Dares stood at the base of Koizumi House. Fallen leaves blew across the porch and stairs, either ledge framing the steps perched upon by guardian lions whose eyes scowled at him. The house was relatively tall but narrow, with peeling blue paint and patchwork shingles. It sat sloped and sagging on the broken and jagged sidewalk, a relic from a forgotten age. Ivy coiled up the walls and seeped into the cracks. There had been a gate Dares didn’t remember actively passing through, a rusted but standing thing that too was intertwined with ivy. To either side of Dares off of the small cobblestone path between him and those imposing steps, potted plants and stone monuments sank into a sea of tall grass and wildflowers. The path underneath him bulged in places, raised by the roots of the towering weeping willow that bathed the house and garden in twisting shadow. Somewhere, perhaps in that tree, Dares heard the whistling of birds. Elsewhere, there was running water, but he could not place the source. Koizumi House loomed over him, an imposing tower.
Dares had read the address on the mailbox before he stepped through that archway into an ancient lost world, but found himself again checking the metal numbers on the side of the dwelling. It was pointless, of course. He knew he had the right place. All of the sensations were in line with what he had felt on Jun.
What am I doing here? Did I really intend to make good on my promise?
Was that why he was here? A promise? In any case, he was early. By the look of the sky, he had a half hour to himself before Jun would return. He didn’t know if her mother was inside, and he didn’t bother to feel for it. Old places like these were magnets for pieces of events that were long since passed, but still hung around as a murky haze, soaked up into the walls and grounds.
Dares didn’t know anything about this place’s history, and he preferred to keep it that way. When he had first moved into town, he had barely made it through the door of his first potential home before he passed out. He would find out later that, twenty or so years ago, someone had broken in and murdered an entire family. For Dares, the blood was still fresh. He wouldn’t let curiosity seduce him to seek out new stains anymore.
Dares shuffled out of the gate with no real purpose in mind. In a blank state, he found himself wandering an empty street alongside a picket fence. No, not a street, some bare dirt path, and it was between fences. He stepped through a few oily puddles where weeds had begun to grow, and felt his jean cuffs stick to his ankles in the mud. He saw an empty bottle, and kicked it aimlessly into a hollow depression alongside the fence. The light had begun to fade, and the sky was glowing a dying orange as the saddened clouds floated away on the sudden winds.
The hairs down Dares’ neck bristled to footsteps behind him. “Who’s there?” he demanded on a spin. There was only the empty path behind him, and the echo of his own voice. He could have sworn someone was watching him.
Whose- and then he realized. My shadow. - it was right beside him, the imprint that had been with him since his birth and never left him. Sometimes it trailed behind, and sometimes it trailed ahead, but its steps always walked in tune with his. Dares lifted his arm, and so did his shadow. He kicked a leg, and his doppelganger mimicked him. He reached out his hand, and the patch of darkness shaped like him did so as well.
“Well… at the very least, you’ll stay by my side…” Dares touched his hand to the shadow’s, but felt nothing. There was no warmth, no feel of flesh touching his. “It’s not the same. But why not?”
A subconscious lilt in his head created the illusion of the shadow nodding to him to point out the distinction. Dares jumped a little.
A familiar smell, a familiar feel - and faintly, ever so slightly, a familiar sound. Dares felt himself detached from the cold wind and setting sun around him, and turned his mind only to a sensation within. Thump. Thump. Thump. His back and arms broke out in gooseflesh as he felt his own hand touch his chest.
“This shallow heart's the only difference between you and I.” Dares sighed, and his shadow sat there silently as it always did. It was, after all, a great listener. “Well… at least I know I’m still alive…”
But alone. Dares felt a hint of longing within him, and shrugged it off. He wouldn’t let himself sink into that trap. He wasn’t allowed to express his wish. But, his shadow would know. And, it would always be there with him. Like the houses carrying their hidden secrets, so too did Dares’ outline upon the floor. Whatever he told himself, his shadow knew the truth he would never admit. And unlike any house, Dares could not walk away from his shadow, no matter how far he went.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Come inside already.” Jun tapped her foot.
“Huh?” Dares focused onto Jun, waiting impatiently at the doorstep. Was I daydreaming? He looked up into the cloudless sky. It was only four in the afternoon, of course the sun was still high on its perch.
“Come on, I don’t have all day. The quickest way to the supply shed is through the house.” said Jun.
“Oh. Right.” Dares looked behind him one last time at the gate, still feeling watched from unseen corners. He turned back, and didn’t know how he could have imagined the house looking so ancient. It was a normal, suburban house like any other, the only thing tying it to the dilapidated shrine from his daydream being the twin lions standing sentry over the garden.
