Hauntlet

You know that moment when you’re standing outside the worn down Victorian house, it’s night, and Friday the 13th?

Thomas does and he knows he shouldn’t go inside. Except his best friend lives there and Percy might need help.

For readers who enjoy a little spooky with their eggnog. Happy Holidays!

December thirteenth was colder than a witch’s tit, a fact that Thomas knew very well as he coasted his mountain bike to a stop outside the worn down Victorian house his best friend, his only friend, Percy had leased as the headquarters for App-aration.

Percy’s idea of a pun. He designed independent apps and games for the iPad, iPhone and whatever else Apple decided to come out with.

It was almost five already, which meant that it was pretty much dark already and in the gloom the house suited the name. The light on his helmet cast a circle across the front of the house as he studied it. Peeling paint, cobwebs, and missing shingles were just details. No lights, that was another point, the only light, beside his helmet light, came from the nearly full moon already up casting pale shadows across the yard from the skeletal fruit trees rising above the patchy grass. The house suited the name of Percy’s business very well, it was just the sort of place to send children running by in fear.

Not that children would come out here. The house sat pretty much by itself at the end of a dead end street just outside Rainier. It had taken Thomas the better part of an hour to ride out the Chehalis-Western trail, then find the street and get to the house. All because Percy had promised to show him something really cool. After which Percy had also promised a movie marathon with eats and drink. And tomorrow was his mid-week day off so he didn’t have to bike it back until later. After it warmed up.

Still, the place looked dark and empty. He didn’t see any lights on in the house, which wouldn’t have been unusual for Percy but there should have at least been the glow of his computers. Percy always had at least three monitors on his primary machine, not to mention his other machines, game consoles and HD TV.

But there was none of that. No lights, not so much as a candle flickering in a window.

The longer Thomas stayed outside with his bike the emptier the house felt. He had a strong urge to get back on the bike and ride home. If this was a haunted house in a horror film this was the point when the audience would be screaming at him not to go into the house. What sort of person did that?

An idiot? Maybe, he’d been called worse. And if it didn’t matter he would have left but the house was very isolated and Percy had a lot of expensive stuff. What if someone had broken in and Percy was hurt? Was he supposed to ride off and just leave his only friend on the floor bleeding or worse?

That was bad enough, and probably ridiculous to think, but there was also the fact that it was freezing. He his breath fogged in the moonlight. Even with his shoe covers his feet were freezing. His fingers almost felt numb beneath his outer shell and the gloves he wore underneath. Leaving now would mean at least another hour of riding in the dark and cold all the way home.

It was insane to even think about that when he hadn’t even tried the door. He could go that far, at least.

He rolled the bike up the cracked and weedy walk. The grass coming up through the broken concrete was covered in glittering frost and crunched beneath his feet. The house needed lots of work. Percy had been excited about the deal he got on the place, but seeing it Thomas could understand why he got such a deal. The roof of the porch sagged and one of the posts was at an angle. The board at the bottom of the steps was cracked in half and needed to be replaced.

Thomas carefully stepped over the broken board, lifting his mountain bike up with him onto the porch. No way he was leaving his bike out on the porch, given the state of the place.

The front door might have been lavender at one time but now it looked more gray than anything. There was a nice frosted oval window in the door, but it was crusted with grime, spider webs and desiccated bug corpses. There was a brass knocker, a simple bar weighted with a ball at the end but Thomas just knocked with his hand.

“Percy? Are you in there?” He didn’t hear any response to his cry. He stripped off his outer glove shell and cycling glove to knock with bare knuckles on the wood. The door felt solid. He wasn’t sure how much the sound got through the heavy door, so he grabbed the knocker and smashed it down once, twice and three times. “Percy?”

The door handle, an actual long handle instead of a knob, turned. Thomas jumped back, startled because he hadn’t heard anyone coming to the door or seen a light.

Hinges screeched as the door swung open. A pale face, thin with haunted dark eyes and wet hair plastered to his scalp, swam up out of the darkness and squinted against the light from his helmet. It was Percy. He looked terrible, but it was Percy.

Percy raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light. “Thomas, man, what are you doing here?”

