Anybody else and I’d probably have just ignored the call. I’d been selling pretty good lately and could afford to let some business slide. But, before he’d dropped off the radar a few months back, Troy been one of my best customers, no haggling, no bullshit, cash in hand, and always in good quantity. None of that quarter-ounce bullshit like most college kids. He took his recreation seriously.
So when my phone rang and I saw it was Troy’s number, I shrugged and answered.
“Been a while,” I said.
“Hey man,” he answered, tinny and distant.
“Shit reception man,” I shouted down the phone. “Sounds like you’re calling from the goddamn Moon.”
“-ry,” was all I heard, then a burst of stinging static in my ear. “Z’at better?” he asked. His words echoed and there was a weird sibilance behind them, something crawly in his voice that made me shiver.
“No, not really,” I answered. “What do you need?”
“Z’party tonight,” he whispered on his end. I leaned forward and squinted, concentrating on his words. “Big one, and I wanna laaaaaaaay out a spread.” His voice dragged and there was more static, followed by a wet, hacking cough.
“Sorry, I don’t sell cough drops,” I said. “But other than that, I can take care of you. You caught me on an inventory day, so I can hook you up. E, K, 357s, fenty, tabs, weed, coke, I got it all right now.”
“That’s it,” I thought I heard him say, although it was so quiet I couldn’t be sure.
“Speak into the phone Troy,” I said. “I can’t hear you. How much do you want?”
“Surprise me,” he said, his voice suddenly loud and grating. “Money is no object.”
“Opinions differ on that, man,” I said. “I don’t wanna haul this shit over only to carry it all back ‘cause you just wanted a little smoke.”
We worked the logistics through the bad reception, me suggesting an amount and Troy basically agreeing to whatever I said, and then I tacked a 20% Annoyance Fee to the price, but he didn’t even pause. Nothing but amiable agreement coming down the line through the theremin-laced static whining over his voice.
“You still up on Thurber?” I said, finalizing the details.
“No man,” he chuckled wetly into my ear. “No, I ain’t on Thurber no more. You gotta come down South tonight – corner of River and Powder Mill, no number you’ll see from the street, but you can’t miss it, big place, nice wide porch, two big maples out front. Only house on the corner.”
“Over in French Hill, huh?” Pretty ramshackle neighborhood, if I recalled correctly, rundown shops and old houses, all from a time when the city had had a little more business and a little less trouble. “Okay, it’s filed away in my Memory Palace. What time?”
“Midnight, baby,” he said, and hung up.
I got Troy’s order ready, a real party pack, and then napped for an hour before I started biking my way across the bridge, past the University and along River Street. It wasn’t too bad, even if the revitalized riverfront cafes and art shops were a little kitschy for my taste. Fern bars and antiques, all empty and quiet that late at night. Once I got past Garrison things went into steep decline, though – every third building was dark and boarded up, roofs falling in and yards all gone to seed. Recession had hit hard, and a lot of folks just up and abandoned their homes when they couldn’t afford it anymore.
The moon, fat and pale, was tangled in the rattling branches of a maple tree at the corner of River and Powder Mill. A damp October wind blew in off the river, and I shivered in spite of the hard bike ride I’d just had. Troy hadn’t been kidding, though – you couldn’t miss the house.
It looked like a wedding cake from Hell. Three stories tall, sprouting balconies and columns and pinnacles like mushrooms on a rotting stump. The moonlight highlighted its sickly yellow walls, studded with tiny iron-framed windows that glittered in the night. Whippoorwills sang to one another from the trees in the yard, falling silent and watchful as I walked my bike through the gate and up the path to the front door.
A gauzy orange glow filtered through drawn curtains and bled out into the dark yard. There was music, the kind you’d expect from a house party, and the usual sounds of people laughing or shouting. The voices were strange, though; there was an urgency or panic in them, something unpleasant just beneath the muffled chatter that set my teeth on edge. Just a little after midnight, and there was already a bad vibe in the air. I wanted to sell Troy his shit and get out of there, before something went wrong.
I looked over my shoulder, back to the street and the dark empty storefront across the road. The path I’d walked my bike up seemed longer and darker than I remembered. I swallowed and texted Troy. “At the door.”
I leaned my bike against the iron handrail and walked up the steps to the deeper shadows of the porch, the wooden planks creaking under my weight. I shifted the messenger bag on my shoulder and tried to peek in through a window, but the curtains were closed. I sighed and looked around. There was a bench next to the blank face of the oak door, so I sat down.
Swear to God: at first I thought I’d sat on a cat. There was a wriggling movement under me, and I leaped up in shock. Probably shouted too; it was a distinctly unpleasant sensation. I spun around, horrified that I might have hurt the animal – but there was nothing there, just the bench’s blank surface. I wiped the back of my pants and leaned in to look at the bench. It was warped, sagging in the middle a bit, and whatever it was made from had an odd texture. I’d assumed it was wood, but in the dim moonlight it looked like it was covered in suede or something. I pulled my lighter out and flicked it on, the glow revealing a pale pink surface, seamless and smooth and dusted with thin, fine fuzz, like the skin of peach. I leaned in for a closer look.
