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Happy Halloween from The Ghoulish Times
Free Short Story PLUS a Halloween Book Sale! All Books 31% Off! Ahhhh!
Greetings, ghouls. It is Halloween, a joyous times for horror freaks everywhere. To celebrate, we have made every book in our webstore 31% off beginning right now and ending Tuesday November 1st, 9:00am CST. Simply enter discount code GHOUL31 upon checkout!
Note: subscriptions and gift cards are excluded from this sale.
But also, since it is such a wonderful day, I thought it’d be fun to treat y’all to a free short story of mine.
This is called “You Are My Neighbor” and it was originally published a couple years ago in an anthology titled Miscreations. I will be reprinting it in my horror collection, Abnormal Statistics, which comes out on March 23, 2023 through Apocalypse Party and is available to pre-order right freakin’ now.
I hope you enjoy the story and I hope your Halloween is a fun spooky time. Thank you for existing.
“YOU ARE MY NEIGHBOR”
I used to break windows. One window in particular, really. Our neighbor had a basement and we didn’t, and I always thought that was unfair. Growing up, all I wanted was to live in a basement and invite all the kids from school to hang out and drink beer with me while listening to Black Sabbath. But we didn’t have a basement and nobody ever came over because Mom was too embarrassed by how messy the house was and Dad was paranoid someone would swipe their oxys while he was asleep.
He always accused me of taking them, but I never once dared. One night, around two in the morning, I woke up to his hand squeezing my throat. He was above me, tears pouring down his face and splattering against my own, and demanding I tell him what I did with them. The way he looked at me, I could tell he didn’t want to be doing what he was doing, but something beyond human consciousness had him under its control, and I had to beg and beg for him to let me go, whimpering that I didn’t have his pills, and eventually Mom stumbled in and reminded him they’d already finished off their stash the night before.
So sometimes I broke the neighbor’s basement window, the one at foot-level along the side of their house, half-hidden in dirt. It was a thing to do while Mom and Dad were down for the count and I was bored because I couldn’t invite anybody over. I wasn’t allowed to walk along the interstate to visit anybody so what the hell was a kid to do besides break windows?
The first time it happened, it was just about twilight and everybody next door had left. I’d watched all four of them pile into their tan station wagon and drive off. Who knew where? Maybe to go get ice cream or watch a movie. Stuff families did together on TV. The household consisted of a mother and father and son and daughter. I didn’t know any of their names, but they always seemed busy doing bizarre activities. Having barbecues in the back yard and going on vacations and playing catch in the street for the whole wide world to see. The shame of my own situation just about killed me.
I was sitting on our porch as the family next door drove off, all smiles and bubblegum as the station wagon disappeared beyond our little subdivision. The anger in me bubbled like a welt. I stomped across our front yard and maneuvered around the fence separating our property. One glance at the basement window along the side of their house made me tremble with rage. Musings of what could be beyond the glass did not occur. The fact that it existed here and not at our house spoke plenty of the situation.
From the grass, I unearthed a fist-sized stone and hurled it at the window. It bounced off without inflicting any damage, like it was mocking me, laughing at the pathetic boy too weak to even break a window.
On the second throw, the rock shattered it to bits.
The noise echoed far and loud. Scared me so bad I fled back inside our house and hid in my bed. Through my bedroom window, I could hear the neighbors return home several hours later, although none of them seemed to notice the damage I’d inflicted. Perhaps it was simply too late and they’d immediately succumbed to exhaustion. I waited all night to hear a scream that never arrived.
Two days later the window was fixed. Almost like it’d never been broken, like my actions were meaningless. No one had even come to talk to me about it. I stood near our fence, unable to stop staring at the flawless fixture. Behind me, the school bus pulled away and the other kids in my neighborhood laughed and shouted, relieved to have finished another day of education. I could not share their excitement. All I felt was the absolution that my existence didn’t mean anything and nothing I did would ever alter this truth. I could break every window in the world and within a week they’d be replaced with new ones.
I fled inside our house and found my parents on the couch, entwined together like the infinity symbol. Although they were both stripped naked, inappropriate activity was not present. The oxys had already knocked them out. I sat on the floor in front of the couch and leaned my head against an empty space on one of the cushions and closed my eyes and visualized glass shattering and reforming over and over until sleep came knocking.
