Fiction Crime Horror

Everything had gone right. He could come out now. 

Not that he needed to rush. Ronan had stocked plenty of provisions. Hardtack, venison jerky, and a large canteen for water — he’d had enough salt, enough fluids and just enough protein to survive underground. Still, his jacket and trousers were starting to hang off of him like laundry on a clothesline. That was nothing, though, compared to how things looked upstairs in the master bedroom. 

Hadn’t they deserved it? He hoped so, but then he wasn’t paid to hope. He could still see their faces, eyes closed as they slept through the whole thing. That gave him some peace of mind, at least. It was an odd job, made even stranger by the fact that the targets seemed like nothing more than a couple of mild-mannered retirees enjoying a quiet life in the woods. Their house was perched along the edge of a vast pond. In the lonely hours those first few nights, Ronan dreamed of summer, when you could hear the frogs croaking in the shallows. They looked like the kind of people who enjoyed things like that. 

Their house was filled with family photographs, hanging from the walls, sitting on dressers, lining the stairway to the second floor. He saw them as he walked back down from the bedroom, and spent some time looking at the pictures backward and forward again. They showed the family timeline, starting at the bottom of the steps where they’d hung a picture of their wedding day, the bride dressed in a lacy white gown and the groom in a modest navy suit. Then up a bit the couple stood arm in arm on the front steps of this very house. Next came the couple with a baby boy about six months old wearing a white christening gown, followed by a similar picture, this time with the little boy standing behind his father’s legs while his mother held onto a beautiful baby girl with a big white bow on her downy blonde hair. 

As he climbed a few more steps, Ronan found himself next to a portrait of the boy and girl, the little sister perched on a small white stool, smiling in an aproned dress, her golden curls flowing over her delicate shoulders. Ronan was struck by her big blue eyes — cerulean, that was what they called that color. Her big brother, by contrast, stood behind her with one beefy hand gripping her shoulder tight. He didn’t smile, just stood there, his beady black eyes staring beyond the camera as if this was the worst thing his mother had ever made him do. His dark hair was gelled into spiked points, which looked funny given he was wearing a white collared shirt, freshly pressed khakis, and a pair of Topsiders that looked brand new. 

The last two frames featured a lineup of school pictures, with slots for yearbook photos. The boy’s ran all the way through high school, but the golden haired girl’s stopped at the fourth grade. The rest of the slots meant to feature her as she blossomed from one year to the next sat empty, showing only the white frame backing. There weren’t any more photos on the stairs after that.

Ronan couldn't quite shake the feeling that he’d done a bad thing. He made his way to the basement, just like Johnny had told him to do. The door locked from the inside, and Ronan was to spend his time in the little room with the big red door. 

“Just get to March,” Johnny had said. “I know this place all right. Get in, get the job done, and by the first of the month you’ll be good to go.” And that sounded fine. Johnny promised to pick him up, and Ronan was grateful he wouldn’t have to walk all the way through the woods again.

He ventured up to the kitchen for fresh water or to use the washroom next door, but the basement became his home. He slept on a rickety old couch by the washer and dryer, its cushions filled with stiff springs that prodded him in the back throughout the night. Ronan was a patient man, but he was looking forward to getting out of that basement. It wasn’t just the springs, it was the smell. Every morning it hit him — all basements have a smell, but this one was filled with the overwhelming scent of cheap detergent, what he guessed was meant to be lavender but reminded him more of his grandmother’s dime store talcum powder. He couldn’t imagine someone going to the shops and selecting this particular brand, this particular scent, trip after trip. That cloying floral scent soaked deep into the threads of his clothing, and he knew it’d never come out. He’d burn these clothes once it was finished. 

To kill the time, Ronan dreamed up pictures and stories in his head. After a week, he could summon an entire movie in his mind, scenes filled with people he never knew and places he could only dream of visiting. He’d always wanted to go to Cabo, and the other day he decided to do it, if only in his daydreams. As he laid back on his makeshift bed, Ronan could see himself in a linen shirt and pants strolling down the beach, massive waves licking the sand just inches from his feet as he made his way toward a rock formation jutting out of the water a mile ahead. On his left, an attractive couple stood taking photos, pointing at something in the distance he couldn’t see. He walked past a group of college girls sunbathing by the pool at one of the cheaper hotels down the beach, its outside a fading salmon pink. Not like the place Ronan was staying — no sir, Ronan was shacked up at the Waldorf Astoria, a pristine white stucco compound where a pretty senorita in a crisp white shirt and tan skirt greets you with a tropical drink whether you’re coming or going, where your bed is made with freshly laundered sheets each morning while you’re out and they leave those little mints by the side of your bed. 

