Mike Dunphy lived in the house on the middle of the hill. He was the middle child of his family. His grades were average. And his t-shirt size was a Youth Medium. When it came time to pick teams in gym he was never first, nor last. He was not the fastest in the class, but was far from being the slowest. He couldn’t dribble to his left side, but he was a reliable foul shooter and could usually set up his best friend Derrick Butcher for a lay-up.
Derrick lived next door to Mike. They were both ten years old, but Derrick was at least four inches taller. He was the school’s undisputed champion in the fifty-yard dash. And he always solved the problems first in math class, while Mike could never make sense of them in the first place.
Mike hated math class. The numbers never looked right to him. If the teacher wrote a number on the board and said that it was 25, Mike swore that it looked like a 52. Even the simple problems they taught kindergartners gave him trouble. 9 minus 7 looked like 7 minus 9. This didn’t matter much when it came to multiplication, but anything involving addition or subtraction made him dizzy. He had learned how to solve the problems only by assuming everything he saw was backwards. He only got the right answer if he read the problems right to left even though the teacher said it was supposed to go left to right. He shuddered. Why was he thinking about math class?
It was summer. And he didn’t have to go to any class, let alone math. But it was August. August always filled him with a sense of dread. Each day meant he was closer to the start of school. Each day meant summer was a little bit closer to being gone. He resolved to cram as much fun as possible into the few remaining weeks before September came and ruined everything.
“Okay, you got to shoot it from behind your dad’s car with your eyes closed,” Derrick said. They were playing horse. Over the Dunphys’ garage there was a rusty old basketball hoop. The net was made of chain and every time one of them sunk a shot it would rattle like a snare drum. Derrick closed his eyes and made the shot easily. How does he do it? He was wearing a Superman t-shirt and with his jet black hair he almost looked like Superboy. Mike attempted the same shot, opening his eyes once the ball had left his hands only to see it circle the rim before falling off to the side onto the hood of his mom’s station wagon. “That’s H-O-R,” Derrick said smugly. “That means you’re a hor.” He had pretty much made the exact same joke when Mike got H-O. He made the joke every time they played Horse.
It was just then when the black car came down the street. They both paused. The car belonged to the man that lived in the house at the bottom of the hill. Neither of them had ever seen his face. They tried to peer in through the windshield, but the car had tinted windows and it was impossible to see anything. Mike glanced at his watch. It was a quarter past two. One of the strangest things was how unpredictable the man’s schedule seemed to be. Mike’s dad left their house every morning at eight exactly so that he would arrive to work each day fifteen minutes early, and then he would return each day at a quarter to six, fifteen minutes early for the dinner Mike’s mom was making.
The man in the black car seemed to have no routine. Sometimes his car left the house at midnight or later. Sometimes when Mike had trouble sleeping he would stare out his window at the street lamp, and on more than one occasion he had seen the black car pass by in the dead of night when the rest of the cul de sac was asleep. Here he was arriving home in the mid afternoon. What was the man’s job that he kept such an unusual schedule?
But the most unusual thing about the man was the way he pulled into his driveway. He would pull in at angle, sidling up to the mailbox. But he never got out of his car. All you ever saw was the man’s arm, reaching out of the window to quickly grab the mail. Even in the summer he wore a black coat and a dark leather glove. Once the mail was retrieved he would put up the window again, and then pull the car into his garage. He never stepped out of his car before the garage door had fully closed again. The mystery of this man was a wonder to all of the kids in the neighborhood.
He never stepped outside to cut his grass in the summer or shovel snow in the winter. He let the grass grow long. Once a year a landscaper would come and mow the lawn. And when it snowed, the car stayed in the garage until it had melted. The house itself was in a state of disrepair. The paint had faded and chipped. The shudders hung loose, and looked as though they would fall off any day. There were even visible cracks in the roof and siding. His was the only house without any bushes or flowers planted around it. Only the man knew what the inside looked like. The lights were always off and the curtains always drawn. No visitors ever came to the house, save for the crows that would sometimes perch on the roof. Mike’s mom would sometimes grumble about “lowering property values” whenever she looked at the house, but he wasn’t really sure what that meant.
The house and the man were a source of fascination to the boys and whenever one of these rare sightings of the car occurred, they invariably fell into the same conversation. “Tim Tornetta says he’s a vampire,” Mike offered.
“A vampire?” Derrick questioned skeptically.
“Well, that would explain why he goes out driving late at night—“
“But it’s the middle of the day right now!”
“Yea, but he didn’t get out of his car. And he never walks around in the daytime. It would explain why his windows are tinted and he wears gloves even in the summer.”
“You don’t need to be a vampire to have tinted windows. You could be a secret agent.”
“A secret agent? Where’d you hear that?”
“I figured it out myself,” Derrick replied confidently.
“But why would a secret agent need to keep his shades drawn all the time?”
“To keep his secrets. God. It’s so obvious.”
“I hope you’re right.” Mike paused for a long time. “Because my brother told me something else.” Mike’s brother Pete was in high school, but he could never tell when he was telling the truth. Once when they were younger he told Mike that he could fly if he just believed enough. This turned out not to be true, and Mike spent the night in hospital and got sixteen stitches under his eye when he landed on his face after jumping off the kitchen table. But Pete had told him about the man in such a serious tone that it was difficult not to believe him a little. Mike hoped it was another one of Pete’s lies, but watching the car drive by had made him wonder and he decided to test Pete’s theory on Derrick.
“He said the man is a murderer. That he goes out and captures people, but we never see them tied up in the backseat because of the tinted windows. That’s why he wears those gloves, so that the police can’t find his fingerprints. And that’s why he waits for the garage door to shut, and keeps the lights off and the curtains drawn. So we won’t see anything. Pete says he takes the people down to his basement and hacks them up with a saw. And then he buries them in the backyard late at night when everyone’s sleeping and that’s why he grows his grass so long.” He terrified himself by sharing this. It was scary enough hearing it the other night when Pete had said it, but now that the words were coming out of his own mouth they seemed more true.
Derrick stood there, clutching the basketball with his right arm, and pondered Mike’s words. He stared at the man’s house for a long time before he spoke. “We’ll have to find out tonight,” he said. Then he put the basketball down on the ground and walked away back to his house before Mike could think of a reply. Was he serious? Why had he been so foolish to bring it up?
That night all the kids in the neighborhood had gathered at the street lamp for flashlight tag. In the summer it was assumed that everyone would do this once it got dark, and everyone did. Tim Tornetta was there first. He always wore a red baseball cap and seemed to be chewing on an endless supply of gum. He was the shortest of the bunch and also the most easily angered. Even the smallest slight was met would be met with a stream of curse words and spit.
The Krinsky brothers, Dave and Danny, came next. Dave was short, stout and plump, while Danny was tall and lanky. Danny was chewing on some carrot sticks – as far as Mike knew they were thr only thing he ever ate. Dave, on the other hand, had never tasted a food he hadn’t like, and currently was sporting a giant chocolate stain on his t-shirt. The brothers looked like opposites, but each had the same white chalky skin and dark beady eyes.
Mike arrived next with his younger sister Ally in tow. She was bouncing with energy and wouldn’t stop singing no matter how many times Mike told her to shut up. Donna Brown and Julie Cheng showed up, too. Mike harbored a crush on Julie he dared not tell anyone about. Not even Derrick. She was two years older. Something had happened once she had reached middle school, and as far as Mike was concerned, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.
Derrick was the last to arrive as usual. He had changed into a black t-shirt and black shorts. He’s just trying to make himself harder to spot, Mike thought, hoping that Derrick had completely forgotten about their earlier conversation. He carried in his hand the flashlight and the other kids circled around him. The kids all stuck their right feet in a circle, and Derrick recited, “Spit. Spit. You are not It” until there was no one left but Tim. Derrick was always able to make sure Tim ended up being It, no matter how many people were playing or whose foot he started on. Tim would curse and demand a do-over, but all the other kids would feign ignorance. Tim was always It.