I woke up to a stinging sensation across my face and Dad standing over me, still naked, pointing at me like I’d been up to no good.
“What’d you do with it, you little shit?” he said.
“I didn’t touch them. I swear.”
He shook his head, the sound of his teeth grinding loud enough to penetrate my own skull. “The Xbox, goddammit. It ain’t in your room.”
“Wh-what?” A coherent response failed me. Paranoia raised the question of whether or not this was a test. Either way, he didn’t like my answer. Slapped me so hard my head just about performed a three-sixty. I felt like a cartoon character without an audience, no laugh track or anything.
Dad grabbed my shoulders and leaned his face in real close to mine and demanded my Xbox. Behind me, still on the couch, Mom rolled in her sleep and groaned for us to keep the noise down. Instead of giving him an answer, I started weeping, which only pissed him off more. The reason he wanted my Xbox was he hadn’t gotten paid yet and they were already out of oxys, so he’d drop the Xbox off at the pawnshop and go restock their pill supply. The only problem in this plan, which I couldn’t find the courage to tell him, was he’d already pawned my Xbox last month. He wouldn’t have believed me even if I did remind him, and if he did remember after the fact, he sure as hell would never have admitted it. So, instead, he squeezed my face and screamed for something I couldn’t give him, and then eventually he got bored and got dressed and stormed out of the house. The sound of his car screeching from the driveway relieved an enormous weight from my chest and I settled back against the couch. Mom shifted again and asked me to fetch her a cup of water. Her mouth was dry.
* * *
The second time I broke the window came a couple weeks later. I had decided to do it the night before. Nothing specific prompted the decision. I had simply been lying in bed, listening to Mom and Dad arguing in the living room, when the thought crossed my mind. Tomorrow I will break the window again. It generated not as a question but a fact. Tomorrow I would break the window, and when tomorrow arrived that’s exactly what I did.
Sunday mornings always mystified me. We’d never been a church-going family, never discussed religion or the possibility of deities. Kids at school referenced Christianity as if it were a common limb attached to everybody’s bodies. Weekly visits to wooden pews. God and Jesus and all that trash. Waking up early dressed like rich folks. What a scam. But our neighbors fell for it every Sunday without fail. That specific morning, I sat next to my bedroom window early enough to beat the sun, waiting for them to pull out of our subdivision. Eventually, they emerged from the house wearing clothes our family could never hope to afford. All four of them smiling and enjoying each other’s presence. It made me want to break all the windows in the world.
But I’d settle for the one in their basement.
At least for now.
This time around I came prepared with a baseball bat resting along my shoulder. The aluminum rattled against my palms with each contact it made against glass. It took five good swings for the window to spiderweb, another two for it to completely surrender. My former cowardly self would have fled at the sound it made, but something inside of me had changed. Now, I feared nothing.
I knelt in the dirt and stuck my head through the window, careful to avoid slicing my throat open with the remaining shards sticking out along its sides. Sunlight reflected off the broken glass on the floor below. Winking at me. Inviting me inside. Instead of accepting its offer, I scanned the rest of the basement from my vantage point outside. The interior disappointed curiosity. Boxes covered with sheets were lined up against the wall. A wooden staircase led from the floor to a door several feet up, into...what? The kitchen? This was the first basement I’d ever seen in real life and out of all the emotions I expected to feel, I had foolishly omitted “boredom” from the list. Now that the window was broken, nothing further seemed to offer much excitement.
Then I saw it.
On the opposite side of the basement, nearly swallowed by darkness: a door.
But not only a door...
...a door with a padlock attached to it.
* * *
The rest of the week moved at a glacial pace. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the door in our neighbor’s basement. The mystery followed me like disease. What awaited beyond it remained an intangible black hole that irritated my flesh and swallowed my concentration. At night, I rolled around in bed fantasizing the myriad secrets hidden inside their locked room, imagination running the gamut of potential treasures. Money, of course, but money seemed too obvious. What kind of secret could a family keep that would require a padlock? Locks kept things from escaping. It seemed logical to assume whatever was in that room could be alive. Could be dangerous. A prisoner, but why?
