Mike knew better than to be out this late; the sun was almost completely below the horizon and there was far more dark red than orange shading into dark blue. The night belonged to things other than 11-year-old boys. He didn’t want to meet those things, and he hurried faster, passing each house and counting his way home.
The Ryans, that’s fourth, then the Denbys, that’s three … He was almost to the James house, which would have only left the Michaels’ between him and home, when a dark shadow oozed out through the gate in the Denbys’ picket fence.
Mike squealed involuntarily and jumped. Running, he was about to pass the James house when he realized he heard the sound of laughter. Turning back, he saw Eddie Ryan bent over and laughing too hard to chase him any further. His jaw clenched, and through gritted teeth he hissed, “That wasn’t funny!”
Eddie gasped for breath and said, “Oh, yes it was! Man, you should have heard yourself! You sounded like a little girl!” That triggered another bout of laughter.
Mike was torn between heading home now and going back and punching the life out of Eddie. He’s such an idiot. He shook his head and started for home again.
“Hey, wait, Mike. C’mon!”
Mike heard pounding footsteps approaching, took a deep breath and stopped. He waited for Eddie to catch up.
“I’m sorry, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Mike started off again, double-timing it.
“I can’t believe you let your brother convince you that place was haunted or somethin’.” Eddie gestured at the deserted house on the farthest side of the cul-de-sac. “It’s just a house. Mr. Salmer lost his job and they had to move out. Big deal.”
Mike stopped again. “Okay, if it’s just an abandoned house, where did Billy Salmer disappear to before they left?”
“Billy was a goof. He always threatened to run away, and he made good on it.”
“Then where’d my brother go, huh? He wa– isn’t a goof and he never said anything about running away.”
“I don’t know, Mike.” Eddie shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “Forget I said anything.” He glanced at the house for a moment and froze.
“What is it, Eddie?”
Eddie’s head was cocked, like a dog who hears something his owner can’t. Slowly, he walked in the direction of the house, an expression of curiosity on his face.
“Eddie, stop it! Eddie, you’re scaring me! This really isn’t funny!” He tugged on his friend’s arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
The other boy clearly didn’t hear him. He continued to walk toward the house, almost dragging Mike along with him. “The lights. What are the lights?”
“What lights?” He yelled at the houses around them. “Help! Help me! Something’s wrong with Eddie! Mrs. Ryan! Mr. Ryan! Please!”
He knew there were people home in the neighborhood and Mike couldn’t make out anyone’s television being turned up so loudly they couldn’t hear, but no one opened the door to see who was yelling or why. No one looked out the window. No one came at all.
Eddie had kept walking and was on the front step of the seemingly-empty house. The door flew open without warning and he was jerked inside. The door slammed behind him.
Mike ran back to the Ryan house and pounded on the door. “Mr. Ryan! Mrs. Ryan! Please … please open up!” He heard someone fumbling with the lock, and before he knew what was happening, the Ryans’ front door opened and Mr. Ryan was standing there.
“Did you want something, Mike?”
“It’s Eddie, Mr. Ryan! He’s — something’s happened!”
The man’s face was stern. “Is this a joke, Mike? Or some kind of game?”
“Joke? No, sir! Something’s happened!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Eddie?”
Mike stumbled backwards in shock and dropped off the front step with a teeth-rattling thump. In a tiny voice, he said, “Eddie. Your son.”
For a moment, Mr. Ryan looked blank. Then animation flooded back into his face and he shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mike. I don’t have a son named Eddie.” He stepped back into his house and began to close the door. “It’s getting dark and I think you should be going home instead of playing silly games.”
The boy turned abruptly. He started walking faster, and finally broke into a shambling run that carried him to his own door. He looked over his shoulder in terror at the house. His hand hovered over the doorknob and he was suddenly afraid to go in. What if they don’t know me? What if they say I don’t exist? What do I do? What can I do?
He glanced at the house again and came to a decision. In a sudden spasm, he yanked the door open and charged into his home, shutting the door behind him.
At the end of the road, the house watched and waited patiently. It had fed, and it was content. Besides, there would be another time. There always was.