A short story about choosing light over darkness right in time for Halloween.
“Is that the last box?”
Kathy’s voice reverberated off the hardwood floor of the large, open ground level of their new home.
Donovan let the heavy box of kitchen supplies down with a thud and exhaled. “It’s the last box but there’s still the back porch lamp and that ugly wicker thing.” He turned around and walked out of the kitchen, into the family room area, and to the open front door.
“It’s not ugly! It was my grandmother’s, you jerk!” Kathy yelled after him.
He shot a grin over his shoulder and quickly argued, “It’s ugly!” before heading out the door again.
A moment later he came back with a large wicker sculpture of a chicken. “Baaawk,” he squawked, and “flew” the chicken toward her. “Baaaaaawk!”
She laughed and batted him away, “Stop it, I’m trying to unpack here!”
“Baaaaaaaaaawk!” he continued, and poked her side with the beak.
She swatted the side of his head and he did not duck in time. Just then, they heard a child giggle nearby.
They both turned to look at the open window, expecting to see one of the neighbor kids nosily taking a peek at the new neighbors. But they saw no one.
Donovan placed the wicker chicken on the counter and said, “So…where is this thing going?”
She turned away from the window. “Right where it always goes. On the porch.”
“I think it would look great near the garbage can. Or better yet—”
“Don’t say it.”
“In the garbage can.”
“I told you not to say it,” she said, pointing a knife at him that she had been in the process of unpacking.
He held up his hands. “Okay, okay, you can put your ugly wicker thing wherever you want. Just don’t stab the breadwinner.”
“I was the breadwinner up until a week and a half ago. I’ll stab you if I want to stab you,” she shot back, and put the knife in its slot in the wooden holder. “Then I’ll take your job and be the breadwinner again.”
“Oh, you’re going to learn about sea states and fluid dynamics, eh?” he asked, and wrapped his arms around her from behind.
“Those, and…and…all the other things,” she said with feigned confidence. “And do it better than you.”
He laughed, and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead.
“So are we going to the church thing tonight?”
He sighed. “Oh, I don’t think so. We have so much to unpack. And we met a lot of people earlier when they came to help us get the heavy stuff in. I think we can just see them on Sunday. Besides, we’re supposed to get some monster storm tonight.”
She nodded. “Sounds okay to me. So get the TV and surge protector set up and let’s watch something. I really want to just put my feet up and relax.”
“You’ve been sitting in the passenger seat of the car for the past two days. How can your feet be tired?” She just gave him a ‘look,’ and he held his hands up in surrender. “I’ll get the lamp in!”
As soon as he left, she turned around to put the knives away. As the last knife went in the drawer, she heard a soft ‘thud’ and looked behind her. The chicken had fallen off the counter and onto the floor. She sighed and picked it up to put it on the porch where it belonged. “This goes out here, remember?” she called, and her husband, carrying the lamp, said, “Right, that it does.”
She placed the chicken on the porch, and felt a rush of air breeze past her. “I think we need to check and make sure the A/C isn’t on.”
“Will do,” Donovan said. “The temp is supposed to plummet after the storm.”
With that, they closed the front door. Neither one of them noticed the chicken topple slightly in its place on the porch.
Later that evening, they bowed their heads and gave thanks for their new home and their fast food meal. Outside, a crack of lightning followed by powerful thunder rattled the windows. It was nearly dark, but the storm clouds were still visible in the sky.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Kathy said as she stared out the window at the sight of another magnificent lightning bolt.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure we should be so close to the window…”
“That’s a myth. I looked it up online. The only reason you shouldn’t be close to the window is because strong winds could shatter it, not because lightning could strike you through the window itself,” Kathy told him.
Donovan took a bite of his fried chicken and wiped his fingers. “That’s interesting. I was always told it was dangerous.”
There was another crack of lighting, this time almost superimposed with a tremendous boom. Suddenly, the chair next to Kathy shot out from its place under the table.
Their heads snapped to stare at the peculiarity, and then they looked to each other. Neither one said a word, and then Donovan began to whistle the X-files theme.
Kathy laughed. “Could our brand new house have an unwanted guest?”
“I’m pretty sure ghosts only haunt old houses. Not new construction.”
“There was a previous tenant. What if he was an axe murderer?” Kathy challenged.
“Then I guess we’re at his victims’ mercy. Hey, want to watch a scary movie tonight?”
“Yes!” she said immediately. “As long as we can sit real close on the couch together and you can hold me tight.”
He grinned. “Feeling a little insecure?”
“No!” she immediately protested. “I have to feel insecure to want to be held tight by my husband?”
He didn’t respond, but instead glanced around at the abundance of unpacked boxes and said, “I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned anything since sitting close together is about our only option. There’s even stuff on the couch, isn’t there?”
She laughed. “Yep.”
“Then I’ve got no choice but to sit near you.”
“Well, I’ve got a choice as to whether I feed you, mister, so—”
“I’m scared of the storm.”
They both froze. The tiny voice, which sounded like it belonged to a very young child, had no apparent source. It was almost too soft to hear, yet they both heard it unmistakably.
Kathy looked around cautiously, her body frozen in place. “Is there a kid in here?” she asked in disbelief. “Could one of the neighbor kids…”
“Shh,” Donovan told her, and pushed his chair out from the table. He began walking around the house slowly. “Are you sure it was a voice?” he asked softly. “Not like…a cat, or something, that sounded like a kid?”
“I heard it say ‘I’m scared of the storm,” she said quietly, but with urgency. “Cats don’t talk, Donovan.”
“A recording? Maybe a ring tone? A phone that someone left in here when we were moving?” he asked, and began searching for some abandoned electronic thing.
