BY SULEYMAN ANADOL
Copyright is held by the author.
THE COOL spring breeze wove through the empty, dead trees, its melody the only sound Joe Agnew heard on his walk home. The sun had long set, and the dull yellow and orange glow of every other streetlight illuminated 13th Street as best it could. Exhausted, Joe yawned and felt his back spasm. It had been happening a lot lately, his body reminding him that old age came early to some. Joe stopped to catch his breath, his eyes moving from polished home to polished home.
Mostly empty now, 13th Street was a gallery of homes bought and flipped and unsold, begging little signs with happy realtors stabbed into the yards watching the rare passerby. Joe was a holdout. His parents’ home was his home, and one day it would be Danny’s. It’s how the world should work; it’s the way things were meant to be. But those days seemed to be long gone, and Danny wanted anything but to live on 13th Street for much longer. Hell, half a year from now he’ll be in another state, and Joe will still be in the same place.
The park to Joe’s left was home to those without homes, and he could hardly remember the last time he bothered walking down there. What was the point? The city had abandoned it, left it to rot and ruin, and the only ones who ventured into the darkened, sooty land were police sent to scoop up the occasional body that never ended up on the news. But Joe had seen the police cars and the coroner’s van. Bums, vagrants, whatever people call them nowadays, they had taken over the park. It was theirs now, and no one was taking it from them. Just how no one would take Joe’s home from him.
A few streets over, a party was starting, the low bass humming its way to Joe alongside the shouts of people ready to drink and do who knows what else. God, what Joe would do for a drink right then and there. That life was long behind him, and all that mattered was Danny. A car drove by and its lights cascaded on the empty homes on the empty street, the odor of cigarette smoke made its way to Joe. One more vice he’d been forced to give up. But being a father was worth it. Most days, anyway.
Sand, cigarette butts, and broken glass crunched under Joe’s feet as he trudged home. Tired of being tired, all Joe wanted to do was sleep, but Danny might need help with his homework, and dinner would need to be reheated, and when was the last time the laundry was done? Did Joe remember to take out the trash yesterday? Had it really been an entire day since he was home? Christ, it felt like a week.
As the cold wind picked up once more, Joe looked in the distance and saw home. His home. Danny had left the porch light on, and that was when Joe remembered he had the best son in the world. Maybe Danny had put the trash out before going to school that day, and who knows, maybe he had fixed dinner for the two of them. Chances of him doing laundry were slim, but that’s alright. Joe couldn’t blame Danny for that one. Hating laundry was genetic. But no one would be doing Danny’s laundry for him at the University of Washington. How was it already so close?
The cold air carried with it a whisper and the stench of the park, the odor of garbage on a hot summer afternoon. Joe glanced away from the empty road leading home and saw only darkness caged by skeletal trees waving their jagged little fingers. Nothing. But just because Joe couldn’t see anything didn’t mean he was alone. Something in the air changed at that moment. As Joe turned back to his home, his heart skipped a beat, and he stopped in his tracks.
The road home was no longer empty.
Under a streetlight that refused to work loomed a figure.
Where had he come from? Joe would have seen him walk from the park or from around one of the empty homes. It wouldn’t be the first time a squatter had broken into one of those houses. Something about the person gave Joe pause. The silhouette was hunched over, and for the few moments Joe watched, it seemed to not move, a still image frozen in time. It was like the time he and Danny had gone to the theatre up the street, the one that closed last year. The film got caught on the reel and only one image stayed on the screen until someone finally fixed it. Danny thought it was the funniest thing. The memory vanished from Joe’s mind as he kept his eyes on the figure.
Low bass rumbled close, loud music announced an approaching car. The glowing white beams of light washed over 13th Street, and in an instant, the shadowy figure was gone.
“What the hell,” Joe whispered.
A chill ran down Joe’s spine and he gripped his work jacket tight around him. Try and not think about it, Joe thought. Almost home. Less than a hundred feet. What was that statistic people liked to prattle on about? Something like most accidents happen within a mile of the home. Did that apply to other things too? The neighbourhood turned to shit long ago, and more than once Joe had been approached by a bum wandering far from his nonexistent home. That’s all that guy was. A bum. Had to be. Hopefully.
