The house on the corner had been empty for as long as Kelly could remember. The door was bolted and thick slabs of plywood covered the windows. It was set back in the new development, right near the edge of the woods. Due to zoning problems, the development was built around it. They couldn’t tear it down.
Kelly walked her bike quickly up the steep driveway. The sun was just starting to set. Only a few of the houses had been sold at this point but she still didn’t want to be seen. She stashed her bike in the long reeds that sprung up near the garage and crept around the back.
The yard slopped down to the woods, the lawn overgrown like a rejected Eden. Tommy had said that he found a skull back there. He thought it was a dog skull but he said he wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t show Kelly till his brother Nick saw it. Kelly assumed Tommy was lying. Tommy lied a lot. She waded through the tall grass, hearing her mother’s dreaded warnings about ticks and lime diseases. Halfway between the house and the woods, she turned around to look back at it.
“Ugly old thing,” she said aloud, but softly to herself. “I wonder why they don’t just tear it down.”
The back windows were boarded up also, as well as the backdoor. The deck was damaged, the wood rotting from the inside out. Kelly headed back toward the house, scanning the grass for anything interesting. Maybe Tommy really did find a skull back here.
Kelly stood by the deck steps but wouldn’t dare go up them. They didn’t look like they could support the weight of a squirrel let alone her. Underneath the deck was a small basement window, tucked away in the corner. The setting sun glinted off the windowpane.
“Not boarded up,” Kelly said with a smile. She crept, slowly and carefully under the deck to the basement window. The ground below the deck had no grass and the mud sucked up her sneakers. Shoot, she thought, looking at her feet. Now she had to hose them off before her mother saw them. She bent down and rolled up the cuffs of her jeans so that they cleared the mud and pressed on, wading like a river rat through the sloshing muck. She bent down at the little window and peeked in. Due to the glare she couldn’t see anything. Kelly cupped her hands around the glass and squinted. It was dark inside, shadowed. But she thought she saw movement.
There was a creak up above. As if someone, someone very stupid, was walking across the deck. Kelly looked up, her heart racing. She thought she could make out a shadow or a shape though the cracks in the wooden plank. A small shower of dust and dirt rained down through a crack. The boards creaked. Kelly froze.
There was a wind, fast and fierce that whipped across the lawn, sending the trees at the end of the lawn into a frenzy. Their leaves flipped over in waves, showing the still green underbellies against the now orange and red tops. They looked like a blanket. Kelly’s hood hit her in the face and she almost lost her balance, crouched down by the basement window. She didn’t look back through the window, which was probably a good thing. She wouldn’t have believed her own eyes anyway.
When she got the dirt out of her eyes, there was no longer a shadow on the deck above, or any more creaking noises. She was about to turn back to the little window when she heard a growl.
The dog was about halfway between the house and the woods. Kelly’s heart raced. The dog, haunches up, bared its teeth and let out a quick bark, just a warning, she knew, but a serious one at that. Kelly knew enough about dogs to know she couldn’t outrun it. Not even on her bike. They had all heard that story about Ken Handler who tried to outrun a Rottweiler. His scars had faded but they would never go away. Kelly squinted at the dog to see if she could see a collar or something. She rose slowly, her hands out, and the dog jumped ever so slightly, a quiver of anticipation going down its back. It barked again, followed by a long growl. The dog licked its lips and bared its teeth. Kelly, never taking her eyes off it, started to side step towards the driveway where her bike was.
“It’s okay, buddy,” she said softly. “I’m leaving.”
As she moved, one sneaker became stuck in the mud, buried up to the laces, and came loose. She stopped, her sock dangling from her foot. Carefully, while keeping an eye on the dog, she started to bend to pick it up. The dog lunged forward a couple steps barking angrily.
“Okay, okay,” she said, “you can have it. It’s all yours buddy.”
Kelly was about three steps from the driveway and from the corner of her eye, she could see her bike tipped on its side, waiting for her. Her sock sunk into the mud and she glanced back at her lost shoe woefully. Her other foot, landed with a reassuring thud on the driveway. The dog barked again. Keeping her eyes on it, she picked up the bike and then turned slowly and started to walk down the driveway. Her back was tight in anticipation ,waiting to feel those paws on her, knocking her to the ground, his hot dog breath in her face, his sharp, sharp teeth grinding into bone. But she reached the bottom of the driveway and nothing had happened. Kelly glanced back. The dog was gone. She hopped on her bike and pedaled off, her one muddy sock threatening to get caught in the spokes.
Back inside the house, one set of eyes, blinked from the basement window, pondering the shoe that stuck up from the mud.
Kelly pedaled up the driveway the next evening. Her mother had completely freaked out when she came home without her new sneaker. All of dinner was a lecture about her inability to take care of things, that she was too old for this kind of behavior, that she needed to start taking some responsibility, and why pray tell couldn’t she have retrieved her brand new sneaker that she wasn’t supposed to wear until school started anyway? Kelly spent the dinner silently, offering no explanation. One swift kick to the shin of her little sister, who was sticking her tongue out, landed Kelly in her room for the evening.
She parked her bike on the side of the house and peeked around the corner. The backyard was empty. There was no sign of that dog. Unfortunately there was also no sign of her sneaker. Someone had pulled it out of the mud, leaving just the little imprint of the treads in the mud.
Great, Kelly thought. She crept through the mud under the deck again, careful to make sure her old sneakers didn’t come loose. She bent down by the window again, glancing over her shoulder to make sure that the dog wasn’t around. Kelly cupped her hands over her face and squinted through the dusty glass. Inside, she could see lumpy shapes that looked like furniture. Some of the pieces were covered with a sheet, some weren’t. She couldn’t see if her shoe was there. At the very least she was going to need a flashlight. Maybe something more. She needed Tommy.
“But what about the dog,” Tommy said after Kelly had dragged him back, partially against his will. They both stood peeking into the basement window.
“It’s gone. Don’t worry about it.”
“Maybe it’s in the woods back there,” Tommy said glancing over his shoulder.
“It’s not. Hey, you never showed me that skull you said you found.”
Tommy’s back straightened and he puffed his cheeks out. “I’ll show you when I feel like it.” He turned away from Kelly.
“You didn’t really find one, did you?” she sighed.
“I did too!”
“Then why can’t you show me.”
“I’m not telling.”
“Whatever. Tommy, give me the flashlight.” Tommy swung his backpack around and zipped it open. Inside was a mess of potentially useful things. Tommy called it his emergency pack. There was a flashlight, twine, paper, pens, snacks (most of which were now crushed goldfish), a flashlight, goggles, a detective novel missing its cover, chewing gum, poppers (that popped when you threw them on the ground), turtle food, and an assortment of rocks that Tommy found in the woods.
Kelly shined the flashlight through the window, cupping her hands around her eyes. The beam provided just a shred of extra light. She scanned as much of the floor as she could see. No sneaker. When the beam landed on a pale hand on the floor, she gasped, dropped the flashlight and darted backwards, falling into the mud. Tommy, who was too busy reorganizing his pack, didn’t see anything.
“What happened?” he asked as he helped pull a now pale Kelly up.
“There was a hand.”
“Like a dead guy’s hand? Like severed? Oh, God.”
“I don’t know,” Kelly said, trying to calm down. “It was just a hand.” She wiped the mud off her hands onto her jeans, pulled the flashlight out of the muck and shook it off. Above her, there was a creak on the deck. She shushed Tommy who, incidentally, wasn’t talking and pointed up. They watched the shadow move across the deck.
“What is that?” Tommy mouthed.
Kelly shrugged as dirt showered through the deck cracks. There was a sharp laugh and then nothing. Tommy and Kelly stared at each other.
“Let’s go,” Tommy mouthed.
Kelly shook her head. She waited a few more minutes to see if there was anymore noise from above. When there wasn’t, she handed the flashlight back to Tommy crept out from under the deck, wading through the long overgrown grass. Tommy followed closely behind. She got about halfway down the lawn, and stood on tippy toes.
“There’s nothing up there,” Tommy said.
“There was something up there.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“No way. Whoever is in there has my shoe. Besides, I bet its Marcy.” Marcy lived two doors down from Tommy and her and her older brothers, Derrick and Lloyd, like nothing more than messing with Tommy. Kelly couldn’t stand them.
“Well, if it is Marcy then I really don’t want to go in there.”
“We are gonna get them back.”
“Kel, please. Let’s go get my brother.”
“No way. We aren’t running for help. Those guys are hiding out in here trying to spook us. And I’m not gonna let them.” Kelly marched back under the deck, squared her feet, placed her hands flat against the glass, and with all her might, tried to pry the basement window open. She grunted and pushed but the thing wouldn’t budge. She had to find something to break it with.
“Give me your flashlight.”
“To break the glass.”
“Fine.” Kelly hunted under the deck for a rock.
“This is a bad idea. Kel, let’s go get my brother. Please. We are gonna get in so much trouble. Your mom is already mad about the shoe. What is she gonna say when you break into –”
“A ha!” Kelly said, picking up a nice sized rock. She headed back towards the window and stopped abruptly.
The window was already open.
She stared, her mouth slightly agape.
“It’s open,” Tommy whispered next to her. “I wanna get out of here. Let’s go.” He tugged on her arm but Kelly brushed him off. She wasn’t going to be scared off. Without really thinking about it, which is a good thing because if she really thought about, it she would get right on her bike and never come back to this house. Kelly poked her head through the open window.
The basement was musty and smelled like sea salt and fish parts, even though they were far from an ocean. It was cool inside but too dark to see anything properly.
“Tommy,” she whispered, “give me your flashlight. Wait there.” He passed it through the window to her. Kelly flicked it on and wiped the mud that was blocking the beam. She scanned the room shining the light across the stored furniture. There was a work bench in the corner with an array of old rusted tools laying out, huge pliers, and rusted saws whose teeth looked especially long in the beam of the flashlight.
Kelly shimmied in the window, swung her legs around and jumped onto the basement floor with an echoing thud. She swung the light around in front of her as she walked, readying herself for Marcy or her brothers to jump out.
There was a crash behind her and with her heart racing, Kelly spun around. She swung the beam of light like a weapon and nearly laughed when she saw Tommy laying in a pile on the floor.
“That hurt,” he groaned.
“Shhhhhh! I told you to wait out there,” Kelly said picking him up off the ground.
“No way. What if that dog comes back? I’m not staying out there by myself.”
“Fine. Be quiet and stay close to me. And don’t touch anything.”
On the other side of the basement was a door leading into the rest of the house. Kelly tried the knob. Locked. She pressed her ear up to it and heard faint noises. Voices. What sounded like water running? Laughter.
“They are up there. I knew it.”
“Come on, Kel. Let’s just go.”
“No way. I’m getting my sneaker back.”
“Let’s go get my brother.”
“We don’t need your brother.”
Tommy let out an audible whimper. “I’m scared.”
“So go home, you baby,” Kelly said turning back to the door. She pressed her ear to it. Nothing. “Shoot, I think they heard you. There goes our surprise.”
Then they heard the voice, the voice that neither Kelly nor Tommy would ever forget again, not even when they were grown, not even when Kelly was an old woman, sick in her bed, many, many years later. The voice that was so clear that Kelly felt her blood freeze. It had a small southern accent, as if he were putting a medley onto the ends of his words. “You came back. For this, I suppose.”
That one simple sentence.
Kelly spun around and stared down at the small pasty boy she had never seen before. He was pale, and his eyes were sunk in his head. From his hand dangled her muddy shoe.
Without thinking she snatched at it. And as soon as she did, he vanished. Not ran away, not hid. But vanished. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. The basement was stone quiet for a moment and Kelly could hear her blood pumping in her ears and then the labored breathing of Tommy. He was on the floor, in some sort of fit. Kelly dropped down next to him.
“Tommy, get up. Tommy, you okay?” She shook him roughly and his eyes fluttered open.
“Marcus?” he said looking at her.
“Tommy, wake up.”
“Marcus. The boy’s name is Marcus. He lives here. His father fishes. His dog is missing. He has your shoe.” The words came out of Tommy’s mouth like he was reciting multiplication tables.
“Tommy, wake up.” Kelly couldn’t think what else to say.
“I am up, Kel,” Tommy said pushing her away and standing up. “Didn’t you see the boy?”
“I…I saw something. I don’t know. It looked like a boy and it only lasted a second.”
“No it didn’t. He talked to us. His name is Marcus. His father is a fisherman, out at sea. He’s here alone. He’s been here alone for a long time. But now his dog is missing.”
“Tommy I think we need to get you back home.”
“It’s a like a bridge. This place. Like my Aunt June told me.”
“Tommy let’s go. Come on.” She took his hand and helped him climb out the basement window. As she pushed him through and she was alone in the basement, the flashlight wedged under her arm, Kelly felt her whole body shake.
Once they were back at his house, Tommy told her the whole story. “My Great Aunt June told me about it. They’re called Markers.”
“What is a Marker?”
