Chapter One

 

“Give me my mp3 player back!” Callie Steinman grappled with her brother Corey Steinman in the backseat but they were both tied down by the seatbelts around them.

Cory stuck his tongue out at his sister as his hands held the mp3 player above his head. Callie didn’t like that and she continued to strain against her seatbelt as Cory laughed.

“Can you guys not fight every time we are in the car?” Their mother sighed from behind the driver’s seat.

“But Mom! He has my player!” Callie whined in a high pitched voice that made Cory grimace. He hated it when Callie used the ‘Mom’ card.

“Cory, hand over the player and sit still!” His mom said and nervously glanced at the clock on the dashboard.

The car barely crawled with all the traffic on the road and Cory could tell that his mom didn’t want to be late. Cory’s mom hated being tardy. She was always one of the first parents to arrive at the parent teacher conferences (It wasn’t a good thing for him because that gave her the chance to listen as his teacher complained about how Cory had a penchant for mischief), dentist appointments etc. At home, his mom would leave the house fifteen minutes before seven, dropping the two off at the bus stop and driving off in their red minivan.

Cory gave Callie the player and his reward was a flick to his forehead. He sent her a glare but Callie was too busy plugging in her earphones and bobbing her head to the music.

“What is it? Some silly boy band?” Cory sneered but Callie was too into the music.

Cory and Callie may be twins but Cory was convinced that they had somehow been switched at birth. It was a fantasy he had harbored for a while but as they grew up, the similarities between them became too striking for him to entertain the possibility. They both had light brown hair with hazel eyes. They had the same builds and were roughly the same height.

On Cory, the hair was short and his bangs covered his forehead. Callie’s hair was longer, brushing past her shoulders. Her hair was past her back two weeks ago but Cory still remembered how much Callie had shouted and pleaded to cut her hair, complaining that it wasn’t fashionable enough. While Cory thought the whole thing was stupid, he couldn’t help but think that his sister was persistent. Mom was usually strict and required a good reason to do something. It was only Callie’s cajoling that had snagged the deal for her.

Right now, they were on their way to Uncle Rudy’s house. Cory didn’t exactly remember Uncle Rudy. Mom said that Uncle Rudy used to come by often until their sixth birthday but Cory couldn’t recall any of his features. From what Mom told them, Uncle Rudy lived with their grandmother and ran a clothing shop.

Callie had started to hum along and Cory resisted the urge to tear off the headphones. He didn’t have any mp3 player of his own. Callie had gotten it for their birthday because of ‘good grades and behavior’ but Cory had gotten a football instead. He had dropped hints ten days before the birthday for a new game but they were ignored. He knew what Mom was insinuating, she wanted him to go outside and play. Every time Cory tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that he couldn’t play, it was as none of his friends played outside. They all played games on the computer or game systems. His Mom just happened to be old fashioned.

“Uncle Rudy has a computer right? And internet?” Cory ventured to ask.

“I am not sure,” Cory saw Mom frown through side view mirror. “I think so.”

Cory groaned softly. “How long did you say this trip was for?”

“A week,” Mom pressed the horn, her eyes on the congested road.

“What kind of work?”

“Cory,” Mom’s voice bordered on exasperation and annoyance. “I am a bit stressed right now with the traffic, could you ask me the question again when we get out of this?”

Cory didn’t like that answer but he could see that she wasn’t exaggerating so he leaned back into his seat and gazed out of the window. It was midday and the sun glared through the glass. It was one of those rare hot spring days. At least they had air conditioning inside the car. Cory drummed his fingers on the car seat. They had set out from home at seven and Mom had told them that it would take three hours to go to Uncle Rudy’s place. Thinking that, Cory figured he didn’t need to have his game console out and had put it on the outside of his bag which was now in the back. He couldn’t get out and take it now without attracting mom’s attention. Callie had her music and Cory was stuck doing nothing.

I could take a nap. Cory said to himself. He entertained the idea and closed his eyes.

A second later the car lurched forward.

“Yes.” Mom breathed from the front seat.

The car ran smoothly now and Cory was distracted by the buildings zooming past them. Mom had told him that Uncle Rudy’s store was in an isolated area. As that thought passed his head, Cory prayed that it didn’t ruin his chance of getting internet. What else was he going to do there?

Sure, Mom had made them pack in their spring break homework but who did homework during the first week of the holidays? He was already put down by her emergency trip; he had made big plans with his friends. His best friend Ben had said that his brother would take them to the amusement park and he had really been looking forward to that. That was until Mom announced that she was leaving for a week.

The day of that outing was tomorrow and Cory found himself wishing it would rain. He didn’t want to be the one who was regaled with details of how much they had enjoyed themselves while he was stuck in a clothing store without internet.

“You were asking something?” Mom peered at him through the mirror, her face returning back to normal.

“I was asking about your work.”

“It’s a conference,” Mom explained. “I was asked by the company to go.”

“You’ll be back in a week right?” Callie interrupted. She had taken off her headphones and set down the player. Cory figured that the player was low on charge and she wanted to conserve it. “I have Stacy’s sleepover and I can’t miss it.”

