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The House on Mulberry Lane

THE HOUSE ON MULBERRY LANE



They had a new swing set. White planks, plastic seats—creaking alone in the wind. Fresh piles of mounded earth sat dormant around the swing's posts; a shovel and pick lay discarded on the clipped green grass a few feet away. Through the gaps in the white picket fence he could see the gardens: ripe tomato vines wrapped around their stave tipis, fat fall squash bulbous in a bed of dying spring mints, a cherry tree wreathed in its pink autumn mantle, lettuce heads, cauliflower. Food. So much food. The gardener had visited his rose-beds this morning; the bushes sat all trimmed, buds a violent clash of bone-white and blush-red. The thorns shone the shade of polished onyx, menacing.

better not take much, the boy thought, shifting his backpack higher onto his emaciated shoulders. The straps were frayed and the bottom filled with holes. just whatchu need. justa be normal. Or as close he knew of normalcy. But he wouldn't hop the fence. He couldn't.

The black mastiff lay in its whitewashed penthouse beyond the lonely swing set, sides heaving as it breathed, tongue lolling out between its yellowed canines, ears flopping against its skull, nose wet and black. He watched the teeth. Daggers. coward, he thought. The rosebushes rustled in the wind, the tomato vines tightened their creepers. Mint's crisp assailed him. you're a coward. But the dog lay there, immobile—a sentry on duty, a sentry armed and deadly . . . if woken. so don't wake him up. Creep lightly, softly. Jump over the pickets, across the lawn, to the garden. A few tomatoes. A squash. And he would be gone. Vanished onto the city's streets. But the teeth—tearing, ripping, shredding. The blood, pooling in the manicured grass, staining the swing set's white planks. He'd scream. He couldn't scream. Not with that thing running, tensed muscles rippling beneath its ebon fur—running and biting. Eating. Devouring.

Hungry.

That was the bottom line: he was hungry. There hadn't been anything for five days. Nothing save a few scraps he'd managed to beg off the grocery lady. Not enough to keep him going. Already his hunger was a dead lead weight in the pit of his stomach, a heaviness that dragged him forever earthward. And the tomatoes—they were bursting. The juices. He could almost feel them cascading down his face, down his—

The dog rose, quivering on its haunches, staring at the fence where he crouched, peering through the gaps. It snarled. Black and yellow daggers glistened with saliva. Its message was clear: Get.

Then a man was there. The boy met his face. Dark eyes, with a caterpillar mustache and wavy raven hair. A cigar stuck out of his mouth at an obtuse angle. The man spat at the boy, pulled his lips back in a sardonic sneer. The dog barked. “Get lost, kid.”

Lead bearing down his stomach, the boy stood, sniffled. A hot tear trickled down his grubby cheeks. The ghost-ridden swings moaned with the wind, almost crooning. And he left. Back to his concrete labyrinths.

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it's been two years, Niccolo reflected. Not his real name. The one he'd chosen for himself. In some record book somewhere might be the name given to him by parents he only vaguely remembered, their faces unformed, as if seen through fog.

Since then he'd made by. Scavenging, begging, doing the dirty odd-job for the liquor store's fat proprietor. Luck carried him through. An abandoned bastard's bittersweet fortune.

The trash fire flickered, giving off its sparse light and sparser warmth. He shivered. An icy breeze drew the corroded window screens back as its frost-laced drafts swirled through the room, flirting with the firelight. He thought of curling up in his checker-patched sleeping bag and holding off the night. But no. The water in the tin can wasn't at boil yet. He could wait. Wait a few more minutes for the diluted chicken broth to come up foaming over the flames; a luxury, yes—two cans of which he'd expertly snitched from the convenience store yesterday. He snickered, tossed another wadded up newspaper into the fire. It rattled against the trashcan's galvanized sides before shriveling in the heat. The tin can wavered on its wire string; Nick stabilized the spit. He hadn't the time to perfect the contraption. It seemed like he never had the time.

The feline rose from her haunches and slunk around the room, yellow orbs reflecting fire—coruscating, shimmering. She stopped by Nick, flicked her tail once, twice, and settled down, giving him a drawn look. He ran a hand through her oiled black fur. “No food for you,” he said softly. She meowed and yawned as she began to wash herself; miniature ivory knives glowed bloodied orange as they protracted from her felt paws. “Our deal. That's how it works.” She twitched.

