Marcus and Shane loaded the used baseball equipment into the trunk of the dark blue, Ford Thunderbird. The car belonged to Marcus. His girlfriend leaned against the car, arms folded, waiting for them to load the trunk so Shane could climb in the back seat where Jose sat.
They haven’t played a game of softball since they were kids in middle school. College life had kept them busy, and it was time to take a well-deserved break.
Marcus and his group rolled up to the high school’s baseball diamond before Josh and his group did. Josh was to meet them at the diamond with the rest of the players that were pooled in his van. The field was already being used by teenagers and there wasn’t any room to form a new game.
“Do you know of anywhere else we could play?” Lisa asked Marcus.
“We could try my old middle school’s playground. It’s big enough. Let’s swing by to see if it’s empty,” answered Marcus. “Just have to call Josh and tell him to meet us there instead.”
Marcus drove as he cell phoned Josh, informing him of the slight predicament. Josh readily agreed to meet at the new location.
Owen junior high was sort of out of the way, but it’d be nice to see the old neighborhood again. Marcus wanted to catch a glimpse of the spot where his childhood house once stood which was directly across the street from the playground. He hadn’t been in that part of the city in years.
To get to the old neighborhood, Marcus would have to drive underneath the aging overpass that was built next to the once inhabited train station. In its prime, back in the fifties, the station was busy with the hussle and bussle of travelers that took the Amtrak train from Detroit to other parts of the country.
The tracks were rumored to be cursed. Many accidents occurred on those tracks and as a result the station closed in the early seventies. One particularly tragic accident took place right atop the railway bridge, over seventy deaths resulted from the nasty collision.
The Thunderbird entered the shadowy under pass of the viaduct where right above, all those years ago, the accident occurred. There were no lights underneath and the street was ridden with deep pot holes that city officials had long forgotten about. Marcus slowed down to avoid damage to his car’s axles.
“I don’t like the dark,” said Jose softly.
“We’ll be fine,” Lisa said, “We’ll be out from under here in a minute.”
Jose was the only one not attending U of M. He was large guy, “big boned” as they say. He was a kind hearted, simple fellow, a little slow mentally. Marcus, Lisa, and Shane were his best friends. They never made fun of him when he was a kid. Despite Jose’s academic disability, he could play a hell of a game of softball. He was strong and could knock a ball into next week.
The light of day shined at the end of the tunnel, though not as bright as before, almost drab. When the car emerged from underneath the bridge, the world was different; dull. The sky was dreary and grey. Buildings were dim and nearly colorless. Grass and the leaves on trees were lackluster, like the dye had faded from a vibrant garment that had been washed too many times.
“It’s gonna rain. I know it,” said Shane in response to the dreariness.
“No it’s not, there’s not a cloud in the sky,” Marcus replied.”
They all looked out of the car windows up at the sky. Marcus was right, not a chance of bad weather.
Marcus continued driving, turning down side street after side street, as if in a maze. Moments later they approached the old middle school. It looked the same to Marcus, except for its gloomy facade. Memories flooded back and Marcus felt like a little boy again.
He parked the car directly across the street from the empty playground, right in front of the spot where the house he used to live in once stood. All that was there now was a vacant lot surrounded by dismal houses on either side. The block looked like a lower jaw missing a tooth.
Marcus, Lisa, Jose and Shane each carried a piece of equipment across the street to the grassless field. There was no baseball diamond or bases in the playground so they made do with what they could find. A couple of old red bricks would suffice as a home and first base. A faded, used baseball mitt made a perfect second and an old, folded newspaper with a rock as paperweight would do for third.
The group warmed up as they waited for Josh and his crew to arrive. Shane and Jose played catch while Marcus practiced his swing as Lisa pitched. “VVVRRR”, “VVVRRR”, Marcus’ cell phone vibrated in his front pocket, interrupting practice. It was Josh. Marcus answered still holding the bat in one hand.
“Where are you, Marc?”
“We’re at the old playground.”
Josh paused, “Owen Junior High’s playground?”
“Yeah, where are you guys?”
“We’re at the playground. I don’t see you.”
“Josh, we’re right in the middle of the field. We set up bases and are warming up.”
“In the middle of the field? Are you at the playground at the corner of 15th and Ash?” asked Josh.
Marcus looked up to his left at the street signs on the corner.
“Yep,” he replied.
“Well, we’re right here, we don’t see you,” said Josh, confused.
Marcus looked around he saw no one. Not a living soul was visible except the friends who were with him. The streets were empty: no pedestrians, no cars, not a bird flew, not a squirrel scurried.
Marcus thought that perhaps there was another 15th and Ash somewhere in the city. No. That was impossible. He scanned the area and saw something that wasn’t there before: his house.
Staring at the two-story home, Marcus hung up the phone without a word. His old house existed just as he remembered; a light green color with white trim and a wraparound porch to match. Marcus put the phone in his pocket and walked silently toward the chain link fence. The others noticed his change in demeanor.
“What’s wrong Marc?” Lisa said.
