Terror in Four Parts
Michael stood up, intending to go take his shower, when his feet seemed to give way under him. He seemed to fall in slow motion to the floor, then began to shake uncontrollably. All the accumulated feelings he had held in suddenly seemed to rush to the surface, and to his deep shame, tears began to form in his eyes. He felt unbearably cold, but couldn’t seem to move himself from the floor to the warmth of his bed. A blanket floated over and draped itself over him, and Mariah knelt next to him, holding it tightly around him.
“It’s okay, Michael, I bet it’s a delayed reaction from shock. You seem to think you should be a super human. Super student. Super skateboarder. Super cyclist. Now you’re trying to play Superman so you can rescue your sister. Maybe nothing will happen and she won’t need rescuing. You can’t rescue your parents either. You’re just Michael, why can’t you let the world take care of itself?”
He’d stopped shaking as she spoke to him, he could even feel the cold flowing out of his body as he lay cocooned in the warmth of the blanket. He wiped the tears away with his hand and let himself lean back into Mariah’s arms. He closed his eyes and let Mariah hold him. He wanted a shower to wash away the memory of what had happened, but he wasn’t sure he could get up if he tried.
He sighed and stood up, a little shaky, but not bad. He let the blanket drop. ”I’ll be back. Mom’s bringing my dinner up here. I’m going to take a shower.”
“I don’t think you listened to a word I said,” fumed Mariah. “Fine. Go try and save the world, but don’t blame me when you find out you can’t.” She vanished from the room.
Determined to shake off his mood, Michael was watching “The Mummy”, laughing, when his mother came upstairs with a plate piled with pizza slices and a glass of orange juice. She set it on his nightstand, then sat on the bed next to him as he slid over to make room for her. She handed him the plate, bursting into laughter as Rachel Weisz fell flat on her back after firing a shotgun, but her eyes were on Michael. Her mother-radar was on full alert, watching for signs that anything was wrong.
On the surface he seemed okay. “Michael at his most normal.” She wasn’t buying it, though she knew she would not get anything from him but, “Mom, I’m okay now, really. Don’t worry about me.” The “Michael Mantra” she called it. She hated it, because they kept few secrets from each other. He was her first born, her darling: she had fallen in love with him the moment the nurse placed him in her arms. They were closer than most mothers and sons, seldom fought, and the only fault to the relationship was that sometimes it bordered on being too adult.
She took the remote and paused the movie. “Do you want to talk about it?” That was their code for, “Is there anything you haven’t told your father that you’ll tell me?”
Michael learned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Mom, there’s nothing left to tell. Right now I don’t want to think about it. The cops aren’t taking me seriously, I can’t prove anything, even though I saw that guy run into his house. That van, it was…” He stopped himself, he hadn’t intended to say so much, but when he talked to his mother it was hard for him to hold back.
She sat up, took his chin in her hands. “You know something, don’t you? Why won’t you tell me?”
He gently removed her hands. He was going to lie to her, and he hated it, but this was one of those times when he was going to skirt the truth as much as he dared.
“Remember when Kit got so scared? The guys went and looked at the house for me since I couldn’t. They found an old stand-alone garage with a van in it. The van had a bunch of mud on it, like it had been driven on a dirt road or something. After they saw that, they called and told me about it. It was around the time that girl Suzie McCann disappeared.”
“Michael, I don’t like this. First of all you and your friends find a skeleton, now you’re attacked on your way home. ‘And by the way Mom, we found a van with mud on it around the time Suzie McCann disappeared’. I don’t like all these coincidences.” She held up her hand, “I know, you didn’t make these things happen, but they scare me, especially since each seems to connect to something else. Right now, just for my peace of mind, I’d like to lock you in your room until you turn twenty-one.”
“Eighteen,” Michael corrected her, “that’s two years.”
“Don’t remind me,” his mother said grimly, “I’d like to have you promise me no more surprises. I know it doesn’t work that way, but you don’t know how badly I’m wishing that right now.” She kissed him and left the room.
Mike stared at the ceiling, wishing that he could make the past months go away and his life have no more complications than his parents’ financial situation. He hadn’t bargained on meeting a ghost, getting a concussion, finding a missing girl’s body, getting attacked, and falling in and out and in love with a ghost who had stolen his heart.
He ached in every muscle of his body: even the hot shower wasn’t making the pain go away. He took his plate downstairs, bid everyone goodnight, took some Advil, and went to bed.
He woke up feeling the same as he felt the night before. Another hot shower didn’t help. He doubled the dose of Advil this time, eating a big breakfast to keep it from burning a hole in his stomach. He looked so morose that his mother told him he’d be better off in bed if he felt the way he looked. Kit opened her mouth to say something, but shut it quickly when he glared at her. Instead she took her cereal bowl to the sink and left the kitchen as quickly as she could.
“Mike, why don’t you stay home today?” His mother put extra strips of bacon on his plate.
“Gotta talk to the guys. Dewey will pick me up. I can’t stay here today. I keep thinking about what happened, what’s up the street. I don’t want to be here.” He looked at her apologetically, but she shook her head and turned away from him.
That hurt. He could count on one hand the number of times he and his mother had been mad at each other. He knew this wasn’t anger, but disappointment. This time, however, he was going to have to put his needs above hers, and he rarely did that. There was no commandment that said, “Thou shalt not hurt your mother”, but there was for Michael. It was just that he had to get out of the house. He couldn’t stay here. He wanted go to the skate park, and skate himself into exhaustion. He had to tell Dewey and Short Round what happened. Maybe the man was no match for him or his two friends, or maybe he had just been lucky. If it wasn’t for the martial arts he’d studied, and hours spent in the gym, the guy might have kept his hold on him.
A helpless girl like Kit would be no match for him. He’d grab her and have her in his house in no time. He was a predator, and young girls were his preferred prey. To Michael’s way of thinking, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to stop.
When Dewey came to pick him up, his mother greeted him cordially. She told Michael not to be home too late, but that was it. There was no hug, no kiss on top of the cap, none of the little gestures she used to say “I love you”. He looked wistfully at her as he went out the door, wanting to be in her good graces, but knowing he’d have to earn his way back. He hurried down the stairs, looking at the window to see if she was there to watch him leave, but she wasn’t.
He got in the car, barely able to refrain from slamming the door.
“What’s the problem, Blondie?” Short Round leaned over Michael’s shoulder from the back seat. It didn’t take much to tell that Michael wasn’t himself. “The only reason to have a face like yours is women trouble.”
“Shut up, Short Round, just leave me alone.”
“Okay Boss, whatever you say.” Short Round settled back in his seat. Something was wrong with Mikey, and he wasn’t talking. If Mike didn’t want to talk fine, he wouldn’t either.
When they got there, a lone skater was on the course, skating more cautiously than a guy might, doing less showy jumps and flips, but wasn’t bad. The three friends watched until Short Round spoke.
“Hey, female on the course, and she’s looking good. Hands off guys, she’s mine!”
Short Round was right. A girl was skating on the course, someone not from their neighborhood. She wasn’t very tall and wore wide leg jeans cut to the middle of her calf. Her short hair was jet black and she’d wound a red scarf around it. Tucked into the jeans an old, black, t-shirt was held in place by a studded leather belt. She wore heavy eye makeup and red lipstick, but it seemed to suit her. Her hair was most likely dyed, but overall she presented a very fetching picture.
On the last part of the course, she jumped off her skateboard, then carefully grasped its edges and did a handstand that she held until she’d traveled to the end. It was an old trick, a ‘sixties trick that hardly anyone did anymore, but she made it look good. She dismounted from her skateboard with the grace of a gymnast, and only then did she acknowledge their presence.
The three boys applauded their approval. “Nice handstand,” said Michael, and meant it. They weren’t good for speed, and were an easy trick, but still required skill to pull off.
“Oh yeah?” She grinned at him, “You any good with that?” She pointed to his skateboard.
This was not what Short Round had envisioned. It looked to him like Mikey and the girl were making eyes at each other. Mike was being more friendly to her than he was to other girls lately. His only chance now was to praise Mike and hope that friendship and loyalty would impress her.
“I’ll have you know our boy here has won several competitions and has sponsors competing for him to represent them.” Short Round hoped he wasn’t overdoing it, but he couldn’t stop now. “He even overcame a…”
“Short Round, cool it. I’m not Tony Hawk.” He turned back to the girl, “I’m Mike, we call my over enthusiastic supporter Short Round, and the strong silent one is Dewey. We’ve never seen you here before—did you just move here”
“Uh, hi, and nice to meet you, too. I’m Thea. We just moved here from New Jersey. My dad’s firm is setting up a branch of his biotech firm here, and he’s overseeing it. I just found out about this skate park, I didn’t know if this city would have one, but I found out about this one on the Internet. My brothers had to work today, otherwise they’d be here with me.”
“You want to get some lunch?” Dewey jumped in. “There’s a burger stand two blocks from here, and once you taste their burgers, you’ll never eat at McDonald’s again.”
She smiled at Dewey before beaming a radiant smile at Michael. “Hey, I miss the Italian food in New Jersey. And the pizza, oh god I miss the pizza. But if the burgers are as good as you say, I’ll buy!”
Short Round didn’t know if he should feel jealous or relieved. For once, Mike seemed to notice the presence of a real girl—and a cutie at that. If he was Mike, he’d forget all about his ghost girlfriend and settle for the real thing. This girl was real, looked damn good, and even better, she was good on a skateboard. What more could a guy ask? When was Mike going to get a clue and get the damn ghost out of his life? Maybe this would be what it took—a girl who liked the same things he did, and a taste of what the real world was like.
Walking the two blocks to the burger stand, they stocked up on fries, burgers, and cokes. They took their food back to the skate park and sat on the bench, and like the ravenous teens they were, devoured their food.
It took Michael a while to realize that Thea was flirting with him, teasing him about his competing, and admitting that she had seen him in a competition. It made him feel simultaneously good and uncomfortable. Thea was a very pretty girl, but he since he’d wrapped his life so tightly around Mariah, he’d forgotten what a living girl was like. Yet here was one flirting with him. Her dark brown eyes had a way of staring straight into his, as if she were trying to look into him and see what thoughts he had hidden deep in his soul.
After lunch they hit the course, calling encouragement to each other as they skated. The boys fell over each other, Michael included, giving Thea tips and encouraging her to skate more aggressively. Short Round tried doing a handstand, but could not carry it half as long as Thea could. She had the natural grace and coordination of a gymnast, and her light frame enabled her to try things the boys could not do as easily.
They lost track of time as the golden afternoon passed, and soon it was time to return home. Thea headed to Michael’s bus stop, catching him off guard for a moment. He pulled himself together, and continued to the stop, trying to act normal, not slightly disturbed as he really felt.
“You take my bus, skate boy?” Thea teased, and Mike answered her by getting onto the bus ahead of her. She followed him, and they sat together in the back, talking about insignificant things, as strangers will who are feeling each other out.
After about two miles worth of conversing, Thea pulled the cord. “This is my first stop, I transfer from here. I guess I’ll see you at school, I think Dewey told me we would all be attending Foss High in the fall.”
It was both a question and a statement. Michael nodded and Thea flipped her hand up in a good bye gesture, then got off the bus.
No sooner had she left then Mariah suddenly appeared. She punched Michael’s arm, saying “Who is she? Who is she?” The hurt look in her blue eyes betrayed her feelings.
“Cut it out,” Michael whispered, looking around nervously to see if anyone saw him, “She’s just a girl we met at the skate park today. She just moved here.”
“Just a girl you met at the skate park?” The wildness in Mariah’s eyes scared him. “She’s more than just a girl. She wants you; she wants to take you away from me.”
“Mariah, don’t. You’re being crazy.” Michael said softly, but he was speaking to air, the seat next to him suddenly empty. What was she going to do? Something didn’t feel right. He felt like his stomach was tied up in knots, and he was grateful when the bus stopped and he could walk the rest of the way home.
He jogged up the porch steps, then opened the door. “I’m home,” he yelled, to no one in particular. No one answered, and the silence was eerie. He went up the stairs to his room and found his mother sitting on the bed, looking at him, and then looking around his room.
His room looked as though a whirlwind had blown through it. His bedclothes were scattered, his chest of drawers knocked over and the contents scattered over the floor. His hamper lay empty, and his clothes had been torn from their hangers.
“Michael, what happened?” his mother asked, her eyes a combination of anger and confusion. Both knew he would never trash his room, and Michael stood and stared at the destruction. At least his clothes had been left intact.
He sat next to his mother on the bed, his head resting on her shoulder. He wanted to tell her about Mariah, tell her about the monster in the house up the street. He wanted her to hold him like she did when he was little, as if she could make all of this would go away so life might go back to normal. He wanted a life free of secrets, but the secrets kept piling up.
The room was growing hot and his denim jacket felt heavy and he wanted it off. He started to shrug off it off, his mother trying to help, pulling at his sleeves. He heard a gasp and he did not know where it came from, until he realized it was his mother. Why? What was wrong?
That’s when he noticed his arm. Three scratches that burned him like fire ran down the length of his arms. He felt the same sensation on his stomach, and lifted up his shirt and saw similar scratches running down his stomach. The pain was so intense that his eyes started tearing up.
“Mom, help me,” he moaned.
“Michael, it will be all right,” she soothed him, but she was instantly on her feet, running to the bathroom. She returned with the wintergreen ointment that she has used for all their hurts since he and Kit were children and a washcloth soaked in witch hazel and cold water. She gently blotted scratches, and saw Michael’s face relax when he felt the cool water. Her fingers massaged in the ointment, anxiously watching his face for signs that he felt some relief. “Is it any better?” she whispered.
Cold water, the ointment, her fingers, he did not know which, but the pain was easing away, a sense of relaxation replaced the burning. He drew a deep breath. “Mom, I want to tell you something, but it’s really out there. I need you to listen, because it’s affecting more than me, Kit’s been touched by it too. I’ve held this in for so long because I’m afraid you’d think that I was crazy, but it’s real.” He stopped, spent, not sure what else to say.
“Does it have anything to do with your room being this way?”
He couldn’t read her face, but nodded. “Mom, I know you won’t believe this, but this house is haunted. There’s a ghost, I’ve seen her. I think she did this to my room. I can’t think of any other way this could have happened.” It wasn’t all of the truth, just enough that he felt safe telling her. He hoped it would be enough.
Her cool blue eyes stared into his. “Michael, what does this ghost have to do with you? You’re scaring me. I’m going to tell you something--I believe in ghosts, too, but I think believing in them does you more harm than good. I know I’m just your mother, and you don’t share things with me that you do with your friends. I know you think that something other worldly is causing this, but I can’t assume that I think you’re right.”
“You know this was the only place we could afford, haunted or not. I’m not saying that you might not be right, but try to find another explanation please, before you blame things on a ghost.” She started picking clothes up off the floor, putting the dirty laundry into the hamper, hanging the clean clothes neatly on their hangers, not minding his silence. “You thought I’d never get your dirty clothes in the hamper, didn’t you? Will you let me look at those scratches one last time?”
She turned around, and found him lying motionless on his bed. “Michael!” She ran to his side, feeling his forehead, then took hold of his shoulders and shook him—hard. “Wake up, Michael, wake up. Don’t do this to me.’
His eyes opened, but he could barely sit up. He felt confused, something was not right. “How did I get here, Mom? The last thing I remember was watching you pick up my clothes, and then you’re shaking me. That’s it, that’s all. Part of me feels fine, like nothing happened at all, but part of me feels exhausted.”
“I don’t care how you feel, you should go to the emergency room. I don’t like this, not at all.” She was sounding like a mother, a rare thing for her since he’d gotten older. “Remember your concussion? You hit your head pretty hard. I don’t know if you were listening to your doctor, but sometimes you can suffer an aneurism months after your injury. A fatal aneurism. You could die, Michael.”
“Or not,” Michael countered. He had had enough of doctors and x-rays. He felt all right now, he’d just lost consciousness for a minute. It wasn’t all that unusual for people to faint, was it? Or was it?
“Oh no, you’re not getting away with it this time, Michael. I’m going to call your doctor and make an appointment. Look at it this way, it probably won’t be the whole day. I know how you feel, but I’d rather know you’re okay than worry that you’re not. I know you think this is mother-paranoia, but it’s concern. It’s also called being careful.” Her face had its seldom-used “mother expression”.
“Doctor’s appointment and lunch? “ Michael was bargaining, not wanting to appear to give in too easily. They both knew they’d do anything for the other. The bond between them had begun at his birth. He felt lucky he had the parents that he did, but he cherished his special relationship with his mother. He felt sorry for his friends at school who complained about their parents. He’d hit the jackpot with his.
“Deal,” she said, “And you tell the doctor everything that happened to you before and after you went unconscious.” She looked at her watch, “Gotta fix dinner. You come downstairs, because if this happens again tonight, I don’t want you alone in your room.”
Mariah drifted into Michael’s room just as he was starting to fall asleep. The touch of her cool fingers rubbing his neck and back startled him to wakefulness. He sat up, looking at her, not quite believing what he was seeing.
“What are you doing here? And what was that stunt you pulled this afternoon? Those scratches burned like hell and making me go all catatonic scared the hell out of my mother. Oh yeah, and trashing my room the way you did made me real happy, as happy as it made my mother. What were you thinking, or were you? I haven’t had too many psycho girlfriends, but you just put yourself on the top of the list.”
“Michael, what are you talking about? I got scared when I saw you pass out and have that seizure. I did lose it when I saw you with that girl, but you know I’d never hurt you. The only person I’ve ever done anything to is him.” They both knew who “him” was. Her eyes grew shiny with the tears she could not shed, that incredible look of pain in her heartbreaking blue eyes begged him wordlessly to believe her.
Michael fell back on his pillow, closing his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at her. Finally he turned on his side, and stroked her face gently. “Maybe you’re scared because you know this won’t work. It can’t last, Mariah, it can’t. I want to help you, I want to see the monster that killed you punished and put in prison for the rest of his life. But what you don’t see is that we won’t work, we can’t. I want a life, the kind we can’t have together, but I’ll help you Mariah, I swear I will.”
Mariah vanished from his bed, then appeared in the middle of the room. “I never thought you’d turn me away. I love you and I thought you loved me. I thought that was enough, would always be enough. Now I’m finding out it’s not.” The accusing look in her eyes cut at his heart as she slowly shimmered from his sight.
He buried his head in his pillow, feeling like a jerk. The worst of it was that he knew he was doing the right thing and he was hurting as much as Mariah. He couldn’t seem to shake the image of the hurt in her eyes. Short Round was right about him needing a living girl, he just didn’t realize that he didn’t want to hurt the dead girl he loved.