Daniel Cruz nodded to his homeboy, “Thanks. I owe you a solid.” He closed the door on the low rider and watched the tail lights shrink into distant red eyes. When the thumping bass faded to nothing, the mute night pressed itself into his consciousness. Daniel’s bravery far outmatched the darkness. Standing alone in foreign territory, that was a different matter.
He scanned the old suburban street. The white paint on the picket fences was curling. He could see more than one derelict car from here, slowly rusting to death. A stray dog was nosing an overturned garbage can. Daniel wagged his head. This whole thing was crazy. But he never went half-way when it came to impressing a girl. His new Fatty-Goth was going to flip over this.
He peered out from his black hoodie, scanning nearby windows for any sign that somebody might be watching. The last thing he needed was racist cops busting him for nothing. He slipped between two houses like a shadow and flowed over the back fence.
Standing still a full minute, Daniel listened for any sign of detection. He was crouching in waist high weeds behind a cracked wooden house with no sign of paint anywhere. The back door was standing open a few inches with a slashed screen door creaking slowly back and forth in the fall breeze. That rhythm of groaning hinges drove even the crickets to silence.
The darkness behind the door was palpable and emotional. It both sickened and tempted him. How did his friend even hear of this place? Why hadn’t anybody torn this eyesore down? His mind said he should just go back the way he’d come and forget about it. But he couldn’t forget about his new flame.
Anna was everything Daniel was not. She was white as a ghost with jet-black hair and a spider tattoo on her neck. She was tall, loud, rude, and chubby with a nose ring. She wore corsets and drew pictures of skulls and snakes on her homework at school. From the first second he laid eyes on her, Daniel was smitten.
His friends had railed on him. They called her the Emo-whale. But he didn’t care. When he asked her to dance, she had scooped him into a cocoon of warmth and softness. He vowed then and there to win her over. They had a date for tomorrow night.
This place was exactly the kind of thing she would like. He’d bring a blanket. They could have a picnic on the second floor. He was going to show her the creepiest time of her life and with any luck get smothered with affection as a reward. So Daniel ignored the warning bells going off in his head and crept toward the dilapidated building.
Raised Catholic, he fully believed in ghosts. He hoped that if one lived here, it would wait until tomorrow to show up. As he nimbly placed his Nike shoes on the dirt between weeds, he stalked into the shadow of the house. He attuned all his street-smart senses, but the screen door, fluttering and wailing in front of the opening, made it impossible to see or hear anything beyond the portal.
The stairs and patio creaked predictably. Unwilling to upset the rhythm, he waited for the shredded screen to move away on its own before slipping in like a cat.
His heart was racing as if he’d just been playing soccer in gym. His mouth was dry. He tiptoed forward and then jumped back when the rotten floorboard broke, raining chips down to the darkness in the basement.
He waited for his eyes to adjust. They never did. In here, the noise from the door outside didn’t sound like creaking. It sounded like moaning. Or troubled breathing. The air was thick and he put one sleeve over his mouth to breathe through. He wouldn’t admit any fear, but this was crazy. There was something wrong with this place.
He thought about turning back, but the memories of his buxom Fatty-Goth were too hot to be doused by a stupid “haunted house.” Staying by the wall, he worked his way around the dusty room to the far side. The stairs going up were broken through in several places. Still leery from his own foot going through the floorboard, he knew the shards and tatters that remained wouldn’t support him and his new lady.
The stairs going down looked fine. The only thing creepier than this house would be the basement of this house. And, hey, Anna would probably like that even better, right? He glided down them like water.
The lower level was black as his hoodie; the air humid and musky. A hot breeze would flow past his face and then suck back. There was a new rhythm here. The sounds were slow, almost a rumble. The floor was slick. When he touched the wall, it wasn’t like any paint or wallpaper he had ever felt. It felt like leather. When he pulled his hand back his fingertips were oily.
This is a terrible place for a picnic.
If he hadn’t already suppressed all his fear, he might have felt the pure hatred radiating from this place. Instead, he decided he would just show her this basement and then they could eat somewhere else. He took one more cautious step forward, wiping the sweat from his brow onto a sleeve.
Something as big and scratchy as a carpet roll smashed him from the side and pinned him up against the wall. Thick sludge smeared his body making his eyes sting and his skin itch. Daniel pushed with all his strength against the textured wall, trying not to gag on the hot stench that filled the tiny pockets of air. No girl was worth this!
Then the maw closed around him.