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Mark hung up at the sixth ring. "Fucker," he snarled.
Brady heard him and turned around in his chair, his fat, round face grinning like an orangutan as Mark ran a hand through his hair and sighed.
"Whussat?" said Brady.
"Tom," said Mark. "He's supposed to cover for me today. Dodgin' my fuckin' phone calls like I'm a telemarketer."
Brady's grin somehow stretched even wider. "Mebbe he found out you wanna ball Shawna."
Mark glowered at him. "How do ya figure?"
Brady laughed. "Ev'ryone else already knows."
Mark sneered at him and dialed Tom's number again. This time it went straight to voicemail. He dropped the phone on his desk in disgust. "He turned his phone off!"
"Definitely found out."
For about a minute, Mark grumbled and growled under his breath. Then he said, "I knew Shawna far back as high school. She wasn't interested no matter what I said or did. Tom's not here six months, does all the same shit, and you could knock her over with a feather."
"Tom's a sweet guy."
"She doesn't even like kids. She hated kids 'til she started seein' him."
Brady grinned again. "Shawna likes kids. She's a sweetheart." He added, digging the words under Mark's skin, "Meredith's a sweetheart, too."
Mark leaned back in his chair lazily and scoffed. "You don't live with her."
Stella skittered past their desks, her arms full of paperwork for Captain Arnold. She was paler than usual and seemed to be staring into space as she walked. Mark's voice almost pulled a scream out of her, as if she thought she was alone in the building until just then.
"Hey, Stell! Call Tom, will ya? He's supposed to cover for me today and he's not pickin' up."
Stella stared at him slack-jawed and said nothing. Her owl-eyes were red and moist. It made Mark's stomach squirm as he sat upright.
"Stell?" said Brady. "What's wrong?"
"Y-You don't...You don't know?" she said in a tiny voice.
Mark shrugged and shook his head. "Know what?"
She said almost in a whisper, "His daughter disappeared last night."
Mark was exhausted, pissed, and desperate for a drink come evening when his shift ended. He stood at his locker, wrapped in a towel and admiring the scar on his right forearm -- a long, narrow ditch dug into his flesh by a bullet during his beat cop days. He opened his locker and dug out his wallet. It contained a driver's license, twelve bucks, and a pair of useless Broncos tickets.
He tore the tickets in two, wadded the pieces in his fists, and threw them back into the locker.
Brady slapped him on the back on his way out. "Ten minutes. Don't be late."
"Just 'cos you missed the game doesn't mean you can't have fun tonight. Let's do Char's and get krunk."
Mark sighed. "You buyin'?"
Brady laughed. "Fuck no."
"Hell, I'll go anyway."
"Ten minutes." Then Brady left.
Mark was dressed and locking up his locker when Ernie from Property and Evidence slunk in, his horse-face pale and drooping with sadness. Mark again wondered why all his coworkers reminded him of the zoo.
He turned toward Ernie, saw the sickly tone of his skin, saw the thousand-yard-stare in his face, and froze in place for several seconds.
"You all right?" said Mark. "What, did somebody bring a severed head into Property again?"
Ernie slowly shook his head.
Mark grinned, nudged him on his way out. "See ya, Ernie."
"Poor kids," said Ernie in a hollow voice.
Mark stopped, turned back to him.
Ernie kept staring straight ahead.
"Whussat?" said Mark.
His voice startled Ernie, who turned toward him as if he'd fired a gun.
"What'd you say, Ernie?"
"I watched 'em all," said Ernie. "Poor kids. Poor Tom."
Mark's skin crawled when Ernie looked at him with eyes he had only ever seen once, in the face of a badly shaken child he had pulled away from the scene of a shootout.
"Tom watched 'em," said Ernie. "I dunno how he could stand it. I guess maybe he couldn't."
"The hell are you talking about, Ernie?"
"Babby's camera," said Ernie. "They brought it from the Daley house. I watched the videos. I sh...showed 'em to Tom. I know I prolly shouldn't have done it, but I had to. He oughta see his little girl."
Mark nodded. "Fair enough."
Ernie shook his head and said nothing. "I couldn't...The report...I just threw it all back in the box and locked it up. Ran outta there as fast as I could. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't write about..." He trailed off, shaking his head.
Mark sighed and patted him on the back. "The job gets to all of us sometimes. Take it easy, Ernie."
Meredith's voice was shrill on the phone as she said, "At any point during your busy day were you planning to tell me we weren't going to the game after all?"
Mark sucked a fresh cigarette to half-length in a single breath. He turned away from the two snickering cops who passed him on their way into the precinct. "Well, Merry, police work is kinda time-consuming. I spent the entire day talkin' to every fuckin' tweeker in Winterfield, had to take a detour to break up a domestic--"
"I had to go to Erin's baby shower," said Meredith. "I'd rather be talking to tweekers. What else could I do? It's not like I had an excuse not to go anymore. My live-in dumbass decided he'd rather talk to lowlifes than watch the Broncos."
"You had an excuse. You hate her stupid guts."
Mark could somehow hear her scowl over the phone. "I'm trying to be nice," she said.
With a bitter laugh, Mark said, "You haven't had the practice."
"Like you haven't had the practice taking responsibility for anything!" she snapped. "I had to smile and play nice with those idiots all day, all because--"
"Tom's kid was kidnapped last night, so I didn't have a choice. Arrite?"
"...Merry, you there?"
"Tom Babbit's little girl. She snuck into the Daley house for some kinda slumber party. Vanished into thin air. That's what Tom came home to this morning. He couldn't cover for me today. He couldn't cover for anybody if he wanted to. So leave one o' my balls intact at least, arrite?"
Another moment of silence, then a sniffle. "When the hell were you gonna tell me about Tom?"
"Soon as you were ready to let me get a word in--"
"Can't you just once talk to me without going out of your way to make me feel like the asshole?"
Cursing, Mark hung up. He finished his smoke and jumped into Brady's car when he pulled up, honking the horn.
Mark and Brady rode across town, down the familiar residential streets they always traveled on their way to Aspenvale's best-known blues club. It was a neighborhood Mark had grown up in, and some of his closest friends on the force. He leaned against the window and gazed at the rows of cookie-cutter houses as they passed.
"Tom isn't takin' anyone's calls," said Brady. "I guess I'd shut myself up, too."
Mark said nothing for awhile.
"What's eatin' you?" said Brady. "Did Merry call?"
"You see Ernie today?" said Mark.
"What'd you think?"
Brady shrugged. "He was weird. Same ol' Ernie."
"No. Not today he wasn't."
"Yeah." He scoffed. "Christ...'Babby Babbit.' Who the fuck would let their kid be named Babby Babbit?" He threw up his hand. "Babby Babbit had this little digital camera at the Daley house. She recorded the slumber party I guess."
Brady did a double take at Mark. "No shit? What happened?"
"He didn't say. Just kept saying, 'Poor Tom.'"
Brady stared ahead for a moment. "Last known evidence of his little girl. Musta hit him hard." He looked gravely at Mark. "You think she recorded somethin'...y'know, bad happenin' to 'er?"
A dismissive hiss from Mark. "Hell if I know. Ernie cries at cartoon ponies. Probably videos of them gigglin' and eatin' cookies, and he got all weepy about how 'kawaii' it was."
Brady raised an eyebrow. "The fuck is 'kawaii' s'posed to mean?"
"It's an anime thing Ernie says. Means 'cute'."
"Why doesn't he just say 'cute' then? That's English for 'cute'."
They both chuckled. Then Brady sighed. "Yeah, musta hit him pretty hard, poor Tom."
They rode in silence for a while. As if summoned by the conversation, the car drifted past a dingy old house with an overgrown lawn on the northeast corner of 69th and Sweetwater -- Mark had seen it many times in passing, and attached the name "Daley" to its ugly visage. It was the kind of eerie, run-down house that made passers-by feel like someone was watching them from the windows.
A slight chill came over him. It was the last known whereabouts of Babby and the three other girls who had disappeared without a trace -- just like the original owners back in 1982.
"We're in Tom's neighborhood," said Brady, as if Mark hadn't lived his teen years in that same area. "Let's invite him along."
Mark looked hard at him. "Get serious. His kid ran away only yesterday. Or got kidnapped, or god knows what."
"Well, then...then let's at least drop in and give 'im a hug or somethin'. Show a little support."
Mark sighed, looking at the surrounding suburban blandness with loathing. "Yeah, okay."
Tom's house was in a prettier, though still bland and monotonous part of the neighborhood, where the street turned in a semicircle and created a three-way intersection at the peak of the curve. Sitting right on the vertex of these roads was the only two-storied house in the neighborhood, where Tom and his little daughter once lived together as a happy, if broken family. Brady drove past the house from the west side and flipped a U-turn to park on the right side of the road, right in front of the house.
Shawna's sedan was parked in the driveway. Mark reflected on all the times she had turned him down in high school when asking her to dances, and each time she'd casually snubbed him in college, and briefly considered keying the passenger side as he walked around it to the front door. He sighed again and ran a hand through his hair, and waited irritably while Brady rang the doorbell. When no one came at the fourth ring, he tried calling. They heard the house phone ringing inside, but no one picked up.
"Afternoon, Brady!" said the old woman next door as she hobbled down her driveway with a bloated black trash bag in each wrinkly hand. She walked like a penguin on the verge of tipping over.
"Mrs. Finch," said Brady with a smile. He crunched across Tom's gravel yard to the Finch driveway, took the bags for her and tossed them into her dumpster. "Know if Tom's home? We wanted to say hello, give him some moral support."
Mrs. Finch shook her head. "I don't think so, no. Not since his row last night."
Now Mark, who had been trying the phone again, was interested in the old woman. He came across the gravel and said, "What row? He and Shawna had a fight?"
"Sure sounded like it," said Mrs. Finch. "Lotta screamin' and yellin'. I think he must've threw a lamp down the stairs. Loud enough to wake me up in the night."
"What time was this?" said Mark.
Mrs. Finch shook her head. "Eleven or so. That Captain Arnold of yours ought to give the poor man a vacation. I just hope little Babby wasn't home to hear that racket. Probably scare the poor thing to death!"
"Could you hear what they were fighting about?" said Mark.
She smiled sweetly. "No, not with these old ears." Slowly, daintily she pointed to the two second-floor windows on her side of the Babbit house. "Mostly it was his lady-friend screaming and crying in the bedroom. I heard her shouting at him, but I couldn't make out much."
"What did you make out?"
"Told him to go away, and that she didn't believe him."
Mark, stony-faced, stepped closer to her in disbelief. "Did he hurt her?"
Mrs. Finch said with uncertainty, "I don't think so. House was quiet after that. Been calm as can be ever since, so I figure they made up. I just hope Babby didn't have to hear it, poor thing."
Brady was asking Mrs. Finch more questions when Mark pulled out his lockpicks and tried the front door of the Babbit house, no longer listening to the conversation. He eased the screen door open, then the main door, and went inside, perhaps a little too hastily.
The darkness met his face like a baseball bat. Something caught his legs and he pitched headlong to the carpet with a shrill curse.
Brady was bursting through the open doorway as Mark grabbed his assailant from the floor: a tall, thin floor lamp, its frosted glass bulb smashed, its neck broken. He untangled his ankle from the twisted power cord and tossed it aside.
Not a single light was on in the house. Only the light from the doorway pierced the darkness, painting vague outlines of furniture and other shapes all across the sitting room, where two couches huddled in front of a large flat screen television set. Behind this, a staircase led upward into blackness. Dead ahead, at the far end of the house, Mark could make out an archway leading into pitch blackness, beyond which was the dim form of a refrigerator and the faintest glimmer of floor tiles at its feet.
Brady's feet crunched on the gravel outside. It was the only sound in the neighborhood -- the house was silent like the deepest reaches of space.
Mark staggered to his feet with a groan and flicked the light switch up and down, to no effect.
"Breaker's been tripped," said Brady.
"See if you can find it," said Mark, accessing the flashlight app on his phone.
