~4100 words, ~24 minutes reading time
As the rest of the neighborhood became more vibrant and upscale, the owner of the old house at 6272 Hill Street let it get uglier and uglier. At least, that’s what the owner of the coffee shop a block away told Cameron Whittles as she handed him an artisan bagel and a soy latte.
“The more we do to bring things up around here, the worse that one house gets,” she declared, wrinkling her nose in disapproval. “We clear out the litter, the owner lets the paint on that house start peeling and the wood rot. We scrub the graffiti off all the walls around here, he lets ivy take over the yard. We organize a neighborhood watch to keep the thugs away, he starts letting derelicts hang out in front of his house. And the smell. What is he doing in there? But he won’t sell the place. He turns down every single offer. It’s just a shame.”
Cameron nodded and dropped $2 in the tip jar. He had merely asked if she happened to know the man who lived there. He decided against telling her he grew up in that house and the neglectful owner was his father.
He wasn’t even hungry. Cameron realized stopping at the coffee shop was just a form of stalling. He never thought he’d be back here. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the text his father sent him the week before.
“Come home and watch me undo it all,” was all the text said.
Cameron had sent a flurry of follow-up texts asking if he was all right, but got no response. Sitting at the small table in the shop, he glanced at the text again and scowled. This was so like his father. Throwing out scraps of information and then giving no other details.
Cameron was going to move on and forget about it when Denise had wondered aloud if it might be some type of suicide note. Cameron couldn’t let that go, so here he was. Back in the neighborhood he’d spent most of his teenage years trying to get out of.
Except it wasn’t really that neighborhood anymore. Walking out of the coffee shop and down the sidewalk, Cameron barely recognized Albert Park. Across the street, five e-bikes stood in a row on the sidewalk in the same spot where Rontez and his cousins sold jewelry and electronics out of the trunk of his car. Everyone knew not to ask how he got them. The trash-strewn field where kids played baseball and soccer was now a neighborhood garden. The corner store that sold over-priced cigarettes, beer and junk food was now a pet daycare.
The neighborhood had supposedly come up, except for 6272 Hill Street.
Cameron stopped walking when he was in front of the house and stared at it for a long moment. The woman at the coffee shop wasn’t exaggerating. The dilapidated, three-story house made of faded bricks looked so out of place among the newly renovated boutiques and duplexes, as if it had been teleported in from some war-torn country. He shook his head as he took in the house he and his older brother had once called home.
Past the rusted chain-link fence, ivy covered the yard and much of the house, wrapping it in thick, brown vines like blood vessels. Faint wisps of smoke drifted up from the opening of a charred tin barrel in the middle of the yard. The windows were boarded up with strange symbols spray-painted onto the wood.
Near the steps leading to the front door, Cameron could barely make out the shape of someone sleeping in the ivy. At least, he hoped it was just someone sleeping. The air was thick with the odor of dirt, rotting eggs, and burnt paper.
“It’s just a shame,” the coffee shop owner had said. There was nothing like hearing your childhood home being talked about as if it was a nuisance that refused to be hidden or sent away. A cloud passed over and a day that had been bright suddenly became gray, even the sunlight didn’t want to come near the house.
Cameron took a deep breath and walked through the fence’s open gate. Gravel and bits of broken glass crunched underfoot as he crossed the walkway leading to the door.
The person sleeping by the front steps was wrapped in dingy blankets that covered their whole body. Cameron looked at them just long enough to see the slight rise and fall of breathing. Whoever they were, they were still alive. Denise would say he should check on them to make sure they were all right. But he didn’t even know yet if his own father was still alive. One problem at a time. He stared at the sleeper again to double check that they were still breathing, sighed with relief and walked up the concrete steps to the door.
The front door was slightly ajar. Cool, rancid air wafted from the darkness inside.
“I’m not paying to air condition the whole damn neighborhood,” his father used to bellow through the house when one of them left the door open.
James Whittles III would never suffer a door being left open like this. Something had to be wrong. Cameron pushed it open wider and stepped into the cold gloom. Waves of black grime crept up the walls around the front foyer. Darkness hid everything beyond.
Cameron turned on his cellphone flashlight. To the left, a staircase went up to a second floor shrouded in more darkness. The walls of the staircase showed the outlines where family pictures hung for as long as Cameron could remember. Why had they been taken down?
In the living room to the right, dirt-encrusted sheets covered all the furniture. It was once the room he and his brother Karl rushed to on Christmas morning to open presents under the tree. It didn’t look like anyone had been in there in a long time.
Shining his flashlight forward, Cameron took a few steps down the hallway when the light landed on a figure standing in the middle of the hallway. Cameron yelped and took a quick step back, but the person just stood there, facing him but giving no indication they even noticed him. Long, matted dreadlocks covered most of the man’s face. His clothes hung from him in ragged tatters. Twisted brown vines poked out from oozing sores that dotted his skin.