She nodded. “It has to be that,” she said, and relaxed slightly. There was another crack of lightning and boom of thunder, accompanied by rain pounding their windows. Visibility outside had reduced to nothing.
“One time, when we were growing up, my dad forgot he left his pager in a drawer and we thought we had a bug in the house for about a month. We even called Terminix.”
She smiled, though the moment still seemed a bit tense.
When there were no further disembodied voices, he slowly returned to his seat. Neither one of them said anything for a moment. The rain continued to pound amidst another tremendous streak of lightning and thunderous roar. “Maybe we shouldn’t watch a scary movie after all,” Kathy said, and Donovan chuckled nervously.
“Yeah…I think we might have just freaked ourselves out a little. Maybe we can watch a kid’s movie or something instead.”
Kathy readily agreed with a nod. “As long as we don’t lose power.”
“Flashlights are ready,” Donovan reported.
Their dinner passed uneventfully, as did their cleanup. They settled down on the couch and scrolled through an available list of movies. Strangely, the cursor kept jumping to Finding Nemo. “Are you doing something?” Donovan asked his wife while holding the old phone that was now used as a remote control.
“What? What could I be doing?”
“I don’t know, but I think our account really wants us to watch Finding Nemo. No matter what I click on, it just jumps back here.”
“We did say we were going to watch a kids’ movie. I like that movie…I’m okay with it.”
He sighed. “I think it’s this remote. It’s not even a real remote. We should get a universal remote and use it instead of this app on this old phone.”
“Okay. But for now, let’s just watch a movie. I’m tired, and I want to relax and think about talking fish and not about weird ghost kids.”
“You got it,” he said, and pressed play.
As the storm raged outside, they enjoyed the lighthearted animated movie inside, thoughts of the creepy voice distant in their minds.
It was five hours into the storm. The slow-moving beast seemed to hover over their new home, and Donovan found himself grateful that their cars were in the garage. The lights had flickered twice before they went to bed. And now he found himself awake while Kathy dozed. He couldn’t get that voice out of his mind. Did they both hallucinate? Folie a duex? A madness shared by two?
How was that possible? They were educated individuals. They were not superstitious, and while they both believed in a higher power and went to Church, neither one believed in ghosts. There had to be a more rational explanation.
A crack of lightning. The thunder that followed was accompanied by an even louder crack, and the sound of a large tree branch coming down.
And a child’s terrified scream pierced their walls.
Donovan leaped out of bed and ran to the window to see if something nearby had been damaged, if there was indeed a little child nearby. Kathy bolted upright immediately.
At almost the same moment, they both heard the unmistakable pitter patter of running feet on carpet, and their heads shot to the door. Slowly, the bedroom door began to open. Kathy began to breathe deeply and inhaled sharply with a little cry. She gripped the sheets, frozen in place.
Donovan ran back to the bed, to where the safe lay against the wall. He had the combination typed in and the safe open when he heard a child’s whimpering sobs.
He had his gun in hand, and thoughts of horror movies running through his mind as he stood up. He didn’t look at Kathy’s terrified expression. He envisioned the intruder would have the disfigured face of a mutilated ghost or zombie from a teenage movie. Or the terrifying presence of a possessed doll. A puppet with strings attached to the air, whimpering like a child while it held a knife in the air, ready to kill them both. The adrenaline was coursing too quickly through his body for his mind to assuage his irrational fears.
So when he pointed the gun at a little boy barely as tall as the door handle, and the child screamed and jumped back, covering his head with his hands, Donovan was taken aback. He lowered his weapon and approached slowly. So there actually was a neighbor kid trapped in their house? A terrified little boy who just wanted to go home to his parents?
“Hey, little guy, I’m not going to hurt you. How did you get in here?”
The child looked up. Tears were running down his face. He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, which was unusual for the cool weather they had earlier that day. “This is…my house,” he sobbed. “I’m scared of the storm.”
Kathy was right behind her husband, and placed a hand gently on his shoulder as she stepped forward. She got down on her knees in front of the child. “What’s your name?”
“Lucas,” he said.
“Lucas, I’m Kathy, and this is my husband Donovan. We’re going to help you find your mom and dad, okay? Do you know your mom or dad’s phone number?”
He nodded, and said, “Yeah. But they won’t come.”
“Why won’t they come, Lucas?”
Another clap and boom made the house shake and the windows rattle. It was a large enough shift in their footing to remind them of an earthquake. Alarmed, they both looked over to see if something had hit the house, but saw nothing. When they looked back, Lucas was gone.
Kathy jumped backward, and breathed deeply. “Lucas?” she called out. “Lucas, where are you?”
“Where did you go, buddy?” Donovan asked. He walked to the safe quickly and put the gun back. “We have to find that kid and get him home. His parents have probably called the police.”
Kathy was already down the hall, turning all the lights on and searching meticulously through the house. Donovan could hear her call Lucas’ name. It wasn’t a very large house. He had to be somewhere.
As they expanded their search to include closets and cupboards, Donovan began to wonder if Lucas wasn’t actually a hallucination. Was there carbon monoxide in this house? That made people go crazy, didn’t it? Maybe they had convinced themselves that they heard a child and in actuality they were both slowly suffocating. The news tomorrow morning would have a headline about a young couple who died of asphyxiation in their house and left evidence of their growing insanity, like an open gun safe, but no signs of domestic violence, and all of the cupboards open like they were frantically searching for something. Someone would eventually make a 60 Minutes episode about it.
“Lucas?! Oh, Donovan, what if he went outside?”
“Did you hear a door open? I didn’t.”
“No, but how could we in this downpour? We can hardly hear ourselves talking.”
