where the bad kids go

CHAPTER ELEVEN

I packed away all of my belongings into my suitcase and backpack, and then I threw those into the trunk of my car that emanated the sweet smell of gasoline.

    I opened all of the windows so that the fumes wouldn’t build up and the house wouldn’t level the entire neighborhood. The house rumbled and shifted as I dumped the fluid along the walls of the living room and the kitchen. The gasoline sloshed to and fro as I splashed it over the furniture and the carpet and against the cabinets and onto countertops.

    I rushed into my mother’s bedroom and spilled gasoline along the walls. Her bed soaked up the clear fluid with a hint of yellow and mixed in with the urine stains that plagued her mattress. I made sure to cover as much closet space with the fluid before I stepped out of the room that suffocated me with the fumes.

    As I walked down the hallway, I dumped the last of the gasoline along the floor up until I reached my bedroom. I’d left the second canister waiting at the door and picked it up as I walked in.

    I stared at my bedroom, one of the least visited parts of the house since I’d arrived. I had thought that this room would be the most impactful during my stay, but it had remained the same since I was a kid. There was nothing in here to help me with my past except remind me of the life I once had, where I’d spent most of my nights in fear up until the terrible night. That was the only thing that this room held.

    I doused it.

    The hallway bathroom needed not be touched by the gasoline. The only flammable features it had were the walls and ceiling, shower curtain, and bath towels. Once the house would erupt in fire, the bathroom would easily get caught in the blaze.

    I continued past the bathroom as my feet squished into the soggy carpet and stopped at the doorway of the very last space of the house that still needed to be soaked in gasoline. The basement. I hadn’t been down there since my dad broke in, and as I looked back on that night, my heart fluttered and my stomach twisted at the image of his face when he saw The Thing. It’s not real, he had repeated.

    But it was. And it lived down there.

    A shaky hand weakly lifted to the doorknob and turned it. The door screamed in pain when I opened it, as if it were already on fire. I looked down the staircase and at the light bulb that was still illuminated from that night. It swayed slightly, like someone had just walked past it, or just turned it back on. My body trembled. I didn’t want to go back down, but I had to. I needed to.

    As I descended the steps backward, I splashed gasoline on each wooden plank. The fluid dripped into the darkness below. I imagined The Thing soaked with gasoline as it emerged from the shadows, and I’d throw a match on it and watch it burn. I smiled at the thought until I laughed. A burning sensation tingled throughout my arms and legs as I drenched gasoline all over the boxes of junk that my mother had left behind. Gasoline was thrown onto the brick walls, near the wooden ceiling where the flames could lick at it and bring the entire upstairs floor down. Down onto Its home.

    I circled my way through the basement interior until I reached the crawlspace. I only had a miniscule amount of gasoline left, just enough to coat the outside of the crawlspace. I splashed the fluid on the walls around the already burnt and rotting door flap, on the smeared soot from my burning mother, on the floor where she stood and later collapsed as her muscles melted beneath her weight.

    I stepped away from the crawlspace and stared at it. I imagined The Thing inside, dragging Itself around as It was trapped and in the dark. And It probably liked it.

    Behind me, the light bulb hummed.

    My vision became hazy from the fumes, and I turned around to finally leave the basement and never look back. I bumped into one of the opened boxes and saw the Bible inside. I wanted to see what my mother had written. As I reached for it, the light bulb hummed louder and louder. The basement began to glow brighter as the bulb’s intensity increased.

    The moment I grabbed the Bible, the light bulb exploded. Sparks rained down and ignited the gasoline below. It took seconds for the entire basement to erupt in fire, and the flames licked up the staircase and seared across the entire upstairs floor. The walls carried the flames to the ceiling and burned through to the roof.

    The house roared.

 

 

Marco had been in the shower when Jesse called. As he dried himself off, he saw that he had a missed call and a voicemail. He assumed that it was Jesse apologizing for his behavior, or maybe he’d gotten drunk and left a voicemail full of more insults and hate. He ignored it, at least for a little while.

    He couldn’t shake off the thought that something was wrong, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He’d had many instances where something heavy hung over his head all day, and he would expect the worse news to arrive but it never did. However, this feeling was different and he wasn’t sure where it’d come from or who it was about. All he knew is that it was something bad.

    Marco arrived at the station and punched in his time. He kept conversation short with the rest of the officers on duty for the night and snatched the keys to his designated patrol car. As he walked to his vehicle, he opened the voicemail and listened to it.

    At the end of the message, Marco stood at the door of his vehicle. “What?” He asked his phone sharply as panic snuck in. He wasn’t sure he heard the message right, and replayed it. Jesse’s voice was shaking, scared and confused. He seemed unsure about his plan, but each word was said in a way that meant it. I’m going to burn It down.

    Marco jumped inside of his patrol car and zoomed through the parking lot. He cursed at the slow chain link gate as it sluggishly crawled across the lot entrance. Once enough room allowed his patrol car to squeeze through, the tires squealed as he zipped out onto the street with lights flashing.

    As he sped down the roads, Marco redialed Jesse’s number that redirected him straight to voicemail, unaware that Jesse’s phone was packed away in his backpack. “Jesse, it’s Marco. Whatever you do, do not follow through with whatever plan it is that you have. It’s not worth it. You have to think about what you’re doing. Please listen to this before you go through with it. Please. Call me back as soon as possible, but please, do not do anything until I get there! I’ll be there in five minutes!”

 

 

The basement was a flickering light show of oranges and reds and yellows as everything was eaten away by flames. Boxes crumpled into ash and shot embers up into the blaze that engulfed the basement ceiling. The staircase floorboards snapped into pieces as the fire destroyed the only exit out of the hellhole. The smoke detectors upstairs blared their annoying ring, and one by one each emitted a dying squeal as the fire melted them away.

    Smoke choked my lungs and I held a shirt from one of the boxes to my mouth and nose. The heat stung my eyes with the smoke and soon I became lost in the haze, unsure of which direction was which. I wondered if this was how animals caught in forest fires felt.

    The basement ceiling thundered as the house began to fall into itself. The flames licked up the walls and chewed away at the wooden panels that poorly covered the underside of the house. Fiery debris rained around me and it was beginning to become too hot for me to breathe.

    The deteriorating ceiling crackled and snapped under the weight of the burning kitchen above. I looked up just in time to see the entire floor above collapse into the basement with a deafening BOOM. A rush of hot air blew me backward and onto the dirty basement floor, surrounded by fire. A storm of embers rained upward and into the upstairs where they fused with the flames that licked through the roof and into the clear, starry night sky.

 

 

Marco’s patrol car swerved around the corner of the neighborhood street and zipped past the few families that cautiously emerged from their houses to stare at the flames that made the entire cul-de-sac glow.

    The car skidded to a stop behind Jesse’s car and Marco hopped out of the driver seat with his radio receiver in hand. He was hypnotized by the towering flames as they consumed the house. He’d never seen something so beautifully haunting.

    Marco snapped from his trance and shoved the receiver to his mouth. “We have a major 904, possibly a 447 at 975 Juniper Cove. I need fire rescue and paramedics ASAP! I repeat, major 904, possible 447, at 975 Juniper Cove. Fire rescue and paramedics ASAP!”

    He threw the receiver in the vehicle and ignored any filtered response that mumbled through as he ran to the house. The front porch was a barrier of flames that flicked at his face and made him sweat immediately. He shot around the corner of the house and sprinted to the back sliding door.

    The back door’s glass had shattered from the immense heat that spilled into the cool night air, and Marco gritted his teeth as his skin simmered. He coughed as he choked on the hot air and stepped cautiously into the flaming kitchen. The floor beneath him sagged. He halted and looked down.

    “Marco!” Jesse screamed as he huddled in the corner of the basement with a Bible in hand.

    He wanted to respond with Polo! but this was not the place nor time. “Jesse! Are you hurt?!”

    “No!” He screamed his response in the roaring fire. “I’m trapped!”

    “There has to be another way out!” Marco held his forearm to his mouth as smoke clogged his airway. He watched Jesse search frantically around the basement in a last hope to escape the blaze. The heat had started to boil Marco’s insides. He’d have to leave the house soon if he wanted to live as well.

    Jesse looked back up at him with a fear that wrapped around his face, and hopeless eyes that said, There’s no way out. I’m going to die down here.

 

 

I’m going to die down here, I thought. Or maybe it was just another voice to torment me. Either way, it was true.

    I looked up at Marco who shielded his face from the heat of the flames and the suffocating smoke. His face dropped as we stared at each other for what might be the last time. Tears leaked from their ducts as the intensity of the heat increased and the smoke grew thicker. Or maybe it was guilt. So much time to catch up, and instead he will watch a friend burn alive with no more chances to reconnect.

    No. I wasn’t going to let the house win. I wasn’t going to have my nightmare come true. I wasn’t going to suffer the same fate as my mother.

    I rushed through all of my memories of this house, searched through every nook and cranny and even the deepest, darkest corners to find an escape. I imagined myself as a child again, brought down here by the very beast that hid inside the bowels of the house. I turned to the crawlspace and its black, rotten door flap surrounded by the flames that almost moved in slow motion. I opened the door with my mind and trekked through the dark cavern that lay beneath the house. I saw the slits of sunlight as they peeked into the depths of Hell.

    I snapped my gaze back up to Marco, who had began to step away from the massive hole where the kitchen once was. “I know how to get out!” I screamed. “The front porch! The crawlspace is under it!”

    “The what?!” He shouted back.

    “The crawlspace!” I replied as I pointed to the door flap. “You can break through the front porch!”

    Marco nodded and coughed as he stumbled backward and eventually through the back door. I turned to the door flap and stared at the rotting metal lock that kept it shut. The flames beneath the crawlspace entrance had withered away once they’d licked the last of the gasoline off the floor. I used the shirt that covered my mouth to slide the metal lock undone. The door flap projected outward slightly.

    I didn’t have much time to contemplate going in the crawlspace, but I also wasn’t necessarily willing to go inside either. It was my only option if I wanted to survive. If the air hadn’t been so hot to breathe, I probably would’ve taken a deep, hesitative breath before succumbing to the last resort of entering the place where the bad kids go.

    I repressed my memories once again and clambered into the crawlspace as fire flicked at my feet.

    The cavernous crawlspace rumbled beneath the collapsing house as I pulled myself through the dirt on my stomach. I looked back at the door flap and the fiery orange glow that leaked in through the cracks. It was enough light to dimly illuminate the dirty, claustrophobic underside of the house.

    I choked as I inhaled dirt and smoke while weakly pulling myself across the grimy floor. I couldn’t find the slivers of light that squeezed through the cracks of the front porch floorboards in the haze. My eyes burned and became smeared with tears that obscured my vision. My fingers slithered through the dirt as I felt my way across the crawlspace. And then I hit a wall.

    I pulled myself up and pressed my back against the wall, exhausted and suffocating. I started to wonder about my mother and if the voices she’d heard and the monsters she’d seen were actually real. Then I started to question if I had actually heard and seen the same things. I began convincing myself that everything was just in my head; that she was a depressed alcoholic and I was her schizophrenic son that was triggered by a letter I’d found in her mattress about a demon that didn’t exist, and plagued with the trauma that resided in this stupid house. I wanted to laugh at the fact that I was going to die over something so ridiculous, but the smoke caused me to cough instead.

    The door flap finally crumbled away and the fire spilled into the crawlspace. The shadows inside danced around me like devil creatures during a burning ritual.

    I looked at a far corner opposite of where I sat. The flickering fire reflected off of two beady eyes from a being hidden in the dark. As the flames grew larger, the darkness began to fade. Crouched in the corner, twisted into a tangled, skeletal mess of arms and legs and covered in clay skin, was The Thing. It was watching me die.

    I couldn’t see a mouth, but my head pounded as It laughed.

 

 

Marco sprinted back around the house where he was greeted with a circus of lights as fire trucks, police cruisers, and an ambulance wailed down the street. They occupied the entire cul-de-sac as officials spilled from their doors and scrambled around the scene. Firemen hooked hoses up to a nearby fire hydrant as paramedics rolled a stretcher from the back of their van.

    Marco ran to the first firefighter he saw, who had started unraveling the hose toward the house. “Hey! Hey!!” He shouted, and started to run with the firefighter. “The front porch! You have to get through the front porch! He’s in the crawlspace!”

    “We need to contain the fire before we’re able to get inside!” The firefighter shouted back. “How many people are in there?”

    “One! He’s beneath the house!”

    “Once we get the flames at the front porch under control, we’ll axe our way through! Now get the hell back!”

    Marco stumbled away from the inferno as the firemen released the water from the hoses. The streams arched over the front yard and rained onto the flames that roared toward the heavens.

    Tortured screams escaped with the smoke as the water began extinguishing the fire. Agonized shrieks from men. Anguished cries from women. The house groaned and a shrill wail escaped from the windows and doors where the flames boomed out from within. Shivers crept down Marco’s spine as the screams grew louder. The firefighters stepped back in caution, and the police officers, the paramedics, and the neighboring families that gathered in the area listened in horror as they watched the house burn.

    “How many people did you say were in there?!” The same firefighter asked Marco.

    “Just one,” he replied.

    “Just one?! Christ, it sounds like there are more people in there!”

    Marco swallowed a gulp that became stuck in his throat. He forced it down as he said under his breath, “It’s the house.”

 

 

I covered my ears as painful screams and moans whirled around me with the flames. They rumbled up from beneath the dirt and whipped into the air with the smoke.

    I struggled to open my eyes in the heavy smoke and watched The Thing tremble. It quivered and collapsed and curled in the corner, defeated as safety had arrived and began to intervene with Its plans.

    I wheezed as oxygen grew thinner. I covered my mouth and nose with the shirt again and continued to search for the front porch. The smoke had grown so thick that I couldn’t see five feet ahead of me.

    I was going to die.

    I pushed myself along the wall toward the direction of the front porch—or where I thought it was—when my hand fell on something rubbery. I felt the soft, thick object with my fingers before picking up the…I looked closer, and as my eyes adjusted to the growing firelight…dirt-covered, limp tongueTrent’s! I tossed the piece of meat at my feet in disgust. My only assumption was that it was a trophy that The Thing must have collected in revenge for speaking so badly of It. The distraction of dying prevented me from vomiting.

    Something near my feet caught my attention in the glow of the fire. The dirt was moving. I pulled my legs up to my chest as the ground was pushed up from below. Had my eyes started playing tricks on me? Was I hallucinating because of the lack of oxygen? Was this real? Clumps of the dirt spilled away from whatever was beneath it. I strained my eyes through the smoke as something began to emerge from underground. Fingers. And they moved.

    A hand sprouted from the ground. Then an arm. The skin was a charcoal black, crispy and burnt. Red, moist muscle was exposed between the cracks of the flaky skin. As the body pulled itself further from the dirt, a head surfaced. Few strings of wiry hair attached to a severely charred scalp. The eyes were seared shut, the nose was missing, and the non-existent lips fused together. A crispy crunchiness escaped from the arms as they stretched out to pull the body further from the dirt, and toward me.

    It was my mother.

    She dug her fingers, absent of nails, into the dirt and dragged her limp body across the ground. I pressed the shirt hard against my mouth and nose, and tears welled in my eyes at this horrifying sight. My shoes slipped across the dirt as I attempted to push myself further against the wall, away from the disgusting corpse of Helen Lambert.

    Her hand wrapped around my left foot and I became a statue, frozen in place and scared stiff. The fingers of her other hand uncurled with a sickening stickiness and snatched my pant leg, using that to pull herself even closer toward me.

    My mother’s face rose up to eye level with mine, and her jaw popped as it began to lower. Her missing lips split apart and strings of coagulated blood stretched and snapped as she opened her mouth. Her melted vocal cords croaked a distorted, raspy voice that I hadn’t heard in sixteen years as she called out, “Jeeehhh-sssssseeeeeee.