The thought made Joe feel a little better, but not by much. He trekked on, scanning the dark woods and the soulless houses. All clear. Wherever that guy went, he was out of sight. Not out of mind. That would happen once Joe was inside, and he had the alarm system set. Alarm systems. In all Joe’s years living there, he had never needed one, but after two break-ins, enough was enough. It comforted Joe when he had to leave Danny home alone. Not much, but a little.
Dim streetlights illuminated the next fifty feet, and Joe was almost home. The light opposite Joe’s home began to flicker, and Joe’s gait slowed. Any other day he might swear at the city for slacking on maintenance, but something about that night kept his mind elsewhere. Just forget it, Joe thought. Get home.
The light blinked rapidly before the bulb, like everything else on 13th Street, gave up.
In the absence of light stood the figure once more.
No way in hell was someone that quick. Not there one second, there the next? In all Joe’s life, he never believed in things he couldn’t explain. But seeing the unmoving figure there in the darkness changed Joe. It frightened him more than anything ever could.
“What the hell do you want?” Joe croaked. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was parched. He closed his mouth and ran his dry, bumpy tongue over the desert in his mouth.
A voice answered, its words no stronger than the now-distant wind. 13th Street was silent afterwards.
“What?” Joe asked. He breathed hard. His heart was thunder in his chest.
The voice came again, but the words were carried off before they reached Joe’s ears.
Get home. Just get home. Forget this guy. God damned bums, Joe wanted to think. But he couldn’t. All he could do was fear for Danny, for himself. His feet were blocks of concrete, old and dusty, hunkered down into the dirty sidewalk. Joe’s mind screamed for his legs to move, but they ignored the demand.
“Just need one,” the voice whispered, the words harsh and brittle, broken glass scraping, squealing against metal. There was a musicality to them. A demented song for an audience of one. “Just need one, then I’ll be done.”
With flipbook movements, the figure strode through the darkness, each step it took, one frame into the next. Never had Joe seen such a terrible thing. As the figure approached, Joe began to make out its features. A flowing black cloth covered a starved body, boney legs protruding in one moment, gone the next, until the figure was no more than two feet away. The cloth moved with the wind, and even in the dark, a dreadful face became visible. A haggard old man with corpse-like wisps of hair smattered across his face, cataract eyes cried tears of silver ooze, and a smile nearly devoid of teeth. Around the man’s neck strings of small white stones clattered against one another.
A thought came to Joe. Perhaps he was struck by a bus on his walk home and now he was in Hell. This had to be what Hell was, and this man a demon, his tormentor.
“What do you say?” the toothless man asked. His words carried with them a horrible stench; the same odor Joe smelled earlier.
“What do you want?” Joe stammered, his stomach churning from the foul stink.
“Just need one, then I’ll be done.” The same words as before. Nonsensical lyrics sung in the darkness of 13th Street.
“One? One what?”
The man stretched gnarled arthritic fingers to Joe’s face, the movement of his hands were frames of an old film, every other inch seemingly skipped. He stepped forward, the same flipbook-like movement once more. As the old man inched closer, his fingers parted Joe’s lips and pinched Joe’s two central incisors.
“One of these, friend indeed, is all I need.”
The small white rocks clacked as the old man wiggled Joe’s teeth.
Only they weren’t rocks at all, Joe realized.
Teeth, white, yellow, some rotted black, others with metal fillings, all connected with a string through drilled holes in each.
Joe felt tears pool and fall from his eyes, cold on his cheeks. He was going to die. All he wanted was to be home with Danny. One final wish, one last prayer to a god who wouldn’t listen.
Wishes and prayers be damned.
Joe summoned up all the courage he had left in this world, and with a quick swipe of his left hand, he batted the old man’s hand from his face. Spinning on his once-heavy heels, Joe dashed away. No way that old man could catch up with him. Only, he thought, was he even an old man, or something else altogether? Forget it. That wouldn’t do him any good, and it wouldn’t get him to Danny any faster.
The porch light became the promise of safety.
And Joe was so close now. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five. Four. Three.
The porch light blinked.
Then it died, and all that remained was inky blackness. And the old man.