“You invited me. Remember? I’m off tomorrow? We were going to watch movies, plus you said you had something to show me.”

Percy scratched at his wet hair. His clothes were wet too, it looked like he had been sweating with large wet circles under his arms on the white t-shirt. He had on faded blue jeans, no shoes or socks, despite the cold.

“Can I come in?” Thomas asked. “I’m cold.”

“This isn’t a good time, man. Sorry I forgot about, you know, but really, it isn’t so great.”

“What’s wrong? Are you sick or something? Maybe I should come in while you tell me about it.” Thomas leaned forward with his hand on the door frame. “It’s a long ride home in the cold and dark.”

“I’ve been so hot,” Percy said. “I like the cold and dark.”

“I don’t. Let me in, Percy. Then you can tell me what’s going on.” Thomas moved forward and Percy stepped back out of his way.

Percy tucked his hands beneath his arms and backed off. Thomas came in, wheeling his bike in with him, then shut the door to keep in the heat. Except there wasn’t any heat! It didn’t feel any warmer inside than outside, just darker without the moon.

There really wasn’t any light in the place, except for the light from his helmet. Percy was standing at the edge of the light and just beyond him Thomas could see the dark shape of Percy’s old leather couch that he’d bought with his first app release.

“Some lights, maybe? Heat?”

“No,” Percy said, drawing it out. “I don’t think that’d be good. I think you should go, man. I’m really sorry for bringing you out here, but it’d be better.”

Thomas was really worried. This wasn’t like Percy at all. Something had to be seriously wrong. He turned around and found the light switches himself and flipped them on.

“Hey!” Percy cowered back from the light, shielding his eyes. “That’s bright!”

Except it wasn’t. A light had come on in the fixture above the door but it was a weak yellow light that just cast a pale circle of light on and around Thomas and his bike. He leaned the bike against the wall beneath the light switches.

The other lights on were the two lamps on either side of the couch. They both looked like they had twenty-watt bulbs at best. But over in the front alcove Christmas lights had come on around Percy’s Christmas tree. It was a thick Douglas fir, not much taller than Thomas, sparsely decorated with ornaments but a string of lights blinked on and off in red, green, blue and yellow. It should have cheered the place up but the tree leaned a bit to the side and the needles looked dry. When Thomas’ light hit the stand he could see that it was bone dry.

“Man, you forgot to water your tree. We should do that before the lights start a fire or something.”

“Just turn the lights off,” Percy groaned. “I don’t feel good.”

“Yeah, I get that, but it’s not good to sit here in the dark.”

Thomas went around the corner and found a thermostat on the wall. The needle was pushed all the way over to OFF. He pushed it back up until the needle hit the seventy degree mark. Something thunked downstairs and rattled. Then he heard the faint hum of air blowing through the vents.

“There.” Thomas took off his helmet and switched off the light.

Percy crawled onto the couch and lay in a fetal position with his hands up over his head.

Thomas hung his helmet on the bike then crossed over to the couch. There was a knitted afghan in faded green and yellow crumpled on one end. He picked it up and pulled it up over Percy.

“Yeah, just stay there. I’ll go get you something to eat. You’ll feel better. Trust me.”

Percy didn’t answer but he also didn’t complain anymore.

Thomas didn’t know which way to go but he made his way back to an entry leading out and that led to a hall, and across the hall, through a passage beneath the staircase, he could see the kitchen. And there was a smell coming from it that made him hesitate. He didn’t want to go in there and turn on the lights. But what choice did he have? Percy was in a bad way, he probably needed food.

The kitchen was as bad as Thomas feared. It was like sedimentary layers. The bottom layer, still visible from the side, were dishes and utensils in the sink and on the big oak kitchen table. Then on top of that was a layer of paper plates and plastic utensils. The final layer was pizza boxes and fast  food wrappers from the espresso and pizza place in town.

Flies crawled in bloated agony across the piles, gorged on the stomach-churning mess. The stink made Thomas’ eyes water and his stomach clench. The very last thing he wanted to do was go into that kitchen, but it just confirmed what he had feared. Percy was in trouble and this was as good of a place as any to start.

