Originally published on October 20th, 2016 at AAEvil.net.
Republished at Sharonda.net on March 8th, 2017.
Added to SMWoodfin.WordPress.com on October 31st, 2017.
Three ‘yards, minimum, lay within the ridge zone of the township. The homes, fields, and roads comprising the hilly, rural region wove around at least one junkyard and at least two graveyards. Mary supposed the latter were extensive; hidden, unrecorded, between dense forest stands. Chapel Auld supported a cemetery of its own, of course, but she wouldn’t go back there of her own accord. She hated the room below.
It was incomprehensible why they’d stuck her there, anyway; why Child Services left her with him.
Twelve years isn’t enough, she thought. I’m not big enough or strong enough or fast enough or armed enough. I’m not equipped to maneuver a psycho with an axe.
Mary was uncertain how these places connected—where Chapel Auld became Piketon or Piketon became Fossil Hill—or why she had paused here, now, of all times, to peer into this rusting dumpster hewn from the land. The girl held a single certainty: She’d take the junkyard over the graveyard any time you ask. That preference bore more sincerity at night.
Oh. One other certainty: She needed to run!
An object shone inside the debris below her. The moon streamed bright through the trees to highlight its polished surface. Rounded and brass, by the look of it, the object reminded her of the metal jars in the place beneath Chapel Auld. Knowledge of the underground chamber was scarce, she thought, and most who discovered it would run away, too. Scant few wouldn’t. Brother Chops was plenty to scare anybody off, and his sister deepened the fear. But that dank cellar was Mary’s tipping point. It terrified her more than being on her own in the night, fleeing a madman through the muggy summer woods.
She scrutinized the brassy shape until an animal skittered across it. The creature was small and hairy, and she recognized it with certainty.
Mary trembled. Rats at home. Rats grazing junk. Rats creepy-crawling the room below.
High behind her, a cougar screamed. The sound shook her, brought her focus to the present, got her feet moving again. She got wind of Brother Chops, now—his steps and his breath—getting closer.
Mary wished that screaming cougar would get him. Get him and eat him. Rip the greasy, blonde hair off of his big, sweaty head. Crunch those heavy glasses like soda fountain ice. And use Chops’ favorite axe for its post-meal toothpick.
But she knew that wouldn’t happen. Cougars didn’t chase after humans; especially not oversized, psychotic humans. They lounged up trees, screaming, scaring the heart out of little girls who were already frightened enough. Even newcomers to the rural parts of the county understood that. Mary ran. Chops chased. But the cougar? Its cry was only a sign, she guessed. A hopeful hint that maybe something further out, beyond the township and its not-quite towns, cared for her. Something strong, and willful enough to control the tongues of cats.
But not willful enough to control him.
She ran until she reached the house in the curve, heart drumming in her small chest. Children at Chapel Auld whisper of haints. They say this house is empty, rotten to the foundation. They say phantasmal footsteps echo from inside, thudding on creaky, wooden floors long since turned to dust. If you’re sufficiently stupid and brave to walk that curve at midnight, you can hear them clap, creak, clomp on disintegrated boards.
Mary hoped it wasn’t true. She prayed those kids were liars or crazy, or that some grown-up fabricated the story to keep the kids away. Haunted or not, that dilapidated house was her target. No construction could be scarier than Brother Chops, except for the room below.
The girl neared the house through its muddy back yard; worn, wet sneakers slipping along the way. She only stopped when her palms pushed against the splintered, decaying pine shingles which covered the exterior walls. Mary reached the bottom of the structure’s nearest broken window, hauled up and wriggled through, cutting herself in a few places.
A fragment of glass jutted into the delicate palm of her right hand, but Mary held steady to the window frame. She eased her slim body against the moldy-smelling wall. A tickle breached her airway as she inhaled. The Chapel kids were correct: There was no floor to stand on. She gripped tighter with both hands at the realization, the glass shard pushing deeper into her flesh. The frame gave inches to the greater pull of her fear.
A rumble rose within the wall, a sudden shimmy ascending the old plaster, shaking bits off as it came.
Mary kicked her legs, seeking any footing she could find. Then she heard him again.
The cougar hadn’t eaten him. The timber hadn’t, either. Nor had that strong and willful thing beyond.
Brother Chops looked at her from above; fat, red face looming through the broken window, lit by the moonbeams piercing the patchy, rotted roof.
Mary took one slow breath that filled her lungs ’til they hurt, forced the imbedded fragment free from the frame, and opened her hands to fate. She fell longer than plausibility allowed, given that these old houses didn’t have basements. At most, she should have dropped several feet to touch ground below where the floor had been.
She reached out, scratched the wall as she plummeted, plaster crumbling beneath her fingernails. Sudden pain in her left palm caught her focus and halted her descent. She wailed, dangling by her own meat, saved from the impact below by whatever had penetrated her hand.
“It’s deeper than you realize, little girl!” Brother Chops bellowed toward her. He climbed through, as she had, but with an ease born of growing both up and tall.
Mary squelched at the uneasy heat of blood flowing toward her elbow. Her eyes rolled toward the dark comfort waiting inside her head. If she passed out now, she was dead. She knew that like she knew that a cougar wouldn’t save her. Like she knew that Brother Chops had deceived Child Services.
She knew her next move, too.
The girl used her bloody right hand to grab the thing jutting out of the wall into her skin and bone. She squeezed as tight as she could, glass grinding within the wound. Throwing her left arm outward, she ripped the impaled palm from the spike. The force of the swing overpowered the strength of her impaired grip, and again, she was falling.
Until she wasn’t.
Mary’s sneakers whomped down on the dirt and the muck. Bloody digits smacked against cool earth, and she tumbled onto her seat. Everything was pitch. The ground below was slick, thick, warm and wet, but still hard enough to hurt.
Equilibrium deserted her.
She tried not to throw up.
Light—blazing red behind her eyes—shattered her fragile consciousness. The sick sound of foreign flesh smashing her face broke its limits. The roll, this time, was neither slow nor short. An accommodating blackness engulfed her brain.
When she blinked awake, incandescent lights glowed against concrete walls. Shadows towered like ethereal soldiers from the shelved urns to the ductwork. Mary’s hands screamed. Her mouth harmonized. The taste of blood made her stomach lurch.
Brother Chops stood before her.
“It’s OK, Mary,” he said, smiling, honing his axe with a worn leather belt. “You’re where you belong. Everyone gets here eventually.”
©2016 Sharonda M. Woodfin