Thomas Bishop lived by the phrase curiosity killed the cat only, unlike the rest of the world, Thomas lived by the entire phrase: curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back. It had led him to plenty of places a thirteen-year-old didn’t belong. Scottie King’s “haunted” basement, Leonard Ramnke’s grandmother’s creepy attic, and the fallout shelter under the Cradle Cliff library had all been subject to his investigations. The Chesterton family farm was no exception.
It’s got a demon. That’s why Gail Chesterton killed her family, Randy Pescadero had told him during study hall because, no matter how unwittingly an investigator comes into the profession, as Thomas had, they all needed a contact with their ear to the ground. An old church lady, a fast food loving computer nerd, or a Randy Pescadero. Talkative to a fault, Randy found ways into any conversation regardless of invitation or want. The Chesterton family farm and its “Incident”, as it was always referred, was engrained into the minds of everyone in town and, through no fault of its own, had managed to become a place of high school dares, hazing, and make-outs for the promiscuously brave teenagers who weren’t satisfied sneaking in bedroom windows or steaming-up the backs of cars. They said that it yanked her soul right out and crawled inside. Pastor Mike says that’s what demon’s do because they want to hide from God. I bet that demon is still hiding out there too. That’s why no one wants to buy the place.
It was four days since that study hall conversation and Thomas hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it. He imagined showing up in full battle gear just like the Frog brothers from the Lost Boys movie and showing down with whatever dark entity dared to show its face. Thomas smiled. Scottie’s basement was haunted by a bunch of old pipes, Leonard Ramnke’s grandmother had a strange affinity for old-timey puppets, and the fallout shelter was just a fallout shelter. To date, Thomas had not yet seen a ghost, goblin, ghoul, demon, or creature and his insatiable curiosity had started to morph into skeptical obsession.
There has to be something, he thought to himself as he pedaled his way down the old gravel road to the Chesterton home, there has to be. Bright red signs warned him about trespassing and that if he could read the sign he was already in someone’s sights. Fear prickled at the back of his neck as he kept his eyes glued to the bend in the road. Brush and trees covered the yard like an organic fence offering only a rough view for anyone coming towards it and, despite himself, Thomas half-expected something to pop out and grab him like one of the old movies he and Randy had watched at their last sleepover.
Sunset had passed and when Thomas rode into the gravel driveway it struck him how alone he actually was. The world seemed to be compressing in on him as he hopped off the bike and walked it to an old oak tree close to the house. It was a gnarled old thing with names of fly by night lovers etched into its bark accompanied with crude drawings of what carnal activities may or may not have lain in wait.
The house itself had seen better days, with the windows smashed and spray paint illustrating the walls. Thomas took in the smiley faces with devil horns, 666s, and corpses riddled with bullet holes with mild interest. They were silly nothings that only added to the pulpy mythos that surrounded Gail Chesterton and her family. Stories, Thomas had learned, were almost never the truth. He walked up the old porch and was thankful there was no wind to knock the broken kitchen door against the house.
“Hello,” he called, peeking his head through the doorway. Like the outside, everything inside had also been wrecked looking more like the remnants of a Viking pillage than a hangout spot. Clothes littered the floor, what furniture hadn’t been destroyed was turned over, and a condom hung from the sink. “Any malicious killers making sandwiches with ground ***********
His face turned red. Thankfully, no one was around to hear his stand-up. “Don’t quit your day job,” he said mimicking his mother whenever his father tried to be funny.
He moved to go further but stopped. The hair hung thick around him and, like a toddler with an open car window, Thomas extended his hand like a blade and moved it up and down through the air. It felt slow like he was punching underwater. His logical mind wanted him to turn around, get on his bike, and never look back, yet he took another step so that he was out of the doorway and in the kitchen proper. A disassembled corpse of a fridge was knocked from its spot against the wall and moved to block the long hall into the living room and the dining room table was moved to block the archway into the first bedroom. Chips of destroyed wallpaper littered the tile as he made his way to the fridge. Cleaned of food, Thomas could see spots of mold growing in the corners and rat poop littering the white plastic. It reeked like cat urine and rancid meat had decided to make a baby and Thomas had to pinch his nose to keep from gagging.
He hopped the fridge, using one hand to hold the wall and the other to steady his shoulder bag and wretched twice before calming enough to successfully get over. There was nothing in the bag that compared to the Frog brother’s, but Thomas was ready for anything. Holy water he had nicked from St. Mary’s the previous Sunday (probably a sin, but worth it), a heavily annotated leather bible, a small flashlight, a self-blessed polaroid camera, and a small polished stone with a perfect circle in the middle. His adder stone.