    My eyes clamped shut as I turned away from my dead mother.

    “Look at me,” she whispered, but in the roar of the fire I could hear her perfectly. Her voice was suddenly angelic. “Look at me, Jesse. Don’t let It make you see what It wants you to see. Look at me.”

    I was afraid. I objected to looking at my mother’s face, burnt to a crisp and practically unrecognizable. Her voice didn’t carry the hatred that I remembered so distinctly, and slowly I turned my head to face hers. I peeked through one eye, expecting The Thing to be in front of me, ready to take me away.

    Instead, I saw the most beautiful woman. One that I hardly recognized compared to the face from my childhood. Her blonde hair cascaded gently onto her shoulders and was parted down the middle to reveal a healthy, glowing face. The wrinkles she’d acquired from all of the years of drinking were nowhere to be found, and her eyes glistened with the greenest green I’d ever seen. Her body wasn’t the frail, starved form from the endless nights of drinking her dinner anymore.

    “Are you real?” I asked, stunned. She nodded. I reached out with a shaking hand, and not from fear. My fingertips caressed her rosy cheek, and she closed her eyes to let a tear trickle down and wet my finger.

    She was real.

    “I’m sorry,” she said. I stared at her as the memory of her standing over my bed with the knife filled my eyes with the tears, but it quickly diminished when she opened hers and said, “Please forgive me.”

    Time was at a standstill, and I’d forgotten about the stupid house, and the flames that tore it apart, and the terrible night that had started to become a blur.

    “I’m so sorry, Jesse,” she cried. “Please, forgive me.”

    I was at a loss for words.

    “Neither of us can move on unless you do.”

    I looked into her eyes, and then past her at The Thing that was still huddled in the corner. Its shoulders heaved up and down as it struggled to breathe, and It stared at me with weakened cat eyes, glowing in the light of the fire.

    “Don’t look at It,” she told me calmly. She gently rested her hand on my face to turn it away. The moment her skin touched mine, I was filled with a euphoria that surged throughout my body. It was a feeling foreign to me, something that I’d never thought I’d experience. I was a lost child, found. A man seeking hope who’d finally discovered it. A son taken from his mother, and then reunited. Tears washed the dirt from my face and I pressed her hand against my cheek, a feeling I never wanted to lose.

    It was a mother’s love.

    “Please, forgive me.”

    I looked deep into her eyes, my hand pressed against hers as she caressed my face and comforted me during the most harrowing time of my life. Time seemed to have slowed down as the flames burned around us. I nodded as I said, “I forgive you.”

    At that instant, I was grabbed by the massive arms of a firefighter. He turned my face to his and shouted something incoherent in the thundering roar of the burning house. He slipped his arms beneath mine and began to drag me away from the flames that licked into the crawlspace and devoured the house.

    There was no trace of my mother. I moved my gaze to the corner where The Thing lay when another firefighter obscured my view to carry my legs. I strained my neck to look around him, and The Thing was nowhere to be found.

    The floor above the crawlspace caved in with a thundering clatter. Flames billowed across the dirt floor as the firefighters rushed me across the cavern. The entire house collapsed inward as the firefighters yanked me through the axed hole in the front porch. The roof above it nearly crushed the three of us when it came down just after the second firefighter squeezed out from the hole. The flames roared into a fireball and dissipated into the black sky.

    I was pulled down the front lawn in a coughing fit, away from the show. Paramedics ran to me with a back board and lifted me onto it. One strapped a medical oxygen mask over my face, and they lifted me up and carried my sooted body to the stretcher that waited at the curbside. They settled me onto the stretcher and strapped my body in.

    Marco ran to my side and grabbed my hand. I looked at him with stinging eyes. The full moon behind his head glowed like a halo.

    “You saved me,” I whispered weakly behind the mask. He didn’t hear me, but he knew.

    They loaded the stretcher into the back of the ambulance and zoomed down the street as the house continued to burn down to nothing. The firefighters controlled the flames and police officers guided the families back to their houses.

    The circus that the cul-de-sac once was, soon became the dark, empty corner of the neighborhood that it had always been.