Several days after the second window breaking, I asked Dad about the neighbors. He was in the kitchen sprawled out on his back, halfway under the sink with a wrench as he attempted to fix a leaky pipe.
“No,” he said in the midst of struggling, “they don’t talk to me, and I don’t talk to them. If you was wise, you’d do the same. Nothing good ever happened from letting goddamn strangers in on your business.”
“Did they live here when we moved here, or did they come after?”
Dad sighed and slammed the pipe on the floor and sat up. The look in his eyes was the same look he always gave me. It was the only look.
“Do you think I have the kinda time to sit around paying a single goddamn second to who lives in this neighborhood? I worry about me and my family and that’s it. The hell’s got you so interested in this shit, anyhow?”
I shrugged. To admit the truth would be the same as issuing a death sentence upon myself. “Nothing. Never mind.”
“You ain’t been fucking around, telling people things that’s no concern to them, have you?”
He stared at me for several seconds before returning to the sink. The moment he broke eye contact, I fled to my bedroom and shut the door.
The next day, I found the courage to sneak back across our property line. Someone had boarded up the window. What had our neighbors thought, coming home to find the very same fixture shattered again? Would they bother replacing it a third time, or instead stick with wood and nails forever? I did not want to break wood. I wanted to destroy glass. I wanted to hear the sound of something shatter.
Before I could process the actions of my limbs, I was already standing on their front porch and ringing the bell.
WHAT AM I DOING WHAT AM I DOING WHAT AM I DOING, my brain screamed.
The door opened and before me stood the residence’s father figure, sometimes referred to as “the man of the house” on TV. He smiled down at me. Although he was not dressed for church, his clothes still seemed infinitely nicer than anything my family could ever dream of owning. “Hello there, son. How can I help you?”
My throat threatened to close. Son? He had called me his son. Why had I come here? This was never part of the plan. What plan? No such thing existed. I was here because I was meant to be here. I opened my mouth to speak but words refused to form beyond a soft croak. The man of the house stepped back, his initial welcoming posture rapidly deteriorating.
“Son, is something wrong?”
He knelt so we were eye level and clamped a hand upon my shoulder. The contact weakened my knees and I nearly collapsed right there on his front porch. Memories of the last time an older man touched me exploded like lightning. Dad squeezing my throat, both of us crying, screaming loud enough to rupture the universe.
Took my time.
Then said, “Sugar?”
I pointed behind him, into the house. “My mom needs to borrow sugar. Can we borrow sugar?”
“Sugar?” He hesitated, chewing over what I said, still kneeling, then smiled. “Your momma fixing a cake, son?”
I nodded, enthusiastic. “It’s my birthday.”
The man’s face morphed into pure excitement. “Well, how about that!” He ran his hand through my hair and stood. “Come on in, son.”
I followed him into the house and shut the door behind me. It felt good to lie. Almost as good as breaking windows. My heart started beating like I’d been sprinting through a field. I wanted it to beat so fast it’d burst through my chest and paint the neighbor’s kitchen with my blood. The ultimate shattering.
The inside of their house looked just as fancy as their church clothes. I wanted to burn it to the ground. I wanted to live there forever. The man fetched a bag of sugar from a cupboard and asked how much we needed. I stared at him for several seconds, trying to decide how much sugar a cake could possibly need.
“A lot,” I finally said. “A whole bag.”
He cocked his brow. “A whole bag?”
“How much cake is your momma making, son?”
“Well.” He hesitated, glancing at the bag of sugar in his hands and then back at me. “Okay, I suppose since it’s your birthday and all, why the heck not?”
“Where are your kids?” I asked.
“Oh.” He bit his lip, the warmness to him briefly evaporating before returning. “They’re in the basement, with my wife.”
“Yeah.” He nodded, completely unaware of the concert of noise thundering inside me. “They’re playing.”
“What are they playing?”
“Say, son…” He touched my shoulder again. This time a little tighter, a little rougher. I thought of Dad again. “…don’t you think maybe it’s about time you went back to your momma? Otherwise, how else is she gonna make a birthday cake for the birthday boy, right?”
He led me back through his kitchen and living room and out the front door. He stood on the porch and watched me walk back to my house. Something told me, even after I entered and closed the door, he remained out there, watching…
* * *
That night, curled up in bed, I dipped my finger in the bag of sugar and sucked it dry. I kept repeating the action until a headache emerged, then I did it a few more times just for the hell of it.