Why? said the voice in his head. A new affliction, maybe the beginnings of his own special breed of lunacy. But he allowed it. It was good to have company, even if that company was only imaginary.

because i need rules.

It's a cat, the voice said. Cat's don't have rules.

i do.

Whatever. The voice went quiet. Whenever it cropped up, it seemed to reverberate between the floor and ceiling, resonate within his eardrums. He blinked slowly, languishing in the artificial darkness behind his eyelids. Very recent, the voice. Only a day old.

Nick leaned back against the graffiti-covered wall, nodding his head to the side. Exhaustion numbed his bones. Today'd been long. Viciously long. Time, he'd decided, fluctuated its length within twenty-four hours. Minutes could drain like hours, hours like weeks. In a day, as sunrise fled to sunset, things flipped. The cops came. Ashen-faced men with guns strapped to their sides and flashlights and handcuffs. They came to evict him. They didn't know him—only knew that he'd scared an old woman by sleeping in her alleyway and that that old woman had phoned the police. He heard the sirens before they arrived. So he ran. It wasn't hard. His entire life had the ability to compress into a backpack.

The voice started humming: Rock-a-bye baby . . .

A nice house, he thought. Or used to be, anyway. Out front were gaping cylindrical holes in the ground, testament to fenceposts turned to dust. The lawn was overgrown, a nest for weeds and brush. A dilapidated dog house sat in one corner of the lot, crawling with ivy. And the house—old plaster was peeling of the front; its windows were filled with jagged glass shards; the drywall was crumbling, imprinted floral designs fading; old photograph frames hung crooked on the walls, empty; unwashed dishes sat heaped in the stainless steel sink, stinking with rancid water; a broken TV set sat on its stand in a living room slowly reverting to encroaching nature, its antennae hanging like a beaten dog's ears; the stairs creaked. And on the landing, three pictures: a smiling amber-haired woman, silver band sparkling on her finger; a man, mussy-haired and grinning; a golden retriever; and a little girl, groping at something unseeable in the air. The woman had caught his attention. She looked . . . what was the word; he knew it—insane. She looked insane. Teeth glistening in a perfect smile, eyes sparkling ever so slightly, hair waving, satin-draped arms laid so casually over her husband's shoulder; it looked to happy to be normal.

Purring softly, the cat curled itself around his legs, then rolled over onto her back and extracted her claws. She hissed at the shadows dancing around the corners of the room. Suddenly, the night got colder. Nick folded in on himself, arms hooked protectively around his legs. He watched the cat: how her foreleg muscles rose and fell, how her eyes cut through the gloaming like bullets through flesh, how she snarled—predatory, primal.

When he checked again, the tin can was foaming. Gingerly, he grabbed the spit, suspended between the two tripods, and pulled the can out swinging on its wire. He set it on the dusty floorboards, let it cool, and retreated to his corner. Tickled to death by the frigid midnight zephyrs, the fire faded to a pile of charred embers and glowing coals.

Vapor roiled from the top of the can. Nick sniffed. Chicken. The barest hint of chicken, but it was there. After it cooled, Nick grasped the can and raised it to his lips, sipped. Warmth flooded this throat. He finished dinner in half a minute.

The copper mesh, hanging down like torn linens, wafted back and forth, soporific.

Nick lay his bag out, stifling a yawn. it's dark. City lights twinkled and winked outside—an ever-changing myriad of life and electricity—accompanied by the blare of car horns and the distant whistle of tires along pavement. Nick curled up in a failed attempt preserve body warmth.

The feline was already asleep, sides billowing like bellows. He felt his eyelids droop, until the world became a blurry slit, then nothing. The last thing he saw were shadows—twisting, cavorting, in shapes oddly human.

Dreams dragged him down.

Do you like to ride? the voice asked. I do.

shut up, Nick said. Synapses spiraled his conscious deeper into the stygian catacombs of his mind, set it to wander and find whatever fantasy waited around the next corner. i'm trying to sleep.