The bench rippled, and the skin that covered it came out in goosebumps, its soft hair standing on end. I dropped my lighter and it went out.
My phone dinged with a text in my pocket. Muscle memory made me pull it out.
“Come on in were upstairs,” it said, ungrammatically.
I turned the light from the phone on the bench, watched it flex and undulate. Seat, legs, everything was wrapped in smooth, pinkish skin, freckles visible through a thin dusting of blonde hair. I swallowed and reached out to touch the surface. It flexed under my palm, and I felt its animal warmth.
My phone went into battery-saver mode and the screen went off. The flesh of the bench-thing shuddered in the dark and I pulled my hand back sharply. My eyes had been ruined by the light, and I couldn’t see anything. I felt for the dropped lighter at my feet and heard a heavy shuffling sound, a muffled noise from the bench as it moved. I found the lighter and flicked it on. The bench was gone, but I heard a stumping noise from the far end of the porch, and I thought I saw a shape, low and long, vanish around the corner of the house. My phone dinged again.
“Hy man were r u? come upstairs.”
The house creaked in the wind. I stood, looking at the blank spot where the bench had been. A shrill, crazy laugh rose above the music thumping out of the house. My phone dinged again.
“Got your money so come upstairs.”
I spat and grabbed the knob, the hinges complaining loudly as the heavy wooden door swung open. I stepped inside.
The long hall looked to be in pretty poor condition – a ratty, faded rug stretched the length of it, a puddle of something staining its center. Wide archways on either side led to different rooms, a den on the left and a dining room on the right. The lights were on in both, and I could see the remains of a party, beer pong on the dark wooden table in the dining room, smoldering ash trays, beer bottles on the floor and tables. I heard movement from unseen back rooms, music and muffled voices and footsteps and a clatter of dishes, but I didn’t see anyone. It was like they’d all just stepped out and would be back in a minute. I walked down the hall to the stairway, six steps up and then a sharp turn to the left for the remaining twelve, each one creaking dangerously under my Chucks.
The landing was claustrophobic, the stairs debouching into a tall but narrow hallway, dimly lit by sparse bulbs nestled in wall sconces, far enough apart that there were deep shadows between each yellow pool of light. At the far end of the hall on my right there was a tall window, maple branches and a bright moon visible through the dirty glass. The music was louder up here, a driving beat that I felt in the soles of my feet. The doors in the hall were all shut, but a thin sheet of light spilled out and onto the carpet from under one of them far down the hall. My phone dinged again, but I ignored it.
“Okay okay,” I said to no one. “I’m coming, goddamn.” I walked towards the lit-up room, kicking over a red cup and spilling stale beer in one of the dark patches in the hall. The music, even muffled by doors and walls, grew deafening, bone-shaking bass punctuated by occasional piping so sharp I felt it in my molars. The same feeling I’d had on the porch was there too – needling tension running like an electric current through the air. If it weren’t for the four thousand dollars on the other side of this door, I’d have turned around and gone home. There were other buyers, most of them living in nice, well-lit dorm rooms and modern apartments, all furnished in the usual inanimate style. I could move my stuff without wandering through shitty abandoned houses at midnight.
I sighed and twisted the doorknob.
Everything, all at once, went perfectly still and absolutely dark.
It was like someone had thrown a switch. One minute, music and voices and light, the next, everything was just…off. The hallway was dark, the room was dark, and the only sound I heard was the beating of my own heart and the sharp hiss of my breath as I stepped back from the yawning, empty doorway in front of me.
My first thought was that they were gonna roll me. I pulled out my switch blade, the flick of the knife an icy snap in the silence. But there was nothing: no movement, no light, and not a sound from the room. My eyes adjusted to the moonlight filtering into the room through a pair of narrow windows opposite the door. I swallowed and stared.
The room was empty and had been for a long time. Cobwebs hung in all the corners and from the bulb-less socket dangling in the center of the room. There was an empty iron bedframe in one corner, and what looked like a recliner under a sheet. Everything was covered in a fine layer of dust, undisturbed and perfectly uniform across every surface. With the knife a reassuringly steely weight in my hand, I stepped into the room. Nothing at all, no people, no speakers, no beer. No footprints had stirred the dirt and grime on the wooden floor. Just an empty room.
I stepped back out into the hall. It was time to go.
I hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps when I heard the front door downstairs groan open slowly, then shut with sudden, shattering violence. There was still no light, and I had been groping my way along the hall when I heard it. A moment passed. I was crouched forward, listening, when the noises started.
It sounded like a very large someone was charging through the rooms below me, heavy stomping footsteps, doors slamming, someone pounding through rooms at a breakneck pace. The sounds would recede to almost a whisper as whoever was making them swept through a distant backroom, only to grow in sudden, terrifying volume as they came nearer.
