Yellow, then red, streaked the oily surface of the street as the traffic light above signaled to no one. Elliot passed the darkened storefronts, side-stepping a pile of noodles and the shredded remains of a takeout box. He’d been drinking whisky steadily for the past six hours, and the deep-fried stink of the city wasn’t doing his stomach any favors. He jogged across 96th Street, looking both ways for cars even though he hadn’t seen a vehicle for five blocks. Once across, he hurried toward the only sign of life on this side of town at 3 am—the flickering neon sign for Missy’s Diner.
The place wasn’t completely empty. There was a wiry, half-starved-looking guy picking at a waffle in a corner booth, and a middle-aged man in a flannel jacket at the end of the bar perched on the edge of his stool, eyes glued to the overhead TV. The tired waitress behind the counter met Elliot’s gaze.
“Seat yourself, hon.”
Elliot sat at the bar and the waitress slid him a menu. The laminated glamour shots of pancakes and scrambled eggs made his guts recoil.
“Coffee, please,” he said.
The waitress sniffed and turned toward the line of carafes. Her hair was thinning in the back, her pale scalp showing through the wispy veil of strawberry blonde. Elliot felt a stab of pity for her, and a twinge of guilt, watching her pour his coffee for him. He reminded himself that she was getting paid. If it weren’t for the greasy, sleepless loners like him, she might be out of a job.
Elliot pulled out his tiny spiral notepad and squinted at the addresses scribbled between the lines. He had jobs scattered all over the city this week: laying tile on the west end of town one day, some lawn maintenance off of Sunset the next. The price of gas had risen again, and Elliot’s buzzed brain struggled to calculate how much of his income would be dumped straight into the tank. The odd jobs paid the bills, but only just. He couldn’t raise his rates; he was a shitty handyman and he knew it. But being the cheapest option in town had its perks, as he rarely wanted for work.
He’d just given up trying to do math in his condition when the man in the flannel chuckled. The waitress had retreated into the kitchen, but Elliot could see her face through the little window above the coffee pots. She was looking sideways at the guy, both eyebrows up, until she shook her head dismissively and went back to folding napkins, or whatever she was doing. The man’s chuckles turned into a wheezy laugh. Elliot followed his gaze to the TV, where an advertisement played for some local real estate agent, who smiled into the camera while offering to buy your house for cash. Elliot had seen his face on bus stop benches in town.
“You all right, man?” Elliot asked.
The guy spun around, surprised, as though just realizing he wasn’t alone in the diner.
“Yeah,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
He moved toward Elliot, taking a seat on the stool right next to him. Elliot smiled politely and cursed himself silently for not minding his own business. The guy smelled like stale beer and sawdust.
“Sorry, sorry,” the man said, setting his coffee cup on the bar and dropping an unwelcome hand on Elliot’s shoulder.
“No problem. No worries,” Elliot said, resisting the urge to push the man’s hand away.
“That guy, Robichaud, or whatever,” he said, gesturing toward the TV, which had moved on to an infomercial for home exercise equipment. “He makes it sound so easy, flipping a house.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely not easy,” Elliot said and then, smelling opportunity, he asked, “Are you remodeling?”
The man in flannel nodded.
“Well, I happen to be in that line of work, if you ever need an extra set of hands.” Elliot fished a business card out of his wallet and held it out.
The man took his proffered card and leaned in.
“You know what…” he glanced at the card, “Elliot? I’m afraid I might. But, no offense, I’m afraid this might require skills beyond those of a general handyman.”
“Try me.” Elliot flipped to an empty page of his notebook.
He snorted. “Do you believe in ghosts? Or zombies? You know, weird, horror movie shit?”
Fuck, Elliot thought. That’s the problem with talking to strangers. It’s like playing Russian Roulette. Odds are, the conversation will be pleasant enough, but you never know when you’re going to shoot off a live round.
He glanced at the faceless clock over the bar, both hands pointing to where the three should have been, and considered how to end this quickly. He tried making eye contact with the waitress, to call in some kind of backup, but she had disappeared from the kitchen window.
“No,” Elliot said, as flatly as possible.
“Neither did I.” Elliot surrendered, bracing for the inevitable spiel, and was about to pocket his notebook when the man said something that caught his attention.
“Until I bought the old Maple House.”
The waitress reappeared, offering Elliot a refill. He could have said “no, thank you,” and asked for the check. It was a perfect out, an opportunity to escape this crazy and head home, to get to bed before he sobered up completely.
“Yes, please,” Elliot said. The waitress filled his cup and the man started talking.
“Seemed like a good deal, you know? The place needs some attention, for sure, but it isn’t a complete dump. The plumbing and electric passed inspection, and those are always the big pains. Roof isn’t more than a few years old, HVAC not much worse. Since those checked out, I figured I could fix the house up myself, even with my back problems. I just have to be careful and not get caught hauling lumber around and shit like that. I’m not super paranoid, but I’ve heard stories about guys getting kicked off disability because they were spotted ‘working.’”
He brought his fingers up to make quote marks in the air.
“Did you know they’ll fucking spy on you, man? The government’s more suspicious than a jealous wife, I swear. I heard this one guy talk about getting busted changing a tire. This PI prick had a big manila envelope full of pictures of him with notes about where he’d been and what he’d been doing since his injury. It’s really not fair, though. I mean, yeah, he changed a fuckin’ tire, but it also took him a week to recover, you know? They don’t care. This poor guy lost his benefits and had to find some bullshit retail job. He’s on his feet all the time and hurts every day but hey, at least he’s not the taxpayer’s problem.”
