Everyone needs a strange person in their life. The strange people are our protectors, and when they’re gone the world becomes a dangerous place to live. For Sid that person was his grandmother. She’d died two days ago. She'd been reduced to little more than her stuff and her protective stand was gone at the moment Sid needed it most.
A disorganized person with a lot of things is called a packrat. If they keep those very same possessions in tidy order then they are a collector. Nan was a collector. It was her family that made her a packrat. Sid stood in her dining room, where everything she owned was thrown into heaps while his aunts and uncles rifled through it. His parents weren't there and wanted no part of it.
A woman with dyed red hair was going through a stack of Franklin Mint plates depicting scenes from Gone With the Wind. She turned to Sid, her green eyes bulging behind behind glasses that could've been cut from a goldfish tank.
“Why don't you go outside and play?” she said.
Play what? Sid was on the cusp of adolescence and more interested in video games.. He was only here because he lived a couple blocks over and had a need to be witness to this desecration. Sid shrugged and started towards the kitchen.
He heard a door shut somewhere in the house. Sid wandered into the dim hallway and looked around. There was the bathroom, with its pink fuzzy toilet seat cover and the pillbox, soap, and toothbrush marshalled in a neat line along the counter. No one had bothered to grave rob those artifacts.
Further on down the hall, the door to Nan's bedroom was open. All he saw was the end of the bed. And a pair of men's boots pointing up, with legs attached.
“Sid, get over here.”
His brother Will was standing at the other end of the hallway. Glancing back, Sid saw the feet twitch and heard the bed creek, as if the thing in there knew someone was watching and wanted to get up and investigate.
“Who's there?” he heard an unfamiliar voice whisper.
Sid followed Will outside, to the trio of trees that stood in a line by the highboard fence. A swing still hung from one. Sid remembered how he used to ride it and how sometimes he’d see things through the gaps between the boards as he swung up and down.
The house on the other side had burned down when Sid was little. To this day all that remained was a foundation that opened to the sky and often filled with water.
Nan used to say watch out for the looking shadows; sometimes they watched from behind the fence. Nan also said the looking shadows were waiting for her. She wasn't going to let them take her, though. Her strangeness made Sid feel safe. Whatever a looking shadow was, it couldn’t have been a match for her. No one was.
Wiill showed him an object wrapped in a shipping blanket. He unfolded the package to reveal a pistol.
“It’s a Webley Enfield revolver.” he said. “Grandad had it in the war. Nan always said it was for me. But do you think anyone in there would let me have it?”
“I can’t believe it.” said Sid. “Wish I’d thought to get in there before the rest of them.”
“Don’t worry.” He displayed a conspiratorial grin. “I’ve got your back.”
Will produced a small hinged wooden box that rattled as he moved it. The top was engraved with a nautical scene. Sid recognized it as something his grandfather had made shortly before his own death ten years before. He opened the box to find coins from various parts of the world.
“I knew it was something you always loved when she’d take it out.” Will said.
It was a pretty good gift and Sid felt a lot better having it. He had felt out of place since Nan died. Then his aunt had shooed him away and looking at her face through those glasses gave him the uneasy sense of being on the other side of a portal, of being trapped in a place where he could only watch, helpless while the world was dismantled. Is that what it felt like to be a ghost?
He noticed that a board was missing from the tall fence. It looked like there were footprints in the thin snow, leading away from the hole in the fence (from the water logged grave of the home beyond) towards the house.
Who knew what people might be hanging out in the abandoned lot? Now that he was a little older he didn’t believe in looking shadows anymore. Nan had understood that telling Sid there was nothing to worry about was useless. Better to admit the world was full of strange things and claim to be powerful enough to resist them.
Sid retrieved his favorite coin from the box. It was a Greek 10 lepta coin with a round hole in the middle. He put the box down and removed a chain that was looped around his neck. The chain was strung through a single house key. Sid slid the coin on the chain and slipped both it and the key beneath his shirt. Now he’d have that piece of his grandmother with him everywhere.
The boys decided it was best to get lost before someone discovered what they’d taken.
“I got to go to work.” Will said.
When Sid got home, no one was there. He fished the chain with his key and the coin out and unlocked the door. The apartment was the second floor flat of three floors, and there was a dark narrow hallway leading to a set of steps that curved around a wall. The radiator clanked and hissed. Just above this sound he heard a voice.
A pair of shoes stuck out on the last step before the turn. Someone was sitting on the staircase at the spot where it went behind the wall.
“Who are you?” said the voice. “What do you want?”
