The Girl With Golden EyesbyDarkLit©
The house stood as all the others did, joined with its neighbors on the left and right, and so on and so on down the row.
The row houses of Friendship Heights seemed to mirror the name of the town in which they stood; there were no bars on the windows, no fences in the front yards, no gates with “Beware of the dog” signs hanging on them. Though the neighborhood sat on the edge of the city of Washington, DC, the crime and paranoia that pervaded the rest of the city did not seep over, as if an invisible barrier protected Friendship Heights from the world.
In much of the city, Halloween simply passed by unnoticed. In those areas, it was unheard of to let children out at dark to wander the streets in search of treats, and the only tricks would be the ones standing on the street corners in front of the liquor stores. Anyone daring to wander the streets on those nights would be the ones with guns, the ones without fear, the ones who owned the neighborhoods.
In spite of all that, in spite of the undeniable sounds of the city that could be heard from this quiet borough, the traffic, the police sirens, the occasional gunshots, the neighbors of Friendship Heights had no fear. They would, this Halloween as they did every Halloween, let their children out into the streets, knowing that they were protected by the unseen barrier of safety surrounding their neighborhood.
Stephen Harlow considered this as he sat perched on the doorstep of his own house, waiting for his daughter to finish changing into her Halloween costume. There was something in the air of the little neighborhood, in the brilliant Fall colors of the trees that lined their quiet street, in the gray clouds the filled the darkening skies, something comforting, something peaceful. If there was anything Stephen needed, it was comfort and peace.
When Casey was finished trick-or-treating in his neighborhood, Stephen would drive her to her mother’s house, thirty minutes away in another quiet, suburban community of Maryland, to finish out her Halloween. It would be the first year he had to do this, the first of many to come. He dreaded even a short visit with his ex-wife, especially this one, since it would be on her turf, in her house, and he would have to leave his daughter once again.
Stephen’s heart dropped, his mood darkened. The three of them had once lived in the little town in Pennsylvania in which he had grown up, in the town where they had been a happy family. Before the arguments, before the fights, before the drinking. They moved to Maryland because of Stephen’s job in the city, and the pressure closed in, like being underwater in a submarine approaching its crush depth. And Stephen had buckled.
He rubbed a hand against his stubbled, angular cheek, his sharp brown eyes shifting up the street along the line of row houses. He threw a neighborly wave to the Hendersons, a younger black couple in the process of carefully walking their toddler, Jimmy, out on his first Halloween. Stephen smiled at the Incredible Hulk costume he was wearing, complete with little foam rubber muscles.
Reggie Henderson handed off his son to his wife and wandered down the sidewalk.
“Hey, Steve,” Reggie said, “your little girl here tonight?”
“Yeah, she’s inside putting on the finishing touches on. Not enough hours in the night when you’re a Sleeping Beauty princess, you know?”
Reggie laughed. He was an amiable man, and Stephen was glad to have him as a neighbor. He and his wife, Layla, had the kind of youthful energy that Stephen needed at this point in his life. When Stephen had first moved into the neighborhood, when he felt that he had hit absolute bottom, Layla and Reggie had shown up on his doorstep with a jug of fresh iced tea and a complete meal. It was the kind of simple, neighborly gesture that meant more to Stephen than anyone could have imagined.
“Well, when she’s done getting beautiful, send her on down. Jimmy will be thrilled to see her.”
“Will do, Reg. You guys have fun.”
Reggie flashed a smile and took off down the street to catch up with his family. The street was beginning to fill with neighborhood kids and their parents, but Stephen’s eyes followed the Hendersons. He saw all three of them glance at the house coming up on their right, their faces uneasy, even little Jimmy’s. They skirted across the street and continued down the sidewalk on the other side.
Stephen frowned and stood up. He walked down the stairs and out to the sidewalk, his eyes locked on the house that the entire Henderson family had been so careful to avoid. Number Seventy-two.
Stephen was forty-two years old, and had lived in many neighborhoods in his life, especially as the son of a military man. In every neighborhood, there was always that house, the house that the local kids made up stories about, the house that people of all ages tried to avoid. Stephen still remembered the house from his hometown in Marietta, Pennsylvania. The kids always said that a witch lived there, that she hung horse tails from a clothesline in her dining room.
They were always incredibly silly rumors, nothing that Stephen had ever believed, even as a child, but it was simply the presence of those houses that helped keep people away. Number Seventy-two was one of those houses.
Most of the neighbors simply ignored the house, pretended that it wasn’t even there. The Hendersons certainly never spoke about it, as Stephen learned during their first dinner together. When he had asked about it, Reggie had deftly changed the subject without blinking an eye.
Stephen shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and eyed the house with interest. It was, by all outward appearances, just like all of the houses on the block. It was, in fact, as well cared for as the other houses; by comparison, most of the “haunted” houses Stephen had seen in other towns were run-down, desolate places. They were the houses that looked like houses in the movies. Windows full of cobwebs, rotten siding or peeling paint, broken, dirty porches.
The exterior of number seventy-two, however, was in as good condition as the rest of the houses, if not better. The light blue-colored siding of the house was not rotting, nor was its front porch. The windows were not barred, and they did not have cobwebs hanging over them. The inside could not be seen only because of the light, silky drapes hanging over the picture window by the front door. This was a house someone lived in, someone cared for, and yet no one was ever seen, and no one was ever heard.
The row houses were all colored in various pastel hues, harking back to a slightly Victorian style. It lightened the neighborhood, gave it a cozy, hometown feeling. But Number Seventy-two stuck out like a sore thumb, not because of its color, but because of its lack of light, its lack of feeling, its lack of heart, that basic homespun warmth that the rest of the neighborhood exuded.
A shiver ran up Stephen’s spine as he gazed upon the house. The only time he had walked past that house without crossing the street, he remembered feeling as if he were in a vacuum, as if the house itself were sucking all of the breath from his body. Along with the sensation came a feeling of loneliness and coldness that could not be attributed to anything in particular except fear.
“Daddy, where’s my crown?” came a sharp voice from the front porch.
Stephen shifted his gaze from the house down the street to his own house, where a tiny princess in a shimmering, iridescent gown stood on the porch, hands planted impatiently on her hips. He smiled at his daughter, though he couldn’t help but notice how much Casey resembled her mother.
“You look beautiful, honey.”
“I can’t look beautiful without my crown, Dad-dy,” she said, but despite the irritation in her voice, he could tell she was flattered. Stephen wished that he owned a camera so he could freeze this moment in time. Casey was ten years old, almost eleven, and in not too many more years, she would be a young woman, casting aside her princess costumes and her crowns.
“Your crown was upstairs on the table in the guest bedroom, last time I checked, hon. Hurry up, they just took Jimmy Henderson down the street.”
“Oh, Dad, Jimmy Henderson is just a baby.”
“You used to play with him all the time, remember?” Stephen knew he was reaching. Casey was growing up, and she was no doubt playing with older kids now. Older boys, too. It was a thought that made him less than comfortable; not too much longer and she would be bringing those older boys home to meet dear ol’ Dad.
“You like the Hendersons, sweetie,” he continued, “just for tonight, okay? Jimmy likes you.”
Casey sighed and shrugged dramatically, as she was inclined to do lately. “Okay, Daddy, just for tonight, though.” She turned and went back in the house to get her crown.
Stephen exhaled a deep breath, but felt it crack a little. He was lonely, and he missed his little girl. Weekends and the occasional holidays were not enough to watch her grow up, and he knew it. Every weekend, she seemed a little bit older, and he knew there was so much he was missing in between. And he felt, in a small way, that she resented him for not being there.
He resented himself for ruining his marriage.
Stephen looked up at the sky and saw that it was growing darker. “Come on, honey,” he shouted, “let’s get this show on the road.” A few moments later, he heard the sound of little feet running down the stairs, and Casey reappeared on the porch, a Disney princess trick-or-treat bag in one hand. She held her free arm out and twirled grandly.
“I’m a beautiful princess,” she said with a flourish, and Stephen couldn’t help but smile.
* * *
Though the neighborhood wasn’t all that immense, it felt like it took forever to walk through it. As Casey went from door-to-door, showing off her costume and begging for treats, Stephen admired the melting pot of ghosts, goblins, vampires, princes and princesses, cowboys, Spidermen, Spiderwomen, and one little tiny green hulk who insisted on flexing his padded arms and growling with a wide, ivory-toothed smile at everyone that walked past.
