Benny had been missing for over a week. At least that is how long the 12-year-old had been away from home by the time he made it to the alley where everything would change. He did not know if anyone had even acknowledged his disappearance, but he wasn’t exactly optimistic about the possibility. He even set up clues so everyone would think someone had kidnapped him. He created a letter using words from magazines that he pasted to a piece of paper. When he received a paper cut, he even dripped the blood on the paper to make it more believable. Nevertheless, each day after leaving, he sneaked up to the house. Moreover, each day it was quiet. No police cars sitting in the driveway. In addition, nothing appeared in the papers mentioning him. Nothing at all. Now, he finds himself hiding out in the streets of New York City on a drizzly night, and he was on his own.
There was little planning involved in the runaway, although he self-planted the idea in his mind weeks earlier. Ever since his parents took in the orphan, in fact. The dirty, smelly orphan who batted his fake blue eyes at them at just the right time. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, they wanted another kid. Never had Benny heard them talk about having a baby the old-fashioned way (which Benny had just learned about in middle school – and the idea of his parents doing that made him heave). Now, all of a sudden, they were all about bringing in this little shit who would get all of their positive attention. And all of the negative attention now went to Benny. Therefore, he left, and hoped for the best.
“Damn,” he muttered. “Not even this is getting through to them. Maybe I should have been blunter about it. Maybe I should have just left blood trails out the door. Maybe even cut off a finger. Yeah, that would have gotten their attention. Too bad you already left, dumb ass. Made it easy on them.” Benny was cold, and he began to smell his own stench. The only thing he had on was a tee shirt under his old New York Yankees jacket. He thought nothing about packing any clothes when he left. That would have been too logical. In addition, with no money, he had been relegated to stealing apples off a neighbor’s apple tree in order to eat.
All he wanted was their attention, but he could not even get that anymore. Nevertheless, he’ll get through to them no matter what it takes, and they’ll all be sorry for putting him second to that damn orphan. That damn kid off the streets that tried to steal from them, but instead of having him arrested, they took him into their home. That kid was a rotten little shit, and not even a real part of the family, but they still loved him more. Benny was sure they loved him more. They showed it every time they let him do whatever he wanted. They even let the brat use his skateboard. The one Benny bought with his lawn mowing money. He then put a crack in it when he crashed into the curb. Benny, pissed as he was, received little sympathy from his parents. Oh, but the orphan? They fawned all over him, making sure he was not hurt. A couple little cuts, and mom was ready to call an ambulance.
“Asshole. I bet they’d notice if he was gone for a whole week.” Benny spit out the words to the sky, as if God was listening to him. Of course, by now, Benny was unsure if even God existed anymore. “If I broke something of his, they’d have killed me. Screw them. And screw him!” His voice echoed into the night, and then all was quiet. A moment later, as he attempted to walk away, a voice nearby broke the silence.
“Who you talking to, kid?” a strange voice called out. Benny looked over to see a shadowy figure sitting in the gutter. As dark as it was, he could not get a good look at the man, but he could tell the guy had probably been there for a while. Benny was sure it was the radiance of the moonlight, but it appeared as if this man glowed from his spot hunched over in the dirty gutter. Of course, this was New York City. Hard to tell what contaminants were in the air in this part of the city.
“Nobody. I guess I’m just talking to myself. Who are you?” Benny replied with a cautious tone. The old man sat up from the gutter. Still, all Benny could see was the shadow of what appeared to be a hunched-over homeless man. The man did not respond to Benny’s question either. He just kept walking towards him. “I said, who are you?” Benny repeated a little more directly. He didn’t want the man to come at him, as he heard stories about the crazies and how strong they can be. However, he wanted to know about this man. What’s his interest in me, he thought.
The old man slowly came out of the shadows and into the light. When Benny could finally see his face, the only thing he could do was gasp and recoil. “Jesus Christ, man! You scared the shit out of me! What the hell do you think you’re doing creeping around in a ditch in the middle of the night?”
The man looked old and haggard to Benny, perhaps he’s in his 50s or 60s. But something was familiar about him. Something sad no doubt, but still familiar. “I suppose I could ask you the same question, but it would be a little different answer for you, wouldn’t it, boy,” the old man replied. “You were afraid when you saw me, weren’t you? Scared like I might attack you and try to hurt you? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Well, hell yes! What happened to your face, man? It looks like something out of a horror flick.” Benny never had the gift of tact, but his initial reaction was genuine. The man’s face was not that of a normal man, at least according to Benny’s experiences. There was a deformity about it, as if his face had melted just a little bit. Perhaps it was his age. Perhaps it was being on the streets and all the drugs Benny figured he had taken.
