Next Door | By: Lori Lopez | | Category: Short Story - Horror Bookmark and Share

Next Door


By Lori Lopez

      THE FINAL DAY of Kat Mandou’s life commenced as tedious as most.  The only thing out of the ordinary was that something peculiar seemed to be going on at the house next door.
      Not that he was inclined to snoop.  Quite the opposite.  He preferred to ignore the world, and seldom heeded the inhabitants of the dreary olive-planked eyesore — accidentally glimpsed on occasion because they left the drapes wide like they had no secrets, no skulking chain-rattling embarrassments to hide.  Kat doubted it.  Everyone had a skeleton or two.
      Impressions consisted of a couple always grinning at a toddler.  If they were so happy, why did he hear so many blood-curdling wails?  A decrepit geezer toward the rear of the abode was a permanent fixture, seated on a musty-dusty tattered-battered sort of chair.  Kat wondered in an especially idle moment if the fossil might be stuffed like a museum exhibit, the victim of a mad taxidermist.
      Today their drapes were inexplicably drawn, which seemed stranger than the disturbing signs.  (Actual signs, spelling trouble in capital letters!)
      But the self-absorbed teen did not intend to lose sleep over a situation that had nothing to do with him.  He simply didn’t care.
      Even the date, All Hallows Eve, did little to reduce his doldrums.  Typically, there were no invitations to costume parties.  No cordial solicitations to anonymously wreak mischief.  Kat might as well have been invisible as far as the social roster of Baneridge High was concerned.  A phantom, sheer and flimsy, ineffectually haunting those malicious cliquish corridors.
      Except for a name that prompted peers to tease, “How’s the weather up there?”  Being tall and gangly probably didn’t help.
      Things could’ve been worse, Kat conceded.  His name could have been Tim Buktu.
      So here it was, another Halloween staying home.  But this year his parents were attending a presentation on organic gardening.  Fun!
      “Are you sure you won’t come with us?” nagged his mother.
      Kat rolled his eyes.  As a tyke he had been hauled to community functions, barbecues, family reunions, birthday banquets, weddings and funerals.  He had been subjected to every mall, market, or convention under the sun.  What could be more stagnant, more grueling to endure than a rock show?  Rocks!  Polished piles of inanimate minerals!  Anything, perhaps, rooted to the ground?  No thanks.  He wearily declined.
      “You’re constantly moping.  You need a hobby, a diversion.  Something that appeals to you.  I remember you enjoyed planting flowers with me.  You were the best weed-puller on the block!”
      “I was five years old.”
      “He doesn’t need a diversion, he wastes enough time.  He needs to decide what to do with his life,” objected Dad, who tended to address Kat indirectly.  “It’s never too soon.”
      “And you’ve been saying that since I was five,” scorned Kat.
      “He could, of course, become a chiropractor like his old man!” the tell-that-kid-to stand-up-straighter advocate hinted.
      Right.  As if he wasn’t already terrified of the future.  Of inheriting high cholesterol.  Losing his hair along with his grasp on reality.  Becoming duller than a deadbolt like Dad.  Or the alternative, drifting the rest of his life without a single interest.
      “Let him choose for himself,” admonished Mom.
      “I would if he could.  How can he choose if he doesn’t have a clue what he wants?” Dad rhetorically retorted.
      “Hello?  I’m still in the room,” Kat complained.  “And I’m fine, don’t worry.  Just go to your plant lecture.”
      He would much rather spend the night at home, keeping the lights off to avoid being pestered by droves of sugar zombies combing the streets.
      His shortlist of amigos, Chester — a casual acquaintance due to Angela’s lingering influence — had been volunteered by authority figures to take siblings trick-or-treating.  That’s what he said when Kat called him (admittedly upon discovering he, unlike Chessman, would have to survive the traditionally un-hallowed evening alone).
      “Okay, well, I just wanted to see if you were busy.  And let you know it’s no big deal you laughed.  It was pretty funny.  I got pranked by my neighbors.”