Thomas took a minute to go back to the living room with its pathetic Christmas tree and check on Percy. It looked like Percy had fallen asleep. That was good, it’d give him time to clean up and find out if there was anything edible left in the house. If not he could call the place and have them deliver something. With one last look at Percy’s pale, sweaty face – even sleeping his face was drawn in like he was in pain or having bad dreams – and Thomas went back to the kitchen.

 

Cleaning that kitchen would haunt his nightmares. He’d wake up some nights clenching his gut with the memory of that night.

By the time he finished the kitchen was stripped down and cleaned. The dish washer was running the last load of dishes, and the rest were put away. The cupboards turned out empty of anything except mouse droppings, dusty spider webs and lots of old cartons and boxes.

Thomas returned to the living room and sat down in the recliner that faced the alcove and Percy’s pathetic Christmas tree. He took out his cell and called the pizza place. Some guy answered, sounded bored and asked what he wanted.

“Large pizza, Canadian bacon and pineapple, extra cheese on a thin crispy crust. Not soggy, okay?”

“Yeah, no problem. What’s the address?”

Thomas told him and there wasn’t anything else on the other end except he could still hear the guy breathing.

“Hello?”

He heard the guy whispering to someone, then the guy came back on the phone. “That’s the big spooky place, right? You don’t sound like the guy that lives there.”

“Yeah, that’s the place. I’m a friend of his.”

“Right.” More whispering and the guy came back on the line. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve told him we’re not delivering out there anymore.”

Thomas laughed. “Come on, seriously?”

“Sorry, but you’ll have to tell him that having someone else call isn’t going to change anything. We’re not allowed to deliver out there.”

Thomas felt his neck redden. Despite the mess in the kitchen he was still somehow hungry and Percy was clearly sick. They couldn’t do this! “Look, my friend is sick. I don’t know what’s been going on but there’s no food in the house. I just spent an hour cleaning up his kitchen!”

“Sorry man, we can’t.”

The line went dead. Thomas rose up out of the chair clutching the phone. He had his hand back, ready to throw it and he stopped himself. He took a breath in and blew it out. Then he looked over at Percy. The guy needed something to eat. And if they weren’t going to deliver then he had to go get something.

Thomas slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and zipped it closed. He looked at Percy sleeping. “Dude, sorry. I’ll go get something to eat. Just rest until I get back.”

Percy didn’t give any indication that he had heard.

Thomas went over to his bike, put on his helmet and gloves, and pushed the bike outside. He reached up and turned on his light again. The beam shot out and illuminated bright white snowflakes floating down from the sky. His breath fogged in the beam. He took a breath, so cold that it felt like it was freezing his lungs. Best get it done.

The only thing worse than going into the haunted house in the first place was returning again. Thomas stood outside Percy’s house with fresh snow crunching under his numb feet. His fingers felt stiff and unwilling to move. He hadn’t expected it to get quite this cold or he would have bundled up more. But then he had also expected to stay inside the house tonight.

The lights were off again. The house looked as empty and as dark as it had the first time Thomas arrived. Percy must have gotten up and turned off the lights. Or the power had failed, but they still had power back in town.

He really didn’t want to go back inside. If it wasn’t so cold he would have considered going back home, except he couldn’t leave Percy in the state he was in. And riding back now, in this cold, threatened frostbite. He had to go inside.

And it was Percy. Sick, true, and catching something would suck, but it Percy. It wasn’t like Percy was a deranged killer or something.

Standing outside in the cold wasn’t helping. Thomas pushed his bike back up the porch, lifted it up and stepped over the broken step. He didn’t even bother knocking this time. He reached out and tried the knob. He expected it to be locked but it turned easily and the door opened.

His helmet light splashed across a pale figure sitting on the stairs. It startled Thomas but he was too cold to react much. A second later he recognized Percy, sitting with his knees up and head down. It looked like he was cradling something on his lap.

Slowly Percy raised his head. His expression was pale, drawn and his skin still glistened with sweat. His hair clung to his scalp like a wet towel. His lips spread in a jerky, uneven motion into a parody of a smile that bared his teeth.

