A Novelette By Robert Swartwood

Chapter 15

Here’s how it ends: the phone rings, but I don’t answer.

I can’t answer. The closest phone is in the kitchen, and I’m not about to get up on my leg to answer it. So I just sit in the dark—it’s now almost ten o’clock, about five hours after Ralph and James left—and I wait for the machine to do its job. After two more rings it finally picks up, and I hear a voice I remember oh so well, a voice that sounds different from this morning.

“Josh, I—I know you’re there, son, and you don’t want to talk to me. And I—I wish I could tell you this in person. What I said this morning … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I love you and your brother very much, and I’m proud of you both. Josh? Are you there, son? Please, pick up. I … okay, listen. We’ll talk when your mother and I get back. I love you guys.”

A click, and he’s gone.

I sit there then for a long time. Maybe it’s only a couple of minutes, maybe an hour, but I’m sitting there, thinking about everything that’s happened today. All the pain and suffering. All the sadness.

And as each second passes, I foolishly realize this isn’t going to turn out well. I can count on seeing Ralph and James again, but they’re not going to be the same. No, they’re going to be changed, and it’s going to be up to me to make sure their souls are put to rest.

I start thinking about my brother. About how he was so young, so innocent, and for something like this to happen is just—

Behind me, somewhere in the house, the sound of footsteps.

Faint, but growing louder.

Closer.

The rifle’s in my lap. I grab it but almost drop the thing, it’s so heavy. It’s slick too, and even though I know it’s sweat from my hands, I imagine it’s covered in blood.

Before Ralph left, he turned off all the lights in the house except the ones in the living room, so anyone passing by would think someone was home. So there’s no light, which sucks, because if there is someone behind me, I can’t see their shadow, I can’t even—

Breathing now. Faint, just like the footsteps, but growing even louder. Even closer.

It’s a kind of wet wheeze, like something’s blocking the person’s airway, so I know that it’s Ralph who’s back, who’s changed.

I grip the rifle again, start to turn around, but before I can even move an inch I hear a voice say my name, clearer than before.

“Josh.”

My body stiffens, but it’s more than just from the word, but rather the voice itself.

The voice is so familiar, yet so strange, so different.

And, like my brother, it slurred my name on a dead tongue.

Behind me, the shuffling footsteps have stopped. Whatever’s there, it’s waiting. I squeeze the rifle tight, I feel the blood coating it, and the only thing I want to do, the only thing in the world, is scream like hell.

But I can’t.

I can only sit there and wait, because maybe, just maybe, if I don’t turn around and see what’s there, it won’t be real. Maybe if I close my eyes it will go away, because I know it’s not Ralph beside me, that’s changed, I know it’s not even James—

Josh.”

So I do close my eyes, I do wish it all away. I wish to start over, to somehow go back in time and make myself a better life. But I can’t do any of that, because in the back of my mind I hear what Ralph told me after I came out of that darkness, I hear his voice and it’s saying:

Tyler … he tore her apart.

And it’s saying:

There isn’t much left of her.

And with my eyes closed, I can almost picture what’s standing there behind me. The rifle in my hand starts to shake; it’s gotten so heavy I can hardly hold it anymore.

Another sound then, accompanying the first. It’s a gurgling, like something that hasn’t been alive very long.

Like something just born.

Then the voice comes back, the wet wheezing one, only this time it doesn’t say my name, but rather something even more terrible.

Say … hello … to your son.”

And that’s when my paralysis breaks, when I’m able to turn.

That’s when the rifle falls off my lap and I see what’s standing behind me, the thing in its hands, looking up at me with dark, inhuman eyes.

That’s when I finally begin to scream.

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