“The house, I guess. It’s like the pages in a book; there are certain places where the page doesn’t turn. It gets stuck. Certain places hold their place in the past.”
“If the house is a marker, why is it here? It’s not in the past, Tommy. We were just there.”
“Yeah I know but it’s like it’s here AND it’s there. Aunt June said that in certain places everything that has ever happened is still happening. I think that house is one of those places. Marcus is still there even though he should be long dead. But he’s in his time in that house and we were in our time in that house. Together.”
There was a silence while they both thought about it.
“How do you know he should be dead?” Kelly asked.
“I don’t know. I can just tell. That house that he’s in, it isn’t here here. It’s down by the water, somewhere else. But it’s here too.”
“What about my sneaker?”
“Yeah, he’s got that.”
“So how do I get it back?” Kelly wasn’t interested in going back to the house. Not anymore.
“He said his dog was missing.”
“The dog I saw? He should just look in the backyard.”
“Yeah, but that is the thing. That’s not the same backyard he has. To him, he’s on the beach. If he goes out
his front door, there is nothing but sand.”
“Tommy this doesn’t make any sense.”
“But you saw him too, Kel.”
“We have to get him his dog back. I think then we can get your sneaker back.”
“I can’t catch that thing. It wanted to kill me.”
“I don’t think you can catch it ‘cause it’s just a version of that dog. It’s like a…”
Later that night, after Kelly had finally dozed off there was a tap at her window. She hoisted up the window and looked down. Below her stood Tommy, his emergency pack on his back, and a small white object under his arm. “Let’s go,” was all he said before he headed down the lawn.
Once they got to the house, Tommy unwrapped the cloth. The dog skull stared up at Kelly as if waiting for a command.
“It’s his. I’m giving it back. That way, you can get your shoe back.”
“I don’t think this is going to work.”
“You never think anything I do is going to work.” Tommy waded out into the long grass. The moon hung thick and wet above them. “I think it was right about here,” he said laying the skull in the grass.
The wind whipped the edges of the trees and Kelly pulled her hoodie tighter.
“I’m sorry Marcus. I didn’t mean to steal your dog,” Tommy yelled at the top of his lungs.
“Tommy, shhhhhh! You are going to get us in trouble,” Kelly hissed at him from the driveway.
Tommy ignored her. “Please be at peace. With your dog. And please give Kelly back her shoe.”
Kelly waited to hear the dog bark but the neighborhood was silent. Tommy eventually came back over. “Well I guess we’ll just wait and see. Let’s come back tomorrow.”
That night, Kelly couldn’t sleep, and slipped out of her house, padding softly down the newly graveled road. It was a stupid idea and she knew that. Nothing was going to be there.
She reached the house and climbed the driveway. When she turned the bend and looked underneath the deck, staring back at her from the mud was her sneaker. “It worked!” Kelly whispered into the night. She yanked her sneaker out of the mud, and brushed it off on the grass. Inside was a small note:
I’m sorry about the shoe. I hope my dog comes back.
Kelly slipped the note into her pocket and ran home. She only talked to Tommy about it once. He brought it up a couple times, but Kelly would always snap at him. Tommy went back to the house, but Kelly didn’t. She told him it was all rubbish. She told him it was Marcy and her brothers just trying to fool him. Once, she yelled at him so bad he ran home crying. Eventually her family decided to move. She didn’t come back to the neighborhood again but she did find Tommy’s obituary online, years later.
Her hands by then were wrinkled and she had already birthed two children and buried another one. Her hands hovered over the laptop keys, her eyes scanning the article. It said he died five years after she moved away. His young body was found in the tall reeds of that empty house. And for the first time in many years, she heard Marcus’s voice again and she knew she would not be sleeping again tonight.
© 2010 Ally Malinenko. All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ally Malinenko has previously been published by Alembic, Blind Man's Review, Small Brushes, Whiskey Island Magainze, The Unknown Writer, HeART, Mad Poets Society, Posey, Jack Magazine, Words-Myth, Pens on Fire, Sugar Mule, The New Yinzer, Zygote in my Coffee, Delirio, Orange Room Review, Why Vandalism?, Mad Swirl, Gutter Eloquence Magazine, Unlikely Stories, Deuce Coupe, Black Listed, 13th Warrior Review and Xenith. She is also a contributing poet to Reading Ground Blogazine, hosted by Breedingground.com. Her first book of poems, entitled the Wanting Bone, was recently published by Six Gallery Press. She is currently working on a novel for children.