By John Andreini
Ringing like a small windchime followed a shadow sliding behind the three human silhouettes perched on the roof.
“What’s that?” asked Dean, twisting his body.
“My mom’s idiot cat. Kiki,” said Peter. “Bitch hates me.”
“Kiki?” asked Tyrell. “What kind of name is Kiki?”
“Do I look like Wikipedia? Ask my mom.”
The tip of the joint throbbed orange and tiny sparks flittered into the darkness as Peter McCallan inhaled and then passed it to Dean. The three teenage boys sat on the roof just below Peter’s bedroom window on a sultry summer evening, the subtle aroma of rose rising occasionally, pinhole lights in the dark canopy, the dull ochre glow of downtown in the distance. A hand reached toward Peter, fingers poised to receive the gift when three sharp raps on the bedroom door startled him, disrupted the handoff, and the joint fell, rolled down the shingles and dropped over the edge.
“Fuck,” Peter muttered.
Tyrell smacked Peter’s arm. “Damn, man. That’s all we had left.”
“Idiot,” said Dean. “It’s probably in the gutter.”
“Yeah? So go get it, douchebag.” Peter jumped up and crawled back into the bedroom.
“Peter?” called his mother Jen through the door.
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“Have you seen Kiki today?” she asked. Peter could see the doorknob slowly turning.
“No,” he answered, not knowing why he lied. “She must have a new boyfriend.”
“It’s not like her to stay away so long. I’m going to make lost cat posters and I want you to put them up around the neighborhood tomorrow.”
“Actually, I did see her tonight.”
Peter rubbed his pot-singed eyes. “Can’t Trent do it? I’ve got plans.”
“What plans?” Peter’s foggy mind betrayed him. “Okay. They’ll be on the kitchen table in the morning. Get a hammer and tacks from the shed.”
He involuntarily shuddered. The shed. The spider infested crumbling shack that was far older than the house, unsafe and creepy as hell. “Whatever.”
“I’m taking Trent shopping for school clothes tomorrow.”
“What about me?”
“My bank account is light $300 from someone buying overpriced clothes online over the last couple of weeks. Shall I go on?”
“Okay. I got the…cat thing.”
The hallway floor squeaked several times and then footfalls on the stairs. Tyrell and Dean crawled back into the room like drunk cat burglars.
“Dude, what’s going on?” asked Dean.
“Nothing. Got to do some shit for my mom tomorrow, that’s all. You guys find the joint?”
The boys looked at each other, trying to suppress any facial suggestion that they forgot about their assignment.
“Naw, man,” said Tyrell, shrugging. “You got a Coke or something?”
Peter went to his mini-fridge and pulled out two Cokes, and handed them to his friends. As he closed the small door, he glanced out the window into the dark backyard, distinguishing the outline of the shed, black against the night, a teetering, out of place structure in a relatively modern neighborhood. Like an old man at a playground, it had a disturbing vibe, and he hated having to go in there, but his fourteen-year old brother Trent wouldn’t go near it, day or night, which was to be expected from someone who was still afraid of the dark. Yet there were nights when Peter could swear he saw something creeping in the shadows around the creaky building, their stupid cat probably, but still….
Tyrell and Dean were laying on Peter’s front lawn the next day when he got back from putting posters up, the afternoon heat dampening his T-shirt and his mood. Trent was shooting baskets in the driveway, his form awkward, his aim off.
“It’s so fucking hot,” complained Peter, falling to the cool grass on his stomach next to Dean.
“Two more weeks and we will be seniors,” said Tyrell, fist bumping Dean. “Dude, your brother’s not very coordinated.”
Peter looked up as Trent missed two shots in a row. “Not into sports. He’d spend his entire summer in a corner of his room reading Manga if my Mom didn’t kick him out.”
Dean got up on his elbows. “I’m bored. Let’s go to the skatepark.”
Peter was suddenly aware of the hammer in his hand. “Hold on,” he said, a knowing, nasty smile spreading across his face. “Let’s have a little fun first.”
The three boys got up and followed Peter to where Trent was shooting baskets. “Hey, asshole.”
Trent turned holding the ball, his attitude suspicious. The edges of his longish brown hair glistening with sweat, he squinted and freckles bunched up around his nose. “What?”
“Mom wants you to put this back in the shed.” Peter held up the hammer.
“Why don’t you?”