Stephen and Casey had met up with the Hendersons a block over, and as Stephen knew they would, Jimmy and Casey latched on to each other despite Casey’s earlier objections. As Casey led Jimmy up and down the walkway of each house, the three adults hung back and watched them.
At some point, Layla glanced over at Stephen and smiled. “So, Stephen, what are you supposed to be this year?”
Stephen glanced down at the old t-shirt and raggedy jeans he was wearing. “I dunno. A plumber, maybe? College student. Slacker. Take your pick.”
Layla leaned over to him with a conspiratorial glint in her eyes. “Well, you’re the cutest slacker on this block.”
Stephen glanced at Reggie and noticed him roll his eyes at his wife.
“Woman, what have I told you about hitting on the neighbors?”
Layla looked back at her husband with a sheepish grin. “I’m just saying, he looks pretty good for a middle-aged white man.”
“Thanks,” Stephen said, “thanks so much.”
“So, have you thought about it?” Reggie asked.
“Thought about what?”
“About getting back into it. You know, the game.”
Stephen gave a noncommittal shrug. “I don’t know, I don’t think I’m ready yet.”
“It’s been two years,” Layla said.
“Yeah,” Reggie said, “and there’s plenty of good-looking single mothers in this neighborhood.”
Stephen laughed as they moved on to the next house behind the kids. “What, so I’m a middle-aged, divorced father of one, and now all I can get is single mothers?”
Reggie nodded enthusiastically. “Well, if you want to hit it on the first date, yeah, that’s the way to go.”
Layla slapped her husband playfully on the arm. “Don’t listen to him, Stephen, he’s a fool. But think about it. You’re a good-looking man, you’re doing much better, you have a good job, and a beautiful daughter who’s growing up. Maybe it’s time. I have a friend who you would—“
“Oh, no no no no no,” Reggie pleaded, “don’t start this again.”
“What?” Layla asked.
Reggie turned on his best, high-pitched impression of his wife. “Oh, Stephen, I have a friend you would love if you into big asses and extensions.”
Stephen began to laugh again, this time almost to the point of tears as he watched the stern look cross over Layla’s face. “Tina does not have a big ass or extensions,” she insisted, and Reggie shook his head and looked at Stephen seriously.
“Look, man, this ass is so big that when she sits around the house—“
“Okay, okay,” Stephen interjected, “look, I’ll interrupt before you get your ass sleeping on the couch tonight. I’m just not ready. Layla, I appreciate it, but it’s just not time for me yet. I still—I still have a lot of stuff I need to figure out.”
Layla nodded amicably. “Okay, well, if you change your mind, or if you figure out your stuff, you let me know.”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
“And you, fool,” Layla said to Reggie, “don’t even try to tell me that the skank you dated before me didn’t have a big ass and a raggedy weave.”
“Damn, baby,” Reggie said, wrapping his arms lovingly around Layla’s waist, “don’t even go there.” They kissed each other, and Stephen turned away, for the first time in a long time missing his wife. Maybe not missing his wife, but missing someone.
A few moments later, Casey and Jimmy ran up to them, their bags overflowing with treats. Stephen hadn’t even noticed they were back on their own street, having cased almost the entire neighborhood.
“Look, Daddy,” Casey said, excitedly throwing open her bag, “we got full-sized candy bars from Mrs. Kim. She gave us both two of them.”
“Ooh,” Reggie said, squatting down to eye level with Jimmy, “can I get one of those?”
In response, Jimmy growled angrily, flexed his green, foam muscles, and walloped his dad in the knee with a tiny fist.
“Daddy,” Casey said, “can we go to that house?” She pointed with a pink painted finger, which Stephen’s eyes followed to the one house he’d hoped she wouldn’t ask about. He looked back at Casey to tell her ‘no,’ but the double-take that followed seemed unavoidable.
When he had looked at Number Seventy-two earlier, at had been dark. It was always dark. But now, from behind the silk curtains came the soft glow of light, a flickering orange light, as if someone had a fire in the fireplace. Even more noticeable was the decoration of the front porch. Stephen strained his eyes to see through the darkness, and he could make out full bulbs of garlic hanging from the eaves of the porch, intertwined with what appeared to be some kind of jet black flowers. Beneath these strange bouquets, on the railing, were dozens upon dozens of lit candles, their little flames flickering through the night.
Stephen shook his head, and wondered how he hadn’t noticed this when they turned the corner. The candles, at least, were bright enough to be seen up and down the block, they drew his eyes to the house like magnets.