“That isn’t important right now. What is important is getting you someplace warm, since I’m guessing you won’t be going home, tonight. I am right. I know it.” The man’s voice sounded genuine, as if he really wanted to help. As Benny sized the man up, his body calmed. The man did not appear to be physically strong enough to overpower Benny (in his mind anyway). He was weak and frail. This man had been through hell and back.
“You got that right,” replied Benny fiercely. “Can’t go home. Won’t go back there. They don’t want me back anyways. To hell with all them. Especially that…especially all of them.”
The old man smiled as much as his deformed face would allow. “Well, come on then. I have a place that I go on cold, wet nights like tonight. You can stay there as long as you like, as long as you don’t stare at things too much.” The old man began to walk away. Benny had to follow him. To where or what, he could not say. But the familiarity, and not just this man, intrigued him.
They walked in silence with the old man in the lead. Benny was afraid to speak once they began on their journey, fearing the old man would somehow be angered. Finally, he spit it out.
“Hey, is it much further? We’ve been walking for over an hour, now,” he said, trying to remain respectful with his words.
“An hour is nothing to me. Time is nothing to me,” said the old man, who kept the same pace as he walked. His voice focused straight ahead, and Benny was not certain the old man’s mouth moved when he spoke.
“Freak.” Benny muttered under his breath. He then began to wonder just where the hell they were going. Still, he was captivated to follow the man when he initially began the journey. Now, his mind raced. However, he chose to remain quiet for the rest of their trip. He had convinced himself that whatever situation he entered, he could escape. Benny took several months of karate at the YMCA, and he was convinced that he could defend himself. And if nothing else, should he get in trouble, he could kick the old bastard in the balls and run for it.
Two hours into their walk, the old man stopped and took out a dagger.
“Hey! What the hell is that thing for?” yelled Benny, backing away.
“It is only to protect us from the darkness as we descend,” said the old man, whose tone had become that out of some awful 80s horror movie. “You must stay close to me and be completely silent. Do you understand? I cannot protect you if you trail off into the darkness.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Benny, whose voice cracked. “But where the hell are we going, anyway? And who are you gonna have to stab?”
“Ssshhh! We begin now.” The old man entered what appeared to be an old subway train tunnel that looked dilapidated and long abandoned. Regular traffic had not travelled through this part of the city for at least fifty years. The walls were ready to crumble all around them. But he remained strangely compelled to follow this man into the darkness. So he continued.
The walk was endless and tiring. “We’re almost there,” the old man whispered after about a mile through the tunnel.
“Good. My feet are getting sore. And I don’t even want to know what this shit is I’ve been walking on.” Benny had discovered what dim light shone through the tunnel had dissipated longer they traveled, and he became annoyed by the soft, squishy sound under his feet. It reminded him of a time he and his dad went camping, and they got lost in the woods. It had gotten dark, and the rain started to fall. The muddy trail on which they were walking made a grotesque sound under his feet, much like the sound he now heard. Much like then, he was scared of what might come out of the darkness. On the trail, he remembered seeing eyes that were glowing and looking straight at him. Now, he saw no glowing eyes, but he sensed something, or someone, was watching him.
“That’s the maggots. They won’t mind though. Unless you decide to eat them. Then they get pissed.” The old man chuckled. Benny’s mind returned from the lost hiking trail to the strange and bizarre statement the old man just uttered.
“What the…how do maggots get pissed? They’re maggots!” He looked down but quickly back up. He didn’t want to see the maggots, if the old man was indeed telling the truth.
“That don’t mean they don’t get mad.” Benny could no longer tell if the man was serious or just messing with him. That comment actually sounded like something morbid he would say to his mom. Sort of like the time she asked how he liked her soup one night at the dinner table, and he responded by telling her he wanted to save it and use as embalming fluid for when his grandpa died. Not one of his finest moments, but it was clever, nonetheless.
They continued to walk until a faint light broke through the darkness. Benny began to think about home. He again questioned if they even cared that he was gone. Possibly, because now he was quite far gone, and the idea of going back was in the distance. He wanted to turn around, but his legs would not listen.
“We’re here,” the old man said. He led Benny up to the front door of a place that looked to be an exact replica of his house. But it wasn’t his house. In fact, it was the only house around. Darkness and a whole lot of nothing surrounded the house. Curious and cautious, he followed the old man inside, where things were not normal. Familiar pictures hung on the wall; however, the figures within were all shadows. The color of the walls was a bit off too. Instead of a pure white, it was more of an off white. The entire house gave him a familiar feeling, but not a pleasant one. It made his stomach turn.
