Crooked Stick Figures
by Lee Thompson
Crooked Stick Figures © 2011 by Lee Thompson
Cover Artwork © 2011 by Jean Schweitzer
All Rights Reserved.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
The house was beautiful, carved of rough black stone, the hills around it alive with vegetation, stubborn in their fight with the coming fall. Trees littered the property, some of the branches nearly touching the roof. There were no lights on inside. The nearest neighbor wasn’t visible from here, and I wondered who had made the call to Child Protective Services. I stepped from my Jeep hoping that this was just some kid trying to get their parents in trouble, not a spouse who was sick of her partner taking aggression out on their son or daughter with a fist or razor.
Storm clouds mounted and turned the sky nearly black by noon. The house’s shadow stretched toward me like midnight taffy, secretions of nightmares long held close to my heart. The skin on the base of my neck itched as I neared the stone steps with an empty file folder dangling from my left hand. I was only here to ask questions, to find out what was going on between parents and children and make an assessment. But the promises we make to help are nothing more than words until they hold beneath the weight of action. My knees creaked as I neared the large doors. I hit the doorbell and waited, thankful for the comfort of the pistol hidden beneath my coat. Child Protective Services didn’t endorse it, but I’d seen enough to know it’s best to be prepared for anything. Evil lurks right over our shoulders because it can bind itself to the hearts and thoughts of our neighbors.
The door creaked as it pulled inside. A young blonde girl, maybe eight years old, peeked around the edge, her hair pulled back in a pony tail.
I said, “Hello, I’m John McDonnell. What’s your name?”
I knelt on one knee to be eye level with her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What’s your name?”
“Are your parents home, Virginia?”
She glanced over her shoulder, and I wasn’t certain if she was talking to me or the shadows crowding the hall, or someone hiding within them. “I don’t play children’s games anymore.”
Heat flooded my neck. I squeezed the empty file tighter, because this place reminded me of the Johnston Manor, reminded me of demons and blood and family secrets.
Her eyes were black smudges surrounding emeralds. Drumming her fingertips against mahogany, she said, “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Still play children’s games?”
I shook my head. “No.” I glanced down the hall. I listened but heard only my breathing and the rustle of cloth as I shifted my stance. “Will you get your parents for me?”
“He don’t like you playing children’s games.”
“Who doesn’t like me playing children’s games?” I put a hand to the cool wood and pushed the door open farther. She stumbled and caught herself, and then bounced away on her remaining leg, her pony tail like a whip cracking the back of her neck. I shivered as the first drops of rain tapped my shoulders like ghostly fingers. Someone had chopped her left leg off at the knee and her wound dripped blood in bright dots, marking a trail as she struggled into the gloom, past the staircase, and down the hall.
I wanted to call for her, tell her to stop, my heart aching with anger. I wanted to get my hands on her father’s neck and squeeze until his face turned dark blue and the terror in his eyes lit the living room. I crossed the threshold and hollered for her parents. The house smelled of old wood and musty books. The air tasted like blood. No one answered but the building wind and a creaking floorboard upstairs. I resisted the urge to pull my pistol and instead ran a hand over the wall until I found the light switch. I flicked it, and the entryway only grew darker. I pulled my cell and dialed Kimberly LaPorte, the manager at C.P.S., to ask for a police car and ambulance—this wasn’t going to be one of the easy cases; ones like this always ended up brutal.
She answered on the first ring.
“John? Are you in the field?”
The phone chirped and flashed a low battery signal. I said, “Kim, I’m at—” before it died in my hand.
The little girl stood at the end of the hall with her arms behind her back. She whispered, “We’re not allowed to play children’s games. No tattling.”
My pulse quickened. Shadows deepened across the steps leading upstairs. I whispered, “Who hurt you? Was it your father?”
“There’s a message for you in the bath tub. He left it.”
“Boom Stick.” She pulled both hands in front of her and drummed the air—rat-a-tat-tat. She bounced back on her good leg, shoulders slamming the wall, her face as still as it was pale. She tilted her chin and stared at the ceiling.
“Boom Stick,” she whispered.
The kid glared at me with what at first I thought hatred because she looked so much older and more scarred than a child ever had the right to look, the lines in her forehead carved by trials a child should never see. Tears spilled and wet her cheeks. She sobbed and said in the softest and most broken voice I’d ever heard, “My parents couldn’t protect me. And nothing can protect you. He knows who you are. He said you are not his friend.”
I curled my fingers, trying to draw her to me. I said, “Come on. I’ll get you out of here. We’ll bandage your leg. You can tell me your story. Where your parents are. Where Boom Stick is.”
