I always loved children, always wanted to be a father. To raise some small version of myself, teach it the lessons I never learned, all part of the dream. But it was truly for their faces. A child sees the world as it should be, not as it is. They have wonder and joy in those eyes that we all lose in time. It is perhaps unusual for a man to feel this way, but I cannot help it.
When I moved to Ichor Falls, it was sadly not for the children. A local newspaper, the Sentinel, needed someone to type up obituaries, and lacking a better option, I took it. Life as a journalism undergrad is filled with these choices. I have flitted from obit job to obit job. It is not a career that draws companion. I had been working here for three months when I finally was able to move into my house. The realtor, a handsome man with a close-cropped goatee who introduced himself as August Parrish, had shown me the house earlier. It was in that district called Lower Alethia. I had needed the months to gather enough money for the down payment. He had explained its history, built before the Ethylor Summer, had even been home to an Amish school for a time. It was a nice Victorian home, and with time, I could certainly make a profit, once Ichor Falls’ housing market started filling up a bit more. The perfect time to buy.
He asked the strangest question at the time.
“Do you like children?”
“The neighborhood is supposed to have several families moving in soon, I was checking to see if that was a problem.” He flashed me a smile.
After the end of the three months, the house was still for sale, and Mr. Parrish and I sat down to fill out the paper work. It was quick, and as painless as signing away $118,000 can be. I got a good interest rate on the mortgage, and if the job went well, I would be able to pay that off sooner rather than later.
I moved in with little fan fare. The neighborhood was still as I drove my pick up into the driveway. I saw no cars in the drives, and it was silent, but it was ten in the morning, and I was quite certain that almost everyone was at work. It was a Friday, so I felt no need to hurry, I wouldn’t need to come back to the office till Monday, having asked for the time off. My few possessions were easy to move in, and by noon I was ready for lunch. The refrigerator was an older model, but the sandwich I pulled from inside was delicious.
It was then that I heard the laughter. It came from outside the front of my house. I smiled to myself and walked to the front, peering out the window, but strangely saw nothing. The yellowing October grass was blowing faintly in the wind, but it was empty of children or the toys they always leave behind. I furrowed my brow, took another bite and shrugged. I resumed putting the house together, a bit bemused by the earlier episode. My books found shelves and by 8 PM my bed was made. I didn’t have any cable hooked up, and no internet, so I pulled out one of my dozens of paperback novels and began reading, a glass of wine and box of crackers my companions. Halfway through the third page, I heard the laughter again.
I put the book down at this point, as the hairs on my arms had stood up. I put the book down and stood up slowly, pulling on my house slippers. I walked to the front door and peered out. The yard, lit by the slimmest crescent of the moon, was empty. Just before I closed the door, I noticed some small object left at the porch’s bottom step. I looked around again, my body strangely tense. It was a tiny, crudely-built wooden house,.
I picked it up carefully, and despite the construction, I could see it was clearly my own. For some reason my body rebelled at this point, perhaps it knew the deep wrongness my mind did not. My hands shook so furiously the tiny house fell and broke on the porch. I whirled around looking for the children who had left it, but found none. Shaking, I made my way into the house, locking the door behind me. It took the rest of the wine bottle to get me to sleep.
The rest of the weekend was relatively uneventful. I bought supplies and food from the local grocer, and made the rounds to find local stores closer to the house than my old apartment in Olympus. The people were all nice and polite, most of them had moved into the town again within the past decade. New folks were normal, so I faced none of the usual stigma.
Monday I went back to work, a bit less tense than my first night. I had decided to dismiss the small house as a prank from some local child, though I had seen none. In fact, to my knowledge, no one in any of the houses had come nor gone. Work was easy, with a population of only eight thousand and change, deaths were infrequent. I ended up editing some of the intern’s clips, and going over local history. The manager let me know I could go home after lunch.
I came home and set down my briefcase, and headed once more to the fridge, to reheat some burgers I’d bought last night at a nicer restaurant. As I took the food from the fridge, my entire body froze as the laughter of children filtered through the walls of the house. I was paralyzed; I couldn’t move. I finally jerked myself from my terror and ran for the front door, flinging it open and looking around the yard.
