“How ‘bout Jessica?” Chris asked his mom.
“She has to work.”
“Out of town.”
“Andre or Shannon? I know they’re at home and they don’t have jobs.”
“Boy! Andre is thirteen and Shannon is eleven. Their parents may be okay with them watching themselves but I am certainly not okay with them watching you.”
“You don’t trust me?” Chris sighed.
“I can’t do this with you right now. I’m already late and I don’t know where the hell… this place… is.” Chris’ mother paused as she checked the GPS on her phone.
He continued to huff and puff, but he knew that wouldn’t work with his mother. Too late for that. If she would’ve given him more time, he might’ve made a better case for staying home alone, watching himself, fending for himself. But she brought this news to him last night of her returning to work.
Doesn’t hurt to keep trying, though. “But I’m ten!”
“For a couple more weeks.”
“Mom, please. Pleeeeeeeeeaaaaase!”
“Enough! You got your tablet?”
“Got your mask?”
He fished around the front pocket of his bookbag, then pulled it out. “Yes.”
“All right, put it on. We’re here.” She parked on the curb, left the car running, and hopped out.
Reluctant, still… to the very end, he remained in his seat. Arms crossed and frowning.
She opened the door for him and gave him that ‘You better stop playing with me’ look. So, he jumped out of his seat.
They marched up a walkway that looked like it had been hit by an Earthquake. Cement tiles out of shape, broken, dirt all over it, grass sprouting up and around it. Mom was more careful not to mess up her heels. The wrecked path led to a tall skinny home that didn’t appear much better. Cracks in the wall, vines swallowing the first floor, mold consuming the second. On either side was another house with a foot of space between them, and those were nicer. In fact, as Chris turned around, the entire area seemed brand-new. Like they had constructed this neighborhood around this ancient home that he was about to enter. Mom didn’t notice or she was blind to it.
The home might have been white back in the day, now it was sun-faded, dirty beige. And the door was red, with a banner above it that read, Dorothy’s Daycare. Before, Chris wanted to stay home because he felt he didn’t need a sitter. Now, he wanted to get away from this place, and go anywhere else. But too late… she’d already knocked on the door.
“Don’t screw this up, boy. This is the only daycare in the area that would even take kids your age.”
“So, there are kids my age, too? Not just babies?” He didn’t feel so bad anymore.
“I would imagine, so. Put your mask on.” She gave him a light shove.
As he placed the mask over his nose and mouth, the door unlocked. It took forever for the red door to open; creaking, exposing a darkness, releasing a bit of cold air. It gave Chris chills. Then, an older woman showed herself, peeking around, like she was playing a game of hide and seek or something. Even with her mask on – by her eyes, her skin, she looked a hundred-years-old. Instinctively, he took a step back.
Mom, of course, blinded by the creepy house, was also ignorant to the old lady, apparently in charge of the daycare, unless, a younger person was back there somewhere. But nothing, no one, just quiet. Not even sounds of screaming kids.
“Mom?” he questioned, pulling at her shirt tail.
“Good morning,” the old lady said.
“Hi, I’m Teresa.” His mother gave the old lady her hand.
The old woman raised her hands and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m over seventy and you know what they say about the elderly and this virus.” She smiled.
Says the woman running a daycare.
And, seventy my ass.
Chris was a smartass. Old for his age. The young boy definitely could’ve watched himself.
“Oh. Yeah.” Teresa retracted her hand. “Forgot.”
“Well then…My name is Dorothy, and this must be Christopher.”
“Yes. Christopher.” She bumped him in the shoulder. “Say hi.”
Chris did no such thing.
“I’m so sorry. But I have to get to work.” Teresa kissed her son on the forward and backed away down the broken path.
Chris turned his back to the old woman and watched his mother. He desperately wanted to yell out to her to come back, but his words hadn’t worked in his favor all morning. Maybe his eyes would. And he tried his best, in that final moment, to conjure up some tears. But nothing.
“He has snacks in his bag and I assure you, he’ll be on his best behavior.” Then, she turned to the car.
“We’ll take good care of him.”
Chris only turned around when his mother was down the street and around the corner. The old woman stood there in the doorway and stuck her hand out. “Welcome,” she said.
He looked at her hand, confused when she just said… whatever… he was brought up to respect elders, no matter how old, no matter how creepy. So, he shook it, then followed her inside.
Only when the door slammed shut did he hear the faint sounds of children playing.
The hallway was clean, no furniture, just an old shaggy carpet. The walls were plain, no pictures, no decorations. At the end of the hall was a floor to ceiling mirror and to the left was the living room with five children playing. Babies. And no other adults.
“Welcome to the madness,” she joked.
He chuckled nervously. Chris thought about asking the question about other kids being there, specifically kids his age, but feared he wouldn’t like the answer. So, he just stood there, looked at his watch and prayed these eight hours would fly by. The entire living room was as long as the hallway, and the kids were loud as shit. He figured the hallway must’ve drowned out most of the noise.
The old woman dragged herself to a rocking chair and picked up a needle and thread from an end table next to her. Also, on the table, was a stack of hay or straws, Chris couldn’t be sure, but he knew it was weird. Like, everything else going on here.
She started rocking, and humming a tune as the kids played. “Come, boy. Have a seat and join in on the fun.”
Chris turned around and looked across the hall to the other room. The dining room. “Can I…umm…go in there, ma’am?”
“Eh, suit yourself.” She shooed him away.
The dining room was much smaller than the living room. But a hell of a lot quieter. And more decorative; a massive dresser lined the wall and had jars of stuff and glass statues on them. As he’d guessed, the walls drowned out those kids and he barely heard any of them. After the dining room, he assumed was the kitchen, and after the kitchen he saw the stairs. How big is this house? Just as he thought it, he didn’t care to know. As far as he was concerned, this would be his last time here.
He dropped his bookbag on the floor, grabbed a chair at the dining table, his back to the kitchen, and pulled out his tablet. He double-checked to make sure he brought his charger because this would likely be his entertainment for the day.
Chris pulled up his video game on the tablet and started playing. It didn’t take long for the game to consume him, bring him into that world and forget about his unfortunate reality. Only in between levels, did he remember where he was. And he scoffed. As the game loaded up for another, he lifted his head and saw the mirror on the back wall of the hallway, the old woman in her rocking chair; rocking, knitting and staring at him. He watched for a second, to see if she was actually looking at him, and she didn’t turn away, smile, wave, or say anything. The woman didn’t even blink. Just kept her gaze locked on him through that mirror.
He shifted in his chair, his back to the side wall now, facing the dresser of antiques, and started the next level. But he couldn’t focus like before. He was weirded out. And he abandoned his only source of entertainment, focusing on the dresser with the glass statues. One of them with a powerful reflection, and through that, he saw the mirror in the hallway, and the old woman, still staring.
Now, he was creeped out. He’d much rather get in trouble with his mother than stay in this house any longer. So, he turned his tablet off, packed it in his bag, threw the bag over his shoulder, and started to walk out, desperately avoiding looking in that mirror. As soon as he reached the hallway, he planned to sprint to the door. She can’t catch me.
Before he started, though, he saw a figure in his peripheral, from the dining room doorway into the kitchen. He stepped to the side and saw a girl. She had to have been his age and she waved and smiled. Chris smiled back. Then she ran away, giggling before she disappeared behind the stairs.
Maybe there are older kids here.
With the bookbag still on his back, he went to see where the girl went. Out of the dining room, through the kitchen and into this other room, the stair-room is the best way he could describe it. She didn’t go up the steps, but behind, and around the other side was another set of steps, going down into a basement.
As he walked down the steps, he tried hard to listen for sounds, a group of kids his age, laughing, playing, something. But it was quiet and the cold air he had felt when that red door opened; he felt it here.
That chill spiraled up his legs, around his waist and across his chest. As he was about to abandon this stupid idea to come down here, he saw the girl again. So, he jogged down the steps.
It looked like a tunnel more than a basement, it stretched well beyond the length of this skinny home. The ceiling was concrete but the floor and walls were dirt.
“Hi!” Chris waved to the girl.
“Hey,” she said back.
“What’re you doing down here?”
“Messing around,” Then, she giggled and ran into a side room.
The girl had a warm voice, a nice giggle and other than this basement, the old woman, the skinny house, and the weird kids, this young girl seemed the only thing normal about this place. So, he followed her. Where the dim light came from that illuminated the tunnel? He didn’t know.
There was no door to the room she went in, and as he entered it, he saw no signs of her. The room was the size of a closet with no other exit points. In the middle of the room stood a large sculpture, made of straw. He didn’t know how he missed it. He definitely wouldn’t have entered if he’d seen it from the hall. But he didn’t and here he was, a foot away, looking at this figurine that probably was bigger than him. It was on its knees, head bowed, hands pressed together. From Chris’ point of view, it looked like the thing was worshipping him. And as the videogame from his tablet had consumed him, this thing did that and more.
It owned his focus, drained his energy, and Chris could not look away from it. The young girl left his mind, the old lady was forgotten about, the house he was in, his mother, his life. The world, in fact. All he knew was this strawman kneeling before him.
The only thing to pull him out of this was a hand gripping his shoulder. Scared him half to death. Jolting out of this trance, he saw the old woman standing in front of him. Suddenly, he was back in the dining room, on his way into the hallway, on his way out the door. Back to the moment before he saw the girl.
“Time to go, young man. Your mother is here,” the old woman said with a smirk.
She’s here? Couldn’t be. He looked at his watch, and sure enough, it was time. That chill would not leave his body and he went down the hall toward the red door. He opened it and saw his mother outside waiting in the car. He looked back at the old woman.
“I’ll see you soon, Christopher,” she said, then crept behind the door as it screeched closed.
His mother talked his ear off in the car, but he couldn’t focus on her words. Just shook his head and Mhmm-ed in response. He didn’t eat that night, either, and couldn’t fall asleep if his life depended on it. All he could think of was the strawman in that basement. He couldn’t have imagined it. The young girl, too. It was real. Too real. He had to know. Had to find out or else he’d go mad from sleeplessness.
It was after midnight when he snuck out of his home. He grabbed his bike and pedaled. He was never good with direction, and didn’t pay attention when his mother took him to the daycare that morning, but he knew in his bones exactly where he was going.
When he arrived at the skinny home, the door was wide open as if he were expected. He dropped his bike on the broken path and went inside. Obsessed with knowing, he walked down the hall like he belonged and stopped before the mirror. On his left, in the living room, those same five kids were there. In the same spot as before, playing with the same toys. The rocking chair was rocking, but no one was sitting in it.
Chris shrugged, turned the other way into the dining room, went through that, past the kitchen, past the stairs, around the stairs and down the steps, into the basement—er, tunnel.
At the bottom, in the same place he’d seen the young girl, the old lady was standing. Giggling, smiling, waving him over to come join her. So, he walked over, and it was the only time in the night where he was cautious. Seemed like he was returning back to normal, but why now? He’d come so far to find out. But he was starting to reach his senses, like part of his consciousness was telling him to stop, go back. But it wasn’t strong enough. He needed to know more.
“He’s waiting for you,” the old lady said as he approached her. And she pointed to the room for him to go.
Chris made sure to look this time, and the praying strawman was not there. Still, he went all the way in, looked around, checked the corners. Nothing. Just an empty room. But when he turned back to the doorway, there it was. But the figure was standing this time, sheathing the entryway. He couldn’t see the tunnel anymore, nor the old lady. Just this monstrous strawman, looking down on him now rather than bowing as it did before.
The young man pee’d his pants. Then, that chill in his chest returned violently, and it settled around his heart where it tightened. He felt like he’d been stabbed, but he couldn’t look down to check, because he was captivated by this sight. This horrific sight.
Then the strawman roared, like a bear, and its mouth opened so wide that the darkness down the thing’s throat was all Chris saw. Next thing he felt were his legs being clamped. Or chomped. It hurt enough for him to scream out and he yelled for help, but who would hear him? All he saw was darkness. And through the pain, he felt a gooey substance covering him as he slid down, what he assumed was the things throat. The discomfort and agony in his legs eventually went away but he continued to slide for what seemed like hours. Like, he was on an endless waterslide of torture, and he feared what awaited him at the end of this ride.
It wasn’t water, but rather, a road. A yellow brick road. Full of kids his age, standing in rows. Hundreds of them. He turned around and saw more kids and to the right of him, the young girl from before.
Ahead of the rows of many, many kids, was a giant clock in the sky. Above it, read Apocalypse. And it counted down from sixty days. He looked over to the girl, and whispered. “Hey?”
“What is this?” Christopher asked. “Where are we?”
“Kansas. The end of the world club.”
© 2021 M. Sydnor Jr. (_Jan. 2020_)
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