The further he went into the house the darker everything began to feel. Moonlight shone in through the broken windows and he could hear lonely cars speeding on the distant highway, yet everything seemed masked in shadow. Moving through the thick air, Thomas turned on his flashlight to the same disarray that was the rest of the house. Old family pictures were scattered across splintered frames, some ripped, others burned, and many crumpled. A woman who Thomas assumed must have been Gail Chesterton had a repeated set of devil horns drawn behind her head, a shotgun drawn in her hands. Thomas’s stomach felt cold. The smell from the kitchen was more potent the closer he moved to the pictures.
“Do I look beautiful?”
Thomas’s breath caught in his throat. The voice was raspy and weak like Tobias Greg ever since he got the stoma. Could someone be messing with him? The logical part of Thomas hoped, no knew, that it was. It had to be. Spidery fingers reached for the front flap of his messenger bag and gripped the adder stone with white knuckles.
“C’mon, sweetie, be honest with me. I can take it,” the voice whispered again. “I’ve always been real good with criticism.”
Fresh batteries were in his flashlight. Thomas knew that because putting them in was the last thing he did before leaving. Still, to his own disbelief, he watched the flashlight flicker once before dying completely. Out of habit he pressed the button. Nothing. He replaced it in his bag and brought the adder stone to his eye.
“Who is it? Thomas Short? Donnie Adams? Stop impersonating The Exorcist, it isn’t even good,” Thomas said forcing his breath to level and body to relax. He turned so his back was to the wall and he had a view of the entire living room. There was nowhere to hide. “C’mon. Jokes up, guys.”
“They the big pudgy stoners with neck beards?”
The voice was right in his ear. Thomas screamed and launched the adder stone into the air. It landed beside a turned over recliner. He scrambled for it, his torso beginning to shake like a chihuahua, his breath coming and going in tight, staccato puffs. This wasn’t pipes, this wasn’t a doll collection, and it sure as **** wasn’t a fallout shelter.
Bringing the stone to his eye, Thomas looked around the room like a deer looking for where that shotgun blast came from. Nothing at the pictures, nothing by the door, nothing in the dark corners. There was a shifting in the air, and Thomas followed it. Nothing.
“I don’t look beautiful anymore, do I?”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you, who are you, who are,” the voice said in his voice. “Is that all you know how to say?”
Cold metal pressed itself against the back of his neck, there was the sound of a gun cocking, and then a blast. Thomas felt it and screamed along before falling flat on his face in the dirty carpet. For a minute, he thought he was dead. There was a shrill cackle that raised in pitch until Thomas thought his ears were going to explode.
“I’m your thorn in your, the tickle in your throat, the howl at the moon,” the voice screamed at him. He felt the cold metal, Gail Chesterton’s shotgun, poke his sides until he rolled over. “I’m the lurker in the shadows, the handsy bum, and the twinkle in a bully’s eyes.”
The adder stone didn’t show anything. The room was empty. Was he crazy? He hoped he wasn’t crazy. Did mental illness run in his family? Was he a schizophrenic? He cursed himself for not checking. Doorway, wall, living room, nothing. Finally, he settled on the overturned recliner.
Glowing green eyes stared back at him from underneath the chair and it took everything he had not to run screaming. He removed the stone and the eyes disappeared. When he brought it back an ethereal and unreasonably long smile rested underneath the eyes.
“Oh my God, I’m ******* crazy,” Thomas said to the room. It was the first time he ever swore. The mouth under the chair started to laugh. “Who are you?”
“That isn’t the right question. Who are you?”
No, Thomas told himself before opening his mouth to answer. It doesn’t get to know your name. He rose to stand, refusing to take his eyes away from the face. “Why are you here?”
“Still not the right question,” the voice chided. “I’m starting to lose my patience.”
“Well,” Thomas paused to deepen his voice, “well, then what is the right question?”
“The one with the answers.” The eyes darkened as the teeth in the smile grew yellowed and black in the mouth. “The next time that gunshot won’t be an illusion. What’s the right question, boy?”
Thomas thought about his parents. He thought about how confused they would be when they went to wake him up for school. He thought about how Randy Pescadero would know, but not want to tell. Thomas didn’t want to put that burden on them. Mostly though, he thought about how stupid he was to have even come out here. How could he become so consumed by the thought? Why couldn’t stop thinking about it? Why…
“There you go, kid,” the voice said, the smiling growing even longer. The silver barrel of the gun slid back out from the blackness. Thomas heard it ****. He didn’t move, there wasn’t enough time. “Why you?”
There was an explosion, a thud as his body recoiled with the shot, and, finally, a strange, comforting blackness.
Thomas woke up in a pile of sweat and blankets to his father singing his own version of Good Morning from Singing in the Rain. His body ached, and he was still in his clothes from the night before. He peeked under the collar where a large purple bruise had bloomed. He thought about the face and wondered again: