This is a really, really old story of mine I shared at the request of my good friend, Sarah, at Secret Art Expedition. This one’s for you..
Lucas Jackson eased the rust-splotched black Escort off the shoulder of the road and rolled into a pool of moon-shade beneath the drooping branches of an oak. He turned off the key and settled back onto the seat. And he waited, his fingers nervously tracing the outline of the snub-nosed .38 special in his coat pocket.
He had parked in the squat oak’s inky shadow every night for a week straight, sat there from ten pm until two in the morning. He had watched the sparse traffic crawl up Blessing Hills Drive, watched the Caddies and Mercedes and big obscene Hummers amble by, turn right and pass through the electronically controlled gates guarding Blessing Hills Estates. He had watched, invisible, as a black-and-white had climbed the hill every two hours or so and cruised through the gates that swung open in welcome. A quick circle and back out. Two hours later, another pass. Two hours. Plenty of time to get in, get the job done, and get out. Piece of cake.
But Lucas was still nervy.
He had never done anything this big before. Never used a gun, either. Sure, he’d swiped stuff, but it was petty crap: cigarettes from the convenience store, old man Easton’s weed-eater that Lucas had later pawned, and at Walmart, the Barbie doll. He had almost gotten nailed on that one, barely outrunning a gaggle of kids, their name badges flapping Justins and Julies and Jonathans. But he had made it, and Samantha had gotten the doll she wanted for Christmas.
He knew it was wrong to steal—his old man had beaten that fact into him when Lucas was no more than five and had pocketed a candy bar at the grocery store. But what was a man to do when his little girl looked at him with those big, sad eyes, and there was no money?
No money. No jobs. That was just the way of it. Lucas knew he was luckier than most; at least Marybeth had a job so they had food on the table, money to pay the utilities and buy a little gas. Hell, in more than three-quarters of the families in the city, nobody worked. And most that did, like Marybeth, worked for the la-de-da rich folks in Blessing Hills.
Who would have ever thought things would come to this? Not his old man, that was for sure. When Lucas was a boy, Merle Jackson had driven a big, black, look-at-me SUV to his job at the steel mill every day. Then gas prices had started creeping up and up and still up, the steel mill closed down and moved overseas, and the unused SUV sat in the driveway, turned to rust and died. And his old man…he had sat in his crumbling home in what once had been a middle-class neighborhood, rusted up and died too.
Lucas and Marybeth and Samantha now lived in the house his father had paid for. The roof leaked, the AC hadn’t worked in years—they couldn’t have afforded to run it if it had—and the plumbing was acting up. But at least they had a house.
Twin beams of light pierced the darkness from the valley below. Lucas’ eyes tracked their ascent up the winding hillside, then along the roadway flanking the bluff. Swoosh. The patrol car passed his hiding place. He turned the Escort’s key one notch. The clock on the dash illuminated the time: 12:01 am. Right on time.
The police cruiser turned onto the street leading into Blessing Hills Estates and disappeared from view.
Lucas’ fingers tightened around the pistol, its smooth metal now warm in his hand. He was thankful for that: the gun. And his good fortune in finding it, wrapped in an oily rag in the back of his old man’s closet.
Less than five minutes later, the cruiser finished its uneventful circle, passed back through the double gates into the real world and turned right, away from Lucas. Its taillights disappeared as it dipped over the hill.
It was time.
He opened the Escort’s door. The rusty hinges let loose an arthritic squeal. Heart slamming inside his chest, he froze, expecting any second to see the cop car come barreling back up Blessing Hills Drive, take him away and lock him up so he would never see Marybeth or Samantha again. And he would fail, miserably fail, like he had so many times before, to take care of his family.
But no set of headlights poked over the hill, no siren wailed its war cry. Lucas’ heart gradually slowed. His stomach settled back into its old familiar place. The nervous beads of sweat evaporated from his flushed face.
He eased the car door shut. With one last look around, he slipped into the untended woods that ringed Blessing Hills Estates, shielding it and its surrounding brick wall from passersby. Yeah, like all us peons don’t know you’re there just because we can’t see you, Lucas thought as he slogged through the thick overgrowth.
Moonlight filtered down through the trees, not much, but enough that he was able to pick his way through the brush and brambles and vines to the hidden wall of mossy, earthen-colored bricks. He laid his hand upon its warm surface. On the other side were people who had never known what it was like to do without. People who had never felt a single pang of hunger. People who had never had a sick kid they couldn’t afford to take to the doctor because you had to pay before they would see you. People with money.
Lucas craned his neck, his eyes crawling up the wall to the top. About ten feet, he figured.
He took a couple of steps back, crouched, then sprang, hands reaching heavenward. His palms smacked against concrete. His fingers closed, seeking a hold. Moss crumbled in his fists. He slid down the wall, his shirt riding up, the rough surface chafing his exposed skin. He hit the ground on his butt. Pain searing his chest and burning the palms of his hands, he staggered to his feet. Not as easy as it looked. But he wouldn’t give up, he wouldn’t fail. Not this time.
Again, Lucas jumped. And again he scraped down the wall. But on the third attempt, he made it. Fingers clutching the top edge, boots scrabbling against the side, he pulled himself up until he was astride the wall.
For the first time in his life, he laid eyes on the perfectly landscaped, two-story, five-plus-bedrooms, four-car-garage houses that dotted the top of the bluff. Most were dark, their privileged inhabitants sleeping the sleep of the well-fed. No vehicles traveled the wide streets. Calm and quiet. Just another peaceful night in Blessing Hills.
Now that Lucas was here, he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed; he hadn’t thought that far ahead. All he had known was he needed money and up here was money; but he hadn’t planned on just how he was going to go about finding it.
Get inside a house. That was the next step.
He swung his leg over the wall and dropped to the ground, checked for the pistol—still there–then looked around.
A lush carpet of grass started at the wall and rolled out underneath an area of evenly spaced trees, fat shrubs, and flower beds, ending at a wide, cobblestone street. And across the street, more of the thick green mat, more tall trees, more circles and squares and rows of flowers and shrubs and plumy grasses. Lucas couldn’t help but compare his own scraggly, weed-infested yard to the park-like perfection spread out before him. And that thought led to another, a snapshot moment from his childhood: his mother in the backyard, a wide-brimmed straw hat shielding her face from the sun as she clipped stalks of gladiola blooms to grace their table at dinner that night.
His eyes swept over the stately houses dozing in the moonlight, and anger knotted his stomach, bubbled and boiled and burned. They had so much and he had so little. And all he wanted was enough money to take Samantha to the doctor. Was that so much to ask?
But begging at the clinic had gotten him nowhere, so now he had to take. He would go inside one of those houses and then…what?
He gripped the revolver nestled inside his pocket and set off toward the houses.
The grass beneath his feet was like a cushion, absorbing all sound as he crossed the open area between the wall and street. He stepped down onto the cobblestones—clack-clack—and stopped. Again, his eyes panned over the houses. Which one?
Treading gently, his boots making only the tiniest of clicks upon the stones, Lucas crossed the street and stepped up on the grass. He approached the closest house. When his boot made contact with the driveway, lights blazed, washing him in a white glare. Motion sensors!
He ran, panic pumping his legs back across the street and into the blackness underneath the trees, and running still, on to the wall before he stopped. Only then, did he turn around.
At the house where he had set off the motion sensor, an upstairs window opened. The corpulent silhouette of a man appeared. Heart in his throat, Lucas watched the man who watched the world outside his home. Neither Lucas nor the man moved. Just watched. After a time, the spotlights winked off and the man shut the window.
Once more, Blessing Hills dreamed in the darkness.
Lucas felt sick. What if all the houses had motion sensors? How would he ever get inside undetected? How?
He turned to the wall, laid his forehead against the rough bricks, and balled his fists. Tears leaked from his eyes.
Samantha’s fever-red face swam in front of his closed eyes. The memory of her deep, wet cough tortured his ears.
Lucas pushed away from the wall. “But I have to.”
He raked the back of his hand across his wet face and forced his feet to move. Staying in the shadows close to the wall, he started walking parallel to the street, his gaze on the passing houses, searching for something. Just what he didn’t know, but was sure he’d know when he saw it.
He smelled it first: meat cooking. Pork, he thought. Lucas’ nose pulled in the delicious aroma, his mouth watered, and his mind tumbled back through the years. To a time when his old man cooked out on the grill on weekends, a time when ordinary people could afford to eat meat, a time long gone and almost, but not quite, forgotten. “Bring me your plate, boy,” Merle Jackson said, holding out tongs that lovingly clasped a golden-brown rib. The hunk of pork dripped enticingly. Young Lucas held up his plate.
His stomach roared like a famished lion, sank razor-sharp claws into his midsection, and dragged him back to the present. Someone’s grilling, all right. His eyes scanned the dark houses. But where?
His nose twitched, sniffed the air, and picked up the direction of the delicious smell. Up ahead and over in the houses…somewhere.
Following the mouthwatering aroma, he continued walking beside the gently curving avenue, and at last he spotted a yellow blush of light radiating from behind a house across the street. It was a smallish place by Blessing Hills standards, single-story, two-car garage. A yard crowded with trees and bushes and grasses and vines–and easily four times the size of its neighbors–surrounded it. A tall, wrought-iron fence enclosed the property. And not just for show. The black bars were thick and set close together. Even a skinny kid couldn’t have squeezed through.
A light breeze soughed through the trees, picked up the heavenly smell and carried it to Lucas, dumping its heady, greasy, wonderful aroma all over him. A faint tinkle of laughter sprinkled the air, spicing the night.
His eyes swept the surrounding area. All the houses along the avenue remained dark, sleeping tranquility upon their lavish lawns. Except the small one. Light seeped from behind the undersized structure, peeked out between its myriad leafy screens, and gestured through the bars at him. Whispered: We are here…we have meat…we have money…
Lucas’ hand gripped the revolver, index finger gently settling on the trigger. He took a deep breath and crossed the street.
The meaty aroma was stronger here, its claws sharper, gouging deep inside him and dragging out cramping pangs of hunger. He followed his nose. As he made his way along the fence running down the side of the house, he decided that along with money, he was going to take a big hunk of the cooking meat, done or not.
The light grew brighter. A murmur of voices rose up out of the night. Lucas halted and peered between the bars into the back yard. Through stands of ruffling fountain grasses and thickets of waving blooms, he saw a good-sized patio spread out behind the house. On the round, pebbled stones a group of people lounged at a long table laden with platters of glistening meat, tumblers of ruby-red wine, loaves of crusty bread.
Small house or not, people who ate like that had money. Lots of money.
Now he just had to get it. And to do that, he had to find a way in.
He continued alongside the fence, each step slow and deliberate. He rounded the corner, keeping a close eye on the well-lit patio as he edged down the length of the back. As he drew closer, he saw that the people—eight, he counted—were old, not a brown or a blonde or a redhead among them. All gray. A few more steps and another blessing: all were women. Old, wrinkled-up women. Luck was with him.
If he could get in.
His eyes scaled the high fence. Wonder if I can climb it? It had been a long time since he had climbed anything. And there wasn’t much in the way of hand holds, just two horizontal bars, one near the top and another near the bottom. He guessed he could jump like he had at the wall. Grab that top bar. But it might get noisy. Better move farther away from the old women before he tried it. Didn’t want to give them any warning, didn’t want to give them time to call the police.
What about motion sensors? What if he jumped down on the grass and set off one of them freaking things? He needed to scale the fence somewhere a distance away where he couldn’t be seen. That way, if he triggered something, he would have time to get away before the police showed up.
He peered down the length of the fence, then back the way he’d come. Looked both ways again. Seemed like there might be more cover further on, more blackness ahead than behind.
He crept forward. The old ladies ate, they talked. None turned a face in his direction.
“These ribs are delicious, Maude,” one said. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“Garlic,” said another. “Fresh garlic. I grow it myself.”
“Well, here’s to garlic, then.”
“To garlic.” A third voice.
“To garlic.” A chorus of voices.
Then the clatter of knives and forks.
Lucas nearly bumbled into it before he saw it: a small area where moonbeams funneled down through an opening in the treetops, creating a spotlight upon the bare grass before him. He glanced at the group of old women to see if any were looking his way before stepping out of the shadows, and he saw something he wasn’t expecting to see: a hole in the fence. Actually, a gate. A wide open gate. Looked like he wouldn’t have to hoist himself over the fence after all.
This was going to be easy.
His eyes panned the darkness outside the fence. Stillness. Silence. Then moved back to the patio, to the group of talking and laughing and eating old ladies.
He pulled the pistol out of his pocket and stepped into the patch of moonlight. He took a deep breath and held it. He passed through the gate. Nothing happened. No lights, no alarms. He let out his breath and moved forward. Toward the old women. Toward the money. Toward a doctor for Samantha.
He veered around shrubs and tramped through flowers. When he stepped up on the patio, the blue-haired old lady facing him from across the table looked up from her piled-high plate and met his gaze. He brought up the revolver, pointed it at her, and opened his mouth to order her to keep quiet. But she spoke first.
“We have company, ladies.” Her voice was surprisingly strong for such a frail-looking thing.
As a group, the women’s heads turned in his direction. Faded eyes regarded him from above lips stained red with wine.
“Don’t anybody move,” Lucas said. Nervous tremors be-bopped up his legs, hustled the length of his arms, and set the pistol dancing.
Around the table, not a withered muscle twitched.
“And don’t yell…or I’ll shoot.”
Miss Bluehair smiled, showing off a set of pearly white dentures that looked too big for her wizened face. “No one is going to yell, young man. It’s not polite to raise one’s voice.”
“Not polite at all,” said the humpbacked old woman sitting on Miss Bluehair’s right.
A murmur of, “Not polite, not polite, not polite,” circled the table.
Lucas was taken aback. He had expected fear, maybe anger, possibly even someone fainting. But what he had gotten was a group of crazy old ladies who were either too ignorant or too senile to know desperation when it had a gun pointed at their snooty, wrinkled faces.
Miss Bluehair picked up her fork, stabbed a piece of perfectly browned meat off her plate, and popped it in her mouth. Around the table, silverware rattled as the other old ladies followed her lead. Puckered mouths chewed.
Lucas could almost feel the rich texture of the marbled chunks upon his own tongue and teeth, could almost taste the clear juices squirting out.
“No one’ll get hurt if you do what I say,” Lucas said, and on his next heartbeat thought, God, I sound like the bad guy in those old Bruce Willis movies my old man used to watch.
Miss Bluehair looked up from her plate, her rheumy, eyes meeting his. “What do you want, young man?”
In those pale, blue eyes, Lucas saw his grandmother, remembered the love and adoration and unqualified acceptance she had heaped upon him, and felt shame. He was robbing old people, for Christ’s sake! “I want your money.” His demand sounded more like a plea.
“Oh, you want money,” said Miss Bluehair. She laid down her fork. “Come sit down and have a bite, tell me why you need it.” She patted the empty chair on her left.
“I don’t want to eat,” Lucas said.
“Of course, you do, dear. Why, you’re all skin and bones.”
An echo of, “Skin and bones, skin and bones…”
“I don’t…” The meat smell washed over Lucas, tied his stomach up in quivering knots of need. “…want to eat. I want money.”
“You’re being most ungracious,” Miss Bluehair said. “Your mother would be so disappointed.”
“My mother is dead.” Shame burrowed deeper inside Lucas. “I’m sorry, but I need money. Not for me, but—”
A clatter. Lucas shook his head, blinked. His eyes traced the sudden noise to the paving stones at his feet where the pistol lay. Shit! He’d dropped it!
He bent over and snatched it up, bringing the barrel back in line with Miss Bluehair.
What the hell had happened there?
Miss Bluehair smiled. Her grandma-eyes lay soft upon him. Again, she patted the vacant chair. “Come sit beside me. Tell me all about it. Tell me who the money is for.”
And Lucas did. The old lady’s kind eyes coaxed him, the tantalizing smell of cooked meat pulled him across the patio and down into the empty chair.
“It’s for Samantha, my daughter…”
A plate appeared before him, rounded with crusty, brown ribs.
“She’s sick, needs a doctor…”
“Oh, you poor dear,” said Miss Bluehair. “We’ll get you all the money you need. But first, eat.” She gently pinched his arm. “You’re so thin.”
The savory aroma radiating off the slabs of meat in front of Lucas wrapped greasy arms about him, pulled him close, and promised him pleasures that he hadn’t experienced in years. And all he had to do was open his mouth and accept the offering. “I can’t,” he said as his hands inched toward the plate. “I have to get back…to…Sa…man…” He laid the revolver on the table beside the plate. “I can’t…I have…” Trembling fingers selected a rib. Such a big piece, fat and lean running its length in perfect proportion, ambrosial juices bubbling up and beading its seared surface. And the smell, oh God, the smell, it yelled out: take me, taste me, lick me, eat me!
And Lucas did.
Grasping it with both hands, he brought the succulent rib to his lips, opened his mouth and bit down. His teeth broke the surface and an explosion of fatty nectar filled his mouth, ran slick over his tongue. He closed his eyes in ecstasy.
Lucas didn’t want it to be over. He chewed, he rolled the meat around in his mouth, then chewed some more, reluctant to swallow. But then he realized there was more, a whole plate-full of more, and he swallowed and opened his eyes and—
And something—some things waved in his peripheral vision. He blinked his eyes and they were gone.
“Have some wine, dear.” An arm reached around him and set a glass of wine beside his plate. “Red wine for red meat.”
“Red wine for red meat, red wine for red meat,” made its way around the table.
Lucas felt a touch of unease, just the tiniest curl of fear peeking around the corner in the back of his mind. But the hunk of meat entering his open mouth pushed the puny emotion down and stomped it into obliteration. Then there was only bite, chew, swallow. Bite, chew, swallow. A quick gulp of wine when the rib was consumed, and on to the next.
Flat, curvy bones piled up next to the diminishing plate of meat. A steady supply of wine found its way into the glass that Lucas tipped to his lips following the ravishment of each glistening rib. And when the plate was emptied, it was replaced with another mounded with more delicious, delightful, delectable chunks of meat.
And though he felt stuffed, Lucas continued to eat.
He was on his third plate when his stomach rebelled, refused to take anymore, not one more bite. The last mouthful wouldn’t go down; Lucas had to spit it out. He eyed the masticated mess blobbed on top of the stack of untouched ribs and thought how gross it looked and that he ought to wrap it up in a napkin but he didn’t see a napkin and he raised his head to see if any of the old ladies had noticed and—
And they weren’t old ladies anymore.
Seated around the table were grayish-purple creatures, their lumpy bodies sprouting suckered tentacles. Part of the appendages swished the air like some people did their hands when talking. Others plucked up pieces of meat and shoved them into a gaping maw filled with shark teeth that hung open on what passed for faces. Above their grotesque mouths, three, evenly spaced, beautiful blue eyes glowed with excitement.
Fear overtook his body, commanding it to run. He tried to obey, tried to get up and run as far and as fast as he could, away from this place, away from the monsters grouped around the table. But his legs wouldn’t work. He saw the pistol on the table but couldn’t lift a hand. All he could move was his head. All he could do was watch as his hosts slavered over platters of meat, sucked down glass after glass of wine, shoved entire loaves of bread into their mouths until everything was gone. Not a sliver of meat or a drop of wine or a crumb of bread had been spared.
Then, as one, the trios of blue eyes turned on him.
“Well, ladies, what do you think?” said the creature on his right–Miss Bluehair.
“Kind of smallish,” said one of the things farther down the table.
“But young,” said the grossly lumpy one sitting on Miss Bluehair’s other side. “And tender.”
“Tender, tender, tender,” circled the table.
Terror gripped Lucas. What the hell—they’re talking like I’m something to eat. Then his eyes took in all the empty plates. What did they eat? What did I eat? He opened his mouth and filled his lungs to scream, but only a whistle of air rode his exhale. He tried again. Nothing. And again. And again.
He felt pressure on his arm, cold and slimy.
“Don’t be afraid, dear,” said Miss Bluehair. He looked into her three blue eyes. “You won’t feel a thing. I promise.” Then one of her tentacles curled gently around his neck. Tightened. “Will one of you ladies please shut the gate? We’ve made our catch for tonight.”
Photo from Pixabay