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Mystery Suspense Thriller

"Listen," Abigail Bowen clamped a hand over her brother's mouth. "Do you hear that?"

John Bowen, three years her junior, concentrated, listening for the sound.

"I don't hear it," John relented. "Sorry, Abby."

He didn't need Abby to explain what sound to listen for. At this time every night, they expected it. The children sat in silence awaiting the arrival of their neighbor.

"Old Man Thomas is never late," Abby said, keeping her voice hushed. The time on her watch was nearing 7:45 p.m., closer to the magic moment when Mr. Thomas appeared.

John looked at his sister, crouching in the corner of their treehouse. As the sky grew darker, lightning bugs and mosquitos buzzed around them. Their mission became swatting the bugs away. Now and then, Abby would peer over the square cutout overlooking Mr. Thomas's backyard. He kept his lawn trimmed, a thriving garden near the house, and had a small fire pit towards the rear of the property. Looking at the yard, the children assumed nothing notable about it. At first, they gave no attention to the odd things sprinkled throughout the property. The most concerning to Abby was a small, pink, asymmetrical playhouse. She picked at a mosquito bite until it bled. She leaned against the wall of their treehouse, recalling how it all started a week ago.

“Mr. Thomas didn’t have kids,” Abby had notified John. She’d spent the afternoon with their mother weeding along the crooked fence separating the properties.  "Why does he have the playhouse there?”

John shrugged and ate his afternoon snack of milk and cookies. Her brother’s apathy aside, Abby knew she had to find out for herself. Later that night, she dragged John out to their treehouse to stand watch.

“Something,” she insisted, “is happening at night. I’m sure of it.”

John rolled his eyes but didn’t argue. Abby was 10, and she knew more than he did about the world. The pair sat in the darkness the first night awaiting any sign of malfeasance. At precisely 8:05 p.m., Mr. Thomas stepped out of his backdoor, walking casually towards the playhouse. Abby’s eyes grew twice their size as she took in the scene. John furrowed his brow, confused.

“Abby, what--”

“Shh!” She ordered.

Mr. Thomas stopped a moment and turned towards their treehouse. The pair ducked inside and held their breath. Hearing Mr. Thomas resume his trajectory, the kids peered over the edge of the window. They watched him carry a bag across the lawn, pausing to unlock the playhouse. He stooped to enter the building, never fully disappearing from view. After he backed out, Abby noticed his hands were empty.

“Where’s the bag?” She asked John.

He couldn’t answer, feeling out of breath since Mr. Thomas almost caught them spying. He struggled to catch his breath as he slid down to the floor. Abby joined him when Mr. Thomas returned to his home, closing the door behind him. John knew the coast was clear and felt the urge to look into the yard once. Knowing Mr. Thomas was inside his house didn’t help the boy feel safer.

“What was that about?” he asked his sister.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “We’ve got a mystery on our hands. We’ve gotta go ask mom and dad.”

Their parents offered little insight into what the children believed to be “a serious disturbance in the neighborhood.”

“Abigail,” her father warned, “don’t scare your brother.”

“And where on Earth did you pick up that language?”

Abby looked at her shoes, hating when her parents became stern with her.

“Alfred Hitchcock,” she answered.

“I don’t want you playing out there so late,” their mother asserted. “The foxes come out at night and they can make a real fuss. Some have rabies. And you don’t wanna die of rabies, do you?”

The children shook their heads and agreed not to play out in their treehouse after dark. They were promptly sent to bed, promising they wouldn’t entertain those notions further. Agreeing, the pair stayed awake peering out their windows. Hoping to catch a glimpse into Mr. Thomas’s house, they struggled to stay awake. His shades were drawn tight and all the lamps were off. Shortly after falling asleep, the children woke to the terrifying sound of a woman’s scream.

“It’s the foxes,” their mother assured them the next morning.

They knew better. Something was amiss, and it was up to them to figure out what.

Every night since, Abby and John snuck out to their treehouse and waited. They told their parents they were catching lightning bugs. They promised to go in before the foxes came out and read in their room. Lying was punishable by losing dessert for a week, but they didn’t care.

They were sure their neighbor was hiding something sinister. Over the next five nights, the pair imagined scenarios to explain the sound they'd heard.

