The Punished, by Peter Meredith
Description: 12-year-old Curt Regis lives the carefree life of a beggar and a thief. Homeless since the age of six, he uses his guile and street smarts, as well as a glib, smooth lying tongue to reign as king of the street rats. So when he is caught breaking into a school and is sent back into foster care for the ninth time, he is quite confident that not only will it be a short stay, he will also be gone again in a day or two with a new set of clothes on his back and his bag filled with silverware, jewelry and maybe if he is really lucky, a Play station to pawn.
However, his luck has run out. This time he is sent to what many in the corrupt foster-care system consider the perfect home. It is a home from which no one has ever runaway from. A beautiful home where not a word of complaint is ever heard, where in fact, very few words are ever spoken and where the only real sounds that disturb the stagnant air are the screams of the punished.
Blessedly, Curt was yanked around then and the sight of those awful teeth digging into the soft flesh of Darla’s face was lost to him. Her screams on the other hand were not, they were clear and exact, loud with the agony of slow death.
They pierced his mind and he had trouble thinking past them. He blinked stupidly at the person in front of him. It was Paul, who had turned him around, and his face was a warzone. A battlefield where rational fear and insane panic fought for control of his features, but Curt caught only a flash of this before Paul shoved him into his room and threw him bodily onto his now familiar bed.
Curt struggled up thinking what a tremendously stupid thing to be doing just then. He should be running for his life, but Paul pushed him back down again and covered him over with his blanket.
“No matter what, don’t come out.”
The words were hissed in his ear through his covers and the desperation in Paul’s voice made him stop struggling at least physically. Mentally he felt besieged. The endless screams echoing in the otherwise silent hallways, the vision of the larger than life teeth and the near certainty that the house was alive washed relentlessly over his mind, making him feel as though his brain was being squeezed into nothingness.
He could sense his ability to think clearly diminishing. All that came to him were an annoying series of questions but hardly any answers.
Was he really going to hide from that creature, that thing, beneath his blankets as his five year old self would have? Where were the others? Were they hiding like a bunch of retarded children as well? Shouldn’t they all be hightailing it out of there while the thing ate Darla? Was that thing an actual ghost or perhaps something worse?
His own failing logic could only answer one of those questions and that was the first one. Yes, he would lie under his blankets and keep absolutely still. He realized he had been doing this, hiding from this creature, every night since he arrived, every night but the first that is. All along, he had thought it had been Miss Feanor, who came at night but in reality, it was this thing and she was afraid of it as much as he was.
How hiding under a blanket kept the creature at bay, he didn’t know, or how sound played any part in this, he didn’t know that either. Nor the fastidious cleaning. Nothing made sense.
And nothing would as long as Darla’s shrieks continued.
At first, her misery struck him so keenly that he cried beneath his covers, sobbing in empathetic fear for her. But her screams went on for so long that ultimately, his tears dried up and he could only clamp his hands over his ears and hope that they would end before he went mad.
They did end eventually and then his fear was no longer empathetic, but personal, selfish and he became afraid only for himself.
He should’ve expected this. The creature crept up the stairs quietly and as it did, he began to shake beneath his covers. By the long fifth step, he was nearly in a panic, because his muscles wouldn’t stop shimmying about. In desperation, he curled into a ball and grabbed his knees with all of his remaining strength. This helped, but oddly seemed to forced the shaking into his chest, where it felt as though his heart were about to explode.
Suddenly he remembered the note he had left in his pocket and his horror-stricken mind recalled every incriminating detail of it. He was sure just having it on his person was likely cause for a punishment and after what he had seen and heard, he knew he’d do anything to keep that from
happening to himself. Grabbing the note, he stuffed it quickly into his mouth and only barely began to chew when the creature entered his room.
Saliva flooded around the note, but he refused to swallow just in case it would make noise. The creature moved about his bed, slowly as always, so that soon Curt was drooling like a baby. He didn’t care. Somehow, enough light came through his window that the thing was able to cast a feeble shadow through his blankets. It turned him cold knowing the creature was only inches from him.
But then it moved away.
As the thing went about the house on its usual rounds, he slowly swallowed his forbidden note and the pool of saliva. Curt lay there sweating freely, petrified by fear, and he stayed this way long after the last sly sound of the thing had disappeared. Eventually, his brain became disconnected and he didn’t think, or question or remember, but instead slipped into a waking trance. And judging by how dry the pool of blood would later feel, he laid there for hours.
What brought him around was a sharp jab of fingers through the blanket, directly into his cheek. His mind switched back on and his brain started thinking exactly where he had left off and he sucked his breath in sharply with fright. A second later, the fingers jabbed him again, harder. He waited hoping to be left alone, but then suddenly his covers were ripped off of him and he saw Matt standing there. The boy wore unreadable expression. It was certainly not a happy one, nor was it the usual sneering superiority.
With a quick hand gesture, he motioned for Curt to follow him. They went down stairs and immediately he could see the body of Darla. It lay contorted and crushed looking, sprawled in a hellishly unnatural position by the front door, surrounded by an undisturbed pool of dried blood.
Before he saw the body, Curt had wished in his heart that Darla would be alive and hoped that she would only have the terrible bruises and sharp pains as he did on his first morning, but she was very much dead. Very, very dead. He had seen dead bodies before, four of them, nothing could compare to this.
The creature’s large teeth had shredded her clothing and had bitten through her skin in hundreds of places and even where the skin hadn’t been ripped open, he could see that the bones beneath had been broken. In many spots, splinters of bone erupted up out of her flesh and these appeared sharp and bloody. It looked as though she had fallen into a trash compactor on the back of a garbage truck or into some piece of heavy machinery. He grew light headed and felt sick at the sight.
He wasn’t the only one. Miss Feanor had a green complexion under an expression of worry and Matt, who had followed him down, couldn’t stop staring at the body and swallowed loudly repeatedly as he did. Only Paul, the only other person there, didn’t seem like he was going to vomit. He had other problems. His twitch had returned with a vengeance and no part of his face wasn’t effected. He was as difficult to look upon as the body. But they weren’t there to look.
Miss Feanor laid out a heavy blanket and directed Curt and Matt to put the body of Darla Heines onto it. Curt was terribly afraid to touch it, but Paul, who was practically blind from his twitch was clearly useless and so the youngest boy there went to the women’s feet. Along with Matt, he made to pick her up, but her legs bent inward, that is to say the wrong way and feeling the strength in his arms disappear at the sight, he had to drop her.
“Oh God,” he mumbled and knew there was no stopping the vomit shooting up his throat.
Turning toward the staircase, he heaved and retched loudly, but since breakfast had been hours before, only a nasty watery spew came up. The others waited for him in the dead silence, looking greener if that were possible. Finally, shaking and sweating as if he were in a fever, he bent to his horrid
task and with a face twisted and ugly, he helped Matt move the body onto the blanket. They moved her to the garage then, and that was much easier since they could hold the blanket instead of her. Darla was small, like a child herself. And lighter than he expected. Her body went into the trunk of Miss Feanor’s car, which was very tiny, but since she was so horribly bendable, she fit with ease.
Matt shut the trunk with a dull thump and just then, Curt’s knees gave out and he fell heavily to the cement floor of the garage. He couldn’t get up. There was no strength left in his mind or body and his head swam making the room spin and his stomach waver. Matt didn’t help him, yet he didn’t hurt him either, he simply turned his face, dead white and shining with sweat, to the door and left.
With a slack jaw and vacant eyes, Curt watched him walk through the mudroom and then the older boy was gone and he was all alone. The horror of the day had left him dazed and apathetic. He gazed around and saw the garage just as it looked the other two times he had been there. Save for a car, it sat empty. No tools, no bikes, no boxes, no nothing. Nothing but the cold. The cement beneath him was like ice, yet his body was numb and had been since he had watched Darla’s knees bend backwards, and therefore he only felt the cold cement vaguely.
Now he turned his lifeless gaze back to the door and looked into the mudroom and only then did he see what sat catty-corner to the garage door. It was the door that lead into the black pit of the basement, that lead to the creature, the thing. He felt the cold then. It raced up through the hard floor shooting up the sweat of his back.
He was trapped.
If the creature came then he would have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. In the space of time it took for his heart to boom once mightily in his chest, he was up off the floor and flying out of the garage and he didn’t check his speed until he was all the way down the long hall, standing with the others breathing noisily and staring back at the mudroom door. The creature didn’t come up from where it lurked in the basement.
A few minutes later, Miss Feanor left, presumably to dispose of the body of Darla the Caseworker; however, before she did, she ordered them to clean up the blood and of course his vomit.
Compared to handling the mangled body this was simple; nothing in his life would be difficult after that. They were done quickly, Matt going on his hands and knees to inspect. When they were finished, and despite not having had dinner, Matt ordered all of them, the girls included to start on their chores. This was fine with Curt because he needed something to do, something physical, something to keep him occupied so he wouldn’t think about how easily they rolled Darla’s broken body up to get her into the trunk, and besides, he didn’t imagine he would be able to eat anytime soon.
The Punished, by Peter Meredith