Quentin sighed and readjusted his grip on the tree branch. “For the last time, I found a giant stone fox statue in the crawlspace behind my closet and I don’t know how to get it out on my own and I can’t fall asleep with it there because there’s a hole in my closet from that time that we locked Quade in there back in seventh grade.”
“So? There’s still a door for the crawlspace, right? Ergo, no problem,” Alexander slurred. He rubbed his eyes and looked up to where the stars would be if it wasn’t for all the light pollution. It was far too early for this. “It’s way too early for this. If it bugs you so much, just sleep in Quade’s room. Or get one of your sisters to do it. Isn’t Susanne home for the summer?”
“San’s still out.”
“Okay, then sleep in Quade’s room. He won’t care.” The balmy summer air invaded Alexander’s lovely air-conditioning.
Quentin looked at him beseechingly. “I can’t sleep in Quade’s room, he’s got a bunk and I can’t sleep in a bunk because last time—”
“I know, I know, you fell out and broke your wrist.” Alexander sighed and pressed his forehead against the window screen. He couldn’t say no to Quentin, even if it was two in the morning. His stupid, ridiculous, big, brown puppy eyes were too persuasive. “Fine, I’ll help you move the stupid—what did you say it was?”
“A giant stone fox,” Quentin repeated. Working in silent tandem, they quickly removed the screen and Alexander set it gently next to his window.
“Like, as in Stone Fox? Like the book?” Alexander managed to wedge his shoulders out of the window. If they got any broader, he wouldn’t be able to get out anymore.
“No, you moron.” Quentin grabbed Alexander’s forearm to help him onto the limb and Alexander felt the blood rush to his face. Hopefully it was too dark to see. “Like a fox. A fox fox. Vulpes Vulpes. But big and stone and in my crawl space.”
“Don’t say moron like your situation is any more likely.” Together, they clambered down the old oak tree, the way they’d done for the past twelve years. Skirting Mrs. Watson’s yard even though her snappy pinscher was long gone, they snuck through the side door Quentin had left cracked.
Even though Alexander had just heard confirmation that the house was empty, he still tried to keep as quiet as possible and winced when Quentin turned on the lights. “Where are Quade and your folks again?”
“Katharine’s flight leaves at four, so they’re staying with her at the airport to see her off.” Quentin lead Alexander up to the second floor of their house.
“You’re being a bad brother.”
“Hey, at least Susanne’s being a bad sister with me.” Quentin shrugged. “Plus, Mom doesn’t like to leave the house completely empty. She’s afraid of burglars.”
“Oh yeah, like you’d be any help if someone tried to break in. Here, give me a second.” Alexander walked past Quentin’s room and slowly opened the door to Quade’s room. He popped his head in, making completely sure that Quade truly wasn’t home.
Quentin pushed his back, paying no mind to the respect that Alexander was trying to show. “Why do you want in here?” he asked, flicking on the light aggressively and looking around his twin’s pristine room disdainfully. “Gonna pay a prank or something?”
“No, no, of course not. I just wanted to see Sir Beans.” Alexander watched the gerbil affectionately as it ran on its wheel and ignored him completely.
Quentin shrugged. “Just as well. I already put glitter on his fan blades.”
“Dude, that’s brutal.” Blowing a kiss at the gerbil once he was sure Quentin wasn’t looking anymore, Alexander followed Quentin into his room, carefully picking over the clothes that littered his floor. “Alright. Now, are you going to show me that… stone wolf, or whatever? I wanna go back to sleep.”
“It’s a fox. And yeah, come this way.” Quentin opened the door to his closet and beckoned Alexander in. Once Quentin closed the door, they were only a few inches apart.
“We’re almost too big to both stand in here,” Quentin remarked nonchalantly.
“Yes,” said Alexander, very chalantly. To make things less shaded and close, Alexander clicked on his phone.
Quentin scowled and snatched it from his hand. “Really? Still?!”
