It started three days before Halloween; an unrelenting torrent of rain the likes of which I had never seen in all of my, at the time, 14 years. Of those years I could remember, I had always spent the October weeks preparing for the 31st. By the time the word 'teen' was subverting everything - including our outlook, dress sense, age and hopes - my friends and I were almost being ironic by still going trick or treating. Almost, but not quite. In fact, we used a particular excuse that year to justify dressing up and wandering the streets in search of sweets. That excuse was the timid figure of my little brother, Max. He was six years old and needed a chaperone to accompany him. Peeking out from a mess of brown curls and a kind smile, he was a shy little boy and, as a result, did not have many friends; certainly none who lived close enough to accompany him that night. He had replaced the need to be around children of his own age with hero worship, following me no matter where I went. I often joked that if I were ever lost, the police could use him as a sniffer dog. I look back now and grow increasingly disappointed at myself for being frustrated at him always in tow.
Alongside us that night were my two friends, Zita and Robert. The three of us had grown up on the same street, playing, arguing, and then playing again, for most of our lives. Robert still lived three doors along from my house and, while Zita had moved to another part of our suburb a year earlier, she always returned to the street where she felt most at home. They were both happy to help Max go knocking on doors, especially since it gave them the opportunity to celebrate Halloween without feeling embarrassed. In our neighborhood at least, a lot of kids our age had already stopped dressing up and would have made fun of us if we had let them. Zita, however, was not easy to push around. With a flick of her tongue or her black hair, she could reduce anyone to half their size in a moment. Robert was no slouch either and had often been given a hard time for his bright red hair. He had learned early in life to meet fire with fire. It was only later that I found out he was beaten by his father at home. That explained a lot, and I still regret not knowing about it until my mother told me years later. Someone should have intervened, but as is the way, too many people were concerned about causing a stir than doing what was right.
Of the three of us, I was the quiet one, shying away from confronting anything around me. That trait ran in the family. I was a nervous kid, though little Max seemed more hesitant. If Robert had learned to answer the derision of his peers with his fists, I had learned to avoid it with submission. I preferred to keep my head low, absorbing the pains subjected by the bullies in our lives and then, bravely, making fun of them in return. Of course, this was always done when out of earshot and so, ultimately, my cutting retorts were a series of meaningless protests. But they did make me feel better.
That Halloween, Max dressed up as a Gruffalo. The Gruffalo was his favourite book and he thought all monsters were big cuddly messes of brown fur who were secretly frightened of the world. I half suspected that this was the reason he liked to keep his own hair a tangle of curls. Max loved monsters and I think he took comfort in the simple honesty of their appearance and their strength. He was an innocent sort, even for his age. However, we are cursed to have our innocence shattered, and in the torrid rain of that Halloween night, we all earned our scars.
My parents made me promise to keep an eye on Max at all times - as if I would leave him on a street corner waiting to be abducted - and I could feel the curtains twitching from three streets away as I imagined my Dad looking for us to return on time as he had instructed. I think part of his nervousness was the weather. The rain had battered the city for days and there had been serious flooding closer to the center where a river had burst its banks. The previous day, I thought there was little chance of us going out on Halloween, as water cascaded down hills and into drains, many of the latter clogging up with fallen leaves. A swirling wind made the outside world that more inhospitable, and so, with disappointment, I was sure we would miss out on all those treats hiding behind nameless, weather-beaten doors.
When Halloween night did arrive, our fortunes had turned. While it was still raining, it was not nearly as torrential as the previous days. Things had calmed down quite a bit, but our dad told us in no uncertain terms that we had to come home immediately if the weather grew worse. As usual, I thought he was overreacting. Dad offered to come with us and, while Max was keen, I was less so. As I said, 'teen' had subverted everything, including my desire to be around my parents. I promised to take good care of Max and left the safety of our home, pulling my little brother behind me by one of his furred claws, off into the darkened, wet night.