This time I went around the house, through my yard, walking in barely controlled paranoia. The whole yard was empty. No children. No toys. I couldn’t even see any running off down the sidewalk. Breathing too hard, I shook my head and forced a laugh at myself. Paranoid. Children are children. But when I came back to the door, there was another tiny house on the step. Exactly like the other one. My chest tensed and every hair on my body stood straight up. I swallowed hard and walked around the tiny house, back against the rail to get as far as possible. I whipped into the door and slammed it behind me.
Looking out my window, I saw the tiny house, just sitting on the step.
The next day, I left through the back door, forcing my eyes away from the porch. I got into my car, and sped out of the driveway. I went by the gas station for a cup of coffee. I don’t normally drink caffeine, but I hadn’t gotten a minute of sleep that night. I came into work, sat down, and pounded out a short piece on an old woman who had died over the night. There were already a half dozen clippings on her, and a statement from the family, so it was pretty easy. Then I went into the Sentinel’s archives, looking for something about hooligans. The old crone who stood watch over the archives merely raised a silvered eyebrow as I picked through the pieces. I found nothing of interest, and left after lunch again, nothing better to do.
As I pulled into my drive, I could not help but notice that there were now four or five tiny houses, spread across the front porch. I blinked and swallowed hard. I slammed the car into park, and jumped out the door. I whirled my head around at the silent, still houses and screamed.
“WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU WANT? THIS ISN’T FUNNY!”
I ran to the front porch and stomped on the little houses, kicking the debris around. I threw one into the middle of the street, watching with furious satisfaction as it splintered on the cool asphalt. I felt suddenly cold and struggled with the lock, letting myself in. I slammed the door behind me and stopped, falling back against the door. There was a single tiny house sitting on my kitchen table. I let out a long, low moan and picked it up, hands shaking like those of a man twice my age. I took it to the back door and threw it out. I didn’t bother to look where it fell. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed nine one one.
A bored operator answer, “Nine-one-one, please state the nature of your emergency…”
“My house is being vandalized.”
“Can you see the vandals?”
“No, not now, it just — it just happened!”
“What is the nature of the vandalization sir?”
“They… uh,” and I realized how ridiculous it was. “They keep leaving tiny houses on my porch. Then they put one in my house!”
The line was silent.
“Sir, this line is for emergencies only. If you wish to file a complaint, I suggest you call the local police department’s regular number. I’m terminating this call.”
With that the line went dead. I considered calling the police department, but they’d probably give me the same answer. I set the cell phone down on the table, and followed suit. I looked sat there, staring where the tiny house had been. I closed my eyes, taking several deep breaths. I opened the cabinet over the fridge and pulled out a handle of whiskey. I tore off the cap and empty several swallows down my throat. I slammed the bottle on the counter, wincing at the burning in my throat. I must have continued drinking, for the last memory of that night I have is drifting off on the floor, to the soft sound of children’s laughter.
I woke up that morning, head screaming, stomach churning, and the alarm on my cell phone screeching that I was an hour late for work. I leapt up, lurching forward to vomit. I didn’t bother to clean it up, I couldn’t afford to screw up at work this early. I sped to work, mind still dull from the hang over. No one seemed to have noticed my tardiness, and my terminal was empty of assignments. I took a few deep breaths, then went back to the archives again. This time looking for information on the tiny houses. Again, nothing, the sparse articles since ‘95 were useless.
I stayed late, pouring over what I could find. In disgust I gave up, and went to my car. Sitting behind the wheel, the idea of returning home was too unsettling. I took a breath and decided to stop at the bar on the way back, to get some liquid courage. The bar was, however, largely empty, and after a few shots, I gave up and went to my car. The ride home was slow, and nerve-racking, as I tried to my best to make it last till morning. Anything.
When I arrived. To my horror, my porch was strewn with countless tiny houses. My eyes closed and whimpering softly, I stepped into my front door… to find a house that was now full of them as well. Tiny wooden houses on the floor, the shelves, every table. They were on the steps as I made my way up. My heart was thundering, beating on the inside of my ribs as if desperate to escape. My stomach churned and my skin crawled. I could feel something terribly wrong and unnatural around me.
Now I am in my room, scribbling this down on my notepad. The moon is casting a silver light through my window, so pale as to make my hands look like those of a corpse as I write. I can hear them laughing, but they aren’t outside anymore.
They are downstairs.
I smell smoke.
I always loved children.