“What?” Alexander smiled. His lock screen was still the picture he’d taken last summer when their families had gone to an amusement park and he and Quade had made Quentin go on a roller coaster even though he couldn’t stand heights. Quentin hadn’t let them officially buy the photo, but Alexander had snuck a stealthy shot while Quade had distracted the booth employee and Quentin’s terrified grimace had forever been captured on Alexander’s phone. “It’s hilarious.” And adorable. Alexander grabbed his phone back and turned on the flashlight.
“It’s embarrassing,” Quentin whined. “It wouldn’t be so bad except you sent it to Quade and he made prints. Who even has print photos anymore?”
Together, they swung up the hatch that lead to the crawl space. It wasn’t as tight a squeeze as his window was, but it still was a considerable effort for both boys to clamber into the crawl space.
Alexander propped the hatch open with the provided peg. “So, where’s this…”
“Stone fox,” Quentin finished, pointing slightly to the right.
Alexander shined his flashlight passed Quentin’s finger and the light fell upon a large, grey fox statue, just as Quentin had said. Its soulless black eyeholes bore into Alexander. Unsettling.
“Woah. I kinda thought you were just kidding around.” Making sure to keep on the boards that kept him from crashing through the ceiling, Alexander crept towards the statue, stopping a few feet away to avoid running into Quentin. “I was expecting something… smaller.” The darkness seemed all consuming, all but that fox. Alexander shivered. The crawl space seemed colder somehow than the rest of the house.
Quentin shrugged. With only the light still coming in from the hatch and Alexander’s flashlight beam, his face was almost consumed in long, severe shadow. “I don’t know what to tell you. Freaky though, isn’t it?”
“What were you doing in your closet at one in the morning anyway?” Alexander edged forwards, towards the fox. It stared at him, both coaxing him forwards and forcing him to shy away.
“Looking for my DS. One of Ada’s kids got into Pokémon recently and I wanted to show my niece how a real gamer does things.” Quentin crouched. “Now, how do you think we’re going to get it out?”
“I’m more interested in how it got here in the first place.” Alexander tried to keep his balance while looking over the top of Quentin’s head. “Maybe we should switch places.”
“Good idea.” Quentin straightened as best he could and straddled a nearby board. “Can you get around?”
“I don’t think so, I don’t want to fall through. Maybe we should get out and come back in again?”
Quentin grimaced. “Sure, fine. You first.”
Alexander edged backwards as well as he could, keeping along the board, but as he swiveled his torso to reach for the hatch, it suddenly swung shut, plunging the crawl space into complete darkness. Alexander jumped in fright and almost fell off the beam—Quentin caught his arm in time.
“Woah, that was spooky.” Alexander couldn’t tell if Quentin’s face was paler than normal or if it was just the abrasive light of the flashlight.
“Yeah. Can’t say I liked that too much.”
“Open it back up.”
Gingerly, Alexander pried back open the hatch and slipped back out of it into the closet, holding the hatch open so Quentin could come back through as well.
“Huh. I don’t feel any drafts. And that peg‘s never fallen like that before.”
“Maybe you propped it up wrong,” Quentin teased. “Get in.”
Alexander lead the way this time. Looking at the fox was weirder without Quentin as a buffer. “Turn on your flashlight too, that way it won’t just be mine.”
“My phone’s downstairs.”
“Why’s your phone downstairs?”
“Why’re you so worried about it?” Quentin countered. “Scared?”
“Of course not.” Alexander edged towards the fox. “Besides, you’re the fraidy cat. Just look at my lock screen.”
Quentin bopped the screen with his palm, causing the flashlight beam to shake terribly. “You can’t blame me for that. You put me in a situation where you knew I’d be terrified and they just happened to take that picture and then Quade just happened to show it to everyone on the team.”
Alexander ignored this comment. “Man, this thing is creepy. How do you think we’re going to get it out of here?”
“I don’t know. Try grabbing it maybe?”
That was the last thing Alexander wanted to do, but if Quentin asked, he would oblige. Besides, his energy was waning again and he wanted to crawl back into his bed.
“Here, take my phone, shine the light so I can see.” With Quentin holding the light behind him rather unhelpfully, Alexander reached towards the fox and awkwardly began to put his arms around it.
However, just as he touched the fox, he found the surface warm and as he jumped back into Quentin, the hatch slammed shut again.
“What was that for? You jostled the peg.” Quentin put his hands on Alexander’s shoulders, helping him back to his feet.
“The—the fox is hot,” Alexander said, aware of how stupid it sounded.
“What are you talking about?”
“The fox. It’s warm.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the fox and its heavy, coal black eyeholes.
“That’s ridiculous. Here, take your phone.” Quentin handed Alexander the phone and then scooted backwards. “Hmm. That’s funny.”
Alexander tore his gaze back towards Quentin. “What’s strange?”
“The hatch. It won’t open back up.”
“What do you mean it won’t open?”
“It won’t open. It’s like it’s locked or something.”
“You can’t lock a hatch door.”
“I don’t know what to tell you!”
“Here, let me try. Hold this.” Alexander handed Quentin his phone and edged along the board with him until they were almost nose to nose. Alexander quickly turned towards the hatch.
“You’re right.” No matter how Alexander pressed into it, it wouldn’t open. His heart began to beat a little faster. “We’re stuck in here.”
Quentin began to breathe heavily. “Can’t you open it? Try ramming it.” He aimed the flashlight at the hatch.
Keeping his balance on the board, Alexander screwed his eyes closed and knocked into the hatch over and over, but it refused to budge.
“What? I’m trying to—”
Alexander turned back to Quentin, who still had the flashlight aimed at the hatch. “What? What is it?”
Quentin didn’t say anything, so Alexander followed his gaze to the fox, whose eyeholes were no longer coal black and now blazed red.
Alexander felt the breath leave his lungs. “It’s—”
“Shh!” Quentin clapped a hand over Alexander’s mouth. “Do you hear that?”
Alexander held what breath he had left, but he couldn’t hear anything. “I don’t hear anything,” he whispered nonetheless.
“Exactly. Doesn’t it sound… a little too silent?”
Quentin was right, Alexander realized. Something was missing. “Maybe the furnace went off?”
“Why would the furnace be on in the summer?”
“I don’t know,” Alexander hissed, “I’m just—”
“What is that?” Quentin aimed his light at the fox, whose eyes were still glowing red. Then Alexander saw what he meant—something from under the fox was leaking over the floorboards, spreading over the boards closer to them.
“What… what is that?” Alexander repeated, inching backwards toward the hatch that wouldn’t open.
“That’s what I’m asking!”
The thick liquid reached Quentin’s feet, and he leapt backwards, dropping Alexander’s phone. It pointed up, casting long and heavy shadows around the room “Do you think its—”
Alexander didn’t answer, but when he aimed the flashlight at the fox, he saw what Quentin meant. The liquid was red, staining the boards a deep crimson that stuck to Quentin’s hand as he reached into it.
“Yes,” Alexander squeaked. He pressed his palm to his neck, feeling his heartbeat thrum faster. “Blood. There’s a bunch of blood coming out of that fox, I—”
Before Alexander could finish his sentence, he and Quentin watched in horror as blood began to seep from the fox’s red eyeholes, pouring down its muzzle to drip on the ground.
“Quentin—” started Alexander, but before he could say anything else, he and Quentin whipped their heads to the left, startled by a terrible, distant wail.
Quentin was trembling when the wail died down. “What—what was that? It didn’t sound human.”
Alexander’s breathing quickened. Before he could respond, the cry came again, louder this time.
“Is it in the house?” Quentin hissed.
“No, I don’t, I don’t think—”
Thump. Something pounded on the hatch, causing it to shake.
Alexander spun towards the hatch, clutching Quentin’s shoulders. Thump.
“There’s something out there,” Quentin breathed in his ear. “It’s in my room.”