“Can we, Daddy?”
Stephen found his eyes shifting back to Reggie, who was looking straight at him. But, for a split second, he thought he had seen Reggie’s eyes darting away from the house. If Reggie noticed the spectacle, he wasn’t showing it.
“Well, buddy,” Reggie said, his voice casual, “we’re going to take this little guy home.” He gestured to Jimmy, who was in the middle of a tremendous yawn.
“Someone’s ready for bed,” Layla said, taking Jimmy’s hand and leading him away. “Goodnight, Stephen. Goodnight, Casey.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Henderson,” Casey called after her, not taking her eyes from the house. Stephen found that he, too, could barely take his eyes away from the sight, though he was astounded that no one else, except for Casey, seemed to notice.
Reggie watched him for a long moment with a frown. “You alright, Steve?”
“I’m—I’m okay—are you seeing this?” Stephen gestured to the house, but Reggie rubbed his eyes and yawned.
“Man, it’s been a long day,” Reggie said, “I think I’m going to go crash with a beer and some of the boy’s candy. He’ll never miss it.” Reggie winked, then turned to leave.
Stephen watched him walk away for a moment, then turned back to the house. He thought he noticed some movement at the window, like the curtains had shifted just slightly. Lost in the sight, he barely noticed a hand grasp his arm. He turned, startled to see Reggie back at his side, a look of intensity in his face the likes of which Stephen had never seen from the easygoing man.
“The golden eyes have seen more death than you can possibly imagine, Stephen,” Reggie said, his voice just barely above a whisper.
Stephen stared at him for a long moment, his jaw agape in shock. He was too surprised and confused to ask Reggie what he meant. It seemed like only a split second that Stephen glanced back at the house, but when he returned his gaze to Reggie, the man was already standing on his porch, at least fifty feet away. He was watching Stephen again, a scrutinizing gaze, full of wonder and wisdom, like an old man looks upon a baby. Then he smiled, turned, and went back into his house.
“What does he mean, Daddy?”
Stephen turned his gaze down on his daughter, having almost forgotten that she was even there. “What does he mean by what, sweetheart?”
“What he said?”
“I don’t know, Casey. I think he was just being silly. You know how Mr. Henderson is.”
Stephen found his gaze once more slipping back to Number Seventy-two. There was no doubt now that he saw the curtain move, and this time the silhouette of a figure faded back into the house. His curiosity was piqued, but there was something more than that drawing him to the house. It was as if the house, or the space the house occupied, was gathering him up in its unseen arms and pulling him near.
“One more house, Daddy?” he heard Casey ask, her voice distant.
“Sure, baby. Last one, then we go to Mom’s, okay?”
As they crossed the street, Stephen felt as if his feet were barely touching the ground. This house was the one he had avoided in every neighborhood, in every town, in every state he had ever visited. And now he was approaching it head on, the one place in his safe little town that didn’t feel safe. The hair on the back of his neck rose, and a tingle of energy surged through his body.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” he heard from beside him, though Casey’s voice sounded barely convinced. “It’s okay,” she said, more firmly this time, and he knew she was trying to convince herself.
When they reached the bottom of the front steps, Stephen looked up at the garlands of garlic hanging from the porch. It was odd enough to see garlic as a decoration, but the black flowers confused him even further. Up close, he could see that they were roses, jet black, except with the lightest iridescent shimmer coating each one of them, like the material of Casey’s gown. The effect played with his eyes, making him dizzy, like trying to focus on a chain link fence from far away.
“What is that?” Casey asked.
“Roses, honey. I’m sure they’re fake.” But from the odor drifting in the evening air, he could tell that the garlic was real. The roses, too, looked disturbingly real, complete with a light, flowery scent, though he couldn’t imagine where flowers like that would actually grow.
Stephen placed a foot on the bottom step, then gently took Casey’s hand. “Stand behind me, okay, honey?”
Casey complied, though Stephen wondered why, if he felt he had to protect her like this, they were even coming near this house in the first place. They climbed the stairs slowly, but the stairs were solid concrete, and they made little noise under foot. When they reached the top, however, the creaking of the wooden slats across the porch could have woken the dead. The candles lining the railing of the porch caused their shadows to glow eerily against the front door, and Casey hesitated, pulling on her father’s hand.