“Look, I put up her stupid cat posters all over the place. We’re going to the skatepark. Just put it back. Okay?”
Trent took two steps back and involuntarily glanced toward the backyard. “No way.”
With a nod from Peter, his friends grabbed Trent by the arms and they all marched down the driveway.
“Stop it, you fucking morons,” cried Trent, struggling to wriggle free. “I’ll scream for Mom.”
The parade stopped and everyone looked at Trent. “Scream for Mom?” asked Peter, incredulity written across his face. “What are you, five?”
“You’re an asshole, Peter. A fucking asshole.”
The entourage began again and moments later they stood in front of the drooping, loosely hinged door to the shed. The structure was covered in old redwood shingles that had been painted many times over the decades, and there was no lock, but a rusty hook that fell into a metal loop, both jangly and far beyond their intended working years. Trent struggled to get free, but the effort was futile.
Peter held up the hammer. “Look, little bro, all you have to do is put this away. No biggie.”
His cherubic face crimson, angry eyes cursing his captors, Trent ripped his arms away and took the hammer from Peter, who flipped up the latch and pulled open the creaking door. “The shelf is right in front of you.”
Trent peered into the dark cavern, strings of cobwebs handing down from the door frame like wispy fingers, a musty, acrid smell escaping into the air. He thought fleetingly about using the hammer on his brother’s head, but accepted his destiny and walked into the shadowy room. As he took his second step, the door slammed shut and he was trapped in the wooden tomb. Outside, Peter, Tyrell and Dean leaned with their backs against the door as Trent shoved and shouted angrily.
“I swear I’m going to kill you, Peter. Let me out.”
“I’m actually helping you, Trent. You need to get over your fear of the dark. You’ll thank me later.” The boys laughed at Trent’s panicked pleas.
The yelling and pounding continued, but were soon replaced by a scream of pain that was as authentic as it was frightening. Peter quickly pushed the others away and pulled open the door. Trent, his face pale, body shaking, hobbled out into the sunlight, then fell to the grass, hands grasping his right ankle, which was bleeding profusely. He grimaced and sobbed loudly. Hearing the ruckus, Jen burst out the back door, hurrying down off the deck and kneeling next to her injured child.
“What happened?” she asked, frantically trying to assess the situation.
Blood soaked through Trent’s white sock around the ankle. “Something bit me,” shouted the sobbing boy.
“What bit you? Did you see it?”
“No. It’s pitch black in there. It hurts.”
“Why were you in there?”
There was no response and Jen glared at Peter who backed away sheepishly, then she tore off Trent’s shoe and sock. There were small but deep puncture wounds forming an arch on each side of his Achilles tendon and blood was pulsing from the wounds.
“Help me carry him into the bathroom.”
With Trent bandaged and moaning on the couch, Jen confronted Peter. “What happened?”
“We were just joking around. What? I didn’t think anything would bite him.”
“I’ve got to take Trent to the emergency room, thank you very much. I want you and your stupid friends to see if you can find out what bit him. Rat? Racoon? Dog? Call me.”
“It probably ran off.”
Jen’s neck muscles tightened visibly and she spoke through clenched teeth. “Look anyway.”
After unbandaging Trent’s ankle, the doctor examined the bite and was unable to hide her confusion. “Interesting. I have to say I’ve never seen bite marks like this. I’ve treated a lot of dog bites, other animals, but this… You didn’t see what it was, honey?”
Trent shook his head. “It was dark. I couldn’t see anything.”
“Okay. I’m going to assume it is a wild animal bite and clean and sanitize the wound. Unless we can locate the animal right away, however, we need to start an anti-rabies treatment.”
“My oldest son is looking, but…”
“Okay. We’ll do the first injection today.”
Trent groaned. “Injection?”
Waiting in the lobby, surrounded by the ill and injured, Jen saw a figure out of the corner of her eye growing like a tornado as it came down the wide hallway and she felt a chill crawl up her back.
“What the fuck is going on, Jen?” It was ex-husband Frank, his wild eyes hostile, breath wreaking of bourbon.
“Good to see you too, Frank. Why are you here?”
“Peter said Trent was bitten by an animal. How did that happen?”
That Frank was drunk before 3:00 p.m. wasn’t that strange, but Jen knew after only a brief exchange that his anger at her was already boiling and things would only escalate from here.
“Accidents happen, Frank.”
“That’s not what you used to say.” His eyes narrowed with an accusing glare.
