Diana’s terrified lament sent sharp pricks down my spine, my stomach clenching as if I’d been punched. Leaping from the soft embrace of my easy chair, I ran for the door, spilling the can of beer I’d been holding all over the rug. A sudsy trail marked my progress to the front of the house.
My neighbor was on her porch, screaming incoherently, literally tearing tufts of her curly black hair out at the roots. Her cries had gotten everyone streaming from their houses. I was the closest, and the first to grab her by the shoulders. Her eyes were glassy, overflowing with tears. There was madness in them. Irretrievable madness.
“Diana, what’s wrong?”
Something inside me had an idea as to what had fractured this normally quiet, insular soul. I prayed I was wrong.
Her eyes met mine but there was no recognition. Elsa from across the street sprinted up the stairs. “Can you stay with her?” I said. Elsa nodded, folding Diana into her arms.
Bolting to the back of the house where the bedrooms were, I heard a child crying. Steeling myself as best I could, I stepped into Diana’s children’s room. The door was plastered with pages carefully removed from coloring books. On alternating pages were the names Ben and Cody, the way painters would add their signature to a canvas.
Cody sat up in bed, chest heaving with sobs. He looked across the room to his brother, Ben’s head hanging over the edge of his own bed. There was blood everywhere. It had soaked the mattress, dripping onto the floor with soft, steady plinks.
Everyone who knew the little hemophiliac boys worried about this happening one day. Cody and Ben, frail, tow-headed children who spent most of their days in the safe cocoon of their room, lived with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. I checked Ben’s pulse. His skin was already cold, the blood on my hand room temperature at best.
Covering Ben with the crimson sheet, I swallowed hard, finding it difficult to stand.
“I’m so sorry, Cody,” was all I could muster. I wanted to console the boy, hold him, but my hands were streaked with his twin’s blood.
“The Gray Man cut him,” the boy sputtered between sobs.
“What did you say?”
“He came in our room. I saw him!”
Now my heart thudded wildly. Was there an intruder in the house? Someone debased enough to murder a sick child?
I heard footsteps thundering in the house. More neighbors coming to see what had happened. “In here!” I shouted.
The footsteps stopped when someone else screamed outside. It wasn’t Diana. It was a man.
Phil from down the block halted in the doorway. His face went pale. “Oh my God.”
“What’s happening outside?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I think that was Martin shouting.”
Cody had gone silent, lying on his side, eyes unblinking, staring at the shrouded hump of his brother.
If it was Martin out there, he sounded even worse than Diana. “Watch Cody for me?”
Phil nodded, but I wasn’t sure he heard me. I had to squeeze past him to get out of the room.
Elsa was still with Diana, now surrounded by several women, a couple I didn’t recognize.
It had been Martin. The burly man was in the middle of the street on his knees, weeping. His eight year-old daughter, Katie, was in his arms. I would have thought she was asleep if not for the impossible angle of her head. Her neck had clearly been broken.
“Why?” he cried. “Why would someone take my Katie?”
Fiona and Arnold, my neighbors to the other side of me, let out twin peels of anguish. While people gathered around Martin, I sped toward their house. What the hell was going on?
I found them in the living room, their five-year-old son Tyler on the couch. It looked like every one of his limbs had been snapped in half.
“Call the fucking police!” Fiona wailed. I patted my pockets. My phone was back at the house.
“Did you see the Gray Man?” a small voice said beside me.
I looked down, shocked to see Cody. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him outside the perimeter of his house before. His eyes were blood red.
Arnold’s hands were balled into fists. He looked like he wanted to tear someone apart, if he didn’t fall apart first. “You saw someone come into my house?” he said to the eerily calm little boy.
Cody shook his head. “I saw him in my room. Ben and I dreamed about him and he came.”
I stepped close to Arnold, whispering so Cody couldn’t hear. “He just watched his brother bleed out. He’s in shock.”
“The Gray Man said he needed helpers,” Cody continued. Poor Fiona looked about to faint. “And one day he’d come for us. He liked Ben better than me.”
I wanted to tell the boy to shut up. It wasn’t his fault. More voices cried out. They seemed to be coming from everywhere.
I got down on a knee, locking my eyes with Cody’s. “Can you tell us what the Gray Man looks like?”
There had to be a man, or men, responsible for this. The question, beyond the why, was how did they get into all of our houses in the middle of the day?
“It doesn’t matter,” Cody said. “He’s gone now. I don’t like the Gray Man. He said he’d take me with him. He’s a liar.”
Picking Cody up, I walked out of the house. Now, amidst the heart-rending cries of parents throughout the neighborhood, came the blaring of sirens. It felt and sounded like the end of the world. Men and women carried their broken children in a daze. The sidewalks were slick with tears.
Cody struggled in my arms. “I can help, too!” he blurted as he slipped free. Running to a tree, he scraped his arm against the bark, opening an angry, suppurating wound.
I clamped my hands over the ragged gash, but the blood, thin as water, seeped through my fingers.
“I can help, too,” Cody whispered, then closed his eyes.
Police cars and ambulances swarmed the street. It would be impossible to direct them who to help first.
Cody shuddered, took one deep breath, and passed.
Maybe the Gray Man had come. I didn’t know whether to wish Cody could catch up to him and be with his brother, or flee as far as his spirit could from the monster who stole our innocents.
~ Hunter Shea
© Copyright 2015 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved