By: Rachel M. Doody
The small orange plastic slide seemed ostentatious against the brown lawn. Henry knew he wasn’t allowed on that lawn, but he could never keep his eyes from running over the many toys scattered throughout its weeds. The wind carried a flimsy piece of paper that landed by Henry’s feet, drawing his attention to the bold word, MISSING. He picked it up and began examining the familiar smiling face of one of his classmates.
He let go of the paper, letting the breeze take it away as he followed his sister’s pointing finger toward what looked like a tiny pink convertible in the brown yard. Her anxious feet began to move toward it, but instinctively he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back, closer to him.
“Gwenny, we can’t go there.”
“But look at all the toys,” she pleaded, her face resembling a sad puppy.
“That’s the old man’s yard; we’re not allowed to go there. We have to go home.” He tried pushing her forward, but her eyes still gazed longingly at the pink peeking from the grass.
Henry glanced back himself, his gaze drawn more to the rickety house. His eyes scanned over the place, but stopped dead when he thought he saw a looming figure move past the window. He pulled Gwenny closer. He could feel his heart quickening, expecting something devious to pop in the window at any second. He stood there for what seemed like endless moments, feeling Gwenny’s body squirming with restlessness beneath his protective grasp.
“Well, hello there little ones,” Henry’s head snapped toward the overly sweet voice wafting from the lawn. He eyed the old man cautiously, his grip tightening on his sister.
“Hello!” Gwenny replied in her innocent excited manner. A grin stretched across the old man’s wrinkled face giving his eyes a creasing sinister look. As the old man began to draw near, Henry’s muscles tensed. He could clearly remember the warning his mother gave him years ago.
“A hoarder,” is what their mother called him, “he hoards children’s toys,” she told her friend while cradling a baby Gwenny in her arms.
“I don’t care what it is,” the lady replied. “It’s creepy and not right for an older man to have all those toys like that. He’s asking for trouble. I won’t ever let my kids near the place.”
“You’re right, of course!” his mother looked down at him. “Henry, promise me you’ll never go in that yard no matter how interesting the toys are? It’s not safe.”
The old man’s closed grin widened across his cheeks as he approached them. Henry watched as if he were hypnotized by the old man’s penetrating eyes. Only feet away the old man reached out an enclosed fist, opening it to reveal a large purple glittery marble in the center of his palm. It sparkled brightly under sun’s reflection. Gwenny squealed with glee and began running over, but like lightening, Henry snapped out of his daze and grabbed Gwenny by the arm.
“Gwenny go!” He pushed her away from the old man and ran all the way back home, never looking back. They sprinted in the front door to their house. Gwenny continued running to the television, while Henry walked in the kitchen, spying the all-too-familiar note from his mother on the counter.
Have to work late.
Make yourselves some PB+Js. Be in bed before nine!
See you in the morning.
P.S. Don’t forget to clean-up your crumbs!
Henry sighed putting down the note, knowing full well they would be on their way to school by the time she’d wake up tomorrow morning.
Henry poured the milk into his and Gwenny’s cereal as he stared at his mother’s closed bedroom door. “Gwenny, I won’t be able to walk home with you today because Ms. Rogers is helping me with a project. Do you think you’ll be okay to walk by yourself?
“Mm hmm,” she replied, paying more attention to the colored marshmallows in her bowl.
“I’m going to make a chalk trail for you while we walk to school this morning, just follow that home, and don’t talk to strangers, okay?”
Henry didn’t like it, but he had no choice. The walk wasn’t too long anyway, he thought.
Gwenny was practically skipping down the sidewalk, humming Ring Around the Rosies, and following the brightly colored stars to the way home. A red fuzzy caterpillar that crawled on one of the stars caught Gwenny’s attention. She bent down to admire the way it squiggled across the way. She was reaching out toward it when she heard a distant girlish giggle. Gwenny shot up and her curious eyes scanned the toy-filled yard beside her. She slowly stepped into the yard. “Hello?” her tiny voice called out. The giggle sounded again, but this time much closer. She spun around, her blonde curls bouncing as her eyes fell upon not a childish girl, but the large scruffy old man holding a baby doll.
“Looking for this?” His voice was low, but his words smacked together. He held out the doll to her and presented his toothless smile. She grabbed the doll, making it giggle once more. Gwenny flashed the old man her own partly toothless smile as she cradled the doll tightly against her chest. “She’s yours if you want.”
“Really?” she asked excitedly, her eyes growing to saucers.
“Of course, but she needs her bottle. Why don’t you follow me inside while I fetch it for you?”
Faintly remembering her brother’s words this morning, she hesitated. She looked from the old man to the doll, “okay.” Holding the baby doll close, she followed the old toothless man into his house.
Henry arrived home, immediately hearing the absence of the TV show his sister was usually glued to. “Gwenny?” He made his way through the house, scanning every area like they were playing a hide-and-seek game, except this time he was nervous. “Gwenny!” he continued to call out, but there was no response. His heart raced as panic ran through him and blame set in. He had to find her before their mother came home. He ran into the cooling air outside, but his face remained flushed with anxiety. “Gwenny, Gwen, where are you!” he yelled. Frantically he knocked on their neighbors’ doors, “Have you seen Gwen?” he would plead, fright trailing behind every word he spoke.
“No. Last time was this morning with you.” most replied, looking down on him as a scared child with pity. Some offered to help, worried about the child, but Henry always refused; and said she was probably playing with a friend.
It wasn’t until Henry neared the ominous unkempt lawn that he remembered Gwenny’s eagerness at the sight of all toys. His heart sank in his chest. His gut churning, he approached the place cautiously, every step heavier than the last. He stopped before entering the yard and stared, looking for a sign of his sister. The children’s toys were scattered across the place; odd fuzzy puppets with bulging eyeballs peered out the windows. It made Henry wonder how many other toys were inside. He let his eyes run wild through the jungle of weeds that swallowed up some of the rusted toys. He took a step forward, moving cautiously. He saw the pink convertible Gwenny pointed out yesterday still tangled in its own mess of overgrown grass.
The toys stretched around the side of the house. Henry’s neck craned in curiosity. He spotted a large plastic playhouse that looked even homelier than the real house before him. He dragged his foot another inch closer, almost wanting to turn back when suddenly a loud thump from the house caught Henry’s attention. His head snapped up to where the noise came from, and there in the window were tiny hands that had thrust themselves against the glass, and the unmistakable crying face of Gwenny appeared. Henry’s feet jump-started at the sight, and his body lunged toward her. He hit the glass, slamming his hands against hers; with tears he could no longer hold back rolling down his cheek. “I’m here; I’m going to get you out of there!” No sound escaped her lips, but the words they formed were unmistakable, “Help Me.” The old man approached behind her, his think hands grasping her fragile shoulders. The old man looked down and smiled at Henry, barring razor-sharp teeth that looked as if they belonged in a shark. He pulled her away from the window, her hands peeling from the glass. The old man’s eyes glued to Henry’s face, as he spread apart his fine teeth to let his thick tongue through. As though tasting the air, the old man lapped his tongue toward Henry, and licked his grinning lips before turning away into the house.
“No!” Henry screamed, banging his fists against the glass. His head grew hot with anger as tears of frustration and anguish streaked his face. He sprinted to the wooden door hysterically trying to twist the doorknob, locked. Henry heard his sister’s shrieking cry from the inside, and couldn’t imagine what was happening inside the walls. “Gwenny!” He banged and kicked the door. He ran back to the window looking for any sign of his sister. Nothing. Beads of panic fell from his forehead as he raced to the back of the house, hoping to find another door. He jumped onto the back patio and strained to turn the locked doorknob. Quickly, Henry noticed a window cracked open. He tried to reach it from the patio, stretching his arm, but the rotting wood sagged under him. Fear of collapsing, he tried for the window from the ground. He jumped up, widening the gap to fight through, but he wasn’t strong enough to pull himself up. He dragged the light plastic playhouse over and climbed up on it, tumbling through the window into the shadowy room. Henry stood up, face-to-face with a bookshelf full of jars. He walked closer to them, squinting to see without getting too close. But his curiosity got the best of him as he grabbed one of the jars. Handling it carefully he examined the dusty old glass, holding it up to the light until he could make out a large reddish object floating in its liquid.
Startled, Henry dropped the jar. Glass shattered across the floor as the liquid spilled out and what he now recognized as a heart lay vulnerable before his feet. His eyes landed on the old man in the doorway. The old man shook his head and took a step toward Henry, Henry backing to the wall in response. “You broke my jar, Henry. That was a perfectly good heart you just ruined.”
“How do you know my name?” Henry asked hesitantly.
“Why Henry, I’m your neighbor. I’ve had my eye on you for years. You were quite the plump one back then. Too bad you’ve grown a little more into yourself.” Still walking toward Henry, he smiled showing off his teeth.
Henry’s back now against the wall, “What do you want with me? What do you want with Gwenny?”
“Where are your manners, Henry? I just wanted to have you and your sister over for dinner,” He snickered as if enjoying an inside joke.
“Please, just let us go.”
“Oh, I can’t do that now. Didn’t your mother ever teach you, ‘you break it, you buy it?’ You owe me a heart now, Henry.” He let out an uproar of laughter, his teeth glimmering in the sun beams as his head tilted to the ceiling.
Henry saw his chance for escape and took it, sprinting by the laughing old man into the hallway. “Gwenny!” he yelled his heart drumming in his ears. He could barely hear the muffled screams coming from the next room. He ran into the kitchen and was immediately hit by a wave of heat. An industrial-sized oven stood against the wall, its door hanging open with a hungry orange aura. A muffled cry caught his attention; he spun through the fog of heat, his eyes barely clear. There was Gwenny tied and gagged to a chair in the corner drenched in sweat. He made his way toward her, falling to his knees and gasping for air. An ominous chuckle came from the doorway. Henry craned his neck to look at the old man, but he only caught a glimpse of those teeth before everything went black.
Opening his eyes, everything was still in a fog. He kept blinking as he roused at the faint sound of his name that became louder and louder as he came to.
“Henry!” Gwenny screamed, tears running down her reddened face as she wriggled in the old man’s grasping arms. Her own tiny arms outstretched toward her brother, trying to grab at something, anything as the old man dragged her closer to the heat emitting oven. Henry snapped back at the sight of the pleading Gwenny,
“Gwen!” he tried to grab her, to save her and take her away, but instead he felt paralyzed, tied to the chair in the corner. “No, Gwen!” he yelled, anger and desperation consuming him as he writhed to get free from the restraints. Sweat and tears poured down his face as he continued to yell. As he watched the old man shove little Gwenny into the large oven, he screamed and cried, feeling the hopelessness fill him. Henry squirmed, feeling his insides breaking; he couldn’t stop the sour vomit from coming up. Enclosed in the oven, she pressed her blistering hands on the glass, her fear-stained face still in view. Henry’s hoarse yelling faded into uncontrollable coughing as he watched his young, and once vibrant sister cook in the oven.