While Tim counted off to sixty the rest of the kids scattered to find hiding places. Derrick and Mike always hid together and raced off to hide behind the Krinskys’ shed. The Krinskys’ yard was a good hiding place, because they had a picket fence that would make you difficult to find. But it was also easy to get trapped there if you weren’t careful and you had to careful not to make too much noise because it would disturb their dog, Hopper, an old yellow lab that did not bark much fortunately, but when it did its bark sounded like a giant’s cough.
“We’ll stay here until Tim finds somebody and then we’ll sneak into old lady Henderson’s yard and find a place beneath the willow tree,” Derrick advised. Mike said nothing, which meant he agreed. They waited for a minute until they heard Tim screaming at Donna that he got her. That was good. Donna was stubborn. She and Tim would argue for another minute over whether he had really caught her or cheated, and that gave the boys plenty of time to make their move.
“Should we free Donna from jail?” Mike asked, hoping that by freeing Julie’s best friend he would somehow impress her.
“No. We have more important business.”
“You know what.”
“You’re not serious are you?” Mike paused. “But we’re playing flashlight tag,” he appealed.
“Of course I am. Flashlight tag’s just a cover. My mom would never give me permission to go over to that house at night.”
“My mom would never give me permission to go over there even in the daytime!”
“Exactly. That’s why we’re not asking permission.”
“But he’s a stranger.” He emphasized that word, hoping it would sway Derrick to give up his plans. Derrick didn’t respond, so Mike decided to elaborate. “They said in school never to talk to strangers. To get in their cars. Or go to their houses.”
“Who the hell cares about what they say in school?” This response puzzled Mike. Derrick was good at school, much better than him at least. Mike dreaded every day of school, but he had always assumed that Derrick must’ve loved it. After all, he thrived there.
“But what if he catches you?” Mike asked with exasperation.
“Look, I’m going over there. Either you can come with me and find out what’s really going on at that house. Or you can stay here and play the game with the rest of the little kids. I thought you had my back, but if you don’t…” Derrick shrugged. He lingered for a second and headed out for the house at the bottom of the hill. Mike felt tears well up in his eyes, but he held them back. He didn’t say anything. He just walked.
What would Derrick find there? The kids had been telling each other stories for years. Would he find a secret lab in the basement with gadgets and robots? Would he find a secret passageway to a cavern? Would he find the bodies of a murderer’s victims? Mike imagined Derrick discovering skeletons and rotting flesh. He shuddered. What would the man do if he found him? Would the man do mad science experiments on him and transform him into a cyborg? Would the man suck his blood and change him into the living dead? Or would he do something worse?
Mike sat at the top of the hill beneath the willow tree and watched as Derrick weaved through their neighbors’ yards. He didn’t run, nor did he creep. He simply walked. Not once did he turn his head to look behind or pause in his tracks. Mike watched with terror once he saw Derrick finally reach his destination. The uncut grass came up to his knees. Derrick waded through the grass to the side of the house where the basement window well was located. All of the houses in the neighborhood were made by the same developer and only differed in color. Derrick knew exactly where to go. He might as well have been breaking into his own house. He dropped down into the window well and Mike lost sight of him.
Mike waited for Derrick to come out. The first game of flashlight tag had pretty much ended. Everyone had been caught or reached base except for Derrick and Mike. They were all calling for them to come out, so that they could finish the game and start a new one. But Mike ignored them and stayed planted in his spot, his eyes intent on the house. Eventually, they gave up calling for them and started without them.
Mike kept waiting. Waiting. There was no sign. No noise came from the house. No lights turned on. And, most importantly, no figures emerged from the basement window. So Mike kept waiting.
Bryan Lowry joined Teach For America after graduating from Boston University, and taught English in San Francisco for three years. He currently resides in Philadelphia, working as an office drone while he pursues a career in journalism. His interests include whiskey and literature. He is a staff writer for The Inclusive.