This story is by Rock Martin and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ryan pulled of a Dracula costume as few others could. I watched as the cool autumn breeze whipped past Ryan, lifting his cape, and messing his dark hair. He caught the wayward cape and a cool, almost knowing, smile widened across his pale features, showing off a row of sharp teeth. Ambling down the street, his shoulders remained level with no arm movement, as if floating, like the undead. He even glared at the other kids as they passed. The pillowcase full of candy the only thing giving him away. I mimicked his every move, ignoring how ridiculous it probably looked in my cowboy costume.
Boys laughed and girls smiled as he passed. Of course they would. He was attractive, athletic, and charismatic, the most popular senior in school. When I was with him, I was no longer an awkward 14-year-old. I was more, I was Ryan’s cousin.
Ryan had a way about him. He made the interesting exciting and the scary terrifying. So, when he offered to show me a real haunted house, I jumped at the chance.
We strolled down Third Street, past ghosts, pirates, and goblins of all kinds. Past the last houses in town, and up Thanatos Road toward the dilapidated house atop the hill, far from the treat circuit.
Crinkled leaves rolled and bounced in the brisk October wind as it rushed past us, broken only by a few bare, crooked trees along the road. I squinted as the evening sun glinted off the second-floor window, and studied the crack that claimed the upper half. A heavy, rusted steel fence surrounded the property, barely keeping in the high weeds and unruly bushes that had taken over the yard. Another breeze whipped by and the unlocked gate gently swayed, bellowing a deep moan.
A cracked, grassy sidewalk and three rickety, wooden steps led to the front door.
“Are you sure it’s ok?” I asked, my voice twitching a bit.
“Yeah. Why, are you scared?” He calmly responded.
My lips stiffened. Whatever waited inside the house couldn’t be worse than disappointing him. “No.”
We grabbed our flashlights and stepped inside, the old hardwood floors creaking with each step. The room was dirty and dusty, with a few tools strewn about. A chair with a single leg lay in one corner.
“Follow me,” Ryan called, leading me through an adjacent room to a doorway atop a flight of wooden stairs, disappearing into the darkness below.
“Are they safe?” I asked.
Ryan floated down the stairs as I crept behind. The stairs bent and flexed with each step. My pulse pounded and throbbed through every part of me as I gripped the banister. A few cobwebs tangled in my fingers and my eyes darted from side to side, following my flashlight.
Damp cement floor and cinder block walls met us at the bottom. My flashlight shook as it scanned the room, the light flashing across the centipedes clinging to the rough walls. I realized then I couldn’t see Ryan. I dropped my pillowcase and frantically searched for him.
“R-Ryan! Where are you?”
Cautiously, I passed through a doorway into another room and there he was, standing in front of a closed wooden door with several boards nailed across it.
I walked up beside him, and his head tilted toward me, his features blank and chilling.
“Did you ever kill anything, Jason? Not like a spider or a bug, something big. You can tell when they die. Their eyes. Their eyes change. Their pupils open and their eyes bulge, and everything goes limp. That’s when you know.”
I said nothing as he stood there staring at the door, the stillness seeping in around us, his eerie words echoing in my head.
“Are you ready?” He asked. He grabbed a crowbar lying nearby and pried the boards from the door, the sound piercing the growing anticipation. Tears pooled in my eyes, and my short, rapid breaths were visible in the cool basement air.
“I’m showing you this because you’re special. You’re special to me. I wouldn’t show this to just anyone.”
“Umm… Ok.” My lips trembled.
“You’ve always been my little buddy. You’re not gonna let me down, are you?”
“No.” I whispered, wiping my face, and pulling myself together.
He beckoned me forward as he slowly opened the door.
The stale air gushed out, carrying the musty scents of a forgotten space shielded from the outside world.
Ryan grabbed his flashlight.
He glided to the back corner of the room. There, huddled in the corner of that cold, damp basement, among the spiders and roaches, lay the remains of a young girl. Blonde hair, matted with dirt and mud, lay plastered to what was once her face. Pieces of dried flesh hung from her body, parts that the mice and insects didn’t want. And her empty eye sockets stared, her still, open jaw laughing up at us. The remaining pink frills of her princess costume were still visible around her boney body.
He stood there, watching her, a dim glow lighting his features. His charming façade was crumbling before me. I blinked again, but all I could see was the rotten core, the disgusting secretion, an imp masquerading as a man.
“But w-why?” I asked, my voice deafening in the quiet space.
“Because I can.” He paused, a satisfied smile breaking across his face. “You should have seen her cry, begging me to let her go. You’d understand.”
His eyebrows wrinkled as he studied me. “You’re not telling anyone about this.”
Could I carry this secret with me? Bury it down, somewhere deep inside? Force it into a dusty room, lock the door, throw away the key? Ignore it when it pounds on the walls, wanting out? When it forces itself to the base of my throat, and it feels like if I open my mouth, it will crawl out, the whole morbid, disgusting truth. The soupy remains splattering all over the floor, like a snake regurgitating its last slimy meal.
Could I stare down those that question me without breaking? Watch the pain of a lost child crush a parent, reducing them to a small pile of ash and dust before my eyes, knowing that I could provide closure, but won’t. Could I be that cold, that resolute? Could I be Ryan?
“Let’s go find someone else tonight. We can bring them here. I know you’re in. I know I can count on you.” He said, grabbing hold of my arm.
But I didn’t move.
Abruptly, I spun on my hip up to my feet and fled back into the darkness of the main basement, somehow finding the stairs. Halfway up I felt Ryan’s hand grab my ankle, ripping me back down.
The dim light at the top of the stairs disappeared as a pillowcase covered my face and a few pieces of candy dug into me.
The pillowcase tightened around my neck and my shriek echoed off the solid, block walls, drowning out Ryan’s boyish giggles.
Fear seared through me as the image of the girl flashed in my mind.
I frantically reached out, feeling the jagged wooden fiber of the stairs, the coarse block of the wall, its thin film of slime, the dirt and dust covering the cement floor.
My hand bumped against a metal box, and I clung to it, dragging it to me, something small and sharp inside. I grabbed it and swung desperately toward where I thought Ryan to be, feeling it sink into something.
“Aaaahhh, you little shit!”
The pillowcase tightened more, my hand loosened, and the object fell to the floor.
My back spasmed, my arms and legs swung violently, and his grip loosened. Gasping for air, I reached for anything and found the box again, grabbing something inside with a smooth handle. Gripping it tightly, I swung through the darkness above me, striking something hard.
Ryan’s grip loosened, enough to slip the pillowcase off my head. I swung it again, and again.
The grip loosened more, and I shoved him away from me. I found my feet, glanced at the hammer in my hand, and swung it at him again, and again, and again, willing him back, climbing away from his darkness. He became softer, shrinking further with each strike.
He finally fell back against the wall and slid to the floor.
I didn’t wait. I turned and raced up the stairs into the light.
My feet hit the pavement outside, and I tore down the road, never turning, never looking back. I left Ryan, along with everything I thought I knew about myself in that dark basement.