He did it because of a dare.
It made sense to him at the time, but before long Will Brady would come to regret going through with it. So reckless. So dangerous. So very, very stupid.
He had no choice, he’d tell himself. Not after the other boys ganged up on him. Not after they called him a chicken and a queer and a little pussy. Those words hurt Will more than he could ignore. Those were the kinds of words Papa always used when things were bad.
Right now, in Will’s head, he could almost hear Papa behind him. He could feel Papa’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing just a little too hard and shaking him a little too roughly. You ready for this, boy? Ready to show these little pukes a thing or two?
I’m ready, Papa, Will thought to himself.
Then quit acting like a girl. Show some sack.
Will took one last look down the dusty hill and watched the moon shining on the lake. Then he did a one-eighty where he stood, and stared up at the rotting hulk of the Harcourt House in front of him.
The Harcourt House was one of those places that naturally attracts ghost stories. Big, old, and empty for most of a century, most of the adults in town liked to pretend the Harcourt House just wasn’t there. But the kids had always treated it like a game. Step right up, step right up, folks, try your luck in the haunted house. See a real ghost and win the big prize. As Will understood it, that was the whole reason for the big chain-link fence around the property. Somebody’s cousin’s brother or something had walked into the House once and they hadn’t walked back out, or so the story went. For Will’s money, he always thought of the place like a fat, ugly insect. A botfly cooling its heels on the forehead of the town, waiting for the right moment to seed its eggs beneath Delapore’s skin.
Faded khaki walls met under the black wedge-shaped roof. Broken windows and crooked, splintered shutters dotted the façade. Half the black paint had peeled off the front door and the big brass knocker was lopsided. The doorjamb had rotted away from the door back in the ‘70s, and the rust on the hinges was the only thing keeping the door from swinging freely. A crumbling chimney leaned against one wall, looking like it would collapse any day now. As Will climbed the creaky front steps, he noticed the nails poking out of the banister, and the dark patches of rot and mold around the doorway, and he thought maybe he’d had it wrong. Maybe the House wasn’t a fly. Maybe it was a spider. Maybe he was the fly.
From behind him, someone called out, “Whassamatter, Brady? You chicken or something?”
Will looked back. There was Mark Petrie sitting cross-legged on the gnarled tree stump just this side of the fence, with four other boys clustered around him like Viking shield bearers. Mark was one of those guys who, as Papa would have said, thought his crap smelled sweeter than most. It was Mark who’d issued the dare, just because he could.
“Hey! I said ‘you chicken,’ Brady?”
Will tried to smile, even though his heart was going like a hummingbird. “I’m just giving you one last look at my butt, Petrie! ‘Cause pretty soon you’re going to be kissing it!”
The other boys ‘oohed’ dramatically. Mark jumped off the tree stump and moved into Will’s personal space. That was one of his go-to moves. “You remember the deal?”
“Half an hour inside. And I gotta check all the rooms I can, so I’m really inside the House. Easy money.”
“You think so? I bet after fifteen minutes in there you won’t feel like such hot shit.”
Will refused to have the hotness of his shit called into question. He stood on the bottom step and pushed back into Mark’s personal space. “I could go fifteen hours and it wouldn’t make a difference, crud-for-brains.”
More ‘oohs.’ Mark narrowed his eyes and snarled. “We’ll see… You got a timer?”
Will flashed his wrist to show off the digital watch his mom had given him for his birthday, and set the timer with a dramatic flourish. “Half an hour, and we’ll just see what’s what.”
“I guess we will,” Mark replied.
Will turned back toward the door as Papa started whispering in his ear. Little a-hole’s scared, Will. It’s there in his eyes. You make it in there, he won’t be able to say spit against you. And you are going to make it, right? I didn’t raise no queer.
Will pushed the door open with both hands. The hinge groaned like it was just waking up from a long nap and the House belched out a gust of cold, sour air. As the smell lingered in the back of Will’s throat, he turned back to the other boys for one last look. Mark Petrie smiled like he was expecting Will to turn back, so Will just gave him a nod and walked into the House.
