The House at the End of the Street
(Part one of two)
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd ...
-- John Donne, Holy Sonnet #9
There's one in every town. Every city. You know the place. That creepy old house at the end of the street. Rumor has it someone was murdered there. Or maybe someone went insane overnight. Or maybe someone just went in and disappeared. The drunks on the street talk about it but no one listens. Mothers threaten to send their kids there to keep the little angels in line. But no one ever takes it seriously, no one but the drunks and the runaways who see the mysterious lights and watch the strangers disappear behind the creaking, heavy wooden door.
For, Whitey Fricks, a young black kid trying to hide out from the gangbanging Devil Dogs, the secret is about to become something more.
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The first cut slashed deep under his eye. Whitey Fricks felt the blood pour from the wound and quickly drain onto his quivering lips and into his mouth. He spit, trying to avoid choking on the bland, thick mixture that had combined with the salty sweat of his face.
"Swallow it, muchacho!" 'Whiskers' Ramirez waved the knife in front of his eyes. "Or else I cut the other one too."
He swallowed hard, almost gulping down the blood. "Don't hurt me, please. I didn't do nothing, I swear."
"Listen, muchacho," Whiskers said, "Didn't tu mama tell you it wasn't polite to lie?"
"I'll do whatever you want. Just don't cut me no more."
... come to me ...
"Come where?" he asked.
"What're you talking 'bout, muchacho?" Whiskers tossed the blade back to Iron Bill, a six foot plus teenaged hood with a bald head and enough earrings to start his own jewelry store. Bill caught the knife and handed Whiskers a palm-sized shock blade. "You familiar with an ice tag, ain't, muchacho? It don't leave no marks but stings like the devil himself is tagging ya butt."
Whitey watched as Bill nodded at the two gangbangers holding him against the rough concrete wall. They lifted his arms to pull him just off the pavement. Whiskers pressed a button on the ice tag and a blue lazer about six inches long flashed into view.
"Maybe next time you'll think twice before you grafe out the Devil Dogs to the Pee-Dee, Whitey. What kind of name is that for a dark anyway? Tu mama blind or something? Don't she know there ain't nothing white about you, muchacho?"
... come to me ...
"You lost ya mind, Whitey? I ain't asked you nothing about comin' nowhere." Whiskers turned to Bill. "You tell muchacho here to go somewhere with ya, Iron Bill?" Then to the two thugs holding Whitey to the wall. "How 'bout you Oscar? And I know you ain't said nothing, Deaf Boy."
"Let me go please ..." He wanted to tell them that Deaf Boy's street name was all wrong, that he knew deaf people who could speak, that they should call him mute boy or dumb boy instead. But all he could say was, "... please ... don't ..."
"See," Whiskers said, turning his attention back to Whitey, "The only place we want to take you is to new heights of pain. And this ain't gonna hurt me more than it hurts you."
Whiskers narrowed his eyes to slits and jerked his bandana away to wipe the sweat off his brow. He scraped a dirty finger across his meager mustache, then smiled at Whitey.
"No ..." Whitey closed his eyes tightly and prepared for the worst, tensing the muscles of his face and stomach. He screamed inside as he felt the hi-intensity lazer blade cut deep into his gut, cutting "invisible" as the ice tag sellers bragged when selling the non-lethal, high-pain weapons on the street. The tag moved across his stomach, and he could feel the tears start to drain from the corners of his eyes. "Aaaarrrggggghhhhh!!!!"
Smack. He felt a slap just above the cut at his eye.
"Shut up, boy. Ain't nobody gonna hear ya anyway, not on Dog turf, baybee."
"Good one, Iron Bill," said Oscar in his weak voice. "Let me hit 'im next."
... i'm waiting for you ...
The voice was calm, monotone, almost lifeless. Still, he heard it as clearly as he heard Whiskers, Iron Bill, and Oscar.
"Where are you? Help me! Don't just sit there and watch, you sick freak!" Whitey yelled.
Oscar and Deaf Boy let go and he dropped to the pavement. He opened his eyes. The Dogs had backed up a step, all except Whiskers, anyway.
"Don't let him fool ya, Dogs. He's just trying to make think he's crazy so we'll let up on him. He's a smart boy, remember. Honor boy ain't too smart for the Dogs though."
Whitey watched as Whiskers raised the tag again and took a step toward him. He pulled to a crouch and licked the blood off his lips, then wiped a sheet of red from under his eye and smudged it on his Art-Smock, Inc. work shirt. He could get a new shirt tomorrow at work, but new eyes were way out of the question. Maybe if he was a rich snot in the burbs, but not for an black 17-year-old orphan with barely enough creds for a new music chip.
... come ...
Whiskers pushed the tag toward Whitey and he ducked out of instinct, then pushed up and slammed his shoulder into Whiskers' ribcage. Whiskers cursed and fell back, giving Whitey just enough time and space to dart from the alley into the deserted street. It was a futile attempt to get away, he knew. No one lived near the streets of Old Town, and the closest business grid was at least six blocks away. Surely the Devil Dogs would catch him again before then.
And when they got him, he'd pay double for trying to get away.
