Robert winked open a single eye, glanced at the nightstand clock. 11:03 PM.
A dim nightlight cut through the dark of his room. He listened for his mother. Down the hallway and in the living room, the soft static of an off-station radio signal played background to her snoring vocals.
With tremendous ease, Robert stepped onto his carpeted floor. The old springs of his bed whined as he adjusted his weight. He cringed and held his breath.
Listening once again, he heard nothing of significance.
After he had feigned sleep, his mother had tiptoed from his room, agitating the same bed springs.
The walls of the rented house were thin. His room turned into hallway that paralleled his side wall, and that walked into the kitchen, which was laid out directly behind his bed.
He heard her humming a hymn in the kitchen as she opened cabinets. Ice cubes clanked into her glass. The door to the garage creaked as she disappeared to retrieve the bourbon. He knew it was bourbon because he had found her secret stash a year ago.
When she returned, the amber liquid splashed over the rocks. A few seconds later, the couch springs sang as she settled into the living room chair.
Soon after, the monotonous melody of AM radio preached through the home’s paper-lined walls.
Robert hadn’t heard movement since she set the glass on the coffee table and kicked up the foot recliner.
He scooted off the bed and the tired springs whined again. He bit his lip to keep from making an agitated noise. Why were they so loud?
His mom slept light when sober. Recently, she had fallen victim to an alcoholics dead slumber. Not every night, but most. Robert hoped tonight was one of the most, but he tiptoed around his room just in case.
After five minutes of careful navigation, Robert readied himself for the night.
His bedroom window was barred. The front door beeped across the house when opened. But the garage door offered no resistance. That’s where his mom kept her stash. She had deactivated the alarm out that door.
That also meant he had to tread by her to sneak out of the house. Like a superstitious child, Robert crossed his fingers, hoping she had helped herself to more than one glass of bourbon.
He slid his socks along the hallway’s hardwood floor. A nightlight was plugged into the wall and illuminated his passage. Off to the left, another nightlight cast a glow in the kitchen, and to the right, one in the living room.
His mother’s hefty shadow was cast across the wall in the dingy light. Her stomach lifted up to the ceiling and fell down to the window pane. The radio static and her snores intermingled into a dreadful sound.
He skirted past her and she didn’t even flinch. Still, his hands trembled and were so damp that when he reached the door leading out to the garage, he couldn’t grip the handle to turn it.
Robert wiped his palms on his jeans then opened the door. The hinges creaked. The noise was unbearably loud.
He held his breath and waited. And waited for his mother. And waited for her to call out. “Robert, what’re you doing?” And waited for her to stand from the chair and march toward him like a lumbering bookshelf, her shadow blotting out all his senses. And waited for that fear to envelop him.
“Fearing the Lord is loving the Lord,” she always said. “Fearing me is loving me.”
Robert feared his mother. He feared her punishments. Her discipline. He feared the closet.
And he waited for her dark eyes to flutter open.
But she continued to snore.
He choked back a gasp and slipped into the darkness of the garage, gently shutting the door behind him. The hinges creaked again, but with her out of sight, he couldn’t wait to see if she rose from the sofa.
He flipped on his phone’s flashlight and hurried to the door that went outside. That door didn’t have an alarm on it either.
How else would his mother sneak in certain men when she believed her baby to be asleep, dead to the world and to her vile, hellish sins that she condemned in everyone but herself?
Robert moved so fast, he stumbled out the door. He couldn’t bear to glance back. What if she stood behind him? What if she was in the garage holding her whip? His back crawled at the thought.
His bike rested on its side in the yard. He lifted and jumped on it and started peddling toward the woods that backed up to his house.
Ten minutes later, he braked and jumped off the bicycle.
The woods were sparse around him. Dead white trees grew like jagged bones jammed into the clouds, allowing darkness to bleed across the sky. A desperate cold filled the night.
A tiny whimpering issued from a few feet ahead. Then a high-pitched bark.
Robert stepped on dried twigs as he approached the cage. He tossed a blanket from the top, revealing a cowering puppy with a pink collar.
“Hey, Daisy.” Robert knelt before her crate.
The Labrador whimpered.
He opened the cage and gripped the dogs loose skin above her neck. He pulled her from the wire-meshed crate.
“Hello, Daisy,” he said. “Hello, puppy. Want to play a game?” He grinned at his Saw reference, thinking Tyler would have appreciated the joke. Maybe not under the exact circumstances.
The puppy curled into Robert, and buried her head into the nook of his arm. He visualized digging his knife through the puppy’s throat, cutting off her head. He could almost hear the sound of her skull thumping on the soft earth below.
Instead, he set the puppy on the ground. “Go to the bathroom,” he said. “Do your business.” That’s what he had heard QP say to the dog a few times. “Do you business,” he repeated.
The dog sniffed the ground and trotted in circles. Then hunched over and stared at Robert with big eyes. When it finished doing its business, Daisy’s feet paddled the ground and she broke into a full sprint through the woods.
“No,” Robert said.
He took off after her. Thin, hollow branches bare of leaves and life appeared from nowhere in the dark. They smacked his face, his throbbing nose. Cut at his sweatshirt and arms. The pain made him curse Tyler.
“Daisy,” he called. He had lost her to the dark shadows of the grove. “Daisy.”
Robert trudged through an overgrown section he knew was near a street and came into a clearing. He was on Elm Street, near Evan’s and Savannah’s part of town. He crouched down behind a bush.
Daisy stood in the middle of the road. She sniffed the street’s asphalt. Her dark fur was illuminated under a dim streetlight. Robert had a terrible realization, seeing the dog standing in the middle of the road.
What if a car ran over her? What if a stupid, random vehicle took away Robert’s opportunity?
“Daisy,” he whispered, but his voice was cut off by the whirring of a bike tires on asphalt.
Daisy ran toward the noise.
Robert, instinctually stood, then quickly lowered himself again. A car sped past. His heart pounded against his chest, as he stared out at the dark road. A reassuring weight leaned against his legs. Daisy sat on his foot and rested on his shin.
“Stupid dog,” he whispered. “Nearly getting yourself killed.”
He picked her up, but not by the excess skin around the neck. Under her front legs and with care. He held her close to his chest and petted her head as he navigated back to his secret encampment.
“Don’t do anything stupid like that again. Got it?”
Daisy’s crate clanked shut. Robert put his fingers through the grating and let her lick his skin. Then he realized he couldn’t worry about the dog any longer.
He had to get to Tyler’s house before anyone else.
Tyler grabbed the picture of Mark that sat on his nightstand. He stared at his late brother for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. I could’ve saved you. But you have to understand, this is different. This is to protect my family. If I told, I would destroy Robert’s or Evan’s life. I can’t do that.”
As he stared at the picture and justified his thoughts to his dead brother, the doorbell rang. He glanced at the time on his phone. Midnight.
Who was at his door an hour before their meeting time? Then he remembered Robert had mentioned coming over to apologize.
Was it Robert? Or just his mom, drunk and stupid and unable to open her own front door?
Or the demon with the mask of silence?
He shook his head. It had to be Robert. His mom, when she went out, usually didn’t come home that night. And demons didn’t exist.
Tyler knew what he would do. He would open the door, cut Robert off before he had the chance to apologize. Instead, Tyler would offer his apologies.
Maybe QP was right. That punch was nothing more that pent up frustration and tension stemming from unspoken feelings toward Robert. This would be his chance to revisit that night from last Halloween.
He slid off his bed and marched down the stairs, turning into a bathroom. He splashed water over his face and worked over his hair.
The doorbell rang again.
“I’m coming,” he said, turning the corner to the entryway.
He noticed a shadow standing behind the stained window, but he couldn’t make out any details. A fleeting thought ran through his mind. The shadow appeared too big to belong to Robert.
“You’re just nervous,” he said to himself. “It has to be done, though. What can he say? No. Well, at least you’ll know then.”
He disarmed the alarm system.
What if he says no? What if he’s not interested? Would things become too weird? Would that cost them a friendship? What about the group dynamic?
Tyler licked his lips. “Fuck it,” he said.
As he turned the deadbolt, the door flew open and smacked Tyler in the face. A hot tingling speared through his gums and up his face. A tooth clattered on the hardwood.
Tyler covered his mouth and felt blood pour into his hand.
Then he was shoved off balance. He drooped to his ass, his body rolled back and his head whiplashed against the floor, causing his vision to blacken and blur.
“Robert,” he said, panic and fear thick in his voice. Blood spurted from the gap in his teeth.
Then a chill swept across his throat, followed by a gush of warmth. Warmth that spilled down his chest and into his lap. He could no longer breath, but he choked and gurgled. Blood gushed before him.
He felt weak. So exhausted that he didn’t possess the strength to hold up his head. He reclined back onto the floor, resting his head on the cool hardwood.
His blurred vision fixed and focused on a picture of Mark that hung on the entryway wall.
Then, that too, faded to nothing.