Just then, somewhere off in the distance, they heard the very distinct, gut-wrenching sound of the village tornado siren.
“I don’t think that’s a drill, I think that’s real,” Donovan said, his voice rising in anxiety. “Come on, basement. Basement, now!”
They abandoned their search and ran to the stairwell. Running down the stairs as quickly as they could, Donovan absently flipped the switch and they saw Lucas yet again, standing at the bottom of the stairs. He backed up.
“I want to go home,” he whimpered.
“Oh, buddy,” Donovan sighed in relief. “We’re gonna get you home, we promise. But first we need to stay down here, okay?”
“The siren is going off. That means a tornado,” he said knowingly.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Kathy responded, trying to sound relaxed. Her hands were shaking, and she hid them by wrapping her arms across her chest. “Let’s go to that wall over there,” she nodded toward the concrete wall in the back, and slid down slowly. She hadn’t done this since a tornado drill her elementary school had run, years ago. And now it was real. In their brand-new house.
The lights flickered. Lucas’s breathing became rapid and his lower lip quivered.
“Hey, you’re okay,” Donovan said, and wrapped his arm around him. “You’re okay, buddy. Hey, Lucas, what’s your last name?”
“Riley,” he answered.
And the lights went out.
Kathy reached over and grabbed Donovan’s hand, and he squeezed comfortingly. “We’re okay. Let’s get my phone out…we’ll have a flashlight.”
“Isn’t it plugged in upstairs?”
“Oh, yeah,” he remembered.
“What about one of the boxes of tools? Isn’t there a flashlight?”
“Maybe,” he offered, and stood up slowly. “I thought I got them all out to prep for the storm but maybe there’s one…” Carefully, he made his way over to a pile of boxes, groping in the darkness so he did not smack into something and embarrass himself.
It didn’t take long to find a box, but when he opened it, he discovered only a router and router bit set. He moved to the next box, which had a Dremel and a vice, but no flashlight. He finally found the small box with the extra screwdriver, tape measure, and other tools he had planned to move somewhere else in the house. There, in the bottom, he felt a flashlight. He immediately extracted it and turned it on.
Lucas was gone.
Sunlight filtered through the blinds. Donovan separated them with two fingers and looked outside at the damage. Plenty of branches. Some debris in the street. But from what he could see, all of the houses on the street were intact. And Lucas Riley still remained missing.
They had looked in every nook and cranny of the basement. They had looked upstairs as soon as the siren stopped wailing. They had rechecked all the cupboards and closets. The small boy appeared to be a little Houdini.
They were going to call the police to report the child missing, but neither cell phone was receiving a signal. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, they resolved that they could do nothing but try to sleep. Donovan had awoken first, and immediately checked his phone. Still no signal.
He began scrounging around the house, checking and rechecking everything that had already been checked. Finally, he opened the front door to check outside and he heard, behind him, “Did you find him?”
He jumped, but sighed as he turned around and answered his wife, “No. I looked everywhere. The cell tower must be out, because I have no signal.”
“Or everyone’s trying to call everyone right now.” She rubbed her eyes. “We need to find a way to contact the police and let them know about him.”
“I doubt I’ll find him outside, but I’m going to try. And I should look at the damage to the house, too.”
She nodded. “I’ll get some water bottles and granola bars out for breakfast. It’s a good thing we haven’t gone grocery shopping, yet.”
“Yeah, at least we didn’t lose any freezer food in all of this.”
He opened the door, and saw a red F-150 pickup driving down the road. The truck sported a busted driver’s side window and windshield, and its front end had been crushed by something large—probably a large piece of debris—but it still ran.
Surprisingly, it halted abruptly right in front of Donovan’s house. As the door opened, Donovan and Kathy both heard a blood-curdling, terrified scream of a young child, followed by some unintelligible words of horror.
The driver didn’t react at all, but approached the home.
Donovan looked around for where Lucas could possibly be hiding, but most of the landscaping had been torn away by the storm and other than an abundance of debris, there were not many places he could hide. But he sounded so close.
“NOOOOOO!” Lucas screamed from somewhere. The man kept walking toward the house.
Donovan felt his attention torn between this guest and the little boy they really needed to find. “Lucas?” He could hear Kathy calling from inside, and she quickly ran out behind Donovan.
“Can I help you?” Donovan asked the man when he was a little way’s off, grateful that Kathy was going to try to find the boy so he could deal with whomever this was.
“Are you…do you happen to be…?” the man started, and took off his black baseball hat as he wiped his face and blinked. He was dressed sloppily in a worn yellow t-shirt and cargo pants with a rip in the knee. He seemed too skinny, and his eyes were sunken and red. Donovan was on high alert. “You look just like him,” the man said. “Are you Donovan Campbell?”
Donovan carefully didn’t answer, but instead demanded, “Who are you?”
“Todd Greene. I went to George Washington Middle School in Tulsa. We…if you’re the right guy, I mean…we were good friends, you remember? Before you moved?”
“Really? Todd Greene?” Donovan almost didn’t believe it. Todd Greene, his best friend from elementary and middle school, was a slightly pudgy, awkward kid who loved video games and was terrible at math. He and Donovan played after school every day together. “What are you doing here?”
Todd seemed to have a way of staring into Donovan’s soul. As the man spoke, Donovan found himself looking away in discomfort. “I moved here after sophomore year of high school. Then…I didn’t quite finish high school,” he said, and placed his hand behind his neck in embarrassment. “I got a job locally at the butcher’s, and then was going to go to trade school but…ya know, stuff happens, man. I actually…I was comin’ here because I thought maybe my girlfriend would let me stay with her for a few days. Until I get back on my feet. My trailer got hit in that storm. It’s gone, man. Everything but the truck is gone.”
