Eileen Kull

 

It was another rainy day. As Louis looked out through the shards of cracked glass standing bravely in the window, he tried to push the thought of his mom striding through the rain, struggling with the cold wind whipping her face as she staggered drunkenly over the sidewalk cracks out of his mind. Shivering, his frozen, calloused fingers tugged at the stained blanket huddling around his shoulders.

“Louie, I’m bored.” he heard his 9-year-old little brother Teddy whine.

He had to keep his little brother preoccupied, Mom would be here any minute. “Here, catch.” He picked his baseball out of his pocket and tossed it easily to Teddy.

The little boy winced as thunder rattled the remaining roof shingles and dust fell to their feet, but he barely managed to catch the ball in his squishy palms. “Mom doesn’t like us playing

ball in our new home.” he said hesitantly, eyes wide.

“This shack is NOT home, Ted, besides would you rather go outside to toss?” Louis asked sharply. This was the fourth abandoned house they’d settled in, Louis, Teddy and Mom, in the short span of twelve months. The rusty, termite-infested hut they were sitting in now tossing a ball was far from the warm, soft and stable house Louis knew had been home, until it was burned down after Mom left her vodka bottle too close to the burner. Louis still had the burn marks to remind him every day that there was no home for him.  Still, without Mom, Louis doubted he would be able to get enough money to buy the loaf of bread and water bottles from the grocery store each week, although Louis wasn’t sure the food and water were worth it to have to act as though he didn’t notice the men coming home with mom every other night.

“Naw,” Teddy said.”Every time I look out at the storm I see the trees making people shapes, flying their arms around to grab me.” He tossed the ball back.

“You sure have a crazy imagination.” Louis jumped to catch the ball above his head. The night grew longer, the small alarm clock by the door ticking emptily. Three times Louis looked out the window, searching for Mom, and three times he was met with the human trees, shadowed in darkness, playing tricks with his eyes. He looked out again and his heart leaped as he saw a figure standing by the gate, only to be disappointed as a lightning flash proved it to be the light post a couple feet away.

“Louie! Watch out!” Louis looked up just in time to see his baseball crash into the tarnished mirror right next to his head. A thousand glittery shards of glass cascaded almost in slow motion onto the dirty floor, like snowflakes onto a patch of dirt. Thunder applauded his misfortune as both Louis and Teddy stared at the floor. Mom didn’t like them playing in the house, and she would be a murderous mess when she got home.

“Louie, I’m sorry. It’s my fault.” Teddy’s eyes were filled with tears and his hands were shaking, but he managed to look his brother in the eye and say, “Don’t take the blame for this one … Maybe I can handle it.” he said the last part rather doubtfully.

As Louis bent to pick up the ball and slip it back into his pocket, his mind filled with memories of his past, where he would draw himself up under his mother’s anger, and take the fall for whatever Teddy and he had done. His face burned with the number of slaps he’d received to shelter his brother from even the littlest of abuse. He shook his head and looked out into the dark.

“No way, Ted. I-“he stopped short. There, just a few feet off, was the same figure he’d mistaken for a lamppost, only much closer now. The scant light from a streetlamp down the country road just outlined a short, sturdy build placing one thought into Louis’s mind; this was not Mom.

“Ted. Be very quiet.” Louis said, without taking his eyes off the figure. He could feel his palms getting sweaty, and he tried hard to suppress the fear that was growing steadily in his chest, absorbing his entire body.

“What is it Louie?” Ted asked, walking over to the window to look out into the night with his brother.

Snapping his eyes away from the window, Louis went into command-mode. “Teddy, listen to me. No, don’t look outside, look at me.”

Louis raised his eyes to the window again and felt as though all of his courage was melting away as a lightning flashed to show the figure nowhere in sight. He took a deep breath to steady himself and said “Teddy, there’s someone out there, not even lying. We’ve got to do something.” Teddy’s eyes turned to saucers and he asked “What do we do?” but Louis wasn’t listening. What DID you do in a situation like this? He tried to clear his head, but his mind was a muddy whirl of thoughts, hastily scrambling to the surface, shouting over each other to be heard.

His traffic-jam of thoughts was suddenly interrupted when a bolt of lightning flashed and there, looking in through the window, was the figure. He had brown hair, darker than Teddy’s and Louis’s, and hollow, sharp cheekbones. His blue eyes were gaunt and sunken in with barely a twinkle, and every feature seemed to be accentuated by the eerie light coming from inside the house. He looked down and saw the two young boys standing together, inches from the window, and his face twisted into a haunting smile, his eyes wild with a menacing, hungry light. Louis felt as though he was about to fall to the floor in a faint; he wasn’t a very strong person to begin with, but managed to gain what little strength he had and take his brother’s hand. “We gotta go.” But Teddy was limp, his mouth fallen flat open, unchecked terror behind his ice-blue eyes.

The man walked away from sight, obviously toward the door.

“Ted, listen to me.” Louis could barely stop himself from sprinting as fast as he could. “I know you’re scared. But for Chrissake we gotta move. If we don’t move now, you won’t ever move again.” Although his blood was pounding in his ears, Louis made out the creak of the porch as a large foot stepped onto the first step.