“Jun, is that you?” a warm voice called down from the stairwell.
“It’s me, mom. Someone from school’s here to help with the garden.” said Jun, slipping off her sneakers and leaving them on the tile entry before the carpet. She nodded to Dares to do the same. Fair enough - Dares rather enjoyed the feel of being barefooted.
The pretty and refined woman from Dares’ vision carefully let herself down the stairs, wincing a little on the third step as a spasm went up her back. Jun grimaced at her. “Mom, you’re supposed to be taking it easy. Why were you upstairs?”
“Just going over a few keepsakes in the attic. It gets so still in the house sometimes, I couldn’t bear to listen to it creak and settle another moment. A little dusting here and there helps keep my mind off it.” she smiled. “Well now, who’s this?” she looked over Dares, beaming. “This young man is the helper you told me about?”
Jun looked a little nervous then that she had not gone over any routine with Dares, who was certain to bungle his first impression.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Koizumi. I am Dares.” he said, balancing confidence and reservation. To seal the deal, he bowed politely, head down.
Jun’s mother returned the bow. “How well-mannered you are. But there’s no need for formalities here. A friend of my daughter’s is a friend of mine.”
At this, Dares and Jun looked at each other distastefully. Perhaps “friend” was stretching it a little. But Mrs. Koizumi did not catch on.
“Please, make yourself at home.” she invited his ease of comfort.
“Don’t make yourself too comfortable.” Jun broke in, nodding her head to the back. “Come on.” she lead Dares out back.
The back porch was all but consumed by the devouring tides of tall grass, nearly breaking apart into the green. Despite this, what amounted to a navigable trail was cut through the field out to a sad little shack. Dares noticed a mantis cleaning to a reed, awaiting some fly or beetle patiently, with hungry eyes, as Jun undid the latch on the sagging door that only reluctantly fell open with a prolonged moan. It was dark, musty, and humid inside, and a rank odor assaulted Dares’ nostrils.
“Sorry.” Jun apologized, having covered her face automatically, cupped in one hand. “Forgot. You’ll want to breath shallow here. During the flood last year, some water got into the foundation. I think some of the wood has started to rot, but the real problem is the black mold that’s settled in. We’d replace the shed, but it’s used so little that it’s not really worth it.” she spoke, muffled by her own hand, as she turned over shadowed wares seeking some specific tool.
“Have you considered moving these things into your attic? Or maybe a rental storage bunker?” Dares asked, trying not to gag.
“Can’t. The attic’s already packed and Mom’s disability pay doesn’t cover the cost of monthly storage rent. The only reason we still have this house is that her great grandmother paid it off years ago. It’s all private property, no private taxes. But she’s retired early.” said Jun, gritting her teeth. She had slid her hand a little too quickly over the handle of a shovel or something and given herself a few good slivers. She withdrew reflexively and banged her head on a low shelf, dropping it and scattering supplies on the floor, severing forests of tangled grey web.
Jun lurched backward. “Careful!” she cautioned. “Black widows. This is the perfect environment for them.”
He had no doubt. Dares stood uncomfortably under the door frame, awaiting instruction that he felt would never come. When at last Jun gave him an order, he felt relieved rather than burdened.
“Can’t believe the light isn’t working again. I’m working blind in here. Dares, can you go up to the attic and bring me a flashlight? It should be in one of the tupperware containers to your right.”
And so he did. It was musty in the attic. The smell of mothballs and dust was the first thing that hit him when he poked his head up through the trapdoor, clinging unsteadily to the wobbling ladder. When he pulled himself onto the attic floor, he felt his jeans sweep long clean paths through the layers of dust that had settled onto the boards over countless years. He crouched low under a sunken crossbeam, and weaved in between boxes and sacks into a maze of forgotten things, sealed away in this darkened space. A slitted, circular porthole let in faint blades of light that cut through the dark and the damp (a vague moisture in the air that may have signaled the coming of more black mold). Motes of dust, like Dares had seen that early morning in his own apartment, hung in the light.
Dares kept to the right path, sifting through the tupperware in search of the flashlight. He had never been claustrophobic by the strictest definition, but he disliked something about the shadows of this attic. By the same token, he found the way the boards creaked under his bare feet, and the way the stale air seemed to choke him decidedly uninviting. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something moving.
“Go away.” he grumbled, wearily, to the deadlight eyes concealed in the shadow of the far corner, where the edges of the room gave way into dimensionless abyss. “I don’t believe in you.”
When Jun had the flashlight in hand, finding the old push-mower and weed trimmers she sought became an instantly-completed task. What remained was for Dares to chop down the veritable jungle of encroaching wilderness that had sprung up around the property. Pollen floated into his sinuses and thorny plants scratched at his shins. The sun had begun to sink low behind the trees when he had at last made a noticeable dent in the forestry.
“Not bad for a day’s work. We’ve been meaning to bring the grass down to size. Maybe now the flowers won’t be so choked.” said Junk admiringly. She had a cold glass of lemonade in hand. Dares noticed the condensation that had formed on the outside, and was streaming down to the cup’s base where tiny droplets detached and rained onto the lawn. The sight made his throat feel scratchy. “You look like you could use this.” Jun said, and offered him the beverage.
Dares accepted it wordlessly and emptied the glass in one prolonged swig.
“You only owed me an hour, you’ve more than paid it back. I suppose mom is going to want to pay you for overtime. She’s in the kitchen now, preparing skewers. How do you like your beef?” Jun asked, scratching her neck and trying to be friendly, Dares supposed.
“Well-done.” he answered. It was folly. He had not meant to stay for dinner. Perhaps Jun’s question had caught him off guard. The time had passed him by, lost in the droning miasma of the mindless labor, and his conscious mind had begun swimming away. Buried instinct took over. It had been a few years since he had touched meat, and he was surprised to find that his preference still came naturally off the tongue. In actuality though, it was not so much a preference as a compromise with himself.
“I’ll let her know. You do like skewers, right?” Jun asked him.
Dares nodded. It wasn’t worth explaining anything, and coming off as ungrateful would just strain the situation further. The inevitable awkward silence would be painful enough on its own, he’d as soon scarf down his free meal and excuse himself for the comfort and seclusion of his apartment as quickly as possible without arousing suspicion.
Sweat was rolling down his body in sheets, matting his shirt to his torso. If he smelled, he couldn’t tell underneath the scent of the weeds and flowers. In a way, manual labor was something of a retreat for him, and he had allowed himself to zone out, lost in a daze. Jun’s voice had brought him crashing back into the reality that, sooner or later, he would have to interact with other people.
He craned his head towards his handiwork, admiring the way the fading sun seemed to make the garden glow, and felt a pang of longing to go into that sun, and follow the fading light away to wherever it took him. In a moment, it was gone.
“So, Dares, how are you liking school?” Mrs. Koizumi asked pleasantly.
Dares turned his skewer over in his hand, inspecting it and trying not to look like he was inspecting it. “Oh? It’s alright, I guess.” he shrugged noncommittally. “A little crowded.”
“I’m sure you’ll adjust. Are you new in town?”
“You could say that. This is my first time back in four years.” said Dares.
“So you’ve lived here before?” Mrs. Koizumi asked him.
“Technically. My parents had work-related business in this town for a few months. For half that time, I lived with my grandmother while they were moving things into the temporary residence. My dad made new connections before much came of it, and we had to move again. I only stayed in the house for the last half of June.” said Dares.
“Huh?” Jun looked up from her plate absently, twirling fried rice around the tines of her fork.
“The month, dear.” Mrs. Koizumi giggled. Jun blushed. She didn’t look happy to be at the table. It would be difficult to sever all connections with Dares so long as her mother was picking his brain, fully under the impression that they were the best of friends. It was no secret to Dares that Jun didn’t have much of a social life, and the prospect of that tide shifting had brought new light into her mother’s life.
The innocent expectation radiating out of the woman was invasive under Dares’ skin. Sunny dispositions he found were always the sharpest swords.
“So, your parents are back in town?” she continued.
“Um… no. I live by myself…” said Dares, looking away.
Mrs. Koizumi dropped her silverware. “You what?”
“I live on my own.” Dares saw rising concern in her face. “I’m not an urchin or anything. I have an apartment at the Raintree complex.”
“But, you’re so young.” she said mournfully.
“Fourteen. Same as Jun.” Dares confirmed.
There was a sudden thud upstairs, and everyone jumped a little.
“Woah. I must have left something in a precarious position when I was up in the attic.” said Dares, starting to stand from the table. Mrs. Koizumi motioned him to stay put.
“It’s fine, Dares, I left some things up there anyways. You’ve hardly touched your skewer, its getting cold.” she implored him with a smile, and headed off for the stairs, trying not to wince.
“I guess martyrdom runs in the family.” Dares giggled hollowly to himself.
“Um…” Jun shifted uncomfortably, “Aren’t you hungry?”
Dares had taken a few bites of rice, leaving the meat isolated on an island of grain in the center of the plate. The juices had sunk through the rice mound and began to congeal in thin puddles that leaked out of the mound. Brown, and well-seasoned from the look and smell of it. Slowly, Dares picked up his skewer. He caught a tantalizing whiff of the tenderly grilled beef. He closed his eyes and raised the skewer to his mouth. Warm juices spilled onto his tongue as his teeth pressed into the flesh, releasing the heat and flavor sealed within. He pulled away a morsel from the stick and chewed, half anticipating an adverse reaction, and half processing the savory taste. He chewed, and swallowed. It was good. Dares had not tasted anything so good in years.
And then he opened his eyes. There was a thin line of pink running through the meat, exposed where he had bitten. Instantly, he was overwhelmed by the sickening smell of blood, and the grating sound of a cleaver carving through flesh and bone and ligament. He saw a sea of carcasses suspended on hooks from the ceiling, swaying in a faint breeze, making their shadows dance upon the blood-stained back wall. He felt the chill of the refrigerated air closing in on him, and still the sound of the clever - thwack, thwack, thwack, each strike cutting deeper and deeper into some limp slab upon a chipped and crimson-soaked oak board.
Dares went white and heard his silverware clatter onto his plate. Not this time. He tried to hold back a deadly wave of nausea. It was a valiant effort.
“If you were feeling sick, you could have just said so.” said Jun, as Dares rinsed his mouth out at the backyard hose. “And we have a sink, you know.”
“I suppose you’d rather I let loose on the carpet instead of the grass then.” said Dares, thumping his chest to make a sharp air bubble that had gotten lodged behind his shoulder blade go down. He stood from his crouch, tee shirt plastered to his chest from the hose. The metallic taste imparted in the water still hung in his mouth.
Dares managed to tactfully explain to Mrs. Koizumi that he was an unwilling vegetarian due to his sensitive stomach. So, she made tea to soothe his stomach, and a cup for herself and for Jun while she was at it. When Dares found himself sitting on the living room couch with a steaming cup in his hands, the sun really had begun to set.
Why am I still here? Dares looked glumly into the ripples through his liquid remedy. Am I afraid to go back to that empty apartment? Or, is there something here keeping me from leaving?
Dares looked to the sofa at a right angle to his own, where Jun had gradually slipped off to sleep, caffeine notwithstanding, and her mother had tenderly draped a homemade quilt over her. The girl’s pubescent chest was rising up and down shallowly, and she looked at peace.
“Jun pushes herself too hard sometimes, just about the only time she has to relax is in her dreams. I want to thank you for helping her today.” said Mrs. Koizumi, and passed Dares an envelope.
“Oh, that’s not n-”
“Take it.” she insisted, and slipped it into his hand (Dares was careful not to brush flesh against flesh).
Dares looked over the milky white envelope in his hands.
“That check will be good as of noon tomorrow. It’s not much, but it can’t hurt.” she smiled, wishing she could do more.
“...Thank you…” Dares said through profound disbelief.
“I’m familiar with Raintree. It’s a decent walk from here, and it’s getting dark out. You could spend the night, if you wanted. We’re not doing much with the guest bedroom anyway, and your school is only a block or so away. You and Jun could walk there together in the morning. I can always make an extra peanut butter & jelly, too.” she offered. “One of Jun’s favorites” she answered, seeing the tilt in Dares’ head.
If Dares didn’t leave now, he’d be tempted to accept. Too bad her daughter hates my guts. He drained his cup of tea and stood, shaking his head. “I truly appreciate it, but no. I… have to sleep where I’m used to.”
“Very well. I’ll see you to the door.” she resigned.
Dares paused at the door, where a rowdy breeze struck him. He had to get in the habit of bringing a jacket. Before he turned himself out into the night, he paused to ask his hostess a question that had only occurred to him at the last moment.
“What was that crash in the attic?”
“Oh?” Mrs. Koizumi laughed. “An old memory chest of Jun’s baby toys.”
Dares scratched behind his ear. “I’m sorry for being so clumsy.”
“I’m glad you were. Call it a quirk of fate. It’s good that I could be reminded of fond memories. So often, we feel empty and don’t know why. How many trivial things that made us smile do we forget unless something happens to remind us they’re still there?”
A quirk of fate…
Dares. Dares, can you hear me?
Who… are you…?
I’m a friend. A friend you haven’t met yet.