Monday, October 31, 2011
Halloween Short Story Challenge: Eleven Steps
Organized again. Stretched across the lawn in one neat row: my children’s army of soccer balls. The kids don’t notice. They dash past them on their way to the bus every morning. The formation stays put until practice every afternoon.
My wife looked at me sidelong the first time it happened, like she took it as some kind of symptom. But she didn’t say anything.
I don’t say anything either.
I know he did it.
Sometimes I stare out the upstairs window after everyone’s gone to bed. I squint through the blinds at the balls scattered across the grass in the dark. I stand there while the sprinklers come on. I’m still there when they stop, leaving a glistening wet sheen over all in the moonlight.
I know he’s there, somewhere. Staring back at me, daring me to watch all night.
Laughing at me.
Still there they are: a path from the front door to the sidewalk clearly delineated in soccer ball stepping stones. I’ve taken to walking that path every morning, counting each step, one for every ball, deliberately setting one bare foot in front of the other in the dewy grass.
Always eleven steps.
How does he do it?
I reach the end of the path and stoop down to collect the paper, careful to keep the coffee cup in my right hand level. This morning, I have to pause mid-stoop. Something novel has caught my eye.
The sewer grate. Centered directly opposite the last ball, a short couple of steps from the end of the path.
This morning, I take those extra steps. I peer down between the bars, at the sun’s reflected light in the dirty water below. I imagine a pair of sallow eyes staring back up at me, wreathed in grimy, gray skin. A tiny, lipless mouth parts. He sticks his tongue out at me before scuttling back into the pipe.
I make my way back up the path.
Someone is speaking when I return to the kitchen. A woman’s voice. Probably one of those damn early-morning news commentators. But the TV on the counter is blank.
“I said, anything you wanna add to the grocery list?” my wife asks.
No honey, just pick up whatever you like.
She looks at me for a moment. Searching for more symptoms.
I hate it when she looks at me like that.
So I smile at her. Have a good day at work, I say. I’ll be here, just like yesterday, same as tomorrow. I promise to work on my portfolio, monitor the market, thoroughly peruse monster.com. This is only temporary, I want to tell her. I want to tell myself.
Just a little hiccup.
I love you.
When the house is empty, I return to the soccer balls. I stand behind the line and face the goal across the yard.
But I’m really thinking about the sewer grate.
He’s still there: grubby little fingertips and jaundiced eyes just peeking at the edge of the curb, waiting to see what happens next.
Carefully, I nudge the nearest ball out of the line with my toe.
It. is. on.
I pull my foot back, holding it in midair behind me before swinging it forward to connect with the displaced ball. It shoots across the grass, stopping just short of the goal. I kick the next one and it settles in the driveway. Now I get a running start. The third ball sails right over the goal frame.
More running starts, farther and farther back. The soccer balls come to rest in the rose bushes, the porch, they plop into the half-empty kiddie pool, they fly over the fence, they roll into the gutter across the street.
One left. I gather it up in my fingers and stroll to the grate, balancing it in the palm of my hand. Of course he’s gone by then. He’s so quick.
But he can’t have gotten too far.
I leave the last ball on the grate, letting it roll back against the curb. I fold my arms and tilt my head to the side, admiring my work.
Then I stroll back across the grass.
Back at the computer, I can’t keep my eyes from straying to the window every few seconds.
Soccer balls still scattered.
Still no line.
Still no . . .
He’s done it again.
In the daylight.
Right under my nose.
I don’t bother with a robe. I explode onto the porch in my shirt sleeves and pajama bottoms, slamming the door behind me. I’m running up and down the path, turning circles, glancing over my shoulder, shielding my eyes from the sunlight.
Then I remember the grate.
I’m bent over, grasping the bars and heaving backwards with all my weight. He’s moving around down there. I can see the ripples in the water, hear him splashing. The grate doesn’t budge, so I reach my hand into the space and grasp wildly with my fingers before yanking it out with almost enough force to topple backwards.
He bit me.
Blood oozes onto my fingertip in bright, scarlet drops. Something moves just out of my vision. I glance up, still holding my injured hand.
Hunched on all fours, scaly tail lashing back and forth, like an angry cat.
“Dale, what are you doing?” My wife is standing in the driveway, a grocery bag in each arm. My children’s faces stare out at me through the minivan windows. They look white and uncomfortable, like they don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Honey,” she calls. “What are you looking at?”
The tiny, lipless mouth parts again, but this time he doesn’t stick out his tongue.
He’s smiling at me.
Slowly, he twists his bare skull. The yellow eyes follow me as I step backwards across the grass.