Next door, the family had been playing in their basement. Playing what? I didn’t just want to know. I needed to know. Playing in the locked room, surely. Playing with whatever they kept hidden from the rest of the world. Playing with someone or something?
I did not have a clock in my room to obsess over, so instead I watched the headlights shine against my wall through the window. Cars passing in the dead of night to places I could not imagine. None of them knew the truth. None of them knew they were driving past a house with a locked door in its basement. None of them even cared.
I cared so much.
It was easier to sneak outside than I anticipated. All I had to do was tell myself I had fallen asleep and everything that followed was simply a dream. In dreams, consequences did not exist. A person could do anything in a dream and it always ended the same. You woke up and after a couple minutes you forgot it ever happened.
Turned out wood was much easier to remove than glass. I sat on my butt, took out dad’s wrench and pried the boards loose. It created a soft thud in the dirt, but nothing too distressing. Nothing that would alarm the floors above—or at least I hoped. I slid through the window and let gravity drag me down several feet to concrete. I hadn’t expected the drop to be so high and it was a miracle I didn’t break my ankles. It only occurred to me after infiltrating the basement that I’d neglected to form an escape plan. But that was okay. I would worry about that later.
After I discovered what was behind the door.
All the nights I’d spent fantasizing about being in this basement, and the moment had finally arrived. The musty scent made my eyes water and nostrils twinge. I moved slowly across the dusty concrete, taking it slow, enjoying every second of my limited time here.
I’d brought the baseball bat with me, intending on using it to bash open the padlock. Of course I was aware of the noise it would make, and what that would mean. The family would wake and come downstairs to investigate. I didn’t care about being caught. As long as I made it inside the room first. As long as I saw.
Something shiny gleamed in the corner of my eye as I neared the room, a small key winking at me from the edge of a table. I didn’t want to feel disappointed, but if I could control my emotions then I wouldn’t have been down in this basement in the first place. Finding the key felt wrong. Like it’d been waiting for me. I set down the bat and held up the key, feeling its various ridges before giving up and inserting it into the padlock. The mechanism popped open.
Maybe this really was a dream, after all.
I opened the door.
Inside the room, I was met with total darkness. The odor shifted from a strong musk to something…rancid. Like meat that’d sat out too long. I gagged, shot both hands up to my mouth, terrified of breathing in whatever awaited inside. The time for retreating had expired. I stepped forward and felt around the wall closest to the door. Eventually, a light switch materialized in the darkness. One flip and a dim bulb dangling from a chain in the center of the room buzzed to life.
A dim bulb, dangling directly above a small figure.
At first, I mistook the shape for a mannequin. Like something displayed in a shopping mall. Except…it was hard to tell at first, but the thing’s chest had a steady rise and drop to it. I assumed the figure was a child based on its height, which nearly matched my own. As to its sex, I could not venture a guess, as its entire body had been wrapped in an old, mildewed cloth material. Even its face had been confined in the stuff. The nearer I approached, the worse its stench became, but I would not allow something as trivial as a horrid odor to prevent me from fulfilling what I’d set out to accomplish tonight.
We stood inches apart from each other in an otherwise empty room. No toys, no books. There wasn’t even a goddamn mattress. How long had the family kept this child here, and for what purpose? Something sinister. Something evil.
“Hello,” I whispered. “My name is Denny.”
The child did not react to my voice.
Could it see me?
I raised a hand, palm out. I’m friendly, the gesture represented. I come in peace.
“You are my neighbor,” I said, and softly touched the child’s shoulder.
Somewhere from behind its face wrap: a gasp.
Then the figure jerked forward, wrapping its arms around me.
I tried to jerk away but its grip solidified like concrete. I stopped resisting and embraced the situation. It wasn’t hurting me. I felt nothing but desperation from its touch. A plea for help.
“Okay,” I finally whispered by where I assumed its ear was located, although who could tell for sure with the cloth wrapped around its head? How could it even breathe like that? “Okay, okay, okay. Let’s get you out of here.”