Reluctantly, Elliot nodded as he listened. He knew a thing or two about fraud investigation.
“So, I have to be careful because I can do the work, but I have to pace myself or else I’ll be flat on my back. Fortunately, I have the luxury of time. No job—not anymore—and no wife, neither.”
The man looked down at the counter, staring at the nicks and scratches on its surface like he was deciphering hieroglyphs.
“Yeah. Plenty of time to sit in that decrepit old house. Just me and my ‘negative energy.’”
He threw up the air quotes again.
“You know, I figured she’d be leaving me for some vegan with a man bun or something, because of how one she was with Spirit and all that. I didn’t expect to see her with…” he glanced cautiously at the scrawny waffle-eater in the corner, “one of these meth-heads.
“I caught just a glimpse of him when he pulled up and opened the car door for her. This guy looked like he cut his own hair with a butter knife in the dark. And he had that dichrom… bichromia… that mismatched eye shit going on, like David Bowie, only his blue eye was staring off sideways. Made me want to punch him upside the face, if not for taking my wife, then at least to rattle his creepy eye into alignment.”
Elliot laughed, his tension ebbing. He’d lost hope of this guy ever getting to the point about the Maple House, but at least he felt comfortable enough to finish his coffee. He added some sugar to his cup and let the man ramble on.
“You know the type I mean though, don’t you? There’s more of them every day, it seems. That’s another reason I was content to hide away in the Maple House. I could take my frustration out on the walls and floors and wouldn’t have to deal with anyone. Cheryl and I had some nosy fucking neighbors.
“I sold our old house, which was a kind of ‘fuck you’ to Cheryl, in a way. Turns out, my petty revenge was a pretty stupid move, because now I don’t have anywhere to go, which is why I’m stuck in this fine establishment at damn near four in the morning.”
The man’s eyes darted to the windows, searching. Elliot followed his gaze, but couldn’t see past the reflections, the ghostly mirror image of the diner and his own face staring back at him.
“I can fix almost anything, if I really put my mind to it,” the man said, “but I don’t think I can fix this.”
“The Maple House?” Elliot asked.
The man nodded, his eyes still searching the windows.
“The realtor told me it was haunted. Not by real ghosts, but by rumors, and those were real enough to keep the buyers away. I’ve never been superstitious and, to be honest, buying a haunted house appealed to me because the mere thought of it would have given Cheryl an aneurysm. I didn’t even bother asking what the stories were all about, just assumed it was some stupid shit like you’d find on one of those ghost hunting ‘reality’ shows. I guess that one’s on me.
“I dumped my settlement from my accident into the place, plus my 401k. Before the accident, I worked at Nickle’s Precast—they make concrete forms, like septic holding tanks and shit like that, no pun intended. Anyway, the firm that handles the retirement stuff docked me a pretty penny for withdrawing early but with the settlement and the money from selling the old house, I got enough to buy the Maple place outright.
“I sold most of the furniture. I tried to find Cheryl, to give her a check for half of what I got from the sale, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. Between you and me, I didn’t look too hard. I tried her number and social media, and even stopped by the antique store where she works. They said they hadn’t seen her in weeks. Maybe she and her creepy new boyfriend are roaming the streets doing faith healings for money, to feed his drug habit or whatever. I don’t know. That new age shit went to her head and made her looney, man.
“Anyway, like I said before, the house isn’t in such bad shape. The front porch is going to have to be rebuilt at some point. That damn thing’s a liability. I feel like I’m about to fall through every time I step foot on it. The wood feels… spongy, you know what I mean? What I really want to do is refinish the floors. They’re these gorgeous walnut planks, but they’re scuffed to shit, light scratches all over. I know better now, but at first I thought maybe the former tenants had a pack of dogs roaming the place or something.”
The man shook his head. “Dogs. If only.”
Elliot opened his mouth to ask what it was he knew, or thought he knew, but the man was already on again about the house.
“And the place needs more natural light. The windows in the Maple House, they seem smaller than they should be, and too high up, if that makes sense. All the sills are about chest height on me and, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m not exactly a small guy. The little old lady that lived there before me, no way she could have even seen out.
“I don’t know if you know the house…”
“I’m familiar,” said Elliot.
“Ok, so you know how the house sits at the top of a cul-de-sac? Behind it is a little yard and beyond the yard there’s nothing but trees. Not a bad view, but those windows don’t do it justice. I figured I’d knock out most of the back wall and put a couple of wide windows in, so you could stare out toward the woods while having your breakfast or coffee or whatever. Make the place feel like a rustic little cabin away from the world, while still having all the conveniences of town outside your front door.”
“That sounds nice,” Elliot said. Visions of the tiny windows, the scratched floors, and cracked plaster ceilings were so vivid in his mind’s eye he could almost smell the house, a stuffy mixture of dust and linseed oil. He shuddered.
“It does sound nice, doesn’t it?” the man said. “There’s not much of a back porch to speak of, just a little concrete stoop with three steps going down into the yard. I was sitting out there one night, after I’d moved my bed in—I just plopped it down in the living room. I wasn’t about to lug a mattress up that narrow staircase, my back the way it is, and besides, there was still a bunch of shit upstairs. The realtor said they’d haul it off, but they didn’t specify when. I didn’t care too much. I wasn’t in a hurry. Although, thinking about it now, I wonder if maybe they’d done their job in the first place and cleaned the house up, it wouldn’t have even been on the market. I like to think, if they’d taken a good look around and found what I found, they would’ve just burnt it to the ground.”
