Jade curls her lip, shines the dull yellow beam of the torch up her face, faux horror. The light taints her skin jaundice. “Comfortable?”
“Nu-uh,” I shift on the old green sofa. “Feels like somebody sat in this same spot every day for years and years. For like their whole life or something.” I slap my palm against the armrest leaving a print on the velvet-look fabric. Dust motes cloud up.
Jade raises an eyebrow. “Probably somebody died there.” She lifts her backpack onto her lap. Pulls out a pair of fluffy bunny slippers, kicks off her boots, and slides them on.
“You brought slippers?” I rub my hands, brushing off the idea of dead-old-lady dust.
She shrugs. “I get cold feet.” Rummages in her bag without looking, identifies items by touch. The tip of her tongue pokes out of the corner of her mouth.
I scrunch my face into what the fuck. “You had shoes on.”
She purses her lips, talks slow like I’m dumb. “I’m not wearing my shoes all night.”
I slap the sofa again, another cloud of dust, another hand print. “You’re staying then.”
“We’re staying.” Jade pulls a white envelope from her bag, sets it on the coffee table face up. The metallic purple loops of girly-girl handwriting reads Initiates.
And yeah, this is one of those tests. A dumb high school prove you’re worthy to join our clique debacle. Only: things like these are never what they seem, never just cut and blow dry simple. And what the fuck am I even doing here? Already there’s the plague of a headache creeping up on me. I massage hard little circles on my temples. “Or we could just go home.”
“Are you haemorrhaging sense, like seriously?” She tilts her head, gives me like duh eyes. Derision framed in black mascara. “For just once I want to be cool. You get that, right?”
I look down at my fingernails, painted obsidian to match my mood. “Like the way I’m accessorising my darks today?” I wave my fingers at her, the opposite of jazz-hands.
“Change the subject much.”
I push my tongue hard against the back of my teeth. “Real coolness isn’t achieved by doing dumb shit stuff.” I spread my hands out wide in a ta-dah gesture. “All we’ll get from this night is the empty sham of pseudo popularity.”
Jade tucks her bunny slipper feet under herself, curls up on the armchair with cat-like distain. “You still came though.”
And yeah, whatever.
Above me the ceiling’s once-white decorative plaster swirls are faded nicotine with age. Eyes closed I exhale long and hard. Upstairs something creaks. My shoulders pull up into my neck. “What was that?”
Jade knits her fingers together, presses them to her lips. “Old house noises?”
“Do you even know whose house this is?” I look over my shoulder at the old grandfather clock stopped fast on seven forty-five. The bookcase lined with framed family photos. Group holiday shots, the travesty of bad fashion, and a shrivelled up little old lady with cotton candy hair. I press my nail against clenched teeth, but I don’t bite it. “Maybe this place is a murder house, or maybe this place is haunted.”
“Don’t. Even. Go there.” Jade sets her bag down, nudges it under the coffee table with her feet. “Last thing we need is your paranoidorama.”
Upstairs the old house noises sound like footsteps. I suck my bottom lip and sink my front teeth hard into it. “Maybe this is Teddy Edward’s house.”
Jade rolls her eyes. “That’s not even real.”
“Yeah it is.” I nod, nod, nod my head. “My Nana told me they lived right around here. Listen: it was early Fall when Kyle and Dylan rode their bikes round to Teddy’s, not Halloween for another six weeks, but they still wore their masks. Kyle in the grinning white of a plastic skull and Dylan in a blood splattered hockey mask. Teddy was the new boy trying to make friends, telling them his mom’s boyfriend had the best collection of video nasties in like ever. And they could watch them too. All it took was a sleepover. So they go, knock on his door. The boyfriend, Frank, lets them in and points them to the lounge where Ted’s gone to all this trouble to make it look scary: spiders and eyeballs, even this pool of blood dripping off the fireplace. This big pile of VHS tapes stacked next to the VCR, triangle sandwiches and a big bowl of cheesy puffs on the coffee table.”
Jade lifts her hand up, all open palm stop right now. “Urgh sounds totally eighties and lame.”
I drop my eyebrows in to a scowl, press a finger to my lips to shush her. “And they wait and wait and wait. Still Teddy doesn’t come. Dylan gets bored, dips his hand in the puddle of blood, so thick and tacky it’s halfway to dry. Spreads his fingers for an even coat and palms it up Kyle’s face. Kyle shoves him back onto the plate of sandwiches, dips his own fingertips into the blood and streaks big fat lines up Dylan’s face. Kyle laughs, he’s all like, Dude, you’re a mess. Dylan’s peeling squashed sandwiches off his shorts going, let’s find a bathroom.”
Jade clicks the torch back on, shines it up her face. “And they all went home for tea.”
“Would you quit it, you’re ruining the atmosphere.” I lean forward, snatch the torch from her hands and slide it behind a crochet scatter cushion.
She shakes her head slow motion disbelief. “And just as I was getting scared too.”
