex a little too much lately.” Truth was he could not stop himself thinking about her these days. After hauling another load of farm products from the midwest to the east coast Mack had returned to Plainsville drawn by what, he could not quite say. He had passed through this place eight or nine times in the last three years, usually sleeping in the truck’s upper berth. Once again, however, he had decided to splurge and rent a motel room. He figured he could charge it off to the shippers.
He went out of his way to stop by at Cooney’s Diner, always hoping Cherise would be on duty there. It was not that she ever said much. Serving his food, she smiled. Small comforts, perhaps, but he yearned for them. But something else troubled him. His two days in Plainsville had passed quickly and still the kids had added nothing new to the truck. He glanced out to where Bertha sat apart from other vehicles, quiet, yet brightly illustrated. Cherise followed his gaze.
“Something I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mack. Did you paint those kids on the side of your truck?”
“Not me,” he said. “Strange thing about that graffiti.”
“Don’t tell me you like it,” she said.
“Sure I do. The first one appeared overnight when I stayed here at the motel outside of town about two years back. I figured one of the local kids was being expressive,” Mack said, and drank more coffee.
“And, they did another when I stayed another time. There are five of ’em now.”
“But who did them?”
“Well, that’s just it, you see. I don’t know who painted them, but I guess I was kind of hoping they’d put up another one this time.”
“Are you kidding?” Cherise asked. She was holding the coffeepot over his cup and he motioned for her to pour some more.
“I’m serious. I guess you have no idea who the local artist might be.”
“Not a clue,” she said. “Haven’t taken any notice of vandalism by the kids around these parts.”
“My ex hated them. She said they were ugly. Seemed to think I had ’em painted on just to annoy her. I guess I liked them even more after she took off. Sort of like company behind me on the road.”
“I thought they were your handiwork,” Cherise said.
“Me, I couldn’t draw a horse to water.” He sipped his coffee. He did not want to go back to the room, but he knew the diner would be closing in another forty minutes.
“Hey, Cherise, you ever get a night off?” he suddenly heard himself asking.
“Wednesdays,” she said, without hesitation.
“That’s tomorrow,” Mack said, “Wanna see a movie with me or something?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. She was wiping the counter and the smile she wore seemed to indicate she was pleased he had taken an interest.
At the same time, Mack was feeling in somewhat of a quandry. He looked out at Bertha and the group of kids adorning her side. He was especially fond of the little girl with the yellow and blue ribbon in her hair, maybe because she looked a little sad while the others had a tinge of fear in their big eyes.
It made him think of the baby he and Sally Anne had lost. After that miscarriage, they had never tried to have another, and instead slowly drifted apart. She was angry all the time after that.
While it was true he was thinking about her a lot lately, he realized it was mostly the companionship he missed. The good times before the miscarriage, and how there was always someone there waiting for him after driving for weeks on end around the country by himself.
Three blocks down from the diner, which might be considered the end of the town, eleven-year-old Tim was walking through the big field behind the old Fergusen house. He was feeling awfully cold as they approached the place, and would rather have been home in bed. But when Ocky had tapped on his window and taunted him to prove once and for all whether or not he had balls, he agreed and climbed out of his window just to shut him up.
Though he was silently protesting now, it was a little too late to remedy the situation.
If he walked away, he might as well start working on his folks to move somewhere else because Ocky, who was twelve, and brawnier, would make his life at school a misery, telling the other kids what a chicken-shit he was. It didn’t matter that Ocky was repeating the sixth grade. The other kids fawned over him.
The door creaked when they opened it but it was not locked. It seemed like destiny in a way. The setting for a rite of passage. The setting for a cheap horror film, more likely, where the only real fear is what the audience brings into the theater.
Inside, the house was a shambles. Not that the outside was a picture postcard, but the orderly structure belied the mess that had been allowed to accumulate within over the years. Obviously, others had attempted this show of bravery before them and having survived, had trashed the place to show their scorn for its powerless creepiness. And possibly numerous hobos had sheltered there over time without a thought towards returning.