He slowly lifted the thing in his lap. The shiny, techy screen caught the light from Thomas’ helmet.

“I’d forgotten.” Percy’s voice sounded faint, distant and in a way mechanical. It could have been someone pressing play on a tape recorder. “I wanted to show you something.”

Thomas realized he still had the door open. He pulled in his bike, bags from the store banging into the door frame. He leaned it against the wall and closed the door. The heat was still on, he felt the difference in the air.

“Yeah man, that’s one of the reasons you invited me over.”

Percy lifted the thing he held higher and tipped it toward Thomas. It was an iPad. Percy always had the latest gadgets.

“Your app? You finished it?”

Percy nodded but it was more like a convulsion than a normal nod. His breath hissed between his teeth. It took Thomas a second to realize that Percy was laughing through his clenched teeth.

“That’s cool.” Thomas took the bags off the handle bars. “Look, I ran to the gas station store and got a bunch of chicken noodle soup. They didn’t have many options. I also got some frozen breakfast stuff. Why don’t I fix us some soup, and then you can show me?”

“No. No.” Percy moaned, shaking his head. His hands holding the iPad trembled. “No! No!”

It scared Thomas. He really thought maybe he should call someone, but he couldn’t do it while Percy was freaking out. So he put the bags down and pulled off his gloves. After he stuffed them in his pocket, he stepped forward and extended his hand to Percy.

“Okay, man. It’s alright. I can take a look now.”

Percy stilled but a shudder ran through him. He gave Thomas another one of those broken grins with his head cocked oddly to the side. “Take a look.” More hissing laughter through his clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s it. Take a look. If you dare!”

Thomas took the iPad. He was half-afraid of dropping it with his frozen fingers but humoring Percy now might make him more willing to eat something. “What do I do?”

“Push the home button, at the bottom.”

He pushed the button and the screen turned see-through. Or not exactly see-through, it was a camera app. He’d seen the camera app before on the iPad and this looked very much the same with buttons to switch to the front or back camera, between still and video.  There was another setting on the slider. It showed a cartoony ghost icon.

Thomas’ finger hovered over the icon. “What happens if I hit the ghost icon?”

More hissing laughter and Percy rocked back and forth. “Take a look!”

Still Thomas hesitated. The way Percy was acting, it was like he’d gone crazy or something. But it couldn’t be because of the app. That was just a program running on the iPad. Where could the harm be in that?

So why was his mouth dry? He was shivering because he was half-frozen from being out in the cold, but that didn’t explain the chill of fear icing its way along his nerves.

It was ridiculous. He touched the icon.

The edges of the screen fogged. It showed Percy sitting on the stairs, illuminated by the light from Thomas’ helmet. The fog effect made the image look cool, faded sort of like an instant aging effect. Thomas felt relieved and a bit let down. This was it? This was what Percy had come up with after all this work? Had it led to a nervous breakdown for this? That was a depressing thought.

“Okay, man, I guess that’s neat enough –”

The fog on the right side of the screen pulsed. Thomas automatically turned the iPad in that direction and the fog effect pulsed more, draining in an eerie fluid way from the other sides of the screen to the right where it thickened.

What the hell?

The more he turned the iPad the more the fog concentrated. Then it started flooding back around the other sides of the screen. When he turned back it flooded back to the right. Thomas laughed.

“Okay, that’s cool. Weird, but cool.”

Percy moaned in response.

A little more experimenting showed that the fog was acting in a hot-warm-cold fashion, increasing as he moved in the direction the app wanted him to go.

Thomas followed the fog indicators. The effect grew more intense as he walked into the darkened living room. He couldn’t figure out how the app was leading him. Was it random? Any time he turned the iPad toward the walls the effect diminished and faded, only to strengthen when it turned toward the room. Was the app actually aware of the space?

If that was the case, what Percy had accomplished was even more impressive. Particularly the elegant, fluid way the fog moved and coalesced like a living thing.

As he entered the living room Thomas paused and flicked on the lights. The light above the entry way, the lamps on the couch and the lights on the Christmas tree came on. Immediately the fog effect vanished and the screen went blank, white and featureless. Red letters swam up out of the white background, which rippled like milk.