Jose and Shane dropped the mitts and softball. They all saw what Marcus was looking at: a house that wasn’t there moments ago. They joined Marcus at the chain linked fence to get a better look. Everyone gazed silently at the house, wondering how it could appear from nowhere.
“That house wasn’t there before,” said Jose, breaking the silence.
“No… it wasn’t,” said Marcus.
“It had to be,” said Shane. “We just didn’t notice it.
“No, it wasn’t,” said Lisa, “I would have remembered a house with a wraparound porch like that.”
“It had to be there. Houses don’t build themselves,” retorted Shane.
“My house burned down fifteen years ago. I know because it was my fault. I was playing with matches in bed when I was ten. It’s not supposed to be there,” said Marcus, both hands gripping the fence.
The sound of a fidgeting doorknob from across the street got the groups attention. The door of the green house opened and out came a woman with long, dark brown hair wearing glasses. She held a broom and began to sweep the porch.
“Mom?” said Marcus, under his breath.
“That cannot be your mom,” said Lisa.
“It looks like your ma,” said Jose.
“It does look like your mom, Marc. Fifteen years younger and a twenty pounds lighter,” Shane said.
“We took a wrong turn somewhere. I think it’s time to go home,” Marcus said.
“This is got to be a joke,” said Shane.
“Joke or no joke, what we’re seeing isn’t right. Let just get out of here,” said Lisa.
Forgetting about the used sports equipment and ready to leave, they all looked to the left toward the exit of the playground. Standing there was a group of children. There were eight or nine of them outside of the fence blocking the exit.
They ranged from nine to twelve years old. They were unsightly children. Their cloths were dim shades of brown and grey. They had sour faces. All of them were disfigured. Some of them had no mouths. Bald patches of skin where hair had fallen out were visible on ugly deformed heads. With lifeless eyes they stared at the quartet.
Marcus and his friends scanned the whole playground. In packs, gruesome children blocked all four exits.
“How are we going to get to the car?” Lisa said.
“We’ve got baseball bats. We can get past those things,” responded Shane.
“But there just kids,” Lisa said.
“Not like any I’ve ever seen,” Marcus said, gripping the handle of his bat.
The doppelganger stopped sweeping the porch and went back into the house shutting the door behind her.
“I don’t like this, I wanna go home,” said Jose.
The clink of a metal latch from the gate of the fence on the side of the green house brought the conversation to a halt. A little girl came out from the backyard. This girl looked unlike the others; she was normal. She had long straight brown hair and olive skin. She wore loose jeans and a purplish, long-sleeved shirt which was loud compared to the rest of the children.
Not bothering to look both ways, she walked past Marcus’ Thunderbird and crossed the street. The girl stopped at the chain linked fence directly in front of Marcus and his friends. She took a short look at each of them and spoke.
“We are glad you came to visit. We’re having a birthday party,” said the girl. “Do join us. There’s cake and ice cream and presents for everybody.”
“Whose birthday?” asked Marcus.
“The One,” she responded. “It’s the One’s birthday and he wants you all to be with him.”
Simultaneously, the friends looked across the street. Party decorations now adorned the wrap around porch. They could see slightly into the back yard from the angle at which they stood. Colorful balloons and streamers were beautified the back yard. Presents in colorful wrapping paper and bows sat piled high atop of a wooden picnic table.
But the oddest thing was the white light that peeked out from behind the green house. It was about seven feet high and pulsated. More disfigured children were in the yard surrounding the glow. It shined as the children reveled in its presence.
“The One wants you to be at the party. Come to him,” said the girl.
Jose gazed deeply into the light, hypnotized by its brilliance. “Cake and ice cream. Presents for everybody,” he said, fixated on the One. Compelled, Jose turned and walked toward the front exit of the field where the grotesque children stood.
“Get back here Jose!” shouted Marcus.
As is deaf, Jose said nothing.
“Get your butt over here!” Shane added.
Jose walked steadily toward the group of deformed children-like things. Marcus and Shane dashed after him to prevent him from going across the street to the party. They both grabbed a hold of their large friend; Jose threw each of them to the ground easily.
He continued to stroll as the little monsters parted like the red sea to make a path for him. He exited the softball field out into the street. The little girl who spoke walked toward Jose, took his hand, and led him to the cursed birthday party.
“Jose!” Lisa screamed.
Marcus and Shane got to their feet, dusty from the fall and joined Lisa in calling out to their friend. Jose and the little girl entered the front yard as the light grew brighter. The children surrounding the light again opened a path for Jose. The little girl led him into the backyard in front of the light. Jose stood there staring into the brightness, not at all blinded.
The light grew more intense and like a black hole that draws in matter, it pulled Jose into itself ripping him apart. He let out a loud scream as his broken body was sucked in. First his arms were torn off and disappeared into the One’s existence. The head was then ripped from the body and followed. The torso and legs were next leaving a red stain on the ground.
Lisa screamed, her voice echoing in the stillness of the dead neighborhood. Marcus grabbed Lisa’s hand and pulled her away from the fence. The three walked in haste back toward the makeshift baseball diamond.