Rain hammered the roof. It sounded like a dozen children running for their lives. The little girl placed a finger against her lips. From behind her back she pulled a single sheet of notebook paper. She set it on the marble floor, catching herself with her free arm before she tipped over. She wiggled back to the wall and stretched her leg out, rubbed her knee with those tiny fingers. She yawned and slowly faded until there was nothing more than the paper to prove she existed at all.
Get out of here, I thought.
But I wanted to know what was written on the paper. If another demon left me a message and wanted to play games there was no use running. And my philosophy has always been simple. Don’t run unless it’s your only remaining choice. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and pulled the pistol, my gaze on the staircase shadows as they deepened near the second floor landing.
A dozen steps, that’s all, I thought. One at a time.
Sweat dripped down my spine.
It was an old legend around where I grew up, how in the sixties, a drummer who had dabbled in sacrificial and ritual murder left his band to partake of children’s innocence. The cops never caught him. The country folk still told their kids that he was out there, if nothing more than to scare them into never straying far from home, to prevent them speaking to approaching strangers. One summer thirteen kids went missing. They were found in pieces—some arms in farmer’s fields, others in the river, a leg in a hollowed tree, a torso staked to a hunting cabin. It was the summer of blood and flies. No one ever found their heads. No one wanted to imagine what Boom Stick did with them, alone, in the dark.
I hadn’t thought of the legend in thirty years.
Thunder rumbled and the old roof groaned.
Wind banged the front doors off the wall.
I cocked the hammer of the .38 and jumped at shadows, feeling like a kid again—entranced yet terrified. Ghosts drifted in and out of my peripheral vision; children demolished in pleasure, their shadowy forms humped and kicking and crawling because he took a hacksaw to them and lit candles inside their hollowed ribcages.
Water dripped in the tub upstairs.
Or Virginia was still close by.
Rain dotted the window at the end of the hall, black beneath the day’s failing light.
The house stank of the bog that ran off the Loyalsock River in the low country, when storms raged and every animal bristled with fear.
I thought, This place doesn’t exist.
My mind clouded and I scratched my finger on the trigger guard. I shook my head, unable to remember how I’d gotten here, what roads I drove, or why. My stomach hurt and I couldn’t stop trembling.
Easy. Take it easy.
Hot air blew down the corridor and something stomped on the second story floor. I knelt and grabbed the paper, feeling heat trapped in my face, the paper crumbling, and I thought, No! as I flipped it over and glimpsed the child’s scrawl: the word Boom Stick underscored with slashes, most of the page crowded with jagged lines that seemed to mean nothing. I sucked in another breath, suddenly dizzy, and squeezed the pistol’s grip.
Hell calls some of us.
And some of us are stupid, or stubborn, or sick enough to answer.
I blinked as shapes on the page twisted around each other. Men, bent and crooked like intertwining snakes, nipped at my fingers until blood blossomed and stained the page.
Not men, I thought. Children who want to grow up and never will. Children buried in trunks of trees, in forest paths, stuffed in abandoned cars.
The wind moaned and the paper stilled in my hand. I blinked sweat from my eyes.
“You’re still here, aren’t you?” I glanced left and right, bones heavy, mind nearly mush as the paper caught fire and I dropped it before it singed my fingers. The children screamed from every wall. The dead sang songs for me.
“What did he do to you, kid?”
I knelt again and sifted through the ashes, wanting to bring them back, make them whole because I know what it’s like—we all know what it’s like—to have something taken from us, and to have our innocence robbed and our soul ground to dust and trapped in endless burning.
Shadows swept across the walls. Crooked stick figures danced across the face of a grandfather clock near the step-side wall, and children whispered, He said you’re not his friend.
I shivered, thought, Tear it down. Get the cops out here looking. Who fucking cares if they think you’re crazy.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
The house trembled as cries echoed from long-untilled soil. The illusion shattered like glass, and I squeezed my eyes tight as ash and leaves battered me and rain pelted my head and neck. I brushed debris from my face and stood, surrounded by a forgotten forest. To my right, a rusting, claw-foot bathtub sat decaying among the bramble. A small hand, most of the skin eaten away by beasts and elements, lay draped over the edge.
I cried for Virginia and the chances stolen from her, my hand fumbling with the gun, while children peeked around trees and whispered as one, My parents couldn’t protect me. And nothing can protect you. He knows who you are. He said you are not his friend.
They drummed the air—rat-a-tat-tat—and lightning etched the sky.
About The Author
Lee Thompson started selling work in early 2010. You can find his stories in Delirium Books, Darkside Digital, Sideshow Press, Shock Totem, Apex’s Zombie Feed anthology, Tasmaniac Publications, and other neat places. He’s worked a lot, sweated a lot, and continues to take up space the best he can. The best place to keep track of what he’s up to is his blog: http://alongthispathsodarkly.blogspot.com