“Yeah you should be, so anyway, Frank’s in the kitchen with all the under the sink cupboard shit pulled out across the floor, saying, there’s been some kind of problem, saying, had to switch the water off but go on up boys, I’ll switch it back on for you. So up the stairs, two at a time they go and the bathroom door’s already shut. Kyle rat-a-tat-tats, calls, suck that turtle head back up Ted, we’re coming in. Dylan hissing under his breath, what if it’s his mom, Dude? But the bathrooms empty. They turn the taps and the water tank in the corner closet begins to gurgle, starts to refill. Muffled behind that slatted door there’s a whimper, panicked knocking. Louder and louder like someone using their fists. Teddy’s voice sobbing, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. Kyle peers between the door slats, going, nice try Ted, but that’s totally lame. Pulls open the door to nothing. And Teddy, he’s inside the goddamn water tank, his voice echoing, going, help me, oh God, help me. Splashing and shuffling and crying. Kyle races back down the landing to the top of the stairs hollering, Frank! Frank! Quick it’s Teddy.”
Jade looks at her wristwatch and reaches for the Initiates envelope.
“Dylan stepping closer, close enough that his nose touches the cold of the water tank, his bloody hand leaving smeared prints in the places where Teddy’s face might be. He says, don’t worry, Ted, it’ll be all right. Kyle’s gone to get your mom’s boyfriend. And Teddy says, Dave? And from out on the hallway there’s the dull thud of something child-sized tumbling and bouncing down every step of the stair—”
“Right, and the fact you know all these little details must make it true.” Jade works her fingers under the envelope’s seal. “It’s not quite nine but I’m going to open this now.” She slides the paper free, unfolds it. Shakes her head and drops her voice into conspiratorial farce. “It says were not alone.”
Upstairs a closet door slams.
“Did you hear that?” I stand, scoot around the coffee table to Jade’s armchair, snake my fingers around her arm. The little old woman in the photo watches me, smiles a mouthful of false teeth. I look over my shoulder. Peer out into the darkness beyond the window.
Jade tries to shake me off. “I’m not leaving. I’ve waited too long for this.”
I pull on her arm, my fingers leaving blotchy red marks on her skin. “High school popularity big fat wow, let’s just get out of here. Please?”
Jade wrenches her arm free. “No, I can’t. I won’t. All my life I’ve been this nobody, this little fat girl with hamster cheeks. You know what they used to call me at school? Ewok, they called me a fucking Ewok. And you, yeah you’re new around here so you don’t know, you don’t understand.” She folds her arms stoic, like she’s any different. “I’d do anything for this.”
And please. Pity party: invitation only, boo-hoo-hoo. Jade’s sob story is just a rerun of a rerun of my childhood ago. Been there, done that, whatever.
Upstairs a large something thuds to the floor, rolls across the floorboards.
Jade is out of her seat clinging to my back, saying, “This is a prank, right?”
My heart reverberates up my throat, crowds my windpipe. Every fold in my body feels damp and sticky. I step pause, step pause towards the door straining to hear the faintest noise.
Jade’s pinching at my hips with tight hands, my top bunched against her sweaty palms. Out into the hallway she breaks away, slides in front of me, first in line to freedom. Hand around the door knob, twisting, twisting. “It won’t open.” She fans her hands in front of her face as if that will stops the tears.
I turn her around and push her towards the kitchen, towards the backdoor. From upstairs the angry revs of a power drill. Jade’s mouth-breathing all high pitched and whiney, the beginning whoop, whoop, whoop of a full scale melt down. Snot and tears and mascara stains. She pulls the door handle.
On the wall another photo of the old woman laughs at us. Upstairs a door opens to the slow shuffle-shuffle of feet across the landing. The roar of the drill gets louder.
Jade’s rag doll limp. The crotch of her baby blue jeans darkens. My heart’s in my ears. The basement door is three steps away, a little silver key waiting in the lock. I snatch the door open, push Jade forwards. “We can lock it from the inside.”
Jade stumbles down the first five steps, turns back. “It’s too dark, my torch—”
I slam the door and twist the key.
Soft shuffling as she feels her way back up, her nails scrape the door finding the handle, twisting. “Let me out.”
I press my forehead against the door, look down at my feet. Try to fill the hollow of guilt inside with a deep breath. “Not tonight.”
“Is this part of my initiation, then?” Behind the door Jade stops turning the handle, laughs like everything is going to be okay. The hope in her voice turns my stomach.
“This isn’t your initiation.”
“Don’t be dumb.” She tries the handle again.
I step back from the door. “It’s mine. You—you were just a prop.”
Upstairs: the sound of girls laughing.
On the wall beside the door the photo of Nana watches me. I kiss my finger tips and touch them to her smiling face. “For just once I want to be fucking cool.” I shrug. Look at the door one last time. “You get that, right?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Emily Slaney writes nihilistic emotional satire because she likes to make you laugh before she pulls it all away. You can find her short stories online in such publications as: Menacing Hedge, Cease Cows, Revolt Daily, Solarcide and Thunderdome magazine. She lives in England with her husband and kids.