I don’t like being alone in houses. Without people they’re always creepy like a dead animal. But I need the money and if I don’t get it here then I’ll have to get a real job for the summer and the thought of getting dirt in my nails grosses me out.

So, mother was like, “Christy, the Sheltons asked me if you could house sit for them for the next week,” and I was going to say no, ‘cause of the whole house like a dead animal thing but then I thought of Burger King or JCPennys and decided money one way was better than the other ways. So, I said I was down and was going to tell the BF but decided not to because telling the boy toy would just lead to sex, sex, sex all in that dead animal house. I told him I’d be out of town for the week.

The Sheltons are nice, I suppose. They got this big house in West Valley City , two stories, big windows, this backyard where you can always see birds getting rabbitty, and a patio hot tub thing that must be like twenty-thou at least with a blue plastic interior, bubble jets, t’works. That’s cool, but what I like is the living room ’cause they got the new Playstation and I can hook my iPod up to it and bump my music to forget the house is all empty except for me.

“There’s a few ground rules,” the Sheltons said before they left. Mother knows them from her ward and they have Jesus stuff up all over the house as if to prove how holy they are.

“That’s cool,” I said. I’m not going to start revolution. I just want my fifty bucks and to relax to good tunes. Maybe abuse their hot tub a little. Smoke on the patio.

“The first rule,” Mr. Shelton said, “is no parties.” His hair is black in parts and white in others and his head’s very square. I imagine there’re forty more like him in every house on the block, cranked out cookie-cutter from some factory somewhere.

“No problem,” and it isn’t either, ‘cause who’d I invite? Except for the boy, everyone’s on vacation for the summer.

“Rule two,” Mr. Shelton said. Mrs. Shelton stood behind him clutching the Book of Mormon in case I became a vampire or something and need to be warded off. Or so I imagine. They’re nervous people. They creep and skitter around like little bugs. It’s like they’re scared of everything.

“Rule two,” he continued. “No drugs.”

“No drugs,” I nodded. No drugs but cigarettes.

“Rule three,” he said. “No boyfriends.”

“None,” I said. Lol, boyfriends, like I got more than one.

“Rule four,” and he hesitated as if embarrassed. Then they both looked embarrassed as if they were going to tell me where their porn stash was. I’d have to take a look if they did. I’d be too curious, but I’d probably die of laughter at their clean-cut faces straining trying to get to the O with Jesus hanging or hung or whatever on the wall behind them and they’d find me all dead out in front of the tube with illicit DVDs strung about me like planets in a solar system.

“Don’t go into the locked room on the second floor,” Mrs. Shelton said, finishing her husband’s defuncitated sentence. “Don’t even open it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Just don’t open it,” Mr. Shelton said.

They were cereal about it. Like I’d go anywhere in the house I didn’t have to.

So, they left for Montana to see a friend or go to a funeral or whatever leaving me alone in the house. It’s not an old house. All the houses on the block were built when I was in Hubert Hess Middle School. But it is a big house with a large kitchen with one of those kitchen islands, wine rack (with nothing in it), and several ways into the living room. The living room has a large LCD TV, stereo, bookshelf with no books but lotsa DVDs in it, a creepy staircase with a railing, and that Playstation.

My re-spons-i-bilities are easy. I get fifty bucks for watering the backyard and the houseplants once a day. I have to dust once. I have to feed Mrs. Shelton’s fish twice every day. Their names are Zari, Tamar, Jehu, and Zereth. Mrs. Shelton introduced me to them and made me say their names until I got them all right. They’re kinda cool except Zereth who’s the biggest fetching goldfish I’ve ever seen. He gulbs along the side of the tank when you stop near it, glubbing at you until you feed him. He’s the size of my hand and really disgusting.

The tank is in the upstairs bedroom which is boring ‘cause it’s just a bedroom with small-ass windows and some Bibles next to the bed and there’s a picture of Jesus above the headboard right where I imagined it when I imagined the Shelton’s having sex.

To get to their room I have to pass the locked door ‘cause it’s by the stairs. I don’t get it. It’s just a white wood door same as the rest in the house, same as in my house. Except they’ve put a padlock on it. They warn me to stay away, but it’s not like I could get in unless they have a key somewhere and the only key I got is to the house.

It’s so weird. Why’d they tell me that? What’s behind the door? What could possibly be in there? Sex tapes? Bondage toys? They seem like such weak people, but I saw on the internet this thing about really religious people having messed up sex lives ‘cause of repression and shit. Maybe it’s like a dungeon. Or maybe it’s filled with weed or something. Or maybe they’re gov’ment people with like a secret base in there.

I’m too curious for my own good. I’m going downstairs to see if those DVDs have any Christian Bale movies so I can drool a little. The Dark Knight is good but the Heath Ledger guy is dead and I don’t know if I want to watch a dead guy in a dead house. Anyway, American Psycho is the real OG anyway and its got more than enough Bale to Bale me out, if y’know what I mean.

So, I’m looking for Bale movies in their bookcase. After the movie I plan to go to sleep on their backyard patio smoking, sitting out on the lawn chair with a tinfoil cup as an ashtray. It’ll be a good day, if only I can find a movie.

They have all kindsa crap in their collect. It’s mostly war and religious movies. TL;DR crap on the Civil War and boring shit on Double-Double-U Two. Then this thing about the history of the Church and--

I think the house is messing with me ‘cause I hear a scratching noise up stairs. It’s the same sound my friend Akenzee’s dog makes when he’s scratching at a door when you accidentally shut it on him.

The Sheltons don’t have any dog and I’m not going up there to check it out until either I have my Bale fix or I need to feed the fetching fish. The dog-that-is-no-there can keep on scratching and I can say, “Don’t hear it, don’t hear it, don’t hear it.” And then I don’t hear it.

Instead of listening to the possible not-animal or wind or whatever, I turn on the Playstation. They have no good games, but the ports on the back’re all right, so I set it all up with my little pink Nano and get 1980s for awhile skipping over anything I don’t feel like.

And by Mormon Jesus, if I don’t hear a bark or two. I push the volume up as high as it’ll go and settle on their leather psychiatrist-type couch before turning the TV up all the way too.

No. They got a dog up there. What’d they want to do? Starve it while I was here?

I turn off the speakers, Playstation, TV, and Nano, head up those creepy stairs, alight and shit on the landing and go to the padlocked door.

No dog noises now, so I get down on my hands and knees and try to look under the door. My damn hair is in the way so I brush it aside thinking I’d better get rid of those highlights. I didn’t look good as a blonde and I certainly don’t look good as a partial blonde either.

There’s nothing clear under the door, just shadows and light, but the shadows are moving! There is something behind there.

“Hello,” I say.

No response. It could be leaf shadows across the window. There’re trees outside, I think.

I stand up and knock on the door.

“Hello?” I say again.

Nothing.

I tilt my head, look at the door.

“Whatevah,” I say and start down the stairs.

And then, OMG, honest to God, fetching saints and sinners, there is the scratching and a dog whimper!

These crazy fucks have a dog locked up in that room. A cute little puppy starving and alone and locked up by the bat shit nutballs. Thank God it’s only a puppy. What’d if it had been a kid? Like, I’ve heard about this shit before. They got this show that I’ve never seen called like Animal Rescue or something where they got these cops who rescue animals from abusive owners and like these dogs’ll be covered in blisters and there was this one with a tumor larger than its head, or so I hear, and OMG.

“Don’t worry,” I tell the door. “I’m going to get you out of there.”

I can hear it sniffing under the door.

How awful. Now I have to find the key and that means looking through their shit and running into weird sex stuff. But that doesn’t matter. They have a dog locked up in there. I cannot let that shit slide.

Systematically. That’s the best thing to be. First, I give the house a once over. If the key’s out in the open I don’t want to waste any time. There’re the car keys. I know they’re wrong, but I’ll try them anyways. No and no. Mr. Subaru and Mr. Nissan aren’t partying upstairs tonight. Then there’re some keys that don’t fit in a bowl of change in the kitchen. But nothing else.

Now for the system. In this order: Livingroom, kitchen, garage, backyard (to be thorough), closets, computer room, bathrooms, bedrooms, and bedroom closets.

There was nothing in the living room. Not behind the furniture or under it, or behind any DVDs or the television. I didn’t look behind the bookcase ’cause I couldn’t move it, but I did look on top and found a buncha gross dead bugs.

Shit, I think. They want me to clean all that before they get home. Gross.

What if they took the key with them?

The dog howled above. I shutter. Maybe it wasn’t a puppy. I’d be in deep shit if it were like a doberman or something. Locked up, abused, and I was a stranger. It’d kill me.

“No. No,” I say. “Christy, we are not a coward.”

I didn’t find anything in the kitchen except something called “God’s Cookbook,” a silly thing with recipes like Lazarus Bread and Lot’s Salty Fish (totally tasteless and not in the tasty way).

The dog scratches, howls, and whimpers.

“I’m still looking!” I yell while going through the closets. It’s all fancy church clothes. I expected dildos and dildon’ts and other signs of repression, but there is nothing. No mothballs, obscene photos, or skeletons. When I finally free that dog, I’m going to hide naked photos all around the house to make these stupid closets more interesting. What boring people. Boringer than mom and I know she has dil-do-nots.

Finished searching below, I head up. It sounds like the dog is trying to dig under the door. Without my help that thing is never getting free.

“Shit, hold on,” I say, heading to the master bedroom.

The fish blub. Jehu attempts to swim through the glass at me. Maybe I’m like some sort of food-goddess to them. If they could only reach me and get all the food they’d ever need. They’re as trapped as the dog.

I go over the room twice. Nada. Even the bedroom closet is empty of keys. Shoe boxes and shoe boxes, sure. Rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, that too. Winter ware, yes. Keys? N single O.

“Fine!” I scream. I head down to the garage and grab Mr. Shelton’s toolbox. I haul it up the stairs, fetching heavy thing, and set it down by the door. I once forgot my locker combo at school, so I know how to do this. The janitor guy showed me. You stick a screw driver through the lock-loop thing, then you smack the solid part with a hammer.

Damn. It works. The lock falls off with a thud.

I open the door.

It’s a dusty, empty room. There isn’t a closet or furniture. The carpet has been pulled up. Just concrete. No dog.

But I heard it!

But the room is empty.

But I heard it.

“Maybe I’ll just go back to Christian Bale,” I say backing out of the room. I shut the door and head down the stairs. The toolbox is fine where it is. The door creeks open when I am on the second step. I keep going.

Downstairs, I don’t search the DVDs, but instead barricade myself with sofa pillows and scatter some of the wall crosses around the living room. I can hear the dog’s claws on the carpet upstairs.

OMG!! The fish. I’m going to have to feed the fish!

Can they live for a day without food? How ‘bout a week? Oh my God, if I kill the fish Mrs. Shelton will feed me to the dog.

I spend all day psyching myself up and the dog spends all day grunting, scratching at the floor, and being invisible. I go to the foot of the stairs like five times and every time I can hear it, but not see it. I don’t know why it doesn’t come down. Maybe it’s trapped up there. I’ve seen dogs that can’t get down stairs. There’re YouTube videos with them. There’s YouTube videos with everything.

Dear God, it’s going to eat me. I’m going to go up there and it’s going to bite me in the face. I’ll need plastic surgery. I’ll be deformed.

Mr. Shelton has golf clubs in the garage. Maybe they’d work on a ghost dog. I don’t think they will.

I could be like, “Screw the fish” and let the dog eat them. Zari, Tamar, Jehu, and Zereth are all large-ass fish. If it ate them it’d be too full to eat me.

Running from responsibility. If I’d only taken the Burger King job… Yes. The damn dog was a symbol. If I ignored it, it would go away. A product of my mind. It cannot survive if I don’t want it to. Hell yes! March up there and tell it what to do. No excuses, nothing but courage.

See? Silent now. I’ll feed those blubing fishes. And then I won’t have to worry about them until morning.

I take the first set of steps up and pause. The shadows upstairs have lengthened. Every light downstairs is on, but there is a line, a goddam line, of darkness halfway up and I can hear the dog sniffing around. It sounds big. I’d been imagining a little yippy terrier but this has to be a rottweiler-mastiff-thing.

I’ll be the bravest goddam girl in the god-damned world. I march up the stairs to the shadows, ears super-tuned. I’ve never heard that good before, my senses are on fire. The dog is up there, up there in the darkness whining and tearing and doing dog things and I command it to Stay! and I run past to the bedroom and slap on the light switch.

Light explodes into my eyeballs. I can feel it right through me. It burns my eyes. Hell yes! Victory!

Then there’s the dog at the door and I see it! Clumpy wet fur, blood, tire tracks, broken tail, broken back, broken nose, blank silver eyes.

I scream and slam the door.

Now I sit, leaning against the door.

Mrs. Shelton’s fish are blubbing at me, but I can’t get up to feed them. It’s right outside, whining and sniffing and I can feel its breath on my ass, I can see its wet nose poking under the door and it’s trying to dig through the carpet.

Dig through to me.

For The Nodegel from Yuggoth: The 2011 Halloween Horrorquest

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