“Huh,” Elliot grunted. In his breast pocket, he could feel the weight of his Bic lighter, suddenly conspicuous enough to be distracting. His pinky finger twitched, rattled his spoon against the edge of the ceramic coffee mug. He squeezed his jittery hand, massaging the palm with his thumb.
“So, I was on the back porch,” the man went on, pulling Elliot from his reverie, “staring out into the dark, when I see these lights out in the trees. At first, they look like fireflies, little green twinkles floating near the ground. That’s stupid, of course—we don’t get fireflies in the city. As I’m watching, two more pop up, then two more, until there’s a whole line of them, blinking on and off, not all at once, you know, but this chill comes over me, because as sure as I’m watching them, I know, I just know, they’re watching me.
“I asked around, at the hardware store, and up the street at that little gas station if there are coyotes or anything like that out in the trees. Nobody had heard about any coyotes. The lady at the gas station suggested they might be raccoons.
“Those eyes showed up every night. I stopped hanging out back there after dark and started reconsidering my plans for the windows. Could you imagine, stumbling downstairs at night for a glass of water and finding a sentinel of beady eyes watching you from the woods? Maybe the windows were small on purpose.”
“Is that why you’re hiding out here?” Elliot asked.
The man straightened up, frowning like he’d just been insulted.
“No, man. No. It takes more than that level of weirdness to scare me out of my own home. Otherwise, I’d have left this place a long time ago, if you know what I mean.” He looked back at the skinny guy with the waffle. “But the staring gave me the creeps, for sure, which is probably why I was a little more rattled than I normally would have been when I went under the front porch one day and found a pile of teeth.”
Elliot choked on his coffee. The man laughed and clapped him on the back.
“Teeth?” Elliot wheezed.
“Teeth,” he replied, his smile fading. “I was scared as hell to crawl under that porch because, like I said, the whole thing is about ready to cave in on itself. That, and the stories about private investigators kept running through my head. I kept imagining some guy perched up in a tree like a peeping tom, snapping pictures of my ass wriggling into the crawlspace, but I needed to see how bad the damage was. If I could get away with just replacing the boards on top, I’d just as soon save the money and the labor.
“The space below the deck was all closed up, so I pried a board off the side and squeezed myself in there. My flashlight is a beast, one of those heavy-duty halogen deals, and it lit up the whole space, bright as day. I didn’t even look at the woodwork. The first thing I see, after I wipe the dust and cobwebs from my face, is what I thought were little white pebbles, like gravel, laying in rows on the ground.
“I crawled forward a bit, so I’m in up to my knees at this point, and I can see that these rocks are lying right where the light comes through, like they’d fallen through the cracks. I scoop up a handful and sift through the dirt and what do I see but two little molars and a tiny fang.”
“What did you do?” Elliot asked.
“I got right the fuck out of there. Hit the back of my head pretty good on the way out, too.”
“Did you call the cops, I mean.”
“No. I thought they must have been dog teeth or something. At least, that’s what I told myself. Later, when I was lying in bed, not sleeping, I had all kinds of crazy shit running through my head, Texas Chainsaw Massacre shit. I remembered that story out of Illinois, the one about the clown who had a bunch of kids’ bodies stashed under his house. It’s funny, the way a person’s mind opens up in the dark. At midnight, with the draft whistling through the gaps in the windows, it’s so easy to believe in haunted houses. In the morning, the sun comes up and you get yourself a cup of coffee and listen to the crows bicker outside, and all that spooky stuff seems absurd.
“By the next day, I had about convinced myself that those had been animal teeth, the remains of some small critter that had crawled under there to die. So, I nailed the board back in place, but I was careful not to look into that crawlspace as I did it.
“Cheryl used to say, ‘Jerry, you’re the dumbest smart man I’ve ever known.’ She used to see signs in everything, even swore she could predict the weather by listening to the birds. It frustrated her to no end that I couldn’t buy into that shit. Magic numbers, messages in the clouds, even the trees were trying to tell her something, and she was always trying to figure out what it all meant. The only thing I was trying to figure out was how a person could live their life that way. If everything means something profound, how can you focus on the day-to-day stuff? How do you get your bills paid when you have to drop everything and research the meaning behind your utilities subtotal?
“So, I’m usually a skeptic. After what I’ve seen in this house, though, I’m feeling terribly open-minded.
“My tools kept disappearing. I’m not a tidy guy so, at first, I assumed I was just getting sloppy and losing things. I keep everything in the living room, in a pile at the foot of my bed. When I couldn’t find my screwdriver, then my pry bar, it was easy for me to believe I’d just left those lying around. I went and searched where I’d worked the day before and I couldn’t find them nowhere. No. Where. Still, these things happen. It was when my circular saw took off that I knew it wasn’t me.
“My mind didn’t leap straight to ghosts. I have to admit that the idea of the house being haunted by some spectral handyman is kind of funny, and it would explain why the house was still in decent shape after decades of being left to rot. Cheryl was right though, I wouldn’t recognize a sign from the universe if I walked into it face first, so no, I didn’t assume Casper took my saw. What I did suspect was that some strung out ghoul from the streets was sneaking in while I slept, and that thought creeped me out more than the floating eyes in the woods.
“I decided to pull an all-nighter, just to see if I’d hear anyone slinking around outside. I brewed a whole pot of coffee. I’m not naturally a night owl, never have been, so I was prepared for a rough night. I caught myself dozing off once or twice, and I had to keep getting up and doing stretches to get the blood flowing again and keep my back from locking up. It was during one of these stretch sessions that I heard a thud upstairs, kind of like a muffled stomp.