The cry sounded again, from right outside the hatch, barely muffled by the violent pounding of Alexander’s heart in his ears. Thump. Alexander started shaking.
“It’s right outside the door.”
The cry started up, right beyond the hatch, mixed with the thumping on the hatch.
Alexander’s hands went cold. He was about to die.
“It’s right outside,” Quentin whispered urgently. “It’s coming. It’s coming!”
“Quentin,” Alexander blurted suddenly, dizzy with fear. “I like you, a lot. Like, not as a friend, and I couldn’t die without—”
Suddenly, the cry and thumping stopped and Quentin straightened his back, a differently startled look on his face.
“Sorry, but I—”
“No, wait,” said Quentin, and with all of his previous fear gone, he crept over to the hatch and, surprisingly, opened it without problem. Behind the hatch stood Quade and Susanne, both with gaped open mouths. Susanne held a camera in her hands.
Alexander felt the blood return to his face. “What’s going on?”
Quade and Susanne stepped back so that Alexander and Quentin could leave the crawl space. They gathered in Quentin’s room.
“Uh,” said Susanne, exchanging glances with her younger brothers. “I’m gonna—I’m gonna go make a grilled cheese, if anyone, uh—”
Awkwardly setting the camera down on Quentin’s bed, Susanne left.
Alexander looked at Quentin and Quade. “What’s going on here?”
Quade pursed his lips. “Well, we—”
“It was a prank,” Quentin said quickly. His wide brown eyes met Alexander’s and for the first time in twelve years, Alexander couldn’t read them. “To… to make up for the time on the roller coaster.”
“And when you two locked me in the closet,” Quade added.
“We just… we figured you needed a time to be… to be… Quade, could you give us a moment?”
Quentin’s twin looked back and forth between the two for a moment before leaving the room.
Alexander’s face was burning. “It was… it was all a prank?”
“Uh… yeah. Quade and San were in on it, they held the hatch and played the sounds. We found a trapdoor leading out to a crawl space when we were cleaning out Katharine’s room and that’s when we put the statue up there. It’s hollowed out, so we put water balloons in it and filled them with fake blood so it’d leak out.”
Alexander nodded slowly. “Well, I suppose… I suppose I deserved that, after showing that picture to the team.”
“I didn’t know that you—”
“Forget it.” Alexander bit his lip. He’d ruined everything with his best friend. “Forget it. Forget I said anything, please. Please, I don’t want to—”
“I like you too.”
“I like you too. Like, not a friend.” Quentin’s face pinkened.
“Oh.” Alexander stared at him. Suddenly, every flicker of adrenaline and energy bled from his body and Alexander almost fainted from pure exhaustion. “Oh. You, uh, you do?”
“Yeah. I just didn’t want to tell you because I thought you were straight and I…”
“Didn’t want to ruin our friendship?”
For a second, they both looked down at the floor.
“Should we…” Quentin pursed his lips. “Should we talk about it?”
“Could we not? I mean, until later, I guess.” Quentin looked put out, so Alexander continued. “I’m just… really tired, and that was such a roller coaster of emotions.”
“Oh. Well, do you… do you want to go back home and go to bed?”
Instinctively, Alexander shook his head. “No, I don’t… I don’t think so.”
Alexander shuffled his feet. “I could… I could go for a grilled cheese, if Susanne was making them.”
Quentin nodded slowly. “You know, I always kinda thought you had a crush on her.”
“Yeah, no, uh, no.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
Slowly, carefully, silently, they made their way downstairs, where Susanne had already made one of her patented three-in-the-morning grilled cheeses. While she was making her second, the two stood in the living room, quietly.
“Do you,” started Quentin, speaking far slower than normal, “do you, uh, do you want to watch Spaceballs?”
“Sure,” said Alexander. “Yeah, that’d be… that’d be fun.”
The two sat down on the couch, and when Susanne walked in ten minutes later to give them their sandwiches, she gracefully pretended not to notice Quentin’s hand intertwined with Alexander’s.