“I’ll be back in a week,” Mom reassured her. “I am sure you’ll have fun at Uncle Rudy’s.”

Cory wanted to scoff but didn’t want the risk of annoying his mother so he kept his mouth shut.

“Are there any chips left?” Callie said dropping the subject. The rest of the drive was smooth. Callie let Cory take her mp3 player and Cory was glad to see that not all of her music was of the pop genre. It eased his boredom as Callie munched on her chips.

“Almost there,” Mom muttered and Cory sat up. He turned to the window to see and it didn’t seem like a bad place. It was almost like the neighborhood they lived in, perhaps a bit lonely. He did spot some kids and wondered if Uncle Rudy would let them go to town. Cory liked making friends and it might help pass the time in case Uncle Rudy didn’t have internet.

Cory watched the suburbs disappear behind him as they kept on driving.

Mom wasn’t kidding when she said Uncle Rudy’s house was far away, Cory thought to himself.

She finally stopped the car in front of a building. It was more of a house really; he could see the clothes displayed on the mannequin through the front window.  There were blue curtains acting as background for the mannequins and Cory got a weird feeling as he stared at them. Callie hopped out and Cory followed. Mom opened the back door and started lugging out the luggage.

“A little help?” she said and Cory went to take his bag from her. Callie was staring at the store in awe.

“It looks cool,” Callie said.

Cory wouldn’t have used the same words to describe it. Now that he was out of the car, he could see that the paint was flaking and the wall was cracked. Mom had said Uncle Rudy was doing well for himself.

He probably didn’t have time to redecorate.

Cory pushed away his uncharitable thoughts. He was here for a week, he would see his uncle and grandmother for the first time, best to enjoy himself right?

They didn’t have to wait because the front door opened with a tinkle and his uncle walked out.

Uncle Rudy was taller than his mother with messy brown hair. He had a full beard and his clothes were wrinkled as if he had gotten out of bed wearing them. As he came towards them, Cory saw a red spot on his white shirt.

“Lilly, nice to see you,” Uncle Rudy said to his mother and gave her a hug.

“Rudy, how are you?” Mom asked.

“Good.”

“Mom?”

“Same,” Uncle Rudy sighed. He turned to the kids. “Nice to see you guys. I bet you don’t remember me.”

“I do,” Cory knew Callie was lying but Uncle Rudy grinned at her.

“That’s great. Why don’t you guys come on in?” Uncle Rudy said.

“I better get going. I have to drive home and pack, my flight is tonight.” Mom said.

“You sure?” Uncle Rudy said concerned.

“I’ll be fine. The traffic probably let go.” Mom said and suddenly gathered the kids. “Be good okay? I’ll talk to you guys every night.”

“How are we going to do that?” Cory blurted and Uncle Rudy smiled.

“I do have a telephone.”

“I almost forgot.” Mom said and took out a cell phone. “For emergency. I don’t want you bothering Uncle Rudy too much. Don’t misuse it.”

“Yes, mom,” Cory said brightly and took it. Mom gave them another hug and got into the car.

“I’ll call you guys tonight,” She said as she backed up. They waved for a while until she disappeared along the road

“Let’s go inside,” Uncle Rudy took Callie and Cory’s bags from them.

“When are we going to the house?” Callie asked casually and Uncle Rudy burst out laughing.

“Didn’t your mom tell you?” Uncle Rudy said. “This is the house.”

“No way,” Cory muttered as they walked into the store.

It looked nicer on the inside. Cory had to admit that. The walls were bright and the flooring was wood so that when they stepped on it, a click echoed. Racks of clothes were against the wall to the left. On the right was the counter; behind the counter were different colored fabrics and an undressed mannequin. There was also a sewing machine.

“What do you think of my store?” Uncle Rudy asked hopefully.

“It’s great,” Cory said sincerely. “Do a lot of people come here?”

“Yeah, today’s an off day,” Uncle Rudy said.

He pushed the corner most part of the counter and it swung open. Uncle Rudy passed through with their bags and the two followed. There was a door which they opened and Cory saw stairs leading upstairs. The stairs were like attic stairs. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied another door hidden in the shadows but didn’t pay much attention to it.

“This is so bizarre,” Cory heard Callie murmur. Uncle Rudy went up, disappearing head first and Callie followed.

They emerged in a hallway which was plainer than the store. There were two doors opposite each other in the hallway while Cory could see three doors on the straight path ahead. Uncle Rudy dropped the bags in front of the door to the right.

“I was thinking you guys could share a room. I brought up my camp bed.”

Cory couldn’t hide his disdain. He didn’t want to share a room and he could see that Callie had the same thought but he couldn’t protest so he nodded dully. Uncle Rudy opened the door and Cory saw the room was airy with little furniture. There was a musty smell in the air.

“I haven’t used this room in a while,” Uncle Rudy admitted. “I never saw the use of using it.”

Cory didn’t say anything as he stared at the beds. The camp bed didn’t look that bad but he wasn’t going to volunteer to sleep on it. He and Callie were going to talk about that.