“Now old houses settle in the cold, and it’s been unusually chilly lately, but something about that sound got my adrenaline going. I suddenly felt like my skin was on fire. I walked down the hallway, stood at the bottom of the stairs, and listened. For a while, I couldn’t hear anything except the breeze whistling through the gaps in the windows—typical night noise in the Maple House—but then I did hear something. There was a shuffling, real quiet, like someone was up there rifling through stuff.
“I hadn’t been upstairs at all since the walkthrough with the realtor. I was still waiting for them to come haul all the junk out of there. I went and grabbed my flashlight from my tool pile because I wasn’t about to twist an ankle tripping over shit in the dark. I crept up the stairs, keeping close to the wall to avoid any creaky spots. If there was a junkie up there, I didn’t want to let him get the drop on me.
“I reached the first landing and realized I wasn’t going to need the light. It was plenty bright. I heard a few clicking noises, and then some more shuffling, so I climbed the rest of the way up and stopped on the last stair to peek around the corner.
“The second floor is one long hallway with bedroom doors on either side and a big master bedroom at the end. The master bedroom door was hanging open and the full moon was streaming in through the window in there, so I could see everything clearly. Right there on the floor, about halfway down the hall, was the biggest fucking rat I’ve ever seen in my life. This thing was about the size of a football, and its tail had to be damn near two feet long.
“One of the floorboards had been pried up and was lying next to Ratzilla, and the rat had its head in the gap in the floor, chewing on something. I could see his little shoulder blades working and I just about could’ve puked, it was so gross. As I’m watching him, another one of these monsters comes crawling out of a bedroom, then another, until there were five of these giant bastards all huddled around the hole in the floor, pigging out like they’d found a Thanksgiving dinner. I reached into my pocket and found this old prescription bottle where I keep my loose change. I figured that would make a good amount of noise, so I took aim and threw it at the rats.
“It was plenty loud, loud enough to startle me, even though I knew it was coming. The bottle landed right next to that first rat I’d seen and I expected them to scatter, but the weirdest thing happened, man, I swear. I couldn’t make this shit up.
“All five rats stopped eating and just turned, real slow, and looked right at me. Rodents don’t make me especially squeamish, but those eyes, shining at me through the dark, all backlit by the blue light of the moon—that was something straight out of a horror movie.
“Then they ran at me! No kidding, these monster rats charged me. I took a step back without thinking and ended up falling down the stairs. I hit that first landing hard, and I was scared that I’d fucked my back up even more, that I’d be in a wheelchair this time, for sure. The next second, though, I feel Ratzilla on my leg and I tell you, nothing puts pain out of mind like a five-pound rodent clawing its way up your Levi’s.
“I kicked my leg and I could feel my back screaming at me, but I didn’t care. My kicking made the rat cling harder to my pants. His little claws poked through the denim. When I felt them scratching my thigh, I panicked and I punched the damn thing. Luckily, I didn’t get bit. The rat bounced across the landing, then found its feet and followed its friends down the stairs.”
“Maybe they were rabid,” Elliot said, his stomach churning a sickly mix of booze fumes, anxiety, and acidic coffee.
Jerry shook his head. “I thought so, at first, but believe me, whatever these things have is above and beyond rabies.”
“So…they came back, I take it?”
“Not that night, which was good because once my heartrate settled down and I could feel my body again, I don’t think I would have been able to fight them off. I stayed on the landing, flat on my back, just trying to breath.
“The first time I hurt my back, at Nickle’s, I was laid out for a week. I messed myself up real good. We were guiding this big concrete slab over to the tank— a big, open, concrete box where the slab was going to rest on top—when the crane broke. One of the pulleys flew right off and my dumb ass did the one and only thing you are never supposed to do, and that is brace yourself to catch it. I knew better. I’d done that work for years. I’d yelled at new guys for making that very mistake. Reflexes are a hell of a thing, though.”
“Yeah, old habits, and whatnot.” Elliot said.
“You don’t notice, when you’re well and fit, what all your back muscles do for you. As soon as they quit working, though, you realize you use them for everything. Without the pain pills, I can’t even sit up straight. I keep them by my bed and take one as soon as I wake up in the morning, and I don’t even try to move until that medicine’s had enough time to kick in. Needless to say, I hadn’t packed my Norcos with me on my little midnight adventure, so when the sun came up, I knew I’d have to just tough it out. I almost passed out from the pain, just getting myself in crawling position.
“I went upstairs first. I wanted to get to my bed and those pills, but crawling downstairs is a lot trickier than crawling upstairs. Try it sometime. I could picture myself falling, cracking my face on the hardwood and lying there unconscious while those giant rat bastards finished me off. They were probably still plenty hungry, since I’d interrupted their chow time.
“So, I went upstairs, hoping that once I’d got moving, things would loosen up enough that I could pull myself to my feet. I also wanted to see what those little monsters had found beneath the floor that had them so excited.
“I made it to the hallway and shuffled over to the hole, avoiding the pebbles of rat scat they’d left behind. Halfway there, I smelled something awful. I expected to find something dead in there. What I didn’t expect to find was a big blob of jelly. It looked like orange snot and it had these faint lines running through it, like veins. I grabbed the free floor board and poked at it. The stuff gave a little, but it was fairly firm. I wondered if maybe it was a dead thing, and this was just some kind of rotten membrane that had grown around the body.