Brady went and asked Mrs. Finch where the fuse box was while Mark strolled across the sitting room. The house curved into a long hallway where it met the kitchen, toward the garage on the left side of the house. Mark called for Shawna and asked if everything was okay.
The house answered with silence.
He moved down the hall, first peeking into the kitchen and finding it deserted. The hallway ended at a closed white door, and similar doors lined the walls from end to end. The first opened into a small washroom with toilet and sink. The second was the laundry room. A laundry basket lay overturned, carpeting the narrow floor-space with dirty shirts, socks, and sweat pants. The third door led into Tom's office, where photographs of round-faced Tom Babbit and his equally round-faced daughter smiled dumbly back at Mark's glowing phone. Shawna hugged them both in one of the photos, her smile stabbing Mark in the gut and twisting the blade. The desk was cluttered, and the chair lay on its side as if kicked over in fury. All of the office window blinds were drawn shut.
The house seemed impossibly dark, as if it were shamefully trying to hide something from Mark. With each room the shadows thickened, and the light app pierced less and less. As he stood in the office, listening for signs of life, he felt like he was standing at the bottom of the ocean, trying to cut through the darkness with a pen light, with hundreds of unseen creatures staring at him from the blackness. Someone could have been standing within arm's reach and Mark wouldn't have known any better.
"Shawna?" he said softly.
Shaking the sense that he was being watched from the shadows, Mark returned to the hall and opened the sooty door at the very end, stepping into Tom's garage. His light panned over an elaborate exercise station, shelves upon shelves of tools, oil-stained cloths, reams of bubble wrap, and other odds and ends. Tom's SUV sat sleeping in the middle of the room.
He moved back up the hall. He quickened his pace when he realized the sitting room was now just as unnervingly black as the office.
His light rounded the corner and shined upon the front door. It was closed.
Mark froze for a fraction of a second, his senses going into overdrive. He felt eyes in every corner of the room watching him.
Light suddenly flooded the sitting room, painting the walls with the dull white and chestnut brown, and revealing the sitting room to be just as deserted as the rest of the house. Mark was already halfway up the stairs, his heart pounding inside his chest, when Brady came in.
"Everything okay?" said Brady.
"Car's still in the garage," said Mark.
He moved like lightning now, throwing open one door after the next, finding Babby's room deserted, and the bathroom, and the guest room. When he tried to enter the master bedroom, he found the door locked. He pounded on the door and shouted for Shawna, getting no response. He heard Brady's footsteps racing up the stairs as his foot obliterated the bolt and flung the door open.
A queen-sized bed stood against the right side, across from a vanity and a small bathroom. The windows Mrs. Finch had pointed at were directly ahead of Mark, closed and locked, glass and screens intact. The bedside lamp had been catapulted across the room, and the bedsheets splayed all across the floor.
The room was deserted.
Brady made a call to the precinct while Mark stood in the bedroom, running a hand through his hair, trying to think of an explanation and coming up with nothing.
Captain Arnold's Louisiana drawl made even his angriest words sound jovial: "Close th' doah."
Mark closed the office door and stood with his hands in his pockets.
The big, bullet-headed captain tapped his pen on his desk, adjusted his glasses, and said, "Uhhnie took sick leave without so much as a memo on muh desk. He ain't answered calls from anyone foh two days."
Mark scratched the back of his head.
"You said he wuz upset last yuh saw 'im? Aftuh th' inventory of th' Babbit evidence?"
"Well, yeah, but it's Ernie. He's sensitive, y'know? And if you ask me, probably likes little girls too much--"
"Ah didn't ask yuh."
He scratched again. "Arright."
Arnold dropped his pen in exasperation. "Ah'm crackin' down," he said. "No moah rumuhs about fella offissuhs, startin' today. Got enough drama goin' on as it is, with what happened to poor Tom's guhl, an' two o' mah offissuhs makin' like ghosts, themselves."
"No moah skippin' on responsibilities, eithuh. We got three new people inna propuhty room filin' evidence, all of 'em civilians. Dumb twunny-yeah-old volunteahs. Not one of 'em cops. Not one of 'em will so much as look at th' Babbit evidence, like it's fulla AIDS-spittin' spiduhs."
Mark poorly stifled a chuckle.
"It ain't a joke! Somebody don't staht gettin' shit done around heah, Ah'm gonna get it done mahself, startin' by handin' out pink slips! Ah tell someone his duty, he damn well bettuh do it! No excuses, no gossip, an' no talk o' cuhhses an' othuh bullshit! Ah expect mah people tuh be made o' stronguh stuff!"
Arnold sighed and shook his head. "Someone stahted talk that th' evidence is drivin' people insane, makin' 'em head foh th' hills. Oah that th' evidence lockuh is gobblin' 'em up, like that house gobbled up th' Daleys. Ah don't know what tuh think, 'cept that Ah'm about ready tuh suspend the entiuh depahtment an' staht ovuh."
Mark scratched again. "You don't mind if I stick around, do ya? I'm not much of a Wal-mart greeter."
"Yuh don't take nothin' seriously, do yuh?"
"Doctor says taking life seriously is bad for my health. He recommended I take up smoking instead."
Arnold nodded with an insincere smile. "Well, that's fine, Mahk. You can have th' job, since yuh don't take it seriously."
Mark blinked. "This is why you called me in?"
Mark hung his head and groaned. "It's my day off. I'm supposed to be home right now."
"So sign foh it an' take it home."
"Why not Brady? or Stell?"
"'Cos they don't gimme lip when Ah cite the 'othuh duties as needed' paht o' the job description! Ah wanna cop in that evidence room. You'll do 'till Ah get someone puhmanent. Staht with the Babbit junk."
"Captain, you're killin' me!"
"Ah don't give a shit, juss have th' repoht on mah desk by tomorruh mohnin'. Mebbe you'll impress me foh once."
The beat-up cardboard box wouldn't fit in the trunk of Mark's car -- he discovered this just as Meredith called to request several items from the grocery store on his way home. The call quickly degenerated into another brief argument, which concluded with her hanging up on him. Despite her being unable to hear him, Mark hissed something so obscene into the receiver that it startled a pair of young recruits as they passed him. They hurried into the precinct before he could notice them.
