Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Out of Touch

I grew up in the suburbs, in a small bungalow house identical to every other bungalow house on my block. Row after row of these houses, all in straight lines, filled the streets as far as my bicycle would take me. That was why the house across from my own never struck me as strange or out-of-the-ordinary, not in all the years I shared the street with it. It was like looking at my house in a mirror, and I found it no less reassuring than any of the others around me. Sure, its lawn was left to grow weed-filled and wild, where any insect could find a home, but there was really no reason why the house should have stood out in my mind, no reason at all why I should have noted it—except, of course, that it had been vacant for as long as I could remember.

In fairness, even that isn’t so strange. At least, it didn’t seem so then. Time is soft and malleable and can slow to a crawl when you’re young. Sometimes, it almost seems to stop. For all I know, the place had been empty for only a few months before I really noticed it—though, afterwards, I never saw a single person set foot there.

I’d spent a good part of my summer vacation with Mitch under direct orders from my mother. No doubt, she thought it would do us both good. She and Mrs. Ramsey were friends, and through some miracle of childhood Mitch and I were supposed to have bonded, too. It wasn’t that I disliked him, but at the time I would rather have been left alone by the world instead of been forced to socialize. My father was still only a few months gone, and his absence from my life left me in a sort of limbo, where I wanted nothing more than for each day to be over. The last place I wanted to be was inside Mitch’s room with its overpowering chemical smell, and a part of me hated my own discomfort.

He rolled his dice.

“Double-sixes!” he said, then moved his marker twelve squares. “You suck at this game, you know.”

“I know, I know.” I rolled my own set of dice and reported the number to him so he could move my marker across the board. The air-conditioner made the room cool, much cooler than my own, though the recycled air also tasted funny. On the bright side, though the air-filter made too much noise, it offered the constant amusement of blowing Mitch’s dark black hair out of shape. “You look like a caveman,” I said.

He smiled and beat his chest. I held my breath for a second and waited, but nothing happened.

“I’ve asked my mom, but she won’t let me keep a comb in here. I don’t know what she thinks I’ll catch from a comb.” He shook his head and laughed, and while he did so I sneaked a look at the clock. It was nearly time for me to go. When I looked back at him he wasn’t laughing any longer.

“You know, Neil, you can leave whenever you want. It’s okay.”

“I can stay a few minutes more. Do you want to do something else?”

He didn’t seem to.

Part of me knew he was lying, but I had put on a brave face for too long already. I needed time to myself, and already I could feel the seconds slipping away from me forever.

My mother wasn’t too thrilled when I arrived home.

“Mrs. Ramsey called me today at work. Did you and Mitch have a fight?”

“You said I didn’t have to spend the whole day there.”

My mother sighed, and rubbed her temples. Through the thin drapes in the living room window I could see the house across the street. Its long grass wavered as the sheer material between us moved with the wind.

“Neil, right now, it’s good for you to be over there. Don’t you understand?”

I grumbled. “I don’t think I can do it. There are too many rules—”

“It will be okay. Just do this for me, please?” She took my hand and smiled at me. What else could I do but agree? She ran her fingers through my hair approvingly.

“You’re growing up too fast, little man.”

• • • •

The next day I was allowed to take a vacation from Mitch. It sounds harsh to say, but I needed it. As much as I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, I also couldn’t be cooped up in that moldering house. The day was a beautiful one, the kind where the sunlight shines so bright it makes everything glitter, and I spent the good part of it on the front lawn of the house, just sitting in the grass, looking up at the sky and trying to pretend my family was still whole. It worked, but only for a few seconds at a time.

I lay there and watched the clouds change shape and creep past, and without warning I was startled by a soft flutter of darkness over my eyes. I shook my head violently and instinctively sat up, but the obstruction had gone. Across the grass, a dark brown butterfly moved erratically before it lit on the stem of a dandelion.

It came from the house across the street, whose overgrown lawn attracted them by the dozens. My mind flashed to Mitch and how much he used to like watching the butterflies only a year earlier, before being sealed away in his house. I carefully stood and inched my way toward the creature. It flattened its wings to warm itself in the sun, and I saw the beautiful pattern of tiny circles, like a row of eyes, that edged them. I stood over it, careful to avoid putting my shadow between us, and when it closed its wings once more I bent down and pinched them between my fingers. The insect struggled, its legs moving wildly as I picked it up, but I did not let it go.

I looked up and my eyes fell on the house across the street. I don’t know why—I’d barely given it much thought until then—but when I looked I momentarily saw the face of a young girl in the dark curtained window before it disappeared. It was so quick, I wondered if I’d truly seen anything. If I had, the curtains were certainly no evidence. It didn’t look as though they’d moved.