“This is the bathroom,” Uncle Rudy indicated the door opposite theirs.

“My room is that way,” Uncle Rudy pointed at the middle door at the end of the hallway.

“In case you need something,”

“Where’s Grandma’s room?” Callie piped up.

“It’s the one to my left,” Uncle Rudy said. “The other room is the kitchen so if you are hungry you can go in anytime.”

Cory’s stomach grumbled. He hadn’t had anything to sustain him during the car ride except the chips that Mom had bought. That wasn’t enough to fill his stomach.

“Why don’t you guys settle in?” Uncle Rudy suggested. “When you are done, you can come to the kitchen for lunch.”

Uncle Rudy left them, closing the door behind them. It was quiet for a few seconds before Callie suddenly burst out,

“First one to the bed sleeps on it!”

Cory started late but they both jumped for the bed and landed in it.

“We can’t both sleep on it!” Cory said, pushing Callie.

“Stop pushing!” Callie retaliated and they had a mini wrestling match on top of the bed. It went on for a few minutes until Callie called a time out.

“Look how about this,” Callie said slowly. “We’ll switch every night.”

“How do we decide who sleeps tonight?” Cory said doubtfully.

“Rock, paper, scissors,” Callie said promptly.

Cory had to admit her idea was good so he extended his clenched hand.

“Rock paper scissors!” they both said at the same time and threw out their pick. Cory let out a frustrated groan as Callie grinned in victory. He had thrown scissors to her rock.

“Scissors never win,” Cory grumbled under his breath. “Don’t try to double cross me.”

“I won’t,” Callie said happily.

Cory didn’t trust his sister but he wouldn’t go back on his word so glumly he put his bag down on the camp bed. On an afterthought, he leaned close to the pillow and took a sniff. His face wrinkled in disgust. It smelled like old feet. How was he going to sleep on it?

Callie left to take a shower.

Clean freak, Cory thought as he changed his clothes. He didn’t need a shower. She took a long time and Cory didn’t wait for her. He went to the kitchen.

The kitchen area was small with a fridge and stove. It wasn’t like their kitchen which had pans hung on the walls with cabinets filled with cereal and bowls. There was one cabinet here but it was closed. Uncle Rudy had his back turned to Cory as he stood in front of his old microwave.

It wasn’t only the kitchen; it was attached to the living room which was small. The living room itself had one sofa with a decent looking TV. Unable to resist its lure, Cory reached for the remote on the small table beside the sofa. He switched it in and was met by static.

Cory was disappointed; he knew it was too good to be true.

“Sorry about that Cory,” Uncle Rudy said. “I have cable; I have to attach the wire. I’ll do it after lunch.”

Cory brightened up and went to the small round table in the middle of the kitchen. “Can I help?”

“I am done,” Uncle Rudy set down a bowl of chicken salad. “I don’t usually cook much so I don’t know how it’ll taste.”

“Don’t you cook for grandma?” Cory said confused.

Uncle Rudy coughed. “I meant that I usually don’t cook for myself. Your grandma has soup.”

Cory didn’t say anything but Uncle Rudy seemed flustered. He started when he hit the chair leg. Cory sat down at the table and Uncle Rudy set a plate in front of him.

“Where’s, um, your sister?” Uncle Rudy said.

“She is coming.”

Callie walked in then, freshly showered, with wet hair and new clothes.

“Don’t you have a hair dryer, Uncle Rudy?”

“I don’t,” Uncle Rudy confirmed and Cory snickered.

Callie had to have her hair perfect all the time and she frowned as she sat down. Uncle Rudy served them both and despite his Uncle’s misgivings, Cory found that the food wasn’t half bad. They chatted about small things. Uncle Rudy did the typical adult thing, asking them about school which Cory answered monotonously and Callie went into a speech about.

Cory did manage to ask Uncle Rudy about his laptop and internet. Uncle Rudy said he had both but his internet was a dial up connection which he had gotten a while ago. Cory tried to be positive. He had TV and the laptop. He could spend a week.

“Do you go into town often?” Callie asked.

“When I need to shop for groceries,” Uncle Rudy said. “Do you want to tag along?”

Callie nodded. “Mom said that the park here was nice.”

“It is,” Uncle Rudy agreed. “You guys could hang out with the other kids there. I think they are on break now.”

Cory didn’t show it but he was excited for that. He was an active person though he didn’t get the chance to run around at home. This would be the appropriate distraction for him. It had gotten off to a good start so far.

 

Chapter Two

 

“Uncle Rudy is nice isn’t he?” Callie commented when Uncle Rudy left them.

They were in the living room and Uncle Rudy had gone to check on Grandma. Callie had asked to see her so Uncle Rudy went to check if she was awake. Cory nodded at Callie’s question. He was accommodating and he really seemed to be trying to make their stay enjoyable.

“Do you think we should call mom?” Callie said.

“We can ask Uncle Rudy when he comes,” Cory said. He wasn’t very fussed about it.

Uncle Rudy came in and his face said it all.

“Your grandma is sleeping,” he said apologetically. “She sleeps most of the time because she is on a lot of medicine.”

