A Disturbing Talent
NYC Midnight Short Story Contest
Assignment: 2,000 Words
Location: A bus stop
Object: A pencil
As she locked the door to her car and approached the bus stop, Meg recognized the faded black steel frame wrapping the space on three sides, and she knew what she’d find plastered to the scratched and filth-smeared plexiglass bolted in behind the squat metal bench: a Led Zeppelin poster, circa 1975, bleached from the sun and peeling away in strips, so that what looked like an angel—naked, male, enormous white wings extending from a grotesquely muscled body—appeared to be reaching his arms to a torn and hellish heaven.
Meg glanced back across the street at her forest green Corolla—used, a recent gift to herself for her 18th birthday—and thought of the drawing she’d left on the passenger seat. She didn’t need to be looking at it to know she was in the right place. Jesse had drawn the bus stop two days ago, its sharp and dilapidated edges pushing off the white page in strokes of black lead. You could tell the pencil had been drawn across the paper with violence. Her brother never drew anything lightly, nothing in color, no soft edges or smooth strokes; his pictures were always jagged and thorny, and they all came in black.
Meg stepped from the street, the cracked asphalt glistening with rain and scattered light from the full moon, and stood on the sidewalk, running her eyes over the deserted structure and its surroundings. The rain clouds swallowed most of the light, and she couldn’t make out much of the nearby shapes: a shadowy hint of a cement building here, the dull edge of a broken street light there. Deserted. Condemned.
There hadn’t been a bus through here in a long time. A pile of trash, mildewed with age and so water-logged it resembled cement, lay pushed up against one corner of the bus stop, the still-shiny edge of a Coke can sticking out from the bottom. The enclosed space smelled of urine—old, but still sharp enough to burn the insides of Meg’s nostrils. It wasn’t a place a person would want to linger, and she was reminded of how much she didn’t want to be here.
But Jesse had insisted, and she never could refuse him anything. “You have to go there,” he’d said to her, pushing the drawing into her hands. She’d gazed down at it, recognizing the features of a suburban bus stop, rendered in the usual black lead and violent manner. She could see in several places where Jesse had pressed too hard with the pencil, tearing the paper and leaving an ugly black mark. There were no other structures to accompany the bus stop, no buildings or cars or people on bicycles; just darkness.
“No one lives there,” she’d said, trying to give the drawing back to him. “That area of town was blocked off ages go.” Had it been asbestos? She couldn’t remember—some invisible poison in the walls.
“You’re wrong,” Jesse insisted, jabbing his finger at the drawing. Under his finger—thin, pale, nail chewed down to the quick—the bus stop looked even more sinister. “She’s there.”
Jesse had always been a little strange. He was a sleep talker—a walker, too. From as far back as Meg could remember, she’d been able to have nocturnal conversations with her brother. She’d wake to him sitting upright in the small bed pushed into the corner of the room they shared, eyes open wide and staring. It used to creep her out, but she eventually grew accustomed to it. She’d ask him questions (How was your day? What are you going to have for breakfast? Who are you talking to? What time is it where you are?), and he’d answer her. His answers didn’t always make sense, but she was amazed at how confident and articulate he was. It was almost as though he knew that his body was asleep, but that the world he saw behind those wide-open eyes was no less important.
He’d turned twelve a few months back, and that’s when the drawing had started. He was at it every single day, for hours at a time. He’d come home from school, complaining of a headache, and lock himself in his room, refusing to open the door. She’d seen some of the drawings: A dense forest, muddled in shadow; an empty room with a single chair lying on its side in the corner; a street lined with houses, all the windows blown out; and once, a little girl, seven or eight years old, maybe, a round face with big eyes that somehow seemed bright despite the black led.
Jesse was strange, but in some ways, he was your typical 12-year-old boy: he spent more time playing video games than he did on personal hygiene, and he was obsessed with comic books and dogs. The kid drove her crazy, but it had been just them for the past three years, and Meg loved him more than anything else in the world.
Which is why she’d agreed to drive across town and check out Jesse’s deserted bus stop. Once, there had been signs hanging from metal chains across the two roads leading in and out of the area, warning anyone from entering with messages like “KEEP OUT” and “QUARANTINE.” Time had passed, however, and whatever sense of danger the buildings and houses lining the two streets had posed had faded away. The chains had sagged to the ground, their ominous warnings covered in years of dirt and weeds growing up through the cracks in the asphalt. Meg had driven right over the one stretched across the east entrance.
Now that she had arrived at her destination, she wondered why she’d waited until dark to come here. She didn’t really believe she’d find anything, but still, the place gave her the creeps, and she wished the sun was high in the sky to dispel some of the gloom.
She’s there. Meg remembered the urgency in Jesse’s voice, and she shivered. Who was here? He’d never asked her to go to a place he’d drawn before.
Was she supposed to wait here? Jesse hadn’t given her any instructions beyond insisting that she go and find “her.”
Meg waited. She thought about entering the bus stop, sitting down on the bench. At least she’d be out of the drizzle that way. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it, and so she stood just outside, scanning the darkness with her eyes, her clothes getting wetter by the minute.
She was staring into the darkness beyond the bus stop when the clouds cleared enough to expose the moon, and what she saw in the flash of light made her heart stutter and lurch. Just behind the bus stop, beyond a sloping hill of dead, sodden grass, stood a row of houses. All of their windows were blown out.
The resemblance to Jesse’s drawing was unquestionable. First the bus stop, and now these houses. What the hell was going on?
She glanced back at her car and thought about crossing the street, getting inside, and driving away from this madness. But she couldn’t; Jesse was her responsibility, and this was important to him. She’d promised.
Meg took a deep breath and turned back to the row of houses. One of them stood directly behind the bus stop. The moonlight was obscured once again, throwing the street back into darkness, but now that she knew it was there, she could just make out a shadowy door frame, a sloping roof.
Meg put her head down and made herself trudge up the lawn towards the front door, trying not to slip in the muddy slop the lawn had become. She reached the door and tried the handle. It was unlocked. She couldn’t hear anything besides the soft patter of rain. No sounds coming from beyond the door; surely no one was inside.
She pushed the door open and was immediately assaulted with a sickening smell: sharp and sour and sweet all at the same time. She gagged and bent over, gasping with her mouth open, trying to catch her breath. She straightened up, pulling the collar of her soaked jacked up over her mouth and nose, and stepped into the house.
Should have brought a flashlight, Meg thought to herself. There was one in the glove box of her car, but no way was she going back for it now. She wanted to get this—whatever this was—over with.
Keeping the jacket pressed to her face with one hand, she extended the other and felt along the wall until she came to an opening on her right. She squinted and saw dusty lumps of furniture: what looked like a couch with the cushions missing; a coffee table with one corner collapsed in; an empty book case.
Moving further down the hallway, she came to another opening onto a bedroom. Except there appeared to be nothing in it. Meg stared hard into the room, willing her eyes to adjust, and that’s when she saw the chair. Smallish, made of wood, toppled over onto its side. She knew that chair. Another drawing. There was no question now: Jesse had seen this place.
She dragged her eyes away from the chair and looked at the opposite corner of the room. There was a mound there, too indistinct to make out. Meg moved closer to it, stooping down in a crouch to get a better look, and when she did, she reeled back, letting the jacket fall from her mouth.
Bones. It was a pile of bones, situated in the shape of a child—small, no more than seven or eight years old. In the moment before she’d pulled away, she’d seen a tattered teddy bear nestled among the bones, staring back at her with one inky black eye.
This was impossible. How was she seeing this? How had no one found this? How had Jesse—?
But she couldn’t think about any of that, not while she was still here, in this dark house, standing not two feet away from the remains of a dead child.
Meg clutched the collar of her jacket, pulling it back over her nose, shutting out the sick smell of death, and stumbled back out into the hallway, half running and half tripping her way to the front door. That a pile of bones couldn’t account for the stench in the house didn’t even cross her mind. Her only coherent thought was to get out as quickly as possible.
She didn’t even bother pulling the door closed behind her, intent as she was on getting out, on getting as far away as possible. Her feet hit the grass and she fell, skidding halfway down the slope on the seat of her pants, not even caring about the mud squishing between her fingers. She ran the rest of the way to the car, fumbling the keys from her jacket pocket with shaking fingers and frantically pressing the button to unlock the doors.
Meg pushed open the front door of their house and saw Jesse standing at the kitchen table, as if he’d been waiting for her. He scanned her soaked and muddied clothes, her ashen face, her haunted eyes. “You found her,” he said, and smiled.
Her name was Alice King, and she’d died some time ago. She’d been reported missing from a nearby town last year, and according to forensic reports, she’d been dead inside the house for nearly all that time. It was a wonder—and a damn shame—no one had found her. No one knew what she’d been doing in the house. She’d died of exposure and starvation.
Meg never told anybody why she’d driven to the abandoned neighborhood that day, or what had compelled her to enter the house. Because after everything, Jesse was still drawing pictures.
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