Once upon a time, my hometown decided it wanted to try and get its name on the map. It was the height of the real estate bubble and people were buying, developers were building, and our small city was looking forward to a sudden and steady growth spurt.
The thing about bubbles, though, is that they have a tendency to burst.
When the market crashed, a ripple effect followed. All those eager new homeowners looking forward to their gated communities and McMansions disappeared. With the money gone, the builders followed suit, taking with them all their promises of revitalization for our tired area. The jobs that had been promised to all the local contractors dried up and many, including my dad, were left scrambling for work.
The only sign that any progress might have been made were a few plotted out neighborhoods, some little more than cleared land with spray painted lines running across the ground, while others boasted a few almost-complete homes. All that had been left to do was slap up some paint inside and sign the paperwork for it to be somebody’s home.
Regardless of how far along they were, each development had been given some “high class” sounding name to set them apart from the rest of us, non-association member peasants: Deer Run, High Creek, Maple Terrace. The one closest to me, set back behind a line of thick hedges, was Green Meadow.
It was one of the “What Could Have Been” neighborhoods, with a few paved streets and a handful of houses that had been so close to being finished. After construction halted, they’d simply been left behind; large empty shells of two-story dreams that weren’t going to come true. With no one to claim them, they sat, vacant and unsupervised.
It was awesome for me and my friends, a bunch of teenaged boys with too much time and not enough to fill it.
It wasn’t hard to get into the houses. The locks were a joke, more for show than security, and my best buddy Evan was able to pick most of them. Those that he couldn’t just had us going around to the back of the house to break windows so we could climb in. You would think we’d get bored running between the half dozen empty buildings, each almost identical to the last, but we found ways to keep ourselves entertained.
Mostly it was just me, Evan, and Buck, but sometimes Evan’s older brother, Phil, would bring a few guys around to hang. They were (mostly) friendly, showed us skateboarding tricks in the cement basins that would have been in-ground pools, even let us have a few sips of the cheap beers they sometimes brought. At fourteen, nothing was cooler than having those seventeen and eighteen year olds around.
Green Meadow became our summer escape, one we thought that everybody else had forgotten about.
Until the girls started showing up.
July had hit us hot and heavy, so we’d started going over to Green in the early evening, when the houses didn’t quite feel like ovens. It was just me and Evan that night, Buck had gone away to camp, and we were sitting in one of the upstairs windows, firing his paintball gun at some beer cans we’d set up in the driveway. It was Evan’s turn and he was taking his time, painstakingly lining up each shot only to miss and then demand a redo, and I was getting bored.
My gaze wandered idly from the paint splattered driveway, followed a crack in the pavement across the street, to the house across the way. It looked dark inside from where we were standing, same as all the others.
So when I realized someone was looking back from one of the second story windows, I recoiled slightly with a soft gasp.
From what I could make out in the dusky light, it was a girl, younger than us, with oddly chopped, uneven hair that hung limply around her face. Her pale features contrasted sharply with the shadows around her. We stared at each other, both completely still, until I’d shaken my surprise enough to nudge Evan, who’d been too distracted with his shooting to notice .
“Knock it off, Russ,” he said, “it’ll be your turn whe-”
“Dude, look!” I cut him off with a jab to his shoulder and pointed across the way.
But the little girl was gone.
“Stop trying to creep me out,” he said.
“She’s gotta still be in there,” I replied, already heading towards the stairs. “Let’s go look. Maybe she’s lost or something.”
Evan groaned, but followed. “If this is some kind of trick, I’m going to shoot you in the balls.”
“No, man, I swear! She was looking right at us.”
We called out as soon as we got inside, letting the girl know that we wanted to help her. With the evening fast turning to night, an inky blackness was starting to settle over the house, making it seem almost unfamiliar. Still, thoughts of my own little sister, half my age and still afraid of the dark, made me creep forward. I wouldn’t want her left, alone and afraid, in this kind of place.
Evan hesitated in the entryway, but when I hissed that he was a chicken over my shoulder, he followed.
Our footsteps sounded all too loud in the otherwise still and silent house. The further in we went, the faster my heart beat, until I could feel it pounding in my chest. I tried to tell myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but every creak of the stairs as we ascended was like a protest aimed at that very thought. Behind me, Evan stuck close, at least letting me know I wasn’t alone in my nervousness.
We stood at the second floor landing, peering down the hall towards the room where I thought I’d seen the girl.
“Hello?” I could barely bring my voice above a whisper.
Downstairs, a door slammed somewhere in the house.
That was all it took for me and Evan to turn tail and scramble back down the steps. We practically tripped over each other in our desperate flight out the front door and didn’t stop running until we’d cleared Green Meadow completely and were standing under a streetlight on the sidewalk leading home.
“What was that?” Evan asked breathlessly.
I could only shrug.
“M-maybe the wind,” he said.
“Or the girl. Could have run out when we were upstairs.”
“Maybe,” he agreed doubtfully. I wasn’t sure he even believed she’d been there at all, but he didn’t seem to want to argue the point.
We parted ways and went home, where I slept with a flashlight next to my pillow.
We made excuses to ourselves, to each other, and to Phil and his friends about why we didn’t want to go back to Green for a while. While neither Evan nor myself would admit we’d been scared out loud, whenever we considered going back, we were reminded of the darkness and that slamming door.
It wasn’t until Phil offered to let us set off some firecrackers he had in one of the unfinished pools that we went back. There was just something about fire and explosions that we couldn’t pass up.
With Phil and his friends there, it was easy to forget that we’d ever been afraid and we enjoyed a few hours of lighting bottle rockets and bike riding along the pool’s edges. We hardly even noticed when the sun started to go down. One by one, Phil’s friends started to leave, until it was only the three of us left.
“We should get going,” Phil said to Evan. “Mom’ll kill me if you’re out late.”
“Fine,” Evan said, but not before he’d set off another firecracker.
We left the mess of burned up papers and wrappings behind and crossed between houses to get to the road. Phil was talking to us about something, but I found my attention slipping from him and turning to that house, the one I’d seen the girl in. Unconsciously, my eyes flicked up to the window where I’d seen her last.
She was there again, once more looking out at me with that blank, colorless expression. This time, though, she wasn’t alone.
A second girl, this one a bit closer to me in age, was standing behind her. She had a similar haircut, jagged and short, but instead of watching us go by impassively, she was scowling.
As we walked passed the house, the front door swung open.
All three of us froze for a moment, unsure of how to react, until Phil started to laugh. I couldn’t help but think it sounded uneasy, but joined along, anyway.
“Door probably wasn’t latched,” he said, trying to play off his fright.
“Yeah,” Evan was quick to agree, but I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was; that this was the same house with the little girl.
Before I could tell them to look up, Phil was ushering us along again, reminding Evan that their mom was waiting. I glanced back just once, just long enough to see the little girl still standing in the window. Just long enough to see the older one in the front doorway, her mouth open and twisted all too wide in a silent, angry scream.
She lifted her hand and pointed at me.
I didn’t tell the guys what I’d seen. One because I wasn’t sure what it really was and, two, because I didn’t want Phil to think I was a big baby. They must have been able to tell I was freaked out, though, because they walked me all the way home before doubling back towards their own place.
I hurried inside and tried to make it up to my room before my parents noticed, but Mom caught me halfway up the steps.
“Whoa, slow down, Russ,” she said, “I want to talk to you.”
“I gotta go to the bathroom,” I replied, hoping she’d just let me go. I was still shaken by what I’d seen and just wanted to hole up in my room and watch TV until I forgot about it.
“It’ll only take a minute,” she said. “I don’t want you staying out after dark anymore. Some kids have gone mis-”
“Ok, fine, sure, I gotta go!” I insisted and dashed the rest of the way upstairs before she could argue.
I heard her sigh, the put upon sound of a teen’s mother, but she didn’t follow.
My plan had been to keep myself distracted with light and noise until I fell asleep. Seeing the little girl by herself had been unsettling enough on its own, but there was something about the other one and the way she’d pointed after me that really got under my skin. I buried myself under my comforter and swore I wouldn’t go back to Green Meadow for a while.
I was able to drift off after a couple hours, my thoughts clouded with the bright, colorful nonsense of Dragonball Z.
My room was dark when I was wrenched into wakefulness some time later. The lights I’d left on, the TV, my computer screen, all switched off. A tingling, icy sweat beaded along my forehead and I tried to sit up, tried to move at all, but my body was unresponsive I remained stretched out on my back, unable to do anything but roll my eyes wildly around in their sockets. I couldn’t even scream.
Something moved in the far corner of my room. My eyes, so wide that they ached, swiveled instinctively towards it.
The older girl was standing there, rigid and straight and still scowling. She took a stiff step forward, and then another, and then I blinked. She was at my bedside, one hand poised over my neck. I made a muffled gurgling sound in the back of my throat that was supposed to be a scream. Her fingers, icy and hard, pressed against my flesh.
I wasn’t in my room anymore. I wasn’t myself anymore. I was in a dark place, terrified, my mouth gagged. Someone was dragging me. Every time I struggled, I was hit. In my face, in my side, they didn’t care. I knew that, I felt it; they didn’t care, and it scared me most of all.
The blindfold covering my eyes slipped just a little, but enough. I could tell I was in a big house, unfinished and empty, but not much else. He had me by the hair, that tall boy who I’d thought was so cute, the one who said he’d give me a ride home when he saw me walking down the sidewalk after I’d finished my shift at work. I’d only been in his car for a minute before he’d struck me on my head.
He didn’t care that I couldn’t catch my footing on the stairs, he didn’t care that I was crying, he didn’t care that I was pulling weakly away.
He didn’t care.
The fear and pain that followed, the violation of my body, the things he did, I had never known that someone could be so cruel. I was barely conscious, barely comprehending, and he was leaning over me, hacking away at my hair with a dull knife already covered in my blood. Out of everything he had done, that was what made me want to ask him why. He had defiled me already, why did he have to disfigure me, too?
I watched him take handfuls of my shorn hair and shove it in his jacket pockets. A trophy.
He had some trouble hauling me up the attic ladder, but he was persistent. There was a box there, a big ice chest that must have been more difficult than me to drag up there. He let me drop to the floor while he undid the padlock and pulled it open.
There was already a girl inside, no more than eight or nine. Her eyes were glassy, her lips blue, and there was a smell even with all the ice.
Don’t put me in there, I tried to beg with my eyes, don’t put me on top of the dead girl. I’m alive, I’m still alive.
He lifted me up and dumped me in that ice box on top of that child and he closed the lid. Outside, the lock snapped into place.
I’m alive, even my thoughts sounded like whispers in the black and the cold, I’m alive.
And then I wasn’t.
I gasped for air, my eyes coming into focus once more. I was back in my room, I was myself again. The girl was still standing over me, still scowling, but now tears shined in her eyes. Her hand fell away from my throat.
She was gone.
I woke my parents up with my screaming. Amidst all my babbling and hysterical sobbing, I was able to get out only a single phrase.
“Phil, it was Phil!”
Police worked quickly after we called them. They found the girls, seven year old Sue MacBride and nineteen year old Olivia Harwell, exactly where I told them they’d be. Locked in an ice chest in the attic of one of the unfinished houses in Green Meadow.
Sue had been killed about a week before Olivia.
Despite his attempts to clean up after himself, Phil had left behind more than enough evidence to convict, but nothing quite so damning as the strands of hair that were found carefully tucked between the pages of a book on the shelf in his room.
When asked how I’d known it was him, I made up something about having seen Olivia in his car the night she vanished and putting two and two together after seeing her picture on the news. I claimed I found the ice chest when playing in the house, but didn’t think much of it until later. They seemed to believe me readily enough, and over time, it got easier to tell the lie.
I didn’t see Evan much after that, and when I did, he was withdrawn, sometimes angry with me, but mostly just sad. We never spoke about the little girl. We never talked about the night we’d gone into that house looking for her, not knowing that Phil had killed her there just the night before. His family moved away during Phil’s trial.
I only went back to Green Meadow once, right before they planned to knock all those empty houses down, and I stood outside the place where Sue and Olivia had died. I looked up into the window where I had first seen them, the window of the room he’d brutalized them in, where they had been trapped even after death.
I looked up at it and I smiled, a sad, but grateful expression, because there was no one looking back at me.