“Hello? Are you okay?” Cameron asked, taking another step back in case the man charged at him.
The man said nothing, standing deathly still in the light of Cameron’s cellphone. Cameron couldn’t even tell if he was breathing or not. And he couldn’t take his eyes off the vines sprouting from his skin. What kind of infection could make something like that happen?
“Is that you, Cameron?” a voice called from somewhere below. “Come down and see this.”
“Dad? Are you in the basement? There’s someone standing up here,” Cameron said.
The man in front of him moaned and a rapid clicking sound came from his mouth for a moment. Then he stepped to the side and pressed his back to the wall, giving Cameron room to walk by him.
Cameron inched by the man, holding his breath and keeping his eyes locked onto him until he was a few feet past him. He panned the light around the hallway. Here too, all the pictures had been taken down.
The hallway led into the kitchen, where the smell of mildew and the buzzing of flies greeted Cameron as he walked in. At the table where he used to eat cereal before school, four people sat in rusted metal chairs, wraiths in torn clothes, with their heads bent down. Strands of hair twitched and rustled on one of them, as if something was crawling around underneath. Cameron crept past, afraid to shine the light directly onto them.
The door to the basement was on the other side of the kitchen. Cameron peered down the basement stairs. More strange symbols were drawn on the walls of the staircase. Something down there was giving off a soft light.
“I’m coming down there,” Cameron called out before glancing over his shoulder at the people sitting around the table. None of them moved. Satisfied that no one would rush up behind him and push him down the stairs, Cameron put a careful foot down on the first step.
“Come on down. You have to see this,” a voice called up from the basement. It sounded like his father but something was off. The voice was hoarse and labored.
Cameron took another step down and another. The smell of dirt and rot got stronger with each step, making him put his hands over his nose and mouth.
The first thing he noticed at the bottom of the steps was the dirt that completely covered the once-carpeted floor. The shelves stacked with boxes and old toys were gone, too. A cluster of melting white candles in the middle of the floor illuminated the basement.
At the other end of the room, a large gray mass that looked like a lumpy pyramid sat against the wall. Dozens of brown vines extended from its midsection, connecting to the floor and more vines stretched into tiny holes in the cinderblock wall behind it. The mass quivered and pulsated, sometimes shaking the taut vines connected to it.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” said a voice from the shadows to the right.
Something shaped like Cameron’s father shambled into the candlelight. His hair was a tangled nest of vines. One eye was missing and the other was bright yellow and pupil-less. His naked body was covered in patches where the skin had fallen away, showing tissue and muscle underneath.
“Jesus, Dad! What happened to you?” Cameron yelled. All he wanted to do was run up the stairs as fast as he could and out of the house, never looking back. He wanted to lie to himself and decide this had all been a hallucination or a bad dream. But what kind of son would he be if he left his father like this?
“Don’t be so dramatic,” James said, his voice sounding like it was hard to talk. “It’s not that bad.”
“It looks pretty bad to me,” Cameron said. “What’s going on here? What happened to our house? Who are those people up there? And what is that … thing over there?”
James’s ruined face twisted into a frown of disapproval. “That ‘thing,’ as you so rudely put it, is a visitor and it’s here to help put things right,” he said. “And you should already know ‘those people’ you passed on the way in. You grew up with most of them. If you came in through the front door, then you had to have walked past Mr. Lester. He used to drive the ice cream truck through the neighborhood, if you care enough to remember.”
“That was him?! Then what happened to him?” Cameron said, ignoring his father’s last remark. “He looks like a damn zombie.”
James turned his head and coughed, sending a puff of glowing orange spores into the air. He turned back to Cameron. “Yeah, that was him,” he said. “He and some of the others have been staying here since they started raising the rents everywhere. No place else to go. Some of the ones in the kitchen are people you used to know, too. Maybe you’d have recognized them if you came back to visit once in a while.”
Cameron closed his mouth and ground his teeth. It always came back to this. Even when it defied all logic and common sense, it always came back to this. He closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath. He opened his eyes and felt a flash of pride that he was able to keep himself from screaming.
“I don’t think how often I visit has anything to do with what’s going on here right now,” he said, forcing himself to keep his voice calm. “So, can you please tell me what’s happened to our home?”
“You mean all this?” James asked, waving his hand toward the room around them. “Transposer says it’s temporary. It just needs to pull all the bad stuff in before it can push it back out. The others upstairs all understand what’s happening.”
“The Transposer? What are you talking about?” Cameron asked. “Is this about the text you sent me? How are you going to ‘undo it all?’”
“You haven’t been around much these last 15 years, so you don’t know what it’s been like,” James said. “They all say they want to make the neighborhood better. But they never seem to notice all the people they’re pushing out while they do it. Calling us a ‘blighted neighborhood’ as if that’s something that just happens and now we’re all a disease. Like the people who lived here chose to have the funding cut to the school and the police station; chose to have BunleeCorp close down the warehouse and move all those jobs to Wyoming. But it’s ok. It’s ok.” He pointed to the gray pyramid. “Our friend here came all the way from the Helix Nebula to help us turn it all around. Watch now. You’ll like this part.”
Before Cameron could say anything else, James walked over to the candles on the floor and dropped to his hands and knees. He rearranged the candles and drew curving lines in the dirt between them, forming an arcane pattern with the candles sitting at the lines’ intersections.
The naked man drawing in the dirt looked more to Cameron like a half-crazy forest gnome than his father. A lump formed in his throat. He had his reasons for leaving. But he never should have gotten so far away that he didn’t notice how far his father was falling. This had to stop.
After a few moments, James stood up and brushed the dirt off himself. He didn’t seem to notice the bits of skin and flecks of blood that came off with the dirt. Cameron had no idea what about “this part” he was supposed to like.
“We’re almost set now. Just one last thing,” James said and turned back to Cameron. “After I’m gone, I need you to promise me you won’t sell the house, no matter how much they offer. And some of them upstairs may still need to stay here for a little while until they can get back on their feet.”
“Wait. What are you about to do?” Cameron cried.
But James was already walking toward the pyramid at the other end of the basement. He was holding a long shard of broken glass Cameron hadn’t noticed before.
James stood in front of the pyramid with his back to Cameron and slid the glass shard down his arms and legs and across his torso. Blood was dripping from the shard when James brought his hand back down to his side.
“Stop!” Cameron yelled. “You’re the one who told me to come here. So tell me what the hell is happening here.”
James turned to face his son, showing bleeding red lines where he’d cut himself with the glass. “I know how this looks, but you need to understand this isn’t magic or anything like that,” he said. “The universe is a big place and there’s a lot of science out there people don’t understand. But you still can never make something out of nothing. Sometimes, to make something happen, you need what you would call … a sacrifice.”
The words hit Cameron like a slap to the face. Denise was right. The cryptic text had been a suicide note.
“Goddammit, why don’t you just sell the house and move on?” Cameron said. “What are you holding onto here? Mom’s dead and everyone’s gone. It’s not even our home anymore. It’s just … It’s just a dump now.”
James stared at him with his one yellow eye as blood from his fresh cuts dripped into the dirt and then shook his head.
“You’re my son and I’ll always love you. But you’re just like all the rest of them,” he said. “You walk away from something, abandon it. Then you turn around and call it a dump. Is that fair? Is that fair to all of us who’ve been left behind?”
“But you don’t have to be left behind,” Cameron said. “You’re choosing that. You can sell the place and use the money to move near us or near Karl. The old neighborhood is gone. You don’t owe it anything.”
“You just don’t understand,” James said and turned back toward the pyramid that seemed bigger than it was a few seconds ago. “The old neighborhood isn’t gone as long as the people are still here. It’s where I met your mother. It’s where we raised our children. It’s where everyone I ever cared about lived. I owe it everything. Everything.”
Taking another step toward the pyramid, James said a long string of words Cameron couldn’t understand, words that sounded like they came from an ancient language he’d never heard.
Then came the clicking sounds. At first they were coming from James’s wide open mouth. But after a few seconds, a second set of clicks filled the basement, coming from the pyramid that was now growing in size as it convulsed against the wall. From inside the pyramid, a booming chorus of voices screamed another series of strange words. A large, vertical opening appeared in the pyramid’s center and James took a final step toward it.
Several vines shot out from the opening in the pyramid like reaching arms and attached themselves to the cuts James had made on himself. James grunted in pain but made no attempt to pull them out or get away.
“Hold on, Dad,” Cameron cried. But the vines had already lifted James off his feet.
“It’s okay, son,” James croaked. “Just help Karl understand.”
“But I don’t even understand,” Cameron said as tears ran down his face.
A folded up piece of paper slipped from James’s hand and fell to the floor. He nodded at the pyramid and, in a movement so fast Cameron’s eyes could barely follow it, the vines pulled James into the vertical opening, his entire body disappearing as the opening snapped shut.
The ground beneath him trembled and the pyramid began glowing a dull purple. One by the one, the vines attaching it to the wall and floor disconnected and retracted back into the pyramid. The voices inside the pyramid yelled out more alien words in unison. But this time, one of those voices sounded like Cameron’s father. Behind the pyramid, a vast, night-black field of stars opened up where the basement wall had been. Then the trembling stopped and everything went silent.
“Dad?” Cameron said, taking a nervous step toward it. “Are you in there?”
A cold wave of purple light exploded outward, so bright Cameron closed his eyes and then pressed his hands over them. The ground shook again, and he lost his balance and fell to his knees. The air around him pulsed with energy, vibrating his whole body until he thought it would make his bones rattle out of their sockets. He opened his mouth and let out a scream he couldn’t hear.
Cameron woke up on the floor, a few loose strands of carpet tickling his nose. He pushed himself up to his knees, keeping his eyes half open against the stinging fluorescent light overhead. Then his eyes went wide, and he looked down at the carpet on the floor and the glowing light above.
The pyramid was gone. The vines were gone. The dirt on the floor was gone. The candles were gone. Cameron was alone in a clean, empty basement.
His eye landed on the folded up piece of paper his father dropped. It was sitting on the floor just a foot away from him. He picked it up with a shaking hand and was about to open it when a noise caught his attention.
From upstairs came the sound of voices and chair legs pushed across the kitchen floor. Cameron dashed up the stairs as images of him fighting his way past desiccated vagrants swirled through his mind. But he came to a wide-eyed stop when he got to the top of the stairs and sprang into the clean, well-lit kitchen.
He recognized two of the four people standing around the table.
“Hi Ms. Nora,” he said to the woman standing closest to him. She looked older than Cameron remembered. But when she smiled at him, Cameron knew she was definitely still the same person who babysat him and Karl when they were little.
Behind her was Mr. Charlie. Cameron used to be best friends with his son.
“What just happened?” Cameron asked.
“I think what happened is your daddy finally did it,” Ms. Nora said. Then a look of sadness crossed her face, and she put a hand on Cameron’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry about your father. We can never repay what he’s done for us.”
“But what did he actually do?” Cameron asked.
Before anyone could answer, shouting erupted from outside. Sirens wailed in the distance, getting louder as they got closer.
“Maybe you should go out and see for yourself,” Ms. Nora said.
The others just stared at him, waiting for him to do something. Cameron stepped past them and out of the kitchen. The hallway walls looked as clean and bright as the day they were first painted. Light streamed in through windows that had been boarded up. Everything looked like it was just waiting for a family to move in.
The front door was ajar and Cameron stepped through it to see Mr. Lester standing on the front walkway, staring in wonder at what had become of the surrounding neighborhood. The air was thick with panic and confusion and decay. Dogs ran free, dragging their leashes behind them while mottled-skin wretches that used to be their owners lurched down the sidewalk or screamed to the sky, demanding to know what had happened.
The new coffee shop a few doors down was a dirty, vine-covered ruin now. A pale, ragged woman who might have once been the person who owned the shop stumbled out, her cloudy eyes darting around in search of something.
“How did this happen?” she shouted as brown vines snaked from her hair and from under her clothes.
The e-bikes were scattered across the streets in rusted scraps. The neighborhood garden was a wasteland of withered plants and strewn trash. It was just a shame.
But Cameron’s old home stood new and restored. The graffiti and trash and vines were everywhere except at 6272 Hill Street.
In the grass near the front steps, a young woman woke up and blinked at the new world around her.
“Did it finally happen?” she asked.
“It did indeed,” Mr. Lester said, staring up in awe at the house. “The old man actually pulled it off.”
“So what happens now?” Cameron asked.
“I think that part’s up to you,” Lester said and pointed at the folded paper in Cameron’s hand. “That note there should get you started.”
Cameron had forgotten he was still holding it. He unfolded it to find a note in his father’s handwriting.
“Thank you for coming back,” it read. “The new people will all want to leave now and that will bring the prices back down. The people who are actually from the neighborhood will be able to afford it again. Below is the address of the storage unit where all the other furniture is. Nora should still have the key to it. The bank account has some money in it. I added your name to it. Use it to help them rebuild. The next part can’t happen without you now. I know you’ll make me proud.”
Below the note was an address and a bank account number.
“So what now?” Lester asked.
Cameron gazed at the widening chaos and disorder raging around them. It was a neighborhood gentrified no more. His father was right. They probably wouldn’t want to stick around now. They’d spend years telling their friends at the country clubs and private schools about how they thought they could restore this rundown old neighborhood but how it blew up in their faces. Then he looked up at his own house. Restored. But what if it was just the first one to be restored?
He turned back to Lester.
“Now, I think we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
When not writing fiction, Bernard McGhee works on the editing desk of a busy newsroom, which provides a constant source of inspiration for stories of unusual mayhem. His work has appeared in “Cosmic Horror Monthly,” the anthology “Nightmare Sky: Stories of Astronomical Horror,” and in the anthology “Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups).” He was raised in the New Orleans area but has lived all around the country. He currently lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter at @BMcGhee13.