He remembered that Alvin Williams had thought he could get away. He was the last guy to grafe the Dogs to the Pee-Dee. Alvin came back to school with three bandaged knuckles where his first three fingers had been. And the Dogs didn't play favorites for chivalry either. Summer Jenkins had been a prom queen until she made a spectacle of turning down a date with Whiskers. They made sure she'd never be a prom queen again. There were even rumors that the Dogs were behind the disappearance of three teachers who had helped get more Pee-Dee's in the school for security.
They were just rumors, though. If anyone could find either the teachers or their bodies, maybe the rumors could become something more.
Whitey turned the corner at the old newstand. Even just six years ago, Fred Griffin had sold comics and newspapers, constantly commenting at how the neighborhood was going to hell in an eight-cylinder lowrider.
Good old Fred. When the Dogs firebombed his apartment, he lost his reason for hanging on. And his three-year old daughter, Jennifer. After that, he just lost it and moved to live with some relatives somewhere down south and let the neighborhood go to hell without him.
Whitey heard the echoing footsteps behind him and he raced on, looking only one corner ahead at a time, never really expecting to reach even those small goals. As he ran, he repeatedly wiped the blood from his mouth and cheek and spit out the bit of it that managed to find its way inside his mouth. He turned the next corner, nearly tripping over a sleeping drunk sprawled out against the wall.
"Watch where yer goin'," the guy mumbled, then looked up and noticed Whitey. "Oh, sorry. I didn't realize it was you. Left at the corner then right up Grover Road, and the house is at the end of the street."
"Whatchu talkin' 'bout, you old drunk?" Whitey turned to say, but the old man was gone, as were all traces of the bottles he'd been drinking from.
This is too weird, Whitey thought, then poured on the speed toward the next corner. Immediately, he heard the Devil Dogs round the corner behind him, then the sounds of falling as they smashed into the trash cans and pavement that littered the old sidewalk.
Making the next turn, Whitey stopped cold when he nearly tripped over the same old drunk. The guy was wrinkled and white and couldn't have been a day under a hundred and twenty. His clothes hung from his skeletal frame like rags in pictures from a pirate pulp novel and he smelled like a week-old combination of liquor and a dead cat on a summer highway.
"What -- ?!" Whitey stammered.
"You'd better get moving. I did what I could back there, but that won't hold 'em long. Take a right at the corner. That's Grover. Then run on up to the house, okay."
"How did you --"
"Get going, kid." The old guy coughed and spit a long wad of phlegm into his hand then wiped it on his ratty pants. "Or do you want to end up like the rest of 'em?"
Regardless of the crazy old drunk guy's mysterious appearances, Whitey knew he didn't have much time. And if there really was a place to hide up on Grover Road, he'd better get there quick. He looked down to tell the old guy goodbye, but he was gone again, and once again had left no trace of his ever having been there at all.
Whitey set his eyes on the next corner and used what little strength he had left. He was a science and chess fan, and with the exception of a few summers of basketball camp that the orphanage hosted, he wasn't much of an athlete at all. The sharp pain in his legs was begining to take his attention away from the stinging under his eye, but just barely. He bit his bottom lip and forced himself to keep running.
Rounding the next corner, he saw the house. It loomed like a misbegotten throwback, even among the delapidated buildings of Old Town. The giant, four-story house had lost its paint and stood -- naked -- with door agape on the massive wraparound porch. The glare of sunlight on the two windows above the smaller, second story porch combined with the open door to create the illusion of a face with an open mouth, ready to eat anyone who trespassed into it.
Whitey shuddered and told himself that it was just a house. Just wood and windows. Still, he couldn't fight the shiver in his spine.
... almost home ...
That voice again. Only this time, without the Dogs to vie for his attention, he realized the voice came from inside his head. His own head, he thought. How was it possible? Was he losing it, like Fred? He remembered Fred talking about the voice in his head, spending hours talking to no one, but jabbering away as if people were all around him. That was right before he ditched Old Town, then called Newcomb Beach -- which Whitey thought was an awfully stupid name for a place so far from the coast -- to go mooch off his blood kin.
He heard the screaming of the Devil Dogs behind him again and the rat-tatting of Iron Bill's club bumping along the walls. Whisker's screamed something about wanting to cut off his toes.
Nowhere to go but the old house. With any luck, he could find a loose floorboard to hide under or a hollowed out wall behind a closet or something. Didn't all old houses have hidden rooms in them? He wiped the blood from his face again and ignored the pain in his legs, pushing them toward the house with the determination that it was the only way to keep his toes attached to his feet.
The Dogs made the corner, and started closing the gap even faster when they saw him.
"Get that grafer. First one who does gets the tag for a week, hear me?"
That was all the encouragement Iron Bill and the others needed and they poured on the speed. Luckily the freaky old drunk guy had bought him enough time to reach the house first. He slowed down as he neared the steps so he wouldn't trip over them and be an easy target.
He heard the voice again the second his shoe touched the first step.
... sanctuary ...
