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The River Is Dark

By:Joe Hart

PROLOGUE

His mother screamed again.

She screamed, sounding like her lungs were going to come out. Eric ran. He flew up the stairs two at a time, something he did only when racing Champ or his dad, trying to beat either of them to his room on the second floor. He couldn’t hear his dad anymore, and that scared him even worse than his mother’s screams. He knew Champ was dead, the faithful golden retriever’s body in the garage entry, a blood-sodden and twisted mess that didn’t resemble his closest friend of five years. Now, instead of a lighthearted race, terror propelled him up the stairs with an unseen hand that both quickened and slowed his movement. He heard the thing roar something that resembled words in the kitchen, and his mother’s screams took on a new pitch, making him want to fall to the floor and clap his hands to his ears. He wanted never to hear anything like it again. But he couldn’t disobey her, not now, not after how her eyes looked. They said, Run away and don’t look back. So he did.

His toe caught on a runner, and he cried out as he sprawled onto the landing just before the upstairs hall. His knees burned on the carpet, and his shoulder popped as he thrust his hands out to stop his face from connecting with the floor. Eric leapt to his feet as he heard his mother shriek again, like the sound of air escaping from a pinched balloon, and then abruptly fall silent. The quiet of the house was so horrible that he nearly fell a second time, the strength gone from his legs. He knew what the silence meant. His parents and dog were dead, and he was alone with it.

His parents’ bedroom loomed closer as he ran down the hall toward its darkened doorway. His own room flashed by to his right, but he knew there was no help there. The only phone upstairs was in his parents’ room; they had promised him that when he turned twelve he could have one put in next to his bed. That promise felt alien now, something unreachable and strange, like a dream fading fast in morning light. Eric wished that he would wake up now, the blood and the screams just a cloudy nightmare that would drain away to nothing, and Champ would saunter into his room any moment, the ever-present guilty look plastered across the dog’s face.

Eric heard a wet thump in the kitchen, like the time his dad dropped a whole pizza on the floor just after taking it out of the oven. Footsteps, heavy and slow, moved below him, and he bit back a scream when he saw a shadow darken the foot of the stairs. As quietly as he could, he shut his parents’ door behind him and locked it. The room was dark, but he made his way directly to his father’s side of the bed and grasped the cordless phone from the charger. The buttons lit up the space around him and made his finger glow green as he punched the three numbers and slid down to the floor. There was a moment’s hesitation, and then a clicking in the receiver. A woman’s voice came on the line, the sound of her words too calm and collected for the insanity that surrounded him.

“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

Eric stuttered the first thing that came to his mind in a frantic whisper, and lay on his belly when the sounds of the stairs creaking under a heavy weight met his ears. The stairs had never sounded like that before, not even when his dad treaded on them in his thick winter clothes and boots.

“Are you okay?” The lady sounded more anxious now, and somehow it made him glad. Someone knew he was scared and she wanted to help.

“I’m hiding under my parents’ bed,” Eric whispered as he slid beneath the wooden frame. “It’s coming down the hall. Please send help. My mom and dad are dead, and so’s Champ.”

“Help is on its way, honey. You just stay on the line with me and everything will be all right.”

A bang echoed in the hallway, and he knew what it was: his door rebounding off the wall inside of his room. It’s in my room.

“Are you there, honey?”

“Yes,” Eric whispered, but quieter now. It was close and it would hear him. It would pull him out from under the bed and do to him what it had done to Champ and his parents. Hot tears squeezed out of his eyes as the door to his parents’ room rattled in its frame.

“Are you okay?”

“It’ll hear you,” Eric breathed, his voice no longer anything he recognized.

The door burst open with a cracking sound, and pale light spread onto the floor, along with splinters from the shattered jamb. Eric registered the woman’s question one more time before he pushed the off button and silenced her voice. He tried not to breathe, although his lungs wanted nothing more than to heave in huge amounts of air. Stinging tears slid off his cheeks and fell to the carpet inches below his face, and he was sure it heard them land, because it moved closer. He could smell it, a rank and powerful scent that reminded him of spoiled milk. Please let it go away, please make it leave.

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