Zita and Robert were dressed as Thing One and Thing Two from Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, though even with their bright red and white striped jumpers, the rainy night made them difficult to see if they wandered far. I was the eponymous Cat in the Hat, and wore on top of my head an old top hat my mother and I had found at a charity shop a few weeks earlier. I had also been drawn to an old dark grey sports jacket hanging at the back of the shop. Something about it called to me, but my mother was insistent that we had something at home which would do the job. The outfit, then, was finished off with a long black coat and whiskers drawn on my face over white face paint.
Max observed that: 'Halloween should be scary. You should dress up as a monster like me!'
In return, I informed Max that The Cat in the Hat was perhaps the most dangerous monster in all of fiction. 'Did you see the mess he made of the house when the boy and girl’s mum was out?'
This made him giggle, while Zita and Robert were running around us at times playing their characters annoyingly too well. Though Zita’s efforts at speaking in rhymes were a little darker than Robert’s, he had the nervous energy of Thing Two down pat. I occasionally reprimanded them in my best Cat in the Hat voice, but as the wind blustered and the rain drizzled, I deeply desired the warmth of a house rather than being drenched in the bleakness of my neighbourhood - a neighbourhood which had taken on a more ominous atmosphere as the night wore on.
The streets around us were populated by the occasional group of trick or treaters trudging through the increasingly water-logged streets. As the clouds above opened up and the rain fell in greater volume, it became clear that many of the children had given up the ghost and returned to the comfort of their homes. We, on the other hand, were navigating puddles. Lots and lots of puddles. The small islands of water rippled in the cold wind which, while not quite a gale yet, promised ferocity. If I had my way, we would have visited every door in one or two streets, captured a decent haul of sweets, and then headed back home out of the rain as quickly as possible. But Max insisted otherwise. Some houses looked 'too scary' in the stormy night, especially those with glow in the dark skulls plastered on the windows or headless skeletons hanging from the doors, swaying in the wind.
I grew frustrated with Max. The rain was now heavier and the wind had an uncomfortable icy chill to it. I just wanted to get back home and watch some horror movies with my friends.
'Not that one,' Max said, pointing to a house with a bloody hand sticker on its door.
'Oh, come on, Max! I thought you said Halloween should be scary?' I said, sighing.
'That one,' he said, pointing to another house across the street with no decorations. I tried to inform Max that the houses without decorations were less likely to have sweets or even owners willing to answer our knocks. Yet Max insisted on picking homes which did not impress fear on his mind. He held onto my arm in the growing wind and continued to guide us, more often than not away from houses which clearly revelled in Halloween; this timidity despite his monster obsession.
'Monsters aren’t afraid,' I would say. But Max looked at the night sky as the black clouds above swirled and held on tight to me regardless.
We wandered from door to door and, as we did so, I could see that the rain was pooling significantly in places. The flooding was growing, so too was the loot we budding trick or treaters had in our sacks. Twice I suggested to my friends that we should go back home to count everything and watch a great horror film - John Carpenter's The Fog was a particular favourite of mine around that time. I hoped this tactic would work and that collectively we could persuade Max through peer pressure, but it seemed I was alone in that thought. Robert enjoyed winding Max up against me, and seemed to take glee when he started calling me names and my brother held back a giggle. One of the only times when Max treated me as fallible. Zita laughed, of course, but would quickly put Robert in his place with some name-calling of her own if he got too big for himself.
A strong gust of wind pushed against us. 'We really need to go back, we promised Dad,' I reminded everyone.
'Just a wee bit longer, please?' said Max, his brown-furred, yellow-eyed Gruffalo hood slipping down over his face.
Remembering the Halloweens when I had been Max’s age and the magic of the night once a year, I fixed the hood and laughed at the yellow eyes and smiling Gruffalo face now on top of his head. ‘Okay. I tell you what. One more street, then home? That’s at least a few houses? Agreed?’
Max nodded happily, and that was when we turned onto Grier Street. It was like most of our suburb that night - puddles of rain to be negotiated carefully, dimly lit windows occasionally populated with Halloween decorations - but there was something that set it apart from the others. As we moved along Grier street trying to find a house that was acceptable to Max, I noticed a smell. It was a rotten scent, like leaves that had been left to decay in the damp, and though the rain held the scent back to a degree, it was still a horrible odor. I assumed that a drain nearby had blocked and backed up somewhere in the street. With water gathering in many places, there were several candidates for the source. Across the previous three days, blockages like that had happened with regularity, but this time the smell was different. It was the type of stench that hits you instinctively. Where a deep primal part of you recognises that, whatever the source, it must be avoided for fear of disease or danger. Still, I tried to at least keep the mood light.
'Did you fart?' I asked Zena. She laughed as usual. I was the only person she would let talk to her like that.
'You must be smelling yourself,' she replied.
'Seriously, what is that? It smells like your mum’s cooking, Zita.' Robert clawed at his nose as if hoping the smell would rub off.
We stood still for a moment in the street. I could feel the hesitancy of us all because of the rotten scent. 'It’s just a drain. Sewage probably.'
'Ewww,' came Max’s reply.
'You want to go home?' I asked, hopefully.
Max looked up at me, his Gruffalo hood slipping over his eyes again. 'One more,' he said, pulling the hood back so he could see. 'Then we can go home and see what we got!' He held up his bag of goodies and then dashed through a garden gate to the left. It was the bravest he had been all night. In fact, it may have been the bravest he had ever been in his life. What brought on this change, I do not know. In my darker moments, I consider that he was being reeled in by something.
Robert, Zita, and I gave chase up a straight garden path, our feet clipping concrete slabs that were in bad need of alignment. The house before us was much like most of the houses in our neighbourhood. There were no mansions, no sprawling estates, just four in a block cottage flats one after the other which looked innocuous.
Before I could get to Max, I could already see that something was wrong. He was standing at the door at the side of the house which accessed the bottom flat. In shards of dim light from the orange street lights nearby, I could see that his face was paler than usual.
Nearing the front door and grabbing Max, I reprimanded him immediately: 'Dad said I have to look after you. Do you know what would happen to me if you ran off like that and had an accident?'
We both knew what would happen: nothing. Dad was a big softy and if Max fell over and cracked his arm, he would have given me a stern talking to about responsibility and looking out for my little brother, but little more than that.
Max did not respond. He looked up at me and his expression was a wary one. I was used to my brother being timid, but this was more than shyness, more than caution. This was fear.
'What’s wrong?' asked Zita, catching up to us with Robert.
'Max got carried away,' I said.
But my brother still said nothing.
'Max,' said Robert, wiping rain from his eyes. 'What’s got you so spooked?'
Again, my little brother did not reply. He just looked scared.
My patience was wearing thin. When I was about to drag him by the arm out of the garden and back home, we all heard it. The door next to us opened, almost inaudibly against the thick patter of rain on the ground. A chill ran through me, and, as I still held Max’s shoulders in front me, I turned my head to look inside. I expected to see someone at the door waiting to hand out treats to us, but instead all I saw was the blackness of an unlit hallway.
'Hello?' Zita asked loudly.
No reply was given.
Robert stepped forward towards the door and then recoiled instantly holding his nose. 'Holy crap that smells bad.'
He was right. Coming from the darkness within was the same stench we had encountered when first walking down Grier street.
Zita pushed past Robert, her hand resting on the door frame. 'It smells like it’s coming from in there.'
Being the bravest of the brave, I offered my usual suggestion when confronted with fear: 'Let’s go home.' Max said nothing in response, but he slipped his hand into mine and cowered under my arm.
'It’s just a door, Max,' I said, trying to sound reassuring. 'Nothing to be scared of.' I peered into the darkness. 'Someone probably just forgot to lock the door when they went out and the wind blew it open.'
'It smells like Zita when she doesn’t take a bath,' joked Robert, still holding his nose.
Zita turned to us. Instead of her usual retort, she looked anxious.
'Are you okay, Zita?' It unnerved me to see her so uncomfortable with the situation.
'Look,' she said, pointing to the doorframe.
My blood ran cold. The lock had been smashed open, taking a large chunk of wood out of the frame for good measure. Someone had broken into the house.
'Let’s go home,' Max finally said, breaking his silence while tugging at my arm and sounding more like me by the minute.
I wanted to, but Zita, as usual, wanted to do the right thing: 'We should call the police or something. Someone might be hurt in there.'
'I don’t have any credit in mine.' Robert was always tight with money.
'You don’t need money in your phone to call the police, idiot.' Zita started dialing from her own mobile.
'Call Dad,' Max said.
I did not want to call anyone. All I wanted was to get the hell out of there. The darkness of the hallway made me nervous. I could not quite see all the way in, and an unsettling feeling of being watched from inside soon pervaded my mind.
Zita was now on the line to an operator. 'Hello, I think there’s been a break-in... 186 Grier Street. I don’t know if someone is hurt inside.'
Robert wiped more rain from his forehead. 'Right, I’m getting soaked. What now?'
'Maybe we should go inside and see if anyone is hurt?' suggested Zita, hanging up the phone.
Robert wore an expression of incredulity. 'And is that what the police said we should do?'
'No, they said we should walk up the street and wait for the police. But I think we should see if anyone needs our help in there. By the time the police arrive, it might be too late.'
'No. We have Max with us,' I said forcefully. 'Even if we didn’t. We’re kids ourselves. Let the police deal with it.'
I thought I heard Max say 'let’s go' quietly, but another noise took my attention from those words. It was a groan from inside the house. One loud enough to pierce the increasing patter of rain around us.
'Someone is hurt! See?' Zita almost sounded proud that she was right.
'It could be whoever broke in… We need to get Max out of here…' Just as I said this, we collectively recoiled in horror as something crawled along the floor of the hall at speed towards us.
Robert let out a gasp of sorts and ran. I fell over, pulling Max down on top of me, and then... Zita was gone. The door slammed shut, but because the lock was broken the door frame rebuffed the violent bang. The door rattled on its hinges and then shuddered open again.
Max was crying, holding onto me for dear life.
I struggled to my feet, hauling him and his wet fur up with me. Panic throttled through my veins and I found myself shouting the words "Zita" and "Robert", hoping that my braver friends would somehow make it all right; that they would be able to laugh and joke and make me feel better like they always had. The only answer I received, however, was the rain from above shattering on the ground at my feet and dripping into my eyes with icy precision.
Robert was fast and was by that time probably half-way out of the street.
Whatever he had seen had caused one of the bravest kids I knew to run for dear life. I did not blame him. I would have done the same, if not for having my little brother with me. My head was spinning from the fall. As I righted myself, the mouth of the open doorway standing before me, an image of what had crawled along the floor towards us from the darkness entered my mind. A broken shard of memory almost too horrible to consider. It was of something dark and with arms... Yet how many?
Returning to my usual, though now magnified, well of caution and fear, I grabbed Max and pulled him down the garden path towards the pavement of Grier Street. The rain clattered around us like thunder and my gaze darted around me looking for Robert. But panic had driven him far away. And 'far away' was a place I too desired to be; more than anything.
The fear pushed me on. I almost lifted my brother off his feet by his costume as I moved quickly against the rain, up the street away from that gaping doorway and whatever lay inside. Just as the corner and end of Grier street came into view, I heard another sound. It was like cold water thrown over me, waking me from my cowardice. I had never heard Zita scream before, but on that dreadful Halloween night, the cutting sound of her cries stretched out through the wall of rain, across the garden path and up the street towards me. It struck at my heart.
And yet I could not face it.
Running across the street with Max in tow, I knocked on doors one after the other, desperate to find an adult to relieve me of the burden of action. Yet no one answered. What they probably heard underneath the now deafening rain, if they heard me at all, were the knocks of simple trick-or-treaters who they wished to avoid. No one was going to help us.
Zita's cries penetrated the rain once more. My mind was now as torrential as the world around me. My instinct was to leave that place and find safety, but just as I was about to abandon my friend, it was my brother who saved me from that pit of shame. As if sensing my desire to run home, he tugged on my arm, looked up at me with his shy brown eyes and said: 'Zita's our friend'.
