The walls seemed to be breathing. Ugly, stained brocade peeling from the plaster shifted as the wind squealed through the broken glass of the old attic window. In the dark, he could barely see the figure. Like an absence of light in a room streaked with moonlight.
It moved toward him, somehow bending the light away. Repelling it by some unnatural means. He lifted his flashlight, but the bulb popped and hissed, leaving the space between them even darker than it had been.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
He took several gulps of stale air as the temperature dropped.
“Why are you-“
The room seemed to swallow the sound, choking off his voice until he lifted his fingers to his mouth, confirming it was still there.
The house shifted and swelled. Romeo’s brain hurt as though it were working without him. He brought his fingers to his temples, but the thing forced him to his knees.
He’d lived there as a child. The house was huge and dark, and the old musty wall tapestry had always felt alive. When he was young, however, it was the breath and laughter of all those women that brought it to life. Incense and perfume hung in clouds through every room. Its purpose had been to mask the bleachy, musky smells that would have otherwise permeated the air. But it had given birth to a sensory soaked existence, a daily lesson in manners and chivalry, the playful molding of a young boy’s identity in a place he simply didn’t belong.
Romeo had been named for his father, or so that was the story. But he never knew a father figure until Charles came to the house one evening to bleed the radiators.
There had been other men. The ladies called them suitors, but Romeo was not a dim kid. His mother’s room was directly below his, and he’d understood from a very young age that this was all business. He’d understood so well that, as Charles went from room to room, floor to floor, making repairs, Romeo was careful to follow him and watch his every move.
“How old are you, buddy?”
“Eight and a half.”
“You protectin’ these ladies?”
His chuckle bristled Romeo’s spine, drawing his face into a venomous scowl before he stepped toward the stranger, rivetting him with a stare that made his answer unnecessary.
“There ain’t no freebies here.”
Charles had lifted his hands, holding them palms out as he rocked back on his heels to rise from a low squat.
“Hey now, you’ll have no problems with me, kiddo. I’m just a handyman. I’m only here to fix the heat.”
There had been something in his tone that changed Romeo’s mind. It wasn’t instant, as he’d seen too many arrogant jokers in and out of these rooms, leaving behind bruises and twenty dollar bills that should’ve been hundreds. It was hard to believe there were any good guys out there. But what Charles taught him that night was far more important than how to repair the radiators and seal the windows with insulating tape.
It was almost 9 o’clock when he sat down at the kitchen table with him for a cup of milk and a slice of Molly’s spice cake.
“This your homework?”
With a mouthful, all Romeo could do was nod. But in the following twenty minutes, the repairman checked his work, showed him an easier way to do division, and managed to get himself an invitation to dinner the next night.
“As long as it’s ok with your momma.”
Romeo was so used to not talking to his mother, the statement surprised him. She was wiry, strung out and unfocused. She had a lot of suitors, in order to pay for the pills that kept her up and put her down, and if he had to tell the truth, he didn’t like her much.
But Molly, she had been his favorite. When he was small, he thought she must have been a fairy or at least part fairy. She moved like she was made of water or vapor, and she practically glimmered in the red robe cinched around her tiny waist with a satin bow.
When he was four, he asked if she wore it to hide her wings.
She’d giggled and scooped him into her arms, whispering in his ear.
“They are magical, my Romeo. They hide themselves.”
That night, in the kitchen with Charles, she wore a pair of black capris and a red sweater. But she still looked and moved as though she had wings.
She’d blushed and giggled, explaining that she wasn’t Romeo’s mother, but that she knew it would be fine.
The next night, she wore a crimson dress with black polka dots, and Romeo might have told her he wished he was older so he could ask her on a date.
Charles got the privilege instead.
In the year that followed, Romeo learned what it meant to be a man. He grew six inches that summer, and though he was only nine, he stood as tall as most thirteen-year-olds and was just as smart.
But Molly held him on her lap through the funeral, mopping his tears with her tissues and rubbing his back as though he were much younger than the sight of him announced.
Charles stood behind them, his hand resting on Romeo’s shoulder, letting his own tears slide down his cheeks.
Not for the corpse that was laid in a pine box in front of them, but the life of a boy who might be lost to the wind after this.
The state hadn’t wanted him to stay with Molly. Whether they could prove it or not, everyone knew what that house had been. What went on there. But Charles had a friend who knew a lawyer and scraped together enough money for a home of his own. And a ring.
They were married by a judge on a Friday, and they moved in with him on Saturday. It took months of legal battles, counseling sessions, and psychiatric evaluations, but when no one came forward to claim him, Romeo became eligible for adoption.
So, one completely anticlimactic afternoon, he became legally theirs.
But they had already been a family. Right from that first night.
The cold bit into his cheeks as his blood throbbed in his ears. He tried to look up, his lips pleading with no voice. But the roar of silence crushed him down further so that he lay crumpled, like a fetus, on the floor.
The visions spilled from his mind like water from an overflowing cup. Some incredible force surged through him, pinning him harder and tighter to the floorboards.
The oxygen in the room was depleted. The realization that he was suffocating made his mind swim with terror. But he couldn’t die. Not until he found her.
He focused on what had brought him here. The phone call from Molly, talking about the house, telling him how it was finally going to be bulldozed after seventeen years. Her voice had been so strange, so distant. Like she was in a trance.
She said she was there, giving it one last look. Trying to find the happy times where none were to be found.
But there had been. So many joyous moments were had in that place, only brought to a halt by a fire that managed to take only the life of the lost soul who caused it.
Memories of blanket forts, chess games, math quizzes, and dancing in their pajamas in the firelight scoured over him like sandpaper.
Her words had been clipped, muffled. Peppered against a static that sounded like alien breath.
And then she said the one thing he’d never, ever imagined she would say.
“Sometimes I wish I had never adopted you.”
The silence that had followed was as thick as oil. No static, no breath. But then, a scream that sent him running for the door as fast as his feet would carry him.
He realized now, it wasn’t her. And it sparked a recollection of something said with equal hatred when he was very small. A memory Molly never wanted him to have.
“I wish I had never had you.”
He had been vying for his mother’s attention as toddlers do, begging for something. What was it?
The word hung in the space around him, stopping time and wind and breath. He could smell the wax, feel it on his fingers. He remembered, after that day, he only ever drew Molly. That was the day he first wished he was hers.
A rage larger than the house threw him back, pinning him to the wall this time as the creaking, shrieking walls tried to expand to hold it.
It seared into him like the stings of a thousand scorpions, dumping poison into his bloodstream and making him wretch, and writhe. Hatred funneled into him from all directions before twisting, pulling back, threatening to rip him to pieces.
He clenched his fists and looked at the figure, glaring into the blackness until, finally, he could see.
The walls around them began to buckle with the building pressure, but he gazed deep into the vaccum and pushed himself free of the wall, he shouted.
“What did you do with her? Where is my momma?”
The figure before him shook with fury, black eyes burned into him, but still he moved toward it.
The thing released a feral roar causing the house to vibrate then flex inward before it drew in an airless breath and raised hands of reverse flames.
Fire without heat, blue and black tongues licked outward, stealing the light and oxygen once again. Bearing down on him, the dark mass grew and seethed. Its eyes were obsidian slivers set in flesh so black, he hadn’t been able to see the resemblance before.
He couldn’t speak to tell it. He couldn’t even cough or choke as the smoke from its flames siphoned the life from his body.
Instead, he closed his eyes. And prayed.
Not for himself, but for the life of another. Molly.
Please, let it have been fake. Please let Momma be alive.
He was chanting the prayer in his mind, his heart beating too loudly in his ears to hear the phantom’s whispers.
He prayed she’d never been there, that this was just like the other times he was drawn to this place by some need he could never quite meet. He’d called his parents home from the gas station, hoping Charles would answer groggily and tell him Molly was asleep. But it just rang and rang, seventeen times before Romeo climbed back into his dad’s old truck.
The fact that they hadn’t answered was the reason he was there, dying, right now.
And as he prayed that this thing had only somehow impersonated his momma, he heard her voice, calling his name from downstairs.
He was sure his brain had begun to falter from lack of oxygen. But when Charles’s voice boomed from below as well, he opened his eyes.
Romeo drew up whatever strength he had left and threw himself at the monster.
It was as simple as tackling smoke. Diminished by the presence of others or by his pure will to defeat it, he found nothing but air beneath him, and as he stood, gasping and clutching his chest, he stared down at the blackness seeping into and filling the cracks of the floorboards beneath his feet.
“Romeo, sweetheart? Are you up there?”
He turned and met her on the stairs, shimmering like a fairy in the moonlight. Then he looked back at the absence of light in his old room.
As impotent as a ghost as she had been in life.
He hadn’t thought of his birth mother in many years.
And as they took the steps back down to Charles, he promised himself he wouldn’t again.
For many, many more.