The box just barely fit in the passenger seat. It was mostly packed with folded sleeping bags and several smart phones in ziplocked baggies. Sitting atop the cache was a hand-held digital video camera the size of a coffee mug, with a bright, gaudy purple casing. A tiny monitor flipped out from one side for easier view of any video being captured. The batteries were dead when it was recovered from the Daley house: Ernie had replaced them before he'd stopped coming in to work altogether.
Mark leaned against his car and turned the camera on. Once it was booted up, just to stall Meredith's errands, he began browsing the dozens of video thumbnails.
The last in the archive -- the most recent video -- was the first one he saw. Two adolescent girls, one raven-haired and one redhead, embracing each other in darkness, lit by a very dim light and captured at a strange angle. The redhead gaped in the camera's direction, her face twisted in an expression of horror that seemed beyond her years, as if the light were from an oncoming train.
Mark's stomach squirmed as his finger hovered over the "play" button.
A passing car horn nearly yanked him out of his skin, followed by Brady hollering from the driver's seat: "I thought this was yer day off!"
Mark sneered at his orangutan smile as he tossed the camera back into the box and slammed the door.
"So did I."
Mark groggily awoke to Meredith's shoe jabbing him in the shin. She stood over him with her hands on her hips, the "stress cracks" around her eyes more prominent than ever.
"You slept through dinner," she said apathetically.
Mark was about to slur something at her when his feet kicked several empty beer cans littering the carpet. He had another in his hand, staining his shirt with a few amber droplets. He glanced down at the can, then the stains. He was on his couch in the living room, in front of a TV that had long since been switched off.
Meredith sneered. "Forget something?"
He looked up at her and belched. "I got everything you wanted from the store, Warden."
Meredith pointed at the large box of evidence sharing the sofa with her husband. Mark blinked at it, then laid his head back and groaned. "What time is it?"
He glared at her. "Don't bother waking me up or anything."
"I did wake you up."
"Sooner than Nine Fuckin' Twenty!"
"You looked so peaceful!" she mock-cooed as she went back to the kitchen table, where her laptop and Pinterest account awaited.
Mark muttered a few curses and carried the box to his office in the back of the house. It made Tom's look like the Oval Office: the carpet was an obstacle course of folders, boxes, and computer guts. Mark paved a path through it all with his shoes and dropped the box next to his desk. Glancing out the window he saw the sun had long since gone down, leaving the neighborhood an indistinct smear of black and gray.
He sat at the desk and turned on the lamp, a weak, orange beacon of light in the darkness. The computer screen helped illuminate the dinginess when it finally blazed to life.
He opened the camera, muttered something about Ernie's sexual preferences, and stared at the thumbnail that had unnerved him in the parking lot. He grunted and scrolled backward through the archive, finding that most of the other thumbnails were indistinguishable blurs. Eventually he found a clear one: raven-haired Babby looking down into the lens as the camera presumably sat in her lap. Her eyes were red and moist from fighting the urge to cry.
Mark's stomach squirmed again. He hesitated. Then he pressed "play".
The camera awakens staring down at a plastic table -- one of several arranged under the green metal ramada at the center of Aspenvale Elementary School's playground. The air is alive with a distant choir of squealing children at play.
--gonna get it took again, Babby! Put it away!
How can yer mom do that to us one week before the slumber party?!
Well it's not like she was plannin' ta sabotage it! They need a place to stay 'til they get Gramma settled in the home!
The camera rights itself to focus on four sixth-grade girls gathered around the table: freckle-faced Rachel and ringlet-haired Frieda, arguing; pigtailed Toni, looking worriedly at the camera before turning back to the others; chubby blonde Angie, smiling at no one in particular. The camera is held by a fifth girl, unseen, presumably Babby.
Rachel splays face-down across the table, to Angie's amusement. Angie seems amused by every little thing.
Ugh! Everything's ruined! Ruined!
Stop bein' sucha drama queen!
Babby speaks from behind the camera: all eyes are now on her.
Um, my dad's goin' outta town this weekend. We could have it at my house! I got boardgames and a wall o' movies an' stuff. I could bake brownies, too!
A beat passes with the girls saying nothing.
Mannn, you are so lame...
Rachel, shut up!
Rachel scoots closer to the camera, looking at Babby rather than the lens.
Look, Babby, Charlie's Angels don't do sissy girly slumber parties. The stuff we're into would make girls like Wendy Morris puke their guts up and cry to their mommies.
Ha ha ha!
Frieda lives in a bona-fide haunted house! The dude that lived there before her? Shot his kids dead in their sleep. BAM! BAM! BAM!
And at night you can hear 'em sobbin' an' beggin' if ya listen close.
How did they beg if they were asleep when they died?
Still looking at Babby, Rachel grabs her sparkly pink assignment folder and covers Frieda's face with it.
An' there's still bloodstains on the wall under the wallpaper. It's wicked! We huddle up in th' basement and tell scary stories, and late at night we go explorin' the house.
I just thought--
No brownies or boardgames or other sissy crap.
Toni looks from Rachel to Frieda to Babby, awkward worry on her face.
In the background, a little chicana girl runs up to their table from off-screen.
I wouldn't mind brownies...
Yeah, I bet you wouldn't--
Rachel! Frieda! Bree's beatin' the hell outta Wendy!
The girls immediately leap up and run off-screen to watch the fight. Toni stops momentarily, looks back at Babby, who hasn't budged. Her brow furrows sadly.
Don't sweat it, Babby. You'll grow on 'em.
Toni runs off. The camera tilts upward and we get a brief glimpse of raven-haired Babby's round face, her eyes moist, as she puts her camera back in her backpack.
The camera is staring at Babby's dark blue tennis shoes in the passenger seat of a police cruiser, evident by the periodic voices on the radio band. The camera pans to the driver's seat, where a female police officer sits driving. She is mid-thirties with strong arms and a head of wavy red hair. Her smile is shockingly pretty and all perfect white teeth -- she flashes this smile to the camera when she realizes it's watching her.
Here we have Shawna Berkeley, lookin' super sexy in uniform!
You're not old enough to be talking like that!
Shawna's eyes return to the road. The camera jitters now and then as the police cruiser runs over a bump.
Tell us about your day. Didja bust any bad guys?
I got to investigate a very exciting complaint about a noisy dog! Then I got to do paperwork all day. The dangerous life of the Aspenvale Police.
Tell our viewers where we're headed now.
We're about to go arrest your daddy for bein' the sweetest man on earth, and sentence him to a lovely Mexican dinner with two beautiful ladies who love him very much.
Aw...I don't like Mexican...
Shawna's jaw drops in mock-astonishment.
You don't?! Well, your daddy loves it, and it's my treat today. I'm sure you'll find something ya like! This place makes great fajitas. And the sweetest cornmeal. Ever had cornmeal?
The camera pans to Babby's window. A minute of blurry traffic passes before Shawna speaks again.
What's the matter, Girl? You look like something's buggin' you.
A few beats. The camera returns to Babby's shoes and tilts lazily.
Oh, see, a cop knows when she's being lied to. C'mon, tell me what's wrong. Kids being mean to ya at school again? I thought you just made some new friends.
A few more beats as the gears in Babby's head turn.
Well...I, uh...I had another weird dream about that creepy ol' house on my street.
There's lots o' creepy ol' houses on your street. You'll hafta narrow it down for me.
It's that tall one on the corner nobody buys.
The camera has wandered back to Shawna, but focuses more on the steering wheel, still at an angle. Shawna looks at Babby, her smile replaced by a look that falls somewhere between bemused and disturbed.
The Daley house? You dream about that place?
I sometimes...I have these dreams that there's somebody in there, and they're watchin' me from the windows, even though ya can't see the place from my house.
That is weird.
Does...I mean, you ever send cops to see if anyone's hidin' out in there? Like drug dealers or weirdos or somethin'.
Never had any reports or complaints about the place. It's just an old house. Still has all the furniture in it and everything. You live in a pretty safe neighborhood.
Babby says nothing for another half-minute. Shawna smiles at her warmly.
How 'bout I stop by the place on the way to get your daddy? I'll make sure there's no creeps or ghouls hiding out in there, if it'll make you feel better. You wait in the car, of course.
They ride in silence for another minute, Babby filming the passing traffic. She turns the camera back to Shawna.
What happened to the Daley family, anyway?
Shawna thinks. She starts to say something, but thinks better of it. She doesn't look at the camera.
Kids don't need to hear about that kinda stuff.
"I expected her to be prettier."
Meredith's voice was like a gunshot in the silence of the house. Mark nearly screamed and barely kept from falling out of his chair, but dropped the camera, which rolled under his desk. He glared up at Meredith and found her grinning like the mischievous Rachel.
"Y'know you could be a gumshoe, the way you sneak up on people like that?" he said between gasps.
Meredith's grin wavered a little, and suddenly seemed phony. "She seems really nice anyway. Maybe not very bright."
Mark gathered the camera from the floor with a sigh and said, "Everyone is but a wilted flower compared to you, my precious."
She wasn't grinning anymore. "I have to get up early," she said, "so come to bed in the next half-hour. If you can stomach sharing one with me anymore."
She disappeared into the hallway, slamming the door behind her. Mark called after her, "I don't remember ever making you sleep on the couch!"
When she didn't holler a retort, Mark suddenly felt a pang of guilt, then another of self-disgust for feeling the first. He played the video again, skipping forwards and backwards and freezing on Shawna's smile. When the warmth began to give way to fury, he skipped to the next video.
Babby still sits in the police cruiser passenger seat, the camera staring up into her round, grinning face.
The brave Officer Berkeley is scouring the Daley house for undesirables!
The camera looks out the passenger window to reveal the police cruiser is parked along the sidewalk in front of the Daley House, a dirty single-story suburban home. The front yard is a jungle of tall, ugly grass tentacles. Here and there the roof shows bald spots where its tiles have been blown loose by a storm. Remnants of a single dead tree are visible on the other side of the backyard fence, comprised of rotten grayish planks. The windows are soiled and black with shadows. The front door is ajar: beyond, nothing but blackness, which flickers on occasion from the passing gaze of a flashlight.
Our hero doesn't mess around: she went right in through the front door, rarin' ta kick some butt. She's been in there for fifteen minutes. We may have to call for backup.
As she says this, Shawna reappears at the front door, swiftly closing it behind her.
False alarm. The house seems secure. Rachel's gonna flip out when she hears about this place...
Shawna is halfway back to the car before Babby is finished speaking: her pace is alarmingly brisk, her cheerful demeanor gone. For a moment her face wears the grimace of an impending sobbing fit, which vanishes by the time she returns to the driver's seat.
Babby's voice seems to startle Shawna: she glances at the camera as if it means her harm, her expression strikingly similar to that of Ernie when Mark last saw him. After a moment she finally replies.
Yeah. Yeah, all clear.
Shawna tries to start the car, but her hands shake so badly she drops her keys. She curses sharply under her breath and retrieves the keys from under her seat. She senses the camera is still watching her.
Turn that thing off, will you?
Shawna puts the keys in the ignition switch. Still feeling the camera on her, she looks sharply at Babby.
Turn that goddamn thing off!
The primal terror in Shawna's red, moist eyes scares Babby into dropping the camera on the floor. The camera stares at Babby's foot in silence for a few beats.
Oh, geez, Babby, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I just--
The upstairs hallway of Babby's house, thick with shadows: a short hallway, one closed door on the left wall. The bathroom door sits ajar at the end of the hall. Halfway to the bathroom the right wall becomes a stairway and banister with thick wooden handrails. The only light source in the hall comes from the living room below, visible from the banister at the top of the stairs.
Hushed voices are heard below, too quiet to understand until the camera is near the banister.
--don't wanna be alone tonight.
Yeah, yeah, it's okay with me. You can stay with me anytime.
Peeking between the banister poles, the camera spies on Shawna Berkeley and Babby's dad, Tom -- a forty-year-old man with black hair -- talking in the living room, embracing each other. Even from ten feet above, the tears in Shawna's eyes are evident.
I don't -snif- know why I would do such a stupid thing in the first place.
You wanna bond with her. She shared something personal with you, and you wanted to make her feel safe. She adores you for that. So do I.
Shawna sniffles in silence for a moment.
-snif- It's an empty goddamn house. There was nothing there, but I felt like I wasn't alone, like I was surrounded by quiet, staring faces. And I swear I saw something, I dunno what. There was -snif- this dark corner in the basement, and something...
Shawna looks at nothing for a moment, leaving her sentence unfinished. She shakes her head and laughs at whatever insane notion has come to her.
Now I feel somebody over my shoulder everywhere I go, and I'm afraid to be alone.
They embrace again. Tom gives her a tender kiss on the lips.
Oh god. -snif- Some great cop I turned out to be, huh?
They stand in each other's arms for a while longer.
Babby's probably still up, if I know her. Wanna say hello?
-snif- Lemme wash up first. I look like--
The picture is nothing but darkness for the first few seconds while the girls talk.
You can't be serious.
The camera rises out of Babby's backpack, which is still strapped to her back: someone has nicked the camera without her knowing, presumably Toni, as the microphone picks up her voice the most clearly. The camera stares at the back of Babby's head as she, in turn, stares across the ghastly, overgrown front lawn of the Daley house. Frieda's hand enters the shot to make an annoyed gesture at the building.
The shadows fall thick and black on the house's every crevice: it is early evening, somewhere between Two and Three PM. School has just been let out.
It looks so boring! It's just a regular ol' house!
Hey, if it made Babby's pet cop cry, it's good enough for me!
Babby turns to her left to glower off-camera at Rachel. Toni keeps the camera on Babby's annoyed face, waiting for her to notice that her favorite toy has been pilfered.
She's not my pet cop!
She checked the place out for ya the second ya mentioned it! She must really wanna impress yer dad.
Did they do it?
Just as Toni speaks again, Babby glances at her, then does a double take, finally realizing she's being filmed.
Ew! No, Toni!
Baby grabs at the camera. The picture jitters as Toni keeps it just out of her reach, stepping backward into the street and speaking in a deep, masculine voice.
"Shawna, don't moan so loud!"
Gimme back my camera!
"You'll wake muh baby!"
Rachel, for god's sake!
The camera turns left to look at Rachel, who is frozen in the act of climbing over the short, rickety fence walling off the Daleys' yard. Her face is wide-eyed with innocent surprise as Frieda flails at her, speaking in angry whispers.
It's not even sundown yet! We come back when it's dark so nobody sees us!
Rachel scowls at the camera and flips it the bird; the camera shakes as Toni giggles. Angie is now just in the shot, far left, staring apprehensively at the front door of the old house.
How we getting in?
I got a lockpick just like Shawna's.
Toni, give Babby back her camera 'fore ya break it.
Rachel and Babby both move to grab the camera, reducing the picture to a wobbly blur of incoherent colors.
No, check her videos! Maybe she taped her dad goin' down on his girlfriend!
Ew! Toni, give it!
Dark, blurry forms vacillate across the screen for several moments: Babby has turned her camera on in mid-run. The shouting voices get louder as Babby catches up to her friends in the darkness.
The most distinct of the voices is Angie as she mews between child-like sobs.
--don't care! I'm not doin' it!
Angie, keep your voice down! Get back here!
Babby finally slows down and rights the camera: it looks into the dark, dingy kitchen of a suburban house, where Toni and Rachel have gathered in the open basement door at the far end of the room. The stairwell beyond is pitch black, but Rachel -- armed with her softball bat -- heads down the steps anyway.
Angie's and Frieda's voices come from off-camera to the left, and fade rapidly as Frieda follows Angie's hasty retreat.
You guys are dumb enough to stay, but I'm not!
Where was it?
Toni, what happened?
Babby points the camera down the basement stairs so its small, white light dimly illuminates the room. The picture turns to a sharp bluish tint as she switches to night mode: the basement is thirty-by-thirty feet, with the rickety wooden stairway descending along one wall. Several large boxes of trash are stacked along the filthy brick walls, many of them sagging and patched with years of mold and filth. In the opposite corner from the staircase stands a rust-stained water heater.
Rachel is already in the middle of the room, patrolling with her softball bat. Toni stands halfway down the stairs and looks up at Babby with fear and excitement in her eyes, clinging to the railing with white-knuckled hands.
Angie saw somebody.
Rachel points with her bat to the water heater's dingy corner of the basement: between the heater and a large stack of moldy crates, a shadowy mound sits and slouches ominously. Toni speaks in an urgent whisper.
There, in the corner!
Rachel moves cautiously toward the mound, her bat poised for a home-run hit. She looms over the mound for one long, silent moment.
Then she swats it with her bat, knocking over what is revealed to be a sack of old junk, including a tricycle wheel, a length of rotten hose, and a broken plastic tea kettle that bounces across the floor and breaks into pieces with every bounce. Rachel shouts triumphantly at the kettle.
That's for scarin' my friend!
Babby backs away from the basement stairs as Rachel comes back up, giving the camera an "ok" sign and a shit-eating grin.
Whole neighborhood prolly heard you, dumbass.
The camera turns one-eighty degrees to face Frieda, shrugging as she rejoins the group. Angie isn't with her.
She went home.
Nope. I know her. She'll keep quiet.
Rachel enters the shot, waggling her bat in a manner meant to be threatening, but which merely comes off as humorous and a little obscene.
She'll snitch! And I'll beat her ass!
She won't, I'm tellin' you!
Frieda, what'd she see?
Frieda shakes her head and sighs while Rachel idly spins her bat.
Hell if I know. She's always crying over something at my house, too.
Why's she hang out with us if she scares so easy?
The camera turns back to the basement door: it yawns like the mouth of a hungry leviathan.
I never seen her that scared before.
Shawna said somethin' about the basem--
Turns back to the girls, to find Rachel and Toni hissing at each other like alley cats.
Mebbe you wanna run off and snitch, too?
Shut up! I never said--
~FRIDAY NIGHT CONT'D~
Picture reveals a bedroom in the far corner of the house. Frieda, Rachel, and Babby sit in a semicircle in the middle of the floor, their sleeping bags scattered around the room. Babby sits with her back to the boarded-up window, facing the wooden chest of drawers standing on the opposite side of the room. Right of the drawers is the door, closed. Right of the camera sits a child-sized bed with no sheets or pillows. The camera light barely makes out the room's pallid, barren white walls.
Toni reads from her smartphone, her face glowing from the combination of the camera light and her phone screen. Frieda and Rachel sit on either side of her, Rachel to the right, making spooky faces at the camera as she sings softly.
--ev-er think as the hearse rolls by, that youuu may beee the next to die?
--believe Angie bailed. I'm gonna give her hell tomorrow.
The worrrms crawl in, the worrrms crawl out, the worrrms play pi-no-chle onnn yer snout--
That's nasty, Rachel.
Babby turns the camera to Rachel, who leans forward and grins a toothy, malicious grin.
--yer stom-ach turrrns a sli-my green, an' pus pours out like whip-ping cream!
The camera turns back to Toni, centering her in the shot. Rachel leans in from off-camera, and the closed door is visible in the background.
You spread it onnn a slice of--
Shaddap awreddy! Lissen to this!
Toni squints as she struggles to read the words on the screen. Rachel sits cross-legged, props her chin on one hand, and sighs in boredom.
"Lee-land Morris, local horror blogger, hoped to find evvie...?"
Frieda leans in Toni's way to read the article, to the grimacing Toni's annoyance. Rachel, eyes closed, looks like she might fall asleep in her sitting posture.
"--hoped to find evidence that the Irish-born Daley and his family did not flee the country under threat of deportation, as the newspapers claimed."
Babby zooms in on Frieda as she reads, for apparent dramatic effect. Frieda's pretty face takes on an unflatteringly ghoulish appearance from the touchscreen's glow.
"Morris supplied proof that the Daleys were in the country legally, but his theory that the family of three was abducted--"
They were abducted? I thought nobody knew what happened to 'em?
The camera briefly glances at Rachel when she speaks, then returns to the annoyed Frieda. When Rachel is in the shot, the door in the background appears to be ajar, but Babby doesn't seem to notice.
Lemme finish and maybe we'll find out!
You're readin' the wrong part! Read this part!
The camera tilts for a moment as Babby sniffs and scratches her nose, briefly centering on Rachel again. Rachel greets the camera with a hideous fish-face, lolling her tongue like a worm and crossing her eyes.
In the background, the door is opened wider -- a full six inches now, and continuing to slowly open until the camera centers back on Frieda.
"--something wrong with the house, as if tainted by some otherworldly--" This guy's a nutcase.
Read it! It's scary! It's like a creepypasta!
"Morris and his team took nightly readings of the house, and although their findings were inconclusive, there seemed to be -- so Morris claimed while sitting in North Hill Asylum -- an increase in 'general weirdness' about the house from Twelve AM to Three AM."
You're right. It's boring and dumb, just like a creepypasta.
Babby turns the camera back on Rachel when she speaks...and stays there, centered on the bedroom doorway, which yawns wide open. The doorway looks across the narrow hall and into the open doorway of the master bedroom, which is as black as the ocean.
"He believes the Daleys disappeared within this time frame, according to several neighbors' reports of screams and other strange sounds. Morris's obsession over the house may have contributed to his eventual mental breakdown, and his escape from his room at the Asylum, though the door to his room was still locked when the police--"
Who opened the door?
Frieda stops as the girls all turn and stare at the door, into the blackness of the hallway beyond. They stare in silence for several moments.
Then Toni laughs, leaping to her feet.
Toni walks out into the hallway as Babby suddenly bolts to her feet, the camera held at a careless angle in Toni's direction.
Babby nearly screams; the others turn toward her, startled.
Toni, don't go out there!
Everyone -- especially Toni, standing in the middle of the shadowy hallway -- stares at Babby in surprise for several silent beats.
There's nuthin' out here, Babby.
Get back here. Close the door and lock it.
Toni doesn't move. She looks off-camera at Frieda, then back at Babby. Then she shrugs as she comes back into the room, closing and locking the door behind her.
Babby is still standing when Toni returns to her seat, the camera angled at the floor between her and the three girls. Babby herself is presumably still staring at the door.
There's nuthin' out there...
Man, I thought Angie was a scaredy-cat!
Shut up. I brought us here, it's my party, so we play by my rules. We stay here 'til morning. I brought us here an' I don't want anythin' bad to happen to anybody.
The camera angle changes to a Dutch angle of the wide-eyed Frieda, Toni, and Rachel as Babby holds it idly.
Here, in this room.
Rachel narrows her eyes and slowly shakes her head, grinning.
Get outta here, Babby.
Babby, we're all scared. It's normal--
Nah, man, let's roll with it! This is spooky as hell!
I'm not playin' around! Shawna was scared o' this place, so we're not gonna get careless. That horror guy says Twelve to Three, so nobody goes out that door 'til after Three.
Frieda and Toni trade disturbed looks. Rachel's grin melts as she stares flabbergasted at Babby, ignoring the camera.
The camera corrects itself, centering on each of the girls as they speak in turn.
All o' you swear to stay right here 'til breakfast, startin' now.
Whatever. She's pullin' our leg. That's why she wanted to host the slumber party so bad--
~FRIDAY NIGHT, MIDNIGHT~
Pitch blackness. The camera rattles as Babby struggles with it in the dark.
--took the flashlight with her?
You said not to go, so I waited. She hadda use the bathroom. What could I do?
Several moments of rattling and rustling, and a whispered curse from Babby. Toni whispers harshly several feet away.
Frieda, what're you doin'?
The camera light appears to flick on at last, illuminating the lower-right corner of the chest of drawers from the middle of the room.
Hurry up, Babs, I can't see!
Babby turns the light on the door, where Toni stands holding it three feet open, looking into the blackness of the hallway as she calls Frieda again. When the light hits her, Toni turns toward Babby.
She doesn't see the black, inhuman arm above her head, reaching through the open doorway to grab her.
The camera hits the ground with a dull thump and rolls, turning the room into a spiraling blur of dingy colors. It stops on its right side, filming the spot between the open door and the chest of drawers, the shot framed by the ratty carpet and the shadowy underside of the bed frame. There's a brief glimpse of what could be Toni's foot as she is dragged headfirst into the hall. She doesn't scream.
The door is deafening as it slams shut. All we can see of Babby are her feet: she braces the door as something collides with it again and again from the other side, shaking the camera with every blow.
[incoherent blubbering just off-camera]
Rachel! Dresser! Move!
Babby's frantic panting, more heavy blows to the door. Something cracks as the door nearly gives way.
The dresser begins to wobble and grind against the wall, until it finally tips over in front of the door, barricading it. Both girls' feet are visible now as they work together to brace the door.
Seconds later, the pounding stops. Babby and Rachel stay at the door for two minutes, panting and waiting.
Slowly the two pairs of feet back away from the door, toward the camera, until Babby's foot bumps the lens. She collapses on the floor in front of it, obscuring the view of the room.
It's quiet, except for Rachel's sobs.
~SATURDAY MORNING, EARLY~
A chorus of voices fills the scene as Babby's camera rights itself, the light dimly painting the overturned dresser once again. Babby's voice is the closest, and the most intelligible, followed by Rachel's frantic whispers. Behind them come other voices, too faint to understand at first.
In the upper-right corner of the screen flashes the "low battery" warning. The camera has less than a minute of power left.
--battery's almost gone.
The camera centers on the sealed door as the terrified voices on the other side are finally identifiable as Frieda and Toni.
Babby, let us in!
Babby, please! We won't wander off again, we promise!
The moment she recognizes the voices, Rachel pounces to her feet and dives for the dresser. The camera falls on its side as Babby races to stop her from righting the dresser.
Babby grabs Rachel and wrestles her away from the dresser. Outside, Frieda's voice comes in a tiny whimper.
Please, Babby, it's scary out here!
We hafta let 'em in! We hafta--!
Babby slaps her hand over Rachel's mouth and shushes her. Toni sobs beyond the door and seems too frightened to speak louder than a mousey squeak.
Babby, they'll be back soon! Let us in!
Rachel continues to try to break away from Babby, so Babby backs her against the wall where the dresser once stood and stares into her bulging eyes, whispering harshly. Her voice barely registers on the microphone, but her words are clear enough.
What if it's a trick?
Rachel says nothing, simply gapes at her friend. The light reflects in her eyes and makes them glow cartoonishly. The voices are silent for a moment, and the only sounds are the terrified panting of the two girls in the room.
What if it's them?
They stare at each other in silence for a long time. They turn to the door with a jump as the other girls speak from the hall again.
Babby! Ray-chull! Let us in!
Babby and Rachel back away from the door like it's made of spiders. They stand in the center of the room, only their feet visible in the frame. Babby's foot bumps the camera and tilts it at a forty-five-degree angle, bringing the shadowy bottom of the bed into the shot: the upturned dresser is dead ahead of the camera's lens.
Frieda, that really you?
Frieda sniffles in the hall.
Kinda stupid question is that?!
Rachel, let us in! Babby won't let us in! Hurry!
Rachel takes a step forward, stops herself. Babby says something urgently, but the mic doesn't pick it up clearly.
Frieda, what's your address?
Rachel, this isn't funny! Let us in!
Please, they're comin'!
Rachel sniffles and speaks more calmly.
Tell me what your address is and I'll let you both in.
Rachel, open the damn door!
Babby! Rachel, let us in!
The doorknob rattles, but the dresser keeps the door from budging. The "low battery" warning now flashes red.
Rachel begins to sob, her voice coming out as pathetic mewling.
Just tell me your address...!
Rachel, let us in!
Ray-chull let us in!
With another sob, Rachel breaks down: she sits on the floor, facing the camera, her hands over her face as she weeps. Babby sits and puts her arms around her friend. The door continues to rattle and the other two girls continue to plead through the door.
[unintelligible] --wait 'til daylight.
The begging is relentless, the same phrases repeated over and over like a scratched record. Rachel continues sobbing, and now Babby joins her.
A dark shape crawls out from under the old bed, right over the camera and to the left, as if moving to get behind Babby. Rachel, her face gleaming wet, looks up just in time to see it. Her face twists into an inhuman mask of horror and she screams a warning to Babby: she is cut off as the battery finally dies, and the image of the girls is plunged into blackness.
Mark sat staring at the screen in silence for a full minute. He had long since stopped twiddling his pen between his trembling fingers, fumbling and dropping it onto the carpet. He took a deep, shaky breath to smooth the bumps from his skin and ran his fingers through his damp hair.
The screen sat on the final video's thumbnail, pale-faced Rachel staring into the foreground with her mouth yawning in horror. Mark threw the camera onto his desk, covered his face and half-sighed, half-sobbed. Ernie had been right. He couldn't handle it. Nobody could.
Meredith's voice made him jump in his seat. "Mark," she called from the hallway, "come to bed!"
Mark cursed. "For shit's sake, Meredith!" he shouted. The shouting did little to ease his nerves, and he slouched in his chair and took several, steady, deep breaths to calm down, swiveling the chair side to side as he stared at the ceiling fan, wondering if he shouldn't disappear like the others -- go somewhere quiet and normal to forget about Aspenvale and all its weirdness.
"Mark, come to bed," repeated Meredith from the other side of the door.
Mark glanced angrily at the door.
The handle was at a forty-five degree angle, slanted downward, as if it were hanging broken in its socket, or someone were slowly, quietly easing it into the open position.
Something terrible dawned on Mark just then. With a whimper he bolted out of his seat, lunging for the handle just as the door swung open.
Written by Mike MacDee