“Against my better judgement, I reached in there to pull the thing out. I looked around first, to find something to use as a barrier, like an old cloth or something, but there was nothing around. I poked it a couple of times. It was dry and seemed solid enough that my hand wouldn’t sink into the thing. I wormed my fingers under it, but as soon as I moved to lift the blob, I felt this prick, like there was something sharp inside. I pulled my hand out and found a nasty little gash down my fingertip.”
Jerry raised his hand, revealing the thick line of a scab running down the middle finger.
“I think it bit me. Not at the time, I didn’t, but now, I think that thing had teeth. I cleaned up the cut, but only after I got back to my bed and took my pills and a two-hour nap. God only knows what kind of hellish shit took root in my bloodstream in that amount of time.”
“Jerry,” Elliot said, his gaze fixed on that wounded middle finger. “Do you have anywhere else to go? Any friends you can crash with?”
“Not really. I could hit up one of the guys from Nickle’s, but all their numbers are on my phone, which is back at the house. Even if I had somewhere to go, I’m not sure I’d want to.”
“Well, anywhere’s better than the rat house at this point, right?”
“I don’t know,” Jerry said, looking at the windows.
A faint glow had spread over the tops of the buildings across the street. The reflection of the diner was thinner on the glass, and more of the outside world was showing through.
“What’s out there?” Elliot asked.
Jerry’s lips pulled back in a twisted smile, and through clenched teeth he said, “The Mischief.
“That’s what you call a pack of rats. A mischief. I learned that on one of those TV trivia shows. After Cheryl left and before I decided to dump my last red cent into the Maple House, I spent a lot of time on my ass in front of the television. I was drunk by prime time most nights, but I did remember that little fun fact. A group of rats is called a mischief.
“This whole thing with the rats and the blob happened last night. Tonight, I decided to stay awake again. I’d slept most of the day, so I was rested enough. But I hadn’t made it down to the hardware store to get rat traps, or poison, or a fucking flame thrower, to get rid of the problem. I don’t think I could’ve slept even if I’d wanted to, knowing those things were crawling around.
“When I heard the shuffling upstairs, I slipped on my steel toe boots and grabbed my level from my tool pile. My pry bar was gone, but the level is one of those three-foot metal deals, and I figured that would be enough to break a rat’s back. They wouldn’t catch me off guard this time. I made sure to take a pill, because I knew I’d be hurting myself swinging that thing around and I didn’t want the pain slowing me down. I’d deal with the aftermath later. I crept up the stairs again, not wanting to scare them off. The moon was still full, or close enough anyway, so there was plenty of light. I stopped on the top stair and took a couple deep breaths, pumping myself up for the action, and then charged around the corner.
“There were three of them this time, and when they heard my boots hit the floor, they stood up. They stood, man, up on their hind legs, with their big bellies sticking out, and their rat tails trailing behind them. I lifted the level up over my shoulder like a baseball bat, but I froze. Their faces—those were not rat faces. They were bald, and their fur started up by their ears, like a receding hairline, and they had these short little human noses. Their mouths and chins were covered in whatever they’d been eating and, in the moonlight, I couldn’t say exactly what shade of dark it was, but all I could think of was blood. That was probably my brain calling up zombie movies, sure, but in that moment, I was short on rational thinking. I was sure it was blood.
“I must’ve been in shock or something, because I couldn’t move until they were running at me. I swung the level and caught one of them in the face, and it screamed. It didn’t squeal. It didn’t screech. It screamed, like a man. That sound broke me. I screamed too, and when the second rat dug its teeth into my ankle, I forgot about my level, about my boots, which probably could’ve crushed its skull in one stomp, and I took off down the stairs with that thing still attached to my leg.
“Its ass bounced down the first couple steps before it lost its grip and fell off. I didn’t look back, just pounded my way down to the ground floor. I ran into the living room and found two of them standing at the foot of my bed, which put them right between me and the front door. One of them looked at me and…”
Jerry stopped, chewing on his lip. Elliot knew the man was on a precipice, that his story was approaching some point of no return. Everything before could have had some reasonable explanation. Big rats were scary, but not unheard of. Finding teeth beneath the porch? Weird, sure, but it was believable. Elliot could sense Jerry holding back and prodded him on, not because he wanted to hear it but because he had to hear it. “Looked at you and…?”
“Before I say this, I want you to know that I was sober then and I’m sober now, ok? I took my pills, but it’s not like they’re hallucinogens or anything like that. They don’t even make me groggy anymore, like they did at first. I’m saying this because I know how crazy this is going to sound. Hell, I’ve talked myself out of what I saw at least three times tonight, but I know I saw it.”
When Jerry paused again, Elliot nodded. “Try me.”
The man seemed to deflate for a moment, before drawing a breath and unburdening himself in a quieter tone. “When that thing looked at me, it had my face. It was my face looking at me from the top of that rat body. It had the same dark stain around its mouth as the upstairs rats. The other one was licking the wall. That orange stuff was seeping through in big, bulging blisters. The rat bit down on one of them and the blister popped. I could smell it, and it smelled like blood.
“When the upstairs rats made it into the hallway, I booked it out the back door.”
Elliot looked around for the waitress but didn’t see any sign of her. He’d sobered up some time ago and a dull ache whispered at his temples. It wasn’t just the hangover either, but aching memories. He’d literally bitten his tongue enough times during Jerry’s story that it ached as well.
He was more than familiar with the Maple House.
Elliot had stayed away from the place for years, avoiding it the way he avoided old acquaintances better left in the past. In truth, that’s exactly what the house was. After decades trying to wash away the past with whisky, Elliot had only succeeded in clouding the waters of his memory. Jerry’s tale was clearing the haze, and the recollections of his early days rose in his mind, pulling him under.
Jerry picked up his coffee cup and then set the empty mug back on the counter.
“They chased me out the back door. All five of them. They were fast, too. They shouldn’t have been that fast, with their fat bellies, but their legs seemed longer than they’d been the night before and they were actually gaining on me until I reached that gas station. When I looked back, they had stopped. They just stood there, waiting in the dark at the edge of the halo made by the streetlight.
“I thought that would be the end of it. I started laughing, not because anything at all was funny, but because I felt like I was losing my mind. The gas station was closed, so I headed toward a bar a few blocks up Royal Ocher Road. I figured I’d earned a beer, and some time to process the hell I’d just seen.
“It was later than I thought, only an hour before closing time. Fortunately, they know me there. I was able to leave without settling up. Turns out I left my damn wallet in that hellhole along with my phone and my pills. My mind had settled down some, but the thought of going back had me shaking. It was still dark, and I pictured those things standing at the edge of the light, waiting for me.”
He gestured widely at the diner’s fifties décor. “I knew this place was open 24 hours, and I couldn’t think of anywhere better to be, so I headed this way.
“The bars had just closed, so there was still plenty of traffic. It wasn’t until I got away from my neighborhood a bit that I started getting nervous. Then, about three blocks from here, I came across a good stretch of road that was just dead. Not a car in sight, and one of the streetlights was out. My rational brain knew that those rats were back at the Maple House. I figured they wouldn’t wander too far from their putrid, orange rat manna, but I still picked up the pace walking through that dark patch.
“In the middle of the block, a narrow alley cut between the buildings. Just as I passed it, I heard something that sounded like a tin can bouncing on the asphalt. I looked up and one of those fucking rats was running right at me, up on its hind legs, hissing. I’ve never run faster, man. I took off, and I didn’t stop until I got here.
“I’ve never been scared like this before, not even as a little kid. I used to make fun of my brother, when we were little. He was so afraid of the dark, he couldn’t even bring himself to get up to go to the bathroom. He wet the bed until he was damn near twelve years old. I teased him all the time. I figure Cheryl would refer to my current situation as ‘karma.’”
The waitress shuffled in from the kitchen.
“You boys need anything? More coffee?”
Elliot thought she seemed more chipper than before, as if she’d caught her second wind.
“No, thank you. I think I’ll take the check. I’ll pick up his tab too, please,” Elliot said.
As she made her way to the register, Jerry smiled sadly. “Thank you, and thanks for listening. You probably think I’m a nut, but I appreciate you not saying so to my face.”
“You know,” Elliot said, eyes forward as he paused for a last sip of his coffee, “yours isn’t the strangest story I’ve heard. San Cicaro is the west side of strange.”
Jerry nodded. He looked like he was on the verge of tears.
“When I was a kid,” Elliot went on, “the Maple House was a foster home. Those boys were all home schooled, so naturally the neighborhood kids called them freaks. The house had a creepy vibe around it, with these reclusive kids and their scary, ancient foster mom. Miss Maple… she looked like a witch from a Grimm’s fairy tale. It was only natural, when the place shut down, that people would start telling ghost stories, you know? The seeds had already been sown.”
The waitress came back with the check.
“Thanks again,” Jerry said. “For the coffee. And for your time.”
“I was thinking,” Elliot said, trying to steady his trembling hand as he signed the check, “I might be able to help you with your rat problem.”
Jerry’s brow shot up. “What did you have in mind?”
Elliot pocketed his spiral notebook and gestured toward the door. “Walk with me.”
Elliot led the way to the Silicon Ship, a little hole-in-the-wall bar where he’d left his truck after deciding he was too drunk to drive.
“I’m not a good guy, Jerry,” Elliot began, choosing his words carefully. “I was a little punk kid, running with a bad crew. You could say we were monsters. That shoe fits.
“Back in the day, a nice chunk of this town was run by the Fiorino crime syndicate . They were behind the scenes, pulling all the strings. I guess it was only a matter of time before one of their talent scouts caught up with us. And we were exactly what they were looking for—a bunch of roughneck kids with no connection to the family. Too hungry to worry about morals, too young to prosecute as adults. They offered to pay us to do what we were doing already, basically terrorizing San Cicaro. All we had to do was stay away from the people who paid The Family and do a few burn jobs for them from time to time. In return, they’d be giving us damn good money, an apartment overlooking the boardwalk, and all the confidence of knowing that we had Fiorino muscle backing us up.”
“Burn jobs?” Jerry asked.
“Arson. If a business wouldn’t pay up, or if one of their associates decided to sing, we would torch their house, or their store, or whatever.”
“Jesus,” Jerry muttered.
“I told you, I’m not a good guy,” Elliot said. “There was this one job, toward the end that… that didn’t go as planned.
“There was some bar owner who decided he wasn’t going to pay for The Family’s protection anymore. Stupid fucker. I don’t know if he thought he was calling their bluff or if he honestly couldn’t afford to cough up the cash but either way, my boys and I got the call and went to work.
“We did our routine: ski masks, gas cans, the whole deal. Once the house went up, we ran back to the car, like always. This time however, for some reason, I looked back. I don’t know if it was Mister or Missus Barkeep I saw. It doesn’t matter. They were on fire. They came running out of the house and the flames were chasing them, whipping around on their back like hair in the wind. They were…they were carrying a little kid.”
“Jesus,” Jerry said again, almost hissing his name.