He opened his mouth and let out one last cry for her, tears streaking down his hot reddened face. He lifted his eyes to find the old man entranced by the oven window. Henry grew nauseous knowing the old man felt joy to watch his beautiful sister burn. His anger flared and he began fidgeting his fingers in the bindings. A flicker of hope crossed his face when he noticed that he could loosen the rope. His heart throbbed heavily as he freed himself; his eyes still deeply focused on the old man in case he turned around. Hurriedly untying his ankles he leapt up and started for the hallway, but before he could move an inch the leg of the chair caught his foot and dragged him to the floor causing a thunderous thud that echoed in the room. The old man spun around, his eyes ablaze. Henry jumped up with spritely legs and made his way through the back door. The thumping footsteps behind him made it hard for Henry to concentrate. As Henry ran on the patio, the wood gave way under the sudden weight he put upon it. He fell underneath into the dirt with a loud thump, but was able to quickly scurry into the playhouse he left by the window. He heard the old man searching for him outside. He knew if he left the house now there would be no way to escape. The grass rustled near him as the old man wafted through his own yard. Henry tried his best to remain quiet in hopes the old man would believe he had time to run back home. He cupped his hand over his mouth to soften the sound of his heavy breathing. He couldn’t hear the old man anymore, just the chirping of the birds. Cautiously, he removed his hand and tried to peek out the small crack in the door. He crawled closer to the crack when suddenly the house began to shake like an earthquake. The door flew open to reveal the menacing jagged grin and a hand reached out to grab Henry’s shirt. He struggled against the grip surprised by the strength of the old man, or maybe it was his own weakness. There was nowhere to run from here. He tried pushing past the old man in the doorway, to make another run for it, but before he could even get a foot past him, the old man shoved a white cloth to Henry’s face, smothering him with some sweet-smell that made his eyes go black.
Henry’s eyes flicked open, his skin burning. Instantly he squirmed realizing he lay in the old man’s arms. Seconds from being put in the oven, Henry tried to break free from the old man’s grasp, but like a caterpillar stuck in a cocoon, he was wrapped tightly in rope. The heat scorched his face, and Henry could already smell the singeing of his hair. He tried to yell, but his voice was still weak. All he could do was cry and beg to be saved.
“Please,” Henry wailed, “don’t do this. You don’t have to do this.”
“Henry,” the old man looked down at him with a piercing bone-chilling stare, “everybody has to eat.” A smile reaching across his face he flashed his sharpened teeth once more before heaving Henry into the oven. Henry’s skin already began to blister before the old man even shut the door. Through the searing pain, Henry closed his eyes to savor the memories his mother and sister.
Officer Ryan stood at the edge of the toy-scattered lawn and gazed at the stained run-down house ahead. He felt anxious for a reason he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but just looking at this place made his gut feel uneasy.
“Come on, let’s go,” his partner Dave slapped him on the shoulder and went ahead to the door. Officer Ryan tried to shake off the paranoid feeling before catching up, but the old man that already stood in the doorway only made the feeling worse. His eyes were instantly met with a toothless smile. When he reached the entrance he held up the MISSING poster that Dave had already started to describe.
“These children lived a couple houses down from you? Have you seen or heard anything recently? A couple other neighbors have informed us that Henry was looking for his sister on the day of their disappearance.” Dave asked.
The old man took the poster, looking as if he were studying the children’s faces. Officer Ryan noticed a little drool begin to run down the corner of the old man’s mouth.
“Mm, something sure does smell good in there,” Dave commented while trying to pull his pants higher over his beer-belly.
The old man looked up, his gum-smile widening, “Why yes, I’m just having some leftover meat. Would you like any?”
Dave licked his lips, but Officer Ryan quickly shook his head, “No, that’s quite all right, but thank you.” His eyes molested the crowded house behind the old man, his eyebrow rising at the mess of toys. “You sure have a lot of toys.”
“They provide a comfort I couldn’t live without. I’m sure you have something like that, everyone does.”
“Mmm,” Officer Ryan stepped back, a quizzical look still crossing his face. “This many could be a safety hazard.”
The old man’s lips tightened into a grim line. “I’m sorry to say I don’t have any information. The little one here, he stopped by looking for his sister, but I hadn’t seen her, and he went on his way; probably to the next house. I think one of his sister’s friends lives just around the corner. Have you checked there?”
“No, but we’ll make sure too.” Dave replied, taking back the poster. “Well, if you see or hear anything about the missing children, please contact me at this number. Enjoy your meal.”
“Thank you Officer, I will,” he said his lips twitching into a smile.
While heading back to the squad car Officer Ryan watched from the corner of his eye as the old man made his way to the table and glimpsed what was probably dentures he put into his mouth before enjoying his meal.