Teddy was still rooted to the spot, his breath coming short, panic sketched into every one of his features. He turned to Louis and said “Louie ….”

Another creak of the boards, all that was between them and that stranger was a worn out, unlocked door. The doorknob turned. “RUN!” Louis shouted as he took control and pulled him out of the living room and around a corner to a dusty hallway, lit by small shaded lamps, with doors on every side of the hall and the kitchen at the end.

The front door smashed open deafeningly, and Louis nearly jumped out of his skin, and felt his brother’s hand leave him as he sprinted for the nearest door. It wasn’t a split second afterward inside a musty laundry room that he realized with horror what he had just done. Little Teddy was terrified out of his mind! There was a stranger inside the house, undoubtedly with bad intentions, and he, Louis, had left his 9-year-old brother alone in the middle of the hall, with no support to handle him. Louis pictured

Teddy looking at him, trusting him to always be there, and now standing in the hallway looking wildly around, unsure of where to go now that his brother left him, and in that second Louis made his decision; they were a family and he would be there to watch over Teddy.

But by the time he peeked his head out of the door, Teddy must have gathered his wits and wasn’t anywhere in sight. As Louis saw a muddy boot turn the corner into sight, he quickly ducked his head back into the laundry room, and tried to clear his head. Obviously Teddy had hidden, but where?

A *thump* as a foot stepped into the hallway. Louis had to try and find him, they were in this together. Where would they go from there though? *thump* Who was this guy, anyway? Why had he chosen this house, and what would he do when he caught them? *thump* *thump* the footsteps grew closer, then Louis could hear them on the other side of the wall. He was in the room next to him, and this would be the next place the man would check. Louis knew he had to get out of there, now would be a good time to look for Teddy.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Louis turned to the door and took a step out. At that second, he saw the back of Teddy’s head as he sprinted down the hall and out to the kitchen. Choking back a call, Louis realized how smart that had been. There was a door in the

kitchen, and now all Teddy had to face was finding a good hiding spot until he, Louis, managed to escape the house. Louis sighed with relief. Teddy was completely fine. But Louis wasn’t.

As soon as he sighed the footsteps stopped, and he remembered that he was standing in plain sight, in the middle of the hallway with a menacing stranger in the other room looking for him. He looked at the door and could feel his head spinning, then slowly looked around. The man was turning, looking at him. The hunger returned to his eyes, and he began to quickly stride out of the bedroom.  He looked oddly familiar, and with a jolt Louis recognized him as one of his mother’s many visitors.  But he obviously wasn’t looking for Louis’s mother this time.              Without thinking, Louis felt his fight or flight instincts kick in. He chose flight. Sprinting down the hallway, he could feel the creep gaining on him. Their feet pounded loudly down the hallway, but Louis’s heart pounded harder. He was moving his feet as fast as he could, and yet he knew he wasn’t fast enough. He tried to scream out, but his words got stuck in his throat, and he just ran with his mouth open in a silent scream. As he reached the kitchen Louis veered toward the door, but he felt a hand grab for his patched up shirt, and his heart sunk down to the floor with him as he fell. Louis felt his baseball roll out of his pocket as he stuck his wrist out to break his fall, and the next thing he knew was the terrible pain like a hundred cold knives cutting into his wrist as it bent under his weight. Still in a panic, he scooted backwards, painfully aware that his wrist would be no help to him in this situation.

The man smiled, revealing stained yellow teeth, and began to walk toward Louis. Taking his time, as though he knew he had won. Louis scrabbled along the floor with his one good hand, until his back came against the cold, cracked wall. This was the end. He had nowhere to run, no place to go, no one to call out for.

Beginning to really go frantic, Louis began to kick out, he could feel his eyebrows up at the top of his head, and his mouth still open in the scream that would never come out. Just then, there was Teddy. He was standing in the kitchen doorway, sizing up the situation around him. Had he, the little brother, really come back for Louis?

Before Louis could call out for Teddy to run, the 9-year-old shuffled forward a few steps and picked up the baseball they had been tossing minutes ago. “Louie!” he shouted, and as the man turned, little Teddy aimed the ball and threw it as hard as he could. It hit the stranger square in the forehead, and he stumbled backward a few steps. His foot caught on a raised piece of wood from this abandoned house’s floor, and he crashed down to the ground, banging his head on the table in the process. As thick red blood quickly began seeping from his head wound, Teddy briskly walked over him and held out his hand to his older brother. Louis grasped it, and Teddy firmly pulled him to his feet and looked him right in the eye.

“It’s okay, Louie. I can handle it.” The two brothers looked at each other, and Louis pushed the shock of what his little brother had just done out of his head, and realized that he didn’t have to be so worried about Teddy anymore, he was a big boy. Slinging his arm over his shoulder, Louis and Teddy walked away from the body leaving nature and the closest neighbors to find it, and into the pouring rain, to wait for Mom to come walking home.

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