The boys venture into their creepy neighbor’s yard in search of their lost football.
Continued from Part One. . .
Just before dusk, they heard Ron’s car making that awful screeching noise it always made in reverse gear. Alan dashed upstairs and looked out the window to confirm it.
“He’s gone,” Alan yelled to his brother downstairs. Taking note of the impeding darkness outside, he went into his parent’s room and grabbed the flashlight from the nightstand before heading back down the stairs. Since it was Friday night, and Alan and Thomas’s mom and dad had already headed out for their weekly soirée with their friends from work, the boys didn’t have to worry about explaining what they were doing or where they were going.
Thomas took the lead. Alan attempted to light the way from behind his big brother, but Thomas told him to kill the flashlight. “Don’t use that unless we really need it. It could give us away.” Alan shut it off, but kept it ready.
The boys crept through the narrow portion of yard in between the two houses. When they reached the back of the house it opened up into a large, triangular backyard. There were two thick oak trees and a crooked birdhouse with peeling yellow paint. They paused a moment to inspect, then continued around in the direction of the other side of the house. The only sound was their shoes crunching the St. Augustine grass. Their football was nowhere in sight.
When they came to the other side, their progress halted. The section of yard between Ron’s house and the next one over was blocked off by a fence. In the middle of it was a gate with a padlock on the handle.
“What the hell?” Thomas said. “Why is there a fence here?”
“I don’t know, but if I was taking someone’s stuff, that would be a good place to put it.”
The boys stared at the gate for a few moments before Thomas broke the silence. “Gimme the flashlight come over here.” He approached the gate.
Thomas was only thirteen but already a shade under six-foot-two. He told Alan to get down on one knee and used the younger boy’s leg to stand on. With the added inches, he was just able to peer over the gate and through the bougainvilleas that ran along the top of the fence. He raised the flashlight to his head, clicked it on and examined the enclosed space.
The beam illuminated a rectangular area of grass about thirty feet long and roughly eight in width. To the right was the side of Ron’s house. To the left was a row of bushes trimmed to be exactly as tall as the fence right behind them. At the back, the row of tall bushes continued. There was no gate on that end. After a few seconds of searching, Thomas saw a brown shape at the bottom of the row of bushes. “I see the football,” he whispered.
“Good, now get off my leg.”
Thomas hopped down. “I don’t know how we’re gonna get in, though.” He yanked on the padlock. It didn’t budge.
Alan studied the fence, particularly the end that terminated at Ron’s house. The fenceposts were shaved into spikes at the top, which would theoretically make an intruder think twice about scaling it. But to a nine year old boy who weighed less than one hundred pounds, they actually made perfect handholds.
“I can climb it,” Alan said. “Right near the house. I can grab onto the roof after I swing my legs up. You can boost me to make it easier.”
Thomas started to argue, but one second look at the fence, he reconsidered. Alan had a point. And although he was the taller one, Alan weighed less and would be easier to hoist.
“How will you get back over, though?”
“If it’s anything like our fence, that side will have crossbeams I can step on so I won’t even need a boost.”
Thomas figured his little brother was right. A few moments later, he had his hands clasped together, waiting for Alan to step into.
It was even easier than they expected. With a boost from Thomas, Alan was able to get his right leg wedged between fenceposts. The overhang of the roof made for an excellent spot to lift himself up over the fence, where he saw nothing but green grass below. He stepped over the fence with his left leg and prepared to land. For one horrible split second on the way over, he thought his right foot may be caught between the fenceposts and he was going to flip over headfirst, but the weight of his body snatched it free and he landed with no problem.
“Made it, throw over the flashlight.”
The flashlight, nearly invisible against the darkening sky, came spinning end-over-end moments later. It thudded on the ground next to him. He picked it up and started to search the little fenced-in area.
The football they’d lost earlier in the day was easy to spot. He tossed it over and Thomas voiced pleasure in its arrival. When Alan trained the light back to the bushes, though, nothing stood out at him. He looked all along the bottom of the row of bushes, crouching down and sifting through branches and leaves. But there wasn’t another item to be found.
“I can’t find any more.”
“There’s gotta be. Did you check all in the bushes?”
“Yeah, there’s nothing.”
Alan made one more cursory swipe of the flashlight beam along the bottom of the bushes, then decided to head back over. He’d been right about the crossbeams on the fence. The climb back over wouldn’t been too bad.
About halfway across the section of lawn, right in the middle, something caught his foot and he hit the ground, losing the flashlight in the process. He cursed in a hushed tone, glad that his brother wasn’t there to laugh at his clumsiness.
He grabbed the flashlight and pointed it to see what had tripped him up. There was a rusty metal handle rising out of the grass. It was only half a foot long and about the width of a cigar, nearly impossible to see in the darkness. Its presence sparked Alan’s curiosity, and he put his return back to his house on hold to investigate.
“Are you coming?” Thomas asked when Alan didn’t immediately appear at the corner of the fence.
“Just a minute, I found something.”
“No, it’s a handle or something.”
Alan didn’t answer, because he’d already pulled up on the handle and was in the process of deciphering the unspeakable scene just below him.
The handle was connected to a square metal door that was camouflaged with sod. Alan heard a tiny click when he grasped the smooth metal bar, as his hand had depressed a latch on the underside. When he pulled up on the door, which took most of his strength, it revealed a concrete staircase leading to a very dimly lit underground room.
Eight pairs of eyes stared back up at him. Eight dirty faces. Eight heads of straggly hair. Children no more than three or four years either side of his age, wearing filthy clothes. They stood, staring up at Alan with blank expressions, in a cramped space about the size of a walk-in closet. The place smelled of sour milk, sewage, and mildew.
Before Alan’s meager shoulder muscles could no longer hold the weight of the metal door, he shined the flashlight inside. The children inside shielded their eyes from the beam. Alan saw the sliver tray of rotten vegetables in one corner and a bucket of what looked like feces in the other. He saw an opening in the farthest part of the room, about three feet high, leading off to some unknown destination, blocked off by a gate of iron bars.
Then, just before his shaky arm finally relented and sent the metal door slamming back down, he saw the balls. About ten of them were strewn about the feet of the children. Nerf footballs, little foam baseballs, multicolored tennis balls. Alan recognized them all.
“What was that?” Thomas yelled from behind the fence. “Hey! You okay?”
Alan could only muster a grunt. When Thomas asked if he was okay for the second time, he was finally able to respond with a “yeah” that sounded as if it came from very far away, from some other person entirely.
Alan backed away slowly from the hatch. He kept the beam of the flashlight on the metal handle, as if expecting it to burst open at any moment.
“We gotta call dad,” he told Thomas.
“What for? Come back over here. What was that noise?”
“We need mom and dad.” Alan finally turned his back from the handle and started to hurry over to the fence when his brother stopped him.
“Wait!” Thomas said in the loudest whisper he could. “Do you hear that?”
Alan froze in place. He listened. An engine hummed from behind him, in front of the house. Then it turned off.
“He’s here,” Thomas said.