I forget what sleep is like, the voice said. Feminine, Nick concluded. Innocent. It was nice, I guess, being able to forget and have it wash away with all the other things down down into the dark with the memories all broken . . .

shut it.

The dreamscape enamored him. He saw cans. Innumerable cans—stacked to the heavens. Food for eternity. In his mind, he'd never have to go hungry again. And only him. No policemen in the maze, no old lady. He walked and ate. It didn't taste good, but it had taste. Beef stew enveloped in tin, processed peaches floating in their own liquids—everything he could imagine, all he could eat.

And the voice, fading: Don't leave me I don't wanna be alone it's scary and dark in here and sometimes I can see him with the knife and blood and the dog barking in the yard with the swings going back and forth no kids just the one that would've been just me and him and the house all dark with no lights cigarettes on the floor too many nubs the lighters trashed and the gun it's hot and burning my skin I can't feel my skin I'm afraid don't leave me don't go don't go DON'T GO!

He woke as predawn iron toned the east. The wind had picked up, shrieking. The fire was all but gone, a few orange veins still throbbing faintly amongst heaps of melted plastic. Something had woken him. His feet like gliding ghosts, he shrugged off his sleeping bag, stood, and crept forward—to the window—and peeked out. Mulberry Lane wended down the hill. Nothing moved. The world slept, placid and pacific, without sound or movement save the shiftings of the wind. A stray feline slunk across the street. It tensed, giant orbs swirling to meet him. They lacked their glow in the bleached streetlights. The night air smelled of dirt and sewage and rotting vegetables along with the human scents of sweat and sex. And something else.

Smoke.

Tobacco smoke. Amorphous, ethereal—wisps and leftover vapors spiraling through the air.

Then it got stronger.

Nick looked down the street. A streetlight flickered, went out. The copper mesh ran its rough edges across his cheek, raising reddened ridges. No pulsating cigarette ends, no slouched smokers. Nothing.

A sound: bicycle wheels, turning. Nick pricked his ears. The street was quiet, soulless. No. Nothing.

Somewhere, gin swished in a shot-glass.

Nick yawned. noises are noises, he thought, stretching. The iron sky of the east slowly got brighter. Shaking his head, Nick returned to his bag before the light got too bright to sleep by. His eyes closed, and dawn came.

He awoke sometime between morning and noon, eyes bleary, breath sour. The cat was curled around his leg. Nick kicked it off. She hissed, gave him the look. He wandered into the bathroom and stared back at his fractured reflection in the mirror above the sink, wondering when the last time he'd brushed his teeth was. A while ago, that much he knew. Too long ago to be healthy.

Breakfast.

The broth last night had been the last of a dwindling supply. And as charity was in scarce commodity, his fingers would have to play their subtle magic: theft. down the street. three blocks. then a right. store on the corner. Nick ran fingers through his hair, loathing himself in taciturnity. This part he'd never been good at. He looked at the scruffy face in the mirror, the unkempt mop of sandy hair, the cracked nose, the shrunken weasel-eyes. At the mismatched freckled constellations that covered his brow and hollow cheeks. And the white ridged scar just below his right eye. shoulda seen it coming, he thought, not for the first nor last time. kinda obvious.

That scar . . .

forget it. He clasped a protective hand around his neck, refusing memories their place. forget it.

The store it was then, he decided, a sudden vehemence for his broken reflection burning on his tongue. Why? Living a fragmented life, the life of a beggar and a thief—the existence of a petty person, of a wimp. He wasn't a wimp. His hand clenched into a fist. Hit.

Fist and glass connected. Searing pain. He gasped.

stupid stupid why'd you do that you moron now you're cut and it'll infect. that can kill people, it gets red and swollen and just keeps going up the bloodstream infecting until your skin falls off and your face peels away. i don't want my face gone i like it i do really do really really . . .

They have sweet things on Mulberry Lane—the voice.

He stopped, other hand quenching blood. He felt his irises dilate. A throbbing hot agony pierced his head, a railway spike driven home.

The odor of cigarette smoke.

He teetered. Something brushed against his thigh, ran tickling fingers across his neck. His heart beat. Blood gushed between his fingers in clockwork tides—pulse pulse pulse.

