Gracie streaked into the warm light of the kitchen. Behind her the screen door bashed against its frame and closed upon the humid and star speckled night.
“What?” Sandra, Gracie’s mother, looked up from the soap and dish filled sink.
“I saw him. I saw him again!” At her mother’s soaked elbow, Gracie bounced on her bare toes. Her pale round face held wide blue eyes. A scraggly set of bangs hung over her forehead while more tendrils sprang from her ponytail. Her hands found the edge of the counter and her fingers gripped the faux marble to stay in place. She barely had to tilt her head up any more to look into her mother’s face.
Sandra however, turned back onto the bubbles. “Gracie,” she began after a deep breath. “I told you not to run around outside after dark…”
“I know but…Really…He was by the bushes.”
“And last time he was by the dumpster.” Sandra set a half soaped glass into the dish rack before turning to her daughter. “Where is he going to be tomorrow?”
“Mom…” The bounce in Gracie’s toes died. Her shoulders sagged under the stern maternal glare. “I saw him…”
Sandra’s glower softened. “Sweetie…there’s no one out here except us.” She dried her hands on a kitchen towel dotted with faded polka-dots and took her daughter’s shoulders in both damp palms. “I know this is a strange place, but we’re in the middle of the woods. There’s no one else around, not even your Dad ok?”
Gracie’s eyes fell to the linoleum floor. Her fingers twined around each other and absorbed her attention. She didn’t see the soft shake of her mother’s head but felt the tight squeeze on her upper arms and the peck on the top of her hair.
“Do me a favor?”
Gracie nodded her bent head and tried not to feel like she was five years old again.
“Go tell your brother’s to head downstairs. It’s nearly time for bed…”
Sandra folded her arms and cocked her eye brow. “Either that or you can help finish the dishes.”
Gracie rolled her eyes but nodded. She trundled off towards the porch where the echo of checker pieces on cardboard hovered.
Alex and Mikey were both on their knees, leaning over the bench in order to gain the most advantageous position over the black and red squares. The twins shared the same shaggy mop of curls and stubbed noses as well as matching tans on their bare backs. Their pajama bottoms sported competing superheroes and drooped over their dangling bare feet.
Gracie pulled out the chair at the head of the table and plopped down into the cushioned seat. She rested her chin in her hands as she perused the battle.
Mikey dominated the field. Along the board’s edge stood an army of Alex’s red pieces. With a waggle of his fingers, Mikey went in for the kill. He jumped his double deckered black token over two more of Mikey’s to land back in the middle of the board.
“You suck…” Alex said, sagging down onto the creaking bench. He mimicked Gracie’s petulant stance with his cheeks bubbling over his fists.
“You suck,” countered Mikey as he began counting his pieces. “Want to play again?”
“No…” grumbled Alex.
“Gracie? Want to play?”
“Mom wants us to go downstairs,” she said, deftly avoiding the game.
The two boys threw their attention into sorting their tokens and preparing for another game.
“She’s going to yell at you…”
The threat washed over the two twins like an absent breeze.
“Come on…” Gracie reached for the board and received dual slaps on her outstretched hand. She gave them both a halfhearted glare for the minor inflictions and shook her head. “Your funeral.”
“You’re just scared,” murmured Alex as he carefully placed his pieces back in the center of the black squares.
“Chicken…” clucked Mikey.
Gracie’s glare bloomed like charcoal after a shot of lighter fluid.
“Am not,” she snapped.
The twins looked over the board at one another and giggled.
“You both suck…” She heaved out of the chair, chucked two of the checker pieces across the room and stormed towards the living room and the basement stairs.
“Gracie…” the two wined in tandem.
She ignored them as she strode down the porch and passed through another screen door.
“Heading for bed?” Gracie’s step-father, Daryl, his face awash in the glow of his laptop monitor peered over the rim, his fingers pausing on the keyboard.
“I’m going downstairs.” She stopped in her tracks and pointed back towards the porch where the yelps had died back down into the plunks of checker warfare. “Mom said the boys had to go to but they won’t listen.”
Daryl set his laptop on the wooden side table. “I’ll go see what they’re up to…” he said, rising out of the plush leather chair. “Unless you want me to go downstairs with you…?”
“Daryl…” Gracie’s head flopped at an exasperated angle.
“Alright.” He raised both hands in defeat. “I know you’re a big girl. I just had to ask. You might be all grown up but I still don’t want the boogie men to come get you.”
“You don’t believe me either…”
The humor in Daryl’s face dropped quickly into a thin lipped and serious expression. “It’s not that, Gracie.”
“Come on, be fair. Who was the one tromping around with you yesterday by the dumpster?”
She rolled her eyes and turned towards the basement doorway once more.
“‘Night,” she grumbled.
She threw open the door as Daryl headed to the porch. A dark pit opened up before her and sent a rush of cooler air into her face. Gracie’s hand fumbled before her until she found the dangling string. With a yank, the small exposed bulb illuminated the steep descent.
She took the wooden steps with heavy treads until her feet landed on the soft evergreen floor to floor carpet. Her hand clung to the railing as she stopped in the pool of light. Her heart raced as she searched each of the shadows and the row of windows leading to the side door with its own small glass frame. Nothing moved in the angular lines of the bunk bed and her own pull out couch. Crumpled luggage lay in quiet mounds but remained frozen.
Gracie let out a small sigh as a round of laughter bubbled down from the stairwell behind her.
Certain she was the butt of the joke, she shot a glare up the stairs.
Her hand found the corresponding string and with a tug, turned out the single light.
She’d show them who was afraid.
Shadows leapt to their full height but Gracie set her jaw against the growing fear.
The few days of experience enabled her to pad over to the unmade pull out bed without banging her knees against the debris of suitcases or stubbing her toes on an errant shoe.
She slid underneath the cool covers. Her head hit the soft pillows with a thud. She stared up at the crossbeams streaking above her head. The moonlight trickling in from the windows made the alternating plaster in the ceiling glow. Her imagination started making shapes out of the shadows, fingers out of the straight lines, and creatures in the woods beyond the windows. With a creak of old springs she rolled onto her side and clamped her eyes shut. Her jaw tightened as she forced the tears not drip free.
At her back, the all too familiar face she had already seen by the dumpster and bushes, pressed silently against the panes.