“Oh, now why’d you have to go and do that, honeybun?” the old man sang. “Now where I just needed one, I’ll take ‘em till I’m done.”
Joe scanned the front yard, left to right. To the right there was a small gate with a useless padlock that led to the backyard. That was the only choice, and Joe took it.
Tripping, Joe fell forward onto the cold, hard ground. His hands smacked into dirt where grass once grew, small, jagged rocks slicing into his flesh. He scrambled and pushed himself off the ground, the rocks digging deeper, the pain both cold and warm at once. Then Joe was up, and he placed his bloody palms on the locked gate, and vaulted over, his shoe catching on the top, sending him tumbling to the ground once more, this time onto cement pavestones he and Danny put down last summer. Right elbow cracked into the pavestone, jolts of electricity went up and down Joe’s arms and the pain erupted, forcing an anguished cry from the man. But once more he scrambled, and once more he forced himself up, and he ran, hard, until he came to his backyard.
There was a light inside, Joe could see it through the dirty window on the backdoor. Danny was in there, and it was up to Joe to keep him safe from that god damned old man. Thing. Whatever he was.
The door was locked. Joe twisted the doorknob a few times, the handle slick with blood from his scraped palms. Any other day, Joe would have been proud of his boy for keeping the doors locked. But not that day. Not when a voice sang out from behind.
“Don’t know why, you got to fly, but I’ll bring you back, it’s my knack.”
Joe stuffed his throbbing hands into his pocket, one of the keys on his keyring jabbing between his fingernail and finger. He swore, but pulled out the keys, fumbling until he found the one with the triangular bow. The housekey. With a quick movement, Joe slid the key in, as the stench grew closer and closer, and twisted the doorknob with his drier hand.
“I just need one, then I’ll be done.”
The door screamed open, and Joe slipped inside. A quick turn, and Joe slammed the door shut. Through the window, he could see his backyard. Empty. Quiet. Nothing but dead, patchy grass.
Giving it as little mind as he could, Joe spun around and called out for his son.
“Danny!” Joe screamed. “Where are you?”
The kitchen table was littered with Danny’s notebooks and that day’s mail. The oven was set to 400 degrees, a pan covered in aluminum foil on top. Joe ran through the kitchen, to his bedroom on the first floor, both rooms were without his son. Into the hallway, Joe past decade old photos of Danny sitting on his mom’s lap, at his fourth birthday party, at his first Christmas, at the last Easter Sunday before Danny’s mom died. Memories coated the wall, and Joe wished he and Danny would still take photos together. The last photo Joe saw out of the corner of his eye was Danny in his little league jersey back when the Takoma Tigers still existed, the orange and black stripes mimicking the animal the team was named after. Danny had on the biggest, brightest smile, and the icy chill in Joe’s core warmed just a little at the sight.
Danny was in the living room. He sat with his back to his father, a lamp on beside him, homework and a graphing calculator sprawled out on Joe’s parents’ old coffee table. It was the only thing they left when they moved out.
“Danny, thank god,” Joe said.
Joe put his hand on his son’s shoulder, and Danny turned to look at his father.
Blood turned to ice when Joe saw his son’s face, smeared with blood, dark ichor pooled and dried onto his light blue shirt.
Danny opened his mouth to speak, revealing empty, gaping gums. The smiling Takoma Tiger flashed in Joe’s mind. Gone, gone forever.
Danny tried to speak. “ ‘E ‘ed ‘e ‘ust ‘eed’d ‘un.” The words were garbled, pained with exertion.
But Joe knew what Danny was trying to say.
He said he just needed one.
The lamp next to Danny flickered. Once. Twice. And then it died.
In the darkness of Joe’s home, a shape formed beside his son. The old man was inside, and he was not going to just take one.
Suleyman Anadol lives just outside of Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland. He writes horror, contemporary fiction, and screenplays. Suleyman is currently seeking a masters in creative writing at Wilkes University. He is completing his novel The Exorcist Archives, which follows Connor Roberts as he faces off against an ancient spirit. He has self-published Dark Travels, Strange Visitors, a short story collection inspired by his travels. His short stories have been published by RedCape Publishing and Wingless Dreamer Publisher.