The streets were quiet as he limped home, holding his teeth in with a glove and dripping red beads on a frosting of dirty slush. The neighborhood was a warren of narrow streets lined with chain link fences and houses with screened porches, smelling of dog shit.
Josh knew this because he was a paper boy and was used to shuffling past little dry mounds secreted in the corners where old dressers were shoved against the windows. In those drawers people kept baby jars full of screws and picture hooks and bits of oddly shaped metal with mysterious origins.
Josh had good eyes. Being in possession of a quick smile and quicker fingers, he was accustomed to snatching the odd prize he spotted when adults let him into their homes. It was the tax he levied in return for living in this hell.
Of course, he was going to get caught eventually. The Bradley twins had spotted him and now blood was filling his mouth and every time he breathed he wheezed in pain from his crippled gums.
Jacqui was out front with her friends. It was no good, but what could he do? They were gathering snow by the bashed in door of Dad's car and tossing icy missiles over the fence at the neighbor's Rottweiler. The dog was furious but impotent. Someday it would get loose and maul Jacqui and Mom would take it down with a kitchen knife.
She'd always been angry, but had become angrier after a drunk driver had put that dent in the car and put Dad out of work. Their father had been a quiet shadow with a bottle ever since and it wasn't clear who Mom was madder at, him or the other driver.
Jacqui was like her mother in a lot of ways and Josh dreaded her reaction. What he got wasn't what he expected. Jacqui stood in stunned silence with a snowball melting into the knit glove on one hand. The other hand was propped on the hip of her green corduroy skirt.
“Come on Jacqui.” he mumbled. “Leave me alone.”
She dropped the remains of the snowball and rushed up to him shouting, “You can't go in like that.” She took him by the shoulders and turned him around. “You cannot let Mom see you. She'll kill those kids and then we won't have any parents left. I'm serious Josh.”
This hadn't been the first time, but it was the worst. Jacqui had seen it before and her frustration with him was evident on her face as she tucked her rudy red bangs under her cap.
“My teeth.” he blubbered.
Jacqui slapped the back of his head. He blurted a garbled protest and spit up a blob of phlegm and blood, but everything that belonged in his head stayed there.
“Did any of them come out?” she said. “Let's go, we'll find those boys’ parents and they'll take care of you so no one else has to know.”
They retraced the path of red drops and passed through an empty lot with a few short, bare trees hanging onto the stony ground. Beneath one of these was a fabric bag with an orange strap. It bore the words “Lutton Evening Herald” and the image of a child hoisting a rolled newspaper in the air. Josh retrieved the bag.
“It's empty.” his sister said. “Did they take them?”
Josh nodded and Jacqui dragged him to the street on the other end of the lot. She spotted a pile of papers on the sagging porch of a house whose blue shingles had been wind beaten to nearly gray. They climbed the steps and even Jacqui's relentless displeasure had to take a breather when they felt the house grumbling beneath their feet.
“What was that?” said Josh.
She pulled him inside. Why? Of course she thought the twins were in there, but was it really necessary to hunt them down? It seemed Jacqui thought so. Inside they found a few chairs standing guard over a room with paisley wallpaper and hardwood floors. There was a smell in the air. The stench of flesh. Not rotting flesh, but flesh recently opened and separated. Slaughter guts.
The rumbling and vibrating was persistent all around. Someone screamed from somewhere deeper inside. The brother and sister turned to leave, but the wall moved. It shuddered and slid across the floor with the grind of gears and the clank of chains and settled into place in front of the door they'd entered by, blocking their escape.
“This is your fault if we get stuck in here.” Jacqui said.
Sure. Like it was Dad's fault he'd been driving home from work on New Year's Eve, because he worked the graveyard shift, which he wouldn't have had to do if he'd had the guts to apply for the foreman position? “But I just like doing my own job; I don't want to break up fights.” Mom thought it was pathetic, though she had to have some sense she'd never have married someone stronger.
They went through the only exit offered them and came to a narrow staircase. It hummed and visibly vibrated. Jacqui placed a hand on one of the steps to feel it, and the top of it slid away to reveal a bank of gears spinning at different rates. They were smeared with blood. Then the rest of the stairs folded open in similar fashion and became a stack of various interconnected mechanical devices. At spots there appeared to be skin and bone stuck in its metal teeth.
“It's like the escalator that eats you.” said Josh.
The wall behind them moved forward, threatening to push them into the machine's hungry maw. Josh rifled through his pockets and found the items he'd snatched. He tossed screws and nuts and bolts into the gears. They seized up and began to smoke. The flesh, which must have belonged to one of the twins, caught fire.
Jacqui exchanged a terrified glance with her brother. In his hand he was holding his last object, a long skeleton key. They ran around the back of the stairs in search of another way out. Meanwhile the angry walls continued to chase them. At the back of the staircase there was a door.
“Put the key in.” said Jacqui. “Just try it.”
He did so and the door swung open. The passage went into darkness. There were no stairs, only a ladder leading down. The kids had no other choice but to descend.
“How did you know?” said Josh.
“You took that key from the Bradley twins, didn't you? I've seen them climbing into this place before. So I made a guess. It's not so hard, moron.”
They arrived at the basement floor. In the dusty light they spotted a figure. At first it looked like a human sized marionette, strung up in crucifix form with wires extending into the darkness at the edges of the room. As the kids drew closer, they saw it was a person with replacement parts. The hands were hinged claws and a part of the chest was made of riveted plates with a keyhole in the center. A pencil beam of light shot out from a glass eye and pierced the blackness. It swung around as the puppet looked for who'd entered.
“It's you.” it said.
“Jesus christ!” said Josh.
“Joshua!” said his sister, sounding just like their mother.
“It's one of the Bradley twins. Not sure which one.”
“I need…” said the twin. The light beam settled on the key that Josh was still gripping in his sweaty hand, despite having climbed down the ladder. “I need.”
Josh backed away.
“Will let you go.”
Jacqui snached the key and charged up to the mechanical boy. She shoved it into the hole in his chest and twisted. The thing's head tipped up and he groaned as if he were an addict experiencing a hit. Then he looked back down. There was a smile on his face. A flashing grin.
“I don't have anymore.” said Josh.
Jacqui grabbed her brother's hand and said, “You can get more, dum…” She paused. Her grip loosened and her voice softened. “You can get more. It's what you're good at.”
“They stole from me.” said the Bradley twin. “They took my parts so I could not function.”
“Who?” said Josh.
“Everyone!” The voice was no longer that of the bully from a block over. It had become the voice of the house. “They've been taking me apart. Killing me. Get me my parts.”
The basement's bulkhead swung open and sunlight fell in.
“Okay.” said Jacqui. “He can get you your parts.”
“Really?” said Josh. “There must be a reason…”
“It's either us or them. I'll be with you, but it's either us or them.” A tuft of hair had fallen loose from her cap and covered one eye. The other one regarded him with fear and anger, but this time it wasn't directed at him. It was the rare moment when she became the big sister, the protector. “It's really just like it always has been.”
With those words she led him up the bulkhead stairs and to freedom.
image courtesy of pixabay