      “Yeah.  Okay.  Gotta go.”
      “I’m glad I don’t have a younger brat to get stuck with,” remarked Kat, a portable phone to his ear.  “Braces are bad enough.  Along with the name.  And the height issue.  Man, I’m such a freak!”  He guffawed.
      Dead air.
      “Chester?”  Frowning at the cheap economy phone, he smacked it against his palm.  Severing the call, he listened to a monotonous hum.  The battery wasn’t dead so it had to be the chintzy service or lowcost gadget — the price of having a coupon-clipping mom who avidly flocked to sales; a money-grubbing dad who coveted the commercial hype of rebates, discounts, gratuitous offers.
      Kat stored the device in a pocket and sighed.  Then spied between second-story curtains.  What was up with the crazy neighbors?  Their house, too, was dark.  Yet a red bulb spookily beckoned from the porch.
      A wood placard was propped before a folding chair in the yard.  Nose crinkled, squinting, the lad wondered what was posted there now.
      FREE POMEGRANATES! a bulletin heralded as he approached on his twenty-speed that morning.  A basket of crimson fruit occupied the chair.
      “Okay.  That’s a surprise,” he muttered and slowed to a stop.  The tree behind the adjacent residence had appeared diseased, limbs and foliage coated white.  Flies droned above a harvest of withered sunken orbs that reminded Kat of shrunken heads.
      Maybe some of the seed-bearing husks on the far side were able to ripen.  Kat noticed the tree because pomegranates were his favorite food, scoring three on a scale of ten.  All else rated zero.  He was generally indifferent about everything, meals included.
      Orange and yellow leaves littered a carpet of parched grass.  Timorous footsteps crunched as he neared the chair, wheeling his bike.
      A sweet aroma cloyed.  The contents of the basket shifted.  What was that?  Suspicious, he scrutinized the fruit.  Which couldn’t have jiggled.  The heap must’ve resettled, he dismissed.  Kat nervously reached for the largest granada (a term acquired from Spanish Class) then shoved it into a book pack slung over his chest.  He felt like he was being observed, as if he were stealing the fruit.  Mounting his bike, the teen pedalled uneasily to school.
      During Lunch Period he carried a paper sack to an isolated table.  Kat positioned the pomegranate like a trophy, a symbol of achievement.
      In a sense it was, though he had never cared about gifts, or been excited to receive something for nothing.  They gave awards for exemplary conduct, didn’t they?  This behavior was certainly unrivalled.  It was downright odd for a dispassionate flake like him.
      Tepidly chewing half of the tasteless nondescript sandwich prepared by his mother, which could’ve contained tacks and staples for all he was aware, exchanging nods with Chester (at a table for video-game addicts), he plucked the forbidden slightly foreboding fruit from the tabletop.
      An abominable stench made him gag.  The boy blinked at his hand.  To his astonishment, he gripped a maggoty ball of seeping brown ooze.  A veneer of disgusting despicable fly larvas teemed.  Scouts, as if for the swarm, hopped to exposed tissue and proceeded to chisel.
      “Sick!” the kid shrilled.  And tumbled off the bench amidst a bustling cafeteria.  Leaping up, he danced about swatting putrid white slugs off his clothes.  Then swiped burrowing tick-maggots from his flesh.
      The entire school laughed.  Other than pupils who were absent.  The students loitering in restrooms, gathered outdoors.  It was still a lot of mirthful gaping mouths.  And those not present to witness the spectacle would learn about it soon via cell phone, internet, or word of mouth.  It was, to his regret, The Information Age.  The Communication Era.  Nothing was private.  Nothing was sacred.  Or was high school always so petty and spiteful?
      Cheeks flaming, Kat collected his trash then spun to meet his only friend’s gaze.  Chester stopped snickering and averted his face.
      Dewy-eyed, Kat scuffed out of the building to a desolate courtyard, where he perched on an embankment and waited for the bell.
      It was the dimmest day of his life.  But even dejection seemed unextraordinarily shallow.
      Fortuitously, the basket was removed by afternoon.  A subsequent board enticed, FREE PETS!
      Coasting to a halt in his driveway, last house on the block, the unpopular geek hesitated then shook his head.  I’m not myself, he gauged.  Acute curiosity for him was unnatural.  A result, he estimated, of the incident at school.  He expected the tingles to alleviate.  Like cutting off the circulation from a wrist.  The pulse would immediately revive as the prickling subdued.
      Kat released his bike to crash on cement and leaped to the stoop.  He fumbled in his pack for a key, unlocked the door, barged into the house and thudded upstairs.
      The quiet was like a graveyard.  He hated it.
      On the upper landing Kat paused.  It would be kind of nice, he reflected, if something were anticipating his return.
      Hunched on his bed, Kat brooded about the humiliating day.  Eventually the poor fellow, the beleaguered brunt of ridicule, heard voices.  Dad griping about the bike blocking the garage.  Mom defending that the car didn’t need to go in the garage when it was going to The Hardwarehouse.  And felt less alone, yet largely detached.
      He joined his parents for a quick supper of canned ravioli.  The grownups discussed dream vacations, traveling the globe.  They loved exotic locales, thrived on fantasy treks to remote cities the frugal down-to-earth folks would never cough up the dough to visit.  These fictional jaunts were less fuss, more convenient.  Kat, blissfully, was not a participant.  They had their life, their system.  He was a fringe element, a temporary component.
      “How was school?” his mother perfunctorily quizzed.  As if just greeting her son.
      “The same.”  His usual comment.
      They cheerily departed.  He almost asked them to remain.
      Solitude.  A reprieve.  Simultaneously traumatic.
      He roamed to the den.  “Wish I had some candy,” the adolescent grumbled.
      Mom didn’t buy any.  “You’re unwilling to give it out.  And you’re not in the Halloween spirit.  Besides, it gets caught in your braces.”
      For once he had a craving, was motivated to search cupboards and cabinets in vain.  Everyone else had candy.  For once he yearned to be a regular kid.
      What was happening to him?  Was he transforming like a vampire?  Contorting and reshaping like a werewolf?  He rubbed his forehead.  The skin was warm.  No fever.  No clammy undead chill of a corpse.  Why the sudden voracious appetite for Halloween treats?
      “There has to be a piece somewhere!” he ranted as he rummaged behind sofa cushions, extracting coins, a triple-A battery, the new wristwatch he misplaced.  Emotionally (out of character for him), Kat tossed the items back and reburied them.
      An idea glimmered.  He desperately sank to the rug.
      With depraved persistence, the wretch found himself pawing a dark crevice.  What folly had he succumbed to?  What disreputable indulgence had led to this condition?  It was loathsome, deplorable.  But he couldn’t refrain, couldn’t abstain.  The nit was enthralled by a sugar frenzy.
      In triumph, slouched on the couch, he gnawed a stiff braid of licorice dredged under the sofa and flipped television channels.  Nothing scary.
      As if Hollywood special effects could affect him!  He was immune, impervious to the drama, theatrics, and buckets of red goop.
      Kat glumly wished he were like Chester but couldn’t help it.  He considered the medium of video games vapid and repetitive.  He didn’t see the point.
      Silence was audible, a sinister presence.  Bored, queasy from his snack, the teen wandered to his room.  Neat and tidy.  Four bare walls, minus the clutter of posters and traffic signs that dominated the sanctums of normal kids.
      A laptop computer on a desk was the exclusive defining factor.
      A mere tool from the perspective of his parents.  An instrument of justice according to Angela.
      She registered the ghost account as a joke, using a fake identity.  Her plan was to E-mail anonymous tips — partially-true boldly-exaggerated fibs about classmates who wronged them — over the grapevine, the student directory.  When she developed a conscience and abandoned the scheme, then abandoned him by moving away, he resurrected The Tattler in her honor.
      It was something to do.
      A shame there was no one to punish.  Unless he wanted to mock the whole school.  They deserved it, he sulked, for laughing at his expense.  But the task would require too much effort and frankly wasn’t worth it.  Why should he be bothered by what a bunch of punkers and snobs thought anyway?
      An ear-rending squall.
      “Them again.”  He focused toward the window.  What went on in that house?
      He had assumed for awhile the sounds were harmless.  All babies howled.  No one truly imagined the people next door could be capable of terrible deeds, no matter how inconsiderate, how unneighborly.  Some of the shrieks were prolonged, distressing.  He mentioned them to his mother.  She acted perplexed.
      The squeals, worse than a cat brawl, ceased.
      A dead calm resumed.
      To erase the void, and ironically drown further screams, Kat selected a Screaming Meemies tune on his laptop.  The Alt Rockers made him feel close to Angela, who worshipped the band.
      She was a force that swept blithely in and out of Kat’s world.  After Angela, he and Chester (buddies since Kindergarten) rarely hung out.
      It wasn’t her fault, Kat stubbornly maintained.  It was inevitable.  They had little in common.  A history of being together for no particular reason.
      Chessman, the title Kat sarcastically dubbed his pal as a game fanatic, progressed to virtual obsession.  Kat’s superiors (afraid they would have to spring for innumerable gizmos) labeled video games too violent.  Kat was not permitted to play, even at Chester’s house.  This might have doomed their tenuous bond, if Kat didn’t detest inane pursuits to begin with.  And if a new friend, who also sneered at gamers, didn’t coercively demand he relinquish other ties.
      He had been overwhelmed by Angela’s bossiness.  A guy of limited opinions could be swayed, manipulated, bullied by a girl.  And not because he was weak, but because she was strong.  She made him swear to be loyal.  And then she left.
      A few brusque E-mails.  Her most recent, hastily typed a year after the move, riddled with careless mistakes, confessed that she’d defected.  She was popular, surrounded by friends with pleasant attitudes.  “Evrythng dosn’t have to be negativ or bland.”  He must’ve read the statement a thousand times.  She wished him luck in locating his path.  He hadn’t heard from her since.
      She was his best friend, but she wrote him off like he meant nothing.
      “I am nothing,” he intoned, staring glazedly at a mirror.  “My parents don’t know me.  My friends don’t like me.  I can’t even see myself.”  His features were blank, generic, unrecognizable.  “I have nothing to live for, and I’m not even suicidal.  That’s how apathetic I am.”
      He cranked the volume higher.  Wincing, he jabbed the power switch.
      “Mom and Dad are right.  I don’t like anything.  I have no personality.  I practically don’t exist.”
      Such was his dilemma.  He was an outcast, a guy who didn’t connect with his relatives or his generation, yet conversely wanted to feel accepted.  Just needed someone else to be there.
      He recalled the sign and ventured to the window, breath bated, a knot in his stomach.  The display hadn’t altered.  He exhaled in relief.  “I did pester the fogies for a cobra, which was flat-out refused.  Maybe this’ll be something they’d approve.”
      Thumping downstairs, he exited the house and skirted a row of shrubbery dividing properties.  The teen strode swiftly to inspect a jumbo-sized pickle jar with holes punched in the lid.  Cramming the interior was a dark serpent.  “Cool, a black mamba!”  It was too good to refuse.
      “What’s the catch?”  He glanced at the eerie edifice, biting his bottom lip.  Not a soul in sight.  The gloam-drenched exterior had an unhealthy mildewed shade of decay, dingier than previously perceived.
      And why did it say pets plural?  Was this the last one?  Kat smirked with unexercised muscles.  What fortune!
      Claiming the prize, he tucked it below an arm and sprinted to the sidewalk, past the ragged hedge he was supposed to trim a month ago.  A subliminal stirring provoked him to falter.  He endeavored to descry the source, examining dense jungle.  “Huh.”  He shrugged and continued over his lawn.
      Giggling deviously, Kat slipped through a yawning doorway, trotted up the staircase, then sat on his bed to ogle the jar.  He couldn’t fathom his incredible serendipity.  It was exactly what he wanted!  He would stash the snake in the closet when his folks were around.  What they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.  Angie’s Rule.
      “Mom said I needed a hobby.  The question is not whether I can keep you, but how am I gonna feed you?” he murmured.
      Balancing the fragile container on the brink of his desk, the nerd descended whistling (awaking dormant tendons, honing a torpid skill) to raid the fridge for suitable snake chow.  Jello, casserole, coffeecake, split-pea soup, a lump of cheese.  Prying a sealed plastic bowl, Kat grimaced.  “I’ll try this, whatever it is.”
      He bounded upstairs, unscrewed the cover cautiously and poured the snake’s mystery fodder.  Or tried to.  He tapped the dish to the rim, praying the serpent wouldn’t strike.  A congealed wedge toppled.  Kat twisted the lid tight.
      He sat on his bed, arms folded.  His enthusiasm expired.
      Pinging the side of the jar he queried, “Hey, you alive?”
      The coiled pet abruptly plastered its upper torso to the clear wall of the vessel.  Kat witnessed a row of suctioning mouths along its base and squawked, reflexively slapping the cylinder.  It struck the edge of an iron shelf.  Brittle glass fissured.  Shards rained.  An eelish creature plopped the floor and unraveled.
      “Gross, a giant leech monster!”  Kat jumped onto his mattress.  While specifically fond of snakes, he possessed an irrational phobia regarding slugs.  This beast had to be at least a six-footer!  He watched the mammoth worm squirm beneath his bed.
      Shivering, Kat lunged across the room, landed near the door.  Yanking the portal, he charged into the hall then pivoted to wrench the barrier shut.  He wasn’t going back until that sucker was gone!
      The kid huddled miserably in a corner of the couch, taking refuge in the dusk-shrouded den, impatient for his parents to arrive.  Where were they?  What was taking so long?
      “Get a grip,” he chided.  “Once they’re here, you’ll wish they weren’t.  You’re never satisfied.”
      A gale buffeted.  Great, was it about to storm?  The talons of a tree branch scraped.
      He rose and paced the first floor, navigating by the glow of streetlamps.  “I should call the police.  My parents are missing.  The neighbors are psychos.  And I’m alone!”
      Teeth chattering, the boy peeped through a side pane.
      A pallid visage goggled from the house next door.
      Gasping, Kat ducked.
      The apparition had vanished when he looked seconds later.
      Scuttling to the sofa, the lad hugged himself behind it and whimpered, “Come home, come home!”
      “I sound like a girl,” he moaned.
      He scrabbled on hands and knees to the window and peeked over the sill.  A ghastly face was pressed to the glass!
      Yipping, Kat dove.
      An interlude of tense biding.  A suspenseful aching hush.
      Hinges creaked upstairs.  Eyes bulged in terror.  A dervish spiralled to the base of the steps.  The squishy blob unspooled and towered aloft, snout twitching as if to sniff for prey.  The humongous parasite targeted Kat.  The anxious adolescent retreated.
      The leech chased him, a fast wiggler.  He clutched a curtain, tugged himself to his knees.  The drape collapsed.  He scrambled on a chair and flung pictures from a mantle.  Frames shattered.  The night-crawler snarled then launched at the kid’s frightened countenance.
      Kat screeched.  He grabbed the trunk of a potted ficus and heaved it to bash the bloodsucker repeatedly, destroying a ceramic basin, slinging dirt.
      He dropped the plant, exhausted, spattered with crud.
      Inky blotches rejuvenated on walls, the floor.  An army of bloodsuckers morbidly slithered and stalked.
      Caterwauls arose.  “That does it,” Kat declared.
      After the leech, the worm-infested fruit, he was determined to investigate.
      The teen paraded to the door.  A snailstrom sneaked enmasse.  Their quarry brashly unlatched bolts.  Rapacious globules slid to a halt.
      Kat tugged the door, heels mashing writhes.  The rest dispersed.
      Marching past the hedge, he blinked at rows of neatly painted letters across a whitewashed sheet of plywood:
      Kat gawped at the looming structure and swallowed.  Definitely weird.
      “It is Halloween!” his inner coward protested.  “What’s so weird about free candy?  I’m sure everything’s fine.”
      “It’s not and you know it.”  Memories of quirksome peripheral discrepancies, notably subtle chaotic occurrences flitted through Kat’s mind.  Furtive dartings.  Minute scritchings.  Fleet lurks and leers that made him peer twice.  There had been omens.  Less obvious signs.  Ulterior indications that what dwelled in the house next door was pure adversity, the stark-raving-lunatic contrast of fine!
      Shoulders squared, he advanced to an imposing door and knocked, his knuckles rapping wood.
      No answer.
      “Oh well.”  He turned to chicken out.
      “Somebody has to be there.”  He could still hear the yowls and hammered louder.
      The laments desisted.
      Kat tested a brass knob.  The door creepily swung ajar.  “I don’t know about this.”  Showered by a pool of red fog, he blinked at solid gloom.  The primal pith cajoled and wheedled.  Or was that a figment of his apprehensive plight, his quaking solemn stance?
      Inhaling deeply, Kat braved a bleak chamber completely blind.  Groping through shadow, he followed a flat surface to another door.
      A cold knob startled his touch.  The door opened and he yelped, sprawling, pummeled by an avalanche of clanking fallout.  The tumult ended.  He brushed layers of lopsided tubes and spheres from his abdomen.  Fingers plunged inside a pair of sockets.  He discerned the nasal cavity, the leering enamels of a human skull.
      With a holler he pitched the gourd.  It bounced and rolled, echoing.
      The dweeb vaulted to his feet, sprinted toward a scarlet rectangle.  Emerging, breathing hard, he was faintly aware of scurrying youngsters up the lane.  And hoped with all his heart none would dare the journey to the dismal dead end.
      Hurrying home, he barricaded his front door.
      Music swelled, piano and strings.  For an instant Kat thought his computer had restarted itself.  The sounds of revelry, a party, floated from next door.
      The lad hastened to a window.  Silhouettes glided behind illuminated curtains.  Merriment wafted from a gilded setting.
      “No way!” the kid refuted.  “I was just there!”
      He clawed at obstructions, burst out, raced beyond the hedge.  And stopped in amazement.
      The words on the signboard had changed.
      Kat strolled forth in a daze to behold the announcement:
      This was too bizarre, the boy marveled.  It was like the signs were aimed at him — luring, baiting, coaxing — exploiting his desires, however meek.
      He shouldn’t go.  He knew their game, suspected the purpose.  Yet he felt an obligation, a responsibility to save the bawling child.  He could ignore the cries no longer.
      “Okay okay, I need equipment!” the teen babbled, rushing to his house.  A frantic hunt ensued.  Flashlight.  Slingshot.  He fished inside an aquarium for marbles, filling trouser pockets, then dripped to the garage to improvise an outfit.
      Plain cartons sliced with eye and arm holes approximated a robot.  A broad door automatically elevated.  Kat awkwardly shuffled to the sidewalk.  He rustled over leaves to the party, a conspicuously covert invader, and raised a fist to pound the gate.
      Music and voices quit.  The figures vanished.  The door squeakily budged inward.
      “Guess I don’t need a costume.”  Kat shirked his cardboard disguise.  He trained the flash into coalish depths.
      “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”  The nerd slowly explored a shaky beam.  Disassembled skeletons lay scattered near a closet.  The vacuous chamber lacked furnishings.  Brushing cobwebs, Kat gingerly tiptoed under an arch leading to the back of the house, detecting a distant jumble of voices, strains of music.
      A corridor stretched.  The intruder trudged, ambled, plodded an eternity.  “It doesn’t seem this huge from outside!”
      As if on cue the passage veered.  Kat meandered a confusion of false shafts, angular bends.  He feared he would be trapped forever and expelled a forlorn sob.