A hand reached around the wall and gripped the corner. It was a male hand, large and wrinkled and marked by stiff gray hairs. Shadows stretched from the fingers clear across the wall opposite the radiator, up to to the threshold where Sid stood. He tightened his grip on his chain, and with his thumb he felt for the little talisman.
The figure began to stand, pulling itself forward and up by the hand on the wall.
Sid turned and left. He made the short walk to the motel where his father and brother worked. He found Dad fixing the lock on the gate around the drained pool. American flag bunting hung on the fence and waved its tattered threads in the stiff wind, which carried sharp little specs of sleet. Most years Dad took down the bunting, but perhaps this year was the year the Inn's owner had ceased to care.
“What the hell are you doing here?” said his father.
“I lost my key.” Sid lied. “No one’s home.”
“Well your brother's here somewhere. Go find him.”
Sid shoved his hands in his pockets and sought shelter from the wind in the passage where the first floor rooms opened to the parking lot, beneath the balcony that serviced the second floor rooms. All the doors were closed except for one, which stood ajar next to a cola machine. It wasn't a Coke machine or even a Pepsi machine, but a box that said “Ice Cold Cola” on it because that was the sort of place this was.
Crouched next to the machine, as if hiding from the open door on the other side of it, was a little girl. She gave him a frightened look and put a finger to her mouth in a shushing motion
“The looking shadows.” she said.
Sid would've ignored the kid except for those words.
“In there?” he said as we walked over to peek in the door.
The girl gave him an emphatic warning with her hands and face, but he looked anyway. Inside the room was darker than night. It seemed the universal saving grace of most cheap hotels was curtains so heavy that they could plunge a room into soul searching blackness, no matter how bright the outside was. The light from the door cast a narrow glowing triangle into the room and over the bed, where Sid could see two boots sticking out. They looked familiar.
Now the girl came running up to him. She grabbed his arm and yanked him back, digging her sharp little fingers into his skin. Sid yelped and nearly threw her back, but instead had a moment of maturity. He knelt down and showed the girl his chain with the coin. He removed the key and gave the rest to her, telling her it would keep her safe. It's what Nan would have done.
She let him go and examined the little treasure. Sid stepped into the room. Of course the switch didn't work. He pushed the door all the way, expanding the triangle of sunlight into a square. Then he saw what was on the bed.
Boots on the end of dress trousers. Pants pulled up beneath a blazer. And then nothing. Or rather, he discovered a bloody pillow where the head should have been. Bloody was an understatement, however.
Bits of blood and bone and stringy, gooey tendrils of brain tissue were smashed into the pillow case fibers. It was as if someone had taken a hammer to the head over and over, until it was so thoroughly destroyed it was no more than unappetizing mash on the bedsheets. The place smelled horrific. The feet twitched.
The door slammed shut behind him. And the bed creaked in the dark, as though someone were lifting their body off it. Sid heard boot soles hit the ground and a tired groan.
“Who's there?” said the voice.
Slow footsteps tread across the floor and Sid tried to guess what direction they were walking in. He backed away. Then he heard a thunk against a wall and a low drunken sounding “omph” before the thing kept on in another direction.
“Come back here.” it said.
The voice, which could not have been coming from any vocal cords on the headless body, sounded low and a annoyed and a bit sleepy.
Sid tried to make his way to the door but realized he'd gone in the opposite direction when he felt the heavy curtains press against his back. At least he had a chance to get some light in the room. He reached to open the curtains, but as he did so the thing grabbed him and pulled him down, spilling something sticky on his face.
The door flung open. The light wasn't bright, but compared to the complete darkness from before, it was blinding. Sid couldn't see anything but white daggers slicing his eyeballs. The body's arms were all over him and it was shouting over and over…
“What is this? What is this?”
When Sid's vision cleared he saw the headless neck bent towards him. He saw down what remained of its throat, down its bloody gullet into an empty center of blackness. That hole got bigger as it got closer. The voice was coming from down there, as if there was something else living in the hole.
“What do you want from me?” it said.
Then there was a flash of light and a loud bang. The body burst apart. It exploded into a thousand fluttering pieces. They scattered through the room and landed on the walls and the bed. Sid realized they were moths. The things had disintegrated into a swarm of moths.
Will was standing in the door. He held their grandfather's pistol. Behind him stood their father. Will came in and helped him up. Sid shuffled outside and looked around. There was no sign of the little girl.
“I guess it still works.” said Dad.
“Huh?” said Sid, still a bit dazzled.
“Your grandpa's revolver.” He sighed. “Well, you boys go on home. This one's gone. As usual, I've got to clean this up.”
He walked into the room. Sid and Will exchanged glances. Sid looked at the gun. Will sported a week smile and gave him a quick one armed hug before they returned home in silence.
image courtesy of pixabay