“No! Don’t! Please, no!” Lucas screamed, and began to sob uncontrollably.
Kathy rounded the corner of the house. “Lucas?” she called.
Todd visibly winced at the name, which Donovan thought was strange.
He waved his wife over. “Kathy, come here. He’s obviously around here; he’ll come out when he’s ready. Let’s not spook him.”
“What’re you lookin’ for, your cat or something?” Todd asked, his arms folded defensively. “You got a pet by that name?”
“Who’s this?” Kathy asked warily.
Donovan took her hand and said, “This is Todd Greene, my best friend from middle school. His girlfriend lived here, I guess, and he was looking for her. He just lost everything in this storm. Todd, this is my wife Kathy.”
Todd nodded to her, and Kathy stuck out her hand. He shook it respectfully, but she found herself looking away from his piercing eyes.
“I was hoping my girlfriend would let me stay with her, but she obviously doesn’t live here anymore.”
“Well…we literally just moved in,” Kathy said, and looked conflicted. “I mean, we would love to offer you a place…but we have boxes everywhere. Nothing is set up.”
Todd nodded, despondent. “I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
“Wait…Kathy…can we talk for a moment?”
She gave him a pensive look, and then nodded. They walked away toward the front door and she looked back at Todd briefly before turning to Donovan and saying, “You knew this guy in middle school?”
“Yeah, elementary school and middle school. He looked…a lot different then.”
“He’s…he gives me the creeps, Donovan,” she confessed. “Something’s not quite right. Look at his eyes. I think he might be on something.”
“I guess that’s possible. I don’t know him that well anymore.”
“Exactly. And we just moved in, and you’re starting a new job. I’ll be in the middle of job hunting and unpacking. I don’t want to be alone in the house with a strange man. I’ve never met him before.”
He frowned. “Well…I’m not going to start work for two days…what if we just gave him a place to stay tonight? Until he can figure something out?”
She folded her arms. “I…don’t really like him, Donovan.”
“Just two days. One night. I don’t want to kick my best friend out on the street. I mean, he’s not my best friend anymore, but he was. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?”
She sighed. “As long as you’re always home when he’s here.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “That’s totally reasonable.”
“And I’m going to make myself scarce unpacking and job hunting.”
“Fair enough,” he nodded.
“But before any of that, we need to find that kid. He’s obviously traumatized. He’s somewhere around here. He might be hallucinating or something, and that’s why he’s screaming like that…there’s got to be some way to get a hold of the police.”
Something caught Donovan’s eye, and he turned his head to see Lucas standing right there, stock still, his eyes wide in horror. He was staring at Todd, who was looking down at his phone.
“Lucas?” Donovan called him gently. Todd looked up, and looked around. Something flickered in his expression, and he put his phone away and folded his arms uncomfortably again. “Lucas, buddy,” Donovan beckoned the little boy. “Come here. Come on over here.”
“Who’re you talkin’ to, Donovan?” Todd asked with a shaky voice, and followed his friend’s gaze. He was staring straight at the boy, but seemed to be looking past him.
“The kid,” Donovan answered obviously, and took a careful step toward Lucas. He got down on one knee. “Come over here, buddy. Don’t run away. We just want to help you find your family.”
Lucas’ chest heaved up and down as he breathed deeply. He looked like he could break down into sobs at any moment.
“Come here,” Donovan asked again, and Kathy took a step forward as well.
“Lucas, would you like to come inside? We’ll get you some breakfast. You must be hungry.”
The little boy’s lower lip quivered. “I want to go home,” he said, and did not take his eyes off of Todd. “Please let me come back now. Please.”
And then he was gone.
Donovan blinked, and looked around. He shook his head and saw that Kathy looked equally as confused. He exhaled sharply. “Kathy…”
“Don’t worry, I saw him, too. You’re not insane.”
“What are you two talking about?” Todd asked almost angrily, and walked over. “What kid? There’s no kid there.”
Donovan rose to his feet. He looked between his middle school friend and his wife, and pursed his lips. How could he explain this? He quickly resolved that he would not explain it at all. It was Todd who needed something from them, not the other way around. Chances were, he would not risk losing what he needed by pushing Donovan into giving an answer. “You can stay for two days. One night. How does that sound? We want to make sure you’re not out on the street but it’s really not a good time,” he told his friend. “So you can look for a place to stay over the next two days.”
Todd nodded, and his voice was the picture of humility as he said, “I’m grateful, man.”
“Now…can you give us a hand? We have a lot of work to do around here and I want to survey the house and make sure it’s not damaged. We felt it really shake last night.”
“I’d be happy to help out,” the skinny man agreed.
The three walked toward the house. Donovan thought he heard, far in the distance, a little voice commanding with urgency, “Be very careful!”
But he shook it from his mind, and continued on.
It was late in the evening when the cell phones began working again. Their power remained off, and Donovan thought the drinking water was probably not safe, so they were going through their giant package of water they had purchased the day before. Donovan and Todd had gone out and gotten some takeout for them. Todd had said he was content to sleep on some blankets on the couch, and so there he remained. And they had not heard a peep from “Lucas,” or whoever or whatever he was.
Kathy and Donovan were in their bedroom, shielded from the unseasonably cold weather by the covers on their bed. “Todd was way more help than I thought he was going to be,” Kathy confessed as they held hands and closed their eyes, prepared to fall asleep.
“Yeah, he doesn’t look well. I wasn’t sure he was up for so much physical activity, but he was actually pretty agile.”
There was a pause, and then Kathy said, “You know…maybe he can stay longer than just tomorrow. He was helping us all day. He didn’t have any time to look for a place or try to get his life in order.”
Donovan nodded. “It’s only fair. Maybe two more days.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
There was a pause.
“Donovan…” Kathy started, and then only continued after a few moments of silence when he looked over at her inquisitively. “What do you think…who do you think that boy Lucas was?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he confessed.
“Do you think…do you think he might have been—”
“I didn’t want to say it,” she told him.
“Well…we could look up who used to live here and figure out if Lucas Riley was their son.”
“I thought it was a single woman—whoever Todd was dating.”
“We could just ask Todd if she had a kid,” Donovan said thoughtfully.
“No! What do you intend to say? ‘Hey, Todd, I know your house just got destroyed by a tornado, but I was wondering if your ex-girlfriend’s kid happened to die?’”
“Honestly, I don’t know what he would say. He’s super helpful but…he’s kind of weird.”
“He is kind of weird,” her husband agreed with a nod.
They laid in silence for a moment. Finally, Kathy asked, “Is it me, or does it seem…darker?”
“It is pitch-black, Kathy. We’ve got no lights, remember?”
She let out a little exasperated groan and said, “I know that. I’m saying that…somehow, since this morning, everything seems a little darker.”
He didn’t respond.
“It’s like someone turned down the lights in the world.”
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
She sighed, and said, “Never mind.”
“I haven’t noticed, to be honest.”
“Well it wouldn’t be the first time you didn’t notice something.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, surprised at her comment.
It was as if his words snapped her out of a reverie, and she said, sounding quite surprised, herself, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Maybe we’re suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.”
“I thought about it last night, too. What if Lucas is a hallucination? And your vision dimming? And now you’re snapping at me.”
“I wouldn’t call that snapping at you.”
“Well, whatever. My point is that all of these things might be symptoms of us being exposed to something toxic.”
“You don’t typically get shared hallucinations with carbon monoxide poisoning, and visual changes would be possible but in the absence of any other more common symptoms, I wouldn’t think it’s that.”
“It doesn’t have to be that,” he argued. “You are always doing this. Every time I bring up an idea and you don’t like the overall subject, you nitpick the details and forget about the overall point I’m trying to make.”
“You do,” he charged. “Like…like you just said that you wouldn’t call what you said ‘snapping’ at me. That’s not the point. The point is that you said something uncharacteristic or at least you said it in an uncharacteristic tone. I don’t care what you call it.”
She was silent.
“Are you mad at me?”
“I don’t know what’s going on, Donovan, but it doesn’t feel good. Let’s just go to bed.”
He sighed. “Okay. Fine.”
“What? What’s wrong with that?”
“I said it’s fine.”
She groaned, and rolled over. “Fine.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Just go to bed,” she said, feeling aggravated. For what reason, she didn’t know. And that was even more aggravating than the feeling itself.
What was happening in their home?
It was midday, and Kathy was sorting a week of laundry for when they got power back up. They were running out of clothes. Donovan and Todd were somewhere—she didn’t much care where. She was in a foul mood, and she didn’t know why. Donovan seemed to be on edge, too, but Todd was happier than ever after they told him he could stay another day. And then he had abandoned his task of unpacking their dishes, grabbed a granola bar for a snack, and put his shoes up on their couch while they worked. It really irked her.
She tossed an errant sock closer to its pair and then looked back over to her pile. But then she did a double-take, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw Lucas sitting cross-legged against the wall nearby, smiling as he watched her.
She stumbled backwards, her breath caught in her throat. Lucas didn’t move, but he looked a bit concerned. “Who…who are you?” she managed to whisper.
“I’m Lucas Riley,” he answered simply.
“Are you…” she couldn’t quite bring herself to say the word.
He looked at her inquisitively, innocently. His wide eyes waited for her to finish her question.
“Are you…a ghost?” she asked finally.
“Ghosts are scary. I’m not scary,” he answered.
“C-could’ve fooled me,” she stuttered, and remained frozen in place.
They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, and finally Lucas said, “Are you scared of me?”
She nodded once, and realized she was clinging desperately to a pair of her husband’s underwear.
He looked a bit sad. “I don’t want to be scary.”
“Well…you are,” she told him, and tears began to form in his eyes. It was only then that her heart softened, and she put down the laundry. “Look…I’m sorry. I’m just not used to…ghost children.”
“I’m not a ghost,” he insisted. “I’m just Lucas.”
“Why are you here?”
“This is my house,” he told her simply.
“When did you live here?”
“Before,” he responded as if it was obvious.
She sighed. “You’re as impossible as Donovan.”
He giggled slightly.
She approached slowly, and sat cross-legged in front of him. She reached her hand out and touched his knee. It certainly felt real. “Okay,” she said, and dared not let him out of her sight, lest he disappear again. “Explain to me how you’re able to come and go so easily.”
“I’m supposed to be here, but not all the time. When I’m here, sometimes it’s too scary, and I get to go back to the nice place.”
“Where is the nice place?” She asked him, her mind reeling with thoughts of movies and books and TV shows about ghosts and how they are trapped between worlds…but perhaps this child was not. Perhaps he was an angel who lived in Heaven, and he was sent here part-time. Though he seemed very childlike for an angel…
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “But it’s very nice. And I like it better than here. Daddy says I can come back as soon as I’m done here. And see Mommy, too. I’m going to see Mommy before I go back.”
“Your Mommy is coming here, too? To this house?” Now she was worried about ‘mama bear’ coming after her ‘cub.’ What would ‘Mommy’ look like? Would she be as friendly a ghost as Lucas?
“Not here; Mommy doesn’t live here anymore. You live here.”