* * *
I led the imprisoned child up the basement steps and through the house. We moved slowly, careful not to bump into anything in the darkness. I expected the father of the family to be waiting for us somewhere upstairs, somewhere in the shadows. But he never showed. We slipped through the front door without incident. I led the child across the property line and into my own house, not thinking about my parents until I saw them in the living room, passed out on the couch. Crushed up pills all over the coffee table. Empty beer cans discarded on the rug. I was relieved the child couldn’t see any of this. The embarrassment would have killed me. Gripping its hand, I whispered for it to follow me, we were almost there, and up the stairs we went to my bedroom.
I kept the light off and the door locked. After some guidance, the child sat on my bed. Somehow its stench had started to become tolerable. I could live with this smell. Live with it? Already I had fantasized a life with this stolen child in my bedroom. I would share my meals with it, read it bedtime stories, raise it as my own. We’d be best friends, forever and always. Someone I could talk to and share my deepest secrets. This could work. This could actually work.
I snuck a glance out my bedroom window. The neighbor’s house still appeared dark. Nobody was awake. Nobody had noticed a goddamn thing. My heart wouldn’t stop racing and I never wanted it to stop. I sat on the bed next to the child and tapped it on the thigh. It didn’t react.
“Can you hear me?” I asked.
“How long have they kept you prisoner?”
“What…what were they doing to you?”
Same response, rinse and repeat.
I wasn’t going to get anywhere using words. I reached up and touched the thing’s face, intending on peeling off its wrapping, but couldn’t locate the end of it. I trailed my hands along its body and came up with nothing to grab. The child wasn’t wrapped in anything.
This was its flesh.
“Oh my god.”
I tried to leap off the bed but the child lunged at me, wrapping its arms around my shoulders again. It lay along the bed, dragging me down with it. I did not resist. Together we spooned in the darkness. My body still tense, expecting the door to burst open any second, either Dad or the next-door neighbor; I couldn’t decide which possibility I feared most. Despite the anxiety, the child’s embrace felt comforting. I never wanted it to let go.
I fell asleep in its arms and woke up the same day.
When I rolled over, I had to bite my lip to prevent screaming.
Its no-face had morphed into something somewhat resembling a human being’s. Like its skull had been made of clay and someone had pressed their fingers against it, molding the template for eyes and a nose and mouth.
“What the hell,” I said, reaching up to touch them.
Its face felt hot.
“What are you? Oh my god, what are you?”
My neighbor continued to hug me and I was left with no choice but to stay in bed. Its grip tightened, like it was restricting my lungs from breathing properly. I had slept most of the night, yet I was still dog-tired.
I woke up before I realized I was even going to sleep.
The child’s face had continued evolving. Now it had pupils, teeth, and pores.
No longer an it, but a him.
I’d seen this face before.
Chills trickled down my body.
My body, which felt drained of all energy. I couldn’t have gotten up now if I wanted to. There was nothing left.
This thing was doing something to me.
Goddammit, of what?
Before I could give it any more thought, I was already asleep again.
The next time I woke up, I thought I’d melted into the mattress. I tried to move something as simple as my toe and failed. I couldn’t talk, either. I couldn’t do anything.
The boy was smiling now.
“Hello,” he whispered into my ear. His voice sounded like metal. “My name is Denny.” He hugged me tighter. “You are my neighbor.”
* * *
I woke with just enough energy to stand from the bed. If I turned my head to the side, everything became blurry, so I kept my focus straight ahead as I stumbled downstairs. In the living room, I stopped in front of a mirror and confirmed what I’d already expected.
I found my parents still on the couch. The crushed-up pills had disappeared from the table. Sometime during the night they had woken up, snorted them, then passed back out. The boy sat on the floor next to them, legs Indian-style, staring up at me.
“Go home,” he told me. “It’s time to go home.”
If I still had a mouth, I would have told him okay.
I would have told him good luck.
Instead, I walked outside and headed next door. I crawled through the basement window, easing myself down carefully this time. Despite no longer having eyes, somehow I could still see. Everything seemed blurry. Like a camera lens contaminated with a fingerprint. If I walked any faster I would have fallen, but there was no need to rush. I was where I was supposed to be. Where I was always supposed to be.
I entered the empty room and closed the door behind me and stood under the dangling lightbulb and waited.
Eventually, my family would come down to check on me, and together we would play.
There were no windows here.