“What is this?” Benny asked cautiously, his eyes wide open as he took everything in. “What the hell is this? Where are we?” He knew where they were.
“I told you that I knew of a place. Well, here it is. Do you like it?” The old man looked away from Benny, not letting him see his face. “You should know it very well.”
Benny remained silent. He was unable to move from where he stood. “Is anybody home?” he asked. But he already knew the answer.
“They’ll be here soon… Benny.” The old man’s voice sent chills down Benny’s spine. His body, frozen in place, remained still.
“How did you know my name? I never told it to you.”
“I know you better than anybody. Better than your parents, better than your friends, what few friends you have that is.” A sick feeling formed in Benny’s stomach as he now recognized the voice of the man who led him here. But how?
“What the hell are you talking about?” His legs trembling, Benny backed away from the old man. He sensed something was wrong from the start but never imagined what was now happening in front of his eyes. Was he really talking to…
Benny cleared his head and reached behind, subtly trying to open the door. However, he found it locked. He continued to stare at the old man who had now turned to face him. The astonishing features began to clear up, and they now looked eerily familiar. From the moment he laid eyes on him, the old man’s features were special, and he now figured out .
“I’ve been here far too long, my friend. It’s time I got to live my life, or what’s left of it anyway.” The old man’s tone was that of relief. He came across like a prisoner, paroled after years of incarceration. And Benny had now figured it out.
“Let me out of here. I won’t tell anybody of this place. I promise.” His pleas went nowhere. No sympathy from the other side.
“But you were the one who had to run away, Benny. You were the one who was sick and tired of all the attention that damn orphan was getting. Well you’d better get used to it again, because you’re here for the long haul. It’s past time I take my life back.”
Benny began to cry. He understood what was transpiring but wasn’t sure how it was possible. The old man went to the closet and put on an aged, tattered, New York Yankees jacket – Benny’s jacket. The jacket that, surprisingly, he no longer had on his body.
“Where did … I mean … how did you…”
“It’s been fifty years since I last wore this. I used to love baseball. Dad took me all the time, before the orphan came. He really did ruin everything. But I’m not going to hold a grudge when I get back. I am going to accept him. I am going to make this work. I’ve learned.” The old man’s face began to clear up, as the wrinkles and dead skin disappeared. The distortions also faded. He then smiled at Benny. He looked so relieved.
“This is a dream, Benny,” the frightened kid said to himself. “In a minute you’ll wake up in a pool of sweat, and everything will be all right.”
“I’m afraid not,” a familiar voice replied from another room. “You ran away from home, young man. And for that, you’ll be punished!” Benny stared at the kitchen expecting his mother to come walking out. It was indeed her voice, even if it came across somewhat distorted…and sinister. Instead of the mom he remembered, what emerged from the kitchen was a morbidly deformed version of his mother. Her face looked as though it had melted then frozen before the skin could fall off. She held a paddle in one hand and a picture of Benny in the other. Actually, the person in the picture was only a shadow of Benny. A moment later, another voice echoed from the kitchen.
“Is that the little bastard that ran away?” It was his father, his features as grotesque as his mother’s, with a sinking face and festering body barely covered by the filthy tank top pulled over his body. “We’ve been waiting for you. It’s time for you to fall in line and learn your place here.”
While the putrid versions of his parents stood in the kitchen doorway, another vision overtook Benny. What was until five minutes ago an old man had now become a young boy. Benny was now gazing into a mirror.
“Thank you for finally coming,” the new Benny said. “I thought you might have changed your mind and stayed at home. Now I have a chance to make up for everything. But don’t worry. They let you out once you begin to grow old. You just can’t leave the area. They will stop you if you try. They will punish you. And it will hurt.” The new Benny walked to the door and found it unlocked. He nodded at the figures in the kitchen doorway, turned, and walked out the house, closing the door behind him. Benny could hear the lock turning. It sounded like a prison cell being slammed shut. Before he turned around, Benny heard another set of footsteps galloping along from the kitchen. He veered, and his eyes met a third member who had joined the grotesque beings in the kitchen. Another figure he recognized. Another one with monstrous features. And he held a skateboard with a familiar crack.
“Hi, brother. Welcome home,” said the orphan, his cold voice echoing throughout the house. “You’re going to love everything we have in store for you here.”
Original version written in 1998. Updated in 2018.