The Man in the Dark
Summer started to slowly turn to fall. All over town leaves were turning to shades of red and gold, a few early stragglers even fell. The big leaf maples were resisting, just as they’d been the last to open their leaves, theirs would be the last to fall. Soon they would turn yellow, and there would be deep piles of them, impeding Michael’s progress as he tried to skate down the sidewalk.
The doctor had reluctantly cleared him to skate—as long as he wore a helmet, elbow and knee pads. A little afraid of falling, he found himself skating somewhat awkwardly for the first few weeks until his natural rhythm returned. Dewey and Short Round coached and encouraged him; until one day he realized he had let go of his fear. Instead of skating carefully around the course, he allowed himself to fly.
It was a matter of days now until school started. The nights grew longer, and the days were growing shorter. He had grown protective of Kit, meeting her faithfully at the bus stop on the days she took her ballet class. Finding Susie McCann’s skeleton had made him more aware of just how vulnerable his sister was, and he was determined that she would not wind up as another mound in the dark, dank basement. When he’d come home from the skate park or visiting one of his friends, he’d pause to take a good look at the house, trying to see signs of life, or if the van had been taken out of the garage.
So far, nothing. He had a nagging feeling that he should try and take a look inside the basement. He hadn’t told Mariah but had told Dewey and Short Round. He wasn’t sure of their responses but was not surprised when they told him in no uncertain terms that he was crazy to even think it. Their picture of the ideal situation consisted of their trying to catch the perpetrator in the act so they could call the police and have him put in jail for good. This grand plan had lasted for about five minutes when they realized it required a potential victim. They didn’t want anyone to fill that role, so the plan was quickly forgotten.
It was one of those lazy autumn days, and the three were sitting on a bench at the skate park, trying to come up with plans that might work if something happened to Kit. It was no stretch to believe that whoever lived in the house, though they had yet to see him, would not hesitate to hurt Kit. None of them really wanted to enter the house, let alone the basement, but they deemed it a necessity. “Teenage mucho,” Short Round had described their plans derisively, and in truth, their plans were not much more than that.
“You know what we need, a locksmith. ”Michael and Short Round looked at Dewey, wondering if he’d lost his mind. “No, seriously, if we could get keys made, we would have a way to get in and out. He’s got to leave to go to the store unless he’s got a freezer of frozen food. He paused for a moment, “What is wrong with me? I can’t believe I’m channeling ‘Dracula’.You guys are usually the ones to come up with the crazy ideas. That was stupid.”
“Thanks,” said Michael wryly, “but I think we’ve figured this much out. We don’t know how we’d pull this off unless we know the layout of the house. Since there’s no way of finding out, we’re not going to know. Right now I’d settle for getting a look at this guy. If his van disappears again, I just might decide to something stupid.”
“No!” Dewey and Short Round said it in unison.
“Mike, promise me, no idiotic stunts.”Dewey grabbed Michael’s bicep in a hard grip.“You do something, you don’t do it alone. Safety in numbers, right? You do anything, anything, you do it with Short Round and me, otherwise, there might be two captives in that cellar and no way for us to know what happened. He’d get rid of you first, and then what would happen to Kit?”His eyes searched Michael’s face intently, looking to see if what he had said had sunk in.“We do it together or not at all, right?”He shook Michael’s arm.“Right?”
“Okay, let go of my arm.Geez.” Mike rubbed his bicep.“You just better be able to get here fast if Kit turns up missing. I don’t know how long she’d have if that creep got her. God, everything here is one big unknown. All I know is that my kid sister may or may not be in danger, and I may or may not have a serial killer living up the street from me. The only thing I know for sure is the place is that my house is haunted, and I’m beginning to feel haunted, too.”
“You are haunted,” Short Round taunted him, “You and your ghostly girlfriend. You could have any girl in school, Mike.”He shook his head.
“Yeah, and you’re working on doing just that, dog. Want me to name names?”Michael narrowed his eyes at him.“Listen, I just feel like there is something that we are supposed to do.I’m not religious or anything, but lately, I’m starting to wonder if life really does give you challenges to overcome. Dad lost his job, we lost our house, and I guess I had a worse concussion than I thought.”
“We’ve had all this freaky stuff happen to us, things I’d never even imagine in my wildest dreams.” Michael paused a moment, searching for the right words, “Maybe we’re supposed to do something to make a wrong right. We manage to get this guy in jail and then there’s no more Mariah’s, no more Suzie McCann’s, no more skeletal remains for someone to stumble across in the woods.
“There’s three of us to one of him. Unless he’s got a gun or can separate us, we could get Kit away, call the police, and they could catch the jerk. I could keep my promise to give Mariah’s remains to her parents and maybe she’d finally let go and be wherever she’s supposed to be. I know my parents would want to have me, no matter what state I was in. She’s their daughter, and someone else’s daughter is down there, too.” Michael’s words had a touch of defiance in them now, challenging the other two to agree.
“I know we can’t be heroes, but I don’t want him to get my sister, even if she’s a pain in the ass.”Dewey snorted and muzzled a laugh. Michael smiled. “But she’s family and she’s my sister. I want to protect her; I’m her brother, it’s my job.”
“Well, I don’t see how we can solve this problem today.”Short Round stood up and jumped on his skateboard.“I’ve got to get home, Ma’s making fish ball soup. Yum.”
“I should head home too, Mike, it’s getting late.”Dewey mounted his skateboard, and he and Short Round took off.
“I should get home,” Michael thought, feeling a sudden hint of apprehension and wondered where it came from. He suddenly noticed the color of the sky was deepening, and it would be almost dark by the time he got home. He rolled on his skateboard to the bus stop and then jumped off it. He glanced up at the gloomy sky, depressed by the approaching end of summer and the prospect of school and homework.
He fumbled for his fare, hoping he had enough change in his pocket, then making his way to the back of his bus, sitting with his skateboard on his lap, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.
A light voice whispered in his ear, “You’ve been avoiding me.”
Mariah materialized next to him. There was a look of hurt in her blue eyes. Her cool hand lightly smoothed back his hair, then touched his cheek.“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.
“Everything. Every thing’s wrong. It seems like my life should be going great but if anyone really knew the truth they’d know I’m just hanging on. What do I do about you? How can I protect Kit? And why do I feel this sense of…” he searched for the word he wanted, “…foreboding. That something might, no, will, happen. I feel like I can’t let my guard down even for a minute. If I could go to the police about that guy…” his words trailed off.
“You can’t. I wish you could, but you can’t. Not until he does something.”Mariah’s cool hand rubbed the center of his back. “That’s the hard truth of it. Just try to protect your sister. I’ll do all I can to help you, Crazy Girl will, too.”
The bus rolled up to Michael’s stop. He got off at the back door and stood and watched the bus as it continued on its route. Looking around him he whispered, “Mariah?” and felt the familiar light touch on his shoulder that said, “I’m here.”
Suddenly he didn’t feel like leaving the security of the streetlight. If he left the light, he would step into the darkness and no longer be safe. Light or dark, good or evil, those were the choices he faced. He stood breathing heavily, wondering why he felt this way.
He hopped on his skateboard and rolled down the street. He would go as fast as he could until he reached the safety of his house. He crouched down and could feel Mariah’s presence with him, protecting him. One block, two blocks, three blocks four blocks, one more block and he’d pass the monster’s house and he could skid his skateboard to a stop in front of his parents’ house. One more block, that was all.
“Michael, stop. ”Michael didn’t question Mariah, but jumped off and scooped up his skateboard. His eyes were used to the dark now, and he scanned the street, the houses, the trees, trying to see what she saw. Her hand closed tightly on his and he could feel her draw close. “There, just past his driveway, there’s a shadow, can you see? Oh Michael, please see.”He looked obediently, wondering what she saw while guessing who it could be.
A shadowy figure was hiding in the bushes, waiting like a patient predator to snare its prey. Michael turned his skateboard around so that the wheels faced out. His best protection would be to run if he had to, but a hard blow from a skateboard would slow a would-be pursuer. He’d grown an inch this summer, and when he was strong enough he had started working out with weights to build back his strength after his concussion.
“Let’s go,” he whispered to Mariah, and side by side they crossed the street and stepped onto the corner. No sooner had Michael had placed a foot in front of the house, the figure charged out of the bushes and grabbed him. Karate and his skateboard saved him. He remembered what his sensei had taught him. “Rule number one, if anyone ever tries to attack you, run.” Running was not possible, so instinctively he utilized another rule: “Rule number two, use your attacker’s weight against him.”
His attacker was a little heavier than him but not by much. Adrenalin pumping through his system, Michael struggled to flip him. Desperate, he moved back to catch him off guard. Surprising himself, he succeeded. He stood, breathing heavily, grateful for the years of Karate, and his sensei for all he taught him. He was lucky it had worked, things could have gone so differently.
His would-be attacker landed heavily on his back, panting. Michael was ready to run but the stranger grabbed his ankle. Michael viciously aimed the skateboard at his head, but missed, landing a hard blow to his shoulder instead.
“You’re not a girl,” the man wheezed,” looking up at Michael and rubbed his shoulder. He began to wheeze, moaning and grabbing at his chest.
“No, and I’m not a dumb ass either. You attacked me, you jerk, that’s assault.”Michael pulled his cell phone from his pocket, “Should I call the cops?”
Michael got a good look at him for the first time as the man lay there curled up and in obvious pain. He was maybe in his forties, about his height, but a little heavier with a small belly. Most of the hair on the top of his head was missing, but the rest of it hung around his bald pate. It was too dark to see his features clearly, except that he was so pale his skin seemed to almost glow in the street light. He took one last one last look at Michael, then clambered to his feet and ran into his house. A heavy deadbolt clicked shut behind him.
Michael suddenly found himself trembling so hard that he almost dropped his phone. Air didn’t seem to reach his lungs and he found himself gasping for breath. Mariah grabbed his hand and said, “Run!”, and they ran, not stopping until they reached Michael’s house. He ran up the porch steps and stood, trying to stop shaking when his father opened the door.
“Michael, what’s wrong?” his father asked as Michael ran into the house and threw himself on the sofa. He watched as Michael pulled out his phone and dialed “911” and began to talk to the operator, not quite believing what he was hearing.
“No, I tell you, this guy jumped out of the bushes in front of his house and tried to grab me. I hit him with my skateboard before he could get a grip on me, then he looked at me for a moment and ran into his house. No, it was self-defense. I didn’t attack him, I fought him off. Geez, I’m a teenager with a skateboard so automatically I’m a criminal.”
Michael’s father grabbed his son’s cell phone.“Hello? I’m his father. My son just came in here white as a sheet, barely able to breathe. I think he may be in shock and you’re not doing anything to help. If he says that someone tried to attack him, that’s what happened. My son doesn’t lie and the only time he’s aggressive is on the skate course. If there’s someone living on this street who’s a danger to my children I’d appreciate your checking it out. I have a 14-year-old daughter and this makes me very concerned for her safety. Thank you.” He clicked the end call button on Michael’s phone and handed it back to him.
Michael’s breath was coming more easily now, but his breathing still seemed ragged. “What did they say, Dad?” Mariah sat unseen to anyone but him, in the opposite corner of the room.
Michael’s father sat next to him and put his arm around his shoulders.“They’ll be here in a few minutes, but I don’t like the way that 911 operator sounded. She seemed more concerned that you hit someone with your skateboard than that someone attacked you. I’d appreciate an explanation as to why you came in, white as a sheet, possibly in a shock, and called 911.” He paused, “Does this have something to do with what Kit tried to tell us? I’m sorry we didn’t pay more attention, but we thought it was just her imagination and she was panicking over nothing.”
“Dad, it’s real. It’s not one of Kit’s fantasies. The guys and I have been walking her home from the bus, but we quit when her ballet lessons ended for the summer. He’s been watching her and it scared her—bad--so bad that she came home and started crying one night. Now he’s out hunting, trying to grab someone else. He saw my long hair but didn’t realize I was a guy. I managed to get away, but if it had been Kit she couldn’t have. Kit or any other girl wouldn’t stand a chance. I told you there was something wrong about this neighborhood. I was hoping I was wrong, that I was just upset about moving, but that feeling never left.”He paused for a moment, “I didn’t expect anything like this, Dad.I’ve never been as scared as I was when he grabbed me.”
No sooner than Michael had finished, three loud knocks sounded on the door. Michael’s mother, looking as pale as her son, let the officers in.
It went as Michael and his father expected, the officers’ skepticism carefully masked, but there. Could they please see the skateboard? How did Michael escape from his assailant’s grasp if he was heavier than him? Michael offered to demonstrate how, but not surprisingly, the cops showed no interest. Both officers were more focused on Michael’s skateboard—which he had held onto since reaching his house—and the fact that it had been used as a weapon.
Michael’s father tried to hold in his temper but felt the officers were pushing it too far in the way they questioned his son. “Look,” he exploded, “I know my son. You didn’t see him when he first came in, and he’s still not himself. This is a kid who’s never been in trouble in his life. If he says he was attacked, he was attacked. If he was so scared that he struck out at his assailant, I can’t blame him. He’s my son, and if he’d killed that bastard I wouldn’t have minded.”
Michael’s mother gently put her hand on her husband’s thigh. “Sorry,” he muttered, “I lost my head, but if this had been his sister, what might have happened?”
“We’ll go up to the house and talk to the owner, find out what he has to say,” said one of the officers, “He may want to press charges or he may not. If your son was acting in self-defense then you can press charges against him, though with no witnesses, it’s your son’s word against his.” They let themselves out, and Michael breathed an audible sigh of relief.
The familiar knocking sounded on the door fifteen minutes later. Michael let them in, feeling something was wrong, seeing it in their eyes.
“There was no one there,” one of the officers said, “The place is locked up tight, it doesn’t look as if anyone has lived for a long time. There was no response to our knocking and announcing ourselves.”
“But Kit’s seen him stare at her through his window, and I saw him run into the house and heard a deadbolt click shut,” Michael protested. “He was waiting in front of the house, and then ran back in after I hit him with my skateboard. He said he thought I was a girl. I’ve seen tire tracks in his driveway and my friend saw a van covered with mud in his garage.” Where had that bastard hidden? Michael thought with exasperation.
“No one there,” the officer repeated, “Maybe you were the victim of a random attack and luckily for you, you escaped. We’ll keep an eye on the place, but quite frankly, we don’t think anyone even lives there. No mail in the mailbox, not even a name. If you ask me, that house was abandoned a long time ago.” He narrowed his eyes, “What were you doing that you saw tire tracks and a van in a garage anyway?”
“He scared my sister one night, and I wanted to see for myself. I went and looked at the house the next day.” That was true enough, if not the entire truth, but Michael’s mother came to his rescue.
“Thank you, officer, but I think my son has had enough for one night.” His mother eased the policemen gently towards the door. The younger of the two looked at her, appraising her, almost undressing her with his eyes. Michael sat seething, his teeth clenched; he hated it when anyone looked at his mother that way. He felt very protective towards her, and this punk was way out of line, even if he was a cop.
She shut the door behind them, then grabbed three small brandy balloons, poured a small portion for Michael, and larger drinks for her husband and herself. “Normally I wouldn’t do this, Michael, but it may help you calm down. It’s not okay with your father and me that you drink, but this is an exception. ”
Kit came downstairs.“What was all that about?”Her eyes widened when she saw the brandy in Michael’s hands.
“Kit,” said her father, “I want to apologize. Someone tried to attack Michael tonight. I think it was the same person you told us was staring at you.I’m sorry we didn’t believe you, I truly am. We should have paid attention to what you told us, and I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t believe me when I told you, but now that Michael’s been attacked you finally believe me? Why wouldn’t you believe me when I first told you? That is so unfair!”She turned around and ran upstairs to her room and slammed the door.
“I’ll take care of this.” Michael’s mother set her brandy on the coffee table and went upstairs to her daughter’s room. She rapped on the door softly saying, “Kit?” Nothing happened for a moment, then the door opened, and she silently entered Kit’s room.
Fifteen minutes later she came back into the living room.“She’s angry. Frankly, I don’t blame her. I’ve always tried to give the two of you the benefit of the doubt, but your father and I blew this one—big time. If something happens to her now, I won’t forgive myself.” She looked at Michael, noticing his color hadn’t improved much. He seemed listless and apathetic.“Michael, if I order pizza, can I get you to eat? You don’t look very good.”
“Not hungry, Mom, really. This has kind of taken away my appetite.”Michael smiled, trying to reassure her.
His mother wrinkled her brow.“It’s not all right that you don’t eat. I understand your not having an appetite, but you need to get some food in you. I’ll order pizza, I’m too shaken to feel like cooking. Go upstairs and take a shower, it’s not a cure, but the hot water might help you feel better. I’ll bring some pizza up to your room and you can eat in there. I’d feel better if you rest.”
Michael kissed her and went upstairs. He dumped his stuff on the floor, then noticed Mariah sitting on the bed. He’d forgotten completely about her in all the uproar. She floated over to him and put her arms around him. “I’m so sorry, Michael, this is all my fault.” She kissed him more deeply and hungrily than she ever had before. He tightened his grip around her before he released her.
“I have to take a shower. Mom’s ordering pizza and she’s ordered me to hang out in my room and rest. I wish I could forget what happened, like wake up in the morning and have it disappear entirely from my mind. Tomorrow I’m going to check that guy’s house. He’s not gone, I know he’s not gone. Maybe he has a really good hiding place or the cops didn’t try very hard because they think I made all this up, or that I harassed him.”
“Michael, promise you’ll be careful? I…”She cut the sentence off. An awareness of something that neither wanted to face had surfaced and would not now go away.