“It killed him!” shouted Shane.
“It’s not killing us. We’re getting the hell out of here!” Marcus replied angrily, gripping his baseball bat harder. Shane picked up another bat that lay on the ground.
“Those freaks, they fed Jose to that thing!” Shane said, distraught.
The sound of a car engine caught their attention, the Thunderbird. One of the children sat in the driver’s seat and somehow got it started. A deformed head with strands of sandy blonde hair could be seen just above the door window.
The car pulled out from in front of the house that wasn’t supposed to exist. It screeched as it moved toward the fence of the playground, the same spot from where they stood and saw Jose being ripped to shreds.
With the loud sound of chain linked fence tearing apart, the Thunderbird crashed through, leaving a huge gaping hole and a mess of metal on the ground. The driver made a target of the trio and sped toward them. The three dispersed before the vehicle could mow them down. Shane leaped in one direction, Marcus and Lisa in the other.
Raising the bat Shane ran toward the flood of repulsive children that came flowing into the newly torn hole. “You little bastards!” he shouted.
The Thunderbird made a quick u-turn and raced directly toward Marcus and Lisa. The engine roared angrily in a second attempt at a kill. Marcus grabbed Lisa’s hand and like twin matadors the couple stepped quickly evading the vehicle.
As the car passed, Marcus let Lisa go, dropped the bat and reached out with his left hand taking hold of the door handle opening it. Swiftly with his right he gripped of tuft of messy blonde hair and yanked the child out, slamming him to the ground.
Shane swung his bat left and right at the horrible faces. He hit one child directly in the neck snapping it. The child’s body fell to the ground as other little monsters surrounded him. He smashed a skull here, broke a spine there, swinging from side to side.
Shane knocked over little bodies to the ground with the bat, making his way through the gruesome brood.
The vehicle still moving, Marcus leaped into the driver’s seat, one leg dragging on the gravel of the playground. He managed to gain control of the car and his footing. He turned the car around to the direction of his girlfriend who was being surrounded by little zombies. With inhuman groans, the children advanced toward Lisa pulling and clawing at her.
Marcus stepped on the gas and headed toward the crowd of sour faces. Knocking some on the ground, he headed for Lisa. The Thunderbird stopped abruptly throwing dirt into the air as a hazy smoke dissipated quickly.
Marcus leaned over and opened the passenger door. “Get in!” he shouted. Lisa broke free from the grip of little fingers and ran toward the car. She jumped in the empty seat and slammed the door shut.
One child ran quickly toward Shane, mouth open, saliva dripping. Shane delivered a front kick to its chest as he looked deeply into the bright light at the back of Marcus’ phantom house.
The One called to Shane. The light was different this time; pleasant, peaceful. It summoned him, not verbally or mentally but emotionally. Shane wanted to be one with the light. He dropped the bat. The children stopped the assault, opening the familiar path to let him through and Shane walked across the street and into the backyard.
Marcus drove the Thunderbird through the already existing hole in the fence and onto the street, knocking a child on her back. The car pulled into the street and stopped.
“Shane!” cried Marcus through a half-cracked window.
Shane couldn’t hear him; he was somewhere else. He stepped in front of the pulsating light, in the same spot where Jose stood. Shane glared into the One before he screamed as it ripped him apart. One limb at a time, he was torn to pieces and sucked to a light, leaving more blood splattered on the ground.
The children crowded around Marcus’ car. Boys and girls with disturbing faces climbed onto the hood. “Drive!” screamed Lisa. Marcus slammed his foot on the pedal. With a screech the vehicle sped off as the children fell from hood onto the hard concrete.
He looked into the rearview mirror and saw nothing. No deformed children, no green and white house; just an empty 15th street.
Marcus drove the only route he knew to get back. He maneuvered through the dead neighborhood, steering through twists and turns of lonely streets that belonged to a dimension that was not his.
Finally, the decrepit viaduct came into view. Never minding the potholes, Marcuse drove under the dark railway bridge. When the Thunderbird came out of the other end, the yellow sun was back in its sky, the vibrant color of the world came back. Life returned. The couple began to see people, dogs, and cars. Everything was the way it was supposed to be. Looking at one another, Marcus and Lisa realized that driving under railway bridge took them to a parallel land.
Moments later, Marcus pulled up in front of Lisa’s house. They sat quietly, soaking in what just transpired. How would they explain what happened to their friends?
“VVVRRR”…”VVVRRR” Marcus’ cell phone vibrated loudly. It was Josh.
“Yeah,” Marcus answered tiredly.
“Marc, where have you guys been? It’s been over five hours. Jose’s mom is worried sick and called the police.”
“Josh, where are you?”
“Back at the playground. After an hour passed and you didn’t show up, we went looking for you. I decided to take a chance and come back to the softball field thinking you might have come here.”
“The playground at 15th and Ash?”
“What’s across the street from it?”
“Just a bunch of old houses. Hey, I think I see your mom sweeping the porch of one of them.”