When he was alone inside, Will closed his eyes. Counted to ten. Took a deep breath and gagged at the smell. There was Papa in his head again. You’re not going soft on me, are you, William? You said you were up for this.
Will shook his head and tried to forget that voice. Papa wasn’t here. Papa wasn’t ever going to be here.
A man stands by his word, Papa advised. I did raise me a man, didn’t I?
Will braced himself against the smell of the House and took a breath so deep that he thought his lungs would pop. He opened his eyes and fumbled in the pocket of his hoodie until he found the little silver penlight. Technically, it belonged to his mother, but she only ever used it during traffic stops on the weekend, to shine in the faces of what she called dee-you-eyes. She’d hardly miss it tonight.
He went into the den first. It was big enough for a couch and two large armchairs, set up to face the fireplace. Every surface in the room was fuzzy and grey with dust, and it reminded Will of the lint trap in the dryer at home. He could see the dead, silky white strands of old cobwebs that threaded from the backs and cushions of the seats to the floor. Little grey motes danced in the beam of the dee-you-eye light, making his eyes water and his nose twitch. Beneath the broken front window, there was an overturned spinning wheel with a sheen of fuzzy green moss on it, and a sliver of moonlight peeked through the crumbling chimney.
The back wall of the den opened into a larger living room. Will didn’t even want to go in there. The floor was dotted with holes and deep scratches, and two cracked ceiling beams sagged dangerously in the middle. Dozens of exposed nails shone in the beam of Will’s light, like the teeth of a hungry predator.
He shuddered and covered the light with his hand. At least in the dark he could pretend all the claw marks and spider webs weren’t there. As he left the den and climbed the stairs to the second floor, he saw more claw marks on the walls and the banister, and he started to think of the Rat King.
The Rat King was a bogeyman that Papa had invented. Will understood that now, but when he’d been four years old, it had scared him to death. According to Papa, the Rat King was nine feet tall and wore a raggedy green cloak to cover the scabby hump on his back. His legs were like tree trunks and his knees bent backward so he could jump from the street up onto the roof of a house. He had a thick pelt of greasy salt-and-pepper hair over his whole body and a long pink tail that hung from his backside like a big slippery worm. His face was long and pinched, with little black marbles for eyes and lots of sharp yellow teeth that smelled like bad meat. Over one shoulder, he carried a big sack that he used to scoop up naughty little boys, so he could carve them up with his sharp black claws and eat them for supper.
The House groaned as it settled, and Will had a terrible vision of the Rat King waiting for him at the top of the stairs. He’d been sharpening his claws on the walls of the den and the living room, and he’d kicked all those holes in the floor because he was getting impatient, waiting for someone to sneak into the House. Sneaking into someone else’s house was, of course, a very naughty thing to do. Even if that house was empty.
Will reached the second floor and reminded himself that he was not scared of the Harcourt House. He was scared of the Rat King, who might be in the Harcourt House, but he was not scared of the Harcourt House.
He shone the penlight on dark doors and empty rooms. He laughed at himself for being such an idiot, and he laughed at the House for being so ordinary. But he stopped laughing when he reached the last door in the hall.
As soon as he put his hand on the knob, his stomach lurched. A foul, toxic smell drifted out of the room as the door opened, and Will’s eyes began to water. It was a cloying stench of rotting meat that stung his nostrils and sat on the back of his tongue. It was the smell Will had always suspected the Rat King might give off.
Will realized that if something had come up this way to die, then it definitely wasn’t safe to be here. Chances were he’d already walked through a cloud of bacteria, and when he got home, he’d start feeling sick, and he’d be in bed with a fever of 104 until Labour Day.
And if Mom’s going to get on my case for trespassing, he thought to himself, what’ll she say if she finds out I’m messing around with dead animals?
Will held his breath and kept going all the same. He wasn’t a chicken, or a girl, or a queer, no matter what Mark Petrie or Papa said. Feeling a nervous sweat run down his back, Will pushed through the door into a small bathroom. There was a clawfoot bathtub against the far wall, a sink underneath a cracked mirror, and an old-fashioned toilet with a pull chain. The toilet tank had long since fallen from the wall and smashed bang-smack onto the bowl, leaving several inches of exposed lead piping.
Will’s lungs started to burn and his heart thumped in his chest. He couldn’t hold his breath much longer. But he needed to. He couldn’t bear to smell the Rat King again. His foot struck something on the floor and it skittered toward the tub. Will exhaled sharply. On the inhale, the smell hit him again, and he could feel sweat tickling between his shoulders.
The thing he’d kicked had hit one of the tub’s claw feet and fallen open. Will saw cramped black writing on brittle yellow pages, with a few weird sketches done in red. From this distance, the writing didn’t look like any language that Will recognized. It was more like a code or a space alien’s alphabet. Curiosity won out over paranoia, so he went in for a closer look. As soon as Will picked up the book, the dead smell rankled in his nostrils again, and his penlight went looking for the source.
Three animals lay heaped together in the clawfoot tub, under a rusty ring of dried blood. At the bottom was a sleek-coated German Shephard with a blue collar. A ginger-haired cat lay flopped over the Shephard’s belly, its head resting against the head of a little white bunny rabbit with a bright pink nose.
The German Shephard’s back had been broken and twisted around so it would fit in the tub. Its dark eyes pointed to the ceiling and its jaw hung open, lips curled to show off its teeth. Something sharp had ripped into its belly, spilling its guts at the bottom of the tub. The cat’s limbs dangled like those of a ragdoll, equally broken. Its tail had been severed close to its anus and narrow open wounds festered on its back. The rabbit’s neck had been snapped, and its white fur was mottled with clumps of dried blood and feces. It had the same collection of open wounds, but here it was easier to see the pale green tinge of the skin around the cuts.
Will dropped the book and bit down hard on his knuckles to hold back the scream he felt bubbling up inside. It wasn’t the Rat King who had done this. These wounds were too deliberate to be the work of a larger predator. This was calculated torture. This was experimentation.
This was practice.
Will turned and bolted out of the Dead Room. Something vile and twisted was lurking in the Harcourt House and, human or supernatural, Will was in no rush to meet it. In the hallway, he saw a flutter of green fabric in the corner of his eye and heard a deep, hungry growl. Will’s heart beat a tattoo against his ribcage as he turned and came face-to-face with the Rat King.
The Rat King’s eyes weren’t like Will had imagined. Papa had always said they were black like buttons on a raincoat. But the creature standing here had bright, pale red eyes. They reminded Will of the old Hammer Horror movies his Cousin Walt liked, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in fancy Victorian costumes and whole buckets of cheesy, bright red blood.
The Rat King shrieked and raked his claws along the floor. Will scrambled down the stairs and the Rat King skittered after him on all fours, holding his burlap sack in his mouth. At the bottom of the stairs, something snagged on the back of Will’s sweatshirt. A quick glance behind him showed the Rat King, teeth bared, with Will’s hood in one clawed fist.
Will screamed and pushed through the front door. His sweatshirt ripped in the Rat King’s hand and he saw Mark Petrie looking at him with cocksure I told you so pride. Mark was just about to make some smartass remark when Will ran down the front steps and shouted, “GO! EVERYBODY GO! GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!”
Mark faltered for a second, and that was long enough for the Rat King to appear. He seemed to melt rather than squeeze through the open door, and he screeched as he rose to his full height.
Will was the first over the fence, and was already zipping down the hill on his bike as the other boys met the Rat King’s Hammer Horror glare. They flailed and fell over each other amid a cacophony of screams and curses, trying to scramble up the chain-link and get to their bikes as the Rat King opened his sack.
Racing down the hill, two of the boys were crying like toddlers, and Mark Petrie’s bladder trembled nervously. His front wheel went over a rock, and Mark bucked in his banana seat. When he landed, a stream of something warm and yellow ran down his left leg.
On the hilltop, the Rat King slung his bag over his shoulder and lumbered back inside the House, to wait for the next dare.