“So…why are you here, then? Why not with your Mommy?”
“I went and saw her yesterday,” he explained. “And I’ll see her again today. Daddy’s going to come, too. But right now I’m supposed to help here. Even though it’s scary.”
She nodded slowly. “Okay…” she accepted. She considered the possibility that this entire conversation was happening in her head. That he wasn’t really here. That she was imagining everything. What if Donovan was right, and they had been exposed to some kind of hallucinogen? What if Todd and Lucas were figments of their imagination? “How are you supposed to help here?” she asked him.
Suddenly, his countenance seemed to change, and he drew his legs up to his chest and hugged his knees. “It’s because—”
“Kathy, who are you talking to? Are you on the phone?”
Donovan’s voice made her jump and she turned around to see him on the stairs behind them. “Shh!” She hissed. “Come down here!” Then she saw that Todd was right behind him, and it seemed that all of the light was getting sucked out of the room. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Instinctively, she put her hand out to shield Lucas. From what, she didn’t know.
“Everything okay, Kathy?” Todd asked, and squeezed his way past Donovan to come down the stairs first. “You seem kinda spooked by something.”
She looked behind her, and she expected Lucas to be gone. He was. She looked back to Todd and Donovan. Her husband seemed almost totally enshrouded in darkness. “I’m fine,” she said.
“Look, Kathy, Todd and I were talking, and we’re gonna head out for a little fun tonight. Catch up on life and just relax.”
She looked incredulous as she challenged, “Tonight? What would even be open? Power is out everywhere.”
“We don’t need light to have fun,” Todd said.
“No. Donovan, this is a bad idea. We have so much work to do. I would really appreciate it if you would stay.”
“Donovan deserves a break,” Todd argued.
“Excuse me, Todd, but I think this is a conversation between my husband and me.”
“Kathy,” Donovan took her gently by the arm and led her away into the adjacent room. “He’s right. I’m getting burnt out. I need a break.”
“Then let’s take a break. Let’s even take separate breaks. Let’s go somewhere, or just drive around, or take a walk. I don’t care. But let’s not involve Todd.”
“What do you have against Todd?”
“Look,” Todd’s voice cut through their conversation as he poked his head into the room, “it’s obvious you guys have got a thing going on, so I’m just gonna take off. Catch you some other time, Donovan. Would’ve been nice to hang out, but I get it.”
Todd waved his hand and turned to walk away.
Donovan turned to Kathy, his expression tense and annoyed. “He is really having a hard time,” he told her firmly. “He lost everything, and his girlfriend left him. It’s hard for him to be in this house—”
“Then he can leave,” Kathy interjected.
“He’s done nothing but help since he got here,” Donovan argued, and began to raise his voice just a bit.
“Oh, really? Because what I’ve noticed is that he’s gotten you to stop unpacking and stop helping me. He was helpful when he first got here but as soon as we said he could stay he’s just been sitting on the couch with you, eating what little food we have, doing nothing. And when I hear you two talking to each other—Donovan, I haven’t heard you use that language before. Like, ever. You’re not like that. It’s like he made you drop down a few socioeconomic classes—”
“Oh, we’re going to bring up class? We’re going to have this conversation? After all the times you insisted you didn’t care that I came from a trailer park and then one of my trailer park friends shows up and now—”
“Don’t twist my words around,” she shot back. And suddenly, she noticed that the room had become incredibly dark. As if it was evening, instead of midday. Looking over Donovan’s shoulder, she saw Todd still there. He had never left—he was just hovering in the doorframe, a creepy, skinny outline in his ragged clothes, against the darkness. Donovan followed her gaze. “I though you left,” Kathy said.
“I figured I’d just come back real quick, see if Donovan wants to leave after all.”
Donovan shifted his gaze to his wife and took a step back into the darkness. “I think I will,” he said, as if it was a challenge to her.
Kathy folded her arms, her expression hurt and angry.
“You’re welcome to come with us,” Todd offered.
“I think I’d rather stay here,” Kathy’s words were spoken in barely-controlled rage.
And Todd shrugged. “Suit yourself. Maybe we’ll bring a little something from the outside world back with us for you to enjoy here in your hidey-hole.”
“I can’t think of anything I’d want from wherever you two are going and whatever you’re doing.”
Neither Todd nor Donovan responded. In another few moments, Kathy heard the door shut behind them. As if a light switch had been flipped on, the world seemed lighter. She walked slowly over to the wall of the room, her head beginning to pound with a headache. She slid down against the wall, placing her head into her hands as she balanced her elbows on her knees.
“Heavenly Father,” she whispered, and she wondered why it had not occurred to her to pray until now. “I’m not sure what’s happening to my home. We’ve just had an awful storm—a tornado—and we’re okay, but there’s something very wrong.”
“I know,” the little voice made her nearly leap out of her skin. Standing in the now-lighted doorframe was the tiny silhouette of Lucas Riley. He walked over to her and sat next to her without a word. He gently placed his hand on her knee, and looked up at her. “I know something’s wrong.”
“This is what you’re here to fix, aren’t you?”
He nodded knowingly. “My Daddy says I have special powers. But sometimes it’s scary.”
“What special powers do you have?” she asked him.
He took her hand and squeezed it, and immediately she felt the world brightening, and her heart warming. She felt good, for the first time since the storm. “This is what I’m supposed to do.”
“For us?” Kathy asked. They had been in foul moods, but she couldn’t imagine that they would be the recipient of an angel’s touch when so many homes must had been decimated, and lives destroyed after the storm.
He shook his head. “No. For Todd.”
“Todd?” she immediately balked. “He’s…”
“He’s a scary man now. But he didn’t used to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“He followed the darkness. My Daddy says he understands. But he says that even if I do what I’m supposed to do, Todd might not want to follow the light anymore.”
She nodded slowly.
The little boy looked down. “I’m scared of him. I don’t want to do what I’m supposed to do.”
She squeezed his hand back, and he looked up into her eyes. “I don’t pretend to fully understand what you’re talking about, Lucas. But if I had to guess, I’d say you’re probably untouchable. You’re probably safe from the darkness, wherever you are.”
He nodded. “I know,” he said. “That’s what Daddy said. He said he would protect me.”
“Then what is there to fear?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I…” he looked down. “I just don’t like the dark.”
She smiled. “Neither do I. But let’s get it out of our house, shall we?”
He looked up, and returned her smile. “Okay,” he agreed, and stood up. “See you soon!” he told her with the energy and happiness that could only come from a small child. Then, without hesitation, he ran out of the room and disappeared.
It was late in the evening when the truck and Donovan’s car pulled up. The one working headlight on the truck bathed the front porch in what seemed to Kathy to be a filthy light. She wondered why they had driven separately. Todd got out of his truck first, and began walking up to the house without waiting for Donovan. Her heart began to race. Seconds later, Donovan got out of his car and seemed to stumble after him. Was he drunk? Immediately, she clenched her fists and felt her blood boil. He had given up drinking after he was baptized. How could he let this “friend” from middle school whom he barely knew jeopardize everything he stood for and believed? She would never have thought he would be so shallow.
School your thoughts, she told her self, and forced some deep, calming breaths. You don’t know the whole story.
She unlocked the door somewhat reluctantly, because there was now no way to let Donovan in without letting Todd in first. The smell of alcohol and marijuana was overpowering. If the pitch blackness of night without electricity had been difficult to tolerate before, the added dark haze that Todd seemed to bring with made it nearly unbearable. She found herself shining her flashlight in his eyes almost like a weapon. He squinted.
“Whoa. Wanna warn a guy before you give him a migraine?”
“Donovan, are you okay?” she demanded, ignoring Todd entirely.
“I don’t really feel good,” he confessed, and leaned against the porch railing.
“What did you give him? What did you put in his drink?” She demanded of Todd.
“Nothing he didn’t want.”
“So you did put something in my water?” Donovan said angrily. “I straight up asked you, man, and you denied it.”
“Chill out, dude—”
“I think it’s time you left,” Kathy told him firmly. “Now.”
“What if I don’t want to leave?” Todd took a step forward, and got into her personal space. “You gonna make me?”
“You stay away from her, man,” Donovan said, and pulled Kathy out of the way. “She’s not gonna make you. I am.”
Todd laughed. “You are, huh? You can barely stand up straight.”
Donovan lunged forward, grabbing Todd by the shirt and slamming him into the doorframe. “Get out of my house. Now!” He threw him out toward the porch with every ounce of strength he had.
And then Donovan blinked, and Todd was chuckling behind him. He whirled and stumbled backward, dumbfounded. Todd somehow had relocated himself between Donovan and his house, and now the emaciated form was strolling into their home, down the dark corridor without any hesitation. It was as if he could see perfectly in the dark. “Besides,” he said, as if they were having a conversation, “you’re gonna change your mind about me. You’re not gonna kick your old friend out on the street. You’re gonna come join me out there. Then at least I’ll have some company.”
Kathy wasn’t sure exactly what came over her. But as Donovan began to charge after Todd again, she caught his arm and pulled him back. “No,” she told him quietly. She didn’t feel angry anymore. For whatever reason, she felt only sadness and…sympathy? “Todd…it’s not you we’re kicking out. It’s this…darkness…It follows you around. It’s not welcome here. And as long as you’re carrying it around with you, you aren’t welcome either.”
He turned, and squinted against her flashlight beam. But then he realized it wasn’t her flashlight beam. There was another source of light causing him to shrink backward. Todd’s gaze followed its source despite the pain it seemed to visibly cause him, and then his eyes widened in horror. He stumbled backward. “No…no, no way…”
Little Lucas Riley stepped forward, his chest heaving up and down as he clearly fought with his own fear.
“No…please, don’t hurt me,” Todd said, and fell to his knees. “Please, please don’t hurt me. I didn’t mean it. It was an accident; I never meant it.”
“I know. Daddy told me,” Lucas said, his voice shaking.
“Oh, geez. Oh, no, no, no. Your dad ain’t here too, is he?” Todd asked.
Kathy and Donovan both noticed the darkness seemed to cover Todd, almost like a blanket. And as it did, if it were at all possible, he seemed to be getting more and more emaciated.
“Daddy isn’t here right now,” Lucas said. “Todd Greene…I’m supposed to tell you something.”
The darkness now almost completely enveloped the man, pinning his form down. Donovan and Kathy could barely see his face.
“I’m supposed to tell you…don’t be scared.” He took a deep breath, and extended his hand. The light surrounding it seemed to pierce the darkness like a blade penetrating its target. “Come out…come back home now.”
“No…no, I can’t go home,” Todd pled. “I can’t be the same…not after what I did. You’re not here. You can’t be here.”
“Yes I can. Here I am!” Lucas declared with childlike innocence that seemed to drive the darkness back a bit. “Take my hand, come out of there, and come home!” He pushed his hand forward a little further with some insistence.
And with several deep sobs welling in his throat, Todd slowly reached his hand out and attempted to grasp the boy’s. But then the darkness, in its wrath, rose up and smacked Todd backward. He cried out and stumbled, falling to his back on the floor. “I know, I know,” he sobbed, though no one had said anything.