He ignored the voice and darted throughthe open door. The door slammed behind him -- he assumed he pushed it in his haste, but really didn't want to think about it too much 'cause he was pretty sure he hadn't touched it. He stopped momentarily, glancing around the room for the best place to hide. The place was stocked with furniture. And lots of it. All of it in disrepair and coated in dust, but still ... He had expected it to be empty.
But none of the furniture offered any place to hide. Even the dusty old couch was too small to keep him hidden. He could always try the upstairs orgo down toward the basement -- if the place even had a basement. Somehow, he was sure it did.
He turned, expecting to see Whiskers and the others ready to jump him and make a public lesson ofhim to keep other kids from grafing on the Dogs.
Instead, he saw the drunk from before.
"Whitey, ain't it?"
He didn't answer. Couldn't answer.
"Don't just stand there, kid. Take my hand."
"I ain't touching you," Whitey said, backing away toward the closest window.
"There ain't a lotta time, kid. You gotta trust me on this."
"How do I --"
"Didn't I help you back there?"
"Take a look out the window, kid."
Whitey kept one eye on drunk but glanced quickly to the window beside him. Outside wasn't the dank, depressing landscape of Old Town. Instead he saw the dirty metropolis of a steel town, full of smoke and stench that vomitted up from the mills. But there wasn't a steel mill anywhere near Old Town. There wasn't any kind of anything except winos and runaways around Old Town.
"And this one," the old guy said, motioning to the next window.
This one had a view of the coast. The beach was littered and the water was dark, but it was the only beach Whitey had ever seen other than in pictures. A lone woman, at least in her 70s walked along the sand toward the house.
"How?" Whitey asked, feeling his stomach lurch and threaten to redecorate the floor.
"Trust me," said the old guy, extending his hand. "Unless you want to hobble on a toeless foot for the rest of your life."
... sanctuary ...
Whitey heard the voice and freaked. He dove through the broken window and rolled onto the dirty wood of the porch. Instead of the stank air of Old Town, he smelled the fresher, salty air of the beach, though. He looked up and saw the dark ocean lap onto the unkempt sand.
"Need some help, son?"
The woman he had seen from the window stood over him, extending her hand to help him up. He backed away, crawling, then stood up and jumped over the banister and ran for the beach.
He ran for as long as he could hold out and then collapsed onto the sand. How could any of this be possible? He had to be dreaming, out cold from the pain of the ice tag in his stomach, imaging everything. He was sure he'd wake up and find three of his toes missing and maybe a few fingers even.
His eyes closed, he inhaled deeply. No. the air was still salty and the ground was still cold, damp sand.
"Is that what you want, son?"
It was the woman's voice again. He opened his eyes and tried to stand but couldn't. There was nothing left in him but the pain in his legs. Even the cut under his eye had stopped bleeding.
"Is that what you want, son? For the house to leave you alone? For it all to be a dream and you wake up with those rapscallions torturing you for talking to the police?"
"I don't understand."
"You can have it that way if you want. The house only offers. It doesn't force anyone to accept it's sanctuary."
The sunlight shining behind the woman cast a golden glow around her head, like a Madonna in a Renaissance painting. He blinked and sat up.
"I ... I don't understand," he stammered.
"You don't have to, son." She offered her hand again. "You just have to accept."
He forced himself to stand, still refusing to take her hand. If she were going to kill him or hurt him or drive him insane, he would just have to let her do it. There was no way he could run any farther.
"Still don't trust me, do you?"
"Lady, I don't have any idea who you are."
"I've had many names, son. My first was Lilith."
"You from Old Town, like the guy inside who smells like roadkill?"
She laughed. "I'm from an old town, yes. Just like my friend inside."
"You said ... I mean .. Your first name?"
She smiled, and Whitey felt his soul rest. "Yes, Lilith was my first name. The one my father gave me. Now you can call me Grace, though, if you like."
She motioned for him to follow her -- if he was ready, she said -- and when he turned around saw the house. As if he'd just walked off the porch and onto the beach.
"But .. how .."
Grace laughed again. "I wish I knew. This house is full of secrets, son." She led him toward the porch. "Just full of them."
.. home ..
"Home?" he asked.
Grace glanced down at him quizically. "Home what, son?"
Whitey listened again. Nothing except for the distant calling of gulls and the soft lapping of the waves.
"Didn't you hear it? In your head?"
"Hear what, son?"
"I don't know. It I guess."
She shook her head. "'Fraid I didn't. Sorry. Maybe you hit your head when you fell onto the porch."
They stepped onto the porch together and she opened the door. He moved to go in with her, but she stopped him, shaking her head. She motioned him toward the window. "The rules are pretty particular," she said sternly, before entering and closing the door behind her.
Whitey peeked inside before crawling back through the window. Everything was as it had been when he left. Nothing had changed. Nothing. The old drunk stood by he doorway, checking his watch.
He could always stay, Whitey thought. He didn't know much about the beach or the coast or whatever the devil this state was that he was in, but there sure weren't any Devil Dogs chasing him down to maim him.
And that was certainly something for the plus side of the equation.
Still, almost without thinking, he grabbed the rough, wooden edge of the window, and climbed back into the house.
To be continued next month on DCU 2021