“Please don’t start. Not here. He’s going to be okay.”
“He better be.”
“It’s on record. I warned the judge about you at the custody hearing.”
“And he told you to get in a treatment program.”
“Call me when you know something,” he said, suddenly turning his back to her.
“No use two of us sitting around wasting time.”
Jen watched him weave down the hall, knowing he was heading for the nearest bar. Despite the passage of time, you never escape your mistakes. They are invisible injuries that flair up painfully when you least expect it, reminding you that you are fallible and weak and eternally vulnerable.
Baseball bat in one sweaty hand, flashlight in the other, Peter unlatched the shed door and pulled, hinges complaining as it grudgingly opened. He inhaled the odor of musty air, old paint and gasoline and stepped back for a moment, quickly recovered and shone the flashlight into the cobwebby cavern. Old, crooked homemade shelving lined the left wall, holding rusted cans covered in paint drips, water damaged boxes and a few dusty tools, all sewn together with thin silvery webs. To his right were garden hoes, rakes, shovels and other digging instruments leaning against the wall and directly in front of him were the dark planks of the far barrier, a rotted hose looped around a long rusted nail in the middle. Nothing moved as the white light circled, so Peter took a step into the room, the grip on the bat tightening. His brother was a major pain in the ass, but he never meant for him to get hurt, just scared, but now his mother would be pissed at him for months. The luminous circle stopped in a far corner, and Peter leaned in to see better. There was a dark space, a hole in the floor, which he didn’t remember ever seeing before, and he was pulled forward toward it against his better judgement. It was about the size of a grapefruit, leading down under the shed below the floorboards, and Peter tipped the light down into the black recess, feet on standby for an immediate getaway. The light seemed to initiate shuffling and scratching from below and Peter’s eyes widened as he looked at the dirt at the bottom of the hole, a plume of dust suddenly appearing. Then gauzy white eyes suddenly looked up at him, and in the instance before he ran, the reflection of pointed teeth filling the wide mouth of an indistinguishable creature. Peter screamed and bolted from the shed, locking the kitchen door behind him.
The jovial pest exterminator, Captain Kangaroo in blue overalls, assured Jen that he found nothing living in the shed, only an assortment of small animal bones lying around, which were probably the victims of cats. Jen was relieved, but the news angered Peter, and he repeated that there was a creature of some kind living under the shed. Everyone nodded and Jen paid the man for the call. No talk of creatures was allowed around the convalescing Trent, who alternated in surely resignation between the den and his bedroom. He wasn’t eating, Jen noted, and seemed to be falling into a depression that had her worried. A trip the doctor was of little help as his wound was healing properly and there were no signs of infection, and the doctor suggested rather obliquely, and in a way Jen did not appreciate, that “other factors” might be to blame for Trent’s black mood.
Two nights later, both Jen and Peter were out, and Trent lay on the couch sweating and sleeping fitfully in the otherwise empty house. He called out in a terrified voice, as if he was fighting off something in a nightmare. Headlights glared across the living room windows and a car came to a squealing stop in the driveway. Frank McCallan opened the driver’s side door and stumbled out of the car, drunk beyond reason, working hard to stay upright as he tried to focus on the dark house.
“Jen,” he yelled, his body swaying as if the word had altered his balance. “Goddamn it,” he called, staggering to the front door and pounding with a fist. “Jen, open up. I want to see Trent. Open up.” Leaves flittered across the driveway from a slight breeze, and branches cast wavering shadows on the side of the house. “Goddamn it,” he shouted, taking a step back to look for lights coming on, but none did. He tried violently twisting the knob to no avail and then leaned against a brick wall of the small portico. “He’s my Goddamn son, too. You never called, you bitch.” He wanted to break something, smash something, but there was nothing with which to satisfy his need for mindless violence, so he turned back toward his car, drunk and defeated.
“Dad, I’m back here.”
It was Trent calling. Frank turned around and found he was looking toward the side of the house leading to the backyard.
“Trent,” he called. “Is that you?”
“Back here, Dad.”
Dad. Wow, it had been a long time since he had heard that word and it was the sweetest invitation he could think of. He straightened up and tried to focus. “Okay. On my way.”
The tree-laden yard was hard to maneuver sober, but it was truly a challenge for a gin-addled man in the dark and Frank wobbled around obstacles as he turned the corner of the house and made his way to the patio. The boy hadn’t turned on any lights.