Something happened to me in those words. A sense of duty, I suppose. Perhaps I did not want to be the coward I truly was, at least in my brother's eyes. He had always looked up to me, and in that moment I think I knew how important it truly was to feel that love and belief. I would not shatter that. Of course, I wanted to help Zita, but that was the moment that transformed inaction into action.
Kneeling down, I looked at Max face-to-face. His Gruffalo outfit was soaked through, and the fake brown fur dripped with rain. I pulled back the yellow-eyed hood and wiped his face with my hands, affectionately pinching his cheek. He squirmed and smiled. Even in the darkest moment, he found time to be a kid.
'See that tree over there, Max?' I said, pointing to a solitary evergreen which had long ago been planted on the corner of the street.
'I want you to go and stand under it, okay? Get out of the rain and as soon as you see the police, you go and you tell them what happened at the door. Show them the house.'
I could see the uncertainty in Max's eyes. He did not want to leave me or for me to leave him. 'What are you going to do?'
A shaking scream once more met my ears from the darkness of that house across the street. 'I'm going to save our friend.'
Rushing across the street, I glanced over my shoulder to see Max standing safely beneath the bows of the tree. They would not catch all the rain, but at least the thick pines would keep him partially dry.
When I came to the gate of the house, I hesitated momentarily. The rank smell from inside fingered its way down the path towards me. And yet, I pushed on. Soon, I stood once more in front of the open doorway, its darkness still gaping and hollow.
Straining my ears, I hoped to hear what would have been the comforting sound of police sirens coming to save the day. That was not to be. It was not the time for being saved. I opened my mouth to shout Zita's name, but then realised that I would be revealing my presence to whoever or whatever had taken her. Instead, I pulled out my phone and switched the flashlight feature on, which at least allowed me to see a few feet ahead, like a lonely candle.
As I crossed the threshold into the house, the light made something immediately apparent. The floor was covered in what I can only describe as a putrid black slime. It reminded me of the trails garden slugs sometimes leave behind. In my mind, I imagined the underbelly of whatever had crawled along the hall towards us and snatched Zita; its festering body smearing the wooden floor with its vile lubricant. But the glimpse I had already had of it gave the suggestion of a humanlike figure, at least in part, crawling with its hands in front of it.
The rain behind me now seemed a comfort compared to the damp interior of the hall. From what I could see with my phone, the house was well kept. I had half expected to see cobwebs covering furniture and photographs, like a haunted house from an old Vincent Price movie. But though there were photographs on the wall showing a man with a happy smile standing with what looked like his family, the frames were clean. The hall itself was decorated neatly. And yet, it had been corrupted with what was on the floor.
Taking a deep breath and moving forward, the floor dulled the sound of my feet somewhat, even though it was wooden. With each footstep, resistance came. Whatever residue was on the floor, it was peculiarly sticky. And the stench was nearly unbearable. Like a drain blocked with something dead.
My mind returned to the police. Again, I thought that I could run, that I could turn and wait with my little brother outside by the evergreen tree; wait for the flashing lights and the grown-ups to deal with whatever horrors lay in that house. As if responding to my uncertainty, I heard something from another room. It sounded like someone moving around.
Whispering, I said my friend's name. 'Zita'
This was answered by a loud noise, like something blindly fumbling around. Beneath the moving sound, I was certain that I heard a momentary gasping breath. Closing my eyes, I thought of Zita before opening them again and moving forward. Carefully, I approached the doorway at the end of the hall where the noise had come from, unsure of what I was about to encounter. I pushed the door open. It did not creak. I was glad of that, for though I wished to save my friend from whatever had taken her, I did not want to face whatever had crawled toward us.
I was now standing in a bedroom. Outside, I could see the orange hue from a streetlamp peeking in towards me through a gap in the curtains. At first, I thought there was nothing unusual about the room, seeing only a double bed and some bedroom furniture around me. But then I noticed what looked like the same slimy residue on the bed sheets. This dark sticky substance covered something on top of the bed. Leaning down I looked closer, not daring to touch it.
It was a piece of torn cloth. Red cloth, to be precise. I did not need to be a detective to know where it came from. It had been torn from Zita's Halloween costume. My heart sank. A bead of rainwater, which had been nestled no doubt in my hair, trickled down my forehead, and so I wiped it away with my hand. A gasping figure then sat up from behind the other side of the bed, previously hidden on the floor. The thing reached out and grabbed my wrist, squeezing intensely. I was nearly sick at the sight of it.
There was no face to speak of. Just black and red ooze which dripped from the head, and on part of the grasping hand I thought I saw what looked like fingernails, green-tinged and digging into the skin of my wrist. The skin was swollen in places and warped to the touch. The figure clambered up on the side of the bed, pushing me onto my back. I fought back, but the thing was too strong. Dark gunge dripped from its head into my eyes, and as I felt the weight of its body on top of me, it was then that something struck it violently on the head. The creature let out a horrid gasp and as it did so relinquished its grip of my wrist.
Instinctively, I wriggled out from under it and fell onto the floor nearest the door. Looking up, I saw another figure leaning over me, covered in dripping dark ooze. But before I could identify the features, the girl grabbed me by the hand and said: 'Let's get out of here!'
I knew then that it was Zita, her voice filled with fear. She was covered head to toe in the horrible substance I had seen on the floor, but she seemed to be unharmed other than this and so quickly led me out of the room and down the hallway. Dragging itself behind us, we heard the figure by the bed stumbling out from the room and letting out a horrid gurgling noise. With its hands slamming against the floor, it pulled itself towards us at an alarming speed. Just as we made it out into the rain, we slammed the front door shut. The creature grabbed the door handle on the other side and tried to pull it to get at us. All we could do was hold onto the outside handle for dear life. We yanked back with all our might.
With no door lock, there was nothing else we could do. The door shook and strained and shuddered. Each time it gave slightly, it pulled away from us, beginning to open into the darkness, before Zita and I were able to pull it towards us again. It clattered against the door frame. The rain blinded us, as it was now as torrential as it had ever been in my life. The countless drops of water beat down against my face. I could hardly see, but I did not let go of that door handle, not even to wipe my eyes. Behind the door, horrid groans and garbled noises came, and then, finally, nothing.
Zita and I looked at each other. We were breathless. The rain had mixed with the viscous slime which covered Zita's hair and face, revealing some of her to me. Though her eyes were wide and white with terror, I was just glad to see her in one piece.
We waited for a few moments, then came a loud sound of broken glass. Still holding onto the handle, I turned to my right only to see a dark, hulking shape leaving the garden on its belly and clambering out into the street.
'Max!' I shouted.
'Where is he?' Zita said anxiously.
'He's out in the street across the road!'
We ran. The rain crashed around our ears like the waves of a ferocious sea. I have never ran so fast in my life. My feet pounded the soaked concrete of the street, and as the rain and wind reached a crescendo, I thought I heard another scream. The cry of a helpless six-year-old.
Reaching where Max had once stood beneath the evergreen, we saw that he was gone. Inches of water lay on the ground, erasing any evidence of what had happened or any hope of tracking the creature.
'It must have taken him!' Zita screamed above the torrid roar.
At that moment, a greater fear than anything I had previously experienced visited itself upon me; the fear of losing my brother.
We looked all over, behind garden fences and hedges, under cars, anywhere we could think. But the rain had covered the thing's tracks completely. As hope began to abandon me, I saw something moving at the other end of the street. It was hard to see through the black sheets of rain, but enough street light caught its shadows. The rain cascaded along the street towards it. Something was hunched over a manhole cover, and a body lay next to it.
We ran towards the thing, screaming and yelling, trying to get it to chase us and leave Max alone; but our cries were dimmed and suffocated by the storm which now took domain over all.
As we drew closer, the glistening hunched shape was pushing itself down through the manhole to the sewer beneath. Its body squeezed and writhed as though it were too big to enter the opening. The rainwater cascaded down the street now with increasing force, reaching over my shoes and above my ankles. As the creature pulled itself down under the street, the water flooded down on top of it, and we were now a few anxious steps away. The water warped the beam of the street lights, and I saw for the first time that the creature's flesh had a dark green tinge to it. Like black mould spread on rotten grass and leaves.
As the shape disappeared into the darkness, its many fingered hand reached back out to grab at Max's body, which was now all but covered by the torrential water; a motionless, brown-furred shape which in the blackness of the night only suggested the outline of my dear, sweet brother. I cried out at the thing in the sewer to leave what was left of my brother. As its sludging black-green hands pulled Max down inside the hole, Zita and I were finally close enough to act. We fell to the ground at the opening and reached in. The water washed over us, threatening to pull us under. I flailed blindly and then saw one of the yellow eyes of Max's costume in the dim light. I plunged my hand towards it and quickly grabbed hold of it. Then, I reached down further and grasped hold of Max's arm.
A horrid stench filled the air. 'His costume!' I yelled, the flood water filling my mouth.
Zita instinctively knew what I meant. She reached down with me, pulling at Max's Halloween costume. The fur was wet and heavy, but as we pulled my brother's head and then shoulders out of the costume, the thing down in the darkness must have realised it was losing its grip. Three long fingered hands reached up through the flowing water and wrapped around Max's upper body. Then they squeezed. A terrible cackle came from the sewer, and the thing then dug its long fingers into its prey.
It was stronger than us, but the slime and water gave us just one chance. As I gasped for air and grew certain I would drown, I stuck one of my hands down between its lone wart-covered fingers.
'Pull!' I screamed through the water.
Zita must have heard me. She grabbed my legs and pulled with all her might. It was enough. We wrenched Max's legs out of his costume. I felt a sharp pain and lurched back as Max slipped upward through the manhole with us, back onto the flooded street. The three of us lay in a crumpled heap for a moment, gasping for air. The road was now obscured by half a foot of water, and I saw a face momentarily emerge from beneath it, up through the manhole cover. The water warped its appearance, but it now had eyes, and they stared at me.
Blue flashing lights came. The sound of sirens. Water filled my mouth. I saw Max standing, alive and shivering, almost naked. I felt so relieved to see my brother in one piece. Yet he and Zita looked at me with shock and horror in their eyes. I tried to pull myself up, but something was wrong. The damned thing had cut off my hand.
You might think that losing a hand would be traumatic enough. But there was more to it than that. It took several weeks and three surgeries to save as much of my shredded wrist and arm as they could, but the hand was gone. Taken as food or a memento, or perhaps even just cast aside as meaningless garbage by that creature living down there in the drains and sewers.
Zita and Robert visited me regularly. Max barely left my side. The four of us knew what had happened, but the police and our parents seemed resistant to the idea that something hideous lived beneath our neighbourhood, despite the evidence. The surgeon who operated on me stated that my wounds were inconsistent. He said my injuries reminded him of a patient years ago who had caught his hand in a threshing machine.
Robert apparently ran to our house to get my dad that night. At least he had not totally abandoned us. I told him not to blame himself for running. Fear does strange things to people. I do not think he ever fully forgave himself, though. In some way I think being around me, missing hand and all, reminded him too much of, in his eyes, letting us down. We drifted apart eventually.
Of course, Zita and I are still friends. We talk once a month and she comes to visit a few times a year. She either cannot or chooses to not remember what happened to her in the house when she was taken by the creature. I do not press her on this. We all have a right to forget if it saves us from sleepless nights.
As for Max, he fully recovered. I guess after that I really was a hero to him, and even now that he is at college and I have kids of my own, he still treats me like I am something special. We are close. And we talk about everything. Well, almost everything. That night is a blindspot which we rarely visit, and though I am glad that I saved my brother, I can never feel worthy of being a hero. Because what we encountered in the bedroom of that house was not the creature from the sewers. It was the owner of the house, and he died a brutal death that night. For we had held the door too tightly, blocking his escape.