And then the darkness, which had before been an amorphous mist, coalesced in midair until it formed into the shape of a man. Lucas gasped and took a step backward, and then ran to the door near Kathy and Donovan, his breath coming in short, fearful gasps.
Kathy instinctively reached out her hand and wrapped it around Lucas’ little chest, drawing him close to her.
The darkness slowly shifted backward, like a rubber band stretching. And then, in one terrifying, sudden motion, a grotesque, horrible form of a face leaped forward from the personage, followed by its entire body. It was headed right for them, and Lucas cowered down, covering his head with this arms. “Noooo!” he squealed in terror.
Kathy and Donovan both wanted to protect the boy, but found themselves unable to move as the fearsome thing came at them.
“DADDY!!” Lucas called as if his life depended on it.
Lucas’ shriek penetrated Kathy’s heart and tears streamed down her face. As suddenly as the beast had charged them, a blinding bright light struck the space between Lucas and the form. The darkness was repelled powerfully, knocked backward in midair toward Todd. And out of the light stepped yet another form.
This one wasted no time. Clad with a uniform t-shirt, camouflage pants, and boots, it was translucent and emitted radiant light. With clenched fists and wide, muscular shoulders, it charged the darkness with speed and agility and rage that could only befit a father protecting his child. With superhuman force, its translucent, glowing fist plowed through the jaw of the hideous thing’s face. Blocking blows with impressive expertise, it delivered tactical strikes to the personage. An uppercut. A roundhouse kick. Ducking a blow, and then delivering a jab and crosshook. Finally, it caught the darkness by the neck and then drove the beast into the floor of the home. Its powerful hand locked into the misty thing with decisive strength, pinning it down in a helpless state as it squirmed like a dying animal.
This impressive force, Kathy and Donovan realized, was ‘Daddy.’
The soldier-ghost looked up and locked eyes with Todd, and Todd scrambled backward in terror. “You are free to go,” it spoke, but Todd could scarcely look in its general direction.
“Todd Greene, you were a good man. You were good to my wife. You are punishing yourself for something you did not do. You don’t have to live in the darkness anymore.” Its voice shook the walls of the home, and rattled their chests.
“I…I killed him. I’m so sorry…” Todd cowered, trying desperately to cover his head.
There seemed to be a whirl of wind that shot out from the translucent soldier and blew into Todd’s face. A rumble from within their souls shook them as they heard his next words. “He isn’t dead!” And then he released the darkness as he stood. “Lucas!” he beckoned, and the little boy ran up to him, taking his outstretched hand from behind. “I promised him I would show him the way home. Let him do the same for you. Take his hand, and leave the darkness behind. It is your choice.”
The released darkness quickly flew around the soldier and Lucas. It headed for the back door, behind Todd. Now Todd was between the misty black form and the brilliant figures of father and son.
“Choose now. You have been forgiven by everyone but yourself.”
Todd began to sob. “I…I can’t. I can’t go back to the light.”
The little hand did not move from its place, cutting through the pitch black of night like a knife.
And Todd’s emaciated hand rose ever so slightly. As soon as it did, Todd doubled over and said, “I know! I’m sorry.”
“Don’t take counsel from that thing, my friend,” the soldier ghost commanded. “Listen to what you know to be true.”
Todd shook his head vigorously, and then doubled over again, his body wracked with sobs. “Okay,” he said quietly. “Okay.” And then he rose, and walked backward, unable to take his heartbroken eyes off of the soldier and son. “I’m so sorry,” he explained. “I just can’t.”
The darkness slowly washed over him, and he closed his eyes in what seemed to almost be relief. And then he was gone.
Lucas looked up at his father and asked, “Did I do something wrong?”
“No. You did nothing wrong,” the soldier easily snatched the boy up and held him in his strong arms. “But he gets to make his own decisions.”
Lucas nodded, and then glanced behind him briefly before returning his gaze to his father. “Do we get to see Mommy one last time before we go home?”
The soldier nodded, and smiled at his boy. “Let’s go.” He turned and looked to Kathy and Donovan. “Thank you for looking after him while he was here. You two take care of our house. If you ever have any trouble, we’ll be there to help out.”
The soldier and his son disappeared suddenly, lost in the darkness that somehow seemed to be less black than just a moment before.
Donovan and Kathy were afraid to move. They were afraid to even look at each other. And the power came back on.
“On December 12, three years ago, Sergeant Michael Riley stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and was killed instantly. He left behind a wife and young son. About a year and a half ago, his wife began dating Todd Greene, the local butcher. Todd took the little boy for rides in his red F-150, and police believe the boy’s booster seat was not properly secured in the vehicle and that Todd did not wear a seatbelt. On one of the joy rides, the two were killed in a crash that involved an out-of-control semi going the wrong way on the freeway.”
Kathy stared, not quite believing the words her husband was reading from his laptop.
“The woman moved away. She was the previous owner of our home.”
“So…they were all ghosts,” she said, her voice distant and awe-struck.
“Maybe. But…Kathy, I don’t think they were ‘haunting’ anything. I think they were just spirits, living in the spirit world, and we were blessed with the opportunity to see them work something out for themselves.”
“What do you think they were working out, exactly?” she asked with hesitation.
“Well…” he closed his laptop lid, “it seems like Todd had a choice to progress, and he chose not to.”
She nodded slowly.
“They’re still here, you know. We got to see them. It was a gift. They’re right here, just living their lives, like us. And occasionally, we get to look through the veil and wave at each other. That’s what this was.”
“I think,” she started, her tone quiet, “that the storm taught us a lot more than I thought it would.”
“Happy Halloween,” Donovan said with a smile.
And somewhere in their home, a little voice said, “Happy Halloween!”