The boys made it through the large front hall in relative darkness and quickly walked around the pitch black kitchen in the back without tripping over anything, but the pungent odor of fungus made it unbearable to stay long enough to open cabinets or the broom closet to feel for forgotten treasures.
Ocky suggested they walk up the curving staircase because the light of the moon coming through the windows upstairs would help them see better. Someone might have left something in one of the bedrooms that they could take as proof of their adventure to show the kids at school.
Tim drew back at the foot of the stairs but a nudge from Ocky convinced him to quietly proceed if he wanted to remain in his good graces. Tim was helpless to resist, but halfway up the stairs was when everything went wrong.
He tripped over something that moved, perhaps a rat, perhaps a large dust ball that looked like a rat. In falling, he reached for the banister but it splintered, and the section he gripped, broke off in his hand. He fell into Ocky and the stairs gave way under their feet. Three or four treads cracked, opening a hole through which they fell.
As they went down, the piece of banister Tim was holding thunked against Ocky’s head and when they landed on the basement floor he had fury in his voice.
“You stupid turd,” Ocky said, rubbing a bruised elbow, “Look what you did, man.
You almost knocked me out, and I think I broke my arm.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Tim said, trying to keep his voice from quivering.
“C’mon let’s get the hell out of here,” Ocky said.
“How are we gonna do that?” Tim said. “I can’t see anything.”
“Shut up, you turd brain. This is your fault.”
“Shh. Listen,” Tim said.
With a scraping sound, the door to the basement opened and a little bit of gray light showed the stairway that led up to the first floor. Someone, in a voice little more than a whisper, said, “Come this way.” But the entreaty from an unknown source petrified them. Neither of them advanced a step. They held onto each other and remained motionless and silent.
“Do you want to stay down there, or do you want to get out?” the voice asked.
“Who’s that?” Ocky said.
“Someone who knows the way out. Are you coming, or not?”
They could feel each other’s trepidation, but they could not stay in the black basement.
Tim took the first step and as a unit the two boys slowly moved toward the stairs in the darkness, but before they had gone forward a yard’s length, Tim reached out a finger and touched Ocky’s lips. “Wha…,” he started to say and then must have realized Tim was trying to indicate he should remain silent. Tim bent, felt for, and retrieved the piece of banister he had dropped in their fall. He tapped Ocky’s arm with it to let him know he had a weapon if they should need it.
“What’s going on?” the voice at the top of the stairs asked, “Are you coming up? Or are you planning to sleep down there with the rats?”
“We’re coming,” Ocky said with a tremor, and Tim was aware that he was not the only one regretting this “adventure.”
They advanced to the stairs and with the little light that filtered through the opening they could make out the person talking to them was as young as they were. Maybe a little shorter than Tim. He didn’t seem to be a threat, but the strange thing was he did not hold forward whatever was the source of that little bit of light to guide them up and out of the basement, the door of which Tim thought should be near the kitchen that was black as pitch. He merely held the door slightly ajar and waited there as if to confront them when they reached the top.
Then, there was suddenly no light and he was not there.
They bolted up the last few steps and through the portal. After their fall and the strange youth calling to them and disappearing, Ocky seemed disoriented, but Tim had the presence of mind to recall that they really had only one goal and that was to get out of the house as fast as they could. Ocky became still and was staring forward at something that Tim couldn’t see. With a shock, he realized he could see Ocky.
Where they were now was not black, as it was in the basement, but gray; just light enough to see each other against the indeterminate darkness, as in the movies when someone wears those night vision goggles and can make out forms but not much else.
“C’mon,” he said, “Let’s find the front door and get out of here.”
“He wants us to go there,” Ocky said, half-pointing in the gray fogginess.
“What?” Tim said.
When Tim looked in that direction, he saw again the shape of the youth, several yards away from them, with his back toward them, but then he turned his head slightly and his eye, while not glowing, seemed to be the source of the light.
“Come,” said the youth, “There’s a woman here who can help you. She’s a medium.”
“What are you talking about?” Tim asked. In his head his voice resounded so that he thought he might have shouted. “We just want to get out of here. We don’t want to stay for a séance!” He opened his hand as if to protest and the piece of wood fell but made no sound.
“Do you know the way?” the strange youth asked. “Are you where you think you are?
They can tell you.” He raised his hand and pointed a finger. Tim, following the direction of his finger, could now see a group of five children. He thought he could see right through them. He could feel fear running through his veins like the thinnest of blood and yet Ocky remained unfazed.
He moved as if to follow the other. “Yes, come,” he said, “They can communicate with the medium. They can guide you.”
Tim wanted Ocky to go in the other direction, toward where he thought the exit should be, but at this point he could not be certain where anything was. Where he stood did not feel the same as when they had come in. It was less firm, less like the interior of a house, more like a vast open space clouded by smoke and fog. He did not want them to go with the other but could not remain alone. Off to their right, the five ghostly children moved parallel to them without approaching.
So they followed the youth for some short distance until they came upon an elderly woman seated at a table. Her eyes, though open, seemed unfocused. She appeared to be in a trance. When she spoke, it was not the voice of an old woman. The voice of a child said, “There is only one way now. No one can take you. You must choose.”
Behind the children a large metallic looking door, like that of a bank vault, opened of its own accord and they seemed to drift without walking around and inside the vault. Inside there appeared to be a soft flickering candlelight, and though the children were not so distinct as before, but seemed even more transparent, they beckoned.
Ocky started to move toward the vault. He turned toward Tim with a pleading look in his eyes, but it frightened Tim to realize that Ocky was not imploring him to help him turn away. He was attempting to entreat him to join them. He was willingly moving toward an irreversible position behind that ugly gray metallic door.
“And you?” said the youth to Tim.
“I don’t want to stay here.”
“Don’t you realize it’s too late?” the other said. “You were given a choice, and you said nothing.”
“How can it be too late? How?” Tim asked, “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t be difficult!” the medium suddenly said in a harsh voice.. She was not in a trance now. Her eyes glowed yellow with a fierce anger. Tim realized with anguish that neither she nor the youth appeared substantially more solid than the ghostly children and as his friend moved through the portal, he could see through him also.
Ocky entered and the other children drifted out again and vanished.
Tim raised his hand and waved his fingers, which looked as solid as always, and realized what going through that door meant. “No!” he shouted. “No, you’re wrong.
It’s not my time!”
He turned and ran in the direction from which they had come. He ran through gray emptiness but could feel with relief something solid beneath his feet. He was not floating as a ghost was supposed to, and behind him he heard the voice of the old woman telling the youth, “Get him. Don’t let this one get away.” It spurred him to run faster, blindly, toward something he hoped would be an exit.
She was not a medium. She was something else; something he could not get his mind around, so he ran.
He ran and ran. But it seemed he had to run much farther than the length or breadth of the old house. He glanced behind and saw the youth half running, half floating behind him with a scowl on his face. He felt a twinge of pity for him as the thought crossed his mind that the youth was not like himself nor fully like the other children. He was being used by the old woman to do what she was unable to do. He was a sort of go-between.
Tim would not stop running, and then like a chill coursing through his body he realized he passed out of the gray emptiness into the clear night air. He could see the moon in the sky. And the stars, brighter than they had ever appeared before.
He was running through a field of tall weeds.
But the kid was still chasing him. He called to Tim, and though at a distance, his voice sounded beside Tim’s ear as one whispers to another. He said, “Aren’t you tired of running? Don’t your arms feel heavy? Don’t your legs hurt?”
“No,” Tim responded in his head, “No, I’m not tired. I want to be in the world. I don’t want to spend eternity in some vault. I want to see the sky and feel the air on my face.” And suddenly he could see he was nearing the edge of the field. He felt if he could just reach that edge he could escape.
“But, it’s too late,” said the voice in his ear. “It’s already too late.”
Tim glanced back once again, with only a few yards of field in front of him, to see the other had stopped and was looking wide-eyed. Tim recognized it as a look of resignation. He had won and they had lost, and the other one knew it.
Triumphantly, he turned forward again to clear the field, but in front of him was a truck, on the side of which he saw the faces of some boys and a little girl with a brightly colored ribbon in her hair. For a second or two he thought the kids had gotten out of the house and were coming at him from another direction, but it wasn’t them. It was only the briefest of seconds because he could not stop his forward momentum before his body slammed into the side of the truck.
What struck him like a blast of cold air consisting of various shades of red and yellow, green and blue, gripped and turned him round, but he he felt no pain. With his point of view changed, he suddenly realized he was no longer running. He felt as if he were gliding in the way he had seen the ghost children moving, the distance increasing between himself and that other kid, who stood near the edge of the field, oddly looking as if he were smiling.
Tim could see the Fergusen house receding too, and the stars shining, the thousands of stars filling the night sky. He could not move his arms or legs nor even blink his eyes, but somehow that did not seem to matter. He had escaped.
Inside the cab of the truck, Mack felt wide awake from all the coffee he had downed at Cooney’s. He was thinking about Cherise, and how she might be the one to help him turn his life around. If he took her to a show and played it straight with her, she might feel like coming back to the motel with him. Might even agree to be his girl, and once again he would have someone to come home to.
He always felt a little spooked driving past Plainsville’s old “haunted house,” though he couldn’t say why. There was one of those in practically every town he drove through, but tonight he had cheerier thoughts on his mind. He had never actually seen a ghost, and if you asked him about it, he would tell you he didn’t believe in them, unless you were talking about the memories that haunted would-be fathers who had failed.
The truck jolted over the familiar bump in the road, and fifteen minutes later he was in his temporary bed falling asleep. He hoped the image of Cherise’s smile would banish Sally Anne’s scowl from his dreams. In any case, tomorrow promised a respite.
Mack woke with a start sometime before dawn on Thursday morning, and saw a shadowy movement across the mirror to the right of the bed. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he looked to his left and saw Cherise standing in the bathroom through the open door. She was peering into the mirror and lightly rubbing the top of a cheek with two fingers as if trying to smooth out wrinkles. Then she filled the plastic tumbler with water, drank it, refilled it and came out of the bathroom drinking.
“Oh,” she said, lowering the tumbler, “You’re awake.”
“You’re not leaving are you?”
“No, hon,” she said, “I just woke with a sour taste in my mouth and went for some water. I’m not leaving. I thought we could spend the day together. Until I have to go to Cooney’s tonight.” She sat on the chair by the window and brushed the curtain aside. “If you’re free that is.”
“Perfect,” he said.
“Sun’s not up, though. We got a while yet.”
“Come back to bed, then,” he said, patting the space beside him.
“Sure, sweetie,” she said, looking briefly through the window before letting the curtain fall back into place.
As she got back into the bed and snuggled up next to him, she said, “I see you got your wish. The truck, I mean.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I forgot to tell you about it last night. I went out in the morning and discovered that new one. Kinda reminds me of a smiley face. Those kids must think they’re vandalizing old Bertha. They probably have no idea how much I enjoy looking at their work.”
“Kids,” Cherise said, “You’ve got five boys now. That little girl must feel lost with all those brothers, and no sister.” She kissed the tattoo on Mack’s shoulder and was asleep in about five minutes.
Mack lay there thinking about Cherise’s observation. Maybe that was why he was always looking at the little girl, because she was the only one among all those boys.
He was happy to have another kid in the group though. He guessed his mystery kids would have to serve until Bertha could display pictures of kids of his own.
Then he began to pace his breathing with Cherise’s so he could fall asleep quickly and not let her get too far away from him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael D. Brown is from New York City, and is currently teaching English as a Foreign Language to young adults in Chiapas, Mexico. He’s had various jobs over the years while writing all the time on the side. Lately, he’s been putting some of his work online because he’s hungry for feedback other than from just friends and family. You can find him at Six Sentences or visit his blog at Outside-In.