Bicycle wheels, turning turning.

Then it was gone.

He inhaled, steadied himself, blood still running down his hand, tracing rills in the layer of dirt that blanketed his skin. He met his gaze in the shattered mirror. “Moron.” He'd need antibiotics if it got bad. Hopefully it wouldn't. He didn't want to die.

He went outside, into the living room then out the screen door and down the flight of rickety stairs tacked on to the building's side. The world was waking up. He walked down Mulberry Lane, rosy lights flickering on in the houses as shrill alarm clocks blared. A sleek black form trailed his footsteps. “Really?” he said aloud, just to hear his voice. Twilight still held its grasp, but by more feeble threads. Behind heavy curtains, the alcoholics were taking the day's first jack shots; the junkies were sliding early-birds into their arms; the whores flipped through last night's greenbacks with greasy fingers. Somewhere, a siren shrieked.

A bearded man was opening up the store when he got there: a squat obtuse dun-colored thing with bars on its windows and faded American bunting hung over its eaves. Shuffling to keep warm, a short haggard line of shoppers waited outside, some tinkering with their wallets, others puffing nonchalantly on cigarettes. Dark-haired and tattooed, one girl was playing something on her phone, her spidery porcelain fingers jumping and twitching spasmodically. “Get in, get out,” the bearded man said in a garbled New York-Italian accent. He pulled the iron-mesh gate back and unlatched the plexiglass doors. The small crowd surged forward. The bearded man shouldered his way roughly through the churning human mass, to his counter. He kicked back on his stool, began running an oil-rag over a gleaming Glock. Nick entered tentatively; the black feline sat with its white-tipped tail wrapped around her on the sidewalk. The store smelled of mildew-ridden produce and too much cleaning detergent. The man swung around towards Nick, gave his an appraising look, and shrugged; his hands continued to clean the gun. “Looks like you've been in a rough,” he said. “No judgements, kid.” Then he swung back, falcon-eye watching his customers meander through his meager half-stocked shelves with a cold stoic resolve.

oh god oh god oh god don't make me do this i don't wanna never did i'm scared a coward yes that's what i am i don't wanna—but he was hungry.

He clenched and unclenched his hand, flexing his fingers. They began to twiddle. don't take a lot. just whatchu need. His hands came out of his pockets, caressed the shelves, and began to go about their pathetically deft work. just whatchu need.

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He'd done it.

two cans. not much. but two cans. two dinners. three, if you stretch it. And a little something extra. A plastic container of antibiotic ointment more precious than gold.

He walked back up the lane, ears pricked for sirens. Silence for fifteen minutes. He'd gotten away. Day broke over the city, dazzling the hill with rich gold rays, casting elongated shadows and warming the asphalt. Cars droned. People walked in greater mass. Nick passed the boy with his dog, nodded politely. The boy did nothing in return, just kept his head down. His dog sniffed at Nick's foot, then barked at the cat. Nick waited at the crosswalk as the lights turned, then hurried across the striped meridian. The cat followed, his dark darting companion.

The house on Mulberry lane sat waiting for him, its shard-edged windows like dagger-teethed mouths—ravenous and cavernous. can't let anybody see you, he thought, glancing around at the passersby. They didn't care. He fingered the cans in his hoodie pockets. Why should they care? They didn't know him. He was a waif in a holed hoodie with a few cans in his jacket. Turning his back to the street, Nick strode across the overgrown front yard, shoulders slumped. He clambered up the rickety exterior staircase, the cat climbing with him. Built into a hillside, the house effectively began on the second floor with a cobwebbed garage beneath and another story above. He opened the tattered screen door, closed it lightly behind him as the cat slid through.

A chuckle escaped him. He'd done it. The door rattled as he kicked off his sickly green sneakers; it was good to feel the world under his feet. He looked down at the container held in his hand, then slid down the wall next to the door, popped it open. For once, the wallpaper printed with fading florals didn't seem so dead. The cream smelled like lilacs and fresh spring mornings and rosemary frying in olive oil. Like heaven. He dabbed two fingers in it, and spread it across his shredded knuckles. A tingling heat, a bitter frigidity in the flesh, then the rhythmic tattoo of blood gushing and rushing through his veins on his heart's persistent tempo.

