“Fotavtrykk” by Tyler Appleby

It did happen again, but never this intensely.  I don’t know how or why it happened, just that it did.  It was strange to think about.  Why would God wish it upon a girl only twelve years old?  She was barely old enough to stay home alone, and yet, with everything that was going on, it sometimes seemed as if she was the wisest among them.

Her relationship with God was what kept them hoping.  Without her constant, heartfelt prayers and confident reassurances that “Jesus is with us,” I don’t know how they would have overcome all that they did.  “Overcome” is a loose term, though.  Yes, it was over.  But they never truly recovered.  There was always that underlying fear, a subtle, subconscious warning that something was still there… watching… breathing.

It’s early March, though it still feels like the dead of winter.  The icy bite of the wind cuts through tattered fleece jackets and well-worn tennis shoes, sending shivers down their spines.  Dry, crusty leaves sift over the pavement as a lone Ford Pinto rattles out of the neighborhood.

Their yard is the one with the tall, pale grass and boarded windows.  The siding is freckled with spots of black mold, and big swirling letters spell out a spray-painted expletive across the garage door.

It’s not a nice house, though it could have been at one time.  Maybe in a different era, before this part of town became “No Man’s Land.”  The slang term had been around for longer than they could remember, and while it wasn’t endearing, it was appropriate.  No man wants to live here.  It’s a trash heap… the dregs of society.

But for them, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, or even what it’s like.  All they need is a place to stay for a while, before moving on, and this house fits the bill.

While “dilapidated” seems too nice of a term to describe the exterior of the house, the interior is not as bad.  A red, leather sofa sits against the long back wall, beneath what used to be a window.  The kitchen, although quite grimy, appears usable.  The floor is dirty, but well-constructed.  The floorboards sometimes squeak, but that is mostly due to age, not disrepair.

The best part is that they each get a bed to themselves, which in previous residences, was not the case.  She always had to sleep with Father and Mother, the former who snored, and the latter who kept dragging away the thin sheets.  Not an ideal situation.

Now, as she snuggles into her sleeping bag, she has a lumpy, floor bound mattress all to herself.

“Have you tucked yourself in, lille venn?”  Father asks, crouching down next to the bed.  His lips stretch into a firm smile.

“Yes, Pappa,” she replies, grinning up at him.  He reaches down and knocks a lock of brown hair away from her eyes.

“Are you going to be okay in here by yourself?”  The lines in his brow deepen, and his blue eyes are tinged with worry.

“I’ll be okay,” she says with an air of childish nonchalance.  “Jesus is with me!”  Father smiles, again, though the worry has not fled his face.

He has always been uncertain about Jesus.  Mother is a devout Protestant and often shares her feelings about his lost and confused soul and his reluctance to accept what she believes is truth.  Father is just unsure.  He will see eventually, but it will take time.

Father bends over the old mattress and presses his lips lightly against her forehead.  “Natta, vennen min,” he whispers, softly stepping to the door of the room.  It’s essentially a closet, but to her, it feels special, like how a new home should feel.

But it’s colder.

“Pappa!”  She calls, hugging her arms to her chest.

Father turns.  His large hand grips the doorknob.  “Yes?  What is it?”

She sits up, the mattress flexing beneath her.  “I’m cold.  Do you and Mamma have another blanket I can use?”

He smiles and slowly shakes his head.  “No, I am sorry.  We are using our only extra for baby Mette.”  A hint of a thought crosses his mind, and he lifts his head.  “Would you like to sleep with Magnus?”

“Okay.”  She lays her head back down on the bare mattress.  There are no pillows in the house.  And if there were, she would not dare use them.  The only reason she is using the mattress is because of the protection of her sleeping bag.  The insulated North Face bag was one of the few belongings they were able to grab as they fled their apartment in the East side of the city two days ago.

A thump sounds outside the door to the closet.  She turns over on her side, bringing her head up.  Something clacks on the wood floor, drawing near.  A low voice mumbles something incoherent.

A furry, brown snout peeks around the corner, and she smiles.  Magnus wags his tail, his pink tongue dangling over his cream-colored teeth.  He stamps his paws on the floor and sniffs around the little room.

“Hi, Maggie,” she says, reaching out her arms.  Father walks in behind the dog and leans against the doorframe, his arms crossed.

“Do you think you will stay warm now?”  He asks.  Shadows drape his face and make his eyes look like empty sockets.

Magnus pads over to her and sniffs her face.  She giggles, pushing away his head before his wet tongue can streak across her cheeks.  Magnus puts his front paws on the mattress and liking its feel, climbs all the way on.  He steps on her legs, stumbling about until he finds a cozy spot next to the wall.  He does his best to turn around three times, bumping his head against the wall and eventually dropping to the mattress.  He lays his chin on her chest.

“I’ll be okay, Pappa,” she says, scratching Magnus behind the ear.  “Natta.”

Natta, Rebekka.”

Father closes the door part-way and walks quietly across the hall to the room he is sharing with Mother.

Natta, Maggie,” she whispers, placing her hand on Magnus’s head.  He looks over at her with big, brown eyes and licks his lips.  He breathes in very deeply, before letting it out a long sigh.

She closes her eyes.  Cold air seeps through cracks in the house’s boarded windows.  It swirls past the closet door, choosing to leave the two slumbering bodies in peace.

She listens to the sounds of night… the house settling… distant sirens… the soft rumbling of cars as they drive through No Man’s Land.

Her mind drifts motionless through space.

She sleeps.

 

She wakes up.

All is silent within the house.  The only sound is the wind outside rattling loose shingles on the roof, but even that is distant and muted.  Magnus whines gently in his dreams.

She turns her head toward the door.  It’s still cracked open, just as Father left it.  She can see skinny slits of moonbeams shining through the window in the living space right outside her room.  They cast a dim glow across the floor.

Magnus’s chin lifts off her chest.

“What is it, gutt?”

She can see the moonlight reflected in his glassy eyes.  His nose twitches, but he doesn’t move his head.

“Magnus?”  She asks, scratching the thick hair on his neck.  “Do you need to use the toilet?”

A deep, low growl rumbles in his chest.  She feels his hair stand up, tickling her palm.

“What’s going on?”

She follows his line of sight.  He stares at the closet wall directly across from her.  It’s dark… black, even.  She stares into the darkness, widening her eyes, trying to see the wall.  The blackness begins to swirl as she stares at it, little flecks of light from the moonbeams in the other room sloshing into her vision.

She wonders if it might be a cat.  Maybe a stealthy feline had crept into the house earlier, seeking shelter from the gusting wind, and the dog had picked up its scent.

As she pulls her legs from inside the warm sleeping bag, his growl grows louder.  She places her bare feet on the cold planks and stands, yawning and rubbing her eyes.

“Shh…”

He quiets down, but the rumbling continues deep in his chest.

One foot steps before the other.  A light breeze blows into the room, penetrating her baggy, dirt-stained jeans and raising goosebumps on her calves.  She narrows her eyes and peers at the blackness.  As she moves closer, she stretches out her arm.

Her fingertips touch the wall, and she presses her palm flat against it.  She blinks slowly and kneels down, running her hands along the edge and into all the crevices.

There’s nothing there.

“See, Maggie?”  She whispers, walking back to her bed.  “There’s nothing there.  It’s just your imagination.  Flink gutt.”  She sits back down on the mattress and pulls her sleeping bag over her legs and up to her armpits.  It’s still nice and toasty.

Magnus stops growling.  He turns his head, scanning the room like a good guardian.

“Go to sleep now, Maggie,” she murmurs.  “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus is with us.”  Her eyes drift shut again, her hand resting on the dog’s head.

His head snaps up, and he shoots to his feet.

“Maggie…” she groans.

The dog growls throatily and his ears splay back against his head.  Without warning, he propels himself forward.  His hind leg slams against her belly, pushing the breath out of her.

She yelps and doubles up, clutching her abdomen.  There’s a thump as the dog rams into the doorframe and squeezes past the door.  It creaks open on old hinges.  Now she can see the full effect of the moonbeams.  They wash over the leather couch in the corner of the room, making it look red like a heart.

The dog bounds down the hall and into another room, where he barks twice, before falling silent.

“Maggie!”  She rolls out of bed again and lands on her back.  Her stomach throbs.  There are scrapes just above her belly button from the dog’s sharp nails, but they won’t leave a scar.

After taking a moment to catch her breath, she shoves herself up.  Feet slapping on the warm floorboards, she steps past the door and into the hall.  To the left is her parents’ temporary bedroom.  Her father snores, still deeply asleep.  At the end of the hall is the front door.  A small window shaped like a half-moon is displayed near the top, looking out on the street outside, where a wan, yellow lamp flickers in the darkness.

“Maggie!”  She calls for him, walking down the hall.  She reaches the end and glances in either direction.  On her right is the kitchen, whose only amenities are a rusty sink, an oven, and a lone cupboard.  A gaping hole sits next to the sink, where there had probably once been a dishwasher.

To her left is another room.  Another bedroom, maybe.  The door is ajar.  She moves toward it, placing her small, pale hand on the wall.  If the house had electricity, she would have flicked on the switch and seen a jumble of wood furniture smashed to pieces at one end, along with a thick layer of dust caking the floor.

But since there’s no electricity, all she sees is blackness.

She hears something.

“Maggie?”

It’s a low snarl, coming from inside the room.

“Come out, Maggie!”  She bends over and pats her knees enticingly.  The snarl ceases.

She doesn’t want to go inside because of the dark.  But she has to get the dog.

“Magnus!”  She clenches her teeth together.  “Don’t make me come in there!”

She listens to the silence.

“Fine,” she mutters.  “I’m coming in…”

She steps into the room, feeling the soft, grainy dust squish between her toes.  Darkness envelops her.  She reaches her hands out and feels along the wall.

“Maggie!  Where are you?”

Her heart thrums.  Her fingers tingle.  Goosebumps bubble across her arms.

The snarling begins again… deep… guttural.  A dull thump vibrates the floorboards.

She steps away from the wall, her fingers still reaching for it but only grasping air.  Blackness is all she can see.

“Maggie?”

A shock of electricity pulses through her body and drives a spike of pain into her head.  She cries out and crumples to the floor.  Her hands press against her temples and fingernails dig into her skull.  Her back arches, her vertebrae popping.

Tar, pitch black, oozes through a glittering sieve.  It drips on their heads, sizzling, smoking, burning.  A tremendous cry shatters the glass globe.  A man constricts his hand around his brother’s throat.  A boy plunges a glistening knife into his own chest.  A huge, pumping heart spews blood.

She squeezes her eyes shut to block out the images.  An icy chill shivers through her writhing body, and something rough and bristly brushes past her arm, and she lets out a primal, bloodcurdling shriek.

Footsteps pound down the hall.  Father and Mother shine a bright light into her eyes, trying to hold her still and shouting loudly.

Her throat is raw, and tears stream down her cheeks.  She fights them at first, but after struggling briefly with their comforting arms, she succumbs and falls limp.

 

In the morning, when the sunlight chases away the shadows, Father leaves her asleep in Mother’s arms and goes back to the room.  His brow wrinkles as he stares at the broken chairs and tables smashed on the floor.

His gaze tilts downward, and he sees her footprints in the dust, next to the outline of her thrashing body.

Doctors would later say it was a seizure, and she would be tested for epilepsy.  The results would come up negative, though, and despite the efforts of Father and Mother, no doctor would be able to pinpoint the exact cause of the incident… or any of the others.

Father kneels down next to the dust prints and hovers his hand over something else.  It’s a strangely shaped indentation, not one of her footprints.  A blotted circle, five extremities protruding outward and tapering into fine points.  Three times as big as his hand.

 

Tyler Appleby is a budding, young author living with his family in Tacoma, Washington. He believes that his mission in life is to create, his main medium being the written word. His love for writing began when he was fourteen years old and had the idea to write an epic fantasy trilogy before he turned eighteen. He completed this goal in early 2017, and has since gone on to write more books of varying genres, all of which are available for sale on Amazon. When not furiously typing, he can be found smashing out movie themes on the piano, vivaciously portraying myriad characters on a live theater stage, or simply sitting in the outdoors and staring off into space.