Alan started climbing when the car door slammed. He was halfway up the fence, reaching up for the roof, when Thomas told him in a hushed tone to stop.
“We can’t go back around that way, we’ll run right into him.”
“So what do we do?”
“Just climb over and we’ll hide.”
Alan reached up to grab the roof, but realized he was still holding the flashlight. He tried to shove it into his pocket, but fumbled, and it fell to the ground. He knew he should retrieve it so as to not leave any evidence of their trespass, but he also needed to hurry and get to the other side so he and Thomas could find a spot to lay low until they could sneak back home. He looked to his big brother for guidance on what to do.
Alan started to speak, but paused when he noticed Thomas’s strange behavior. He was slowly backing away from the fence and looking off toward the other side of the house with a worried, guilty looking expression on his face.
“What do you think you’re doin’?” said a deep, southern-accented voice from the other side of the house. Alan couldn’t see him, but he knew who it was.
“Nothing,” Thomas said. “I came to get my football back.”
“Well I ain’t got your football,” Ron said.
Alan crept back down the side of the fence, careful not to make any noise.
“We saw you with it,” Thomas said. Alan knew Thomas had a tendency to be defiant against authority, but this wasn’t the place for it. He wished Thomas would just shut up and say he was sorry so Ron would let him go home. But after what he’d just seen hidden in the ground behind him, he wasn’t so sure that would happen. He leaned against the fence and peered through one of the slivered openings between fence posts.
Thomas was backing up once again, just as Ron entered the frame, approaching the boy. The old man was wearing a sweat stained wifebeater and pleated khaki shorts, and clutching a brown paper grocery bag to his side. Alan watched as Thomas stole a quick glance in his direction, probably to make sure his little brother was out of sight. Alan’s heart jumped as Ron followed the glance. For a moment, it appeared as if the old man was looking right at him.
Ron turned back to Thomas. “You go in there?” the old man said, nodding his head in the direction of the fence.
“No.” Even though Thomas wasn’t the one who’d jumped the fence, the word sounded defensive when it came out. It sounded like a lie.
“Your mama ain’t gonna be too please with you,” Ron said, still inching toward Thomas.
Alan wished his brother would run. Slip by the old man and high-tail it out of there. Go alert the neighbors. Alan figured he could hide back here all night if he needed. Of course, though, Thomas hadn’t seen the same thing he had, and wasn’t aware of the danger.
But Thomas’s pride wouldn’t allow him to back down. He stood his ground, poking out his meager chest as far as he could, even as Ron got to within just a couple of feet of him. Even as he reached into the brown grocery bag. Even as he pulled out the silver object, reared back with it, and brought it down onto the boy’s head.
Alan gasped, then immediately covered his mouth with his hand, but he sound of his brother hitting the ground had masked the noise. Tears welled up in his eyes. His brother wasn’t moving.
Ron, seeming satisfied, put the object back into the bag, turned, and approached the gate just to Alan’s right. Alan looked around for a hiding spot, but there was nothing. The bushes along the opposite edge were too far away and would make too much noise anyway. All he could think of to do was press himself flat against the fence, hoping the darkness would help mask him in the old man’s peripheral vision.
Alan took two ginger steps toward the fence, careful not to crunch the grass too loud, opened his arms, and did his best to blend into the fence. He pointed his face at the gate, but closed his eyes. He heard a metal-on-metal sound, then the scrape of the bottom of the gate against the grass. Then footsteps.
The first two footsteps were frighteningly close, and Alan braced for a blow to the head. But the next two footsteps told him Ron was getting further away. When the noises stopped, Alan chanced a peek behind him.
Ron had set the bag down beside him and was kneeling on the ground, reaching for the handle. There was a snap as he pressed the hidden latch and then the lid swung open.
Alan saw that his was his best chance. He turned from the fence, and took off around the gate. He heard Ron shout “HEY!” behind him, but there was no hesitation. He took a fleeting glance at his brother, still sprawled on the ground, a trickle of blood visible on the side of his head.
When he turned his head back around, he stopped dead in his tracks. There was a woman in front of him. An enormous, solid woman, wearing a long blue dress with a cook’s apron overtop. In her arms, motionless and limp, was a young girl. The woman looked at Alan with a mixture of curiosity, disappointment, and exasperation. She leaned down and carefully place the young girl in the grass beside her.
Alan looked on, unsure of his next move, until he heard commotion behind him. He didn’t turn back to look, but instead looked at the porch on his left. The windows were all raised, and only screens stood in the way. With the footsteps closing in on him, it was his best option.
Alan got a three-step running start, and jump-kicked his way into the porch. He flew through the screen and actually landed on his feet inside the porch. Ron was yelling something behind him, but it sounded like some other language. Alan’s brain, completely surrendered to his fight-or-flight response, was blocking out any external stimuli it could.
He was now standing in front of a sliding glass door. Beyond it was a kitchen, lit from the ceiling with florescent lights. A tiny circular table with wooden chairs stood next to the kitchen. Behind it was the opening to what looked like the living room.
Praying that it would be unlocked, he grabbed the handle. The door slid open easily. In the second it took Alan to sprint through the kitchen, he noticed a giant pot boiling on the stove, and next to it a cutting board full of diced vegetables.
There was a door at the other end of the living room. Freedom was only a few steps away. Soon he would escape out into the neighborhood and yell for help at the top of his lungs. The door practically shimmered in the dimly lit house.
It was unlocked, but when Alan opened the door, there was only a dark room. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the shape of a car, he realized his mistake. He slammed the door to the garage and turned to find Ron approaching quickly from the living room. There was no time to try to remember where the other exit was. There was only time to get away. Alan chose to run to his right.
He found himself moving through a narrow hallway. Pictures of elderly people dressed in their Sunday best blurred on the walls beside him. Several doors beckoned. He knew now that he’d run the wrong way, that the front door was behind him, but he’d already thought of a new plan. One of these doors would have to have a window he could slip through. He’d run into one, lock the door behind him, and crawl outside.
He chose the second door on the right, bursting into what looked like a guest bedroom. The bed was made, covered with a thick floral quilt. Behind a wooden chest of drawers was a window. Alan locked himself inside, with Ron only feet away and reaching for the handle, again saying something that didn’t register to Alan’s brain.
The pounding on the door started just as Alan reached the window and pulled back the curtains. Beyond was the backyard, and he had a clear view of his big brother, whose position had not changed. He felt around the window frame, trying to locate a latch of some sort, but there was nothing. There was no way to open it. It was just a rectangular hole in the wall filled in with glass.
A much larger thud shook the door behind him. At any moment, Ron was going to be inside the room with him. Alan scanned the room for something heavy. He was going to have to break the window. There was nothing on top of the chest of drawers. He quickly opened and closed the top two drawers. Empty. He turned around. There was a closet on the other side of the room, but it was right next to the door, from which came another loud thud. He had the silly idea to crawl under the bed, and actually looked down before realizing how absurd that would be. But when he looked at the floor, something else caught his eye.
A handle. Similar to the one he’d found out in the grass. He had no more than a second to process it when the door finally gave way to Ron’s foot and slammed open against the wall. Alan could see the figure standing in the threshold. There were no other options. He bent down, grasped the handle, and pulled.
A square shaped opening emerged in the carpet, and before Alan could think, his legs were carrying him down a small staircase. The tunnel was lit every ten feet or so by weak bulbs behind thin metal bars. Alan was just short enough not to have to duck as he made his way into the unknown, but he crouched anyway as he shuffled along the concrete floor. He barely noticed that he was softly groaning with each breath – a helpless, confused whine that he would have been ashamed of if anyone he knew had heard it.
It only took him a few more seconds to reach the end, after a sharp turn to his left.
He knew where he was right away. He stared past the iron bars and into the room full of children. The same room he’d stared down into just a few minutes prior. The nameless children stared back at him. Blank expressions. Alan had a moment to wonder what they were thinking, or if they were even thinking at all. He couldn’t tell.
“Big mistake,” said a voice behind him. He didn’t need to guess who it was. He slumped down to his knees, still clutching the bars, and began to weep. His breath caught in his chest. There was a brief recognition of a hand on his scalp, grabbing his hair as if it were a toupee about to be ripped off, and that was where his memory ceased.
Alan woke up. His first thought was that his head hurt. He instinctively felt the egg shaped bump above his left ear, but it hurt to touch it. He looked around. There were others. Some were looking at him, some had their eyes closed.
There were only blurry, fragmented thoughts. Hunger. A sound like the ocean. He thought he knew one of the others. A taller boy who kept looking at him. No one spoke.
A while later someone brought a tray of hot food. A man from above. He set down the tray and when he left, he took one of the others with him up the stairs.
Alan ate. So did the others. More time passed. Most of them fell asleep.
There were some toys on the ground. Mostly balls. He picked up the two closest to him and tried playing with them for a few moments, but they were no fun. They were no fun at all.
* * *
I don’t feel like this is the greatest story I’ve ever written, but it was fun. Just happy to have completed another thing I started.