“How long has this house been here?”
Charlene shrugged. “‘Bout as long as I can remember. I used to pass it when I went jogging in the mornings.”
Sam was making his way up the overgrowth path towards the house. It was burnt out but relatively intact, sitting in Miller’s Field like a destitute hobo. The barn was also in need of some repair, but was somewhat intact. There’d been talk around town of tearing the house down and rebuilding, but nobody seemed willing to do that. Sam needed an Eagle Scout project, and doing what the adults were reluctant to do seemed like a good place to start.
“I’m sure there’s a reason nobody wants to touch this place.” Charlene was repeating herself, she knew, but Sam could be terribly stubborn sometimes.
“You don’t think it’s just less political than other stuff they want to do?” Sam picked his way forward carefully, avoiding the weeds and thistles that had burst through what had once been a paved driveway.
She rolled her eyes. “Believe it or not, not everything is politics to adults. Pick up the pace, would you? This isn’t how I want to spend my leave.”
He looked over his shoulder and smiled. “Okay. Sorry to drag you out here. Let’s just have a quick look around and get out of here, so I can write up my proposal.”
He headed right for the charred front door, which hung on a single hinge. Charlene moved to follow, but her toe caught on something and she dropped. Cursing herself for not looking where she was going, she pushed herself up from the blackened soil to see the skeletal hand that had tripped her.
Swallowing a mouthful of fear (you’ve seen bodies before, you’re okay, you’re okay), she gingerly turned fully to examine what lay half-buried in loose soil and persistent weeds. If she hadn’t stepped off of the former driveway, she would have never seen it. But there it lay, the bones charred and the skull’s mouth open in a silent, dirt-filled scream.
“Sam? I think we should leave.”
Looking up, she couldn’t see him. He’s already picking around inside. She dug around in the dirt a bit, finding an old Zippo lighter, a ring of keys, and an half-burned, torn, and decaying notebook. Charlene flipped through it; most of it was inconsequential stuff, grocery lists and reminders. Towards the end, as the burns got worse and worse, she found the first evidence something was really wrong.
They stay in the attic, just in the attic, we’re not sure why.
She turned back to see who ‘they’ might be, but there was nothing. She resumed reading forward.
They took my son, my son is not my son, his eyes are dead, why would they do this to a child?
Charlene’s blood ran cold. She turned to the last page.
I’m the only one left, I have to go, I have to leave, I know where the gas line leads out of the house, I’m going to finish this, for my wife, for my son, before they take me, before they take anyone else.
That’s when she heard Sam scream from inside the house.
“Sam!” She dropped the journal and ran into the house. The interior was blackened from fire, the kitchen worst of all as it had been the center of an explosion. She found the stairs, taking them two at a time, feeling them about to give under her feet, deciding not to care.
The attic door was a pull-down panel from the ceiling that revealed more stairs, she took those two at a time as well. The first thing we saw was Sam, backing away slowly from a corner, flashlight in hand. The attic was as burnt as the rest of the house, and little outside light came in through the slats in the walls and roof. His light was trained on the corner, and the figure crouching there.
It looked like a boy half Sam’s age, just over three feet tall, huddled there like it was frightened. It stared at Sam with milkly, colorless eyes, its skin ashen and covered in burns and black pustules. Charlene set her jaw. Is this the son of the dead man outside?
“Sam, back towards me. Slowly. I’m here, it’s going to be okay.”
“Okay.” He took a step back towards the stairs. The creature in the corner growled and moved in response, shifting from a huddling position to a crouch. Charlene felt her body tense.
“Soon as you’re on the stairs, we’re going to run. Okay?”
Charlene angled her body, prepared to either bolt down the stairs or jump up into the attic. Sam’s left foot touched the top step on the drop-down panel. The creature hissed, and with a movement so fast Charlene would have missed it if she’d blinked, it leaped across the attic and pinned Sam to the floor.
Charlene was in the attic in the next heartbeat. Instinct and training had her grabbing the thing by its left shoulder with her left hand, while her right went to its neck and under its chin. Its putrid hands were around Sam’s neck, and he was choking, barely making out Charlene’s name. Muscles built from hauling 50-pound packs across Iraq and Afghanistan worked in concert, and while the creature was no longer strictly human, it was still the body of a burnt little boy. She lifted it away from Sam, and then moved her left and right hands in different directions until something snapped like a brittle, dry twig.
The blackened corpse went limp in her hands and she threw it away. Sam got up and put his arms around her, crying into her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, sis.”
“It’s okay, Sam. I’m here.” Charlene held him close. She felt a pain in her right hand, looked past Sam’s shoulder, and saw the angry red bite in her palm.
“Everything’s going to be all right.”