At first I thought: cops! But even as I thought it, I knew it couldn’t be. These steps weren’t the methodical plodding of a search, and there hadn’t been any shouts or demands that I come out, hands up. Plus, it sounded like there was just one person downstairs; cops never travel alone. And there was a furious, unnatural energy in the footsteps as they ran, full tilt, through the entire first floor. I clutched my knife, tried to make out where they were at in the house relative to me in the upstairs hallway. They had orbited through the back of the house, the steps louder as they made their way towards the dining room, directly below me.
Then, with sudden heart-stopping clarity, I heard them mount the stairway, running up the stairs. I stepped back, my mouth working silently. Sweat cooled my scalp. The crashing steps charged up the stairs and someone lurched into the hallway, a huge, swaying bulk suddenly blocking the window at the far end of the hall.
I stumbled back and dove into the room, kicking the door shut behind me. I was shivering, dizzy with fear. The way the thing at the far end of the hall had been moving, the way it had wobbled as it stepped into view had tickled my amygdala something fierce, striking deep into those very old parts of my mammal brain. I ripped the sheet off the recliner in the room and dragged the chair over, wedging it against the door.
The thing charged up and down the hall, coming by the door and running past it, heavy footfalls growing loud, then quiet, then loud as it came back my way. On the second pass it pounded against the door, slamming against it with fast, staccato bursts that made the wood jitter in its frame.
Then, just as it had with the music and voices and lights earlier, everything went dead.
A silence descended, like what you only find deep in a cave, utter and perfect stillness. The only sound was my gasping breath and the thudding pulse in my temple.
My phone dinged, and I jumped.
“Were r u at?”
I stared down at the screen. A second texted dinged.
“Hy man were r u?”
I shivered. A third message dinged.
“I no were u are.”
I turned the phone off.
I don’t know how long I waited in the dark. I’m not sure what I was waiting for, really. Everything stayed quiet. My approach towards the door, when I finally took it, seemed unbearably loud, the wooden floor cracking and popping with each step. I listened, heard nothing. I shifted the chair and pressed my ear against the door and listened some more. Quiet as the grave out there. I figured I’d sprint down the hall, run down the stairs, and get to the door. Ten seconds, fifteen tops, and I’d be out of there. Knife still in my hand and the messenger bag still across my chest, I opened the door.
I don’t know how I got back across the room and away from the door, whether I just ran backwards or jumped or whatever, but I cleared the space fast, slamming my back against the far wall. That was what probably jarred me awake and got my brain working, hitting the wall, because my head snapped back and I recall, very clearly, striking it against the window frame. It’s a shame my memory gets so clear then, because I can still see it when I close my eyes: the face in the doorway.
It filled the space entirely, frame to frame, floor to ceiling. There was an eye as big as a tire, bulging and red-veined, near the top. A hint of a nose below, although it was mostly crushed against the wall just outside the door and I couldn’t see it. The mouth, half visible in the door, was twisted into a broad maniac grin, teeth bared, each one the size of my hand, pearly white and glistening. The lips were drawn back, chapped and cracked and terribly red. The skin of the face was coarse, big pores and bright with a waxy sheen. A few strands of lank pale hair were visible, pressed damp against the forehead. It was a face the size of the doorway, bigger, and it was trying to squeeze into the room, pressing itself into the rectangle. It breathed with a hungry wheezing sound, wet and tortured. It shifted from one side to the other, the nose briefly poking into the room, then squeezing out of view as the other side of the huge face came into view, its left eye staring into the room. The mouth opened, and a fat, purple, filmy tongue licked out and over the lips. The eye rolled in its socket twice then, horribly, settled squarely on me, the pupil constricting to a black hard point as it brought me into focus.
The window catch gave me some trouble, but the mushy, damp sound of the face pressing into the room was all the encouragement I needed to force the lock and swing it wide open. I braced myself, one foot on the frame, and squeezed my eyes shut. There was a tearing sound behind me, wet and gushing, and then I felt a tug as something grabbed the messenger bag. I fumbled with the strap, desperately keeping my eyes closed. I felt fingers on me, soft, tickling strokes on my shoulders and back.
I screamed and wriggled out of the strap and felt the weight of the bag leave me as I leapt out the window and into the night.
The thing that saved me was that goddamn porch. Instead of fifteen feet, I fell a scant five, slamming hard into the slope of the porch’s overhang, where I rolled down the incline to the edge and, at the last minute, somehow grabbed the gutter and hung there, gulping for air. My eyes were open and the moon was bright, and I looked up to the open window I’d just jumped out of, my gaze dragged there involuntarily.
An arm, very long and thin and white and dead looking, was stretched out of the window, and in the grip of a hand with too many fingers and far too many joints, it held tight my messenger bag.
I let go of the gutter and fell, crashing into a tall boxwood. I scrambled out of the plant and hit the ground. I ached everywhere, I was bleeding from a long scratch on my scalp, and I had almost certainly sprained an ankle, but I was outside of the house, right next to the porch steps where I’d started. I hobbled over to my bike.
A fat envelope was tied to the handlebar with a delicate yellow bow. I could see money peeking out from the flap, easily enough to be my promised four thousand dollars, all in slightly damp bills. On the front of the envelope, scrawled in marker was simply “thx.”