“He’s got to be hiding someone in there,” Abby concluded. “And she has nightmares, so in the middle of the night she screams.”

John shook his head.

“I bet it’s the missing children of the town,” he argued. “It’s perfect to hide kids in there.”

They sat in silence awaiting their neighbor’s return.

“No way, John,” she sneered. “Why would he hide missing kids? And why would they sound like a woman screaming?”

“Kids are easier to scare,” he responded.

“Only you are,” she poked his rib and looked out the window again.

“Well, if it’s a woman, why wouldn’t she scream during the day, though? Everyone is awake then and can rescue her,” John said.

“Because it’s noisy and people wouldn’t hear,” she declared proudly. She had an answer for everything.

“We have to find out what’s in that playhouse,” Abby decided on the seventh night. “I have to go over.”

“No way,” John protested. “It’s locked and besides, if he catches you he’ll stick you in there with the others.”

He chewed his nails and spit them out with force.

“I have to,” she argued.

Before he registered what was happening, Abby had climbed down the ladder and slipped through a gap in the fence.

“Abby,” he whispered. “The foxes,” he worried. He looked at his watch. “7:55.”

He scoured the property for signs of the animals, failing to find any. He returned his attention to his sister.

He held his breath until he felt he might pass out. Letting it out and inhaling sharply, he held it again. Abby, hunched over, scurried across the lawn to the structure. She looked back at Mr. Thomas’s house, then to her brother. She nodded and continued her quest. She pressed an ear to the wall and listened. 

Nothing.

She searched for other ways into the playhouse, but none seemed to exist. She tried peering through the slits between the boards, but the darkness thwarted her. The chirping crickets quieted, casting an eery feeling over her. Something moved inside the playhouse. The shock sent Abby stumbling backward against the rickety fence. It shrank back as she collapsed into it. Propelling herself forward, she rushed to the playhouse. The fence boards knocked together noisily in response to the sudden weight shift.

“Hello?”

She waited, but nobody answered.

“Is anyone in there?”

Again, no answer.

After a beat, that changed. On the other side of the wall, she heard frantic scratching and a high-pitched scream. The cacophony grew louder with each passing second. John gasped and leaned over the edge of the window.

“Abby!” He hissed.

His sister covered her ears, blocking out the sound of the inhuman sound.

“8:03!” John warned.

Abby hurried back to the treehouse, managing to reach the fence in record time. She slipped through the gap in a way that would make her little league coach proud. She was barely up the treehouse ladder when Mr. Thomas emerged from his house. She scurried to the window and peeked out. The kids witnessed Mr. Thomas walking toward the playhouse again, except tonight seemed different. The bag in his hands was larger, and halfway across the yard, he stopped. His head turned to look at the treehouse, causing the youngsters to hide again. After repeating his nightly routine, he set out to return home.

Mr. Thomas paused once more in the same spot as earlier. He turned his whole body towards the children. They found it impossible to look away. The trio stared at each other through the darkening sky. An eternity stretched before them until the children remembered themselves and ducked out of sight. They heard Mr. Thomas walking again, and assumed he was home. They rose to watch him depart. Instead of seeing the crooked old man entering his house, a horrifying discovery greeted them.

Standing at the edge of the property, Mr. Thomas glared back at them, his hands firmly grasping the top of the fence posts. His teeth glowed white in the moonlight as he gave a twisted grin to the children. His eyes were empty black sockets seeking a soul to consume. He raised a hand and placed a finger gently to his pursed lips.

“Shhh,” he said.

He removed a pair of wire cutters from his pocket and clipped the fencing. Mr. Thomas rolled the fence out of his way and stepped through. Abby and John panicked. They tried to call out, but their voices stuck in their throats. They heard footsteps beneath them, moving towards their house. The door opened and they heard him slip inside. They sat staring out their treehouse door at the back of their house. Mr. Thomas disappeared within. Their eyes couldn't adjust to the overwhelming darkness and fear overtook them.

They huddled together listening, hearing nothing. Even the crickets had nothing to say to the horror they were witnessing. They shrieked and clung to each other as a scream echoed into the night. The children knew Mr. Thomas had done something wicked to their parents. Another scream rang in their ears, dying as fast as it came. Abby and John shivered, crying into each other's necks.

It was only a matter of time until it was their turn.

November 09, 2021 05:06

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