The water was running.

Upstairs, into the cracked basin. Water. Dripping, splashing. what the hell— He moved through the living room, the antibiotics container open and forgotten by the door. The rocking chair creaked as he passed. His feet mounted the stairs; his hand grazed up the railing, sliding over the white-painted balustrade. Something he didn't want to know. He reached the landing, the portrait staring at him, went into the room he occupied and on to the bathroom door. The doorknob felt icy in his hand. He inhaled, exhaled. The cat screeched, leapt up and perched on the windowsill, fangs wet with spittle. Slowly, he opened the door, and—

Tobacco smoke. It hit him. Hard. He staggered.

A wind rushed past him, nipped at him. Smoke. So much smoke. It billowed in succulent waves from the open doorway, jarring his nose with its flavored aromas. The water stopped abruptly. The smoke—faded. Nick stepped in, trembling; his eyes closed mechanically.

And for a moment, he could feel dead fingers tighten around his throat.

Fear. He closed his eyes, remembered the man with the umbrella in the alleyway. Remembered how he'd walked by and how the cane had come back to hit him. Remembered the pain flowering in his head, how the tears leapt hot to his eyes. And how the man had stood over him, hissing and cursing and hitting, cane coming down again and again, then his skin tearing and the blood blinding him. That had been fear. The man had been drunk and in a rage. Nick had been a boy. He could've been killed. He'd known fear then. And he knew he could control it—barely. He drew a wavering breath, opened his eyes.

Don't leave me. The voice.

It was her.

The lady in the portrait. Staring back at him with glazed-over vacant eyes. She rasped, breath forced out in a wheeze from the back of her exposed throat; were her lower jaw should've been was nothing, just layers of sagging skin. And her face . . . bloody. Like someone had taken a bottle of chocolate syrup and sprayed. She wore white. A bridal gown. Her veil hung in loose tatters around her head, undulating on invisible currents in the air. She grinned, or tried to. The flesh around her mouth pulled taut, revealing a row of broken yellow teeth and rotten black gums. Her belly was round, fetidly pregnant.

Nick tried to scream—he couldn't. The fingers around his throat, they returned. He met this thing's gaze—begging, imploring. It yearned for something. Wanted something. And it couldn't get it.

He stepped back—and tripped over a corpse.

The man was dead. His lips were mottled purple and blue, his face bruised and welted. Nick's foot caught on his bloated stomach and he fell across the cadaver. what? The emotions: terror, anger, retaliation, pain, resentment . . . and, oddly, remorse. He detached from himself. Nick felt his head hit the floorboards and snap right. His half-blind eyes stared at the bone-handled knife protruding from the man's chest, at how the spittle had solidified around the corners of his mouth, how his eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling—where tiny flies were stuck to the stucco.

i know him.

The man behind the fence. The man with the dog.

Then the thoughts came, from nowhere and everywhere: He left me alone and I couldn't wait and when he came back he got mad and started swinging the gun around and what can I do . . . and I stabbed him killed him dead dead DEAD!

“Get away get away get away!” Nick kicked backwards. The cat hissed. He slid up against the trashcan, panting. The thing walked forward with shambling strides, bare feet brushing across the hardwood floors. It rasped, noise coming from the hole in its neck. Its fingers reached out—clawing, grasping. You were the last and now you're going away I don't want you to go away I'll be all alone with a dead man . . . Sobbing. It was nice before we had a lawn and a dog and a garden and the money came in every month enough money to live well and live good sometimes we'd go to town and there'd be parties big parties with all the glamour and glass and lights shining with the dancers so many dancers all shades of silk swirling around and around with the light in their hair and— She cut off, growling. There was a boy though little starved s*** that thing thought about crawling over the fence the white picket fence my husband scared him off before he died you look a little like him . . .

Nick felt his throat constrict. The scent of tobacco smoke, the creaking bicycle wheels—too strong, overwhelming. He tried to stand.

The thing screamed. High pitched, reedy, the sound of nails scraping across stainless steel. DON'T GO LIKE HIM!