TOO MUCH LIGHT.

Thomas flipped the light switches off again. The picture came back along with the fog, which had gathered near the upper right corner of the screen. Thomas followed its cue and turned in a circle, holding the iPad up to study the room.

Sudden the fog swam down into the picture as the Christmas tree came into view. It looked like it actually left the screen and flew out into the room, an amazing 3D sort of effect. The fog swirled beneath the tree and took on a shape.

Thin white arms, pale and swollen with putrescent cracks, wrapped around bony knees. A child with dark hair plastered to pale, rotten skin. Part of the skull showed through a patch where the skin and hair were peeled down the side of the child’s face. The bones were cracked and stained with long-dried blood. The fog had become a child but he was there, beneath the tree. Thomas’ heart hammered in his chest. He’d never seen anything like it.

The child’s head was down. The image looked incredibly real. He couldn’t look away from the shattered patch of skull. Thomas realized he was shivering harder than ever. His eyes burned and he rubbed at them. It was only a special effect. It had to be. Percy had taken the picture of the child, all done up like that, and the app just revealed it inserted into wherever you were, a sort of augmented reality thing. Chilling, effective, but that’s all it was. Horrifying, really.

Then the child shuddered.

Thomas froze, his eyes fixed on the screen. He must have imagined it. Then the child’s hands twitched. They released their grip and the knees lowered. Thomas pressed a fist to his mouth.

The child’s head was coming up and soon he would be able to see the child’s face. He so, so, so didn’t want to see that! Thomas looked away from the iPad, looked beneath the tree and there wasn’t anything there – but on the screen the child kept looking up.

Pale eyes with no iris, streaked with broken blood vessels looked straight at him through the iPad.

Thomas staggered back. He looked away from the iPad and then back at the screen.

The boy was standing, looking at him.

“No,” Thomas moaned.

Percy laughed between his feet and started to sob.

The child took a step forward. His mouth opened and there was nothing but blackness inside. From the iPad speaker came a sound like a wind blowing through a pipe. A moaning, crying noise that grabbed Thomas’ heart. His chest hurt.

Thomas’ stomach tightened and he felt like he was going to be sick. He threw the iPad away from him. It hit the back of the couch and flipped over onto the seat.

The windy, moaning noise continued coming out of the iPad speaker.

Thomas stumbled back into the foyer. His light splashed across the stairs and found Percy looking not too different from the boy. His eyes were streaked with red blood vessels already.

“Took a look!” Percy giggled. “Now you’re hooked!”

Thomas swallowed and managed to clear his throat. “What did you do?”

“Exposed the truth! Ripped back the veil! Answered the question we always wondered about!” Percy rocked back and forth. “You can’t take it back. Can’t.”

The noise kept coming from the iPad and it sounded louder. “What do you mean?”

Percy looked right at him with red-rimmed eyes. “You took a look.” Percy licked cracked lips. “It looked back!”

Percy clenched his teeth and his breath hissed in and out as his whole body shook in a convulsion that threw him back on the stairs.

Thomas ran to his bike. He yanked it around and pulled the door open. Seconds later he was outside, standing on the pedals as he rode away as fast as he could. Cold, cold wind bit into his fingers, his toes and face but he hardly noticed. There was a deeper chill that seemed to have sunk right down into his core.

Careening into the frozen night Thomas feared he could never ride fast enough. And he couldn’t help but wonder, had Percy uploaded the app to the App store?

It didn’t take long before his extremities grew numb and his legs felt like wood. He was miles down the trail when he saw the benches beside a trail marker. It looked like a good place to stop. Get some sleep.

The next morning a runner found Thomas, frozen, on the bench. Death by exposure, but exposure to what? And he was only the first.

 

4,318 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 42nd weekly short story release, written in January 2012, so just about three years ago. It appeared in Exposed Monthly, the monthly magazine I was releasing at the time. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story The Caretaker.

Author: Ryan M. Williams

Writer and artist, Ryan M. Williams, author of more than twenty novels, writes across a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, romance, paranormal, and mystery. He holds a Master of Arts from Seton Hill University in writing popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine. He currently attends San Jose State University, pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree.