As many of y’all know, I’m slowly working my way back into writing. It’s been a bumpy few years, between some health issues, seeing my oldest fly from the nest, and being with my dad as he fought lung cancer. After Dad passed in June, I took some time to rest, realizing I’d been running non-stop for some time, and doing that seemed to recharge my brain. Slowly, the desire to start writing again began to come back, and I started looking for ways to hold myself accountable to at least try. What better way than to both announce to readers something is coming, and make a game out of it?
Enter the short story prompt contest! A lot of you dropped some great prompts on Facebook to generate story ideas and I narrowed it down to two. I’m excited to announce Elizabeth Hull is the winner of the contest and the $25 Amazon gift card. Her prompt–“Jake hated this new house his parents seemed to adore. He found out why he hated it so much when his bedroom door sort of melted into what looked like a huge eye, which opened slowly.”–gave me a few Matt Archer vibes and reminded me how much I enjoy writing Urban Fantasy, particularly about monsters. I also managed to work in the runnerup prompt by Marilyn Highley (my delightful MIL!): “The train whistle woke her from a deep sleep.”
There’s a part of me that wants to see where Tyler’s story goes next, so there might be more to this in the coming months, but for now, please enjoy “The Move.”
“I don’t understand why we had to move.” Tyler stared at the large, gray clapboard farmhouse sitting on a couple hundred acres of rolling grass, trees, probably with wild animals that would stare out of the woods at them at night. “I liked the city.”
Mom turned around from the front seat, unbuckling her seatbelt, a huge (was it forced?) smile on her face. “The city was crowded, dirty, and loud. It’s high time we all got back to nature.”
Easy for her to say. She and Dad had been talking, all excited, about buying a couple of dairy cows, planting an organic garden, and “living from the land.”
Yeah, right. Tyler was sixteen, not stupid. He’d heard the rumors about Dad at school, had seen the way people would glance at him during passing period, then look away just as fast. He’d heard his parents whispering, worried frowns on their faces, only to clam up whenever he came into the room.
Whatever Dad had done as CFO of Fire Tech Solutions, it wasn’t good. He didn’t have to be told they were moving out to the middle of nowhere to lie low, not learn to be hipster farmers.
Tyler had to admit the stream and the trees were nice. A few were big enough to climb and build a fort in. He’d thought that babyish when he’d see treehouses on TV, but a place, out of the weather, where he could get away from his parents for a while sounded like a good idea.
He hefted his backpack onto his shoulder, the corner of his laptop pinging him painfully in the ribs. Another thing he’d miss—junior year. His parents had enrolled him in online high school, saying things like, “Public school doesn’t provide the right education,” and “You’ll learn more being closer to the land.” More smokescreens—was Dad in trouble enough to go to jail? No, probably not. They wouldn’t move to upstate New York if he’d done something illegal…they’d be running to Mexico.
At least he’d studied Spanish for the last three years.
Tyler yanked his bag out of the trunk, promising to help unload the U-Haul once he’d seen his bedroom. The movers had come a few days ago to furnish the place, so they only had to worry about setting up everything. God, he hoped the internet worked. Mom and Dad had promised. Snapchatting and Face Timing with his friends, along with epic video gaming sessions, would be the only thing making this move bearable.
The house’s porch creaked under his Nikes. Up close the house wasn’t bad really…just old. Smooth wooden boards lined the walls and porch, and the entry had an old, wrought iron screen door over a study front door. He wrestled them open—how the heck did you go through two doors at once? He was used to lobbies, elevators, and apartment hallways, not spring-loaded screen doors that banged into your back while you tried to open the real door.
Inside, the house was dim, smelling of dust and wood polish. It was clean, though, with bright sun streaming through the sheer curtained windows. The front hall was simple—one hall leading to the living room, and the stairs straight ahead. An antique table stood against the wall under an old mirror made of warped glass. Tyler headed for the stairs, then paused, heart beating faster. Something in that mirror had moved…and it wasn’t him. But when he finally worked up the courage to look into the mirror dead on, he saw only his reflection, bent and stretched, like in funhouse glass.
“Freaking creepy old houses,” he muttered, starting up the stairs. They creaked under his feet. Now that sucked—even if he had anywhere else to go, there’d be no sneaking out of this place.
His parents had a large bedroom downstairs, off the living room. Because the guest room was also downstairs, tucked behind the kitchen, Tyler had the upstairs to himself. One of the bedrooms would be his game room—the only awesome thing about the house. His desk, gaming chair, a huge bean bag, and his exercise bike were already set up. A second, larger table sat against the wall, under a window overlooking the stream. He dropped his backpack on the table. He’d do his school stuff here. This part, having room to spread out, really was great. Their apartment in the city wasn’t small, but his old bedroom had been smaller than either of these spaces.
Tyler went across the narrow hall to his bedroom. A queen-sized bed with an old-fashioned metal frame, along with a nightstand and small dresser sat, waiting for him. There was also a huge closet, along with another in his game room, which meant he had plenty of room for his stuff. A white comforter and sheet set, along with a bright quilt, were both still in their plastic wrappings and lying on top of a brand-new mattress. He put his suitcase down and sat on the bed with a sigh. He’d do his best to make things work out here…but his parents were crazy if they thought he was going to milk cows at five-thirty every morning.
“Oh, you’ve arrived…good.” The whisper came from the closet.
Tyler froze, his insides full of cold water. Did the house just talk? He waited, too scared to move, for more, but the closet didn’t say anything else.
“Tyler! Come help with the stuff!” his mom called up the stairs. “We can’t unload all these boxes alone.”
With a second glance at the closet, Tyler got up and went down to the U-Haul.
* * *
That night, after a hurried dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce, Tyler went upstairs to play Call of Duty for a while. It was good to hear his friends’ voices over the headset, normal somehow. Settled in and with the familiar voices chattering over his headset, the weird things that had happened earlier seemed unreal. It was easier to believe the house hadn’t really talked to him. He’d been messed up about the move and imagined it. Had to be.
But when he took off his headphones and shut down his machine for the night, Tyler was struck by how quiet it was. In the city, there was noise twenty-four-seven, even when you lived on the eighteenth floor of an apartment building. Cars, sirens, the crash of dumpsters at six am when the garbage trucks came by—it was all part of the symphony of city life. The quiet now was unsettling, broken only by the slightly distant rustling of trees in the wind. A lonely bird called and a few crickets made a half-hearted racket, but that was all.
After snapping off the lights and crawling into bed, Tyler was sure the eerie quiet—or was it just country quiet? —would keep him awake. But the long car ride, followed by the unpacking and a four-hour gaming session, worked its magic, and he was asleep in ten minutes.
The train whistle woke him sometime after midnight.
The noise was shrill and close like the train was coming straight at the house. Tyler blinked awake, feeling fuzzy and confused. Train whistle? He may not know his new home or the farm well yet, but there wasn’t a train for…what, thirty miles? The country was quiet, sure, but not so still he could hear a train from that far away.
Then his closet door creaked.
Tyler’s breath gusted out and a shiver rode down his spine. What the hell was happening? Closet doors didn’t creak open on their own, but there had to be an explanation, something reasonable. Heart hammering, Tyler glanced around the room. The windows were open, but the door faced the wrong way to be blown by the light breeze. Nothing else could’ve opened that closet door.
“How do you like your new home?”
The whisper cut straight through Tyler’s panic. He wasn’t going to sit here like a scared rabbit. He was from the city—nothing shocked or scared him. Nothing. Not even creepy old houses with mystery train whistles or whispers in the dark.
Grabbing his baseball bat from the corner by this nightstand where he’d dumped it during unpacking, Tyler rolled slowly out of bed and crept toward the closet. “Who’s there?”
“I could ask the same question, human, but I already know.”
The word “human” stopped Tyler cold. The letters “WTF, WTF!” spun through his mind on a loop. “Y-you aren’t human?”
A soft, snuffling chuckle. “Come to the closet and see, little one.”
Swallowing down the spaghetti now threatening to come back up, Tyler reached for the doorknob with shaking fingers. It swung open—without creaking.
And inside, staring out at him, was a large, red eye.
It was slit pupiled, like a reptile’s, and when it blinked, a membrane slid over it before the lid closed. A soft whoosh of air, not unlike a horse snuffling—if the horse had been forty feet tall—came from the closet. “Well met, young one.”
Tyler jerked back, panting in terror. “Oh, my God. I’m losing my mind. It’s—it’s a dream. A dream. That’s it. I’m off because of the move and—”
“Not a dream, not exactly.” The voice sounded like several men speaking at once…so the thing was male? Maybe? “We’ve been waiting for a new agent for some time. And so, here you are. Come, we have much to discuss.”
“Come?” Tyler squeaked out the word like he was twelve again. God, was this thing going to eat him? “Come where?”
The eye moved back, revealing a rim of black, scaly hide but nothing more. “To our side of the world. We need a human go-between, you see. Our last agent retired and moved to his daughter’s home a few years ago. He was a good agent, but now old for your kind, and we were glad to give him his rest. Now, however, we are well pleased to see our new agent move in.”
“So, you’re not here to eat me?” Tyler frowned, confused. “I thought most monsters-in-the-closet did that sort of thing.”
A chuffing sound, like a laugh, sounded from the creature. “Hardly. Humans are inedible. Ghastly, really. And we have plenty of food on our side.”
Tyler chose not to ask how the creature knew humans were inedible. “So, what, exactly, does an agent do.”
“Much the same as in your world—errands, negotiations, the odd job. Nothing your kind would declare illegal. We really like New York-style pizza. We might ask you to bring us a hundred of those.” There was a pause, and when the creature spoke next, it sounded worried. “Young one, we need your help. The agency would be a lifetime position, you see. You’d be very well compensated—want for nothing—but you must want to serve us. Which is why you should come with me. It will be much easier to explain once you are here.”
A lifetime obligation? Why was Tyler even curious about this? It sounded…too good to be true. And a hardcore New Yorker asked for the fine print. “What’s the catch? Just that I have to live in this house forever?”
“Yes…but you’ll be able to leave it for vacations and such. We aren’t monsters. We offer dental, too.”
Tyler fought down waves of hysterical laughter. Dental? Vacation time? What the hell was going on? Had he hit his head getting into bed earlier? But something about the earnestness of the creature’s voice snagged his mind. The creature sounded desperate. Like they really needed him.
No one had ever needed Tyler before.
“Can I do normal stuff, like get married and have kids someday?”
“You did hear me say our last agent had a daughter, right?” There was a teasing tone to the creature’s voice now. “He wasn’t much older than you when he signed on with us sixty years ago.”
Tyler blinked. They really meant that is was a lifetime position then. He’d planned to go to college, study computer science, and get a job with a big tech firm…but lots of people did that. How many people did he know that could say they were a monster’s agent?
He must be crazy, but… “Tell me what my first task would be, and I’ll decide.”
“That’s easy. We’ll give you control of the agency accounts, and you’d go buy us a million dollars’ worth of gold bullion.”
A million dollars? Of gold? Where did they get the money? No…Tyler wasn’t sure he wanted to know. This was sounding more and more like he was going to be a monster’s pirate than an errand boy. “I’m not eighteen…how would I buy that much gold?”
“We picked you because you know the human machines…you’ll figure it out.” The creature didn’t even sound worried, like it knew Tyler could do it all along.
How did they know, though? How did they know he could dive into a network and do whatever he wanted? How had he been the one they chose? It made no sense.
Except that it did, kind of.
Tyler screwed his eyes shut, thinking. Was he really going to do this? It sounded…crazy?
He took a deep breath. Somehow, he knew the world had been waiting to show him something unreal for a long time. Just the gut feeling that he could pick at reality’s edges and pull it away like a curtain. The way squirrels would eat from his hand, and dogs would always come to him first for pets, how he’d seen strange things swimming in the Central Park pond that no one else did.
But it was stranger that, wasn’t it? Dad wasn’t the type to steal from a company…he was Mr. Rules Follower. He’d never even broken the speed limit, which annoyed his son to no end when they were late. He wouldn’t embezzle funds even if someone held a gun to his head. Which meant Dad had been set up for whatever the company said he’d done. And why he and Mom had simply left the city without much fuss.
Had all this happened so the monsters could have Tyler? Did they need him so badly they got his dad fired, with a giant severance package that allowed them to buy this house, of all places, and get cows?
His parents seemed awfully happy for people on the run from trouble.
Something clicked, then…an understanding he hadn’t had before: He wouldn’t ever have to fit in again. He could live in the world as someone more. Someone strange, knowing things almost no one else did, about a new world only he could see. He could be different, in the best way possible.
Tyler opened his eyes, nodded once. “I’m in.”
And with that, he stepped through the open closet door.