“Can’t we see her?” Callie bit her lip and Uncle Rudy considered it.

“Come on then,” Uncle Rudy said finally.

Callie smiled and Cory followed the two of them. He was curious to see his grandma too. This would be their first meeting. Cory knew he wouldn’t get to talk to grandma but it would be great to see her. Uncle Rudy opened the door by a fraction and ushered them forward. They went over and he put his finger to his lips.

“We have to be quiet or she might wake up. The doctor told me not to wake her,” Uncle Rudy whispered.

They peeked through the gap and all Cody could see was a dark room. Through the light from the door, he saw a lump on the bed and fabric peeking through the top. Too quickly, Uncle Rudy closed the door.

“I think that’s enough for now. Why don’t you guys watch TV while I get some work done?”

He left them and it was only when Cory returned to the living that he recalled that Uncle Rudy hadn’t hooked the cable yet and neither had they asked if they should call their mother or not.

“Do you think we should disturb him?” Callie said uncertainly as he pointed it out.

“We have to tell him right. Mom said we can use the cell phone on emergencies only.”

“You are right,” Callie said.

“Let’s go.”

With that, they went to the stairs and began to descend. As they neared the bottom, Cory saw the dark door again. This time, he wanted to see what was inside.

“Hey, wanna check it out?” Cory poked Callie and pointed at the door.

“Why?” Callie said. “Isn’t that private?”

“Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?” Cory was already heading for the door.

“Cory, Uncle Rudy might get mad,” Callie said nervously but Cory was already twisting the knob.

The door wasn’t locked and it swung easily. They were greeted by a layer of dust. Both coughed and tried to blow it away.

“Ugh, how long has this been closed?” Cory said.

“I don’t think it’s been closed that long,” Callie said. “I think no one cleans it.”

Cory saw what she was seeing. It was a large dark room. They could see outlines but it was too dark to see what the outlines were of.

“There has to be a light switch,” Cory started running his hands along the wall until it met something solid. His fingers flipped the switch and the room flooded with light.

Callie gave a little shriek. “What is this place?”

Cory didn’t know what to say. The room was filled with mannequins. Some had no arms, others had no legs and there were some mannequins which were just torsos. It was eerie to see so many mannequins in one room.

“Why do you think Uncle Rudy has so many mannequins?” Callie whispered.

“For his work,” Cory said but he wasn’t too sure of his answer.

Tentatively the two took a step forward and stopped when they heard how their footsteps echoed. They continued onward, passing the mannequins and going deeper into the room. Cory expected there to be something else but it was only mannequins. A lot of them were dismantled and Callie yelped every time she saw one. Two mannequins of their height and size were lying side by side. He was about to turn back when he saw one mannequin in the corner.

It was propped upright and looked worn out from use. The face was blank which wasn’t unusual for a mannequin. As he got closer, he saw that it had red splotches on it.

“Is that paint?” Callie said.

“Maybe,” Cory said. “It looks old.”

“I guess Uncle Rudy used it before,” Callie said. “Can we go please?”

Cory tore his eyes away from the mannequin and they backed out of the room, closing the door carefully. Callie relaxed and Cory let out a sigh of relief. He hadn’t shown it like Callie but the room had made him uncomfortable.

“Let’s go find Uncle Rudy,” said Callie.

Cory and Callie went into the shop and they found Uncle Rudy hunched over his sewing machine behind the corner. He was concentrating on sewing so he didn’t notice when they entered. Cory knocked the glass counter with his shoe and it made a tinkle. Uncle Rudy sat up straight and looked at them.

“Oh it’s you guys,” Uncle Rudy said with extreme relief.

“Who else would it be?” Callie narrowed her eyes.

“Oh…um…since I live alone, I get scared easily.” Uncle Rudy wasn’t looking at them as he said it.

Cory almost felt like his Uncle was hiding something.

“What are you doing downstairs?” Uncle Rudy said.

“You didn’t hook up the cable,” Cory said.

“I didn’t,” Uncle Rudy repeated. “I’ll do it now.”

“Could you show us where the telephone is?” Callie requested. “I want to call Mom.”

“Already now?” Uncle Rudy stumbled over his words. “But you just arrived.”

“She might be worried,” Callie clarified.

Uncle Rudy didn’t say anything but he went back upstairs with them in tow. Callie and Cory watched as he attached the wire and, on Callie’s insistence, showed them the telephone inside his room. Cory stared around Uncle Rudy’s room as Callie dialed the number.

It was bare like their room but it had a dresser and a long mirror. There was a small bookshelf on the wall and Cory saw a book slightly out of line so he reached to put it back in. As he touched it, he felt a shiver. The book cover was different; it was rough to the touch. He had the urge to pull it out.

“Mom?” Callie’s voice woke his reverie.

Cory turned back, a little scared by the intensity of his feeling. Why had he wanted to do that?

“We ate. How are you doing?” Callie was saying.

Cory went to dutifully sit down beside Callie. After a few minutes, Callie handed him the phone.

“Mom?” Cory said.

“Cory?” His mom’s voice was breaking and there was a lot of noise coming through.

