James Edward O’Brien
I went by the old place to warn them. I lorded over the property sometimes, after they left for work––from my catbird seat in the treehouse they’d built for their youngest after acquiring the place in a short sale.
I remembered that tree as a sapling. The husband carried a groundless arrogance and a middle-aged paunch––as if a 401k and three weeks’ vacation was all it took to keep the world’s ills at bay. His wife had a roving eye––careening toward the age when younger men with good intentions seldom looked twice. I’m confident their two children were little more than misfired attempts at scraping purpose from an otherwise superficial, abortive stab at living. I don’t mean to paint them in such a negative light; they’re not so different than anyone else.
Their little boy littered the walls of my treehouse with crude crayon drawings scrawled across mealy construction paper: stick figures with vulgar red mouths beneath charcoal skies, and pointy toothed sawhorse creatures grazing on disproportionate tulips. It’s no small wonder the lummox was able to scale the treehouse ladder without breaking his neck.
Sometimes, I swore his elder sister caught glimpses of me as she rounded the corner toward school and eyeballed the yard from the opposite block. She did so compulsively––her little ritual.
After weeks of watching from my catbird seat, I elected to warn her. Adults neglect to see what’s right under their noses; most children still possess enough instinct, enough imagination, to perceive what doesn’t fit neatly into their elders’ misconception of the world.
I first considered the boy, but that would have been risky––he was too young, and his parents might dismiss me as a figment of his overactive imagination. If either parent took a gander at the crayon drawings that wallpapered the treehouse, they’d know there was no threat of their youngest possessing an imagination, overactive or otherwise.
His elder sister, at least, might be old enough…clever enough…to articulate what I’d come to warn them against. If they were lucky.
Children. Neither seen nor heard. That was the law of the land when I lived in the house. Times had changed, but the forces at work on that house remained––as did I. Things left behind not worth going back for.
After dark, the telltale glow of a tablet illuminated the girl’s garret bedroom window. I climbed. Ancient vines climbed brick face and held the corroding lattice that’d been there since I was a child in place––as much a part of the house as its shudders or gables.
I skittered toward her window, mine a lifetime ago. She’d hung a dreamcatcher from a hook affixed to a yellowed suction cup on the inside of the glass.
I shuddered at the thought of that room, at the thought of the things that’d happened there. Her tablet’s ghostly glare illuminated laminated wallposters. Her spindly legs were tented beneath a pleated comforter.
I raked my nails across the glass. The dreamcatcher trembled, ever so slightly; my presence unnoticed. These windows were double-paned with vinyl frames, designed to keep the outside out.
A far cry from the cracked stained glass couched in wooden frames of my youth. The wind would howl right through them as if they weren’t even there on nights like these. I popped my crowskin collar to ward against the feckless chill.
I rapped on the window pane; the elder sister was so entranced by the light of her screen that she paid me no mind. So, I knocked, louder.
Even that failed to draw her attention––allure of virtual worlds rendered her deaf to the feral wind I’d blown in on. Once upon a time, myriad telenovelas played out through the illuminated panes of this lonely old block. Now peoples’ lives were lived elsewhere, curated––two-dimensional as the goggle lenses and tablet screens that severed their worlds from the real one.
How was I expected to warn them when they’ve donned their bits and blinders and plugged cotton in their ears so willingly? I pounded on the window until fractured webs erupted across the glass. That got her attention.
We locked eyes, her gaze fierce, as if the world was a mild annoyance. I smiled to assure her––placed a finger to my lips.
“Press your ear to the window,” I hissed.
She shrieked. Her tablet cam flash bathed the room in stark light; she snapped a candid of the face in her window too high up for faces to be there.
She flung back the covers. She made for the stairs. Hallway light flooded the room. I’d blown it. Things needed to simmer down. There would be other chances––just not too many of them.
Frustrated, I returned to the clubhouse. I tore down the boy’s abhorrent drawings. I nested among them and waited for morning.
Predawn. The porchlight winked and the backdoor whinnied––husband departed to earn his keep. His briefcase left him slump-shouldered. His gobble neck was razor burned. It spilled over his starched collar. He slurped a coffee thermos. The heinous sound made me second-guess whether I wanted to warn them at all.
An hour or so after daddy, wife and whelps followed. The kids were all backpacks and frowns. They’d be their father given another couple decades to gestate. Unlikely.
The wife wore pajama bottoms that sagged just below the sag of her belly. She was a lioness among jackals. Chunky black sandals housed freshly painted toenails, toes pinched cotton balls.
She duckwalked to the driver’s side door. No wedding ring. She returned after depositing the whelps at school.She dashed inside. Running late again.
It was no small task, driving the nails I’d pried from the treehouse into her tires. She reemerged soon after. She sported a polyester pantsuit pinned with a nametag.
She fired the engine. The deflated car labored slow as a salted slug, rims squealed against driveway asphalt. Naked fingers punished the steering wheel.She phoned Triple A. She disappeared back inside. A van arrived within the hour. A man with massive, silver-haired forearms swapped out the flats and sent her on her merry way.
I’d tried. Abandoned, again. The house. Me. All of it.
The slats of the dormer window above the garret bedroom were splintered with a few stubborn spit curls of peeled white paint––a forgotten nook of the universe unchanged since I’d lived there. The slats shattered like icicles beneath my hooves. I wriggled inside.
It smelled of mold and ammonia in that secret triangle above the garret bedroom. They’d left the old wardrobe untouched. There was something curled up behind it, betrayed by its tattered tail, tireless––unbreathing. I pounced. I would get it before it got me.
It was only a blanket. My blanket, crocheted, motheaten, peppered with rodent droppings––foul-smelling. I’d slept up here often when…no matter when…but often, when life in the rest of the house had stopped feeling like living at all. I unfurled the blanket. A litter of squirrel kits had burrowed inside for their last, long nap––quartet of mummified thumbs with eye sockets, teeth, and tails.
I shouldered the ancient wardrobe into the crisp light of the dormer window. It’s brass-plated corners groaned against the floor. I pried open the wardrobe’s rusty latch.
Everything was still inside: my hobby horse, button eyes gouged from worn fabric, head bereft of stuffing; a verdigris hook ladder; a broken porcelain mask––an unmarried uncle’s souvenir from the Carnevale di Venezia; and a time-brittle pair of leather nappies, its golden-brown linen lining intact and bleach-stinking, all buckles and shame.
While the world unwound at breakneck speed, here time hit a snag. Little changed.
I donned the carnival mask. I secured its band through the eyehole on the side where the fastener had broken. I pried the attic door open with my hobby horse stick.
I secured the hook ladder. I lowered myself into the garret bedroom. There is no lonelier sound than a house without anyone home; it puts the howling wolf to shame. I scurried down the stairs haunted by that childhood feeling of an invisible pursuer swatting my ankles, driving me downward––hungry beak probing at the back of my neck where the carnival mask ribbon wore the skin raw.
The narrow stairwell opened into what had been the parlor in my day. I didn’t like what they’d done to the place. We’d seldom entertained guests––neighbors kept prudent distance and gossiped among themselves.
Feathers tickled my nostrils. The dumbwaiter panel had been entombed in sheetrock. I stormed the kitchen, all polished Moroccan tile and stainless steel.
The basement door was much as it was. I tripped down the rickety stair, eyes accustomed to the darkness. They’d poured cement and laminate over the earthen floor, root cellar a maze of broken bicycles and tangled strands of Christmas lights couched in musty boxes.
I curled up beside the furnace like a mangy stray hoping to purge the tiresome cold from my bones. I do not dream; I nightmare.
I awoke after dusk to noisy footsteps, muted voices upstairs. It is too late for them.
I shook off my bad dreams like a wet dog and began my ascent, slowly, so as not to sound the rickety stairs. I’d donned the dead skin diaper; its jagged buckles bit into my gray gooseflesh.
I burst through the basement door. The husband diced scallions behind a butcherblock island. He paused, dumbfounded. He white-knuckled the kitchen knife. The wife sang over the six o’clock news in the next room over. A stupid, tuneless song.
I heard children’s laughter through the ceiling. Safe, contented––for now. The husband tried to shout, his voice hoarse. He made for me with the kitchen knife; I can tell by his apprehension he’s never fought off more than a hangover.
An inadequate defense against primordial, serpentine limbs. Digits embedded with the wormy filth of the charnel ground that would not have me probed for his ticking pulse. He shuddered like an old house settling. He took one last look at his curated world where no one ever dreamt that this sort of thing might happen.
I am the dreamer beyond the attic who dreams only in nightmares. In my day, cowards twice as fierce lorded over these walls.
James Edward O’Brien grew up in northern New Jersey in the US, where he graduated from punk rock and B-movies to modernist lit and weird fiction. His work has appeared in Unnerving Magazine, the Shadowy Natures anthology, and on the Tales to Terrify podcast. Jim currently resides in Queens, NY with his wife and three rescue dogs. You can follow him on Twitter @UnagiYojimbo.