      The elderly man stood somber, a bright grayish form.  Then the aisle ahead was vacant.
      The revenant popped into view.  A different spot.
      “What’s going on here?” the teen yelled.
      A raucous glut of voices responded.
      The relic gestured, a grim flourish, then vaporized.
      And materialized at his back, arid complexion pierced by scads of leeches that rippled and elongated raptly, savoring the lad’s sanguine bouquet.
      Kat scrunched his nose.  “What’s that smell?”  A rank odor permeated.  “Gruesome!”
      He swiveled to check.  Thin air.
      “This is nuts!”  Clamping the small flashlight with incisors, Kat wielded his cell phone and punched an index number.  The reply was crackly, broken.
      Transferring the flash to a pocket Kat whined, “Mom, where are you?  I’m at the house next door.  These people are insane!  The old guy keeps disappearing.  I heard the baby howling.  I think I’m lost.  I need you to come home!”
      Frowning, he struggled to interpret garbled phrases.
      “Next door . . . talking about . . . nobody lives . . . condemned . . . shouldn’t be there . . . empty for years . . . trespassing!”
      Static.  A dial tone.
      “Mom?”  Kat’s voice wavered.
      The phone died.  He traded it for the flashlight.  Comprehension sank in.  “I think she said no one lives here.  Can’t be.  I’ve been seeing —”
      His Adam’s apple bobbed.
      “— ghosts?”
      The wraith hooted, rotten teeth bared.  Kat stumbled away as the ghoulish entity strobed.  Jerky visions revealed a bald dome flecked with scaly tissue, ringed by sparse white strands.  Creases, veins, and discolorations marred the sagging flesh of an archaic visage.
      Kat flinched as bumps swam below the ruined aspect, then probed outward with elastic lurchings.
      The flashlight dropped.  A crooked beam speared the dark.  A sonic peal concussed, throwing Kat to the floor.  A blast of heat engulfed.  Tenors and timbres assailed, keening, vacuuming oxygen from the corridor.  Paralyzed, Kat was sucked toward the noise.
      The commotion faded.
      Trembling, the boy regained his footing and attempted to load his slingshot, spilling marbles.  He fired at the radiant specter, nicked a wall.  The shot bounced and clattered.  He wished he were a better marksman.  The weapon had been a gift from Chester, unvalued till that moment.  Kat wished he had silver bullets, or whatever killed ghosts.
      The sling plummeted from his hand.  If ghosts were dead already, would nothing kill them?
      A grin split a wizened mouth.  A sharp tongue wagged then vibrated rapidly in a blur.  Voices merged to a throbbing narrative.  “I am Nethos.  An ancient spirit.  I existed like you.  Uninvolved.  Unable to appreciate the world’s opportunities.  My people were unkind.  They tortured me with embraces and bruises.  Taught me human nature can be vicious.  That life can be cruel, unfair.”
      “It was you,” Kat blurted.  “The screaming child!”
      “Yes, but no one paid attention,” the poltergeist mourned.
      “I did,” Kat proudly disputed.
      The old one smiled sadly.
      “You were too late!” a cyclone of voices cacophonied.
      The whirlwind subsided.
      “Now I reap the wails of others.  Cull their shouts, their groans and pleas.  I am The Tongue Snatcher.”  Nethos fluctuated, sizzling.  “Scream, ungrateful boy.  You discontented whelp.  Scream, that I may seize yours too!”
      A bellow of fear flooded Kat’s throat, compelled him to part vulnerable jaws and await a direly awful fate.  He couldn’t control the dreadful urge . . .
      And should you speculate about your neighbors, the house next door, beware.  Do not spread rumors.  Do not so much as stare.  And do not ever knock!  You never can tell what manner, or manor, of horrors you will find.
      Above all, do not forget this warning:  If the impulse to gossip seethes in your soul, guard well your tongue, else The Snatcher might come!

      AUTHOR\'S NOTE:  This marks a significant event in my writing career:  my first release of a scary tale for Halloween!
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