“Where are you?” Cory almost shouted.

“At the airport, my flight is soon. Are you settling in?”

“Yeah. What are you doing?”

Cory didn’t get the answer to his question because the call cut off them.

“Mom did say the reception was bad,” Callie explained as Cory put down the receiver.

Cory was a little down that he couldn’t get to talk to Mom. Callie must have understood as she started talking about something else.

“Uncle Rudy’s bed is really soft isn’t it?” Callie patted the bed. “We could jump on it.”

“You think?” Cory said distracted.

Callie nodded and she kicked her shoes off. She stood up on the bed and jumped slightly. Cory followed and soon they were jumping up on Uncle Rudy’s bed. In hindsight, they shouldn’t have done that, seeing as it was the first time they met their uncle but they were kids at heart.

Out of breath, they collapsed on Uncle Rudy’s crumpled covers.

“That was fun,” Cory gasped.

“Yeah but we should fix the bed.” Callie said worried. “Uncle Rudy might get mad at us if his bed is messed up.”

Cory wanted to remind her that it was her idea but he didn’t protest. They started to smooth out the bed and while it wasn’t like before, it was passable. They went to watch TV and it wasn’t as good as the TV they had at home, it still managed to occupy them.

Callie, like the nerd she was, used the time to do homework in the back as Cory watched his show. It was annoying that she was doing homework but Cory ignored her as best as he could. At least she wasn’t disturbing him. At home, they would get into frequent fights over the TV. Mom would step in and snatch the remote, ordering both of them upstairs.

They would snipe at each other afterwards pushing the blame.

Uncle Rudy didn’t come up until it was dark outside. Cory wanted to call his mom again but Uncle Rudy reminded him that Mom would be in the plane. They had dinner together and Cory was appropriately tired as Uncle Rudy told them to sleep. Not a peep was heard from his Grandma’s room but he did see Uncle Rudy go in with a tray.

In the room, Callie had laid out her pajamas and went to change as Cory fell back on his camp bed, unchanged. It creaked but it wasn’t bothersome. He turned over, his left side to the pillow and took a sniff experimentally. It wasn’t too bad; he would have to suffer it for a night.

Unconsciously he yawned and reached for his game console. He was playing when Callie came back, hair braided.

“That’s loud,” Callie complained and Cory pretended not to hear her. She harrumphed but didn’t say anything else. Cory continued to play and soon he heard the slow, even breaths of his sister. She had fallen asleep.

His eyes drooped a few minutes later and he put his game console down. Cory pulled up the blanket only to see that Callie hadn’t turned the lights off. He got out and turned the lights off, burying himself under the blanket. He drifted off to sleep.

 

Cory didn’t know what had woken him. His eyes opened and he stared at the ceiling.

Did I have a bad dream?

Callie was snoring softly but it wasn’t loud enough to be bothersome. Cory figured his sleep had broken for no reason so he closed his eyes.

Scratch. Scratch.

His eyes bolted open and he was alert. What was that?

It started a few seconds later. Cory sat up straight. Were there rats in the house? He recalled an instance when they had rats in their house and they would make noises in the night. Cory didn’t like rats.

Scratch. Scratch.

Cory’s heart pounded and he wanted to wake Callie up. How could she sleep through it? Cory tried to calm himself. He was on a bed; there was no way the rat could get to him. Even so, he gave the floor a quick sweep; there was no sign of rats. He relaxed slightly and heard the scratching sound.

This time he listened keenly. It wasn’t coming from the floors but the walls?

Going on his hunch, Cory pressed his ear to the wall. It was coming from there. His fear turned to puzzlement. Why would there be scratching noises from the walls? Unless the rats were inside the walls! His fear came back and he reached over to poke Callie.

“Mmmm,” Callie murmured as he continued to poke her.

“What’s wrong?” Callie mumbled.

“Callie, do you hear that?” Cory said urgently.

“Hear what?” Callie said in a low voice. He kept poking her and she shot up.

“What’s wrong with you?” Callie said rudely.

“Do you hear that?” Cory’s voice got louder.

“Hear—“Callie started but stopped. The scratching noise was faster and she tilted her head, listening.

“What is that?” Callie wondered.

“Could it be rats?”

“You and your rat phobia,” Callie rolled her eyes. “Not every house has rats.”

“It’s weird right? It’s coming from the walls!” Cory announced.

“Is it?” Callie said and she stepped off the bed. She did what Cory had done, put her ear against the wall and listened intently. She was rooted to that spot for a few seconds and drew back.

“You are right,” Callie said, gulping. “What do you think it is?”

“That’s what I am asking you!” Cory said impatiently.

“It can’t be rats. Rats don’t stay inside walls,” Callie said.

“Should we call Uncle Rudy?” Cory suggested.

“I don’t want to wake him up for this!” Callie said but her words had no weight. The scratching continued and Cory couldn’t take it anymore. He leapt off his bed.

“Where are you going?” Callie said when his hand reached the door knob.

“I am going to see where it’s coming from,” Cory said. “You can stay here.”