Behind his closed eyes, he conjured up not just visions but sounds and scents. Those sheets in his guest room, they smelled like the sea breeze and the salt that comes off the waves. But after a while he couldn’t summon that smell any longer, because his nose was filling with the powdery scent again. When he opened his eyes, he was still in the basement, two floors below “the assignment.” That’s what he called them, that old couple, because names made this more real, and if it was real then Ronan was a very bad person indeed. He went to Cabo every night for three weeks, drifting off to sleep to the sounds of crashing waves.

When he woke up, he decided to sneak up to the kitchen for a drink of water, and to steal a look out of the kitchen window. The snow was melting, just like Johnny said it would, and he could see patches of grass showing through. He’d leave tomorrow morning. Back in the basement again, he closed his eyes and tried to summon up his vision of Cabo once more, but it wouldn’t come. Instead, his mind wandered to Johnny and “the assignment.”

“When it snows like this, those old timers don’t leave for days,” Johnny said. “That’s good, but it complicates things. Snow means tracks, and tracks mean we get caught.” 

“So what do I do?” 

“You get in. You get the job done. And then you wait.”

“Why don’t we just wait til spring?”

“No chance,” Johnny said. “When it snows, they stay put. No one comes and no one goes.”

That was that. But now the time had come. No snow, no tracks, no trouble.

No trouble was good, and so was getting out of this place. Ronan scanned the basement to make sure he hadn’t left anything behind. When he’d packed his few belongings into his bag, he crept up the wooden stairs one last time.

He opened the door, and the light reflecting off the remaining snow was so bright he staggered backward. He shielded his eyes until they adjusted to the sunlight streaming in through the windows. He was about to make his way out through the back entrance when he heard the front door close. He fell to his knees on the ground, crawling under the kitchen table. He waited, but the house had fallen silent. After a few minutes, Ronan crawled out from under the table and stole a peek into the front of the house through the kitchen door. Nobody was there. He didn’t dare walk upright, and so continued crawling through the house on hands and knees. He peeked over the windowsill in the living room, which faced out toward the pond and noticed small, muddy footsteps leading up to the front door, along with a second set of the same prints that doubled back down the steps. They continued in a faint line along the front path until they stopped at the edge of the pond. 

And then he saw her. A girl in a hooded cherry red winter coat was running across the snow toward the water, heading straight toward the icy banks of the pond. She was so slight and the water at the edge was so shallow that the ice held her, but Ronan knew the farther she went, the thinner the ice would become. 

He pulled on his heavy black boots and was about to run after the girl until he remembered Johnny’s rules — don’t let anybody see you, no matter what. Ronan stood frozen, watching as the little girl kept running toward the dark middle of the pond, until he heard a snap and watched her slip into the cold, dark water. She bobbed above the surface once or twice, then disappeared. Ronan felt his pulse throbbing in his temple, all of his muscles tensing as he restrained himself from running to save her. 

Ronan heard a sound from beyond the trees and saw Johnny’s black truck emerging from the path in the woods. He felt Johnny’s eyes on him, and he knew he needed to move. He could go left and get out as planned, but if he ran straight ahead he might still be able to save the girl. 

Ronan turned and looked over his left shoulder at Johnny, whose black eyes were fixed on him, waiting. This was it. 

He decided to run for it, not toward the truck but to the pond, where the splashing and thrashing had stopped. His heavier frame made the ice splinter and crack, but he didn’t slow down. He came to the center of the pond, to the edge of the ice where the dark water opened up like a black hole. Ronan fell to his knees and looked into the depths for the little girl, and saw a red coat about three feet under. This close, he could make out yellow-mittened hands and golden curls coming out from under the hood, swishing back and forth in the water. The rest of her was still.

Ronan watched for a moment, feeling tears pooling at the corners of his eyes. He looked down again, and the tears streamed down his cheeks. One fell into the water, and at its touch Ronan thought he saw one of the mittened hands move. 

He knelt down closer, not sure whether he could trust his own eyes. Was this another one of his daydreams? But the hand twitched again. He knelt down even closer to the water, his hands and knees pressing into the ice, his face so far forward it almost broke the surface of the water. That’s when it happened. The little girl looked up at him, revealing creamy white skin and a pair of eyes as blue as Johnny’s were black. Her eyes fixed on his, and her thin red lips broke into a grin. But it was all wrong — it wasn’t the sweet smile of a child, it was the leering look of a hunter cornering its prey. 

Filled with fear, Ronan rose to run back toward the truck when he felt the ice snap. As he crashed backward into the water, he saw Johnny 10 feet away cocking a pistol, then watched as he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Ronan in the chest and his body sank into the cold water, and two yellow-minuted hands pulled him deeper and deeper until everything went dark. 

December 08, 2023 19:46

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