“Trent? You back here?”
Dried leaves crackled. “Right behind you…Dad.”
Two hours later, Jen searched the backyard with a flashlight as she waited for police, calling out for Trent and Frank, both missing when she got home. Peter, red eyes like fiery beacons, heard her calling and joined his mother in the search, found what looked like drag marks heading off into the woods beyond the hedge marking the boundary of the backyard. Police followed the trail into the foreboding forest, and soon there were shouts and cops running around frenetically, followed by calls for an ambulance. An Officer Stone met the frantic Jen at the patio table and put an unwanted hand on her shoulder.
“Mrs. McCallan, we found your husband—”
“Ex-husband,” she corrected through sobs.
about five hundred yards into the woods. I can only guess at this
stage, but it appears as if he was attacked by some kind of animal,
perhaps a pack of wild dogs. He’s in serious condition but still
breathing and the paramedics are on their way.”
“My son. Did you see my son Trent?”
“No, Ma’am. No sign of the boy. We’re still looking.”
Exhausted after a horrifying night searching for her son, Jen slept on the couch in her clothes as early morning sunlight spilled into the house while Peter lay spread eagle on top of his bed. Frank died from his injuries the next day, and the search for Trent continued with volunteers and helicopters roaring over the house. For reasons he didn’t really understand, Peter felt strangely ambivalent about the events of the past 24 hours. He remembered his father as a loveless man who got violent when he was drunk, which was a lot of nights, until she divorced him and got a restraining order. He’d hit Peter when he felt his son wasn’t sucking it up and acting like a man, which made no sense to Peter as a boy, and only resulted in the boy avoiding his father. Now he was gone and Peter had no tears, no remorse, and was actually glad to be free of any more drunken visits. His feelings about Trent were more complicated. They had never gotten along and fought often over the smallest of things. Brotherly love? The most he had felt toward Trent was pity that his younger brother was not like him at all, not athletic, not popular, not even all that smart, just a dorky, whiny kid that happened to live in the same house as him. If they found him, fine, if not….
Peter loved the cool night air and kept his bedroom window open throughout most of the year, and he was now bound up in his blankets. His door was closed, but he could still occasionally hear his mother sobbing down the hallway and it was irritating because he knew she wanted him to hear it. Maybe Trent had found a family that would appreciate him or he’d joined the circus as a carny and was getting his first tattoo and Peter would see him on the Midway at next year’s state fair. His mother, of course, was assuming the worst. That’s just how she was. The “meow” of a cat drifted up in through the window from the backyard, followed by the barely perceptible jingling of what he recognized as Kiki’s collar. In the midst of all the insanity surrounding the McCallan household, the idiot cat comes back. Another call from the cat pulled Peter from his bed to the window where he scanned the darkness below him. He knew something was different before he even saw that the shed door was open, the gaping rectangular portal leading into a room darker than the night. He watched helplessly as the cat trotted into the shed and disappeared.
A debate within surfaced. He could pretend he saw nothing, go back to bed and let nature take its course or he could grab the flashlight, go downstairs and shoo the cat out of the shed and close the door. Considering how crushed his already depressed mother would be if Kiki ended up killed by the little monster in the shed, who nobody believed in except him, his better self reluctantly won out and he slipped into his shoes and picked up the flashlight in the kitchen. The air was still and chilly, twigs on the grass from the last storm crackled underfoot.
“Kitty,” whispered Peter as he approached the shed. He thought the name “Kiki” was so stupid he never used it. “Kitty cat? Come out, kitty.” The noise of movement came from the darkness within and Peter thought this was progress. “Come on, kitty.” At the threshold he stopped and clicked on the flashlight, moving the hazy white circle over the musty contents of the small building, freezing as he captured two legs at the far wall.
“Peter, it’s me. Trent.”
Peter stifled the scream that had jumped up into his throat. “Trent? What the fuck?” The ball of light moved up Trent’s body and stopped at a confusing juncture. The boy was holding Kiki, not in a caressing way, but with hands grasping each end of the cat, glistening dark liquid dripping through the fur from the middle section.
“Peter. Guess what?”
The older boy’s legs were shaking, and he knew he should run, but it was his brother. “What?”
“I’m not afraid of the dark anymore.” The shed door blew shut, knocking Peter into the black chasm, and the clasp fell into the metal loop with a soft click.