“Don’t be silly,” Callie said solicitously. “I am not letting you go alone.”

Cory could tell that it was for her benefit than his. She didn’t want to stay alone inside the room and he didn’t want to go alone. They both exited the room and were going to head for Uncle Rudy’s room when they heard something else.

The scratching was louder in the hall and there was a soft squeak, as if someone had stepped on a loose floor board. Cory turned to the stairs.

“It’s coming from downstairs,” Callie said what was on his mind.

“Do you think there’s someone in the store?” Cory said. “A burglar?”

“Maybe,” Callie said doubtfully.

Cory headed for the stairs and while Callie followed, she protested.

“We should wake Uncle Rudy now! If it’s a thief, we can’t do anything!” Callie kept saying it but she made no attempt to leave him. At the bottom of the stairs, it was clear that it wasn’t coming from the store.

It was coming through that door.

It was Cory’s turn to gulp. He didn’t want to go back to the creepy room with all the mannequins but he didn’t want to go back to his room. The scratching was quite loud and there was a rhythm to it.

Scratch scratch stop scratch scratch.

It was like Morse code but Cory didn’t know Morse code and he didn’t think someone would try to contact them through the wall.

Cory mustered all his courage as Callie grabbed his sleeve. His hand stretched out and closed on the door knob. The scratching stopped. Taking in a deep breath, he threw the door open.

Chapter Three

 

The feeling from the room was different.

It was terrifying. When Cory had entered the room before, there was the safety of knowing that it was light outside and Uncle Rudy was within shouting distance. At this moment, it was dark and Uncle Rudy was sleeping. They had no safety net.

The scratching had stopped completely and at first sight, the room was normal. But Cory’s heart didn’t stop racing, it thudded painfully against his ribs and a lump formed in his throat. Callie gripped his sleeve tightly.

“Let’s go,” she whispered. “There’s nothing here.”

Cory was inclined to agree and he backed away until the sound of a footstep echoed. It came from within the room and Cory’s eyes widened.

There was no one in the room, where was the sound coming from.

Step, step…

It was soft and deliberate. Cory couldn’t move and Callie wasn’t speaking. They stared at the direction of the room, seeing only unmoving mannequins. As they watched, a shadow appeared growing bigger. Their vision was obstructed by the metal shelf that held the mannequin heads.

Slowly they saw hints of the thing that was walking past the shelf. Every instinct in Cory told him to run but he was immobilized with fear.

When it came into their sight, both gasped.

It was the worn out mannequin, the one with red splotches of paint on it.  For a second, it stood still, its head turning creepily towards them. One side of the head was splattered with red. The thing that made their heart stop was the fact that it had no face. How was it seeing them without eyes?

“I-it’s m-moving!” Callie stammered.

The mannequin straightened in one quick motion and raised its foot.

“RUN!” Cory shouted, having realized its intent. He slammed the door shut as quick footsteps came from within. They ran up the stairs and as they did, Cory heard the door open behind. They were both screaming at the top of their voices, their steps fueled by adrenaline. Cory had never experienced this kind of danger and he wasn’t going to get caught by the mannequin.

They dashed inside the room and closed their door. The door had no locks and they put their weight against it, anticipating that the mannequin was going to try to open it. Their hunch was right. The door knob rattled and Cory put all his strength to keep it from turning.

“UNCLE RUDY!” Callie shrieked. “HELP!”

At her shouting, the rattling stopped and Cory heard the footsteps disappear. He didn’t let go of the doorknob and Callie continued shouting. They stood there until Cory heard Uncle Rudy’s voice.

“Kids? What’s going on?” Uncle Rudy’s voice was outside and he sounded sleepy.

Cory opened the door, ignoring the numbness of his hand. Uncle Rudy stood there with messy hair and striped pajamas.

“Uncle Rudy!” Callie shouted and hugged him.

Uncle Rudy looked surprised by the display of affection and he eased himself out of the hug.

“What’s going on?”

Cory saw that Callie’s face was streaked with tears.

“Your mannequin! I-it c-came a-after us!” Callie blubbered.

“My mannequin?” Uncle Rudy repeated and Cory saw his expression shift. “What are you talking about? Did you guys go into my store room?”

“We heard scratching and went downstairs and it came after us!” Cory added.

“You were dreaming. Mannequins don’t move,” Uncle Rudy said with a nervous laugh.

“We weren’t dreaming!” Callie insisted. “We saw it!”

Uncle Rudy looked conflicted. “Okay let’s go and check it right now.”

Cory didn’t want to go back to the room but they had to show Uncle Rudy. He had to do something about it. So he followed Uncle Rudy as he went downstairs with Callie clinging to him. Uncle Rudy opened the door without any hesitation.

The light was off which was strange. Cory clearly remembered leaving it on. Uncle Rudy flipped the switch and the room lit up. He walked past the shelf, towards the mannequin.

“See?” Uncle Rudy said.

Cory stared in disbelief at the mannequin. It was in its place looking as if it hadn’t moved at all. It had the splotches of pain but it didn’t have the splatters that he had seen on the side of its face.

