The Marsten Place
When two boys explore a haunted gallery, they suddenly realize they are not alone.
One last time, tenderly, cautiously, I touch his stubbled chin. The axe handle juts out of his chest, blood seeps from the blow that killed him with its force. Even in the dark, I see it, like black ink, oozing out of him, spreading out from his body. I scream until there is no sound left in me. I puke until there is nothing but bile. Up comes the Jack Daniels that burns the back of my throat just as it did going down. His brown eyes, still open with surprise and fear, seem to look straight ahead.
The pine floor boards creak. Whispers echo off the damp walls. The portraits in the gallery stare at me, everywhere they are watching. I need to get out. I pull myself up, a dizzying array of stars and a ringing in my ears almost makes me retch again, but just then I hear something, a rustling, like the scuttling of rats, a furtive sound of movement. I listen.
He said the place was haunted. It looked it. Tucked up on a hill along a dirt road lane in the deep east end, enshrouded by arching willows and overgrown vines, it went unnoticed these days by the tourists and the summer people. The locals walked past it, it was a shortcut to that part of the bay beach, through brambles and banks of summer roses. "It used to be a show place," Billy said, "an art gallery, like a museum."
"Old Mrs. Marsten went crazy," Billy said. He passed me the joint. I put my lips where his were, the paper still slick with his spit. "She went nuts and cut up her whole family. Chopped 'em up with a hatchet."
"Why?" the dampness and cold seeped into me, I shivered despite a healthy swig of whisky.
"She was an artist. Painter. Maybe she was touched, or the wind in the dunes made her snap." He reached for the half empty bottle.
The sky was gray and low, the bay flat and slatey blue. He puffed smoke. The chilly air had that high note tang of the sea. "It smells like rain." He had a habit of rubbing his stubbly chin because he liked the feel of it. Billy's the first kid in our grade to shave. He let me touch it, the rough texture of it. "Maybe I'll grow a beard," he said. He ran a finger down my cheek. "Soft like a girl." He laughed. I punched him in the stomach. "You hit like a girl, too."
We were drunk enough. He grabbed a rock and hummed it at one of the many windows, whose panes were all broken. "She still walks the place at night, calling out for her babies, the ones she killed in their cribs."
I picked up a rock too and winged it, it bounced off the shingles. "Artist's Studio" said a peeling sign that swung precariously in the wind. Evening came on, it got dark early this late in September. Fog was settling in, a thickening mist that clung in the tall beach grass. When the first drops of rain came down, he headed for the front door. "Come on."
The rusted hinges groaned as he pushed against the cracked oak. A heavy door knocker, the head of Medusa, rattled as the door gave way. Inside: cobwebby, spiders and fat insects skittering in corners, white looming shapes of sheet-covered furniture, broken glass, the whiff of must and mold and thick dust. Paintings covered every inch of wall space. Down narrow hallways, collections of portraits were hung floor to ceiling. We stopped in front of a lady with a high white wig and a low-cut gown. "She's a real beauty, ain't she?" She mutely witnessed as he leaned in closer, close enough that I could feel his breath that smelled of smoke and booze.
Then he kissed me.
He shushed me, and kissed me again. If the guys at school could've seen. Eddie da Silva and Joe Walsh, the big kids, used to beat me up every day, until Billy got to be my friend. "Faggot" they still say. Right then, I didn't care if it was true.
Right there, with him so close, I kissed him back.
"Take our picture," he said. "We can prove that we were here."
My phone had next to no charge. I opened up the selfie stick and we stood there, grinning in front of the wigged lady, his arm around me.
It got cold as night fell. "Gotta take a whizz" he said. "Be right back." and he disappeared into the blackness. By the fading light of my phone, I looked at the faces on the gallery wall, white, pale, ghostly. I checked the pic we took, of Billy and me. There we were, grimacing, but the lady in the painting had eyes with a feral glitter, a twisted smile that showed teeth. And then the phone went dead.
Billy's scream was horrible. There was the sound, a whacking, hacking sound as the hatchet met his sternum, as he thunked against the wall and fell, and then silence.
Now, I listen. The rain hits the broken window glass, rhythmically tapping. Wisps of fog creep in, they curl fingerlike and quietly moving along the dust coated floor. There are footprints in the dust. There is someone nearby. I hear them. There is someone laughing.
And then I knew. We'd been followed. They'd been watching all along.
Just as I run to the open door, lightning flashes dazzling bright, electricity cracks and sizzles the air, the brightness is blinding.
I hear again that laugh.
"Hey Faggot" says Joe.
"Where's your boyfriend?" Eddie's voice is like the rasping of a whetting stone on metal.
The glint of silver is all I see. The blade finds its way.
My eyes are open.