Nick fell to the floor, trembling. The thing approached. The veil across its face rippled as the green wire mesh swept inward. A bare foot crested the knifed corpse. The pregnant stomach heaved. Fear held him in sadistic rapture. This was terror. His fists clenched and unclenched. Cold sweat beaded on his brow. And he stared at death unmasked. He blinked. In that infinitesimally small millisecond between sight and un-sight, he saw it: the knife parting flesh with a dull wet sound, then the bullet leaving its chamber and cutting apart the bone to burrow into the brain and rot there.

The thing lurched, stumbled, almost fell. i can't breath, Nick realized numbly. i can't i can't i can't. Death brushed against his leg, tickled his chin.

I think I'll eat you, the voice whispered. Sweet. Juicy. Food.

No. He wouldn't go like this. He wouldn't be the dead boy in the abandoned house that the cops pulled out only after the neighbors started complaining about the smell. He wouldn't be the human rodent left to die. He wouldn't. So he fought. Or submitted. But either way, he resisted. He closed his eyes, concentrated.

There'd been a movie once, with a girl and the little ruby slippers and the tiny dog. That'd been a good movie; he'd thought the girl was kind of cute. In a weird way. Whatever. At the end she started tapping the shoes, saying the same six word again and again. That's what he did. He concentrated, sunk deeper, until the world slid away and his mind receded. He fell into the womb, that warm-wet happy place that is always a beginning. Words rolled themselves over in his head—not words he understood; just words. Words strung in lines unending. Meaningless, but not random—entropy with a pattern.

Something clicked.

Then the wind came. Roaring. It tore through the room, swept away the tobacco smoke, whipped the gown off. For an instant he saw the thing—naked and grotesque, with a body of melted wax. It shrieked. Far away, tap water ran.

The cat jumped, off the windowsill and into the lawn. Nick never saw it again.

He stood. The presence mutated, rebounded—struggled against the zephyrs that bore it away. I'll eat you and spit you out boy you won't leave me you can't you little s*** not like him not like him don't go you S*** you little GODDAMN S***! Then it was gone. The voice, the wind, the smoke, the water in the tap. Everything save the bicycle wheels. They spun around and around, filling the space in his skull with their monotonic rotations.

He turned, and ran.

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They caught up with him at the end of the lane. A cruiser with flashing lights, an officer with his gun. They sat him down on the car's hood, snapped handcuffs around his wrists, and told him to wait while they radioed the station. It took about fifteen minutes. “Rob a store, this is what you get,” the cop said when Nick questioned him. Nick shrugged in response.

He settled back, watched the world, aimlessly kicked the backpack at his feet. His spring-green sneakers he'd left behind. His feet where bare—exposed like the thing's. A ghost? A demon? He didn't know what to call it. Just that it, for two days, had inhabited his mind.

Across the street a drunk was pissing in an alleyway. The man zipped his pants up and reached for the bottle on the railing next to him; he took a swig. Dusk was falling. The pit in his stomach ached. He didn't like being hungry.

What would it be now? He didn't know. Honestly, didn't care much.

The drunk was walking away, flipping the bottle back occasionally.

The cruiser's door slammed. Nick twisted his neck. The cop clicked off the radio, stepped out the car, and began reading his Miranda rights: “You have the right to remain silent. Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law . . .” Nick turned a deaf ear. wish they'd just lock you up already.

After the Miranda rights were over the officer took him off the hood and walked him back to the car. Nick slid into the cruiser's interior darkness, leaned back on the leather seat and inhaled, smelling the aerosol scent of civilization. The officer sat down, started up the engine.

They turned right, headed up the hill.

At the hill's crown the house waited, dormant. Nick could see the room where he'd stayed, and barely made out the top of the galvanized trashcan he'd hauled off the street. A wind undulated the oxidized copper window screen. And for a moment, he thought he saw a waxen specter standing in its haunt in the shadows. Bicycle wheels, turning turning.

Then they drove on, the car's engine a muted roar beneath him. Nick pressed his face into the leather, looked back with the rearview mirror.

The last thing he saw was the house on Mulberry Lane.



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ElaineEL27 said...
May 20, 2013 at 10:12 am
This was wonderful. The description in the introductory paragraph caught my attention immediately.
 
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