They reached Elliot’s rusted little pickup. Jerry paused, looking up and down the sidewalk like he expected a better option to come strolling along.
“I tried to get out, after that,” Elliot explained. His voice sounded thin and pathetic in his own ears and he cleared his throat, hardened his tone. “The Fiorinos made it clear—early retirement was not an option. They had me followed for a while, until some… I guess Polish, goons moved in.”
“Yep. Rad… Radski? I can’t remember. Some strange crew who later staked their claim in almost every industry. Pharmaceuticals, real estate, they put their fingers in all the pots once they ran the mob out of town. When The Family’s big wigs started disappearing, I guess old Fiorino figured he had bigger problems than a rogue firebug. I was able to slink off into the shadows.”
Jerry shook his head. “How does any of this help me?”
“You said yourself, that house should be burned to the ground. Arson is my specialty, and I have a bit of a score to settle. Truth be told, I should have handled this a long time ago. If I had, you wouldn’t even be in this situation.”
Elliot climbed into the driver seat. For a moment, he thought Jerry would just walk away, decide to take his chances with the other monsters.
He didn’t. He climbed into the passenger seat and stared down at his hands, his face a grim mask of exhaustion.
“Hey,” said Jerry, “nobody’s perfect, right?”
Elliot started the engine.
They waited for nightfall. Jerry slept like a rock on Elliot’s couch. He didn’t move at all until Elliot woke him at sundown.
Jerry tried to sit up and grimaced, hissing through his teeth. Elliot went into the kitchen and came back with the only form of pain relief he had to offer, a tall glass of Southern Comfort.
“Do you have a straw?” Jerry asked, his face half buried in the couch cushion.
It took two drinks to get him limping out the door, but he made it. Driving down that familiar road, Elliot could feel his stomach fluttering, his nerves rattling more with each passing intersection. They stopped at the gas station on the corner, where Elliot filled two gas cans while Jerry stood by, watching and fidgeting.
“Maybe this is a bit overkill, you know what I mean? I don’t even know if those things were following me. Maybe running into that rat in town was a coincidence. And what if this don’t work? If those rats make it to the woods, I’m no better off. If we get caught… arson, insurance fraud—that’s prison time, man.”
Elliot put the full cans in the back of the truck, next to a hefty bag full of shredded denim and newspaper. Jerry stared at him, waiting for answers.
“Listen, Jerry,” Elliot said, struggling to keep his voice steady and hide his shaking hands from the scared man next to him. “Those things are hunting you. Now that they’ve had a taste, they have to finish the job. I can drop you off at the bar, if you want. You don’t have to come along, but I have my own reasons for needing to see this done, ok?”
“How do you know they’re hunting me? Have you seen these things before?”
Elliot walked around to the driver’s side of the truck and gestured for Jerry to follow him. With the doors closed, Elliot asked, “Are you still feeling open-minded?”
“I suppose,” Jerry said, hesitantly.
“I told you before that I was in a gang, as a kid. Those kids, and me, we were all from the Maple House.”
“You were foster kids?”
“Well, we were, I guess.” Elliot lit a cigarette, unsure of how to proceed. “Foster kids came into the Maple House, but they never really left. The house feeds on people. It fed on you, when you cut your finger. If you’d stayed in that house, it would have kept feeding on you. You would’ve kept growing weaker until, one night, you’d have gone to bed and not woken up in the morning.”
“But you got out?” Jerry asked.
“The house feeds off of people, and the rats feed off of the house. The rat that you saw, the one with your face… If that house had finished you off, the rat would have kept eating until eventually—”
“You are what you eat,” Jerry whispered.
He looked green. Elliot rolled the window down to let some fresh air into the cab.
“You—” Jerry said, eyes searching Elliot’s face, shoulders, hands.
“Nobody’s perfect, right?” Elliot said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, Jerry. I was a fucking monster. My first memory is Miss Maple pulling me away from that orange slime, walking me into a bedroom and telling me I was home. There was nothing before that. Nothing. Afterwards, other kids came and I watched them get sicker and sicker. I’d hear the rats outside my bedroom at night. I even spotted one once, running down the hallway, patches of fur on his naked shoulders, a little nub of a rat tail sticking off the end of his back. And then suddenly the sick kid would be gone and his healthy, dim-witted doppelgänger would be sitting in his spot at the breakfast table.
“When Miss Maple died, the other guys and I, we were teenagers by then. We ran away, terrorized the streets like the monsters we knew we were, until the mob picked us up.”
“Why?” Jerry asked. His color was back, and a harsh cynicism crept into his voice. “Why would this Miss Maple lady bring in kids just to feed them to some slime monster? Why didn’t the house eat the rats, or the rat-kids? If this is all some practical joke at the expense of the crazy guy,” he said, pointing to himself, “you’re more messed up than I am, man, and let me tell you, I’m feeling pretty messed up right now.”
Elliot fished a pocket knife out of the center console.
“Jesus!” Jerry cried, reaching for the door handle.
“Settle down, Jerry, for Christ’s sake,” Elliot muttered. He dragged the knife blade over the pad of his thumb, just deep enough to allow a thin stream of orange mucus to run down the side of his hand.
Jerry’s jaw dropped.
“I figure the house didn’t care for our flavor, or Miss Maple’s,” Elliot said. “The real foster kids were consumed. Me, and the other boys, we walked like kids and talked like kids, but we were born from that house. Maybe I am just an extension of it. As for the rats, I can’t say for sure the house doesn’t eat a few here and there.”
Jerry ran his fingers through his hair.