“It was moving!” Cory said.

“I think the excitement of visiting a new place made you dream something weird,” Uncle Rudy said gently.

“How could we have the same dream?” Cory challenged.

“It happens,” Uncle Rudy shrugged. “Go back to sleep kids. And please don’t come into this room, again.”

With no arguments left, the kids went out the room. Cory was conflicted. He had seen it move and so had Callie.  How could it be back in its original position?

As they went up the stairs, Cory distinctly saw Uncle Rudy lock the door.

Why would he need to do that?

 

Cory and Callie didn’t speak any further about the mannequin. They also didn’t sleep that night and they were bleary eyed at the breakfast table. Though the scratching didn’t occur afterwards, Cory couldn’t get the image of the mannequin from his head. Its move was so calculated like it was a human. He shivered as he thought of it.

Callie stared off into space. Cory knew she was scared but he didn’t know what to say.

Uncle Rudy didn’t see it. He hummed as he cooked for them.

“I made you pancakes,” he said. “You had a bad dream and I think this might cheer you up.”

He set down plates of chocolate pancakes in front of them but Cory had no appetite. To be polite, he picked up the syrup and drizzled it on top. Usually he loved pancakes but seeing it today made him queasy.

A part of him wanted to go back to the room but the other part wanted to call Mom to take them back home. Uncle Rudy continued to be cheerful throughout breakfast while Cory barely responded. He started when Uncle Rudy said something out of the blue.

“You guys shouldn’t bother your mother with this,” Uncle Rudy said firmly. “I don’t want her to be worried. It looks bad on me.”

Cory hadn’t been planning on telling his mom about the mannequin but the way Uncle Rudy said it didn’t feel right. He didn’t have time to dwell on that thought as Uncle Rudy distracted them. Callie was despondent at first but when Uncle Rudy mentioned that he was going to town, she brightened up. Cory couldn’t show enthusiasm but he didn’t want to stay in the house alone so he went along with it.

Uncle Rudy went to get his car out and Cory took this as the chance to talk to Callie.

“Are we going to ignore what happened?”

“It was a dream,” Callie said. “You heard Uncle Rudy.”

“You have to be kidding!” Cory exclaimed. “We both saw that thing move!”

Callie’s lip quivered. “I don’t want to think about it.”

Cory didn’t press the matter and Callie left him to brood alone in the hallway. He decided to go down after a few minutes but he couldn’t resist stopping by the door. As he thought, it was locked. Slightly put off, he went outside.

Uncle Rudy had taken out his car. It wasn’t like their minivan; it was a normal car which shook as Cory got in the backseat. Callie had taken the chance to sit in the front. Callie and Uncle Rudy kept on talking as he drove as Cory brooded in the backseat. Despite Callie having written it off as a dream, Cory wasn’t going to do that. He didn’t want to encounter the mannequin again but he didn’t want to cower. He had to uncover the truth.

Cory hadn’t liked it when Uncle Rudy had dismissed their suspicions. He had adopted the soft tone when talking with them which every adult did. It wasn’t fair.

Cory’s mood lifted as they visited the supermarket. Uncle Rudy let them shop freely and they packed the basket with chocolate and other junk foods. Cory couldn’t stay angry at Uncle Rudy for that. They walked around town a bit and then Uncle Rudy dropped them off at the park that Callie wanted to go to.

It was filled with kids and Cory couldn’t wait to talk to them. With a parting word, telling them that he would be back in an hour, Uncle Rudy went away.

The park was pretty. It had a lot of greenery and a court to play in. Cory and Callie separated, she went to admire the trees and Cory headed towards the basketball court where a match was taking place.

Cory tried to blend in with the crowd and he watched the match attentively. He wasn’t supporting anyone but it was fun to watch all the same.

“Are you new in town?” a voice asked and Cory turned to see who it was.

It was a boy his age with short dark hair and chubby face. He was wearing dark glasses which tethered on the bridge of his nose.

“Kind of,” Cory said. “My name is Cory.”

“I’m Jamie,” He introduced himself. “I live nearby.”

“Do you come here often?” Cory asked politely.

“It’s break,” Jamie said as if it explained everything. “Are you going to enter school?”

“Actually,” Cory started to explain. “I am visiting my Uncle Rudy.”

“Uncle Rudy?” Jamie said thoughtfully. “OH! From the clothing store!”

“Right,”

“I go there sometimes,” Jamie said. “He is a bit strange.”

“How?” Cory said curiously.  Uncle Rudy was open and friendly to them. Why would Jamie think he was strange?

“He’s always adjusting the mannequins,” Jamie said with a shudder. “I don’t like mannequins.”

Cory didn’t think that was anything weird but it stuck with him. He stayed with Jamie and they chatted about school. By the time, Callie came to him, they had exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch.

“You made a friend?” Callie said.

“Callie, this is Jamie,” Cory said formally. Jaime smiled at Callie but she didn’t return it.

“Uncle Rudy might be here soon. We should wait for him at the gate,” Callie said snootily.

“We can stay longer,” Cory didn’t want to leave Jamie. He had finally managed to push away the thought of the mannequin.

