The girl looked over her shoulder. Her jaw went agape. She cut into the closest yard, breaking through the knee-high weeds of a crooked house’s front yard. Off-white siding, stained in soot, hung from the broad shoulders of the house. Its windows were boarded and a cracked gutter forged a cascade of fountaining water over the garden path. Steve watched the girl hurry under the roof’s waterfall to a side door. She tried the handle. Steve watched in shock from the front yard. 

“Steve, you freaking loser,” he fumed, thinking about the funhouse of rusty nails and loose floorboards inside. He shook his head and sloshed through the weeds. Thorns lashed at his khaki shielded legs. Steve ducked under the gutter fountain, onto the garden path, and stopped feet from the girl. She used her tiny shoulder to ram at the door. 

“Wait,” Steve huffed. “Little girl, don’t go in there. You’ll get hurt. If you let me catch my breath—” The girl slammed into the door again. “Wow, you’re intense. Okay, I get it. You don’t trust me, so let’s call the police.” Steve dug in his pocket for his phone. It was still on the cafe table next to his graded papers. He growled. The girl squealed at the noise and beat harder at the door. “Wait. no, I’m sorry.”

The girl took a step back, then thrust forward, cracking part of the door seam. Steve cocked his head back.

“Whoa, you’re strong,” Steve held out his hand. “Okay, new idea. Why don’t I escort you back to the cafe? You can stand ten steps ahead of me. Once we’re there, you or Nikki can call the police.”

The little girl pried her fingers in a newly fractured furrow at the bottom of the door and pushed. The entrance gave way. Steve slunk his shoulders, eyes glued on the girl racing inside. She pushed the door shut behind her. 

“Oh, come on.” 

Steve tried the handle. The girl had somehow fastened the lock. Steve grumbled, examining the threshold. It was old and rotted. He worried the girl pressed herself firm on the other side. 

“Okay, I’m coming in.” Steve took a slow practice kick at the center of the door. “So take a step back, kiddo, I’m kicking this mother down.”

I am not in the best shape, Steve reflected. He kicked once, twice. Then when his foot numbed, Steve charged with his backside. The door burst open. Shards of wood peppered Steve, who was now prone on a cement floor. Steve checked himself. He was unscathed. He took to his feet and looked around. 

Mildew offended his nose, rain drumming on the siding drowned out his hearing, and walls painted with shadow obscured his vision. Steve took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The dim light from the streets drew a foggy outline of shapes. Steve was at the precipice of a stairwell landing. A pair of stairs climbed down to a sub-level, and another pair ascended up to a partially risen first floor. Steve narrowed his eyes. Wet boot prints climbed up. He followed the tiny feet marks up to what appeared to be a kitchen. 

A weak beam of purple street light seeped from a crack in the window boards. Walls crumbled. A man-sized hole by an antique oven led down to a broken washer. Steve slunk along the crater, his eyes tracked the footprints. The galoshes ran through a connecting dining room into a front room with a patchy mustard couch blocking the path. Steve pursued, climbing over the sofa into the living area. Something rancid stung his nostrils. He traced the walls with his eyes, revealing the front half of the room. An old television with a cracked screen and a questionable stairwell leading to the second floor was all that remained. The footprints were shrinking, but Steve made out enough to see them climb up the steps, vanishing along the top. 

“Little girl, please. I’m going to kill myself looking for you.” 

There was no answer.

“Damn it Steve, go up.”

Steve climbed the stairs. Each step moaned. Finally, when he reached the top, he found the ceiling under the attic had partially caved in, leaving only one second-floor doorway accessible. The fetid aroma grew so abrasive that Steve covered his mouth. He couldn’t make out much behind fogged glasses and waded in towards the doorway. He tested the knob. It turned with little resistance. Steve pushed slowly. 

“Hello?” Steve’s voice cracked while he pushed open the door. Instinct kicked in and Steve recoiled. He’d taken a deep breath from the poisonous perfume’s source. Steve lifted his glasses and rubbed his watery eyes. Before him, piled atop each other, were the unmistakable contours of corpses. Steve’s spine stiffened. The remains were different shades of mauve and gray. Each of the half-dozen men and women bear broad gashes along their necks. Several faces froze in screams. 

“Hey Steve-O,” a heavy voice, deep as if played in slow motion, called out behind him. Steve reeled around. Standing between him and the stairwell was the little girl in the banana yellow slicker — or at least, the shell of the little girl. She hunched over and lifted a set of spidery fingers twice as long as a normal hand should have. Her pupils kindled pinpricks of white flame. A pair of incisors, too large to be kept in her maw, protruded from her lips. A web of plum veins drew across her chubby cheeks, stretching to her curled ears. The girl snarled, making a noise more suitable for a lion before lifting her twisted claws. 

“Oh Steve,” Steve swallowed the spur in his throat, backing into the room of victims. The girl leapt forward. “You freaking loser.” 

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About The Author

Justin Alcala is a novelist, nerdologist and Speculative Literature Foundation Award Finalist. He’s the author of four novels including Consumed, (BLK Dog Publishing) The Devil in the Wide City (Solstice PublishingDim Fairy Tales (AllThingsThatMatterPress) and A Dead End Job (The Parliament House). His short stories have been featured in dozens of magazines and anthologies, including It Snows Here (Power Loss Anthology),The Offering (Rogue Planet Press Magazine) and The Lantern Quietly Screams(Castabout Literature). When he’s not burning out his retinas in front of a computer, Justin is a tabletop gamer, blogger, folklore enthusiast and time traveler. He is an avid quester of anything righteous, from fighting dragons to acquiring magical breakfast eggs from the impregnable grocery fortress.

Most of Justin’s tales and characters take place in The Plenty Dreadful universe, a deranged supernatural version of the modern world. When writing, Justin immerses himself in subject matter, from stuffy research to overseas travel. Much to the chagrin of his family, he often locks himself away in his office-dungeon, playing themed music over, and over, and over again. Justin currently resides with his dark queen, Mallory, their malevolent daughter, Lily, changeling son, Ronan, hellcat, Misery and hound of Ragnarök, Fenrir. Where his mind might be though is anyone’s guess. 

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