“Like I said, Jerry, you can sit this one out at the bar, but I’ve lived my whole life in the shadow of that house. This ends tonight, with or without you.”
Relief flooded Jerry’s face. Elliot could see the wheels turning; how the bar would give him an alibi, plausible deniability. His hands would be clean and his problems solved, with no strings attached. Elliot started the engine, ready to drop his new friend at the old watering hole before getting down to business.
“I’m in,” Jerry said.
Elliot looked at him, stunned speechless.
“If you’re right and those rats are coming for me, I have a big problem. And I’m not one to sit back and let someone else fix my problems.”
Elliot nodded, suppressing a smirk as they rolled onto the street.
They parked in the cul-de-sac and waited until well after last call, giving the night owls time to get home to roost. Elliot tried to get his head in the game, to shake off his memories of withered children and bumps in the night.
When the time seemed right, he looked over at Jerry. The man looked gaunt, like he’d dropped ten pounds while they’d sat in silence, staring at the house.
“Are you ready?” Elliot asked.
Jerry nodded slowly, licking his pale lips.
They grabbed the cans and circled the house, soaking the bushes and tall grass, tossing sprays of gasoline up onto the walls. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and Elliot knew the place would go up fast. In the back yard, he emptied his bag of rags behind the fuel-soaked skeleton of a box hedge and reached into his pocket for his lighter when he heard Jerry scream.
He ran around the corner of the house to find Jerry on his back, hands wrapped around the throat of a naked man with a long rat tail. The thing was clawing at Jerry, leaving bloody trails down his forearms. It was winning in slow motion, its head inching toward Jerry’s face as the man weakened.
“Torch it! Torch it now!” Jerry yelled.
Elliot rushed back to his abandoned gas can and hunted for his lighter. A loud bang sounded inside and Elliot dropped it into the grass. There was another crash, and heavy footsteps thundered down the stairs. Jerry shrieked again and Elliot fell to his knees, sweeping the ground, hunting for the light. Finally, his fingers found what they sought. Elliot laughed helplessly as the spark wheel clicked futilely, and again. The third attempt ignited the nozzle, and he lit a spare rag. Tossing that into the fuel-soaked hedge, he waited to hear the breathy whoosh of combustion before sprinting back to Jerry.
Elliot ran toward the fight, diving onto the arched back of the beast. They fell to the ground, a pile of thrashing limbs with Jerry pinned at the bottom. Elliot got an arm around the rat man’s neck and squeezed as hard as he could, wrapping his legs around the thing’s abdomen and praying it didn’t get loose before the job was done.
The fire reached their side of the house. Flames licked the eaves, their heat billowing out in suffocating waves. The beautiful, brilliant sight was intoxicating, and Elliot fought a battle within not to become distracted. He flexed, listening to the gurgling cough of the rat man fade to a thin wheeze and he knew it was almost over, almost done—
A rock crashed down onto the beast’s head, missing Elliot’s nose by a finger’s breadth.
“Die, fucker!” Jerry screamed, bringing the stone he discovered down again.
Elliot rolled out of the way, pulling his arm out from under the rat man. Jerry was on his knees, his eyes illuminated by the fire as he battered the limp body on the ground. Orange slime splattered over his face, stained his hands. He looked like a madman.
“Jerry!” Elliot screamed.
Thwack. Thwack. The stone fell, again and again. The crunching of bone gave way to the squelch of pulped flesh, until there was nothing left of the monster’s face.
Elliot got to his feet and pulled Jerry away, half dragging him back to the street. He shoved him into the passenger seat of the pickup and ran around to the driver’s side, digging in his pockets for his keys. The sound of glass shattering pulled his eyes back to the Maple House. A massive shape, vaguely animal, fully engulfed in flames, spilled out onto the lawn. It scrambled on all fours, flailing in circles, dancing with the fire.
Sirens screamed in the distance. Elliot frantically searched his pockets until forced to accept the truth—he’d lost the keys. He could picture them, gleaming in the tall grass behind the house where he’d dropped his lighter.
Like a fucking amateur, he scolded himself.
Jerry was laughing, or crying, in the truck’s cab. Elliot watched the flaming monster give a final, jerky pirouette before falling to the ground. A fire truck rounded the corner, followed by a cop car, lighting up the cul-de-sac in red and blue.
Elliot stared into the inferno, thinking about his brothers and all the different ways they’d managed to self-destruct: drug overdoses, barroom brawls turned fatal, suicide by cop. They’d all fought the monsters within and lost.
Or won, depending on how you look at it, Elliot thought, taking that first step forward. Their lives had been horror stories, but they’d written their own endings.
There were worse ways to go out, he supposed, than in a literal blaze of glory.
Embark on a journey back to San Cicaro, the jewel of the Californian coast. Walk the streets, take in the sights, let your time in the city carry you far from your troubles. There is wonder and mystery to be found in plain view and hidden in the dark corners, just waiting to be unearthed. But be careful how closely you look, for what you find may change you forever.
This anthology features eight tales that offer delight and horror in equal measure. Not all that walk the streets of the golden city are who, or even what, they appear to be. You may find that your memories are not as certain as you believed, and what lurks behind a stranger’s smile could be something you would never have imagined. Read of the experiences of a lifetime… or quite possibly the end of one.
Come enjoy the San Cicaro experience once more, and partake everything it has to offer. You’ll never want to leave… and the city may not let you.
Includes stories by Kelli Springer, Ali Habashi, Georgina Jeffery, Damir Salkovic, Ian A. Keating, Tonya Walter, Anastasia Kirchoff, and A.R. Aston.