“Come on!” Callie’s voice was serious and Cory sighed.

Glumly, he bid Jamie goodbye and wondered why he listened to Callie when they were the same age. He posed the same question to Callie and she raised her head.

“I am fifteen minutes older.”

Cory snorted. “Like that makes a difference,”

Callie pretended she didn’t hear his comment. They didn’t have to wait long until Uncle Rudy arrived in his car. He was all smiles as they climbed in but somehow Cory felt it was forced. There was tension in the air and it made him uncomfortable. Callie didn’t seem to notice as she chatted on about the different trees she had seen and the lake. Cory tuned out of their conversations coming back to reality only when they stopped in front of the house.

Suddenly he recalled grandma.

“Won’t Grandma be hungry?” Cory said. “We left her alone.”

“I left her food,” Uncle Rudy said. “Your grandma sleeps most of the time anyway.”

Callie helped Cory unload. She was obviously trying to score points with Uncle Rudy and it was working. Uncle Rudy was more receptive towards her as Cory trailed behind them. Upstairs, Cory helped them put the things in their place as Uncle Rudy offered his laptop to Cory. He really seemed to be trying to make Cory feel at home so Cory relented.

While Callie watched TV, Cory played on the computer. He connected with his friends through email and as expected, they had sent him pictures of their day at the amusement park. Cory’s mood soured as he saw the pictures. He tried to think positively but his thoughts were jumbled.

Uncle Rudy had left them to go work in the store and Cory figured he might stretch his legs. They were numb from sitting too long. He had another objective which was to go ask Uncle Rudy if he could use his telephone to talk to Mom. Cory could have done it himself but he was still shy around Uncle Rudy so he wanted to get permission first.

Cory walked past Callie who was focused on the TV show. She waved her hands at him telling to move which made him linger. Out of frustration, she threw a pillow at him and laughing, he finally went. Cory was at the store entrance when he looked back at the door again. It had been locked, was it open now?

It was like a force was drawing him closer to the door and he was already turning the door knob before he realized what he was doing. It was unlocked.

He quickly flipped the switch and made for the mannequin. It was still in its place, frozen. It looked so normal that Cory finally had his doubts. He had to have imagined it. He was probably tired and hallucinated or something. His explanation was fair and his resolve strengthened until he saw the words etched in the dust of the shelf.

I am watching.

He bolted from the room and collided with Uncle Rudy.

“What are you doing here?” Uncle Rudy said sternly. He had a mannequin under his arm.

“I was curious,” Cory said, his voice shaking.

“Cory did you see something?” Uncle Rudy said pointedly.

“There’s something written there!” Cory blurted and Uncle Rudy sighed.

“You are imagining it,” Uncle Rudy said impatiently.

“No, come and see!” Cory pulled his arm and led him to the shelf but there was nothing there. Cory gaped as Uncle Rudy took a deep breath.

“I would appreciate if you didn’t make things up,” Uncle Rudy said stiffly.

“But…” Cory stopped at the look on Uncle Rudy’s face. He didn’t have anything else to say and besides Uncle Rudy wouldn’t listen anyway.

“I wanted to ask if I could call Mom,” Cory said finally.

“Do you have to?” Uncle Rudy said and backtracked. “I mean, your mom did say she would be really busy.”

“I guess.” Cory said.

“Don’t worry about it.” Uncle Rudy patted his shoulder. “Let’s go up.”

Dinner was a muted affair. Cory was freaked out and he wanted to share it with Callie but she was animated. After Uncle Rudy’s refusal to believe him, he was sure she wouldn’t believe him. The message was disturbing and Cory’s blood ran cold at the thought of it happening again. In a way if it did happen, Uncle Rudy would have to believe them. There was no way he could dispute it.

Still, Cory would be the one to see it and he didn’t want to be in that position.

Cory thought he could hold it in but as soon as they were alone, the words burst out.

“I went into that room again.”

“Oh come on,” Callie rolled her eyes. “I think it’s the dust. It made us have weird dreams. Nothing’s wrong!”

“Callie, I saw words on the dust! It said, ‘I am watching.’”

Callie frowned and he could see the beginnings of doubt in her eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Did you tell Uncle Rudy?”

Cory nodded.

“Did he see it?”

Cory coughed. “No, it wasn’t there when he went with me.”

“See?” Callie said victoriously. “It wasn’t there to begin with! Cory, enjoy yourself will you? I am having fun here and I don’t want you to be a spoil sport.”

Cory couldn’t come up with a retort fast enough and Callie turned away. She settled on the bed until Cory remembered their compromise.

“Nuh uh!” Cory said, jumping on the bed. “It’s mine tonight.”

Callie looked like she wanted to argue but she didn’t. She grumbled as she lay down on the camp bed. She complained but Cory turned a deaf ear to her excuses and finally she fell asleep.

Cory couldn’t go to sleep at first, thinking that it would happen again. As the minutes passed, his fears disappeared and his eyes began to close. He was half asleep when it started.

To make it worse, it sounded much closer than it had been before.

END OF PREVIEW.

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