I went to cup the butterfly in my hand, before going inside to get a glass jar, but the fragile creature had disappeared. It must have slipped free during my surprise. All that was left was a dust of dark brown scales on my fingertips. I cleaned them on the side of my pants and looked back at the vacant house. It lay still in the summer morning, looking as though nothing unusual had occurred.

Inside, my mother sat at the kitchen table, her back to me. When she heard my voice, she jumped, but didn’t turn around right away. I asked her if someone had moved into the house across the street.

“No. Why?”

“I thought I saw—” I started, and as she turned around I realized how foolish I was being. It was likely a reflection and nothing more. She didn’t give me time to explain anyway.

“Get ready. We’re off to the Ramseys’.”

“Mom!” I said and stamped my foot. “You promised.”

She had no patience for my tantrum. She shut it down before I was even worked up.

“We’re going, and that’s final. Get ready. Now.”

Mitch was away from his bedroom window when we arrived, a white mask covering the lower half of his face. Mrs. Ramsey let my mother and me in, and then triple-checked the door was shut before hugging us both very tightly. I could feel my ribs straining from the pressure, and thought she’d never let me go. When she did, she glanced at me with an uneasiness that suggested she’d gone too far, and tried to compose herself by pushing her tight curls back into her bun. She smiled at me, her face folding into deep lines that looked forced and unnatural. Her eyes, though, were the worst. Baggy, wide and tired, they were the eyes of someone who had seen far too much and lived through even more. Far more than anyone deserved.

She took hold of my small hands and inspected them as she did every time I visited. Then, she said, “You run upstairs and play.” Did she look as though she was going to cry? Did my mother? I wanted to say something, but I was at a loss. Everything was still for a moment, and the afternoon light from the window made the world look like a photograph. The only sound was a gentle tapping from somewhere in the house, like a flutter on glass. Then Mrs. Ramsey sniffled and broke the spell.

Mitch called out from upstairs: “Come up to my room, Neil,” and I looked at my mother for some sort of reassurance. She wasn’t looking my way, but Mrs. Ramsey was, and at the time I thought the ineffable look on her face was directed at me. In hindsight, though, I suspect I was wrong.

Mitch had his chessboard set up on a small table, and he sat there with his large brown eyes staring expectantly at me. I hesitated at the door, long enough to hear my mother’s voice, but not what she said.

“I’m glad you’re back, Neil. What’s going on?”

I took a seat across from him, though I had to twist my legs around one of his machines.

“Nothing really. Just hanging out.”

He moved one of his pawns and didn’t look at me when he said, “You look like you have a tan already. How is it out there?”

I twisted my foot further around the machine, and then stopped, afraid I might damage it. I stammered.

“Fine, I guess. Do you remember that house across the street? You should see its lawn now. It looks like a jungle. It’s filled with butterflies, too.”

“I remember butterflies,” Mitch said, and then nothing else. He just looked at the chessboard. I wondered what my father would say, but came up empty.

“I think I saw someone inside the house today, though.”

This piqued his interest.

“But no one’s lived there in years.”

“And my mom says no one has moved in. I probably just imagined it. I thought I saw a girl in the window.”

Mitch forgot about the game, intent on learning more about what I saw. I immediately wished I hadn’t said anything, but I suppose he’d grown bored housebound for so long.

“What did she look like?”

I shrugged, and then fidgeted with a chess piece.

“I only saw her for a second. She was about our age.”

“And she just sat there? Watching you?”

“I don’t know. As soon as I saw her she disappeared behind the curtains.”

He pondered what I’d said, holding his finger to where his lips would be under the mask.

“Neil, I don’t like this. Not at all. We need to investigate.”

But only I would be doing the investigating. Mitch pleaded with his mother to let him out of the house, assuring her he felt fine, and that he’d always been fine before the doctors said anything, but I knew it would be no use. He could never leave that place.

Not that he would have seen much if he had. Despite his paranoia, nothing else happened at the house across the street. Weeks passed with me watching its windows, looking for any nugget I could give Mitch to get him to drop the topic, but I only saw the grass grow longer and the dark brown butterflies within it grow in number. Whatever weeds were on that lawn had attracted them so specifically that I wasn’t sure if I saw any that summer than weren’t in front of the neighboring house.

Part of me, I’ll admit, was intrigued—especially after Mitch’s unusual reaction. For a little while, he almost managed to convince me that I had seen something real in that house—that somehow there was a young girl living within, despite all appearances to the contrary. I soon wanted as much as Mitch did to get a better look in that window, but crossing the street into the yard was something I promised myself I would never do.

My father had once suggested going there. I was quite young at the time, so I might be misremembering as I misremember many things about my father, but even then the house looked vacant, and he took it upon himself to mow the lawn. It didn’t take long for my mother to emerge from our house screaming.

“But it’s an eyesore,” he told my mother later, by way of explanation, after she had calmed. “It’s a forest! God only knows what’s running around in there. We have to live on this street too, for Pete’s sake. It only makes the neighborhood look rundown.”

“There’s something wrong with that place, Jerry. I can feel it. Just stay away from it, okay?”

He did not look pleased.

“Would you do it if she asked?” my mother added, underbreath. He looked at her, stunned, then stood and left the house. She started to cry.

I remember looking out the window, expecting to see him pushing his lawnmower across the street. Instead, I saw his car pulling out of the driveway.

It was a late Sunday afternoon when I broke my promise. I had already done my duty keeping Mitch company earlier in the day and was anxious to keep out of my house—I didn’t think I could take looking at those empty rooms much longer. I wanted to pretend, just for a while, that nothing had changed since the year before. I picked up my bicycle from the garage and said good-bye to my mother, who lay on a lawn chair on our stone patio. I wondered if she had the same need to be elsewhere as I. In her lap sat a book she wasn’t reading. Instead, she looked at the small garden my father had built. When I told her I was leaving, she looked at me in a way that worried me, but then she smiled and asked that I be careful in a voice more serious than I think even she expected. I pretended to laugh and jumped on my bicycle.

But by the time I reached the end of the driveway, I wasn’t laughing. Instead, a chill ran down my back and sank in, and I looked up at the small white face in the window across the street. I could hear Mitch’s voice in the back of my head, urging me to go over, to find out things about her. Yet, the girl seemed too pale to be real, her hair too dark against her skin. I wondered if she were a ghost, and even when I rejected the thought it still seemed as though that was how a ghost would look if ghosts were real and eleven years old—like a pale lonely child.

I looked up and down the street, then behind me, but no one else was around. No cars moved, no neighbors walked. Even the birds were quiet. The sun had already started to tint the sky orange, and it felt as if everything had just stopped, as though time were suspended in a single moment. The girl had gone from the window again, but that didn’t seem to matter. In some sort of daze I put my bicycle down and walked across the street, never taking my eyes off that window, even when I crossed through the weedy grass that grew past my knees.

As I did so, the world sprang to life again, and a handful of dark butterflies took to the air with my passing.

The window was filthy, and even with my hands cupped to it I could not see very much beyond the glass. There were no lights on inside, but I could just make out a chest of drawers standing in the shadows, and perhaps an armchair of some sort. I lightly rapped on the glass, hoping to get the girl’s attention, and instead the noise shook something loose in the trees overhead. I looked up and saw nothing beyond the dark leaves that flittered in the summer air like tiny wings.

When my gaze returned to the window, I was startled by the girl’s pale face, inches away from my own.

She stared wide-eyed, her head cocked as though she had never seen another person before. I raised my hand and waved at her, and she cocked her head in the other direction. Then, she too raised her hand, though she didn’t wave. I leaned closer to the glass.

“What’s your name?”

She looked past me at the street, and then looked at me again.

“What’s your name?” I repeated.

This time, she said something, but I couldn’t hear it. I could only see her lips move. They moved precisely, though. I can’t forget that.

But what she said was a mystery. I leaned closer and screamed into the window, “What?” but it didn’t seem to do any good. She did not reply. Instead, she looked behind her at the dark shadows behind the curtains, then a look of absolute fear came over her face, and hastily she made a shape with her two fore-fingers in the dirt of the window, then ran off into the darkness. The drawing remained, though it meant nothing at all to me.

The whole incident proved unnerving. I felt sick to my stomach, and instead of taking the bicycle ride I had planned, I went straight to my bedroom to lie down. My mother came in a short time afterward, holding her arms as though she were shivering.

“What’s wrong, Neil? Why didn’t you go out?”

I didn’t know how to explain what I felt, as I didn’t really fully understand it myself. Instead, I changed the topic.

“Do you think Dad is ever coming home?”

My mother looked at me and I could tell she wanted to say something, but I don’t think she knew what, so she came and sat down beside me and started stroking my hair.

“Things change all the time, Neil—sometimes in the blink of an eye—and usually when you aren’t prepared for it. The trick is to not let yourself get tied to the past. It won’t help anyone. You can’t see what’s in front of you if you’re always looking at where you’ve been. Does that make any sense at all?”

“I think so.”

“Your father, he was stuck in the past, and until he sees what he has rather than what’s gone, I’m afraid he’ll be lost to us.”

I nodded, though still unsure of just what she was trying to tell me. Then I rested my head in her lap and closed my eyes, but the girl’s pale ghost-like face kept appearing to me, continuing to mouth those unknown words she had spoken, trying to make me understand. My fear had gone, however, dispelled by the soft touch of my mother stroking my hair. Before I knew it, I was asleep, and dreaming of my family together again, far away from where we were. It may have been the last time I felt truly safe, and even knowing what I know now, sometimes I think I would sacrifice anything to go back to that one moment and stay there forever.

I hid from the world the next morning inside my room. I lied when my mother came to check on me and told her I didn’t feel well. “I’ll let Mrs. Ramsey know you won’t be coming by for a while. We can’t risk anything happening to Mitch. Why don’t you call him, though? He’ll probably miss you.” I nodded, and sniffled, and she smiled and touched my face, but the look in her eyes seemed distant, and her smile somehow false. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see her pain any longer, but when I did I saw the face of the girl across the street as she watched me. A shiver ran along my back.

“I need to do some shopping, but I can stay home if you need me to.”

“I’ll be okay,” I said, and though I don’t think she liked the idea she didn’t argue with me. In hindsight, I wish she had.

When I telephoned Mitch, he sounded disappointed. I think he was growing tired of feeling like someone’s chore, and he was not as talkative as usual, not until I told him what I’d seen across the street.

“I told you she wasn’t a figment of your imagination.” I thought of how quickly she had disappeared in front of me. “What did she say to you?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t hear her through the window. She drew something on it, though. In the dirt.”

“What was it?”

“It looked like the number eight inside a box.”

He didn’t speak, but I could hear his breathing on the other end of the line, a faint wheeze as it travelled in and out. The seed of worry inside me began to grow into something far worse.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he said, and hung up the telephone before I could ask why.

I was still in bed, trying to shake the dread that had overtaken me, when I thought I heard a quiet knocking at the side door. I opened it to find Mitch, his brown eyes peeking over the paper mask around his nose and mouth. He wore a pair of latex gloves and was hopping from one foot to the other, breathing heavily.

“It’s been a while since I’ve ridden my bike this far,” he said, and then panted for another moment. I stood there stunned to see him on my doorstep.

“What are you doing here? You have to go home.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I was fine before the stupid doctors told me I couldn’t go outside, wasn’t I? I need to see that house.”

“But, you can’t.”

“I’m going over there. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

What could I do? I went with him.

The grass was so long that we could lie down in it and remain hidden if we’d wanted. Even so, we sneaked carefully upon it, not wanting to be seen by anyone inside. Butterflies lifted off with every step we took, until the air clouded with them, hundreds of wings beating past us. I thought for a moment I could hear them, until I realized it was my own heart pounding in my ears. We reached the window where I saw the girl peeking out, but she wasn’t there. I didn’t know what to do.

“Should we wait?” I said.

Mitch thought quietly. I studied his face, looking for some indication that I had led him to his death. Was his skin red or blotched? Were his eyes watering? Did it sound as though he had any trouble breathing? Everything looked fine, he was fine, yet somehow I didn’t feel relieved.

Then, he stood and peered through the dirty window. I waited for him to say something. Instead, he put his hands down and looked at its frame.

“It’s been painted shut,” he said in a whisper. Then, he looked closer at the sill.

“What is this?”

I stood up and saw what he meant. On the sill of the painted shut window the number eight had been repeated carved sideways into the wood, each within its own little square.

“What’s it mean?” I asked, but he only shrugged.

“I need to get inside.”

The cloud of dark butterflies passed over us, and its shadow distracted me, but only for a second. When I looked down, Mitch was no longer beside me. Instead, he was over ten feet away, lying at the front door of the bungalow house. His whole body was shaking with spasms. I screamed his name and ran up to him, but I couldn’t stop his body from jumping. His eyes were bloodshot and white, rolled back into his head, and his skin was covered with boils as though he were burning alive. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think over the sound of his teeth chattering. I started banging on the door of the house, banging and screaming for that girl to open up, but no one answered, no matter how hard I hit it or screamed. The butterflies in the trees around us leapt at the first sound of my pleas, and they were flying wildly overhead and around the house, swirling and twisting in a frenzy, though they didn’t make any sound.

I ran back to the window Mitch and I had been staring in, the window in which I first saw the young girl, and began to knock wildly. I saw a flicker of movement inside, of someone young in a frilly dress, and I knocked harder. She looked at me as though she were a trapped animal, and then she came to the window, shaking her head with terror.

“You have to open the door!” I screamed. “You need to call a doctor!”

She shook her head vigorously, waving her arms madly. I could see reflected in the window the small sharp shadows of butterflies swarming behind me. I refused to give in.

“Open the door! I need help! He’s going to die!”

But she wouldn’t stop shaking her head.

I went crazy. I don’t know how else to explain it. I was so frantic, so desperate, that I was no longer myself. I stood back from the window and looked at Mitch, who had stopped moving, and all I clearly remember is the world turning into a fog of red. I remember the feeling of the blood leaving my face, and dizzily picking a large rock out of the unkempt garden. The girl jumped back from the window, crying noiselessly. With all my might I threw the rock, and thousands of pieces of glass sprayed out, sprayed like tiny slivers of light, and with the shatter came a noise like air filling a void, an awful whoosh of something moving in. Within a second, all the dark insects that had been swarming overhead were rushing through the hole into the house, the stream of them going on and on while I did nothing. Inside, there were screams even louder than my own, and it sounded as though everything was being thrown into the walls.

There was a sudden crashing noise, and then, to my right, the front door of the house flung open. Through it an old woman came running, swatting at the things circling her head. Then she saw me and began to seethe, her eyes filled with the most awful hatred.

“What have you done? What have you done?”

She came at me on her frail legs, and her uncontrollable anger must have blinded her because she stepped right into Mitch’s motionless body and fell forward. I saw her face for only an instant as she went down, and the look of disbelief and horror there has become permanently etched into my memory. Then, her head drove into the ground with a dull crack, and she did nothing any longer.

The dark cloud of butterflies emerged from the house and in a flurry descended upon her. They swarmed over the ground for only a few seconds, but when they dispersed the old woman’s body was gone. Only Mitch remained. I ran towards him and shook him, looking for any sign of life. He had turned horribly pale and his body was cool. I looked to the sky but there was nothing there, nothing but daylight. Then, from far behind me, I heard another horrible scream, and I turned to see my mother, newly returned home, running towards me and the body of my best friend. She moved so slowly that I wasn’t sure she would ever reach us. It was only then that I started to cry.

As you can imagine, things were weird for us after that. Mitch’s mother had trouble accepting her son had left home on his own. She wanted to believe I had somehow coerced him to leave his protected cocoon and go out into the world. I’d like to think she knew the truth, but she couldn’t deal with it. Instead, she needed someone to blame, and I was the only option. I can understand that now, but at the time I couldn’t process it. No one believed my stories about the girl I saw inside the house, or the woman who left it, because traces of neither could be found. I was still there when one of the neighbors searched the house, and other than some old dusty furniture and the rock I’d thrown inside, the place was empty. No one ever offered an explanation as to how I’d managed to unlock the door, but I suspect that was chalked up to a mistake by a previous visitor; perhaps a Real Estate broker. And, of course, I never mentioned the things I saw attack the old woman, or that when they left I saw, for a fleeting instant, the outline of her body in an empty space within the swarm.

My mother stood by me when things were toughest, when I couldn’t stop crying, but it proved too much for us to stay in the neighborhood after what had happened, and before the year was out we had moved to another part of the city where we could start again.

I still think about Mitch, even all these years later, and about the house I lived across from for eleven years but never really knew. Sometimes I think I know just what happened there, that if I could have found a way to get Mitch inside it he’d still be there today, ready to play the games we once played. Maybe the answer to everyone’s problems was staring us right in the face, and though we were all too blind to see it, I was the only one foolish enough to ruin it. Or, perhaps there are some things that will come for you no matter what you do, no matter where you hide. Eventually, they’re going to find you.

Then again, maybe it was all nothing. Perhaps the events were fabrications of an eleven-year-old mind, incapable of accepting both the loss of his father and the death of his friend. I’m not sure, but sometimes, when I hold back my curtain and look through the window, I see the shadows of butterflies flitting from flower to flower, and a chill runs through me. I can feel them watching me patiently, waiting for the curtain to finally drop.

Simon Strantzas

Simon StrantzasSimon Strantzas is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collections Beneath the Surface (2008), Cold to the Touch (2009), Nightingale Songs (2011), and Burnt Black Suns—published in 2014 by Hippocampus Press. His fiction has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award, and has appeared in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, the Black Wings series, Postscripts, Cemetery Dance, and elsewhere. He was born in the cold darkness of the Canadian winter and has resided in Toronto, Canada ever since.